Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Trouble and Anxiety - a good thing, or not?


From Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw:

UNDERSHAFT. Well you see, my dear boy, when you are organizing civilization you have to make up your mind whether trouble and anxiety are good things or not. If you decide that they are, then, I take it, you simply don't organize civilization; and there you are, with trouble and anxiety enough to make us all angels! But if you decide the other way, you may as well go through with it.


UNDERSHAFT. Cleanliness and respectability do not need justification, Barbara: they justify themselves. I see no darkness here, no dreadfulness. In your Salvation shelter I saw poverty, misery, cold and hunger. You gave them bread and treacle and dreams of heaven. I give from thirty shillings a week to twelve thousand a year. They find their own dreams; but I look after the drainage.

BARBARA. And their souls?

UNDERSHAFT. I save their souls just as I saved yours.

BARBARA [revolted] You saved my soul! What do you mean?

UNDERSHAFT. I fed you and clothed you and housed you. I took care that you should have money enough to live handsomely--more than enough; so that you could be wasteful, careless, generous. That saved your soul from the seven deadly sins.

BARBARA [bewildered] The seven deadly sins!

UNDERSHAFT. Yes, the deadly seven. [Counting on his fingers] Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children. Nothing can lift those seven millstones from Man's neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the millstones are lifted. I lifted them from your spirit. I enabled Barbara to become Major Barbara; and I saved her from the crime of poverty.

CUSINS. Do you call poverty a crime?

UNDERSHAFT. The worst of crimes. All the other crimes are virtues beside it: all the other dishonors are chivalry itself by comparison.

Poverty blights whole cities; spreads horrible pestilences; strikes dead the very souls of all who come within sight, sound or smell of it. What you call crime is nothing: a murder here and a theft there, a blow now and a curse then: what do they matter? they are only the accidents and illnesses of life: there are not fifty genuine professional criminals in London.

But there are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill fed, ill clothed people. They poison us morally and physically: they kill the happiness of society: they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss. Only fools fear crime: we all fear poverty.

Pah! [turning on Barbara] you talk of your half-saved ruffian in West Ham: you accuse me of dragging his soul back to perdition. Well, bring him to me here; and I will drag his soul back again to salvation for you. Not by words and dreams; but by thirty-eight shillings a week, a sound house in a handsome street, and a permanent job.

In three weeks he will have a fancy waistcoat; in three months a tall hat and a chapel sitting; before the end of the year he will shake hands with a duchess at a Primrose League meeting, and join the Conservative Party.

BARBARA. And will he be the better for that?

UNDERSHAFT. You know he will. Don't be a hypocrite, Barbara.

He will be better fed, better housed, better clothed, better behaved; and his children will be pounds heavier and bigger. That will be better than an American cloth mattress in a shelter, chopping firewood, eating bread and treacle, and being forced to kneel down from time to time to thank heaven for it: knee drill, I think you call it.

It is cheap work converting starving men with a Bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other. I will undertake to convert West Ham to Mahometanism on the same terms. Try your hand on my men: their souls are hungry because their bodies are full.


The above passage had a huge impact on me as a young teenager - Shaw was one of the first adult authors I read extensively after Lord of the Rings began the process (the other from that era was Robert Graves).

"Their souls are hungry because their bodies are full" - that was the Communist, Fabian socialist hope - and it is the hope of political correctness. Indeed, the usual assumption - in Shaw then, and still nowadays - is that a hungry body obliterates a hungry soul.

Looking around the world, this idea is so obviously, completely, empirically wrong that it is difficult to understand why anybody ever believed it; why I believed it.

Our bodies are full: but our souls are dead.


And yet: "when you are organizing civilization you have to make up your mind whether trouble and anxiety are good things or not. If you decide that they are, then, I take it, you simply don't organize civilization; and there you are, with trouble and anxiety enough to make us all angels!"

The argument seems unanswerable!


The problem comes with: "But if you decide the other way, you may as well go through with it."

"Go through with it" - that is where the problem lies - in regarding the obliteration of trouble and anxiety as a single organizing principle to be carried right through.


In common sense, I think we would want to improve the comfort and convenience of life up to a point: up to the point where we had enough of these things - and then we would switch our attention onto other matters.

So we would want enough food of good enough quality, a big enough house that was convenient enough etc...


But that hasn't been what happened.

The point of satiation never arrived; our material wants are apparently insatiable - because they have become linked to status.

And because there is nothing else.


Shaw's argument is compelling at the material level. It is true if you don't really believe in the soul and its needs - or if, like Shaw/ Undershaft, your belief in the soul is merely residual from childhood Christianity (the next generation of intellectuals after Shaw were mostly raised such that even to mention the soul was regarded as whimsical or ludicrous).

But Undershaft's speech implicitly assumes that the purpose of organizing civilization is done in order to improve material conditions only - the argument rules-out a religious purpose for civilization: rules out (for instance) the idea that the primary purpose of civilization might be the salvation of individual souls.

Only such a higher purpose for civilization can (in principle) set a limit to the pursuit of status (which, being a zero sum competition, is endless and insatiable), to pursuit of material goods (which, by fashion, have been co-opted to the zero sum game of status), of comfort and convenience (which is, in practice, insatiable - since the threshold for suffering can be asymptotically lowered...

Only in light of a higher purpose could humans ever have 'enough' of these things.



Steve N said...

Do you take it that Shaw is somwhow endorsing, in the voice of Undershaft, that society can cure poverty just by giving the poor more money?

Barbara comes off as the level-headed one.

That would be downright embarrassing. I'm surprised it wouldn't have been even in his own day.

Brett Stevens said...

Our society fears the soul. We like the idea of equality because it lets us off the hook for a vital task, which is perfecting our souls through discipline of the self. Not everyone can do that, so it's not sociable to mention it, so we deny it. Instead, we like a nice quantitative existence where we can hand people a hunk of food, money or technology, and tell them the problem will solve itself.