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C. E. Montague – The disenchantment of cause and effect

October 23, 2014

“’Doth any man doubt,’ the wise Bacon asks, ‘that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition and unpleasing to themselves?’ One of the most sweetly flattering hopes that we had in the August of 1914 was that in view of the greatness of the occasion causes were not going to have their effects.

Nothing new, you may truthfully answer, in that. The improvement is one which man, in his cups and his dreams and other seasons of maudlin vision, has always perceived to have just come at last. Now, he exaltedly says to himself, for a clean break with my inadequately wise and brilliant past. Away with that plaguey old list of my things done which should not have been done, and of things left undone which I ought to have done. At the end of popular plays the sympathetic youth who had idled, philandered, or stolen till then would book to the Rand or the Yukon, fully assured that ‘in that free, outdoor life’ one’s character is not one’s fate any longer; blessed, ‘out there,’ are Europe’s slackers and wasters, for they shall inherit the earth, or its auriferous parts. Grasshoppers, too, if they drank or resorted to sentimental novels and plays, might have gallant little revolts in their hearts, and chirrup ‘Down with causation!’ and feel cocksure that some good-natured god would give them a chance of ‘redeeming their pasts’ quite late in autumn, and put in their way a winter provision far ampler than that which crowns the coolie labours of those sorry daughters of Martha, the bees. But, for working this benign miracle in the soul, no other strong waters can equal the early days of a war. If, with unbecoming sobriety, anyone hints, in such days, that causes may still retain some sort of control, he is easily seen to have no drop of true blood in him; base is the slave who fears we must reap as we sowed; shame upon spiritless whispers about any connection between the making of beds and the lying thereon; now they shall see what excellent hothouse grapes will be borne by the fine healthy thistles that we have been planting and watering.

Something in it too, perhaps – at least some centuries ago. When a great nation’s army was only a few thousands strong the freak and the fluke had their chance. An Achilles or two, at the top of their form on the day, might upset the odds. But when armies are millions of men, and machinery counts for more than the men, the few divine accidents of exceptional valour cannot go far. With eleven a-side a Grace or an Armstrong may win a game off his own bat. He will hardly do that in a game where the sides are eleven thousand apiece. More and more, as the armies increase, must the law of averages have it its own dreary way; glorious uncertainties wither; statistical ‘curves’ of relative national fitness to win, and to stand the strain of winning or losing, overbear everything else. What are the two armies’ and the two nations’ relative numbers? What is the mean physique on each side? And the mean intelligence? How far has each nation’s history – social, political, religious, industrial – tended to make its men rich in just pride, self-reliance, high spirit, devotion, and hardihood? How many per cent on each side have been sapped by venereal disease? How much of their work have its officers troubled to learn? These are the questions. The more men you have in a war, and the longer it lasts, the more completely has it to lose the romance of a glorious gamble and sink – or, as some would say, rise – to the plane of a circumstantial, matter-of-fact liquidation of whatever relative messes the nations engaged have made of the whole of their previous lives.”

(from Disenchantment [1922])


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