An American Philosopher

"Disguise it as you may, the humble are only fit for dogs’ meat; the naked sword is still king-maker and king-breaker, as of yore; all other theories are lies—and lures."—Ragnar Redbeard, "Might is Right."

An American Philosopher

A few weeks ago—to be precise, on the 27th of May—there was a ballad in the Clarion on “The Survival of the Fittest,” in which a learned professor convinces a burley boatman that the “sentimental dream” of natural rights was all a rot, that the strong devour the weak, and that only the brave and capable get anything worth having. After which the boatman, to show the professor the reality of his conversion, proceeds to take the professor’s watch and chain, and drop the professor into the sea.

Curiously enough, I have received a book from America, called The Survival of the Fittest; or, the Philosophy of Power,” by Ragnar Redbeard, LL.D. It is a curious book; in some respects an amusing book; and is intended to prove that Socialism, Democracy, and Christianity are sentimental rubbish; that man is a savage, untameable animal, and only shows his wisdom and courage when he “behaves as such,” by helping himself at the expense of his weaker fellows.

Might is right, says Mr. Redbeard, and continues: “Disguise it as you may, the humble are only fit for dogs’ meat; the naked sword is still king-maker and king-breaker, as of yore; all other theories are lies—and lures.”

“Therefore,” says Ragnar, “if you would conquer wealth and honour, power and fame, you must be practical, grim, cool, and merciless. You must ride to success (by preference) over the necks of your foemen.” This is all very well as far as it goes, but would put some men in a difficulty. Take myself, for example. I haven’t got an enemy—except myself—and consequently can’t ride over necks which haven’t any existence. I might take this heroic equestrian exercise over the necks of my friends, if that will do as well—only, unfortunately, I don’t care for riding.

Ragnar’s heroic contempt for Socialism is only surpassed by the scorn with which he speaks of Jesus Christ. For instance, on the first page of philosophical treatise he says: “I dip my forefinger in the watery blood of your impotent mob-redeemer, your Divine Democrat, your Hebrew Madman, and write over his thorn-torn brow, ‘The true Prince of Evil: the King of the Slaves.’ Ragnar’s language is a little intemperate, perhaps, and rather reminiscent of Ancient Pistol. Like Falstaff’s lieutenant, this fiery philosopher is all athirst to dabble in gore, to cry “What” Shall we have incision, shall we imbrue? Then death rock me asleep abridge my doleful days, let grievous ghastly gaping wounds untwine the sisters three.” That’s the sort of man Ragnar is, and what he wants is “Blood, Iago, blood”—and plenty of it.

Not, mind you, but what there is, is a great deal of sense in some of Ragnar’s conclusions. Indeed, he agrees with the Socialists so far as being firmly convinced that the world has fallen into the clutches of exploiters, cheats, and humbugs; and in his contention that strong and brave men, and determined measurers will be necessary to rescue it. So far we can agree with Mr. Redbeard; it is when he comes to the question of remedy that the disagreement commences. I don’t see how this state of things is to be remedied by personal valour, even if the personally valorous scorns all dogmas, all beliefs, all moral codes, and tramples contemptuously on the weak for his own advantage.

It is not easy to find out very clearly exactly what Ragnar means by courage, nor how he satisfies himself that, as the result of a general free fight, the fittest—or the bravest—would survive. It seems quite as likely to my poor understanding that in a wholesale “rough and tumble” the fittest more likely to get shot than the meanest, which is not what Ragnar wants. For instance, in the “free fights” which used to be so popular in the mining regions “out West,” the coward who got under the table till the smoke cleared away was more likely to survive an reap all the advantages of survival than the more heroic desperado who did the shooting!

Self-preservations, says Ragnar, is the one law of nature, and nothing else matters; but I don’t feel sure that, even admitting his dictum, his proposed method—so far as I have been able to gather is—would be successful. “Go forth and win,” he says; “possess all you can of earth’s good things. Be strong and fear not, for obstruction melts away before strength of deed and strength of character. Do not quibble over the order of your succeeding, bur succeed. Thou shalt give thy heart to no god, for that is idiocy; neither shalt thou love thy neighbour as thyself, for that is madness.”

“The whole duty of man in this world,” says Ragnar, “is to succeed: to help himself, defeat his foes, outstrip his rivals. He who conquers not is conquered; he who is unable to trample roughshod over others will assuredly be trampled over by them.” That is the Redbeardian philosophy, and I can’t say I think much of it. Ragnar is great on the subject of courage; but I don’t feel sure he knows what real courage is.

Let us suppose a case of panic on a sinking ship. Are the brave men those who trample over the women and children, knife or pistol in hand, in determined attempt to save their own precious carcases? Are they who seize the few boats, and, beating off those who have less strength, succeed in making their escape, what Ragnar calls the fittest? Are these strong men who become wild beasts at the first sign of danger brave? If Mr. Redbeard will forgive me for saying so, I call them cowards, for all their strength. In my opinion a really brave man is made of very different stuff; and would calmly die a thousand deaths rather than degrade his manhood by such a despicable deed.

And even taking Mr. Redbeard’s curious notion on courage, the doctrine of self-first and the devil take the others hardly looks a safe investment. Take, for instance, a fire and panic in a theatre. It is certain that the strongest and most ruthless, by making a dash at the door, will even insure their own escape, although they may succeed in smothering such of the audience as they fail to trample to death? Is it not more likely that by a wild stampede the outlet may be blocked, and the fit and the unfit be roasted together? Ragnar has a profound contempt for the weak, the humble, and the timid; but they would block up a narrow entrance, or, as Falstaff said of his army, “serve to fill a pit as well as better.”

By-the-way, Ragnar’s two heroes seem to be Napoleon and Cecil Rhodes; and I can’t honestly say I think much of either of them. One of these heroes was, and the other appears to be, a thoroughgoing believer in the Redberdian notions of the proper way to succeed in life. But I don’t feel more than a very modified admiration either for the men or their heroic deeds. After pointing out that Napoleon stuck at nothing to achieve his objects, Ragnar says: “There is still land for the taking, and gold for the raking; fame and power for the bold and the strong—and for none other. Therefore, be thou a Napoleon; don’t be a Christ.”

When you come to remember what Napoleon did for himself, and what he did for his country, you may perhaps wonder, as I do, why you should try to emulate such a disastrous hero. What did Napoleon do for his country? He whitened the plains of Europe with the bones of the  armies of France to gratify his means of ambition; he filled its towns and hamlets with weeping widows and fatherless children; he drained blood and treasure from the country that had idolised him, that he might desolate the rest of Europe with fire and sword. And, finally, he left France torn and bleeding, a smouldering heap of ruins, under the heel of victorious invaders.

And what did he reap in the way of personal success? He raised himself on the shoulders of the republic he had murdered; by treachery and crime he elected himself Emperor; he sold his wife and his friends for his own advancement; he squandered millions of lives to make himself the dictator of Europe; he wasted his happiness and health on the bloody game of war; he fled a fugitive from the field of Waterloo, leaving his broken tools behind him; and he died a prisoner on a desolated island, without a friend to close his eyes or so much as six feet of ground of his own to lay his body in. Having deluged France with blood, and tears, and poverty for a whole generation, he lavished his undoubted genius, power, and energy in a selfish struggle for personal aggrandisement, and died a solitary prisoner who had failed in all he attempted.

So, on the whole, neither for my own sake nor for the sake of other people shall I try to be a Napoleon, and consider it dashed unfriendly of my friend Ragnar to try to persuade me to.

As to Ragnar’s other hero, the Hon. Cecil Rhodes, it can’t be denied that he bears some resemblance to Napoleon: although he is but a cheap Brummagem copy of the Corsican original; and will probably come to an even less glorious end.

And now for a few specimens of Ragnar’s reasoning.

“The necessities of environment makes of each man the enemy or rival of other men, more especially those with whom he comes in more conflict. Where, then, does equality come in? It does not come in at all. It is an idiotic myth. There must always be a substratum of victimised organisms. How could the tiger live if there were no lambs to devour? How could there be heroes if there were no slaves? How could there be great nations if there were no contemptible ones?”

How could the tigers live if there were no lambs to live on? Well, I suppose the tigers would be reduced to the necessity of living on each other when all other provender was eaten. The tiger is Ragnar’s heroic animal; but, as a matter of fact, the tiger is dying out partly because lamb chops are getting scarcer in his locality, and partly because the vegetarian animals are better fitted for the present condition of the world, and, being the fittest, will survive.

How could there be heroes if there were no slaves? There could be no slave drivers if there were no slaves; but heroes are not slave drivers, nor are slave driver heroes. A hero would not submit to slavery himself and would not be too proud to make slaves of other people.

How could there be great nations if there were no contemptible ones? Well, that’s an awkward question, and I don’t think my friend Ragnar quite sees what it leads to, so I will make bold to show him. The great nation—great in Redbeardian greatness that is—are rapidly swallowing up what Ragnar calls the contemptible ones. If there can be no great nations when there are no contemptible ones, what will the great nations be when the swallowing process is completed?

How could there be large potatoes if there were no small ones? How could there be twopenny loaves if there were no penny ones? Really, Ragnar, you ought to try us with harder conundrum than that,old chap.

But, indeed, Ragnar’s contempt for America’s “Declaration of Independence,” and its doctrine of the equal rights of all men, is stupendous. That men are not equal, and never will be, in mental physical, or moral powers seems as clear to me as that they have equal rights to life and its necessaries. We all agree with Ragnar, however, that natural rights, like national property, must be carefully guarded, and boldly maintained, or they will be lost or stolen. If a man values his rights, he must protect them at whatever pains; as a man who wants clean hands must wash them, or they will not keep clean.

“No people,” says Ragnar, “can long retain hardihood and independence whose minds become submissive to a false ideal.” That is true enough; but where Ragnar makes his mistake, it seems to me, is in supposing that the democratic ideal has failed in practice because of its falseness. It has failed because the American people—like all other people—have guarded it so carelessly that he acute, greedy, determined, dishonest men, the brigands, whom Mr. Redbeard calls “heroes,” have stolen it, and converted it to their own ends. The ideal of democratic rights and government is sound enough; and will prove its value when we have a brave, confident, and honest people who prize and are able to maintain it. Can we make the weak strong, the timid brave, the mean proud? Can we convert a poor, ignorant, spiritless crowd of wage slaves into a strong, fearless, honest, and capable nation? Ragnar says no. “Under the hypnotic spell of a free and equal dream, Americans,” he says, “have been hustled into a convict prison of laboriousness, to practical masters a thousand times more terrible and more unyielding than history can describe. All that is now left of liberty is its name, and the harmless privilege the common people have of scolding their proprietors about election times.” Which is unfortunately true of other people than the Americans. It is also true, as he says, that—

“The conflict between the masters and the helots is over for the present, and the masters having conquered, are in possession of the booty and the field. Indeed, considering all the circumstances, the common people are lost souls! —no matter what they now do, they must remain in hell. Even should American’s servile multitudes appeal to the arbiterment of physical force, they cannot possibly win. Possessing neither strength, courage, brains, arms, money, nor leaders, they must be blown into eternal fragments by their masters’ highly-trained artillerists and highly-trained destroyers.”

What then has the author of the Philosophy of power to suggest under these disastrous circumstances? So far as I can discover, and I beg he will undeceive me if I am doing him injustice, he can suggest nothing better than that we should supplant a sham democracy by a military dictatorship. “What is viler,” he asks, “than a government of slaves and usurious Jews? What is grander than a government of the noblest and best—who have proved their nobleness on the plains of death?”

Personally, I have no enthusiasm for the proposed change, which is nothing more than the choice between two evils. I would as soon be robbed by a crafty pickpocket as by an armed highwayman, if I must be robbed at all; I would as soon be eaten by a mangy jackal as by a Bengal tiger if I can’t escape being eaten by one or the other.

But that is just the point! Is there no way of escaping the clutches of the ruthless animal or the more ruthless human devourer? Is there no better course open to the heroic, the brave, and the strong than to say to himself, “The democratic ship is sinking, the miserable, poor devils are doomed, anyhow, and the best thing for me to do is to force my way through the trembling, panic-stricken crowd, to trample down the women and children, seize the boat, and save my precious skin at any cost to those who are weaker than I am.”

Is this courage or cowardice? Is this wisdom or folly? Does the brave man fly at the first alarm, before he is even sure that the ship is sinking, and without caring whether the crew or passengers might not be saved? I don’t believe it. Nay, I don’t believe the democratic ship is sinking, or that the crew and passengers are mainly vile, cowardly, or worthless. I believe the leak can be stopped, the water pumped out, and that the people can be saved and are worth saving. Ragnar may be right, of course, and I may be mistaken; but in the case, being rather a proud man, and not entirely a coward, I shall do what I can to save the ship, and failing, will go down with it, in the cheerfullest frame of mind I can manage under the circumstances.

Clarion 1 July 1899

Robert Carmonius


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