Amid These Storms: Thoughts and Adventures, by Winston Churchill 
This material progress, in itself so splendid, does not meet any of the real needs of the human race…. No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul. It is this fact, more wonderful than any that Science can reveal, which gives the best hope that all will be well.–”Fifty Years Hence”
Winston Churchill wrote the essays gathered in Thoughts and Adventures while his generation was “in its twelfth lustre,” and with the passing of years his book is now almost as old. First published in 1932, while he was out of the government in what his biographer Martin Gilbert calls his “wilderness years” the book is now available from ISI Books (here, ed.). Despite this modest revival, Thoughts and Adventures stands, with many of Churchill’s works, as an undiscovered classic of twentieth-century prose.
Gilbert takes only this brief notice of the book in his popular biography:
Churchill began to put together yet another book, Thoughts and Adventures, a collection of newspaper articles which he had written over the past twenty years, on his flying adventures, his air crash, painting as a pastime, a near escape from death on the western front, cartoons and cartoonists, elections, and economics.
In his official biography Gilbert makes no reference to the book at all, though he does mention some of the essays that were separately published.
Thoughts and Adventures seems to be simply a collection of newspaper articles, as Gilbert says; but, like so many of Churchill’s works, it is in fact much more than it seems. As engaging now as it must have been in the thirties, it pretends no profundity but never stops nourishing the thoughts of the reader. The book’s twenty-three essays, many of them autobiographical, take up “the extreme diversity of event and atmosphere” of his generation (5) and the full range of his experiences, both public and private. The essays are not just a haphazard collection put together to fill the pages of a book. From among the dozens of papers he had written over a period of about twenty years, Churchill made a careful selection of those that would illuminate the problem of modern statesmanship. Collected into a book, the essays in Thoughts and Adventures are meant to convey his practical wisdom about politics–not in a doctrine or a formula, but in exemplary situations that better show how political judgment and discretion must be applied in practice.
Churchill is best known as a statesman, also known as a writer of history, and little known as a theorist of politics. Yet in every essay, even the most unassuming ones or those a sophisticate would find most unpromising, he explores the topography of life in a modern liberal democracy. He treats simple subjects that appeal to a practical man, but his essays lead straight to questions that would puzzle a philosopher. In a sense Churchill is profoundly unconcerned about theory: he is not interested in trying to understand politics as a science or a system to the exclusion of making sense of ordinary political problems and opinions. Nor does he think that adopting a formula or a method can take the place of experience and reflection. Churchill argues that a good book should be read slowly, because it affords the chance for both of these: the reader can let it enter into his “mental composition” and hammer it “on the anvils of his mind.” (300) That is good advice for reading Churchill’s book as well. The political education he gives to his reader in Thoughts and Adventures is gradual, unsystematic, and unobtrusive; problems, events, and personalities are easier to distinguish in it than lessons, just as they are in politics itself. Churchill seems to agree with Aristotle’s judgment that political science, unlike the physical sciences, admits of only a certain amount of precision because of the recalcitrance of its human subject matter.
Academic political scientists may find Churchill’s book distressingly disorderly and full of popular opinions. But it does have an unsystematic order, beginning with human choices in politics, investigating them first in the relatively free arena of domestic policy and then in the more constrained atmosphere of war, leading up to an important essay on the adequacy of elections in conferring the right to rule. Then Churchill considers, in a brilliant series of essays, the question of whether the scientific revolution in modern times has overwhelmed the possibility of political choices, and he concludes the book with a description of the pleasures that the world allows men to enjoy as if it were still young. Thoughts and Adventures itself exemplifies both themes: it shows the reader the contours of the largest human questions of our age, and it is also a pleasure to read. Whether it passes muster among academics or not, it is a capital book to read if one wants to learn about politics. As for its popular tone, that is both good pedagogy and good sense.
Looking at cartoons is not a very sophisticated way to study politics, but Churchill tells us, in “Cartoons and Cartoonists,” that he has “always loved cartoons.” He began to love them at his private school in Brighton, where on Sunday he was allowed to study books of the old cartoons from Punch. He found them “a very good way of learning history, or at any rate of learning something” (23)–perhaps something of human nature. Cartoons of Germany irresistible in the Franco-Prussian War, France prostrate, America riven by deadly struggle–Churchill’s earliest impressions of nations and wars were drawn from the pages of these books. Later he realized that cartoons were poetic creations that presented history in the light of certain prejudices and views. This truth came home to him, naturally enough, when he began to suffer the cartoonists’ lampoons himself. Poking fun at a Victorian convention, he asks his “gentle reader” how he would like to be “cartooned.” (27) Churchill himself was always portrayed with a nose like a wart, wearing hats tailored for a midget.
Cartoonists draw caricatures: they have to have an angle. Churchill once took a stroll on the beach in a hat that was too small–invariably there is some truth in the angle they choose. But they blow it out of proportion, so that in their creations the part takes the place of the whole. The political conventions created by cartoonists may be malevolent or self-serving, they may be abject or ignoble; but sometimes they capture the spirit of a people. Churchill contrasts the “Little Man” made popular by Strube as the embodiment of postwar England to “the bluff, strong, hale, and hearty John Bull of former times”: the Little Man’s “careworn face” fits the times better than his nobler predecessor’s, though Churchill hopes for “more cheerful figures” when good fortune returns, (33-34)
Politicians who suffer the brunt of the cartoonists’ animus are well placed to have a lively sense of the limits of the verisimilitude of these creations. Sometimes a politician gets angry and wants revenge, but it is pointless for a man to try to correct the caricatures himself. Fortunately, cartoonists ply their trade on both sides of great political disputes, and time and good judgment undo the ill effects of unjust lampoons; for “there is a great tide of good nature and comprehension in civilized mankind which sweeps to and fro and washes all the pebbles against each other, cleans the beach of seaweed, strawberry-baskets and lobster-pots. Hurrah for the tide!” (35) Because the tide is more powerful than our sand castles, Churchill is confident that the partiality of cartoonists, like more serious human errors, will not last forever. But he also notices that politicians often grow attached to these caricatures, so that the impermanence even of error becomes a matter for regret instead of relief: loving their popularity more than their self-respect, they despair when cartoonists forget them and move on to new targets.
In “Election Memories,” Churchill continues this theme in a slightly more serious vein. The essay would be a delight to read just for his story of that memorable campaign at whose climax “in the twinkling of an eye I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix” (213), or his remembrance of the man who dreamt he was addressing Parliament and awoke to find that it was perfectly true (204); but it is also the occasion for observations, both rueful and bemused, on the risk of ingratitude from the democratic voter, and what it does to politics when statesmen serve him for a master. In those happy days, election campaigns took only a month at a time, counting “a week beforehand when you are sickening for it, and at least a week afterwards when you are convalescing and paying the bills.” Churchill calculated that he had “devoted one day in thirty of my whole adult life to these strange experiences” (201), and if he found that fraction untowardly large, how much worse is the situation for our politicians today.
In the early years of the twentieth century Britain underwent the last stages of replacing its traditional politics, based on the idea of a natural or divine claim to rule, with the modern political doctrine of rule based only on popular consent. Churchill witnessed the beginnings of universal manhood suffrage and the coming of American style moralism in his own district in the figure of the Prohibitionist cleric Mr. Scrimgeour; more ominously, he observed the beginnings of the campaign to give the vote to women, which was prosecuted, after the manner of our confrontational politics in the sixties, by interrupting and harassing the speakers at public meetings. When he describes the self-expression of “a peculiarly virulent Scotch virago armed with a large dinner-bell,” who “interrupted every meeting to which she could obtain access” during one of his campaigns and ruined his perorations (209-10), he shows a perfectly natural regret but demurs unmistakably from the pieties of liberal politics in the late twentieth century.
Churchill says flatly that he does not like elections, though he has “fought” more of them than anyone else in Britain, and he admits that “it is in my many elections that I have learnt to know and honour the people of this island.” (201, 206) If elections are supposed to chasten public men by reminding them of the origin of their official dignity, it cannot be said that they work this effect on Churchill. So far from showing any disappointment in defeat, he is more apt to find in it matter for amusement than for chastisement. Indeed, he offers the following advice to a political candidate when he has to face rowdy meetings: “smile, be natural, detach yourself from the fray, never lose your temper, and the worse it goes, the more you must treat it as a puppet show.” (203-4) He approves of the method he learned from Lord Derby for combating stage fright before large audiences: “take a good look at them and say to yourself with conviction, `I have never seen such a lot of d—-d fools in all my life.'” (204)
To the victor go the spoils, but also the plaudits. After a great success at the polls one correspondent described Churchill’s victory as “a grand slam in doubled no trumps.” Churchill admits that
it certainly seemed very much like it. And the next day a whole tribe of lackey papers, fawning on success, declared that my victory had been a triumph of moral standards over the vacillations and cynicism of Mr. Balfour. He had been very wrong and had made great mistakes, but I was wise enough even then not to be taken in by such talk.
It is easy to feel, once you have won the support of the people, that I walked on clouds, I stood on thrones – (207-8), and undoubtedly the outpouring of popular support and affection for a victorious candidate is a heartwarming thing. But suppose the people are wrong? This for Churchill is the chastening thought. The statesman who remembers this possibility must judge his conduct by another standard, which means that his self-respect is not rooted in popularity.
In the election of 1922, Churchill stood for office after “the most prosperous” session he had ever had as a minister in the House of Commons: he had been “by general consent more successful in Parliament and in administration than at any other time” of his life. He was felled with an attack of appendicitis, and by the time he had recovered enough to campaign for reelection, it was too late, and “the constituency which had sustained me so long repudiated and cast me out in the most decisive manner.” The victor in this case was the dour Mr. Scrimgeour, who at length with the aid of universal suffrage had garnered enough votes to defeat him. A lesser man might have been bitter, but Churchill advances this case as “a good instance of the ups and downs of politics.” (213) This analysis makes winning or losing an election not so much a considerate judgment on the conduct of a political man as an accident to be accepted calmly, reducing the dignity that democrats attach to popular choice.
Majority rule prevents men of unjust presumption from forcing their will on others without the consent of their fellows, and this is the great advantage of democracy. Yet the fact remains that Churchill does not really like elections. His dislike comes from their other consequence, which is to give power to the majority when they are animated by an unjust presumption. It is unjust for a superior man to take orders from his inferiors. It is one thing for a man to speak his piece on a question of mutual concern to himself and his peers and to listen in turn to the advice of others, deliberating together with them to discover the best course of action for the nation to follow. If elections actually entailed that kind of deliberation among equals–and Churchill tries, of course, to encourage it–then he would not find them demeaning.
But it is another thing when speeches become deeds that have to be performed rather than occasions for reasoning. Often one is better advised to ignore one’s opponent than to take notice of him. Consider also “the loyal laughter of the faithful chairman or vice-chairman of the Association as he hears the same old joke trotted out for the thirty-third time,” which simply has to be feigned. Churchill is sympathetic to the man who chafes under this necessity, but in a very blunt passage he advises public men not to resist it: “Never mind. It cannot be helped. It is the way the Constitution works. We are all galley-slaves chained to our toil. We swing forward and back, and forward again. The overseer cracks his whip and the galley goes forward through waters increasingly sullen.” (202-3) Every constitution has its element of conventional slavery, of subordination of the good to the worse simply by the fact of superior force. In the modern liberal constitution of Britain this element is embodied in the idea that rule belongs to popular majorities, as expressed by the election of representatives to Parliament–and by the fact that political men must therefore submit themselves for judgment to popular majorities even when the people are less able to judge than they are. Churchill does not try to change this fact, but he does not celebrate it either.
If a statesman, though bound to take notice of popular demands, is not to take his lead from them, then what should he put in their place? Moralists would suggest consistency to principle. Churchill asks, in another essay, whether “consistency in politics” is a good thing. He agrees with the moralists on one point. Political inconsistency is culpable when a politician changes his view in order to conform to a change in public opinion, and suspicious when the same result happens apparently by accident. But Churchill begins his essay by quoting Emerson to the effect that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” He goes on to argue, in paraphrasis of Cicero, that
a Statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case when contrasted can be shown to be not only very different in character, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet his object will throughout have remained the same. His resolves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this inconsistency. In fact it may be claimed to be the truest consistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose. (39)
In other words, in politics the “truest consistency” is inconsistency, which Churchill exemplifies by his inconsistent but persuasive argument for retail inconsistency and wholesale consistency.
The proper course in politics always depends on the circumstances. The moralist holds to his principles without respect to the facts; idealists appear on both sides of a dispute because idealism means devotion to one’s principles regardless of their content. But a considerate man will be able to discern what is best in a particular situation. In the twentieth century our political debates are usually organized around divisions of Left and Right, but these divisions are doctrinaire and often unhelpful in discerning the prudent course. (cf. 233-35) A simple ideology is likely to be at odds with the requirements of the situation, yet a man without one will find himself without friends on the Left or on the Right. Churchill gives the example of Burke, who was famous for opposing “a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system” in his Thoughts on the Present Discontents, but also for opposing “the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect” in his Letters on a Regicide Peace and Reflections on the French Revolution. (40) Burke’s guiding purpose had not changed, but the particular dangers were different. Similarly, Churchill gives the example of a leader who must give counsel on “the strength and expense of the armed forces of a country in any particular period,” which depend “upon no absolute or natural law.” (43) There would be no inconsistency in urging retrenchment when there was no danger and rearmament when danger was growing.
For the most part political men adopt their positions, and with them come a party and friends and associates; they keep to all of these and do not alter them. For a man to be inconsistent about his political stance, then, arouses not only suspicions of opportunism but also feelings of betrayal. Churchill knows that men often drift away from their youthful radicalism with age, or, less frequently, in the other direction. When a man changes his principles, he ought to feel some kind of embarrassment, though the heart has its reasons that reason does not know. (42) Still, as long as a man remains within his party and his circle of friends, he is unlikely to be blamed for it. Both his friends and his enemies remain the same, and together they absorb any changes of policy. But if the party itself changes its position, and a man cannot in good conscience accommodate the change, then to party men he is sure to seem the turncoat as a man who had switched parties several times by the time he wrote this essay, but without altering his guiding purpose, Churchill knew whereof he spoke. He suggests that a careful and sympathetic examination of all the evidence about a man’s positions–the kind of examination he is not likely to get from old associates who feel betrayed–may often justify indulgence. Churchill learns more about politics by studying political men than by looking for political principles, and in his essay “Personal Contacts” (and later in Great Contemporaries) he shows his own method of study. He observes the foresight of Lloyd George–his “power of seeing, in moments when everyone was asking about the next step, the step after that.” (59)
Men who are bound to doctrines and habits without practical wisdom have no such abilities. Because they become habituated to friends and enemies, it is difficult to make friends with old enemies. It is still more difficult in the case of enemies abroad. Such a change may be initiated most safely and fruitfully when a nation has an enemy in its power: at that moment it is both welcome and unexpected to the enemy. Unfortunately it is also unlikely because of the very human, but not very admirable penchant for taking revenge. (249) In the late 1880s, when Churchill was in his teens, Gladstone was condemned by the Conservatives because he tried to initiate a policy of home rule for Ireland. (4I-42) Several decades later, the Conservative Party conducted negotiations that led to the same end, a delicate process that Churchill describes in his essay “The Irish Treaty” than which, he writes, “no act of British State policy in which I have been concerned aroused more violently-conflicting emotions.” (219) The beginnings of overcoming centuries of ill will and mistrust would have been easier, he avers, if Britain had beaten Ireland. “I would like to have beaten you beyond all question,” Churchill said to the Irish leader Mr. Griffith one day, “and then to have given you freely all that we are giving you now.” Mr. Griffith replied, “I understand that, but would your countrymen?” Churchill wonders. He knows that, “in the hour of success,” men are blinded by their passions. They cannot yet accept that the struggle with the enemy is over, and therefore they do not realize that the only struggle that remains is with themselves which “is the hardest of all.” There are a few shining exceptions in history, such as Grant’s sending rations to the Confederate camp at Appomattox and letting them keep their horses for the ploughing; but such generosity is extraordinarily rare. (224)
The “two opposite sides of human nature,” according to Churchill, are the angry side needed to defend one’s country against enemies and the gentle side needed to make a generous peace afterwards. Without engaging the anger of spirited men in defense of justice, a nation cannot hope to prevail against the foe. But without hearkening to the generosity of gentlemen, a nation forsakes the decency that gives it self-respect. Neither of the two sides can be done without; but it is difficult for them to be “simultaneously engaged.” (224) In time of war, the need for defense becomes evident to almost everyone, and the nation looks to its soldiers with gratitude. Angry men hardly trust men they consider timid and mild. Their spirit must be tamed lest their anger be misplaced; taming their spirit means directing their animus against the enemy but making them gentle to fellow citizens. As Churchill would tell Parliament on his eightieth birthday, his part as prime minister during the Second World War was not to play the lion defending his countrymen from danger. The whole nation “had the lion heart”- he had the luck only “to be called upon to give the roar.” But he also hoped that he had shown the lion “the right places to use his claws.”
In the Irish settlement, the question of where the nation should place its trust was particularly acute. There were real grievances on the British side. After all, “humble agents of the Crown in the faithful exercise of their duty had been and were being cruelly murdered as a feature in a deliberately–adopted method of warfare.” Churchill can say in extenuation only that the men responsible “were not actuated by selfish or sordid motives, that they were ready to lay down their own lives, and that in the main they were supported by the sentiment of their fellow-countrymen.” (219) At the same time, the grievances of the Irish went back for generations. The difficulty that Churchill and his colleagues faced in the negotiations was to convince “those who were now accepted as the Irish leaders”–the former purveyors of terror–”of the sincerity and goodwill of the Imperial Government.” He explains that hatreds play the same part as catalysts in political explosions that intense acids do in chemical explosions, and that many pent-up hatreds had to be overcome. This difficult change, begun by a conciliatory speech by the king, required that the British ministers give assurances of their personal dedication to the terms of the settlement, which they pledged “unhesitatingly” to carry through “without regard to any political misfortune which might in consequence fall upon the Government or upon its leading members.” (221-22)
It was “the personal relationships which were established gradually” between the negotiators that made the settlement possible. (222) It was difficult for the Irish to forgive and forget: their grievances were too personal. Churchill describes some of the conversations. At a critical moment, he and Lord Birkenhead were closeted with Michael Collins, the Irish leader closest to “the terrible incidents of the conflict,” who on that account enjoyed respect from the diehards. (223) Collins “was in his most difficult mood, full of reproaches and defiances, and it was very easy for everyone to lose his temper. `You hunted me night and day,’ he exclaimed. `You put a price on my head.–Churchill replied, “Wait a minute. You are not the only one”; whereupon he took down from his wall a framed copy of the poster offering a reward for his capture, dead or alive, when he had escaped from the Boers. As the Irishman read the paper, “he broke into a hearty laugh,” and “all his irritation vanished.” (225) It was the courage of Collins, captured for a new friendship, that made possible his adherence to a settlement. Churchill had shown him not just a similar understanding, but a similar experience a fighter could respect–the kind of experience that forges friendship among soldiers as they risk their lives together. From that moment an understanding was reached which both men upheld under stress in the sequel, and both were able to bring their countries with them. But the risk of death for Michael Collins did not disappear. By making friends of his enemies, he made enemies of his friends, and he paid for the reconciliation with his life. It is impossible to eliminate risks in politics, but it is possible to choose your friends. On his copy of Collins’ picture Sir John Lavery inscribed “Love of Ireland”; but after those words, Churchill says, “there might at the end be written also, ‘To England Honour and Goodwill.'”–(226)
Among his countrymen as well Churchill knew the difficulties of establishing trust. When he left the government after the abandonment of the British attempt to take the Dardanelles, he asked to join the army, and one of his essays recounts his experience “With the Grenadiers.” The man who had been First Lord of the Admiralty, asked by the British Commander-in-Chief in France what he would like to do, replied that he would do whatever he was told. This willingness not to insist on his own importance stood him in good stead immediately afterwards, when he asked to be posted to the front to “learn first-hand the special conditions of trench warfare.” (100) Churchill was assigned to a crack battalion under a taciturn colonel, who told him pointedly that he had not been consulted in the matter of his posting. As a new officer, he was “infinitely amused at the elaborate pains” that the battalion took “to put me in my place and to make me realize that nothing counted at the front except military rank and behaviour.” But after “about forty-eight hours” he succeeded in overcoming “their natural prejudice against ‘politicians’ of all kinds”–an accomplishment that “will always be a source of pride.” By accepting in good humor the necessity of reducing his kit to practically nothing, and by sharing the soldiers’ life of risks and privations for several days, Churchill managed to make himself “perfectly at home with these men and formed friendships which I enjoy today.” (103) Eventually he was even asked to assume temporarily the responsibilities of the second in command in the battalion, which “was certainly one of the greatest honours I had ever received.” (104) Even as “a stranger and a visitor,” while he served with the Grenadiers he “caught something of their indomitable good temper and felt the support of their inflexible discipline.” (105)
Churchill’s experience of war was not always on the field of battle, as it was with the Grenadiers; but his adventures often arose from war, and war is one of his main themes in Thoughts and Adventures. In his first years as a cabinet minister, Britain was such a peaceful place that the murder of several policemen by anarchists, and the anarchists’ fiery death in the ensuing police assault, caught the attention of the nation. The irrepressible Churchill, as home secretary, could not resist going to the scene to direct the siege in person, an indulgence that he remembers in “The Battle of Sidney Street.” Less deadly, but more ominous, were the German maneuvers he was invited to witness as a guest of the Kaiser before the First World War. Twice he reviewed the German panoply. The first time, he tells us in “The German Splendour,” he was more impressed with the Kaiser’s hospitality than with the German dispositions. Tight infantry battalions marched up and over the gentle rolls of the countryside, and even some of the younger German officers looked impatient as they contemplated the effect that modern artillery would have on their formations. A few years later, when Churchill returned to Germany for another look, this mistake had been corrected, and the Kaiser proudly directed his officers to show him the newest German gun.
Novelty is a constant in war, and Churchill examines the British response to the new threat posed by submarines in his essay on “The U-Boat War.” In the early days of the Great War, the British navy was undisputed mistress of the seas. With the German navy unable to strike and British shipping unhindered, the British people did not have to fear that the war would be brought to their island. This confidence was suddenly shattered in the winter of 1916-17 by the introduction of U-boats, which began to sink prodigious numbers of ships, threatening British supply lines. The German Admiralty staff, desperately trying to free their country “from the stranglehold of the British blockade” (126), had calculated that if U-boats could sink 600,000 tons a month of British supplies, Britain would be brought to its knees after five months. By spring, the Germans were approaching their target, and “the danger was mortal and near.” (129) Help for the Allies was expected from the American entrance into the war in April; but if American ships were unable to reach Europe, then Britain’s chances were bleak.
The official British history of naval operations in the war conceals the seriousness of the menace in its uninspiring “mass of technical detail” (123), but in fact there was “a long, intense, violent struggle” in Britain about how to deal with the U-boat attacks. The argument was between “the amateur politicians, thrown by democratic Parliamentary institutions to the head of affairs, on the one hand, and the competent, trained, experienced experts of the Admiralty and their great sea officers on the other,” and for Churchill “no story of the Great War is more remarkable or more full of guidance for the future than this.” (129-30) The politicians argued that shipping should be protected by moving ships in convoy. The admirals demurred, claiming that “we should be putting too many eggs in one basket” and that convoys would do no good. They marshalled impressive arguments and made a “monumental case” (132); but the sinkings continued, and in the end the politicians discovered that some naval officers of lesser rank had other views. Against the admirals’ wishes, and indeed despite many warnings of failure, the civilian authorities instructed the navy to adopt a scheme of convoy, which promptly and dramatically ended the losses from U-boats and effectively neutralized the danger. Churchill makes two observations on this remarkable story: first, that the experts were wrong and the amateurs were right; second, that the politicians “overcame and pierced the mountains of prejudice and false argument which the Admiralty raised and backed with the highest naval authority”–a thing that could have happened “in no other country.” In the following essay, “The Dover Barrage,” he tells again how the senior naval officers were wrong about the best way to stop U-boat traffic in the Channel, and how their arguments were overturned by the insistence of the civilian authority. It was the independence of the civil authority in Britain, and the feeling of members of Parliament that “they owed their positions to no man’s favour,” that made it possible for Britain to prevail. (130)
Churchill’s central essay, “Ludendorffs `All-or-Nothing,”‘ examines the chance that Germany missed to make peace in the winter of 1917, when Russia had fallen and the American armies were still organizing. Britain and France had suffered terrible wounds, and the winter lull gave their people time to feel them. Germany might have grasped the opportunity to extricate herself from the war, but First Quartermaster-General Ludendorff had other ideas. Unfortunately, “the political system of Germany was not such as to throw up from the Parliamentary machine the audacious or rugged figures” that could be found in Britain or in France. (151) Churchill gives his impressions of the French leader in the next essay, “A Day with Clemenceau.” He had been sent over to France by the prime minister, Lloyd George, to see if the French really intended to fight. Clemenceau took him for a tour of the front, coming under hot fire because he insisted on seeing the battle. When Churchill suggested that he ought not to undertake such expeditions too often, Clemenceau “replied–and I record it–C’est mon grand plaisir.” (177) Churchill retired with the liveliest sense of Clemenceau’s courage. But in Germany there were no robust characters like Clemenceau. Civilian leaders had all but abdicated; everything “had been sacrificed to the military view” (151-52), which meant to the view of Ludendorff himself. That view was curiously confined. It amounted to no more than the single precept, often necessary for survival but never sufficient for happiness, that the nation should risk “all for the sake of victory.” (157-58)
Germany lost its chance to make peace-and lost the war because in her government statecraft had been subordinated to the technical requirements of the military art. War is indeed waged for the sake of victory, and in time of war the strength of the nation must be marshalled and directed towards defeating the enemy. Churchill yielded to no one in his appreciation of doggedness and grit in a military campaign; but the resolve to win not enough by itself. Victory, in turn, is for the sake of the country that the military forces defend–for its people, their constitution, and their way of life. To aim at victory for its own sake, without understanding it to be for the sake of the national life that it preserves, is to mistake the expression of undirected anger for the proper purpose of human life. Defensiveness without a decent object either degenerates into nastiness without restraint, or else it loses heart and collapses. As Churchill would say of the same country several decades later, the Hun is either at your throat or at your feet. Without statesmanship to guide them, the Germans lost the chance to choose a decent course in the middle: following Ludendorff’s policy of aiming at total victory–”all or nothing”–they soldiered on until they had suffered total defeat. Civilian control over the military, of the sort Churchill observed in Britain, in France, and especially in the United States, is the institutional reflection of the proper subordination of victory to the exercise of self-government. The inexperience of Germany in self-government meant that her people were ready to be masters–or failing that, slaves–but not free men.
Churchill’s consistent aim was to strengthen the habits of free debate and respect for the liberty of others that are necessary to the success of democratic government. That those habits, over time, had been brought, if not to perfection, then at least to excellence in the British parliamentary system made it “precious to us almost beyond compare,” as he says in “Parliamentary Government and the Economic Problem.” (230) A remarkably adaptable institution that had absorbed “every new extension of the franchise” without altering its fundamental confidence “that the best way of governing states is by talking,” there was never “a body more capable of dealing with political issues than the House of Commons.” (229, 231) Churchill, who proclaimed himself a child of the House of Commons, admired the British constitution for making choices by talk and not by force. He admired his father’s ability to engender devotion to Britain’s “ancient institutions” among her humblest citizens, as he tells us in “Personal Contacts” (52); and it was because of that noble tradition that he despaired to see “passionate hatred” crowd out good-hearted disagreement among the voters at election time (212), or forcible disruptions overcome reasoned debate on public platforms. By the same token he always opposed parliamentary tricks to gain an advantage by avoiding free debate. Mistrust of Parliament was for him a sign of bad faith in the human ability to choose wisely, and as such an insult to the whole human race.
Yet Churchill notices that British politics after the Great War has turned from the grand questions of war and peace to the petty obstacles to securing prosperity. The “Little Man” takes Parliament for granted, but he wants “more money, better times, regular employment, expanding comfort, and material prosperity.” He fears that he may be falling behind in gaining the benefits of his share “in the development of the modern world,” and he wants ” science and machinery” to give him “a much more rapid progress.” (231) Yet Parliament, to which he looks for answers, is not well equipped to examine these economic questions and to arrive at well-considered solutions. At first Churchill seems to argue that these problems have technical answers that require the advice of experts; and indeed he does propose “an Economic sub-Parliament” that would deliberate, “without caring a halfpenny who won the General Election, “about the grave economic problems that confront Britain.” (239) This kind of attempt to take the politics out of politics has been the reason urged by academics for creating independent commissions in several of the liberal democracies, though politics returns through the back door. Churchill even suggests that Oxford University, where he delivered this essay as the Romanes Lecture in 1930, has a contribution to make in solving Britain’s economic problems. (241) But he does not expect his “sub-Parliament” to be free from political control. Drawing its membership from Parliament, it would report to Parliament as an advisory body, with the ultimate decisions left to political deliberation. Not so much the lack of technical expertise in economics as the propensity for mouthing simple doctrines and slogans to please the electorate prevents Parliament from making wise economic choices:
Of course if the House of Commons shut itself up for three or four weeks to debate upon a long and profoundly–considered series of resolutions on the present new and serious economic position of this island, and of the Empire of which it is the heart, it might well be that when the doors were opened someone would emerge with a bold plan and a resolute majority. (232-33)
Thus the real motive for establishing independent commissions may be to remove the onus for hard choices from political men, who have contracted the habit of pleasing the people rather than choosing what is best for the country.
The essay on the adequacy of political choices made by Parliament leads directly to the largest question that Churchill takes up in Thoughts and Adventures–the significance of the transformation of political life by modern science, which he considers in the remarkable essays towards the end of the volume. For today’s reader one of these essays stands out. A little more than half a century after it was written, “Fifty Years Hence” has now come due, and the reader is drawn to it as a kind of acid test of Churchill’s relevance. For most of us, who have not distinguished knowledge of natures from foreknowledge of accidents, the wisdom of a statesman or a philosopher often appears as a kind of unwanted prescience–the gift that enabled Thales to make a killing by cornering the market in olive presses. So we are prepared to pay homage to Churchill or to reject him as a false prophet, just as the intervening years may have proven; and by this standard “Fifty Years Hence,” as we would say approvingly, has stood the test of time. In the course of his predictions, however, Churchill offers something more impressive, a diagnosis of the predicament of modern man. For Churchill, as for Tocqueville, another writer of politics who is commonly but inadequately praised for his prescience, democracy was the most important change that modernity brought to politics. Churchill spent his “wilderness years” in mature contemplation of the new world of democracy, and his words still speak to democrats fifty years later.
“Fifty Years Hence” begins with the observation that the pace of life is quickening, and that because of the democratic revolution ordinary men have more safety, variety, and choice in their lives than ever before. Churchill agrees with Tocqueville that the United States shows this new idea of equality in its most advanced form: in the great republic, scores of millions “have lifted themselves above primary necessities and comforts, and aspire to culture–at least for their children.” (269) But Europe is not far behind. These modern improvements do not make us happier, but all the same we would no longer know how to live without them. They have made it possible for countries to sustain greater populations and, since these people depend on them for their very existence, there can be no question of reversing the progress of material improvements. What makes this progress possible is science–but not science alone, which prospered for several thousand years as pure contemplation without interfering too visibly in the lives of ordinary men. A new political understanding of the purpose of science was required to turn it from contemplation to the practical improvement of man’s material condition. This marriage of science with commerce occasioned the “most wonderful of all modern prophecies,” the one made by Tennyson in “Locksley Hall”:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales… .
Churchill compares Tennyson’s modern prophecy with the ancient prophecies in the Scriptures and notices this difference: while Biblical prophecies are “dark and cryptic,” maintaining a distance between man and God by speaking mysteries “capable of many varied interpretations from time to time,” this modern prophecy “contains an exact foretelling of stupendous events” that have now already come to pass by the agency of human science. (272-73) The difference could not be more striking. For the ancients, prophecies are inextricably linked with the divine, since they must be divinely promulgated, accomplished, and interpreted. They are a sign, above all, that there are limits to human power.
For the moderns, prophecies are an earnest of human achievement, since they can be humanly promulgated, accomplished, and interpreted. They are a sign, open to all, that there are no limits to human power. As a result of this transformation in modernity, science has built itself “a vast organized united class-conscious army,” the progress of which none can resist, an army “which cares nothing for all the laws that men have made; nothing for their most time-honoured customs, or most dearly-cherished beliefs, or deepest instincts.” (270) Up until now, men have prophesied the future either by historical analogies or by scientific extrapolations. The first is not possible anymore, and even the second is now only partly possible. (273) Modern science is essentially revolutionary. Whereas the material life of the human race continued without much alteration from the time of the Greeks and the Persians into the nineteenth century, the changes in the hundred years before Churchill writes “have been so sudden and so gigantic that no period in history” is comparable, and “the past no longer enables us even dimly to measure the future.” (271-72)
At the core of the modern revolution of science is the project of increasing human power beyond its natural limits – changing the boundaries of the possible and the impossible. For an ordinary man the most attractive part of this transformation may be modern medicine, which promises to relieve his pain and postpone death; but Churchill himself was more taken with the romance of man’s joining the birds in flight. The ancient dream of Icarus was becoming a modern marvel when he was in his thirties, and his essay on flying, “In the Air,” describes the share he had in the daring early days of that art. He says he may claim himself to have fathered “the words `seaplane’ and `flight’ (of aeroplanes)” (181), though the Oxford English Dictionary does not confirm his patrimony. Still, there is no doubt that British aviation, with military aviation in the van, developed in its first years largely under his patronage and with his eager encouragement. Churchill learned to fly when flying was risky and unpredictable, survived his share of close shaves and even a full-scale crash, and came to know the air as a “dangerous, jealous and exacting mistress.” (182)
He marvelled at the skill of Gustave Hamel, the young aviator who tamed the deadly spins that had begun to kill other pilots and passed on his discoveries before he perished in a Channel storm. “If ever there was a man born to fly, three parts a bird and the rest genius,” Churchill remembers,
it was Hamel. He belonged to the air rather than to the earth, and handled the primitive machines of those days in what was then an unknown element, with a natural gift and confidence quite indescribable…. He would throw himself into the then awful “side-slip out of control” and fall like a stone in a nose-dive for a thousand feet while the air sang with a loud shriek through his wires, and then come out of this fearful descent terribly close to the ground or to the sea and emerge frolicking and serene in graceful pirouettes. We were exploring an unknown world then…. I have never experienced that sense of the poetry of motion which Hamel imparted to those who were privileged to fly with him. It was like the most perfect skater on the rink, but the skating was through three dimensions, and all the curves and changes were faultless, and faultless not by rote and rule but by native instinct. He would bank his machine so steeply that there was nothing between us and the world far below, and would continue circling downwards so gently, so quietly, so smoothly, in such true harmony with the element in which he moved, that one would have believed that one wing-tip was fastened to a pivot. As for the grim force of gravity–it was his slave. (184-86)
Churchill’s essay, which looks back on the days before the art of flying had been reduced for many to little more than safe and useful transportation, beautifully evokes the fear of flying and its excitement; it also leaves us wondering why it should be so exhilarating for us human beings to get away from our usual place down here on the ground. Human pride in mastering the natural limits that humbled Icarus gives way to the “sheer joy and pleasure” of casting off the heaviness that limits human grace, but this grace is in harmony with nature. (183)
At any rate, we can take the art of flying as modern science at its most attractive for Churchill; but flying is only one example of the transformation in human existence wrought by science. Modern man has learned to harness molecular energy, a great advance over the ancients, who used only the energy of muscles. Churchill looks for changes equally astounding from the substitution of nuclear energy for molecular energy, and he even envisions a permanent solution to the Irish problem: “Schemes of cosmic magnitude would become feasible. Geography and climate would obey our orders. Fifty thousand tons of water, the amount displaced by the Berengaria, would, if exploited as described, suffice to shift Ireland to the middle of the Atlantic.” (275) He foresees changes just as startling in communication:
Wireless telephones and television, following naturally upon their present path of development, would enable their owner to connect up with any room similarly installed, and hear and take part in the conversation as well as if he put his head in through the window. The congregation of men in cities would become superfluous. (275)
Churchill expects similar improvements in the production of food, for new synthetic foods will “be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.” (276) Here is the first hint of a drawback: modernity does not recommend itself by its hothouse tomatoes or its nondairy creamer. The scientific revolution arose from man’s attempt to gain control over his own destiny, and it implied a judgment, for which the grounds may be found in the writings of the early modern philosophers, that the natural or divine provision for him was insufficient. Churchill means to suggest that what men have from nature or from God, the inheritance which the new science holds in contempt, may be swept away only at the expense of human happiness.
In the modern world the correspondence between scientific progress and human well-being is ordinarily accepted without argument. Doubters are urged to consider how parlous their lives would be without modern medicine, or put in mind of the undeniable attractions of hot showers. Modern science offers a tremendous increase in human comforts, though of course men have to go to work to earn them. Some may wonder whether the ability to roam the globe in search of friends can make up for the disappearance of small communities that were alone possible before invention worked its changes. With the ability to communicate with friends far away seems to go the experience that friends ordinarily are far away; and electronic communication is not the same as conversation in person. No doubt our scientists would add, “Not yet.” But the convergence of science and happiness becomes more obviously problematic when we think of war. Hear again Tennyson:
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue….
Innovations in the technology of war have always proved the part of science most difficult for nations to resist; yet modern technology, with the tremendous power it gives men to master the material world, threatens to give men the power to extinguish the life that animates it.
In the preface to Thoughts and Adventures, Churchill says that the “settled state of order” which made his encounter with the anarchists on Sidney Street stand out “as a peak of adventure and sensation” gave way first to “the incomparable tragedy of the War,” and then to
confusion, uncertainty and peril, the powers of light and darkness perhaps in counterpoise, with Satan and Michael doubtfully reviewing their battalions, and the world, for all we can tell, heading for the cross-roads which may lead to the two alternative Infernos I have tried to adumbrate in Shall we all Commit Suicide? and Fifty Years Hence: has there ever in history been an epoch of such pith and moment?
These are the only essays which Churchill mentions in the preface by name, and there is no doubt that he considered them the most important. Though “many of these papers touch on the lighter side of grave affairs,” he urges the reader not to dismiss his “two nightmares” as merely
the amusing speculations of a dilettante Cassandra; for they are offered in deadly earnest as a warning of what may easily come to pass if Civilization cannot take itself in hand and turn its back on those Cities of Destruction and Enslavement to which Science holds the keys. 
In the “City of Enslavement” men see the final product of modern science, say fifty years hence, while in the “City of Destruction” they entertain the question that Churchill poses in the title of his 1925 essay, reprinted here, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” The vicissitudes of domestic politics and war in the twentieth century, which he takes up in the earlier essays, lead inexorably to the dangers of the two cities we would avoid.
A recent biographer tells us that Churchill, unhindered by academic inhibitions, was not “ashamed to pen answers to such flagrantly journalistic questions as `Shall We All Commit Suicide?”‘ Questions like this one were frankly just the kind that modern men were pondering and would have to answer. In the Great War science “unfolded her treasures and her secrets to the desperate demands of men, and placed in their hands agencies and apparatus almost decisive in their character.” (246) But Churchill warns that weapons still more powerful are being prepared for the next war: “Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings–nay, to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke?” (250) He pictures laser weapons and chemical and biological horrors, and then he asks whether the new “agencies and processes of destruction,” once launched, will be controllable:
Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination. That is the point in human destinies to which all the glories and toils of men have at last led them. They would do well to pause and ponder upon their new responsibilities. Death stands at attention, obedient, expectant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; ready, if called on, to pulverize, without hope of repair, what is left of civilization. He awaits only the word of command. He awaits it from a frail, bewildered being, long his victim, now–for one occasion only–his Master. (248)
The same new powers that men use to subdue nature may also be used to subdue men, and it is doubtful whether nature is anywhere so unfriendly towards men as men manage to be towards each other. To restrain their inhumanity, Churchill asks for support for the League of Nations, which has too often been understood through the blinkers of “visionary idealism.” The League must be reinforced by being brought into a “vital and practical relation with actual world-politics.” That, in turn, requires “sincere agreements and understanding between the great Powers,” which alone have the power to prevent a catastrophe. (252)
Those who dwell on the danger of nuclear annihilation tend to address politics in terms that are too simplistic and apocalyptic. Often they forget that the purpose of political life is not just to keep human beings alive. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s address to the 1978 graduates of Harvard suggests a useful corrective to this view: “I am not examining the case of a disaster brought on by a world war and the changes which it would produce in society. But as long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we must lead an everyday life.” It is characteristically modern to entertain suspicions of science only when it begins to threaten life. But it is too easy to suppose that if only we could prevent nuclear catastrophe, then the chief obstacle to human happiness would disappear–as if death and suffering were the worst evils that could come to us. In the older view death was a necessary thing that no one could avoid, but human beings could magnify themselves by dying well. If modern science has failed to enable us to avoid death, it has managed to reduce the chance for us to face it heroically.
At the beginning of his essay “Personal Contacts,” Churchill argues that “the glory of human nature lies in our seeming capacity to exercise conscious control of our own destiny,” yet the decisive steps in our lives often depend on “some trifle, some accident, some quite unexpected and irrelevant fact” that has laid the board in such a way as to determine the move we make.” (51) Modern science, which expands the size of human communities to increase the power of man, has made it more difficult for individual men to attain the glory of making their own choices. Churchill explores this problem in another of the Thoughts and Adventures essays called “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” wherein he describes the disappearance of heroic distinctions in democratic times. There he puts the question this way:
Is the march of events ordered and guided by eminent men; or do our leaders merely fall into their places at the heads of the moving columns? Is human progress the result of the resolves and deeds of individuals, or are these resolves and deeds only the outcome of time and circumstance? Is history the chronicle of famous men and women, or only of their responses to the tides, tendencies and opportunities of their age? Do we owe the ideals and wisdom that make our world to the glorious few, or to the patient anonymous innumerable many? (255)
Churchill answers all of these questions in the same way. Reasoning from the power of accident which everyone experiences, he argues that the lack of determinism proved by that experience also proves that human beings are free to choose; so he has “no hesitation” in ranging himself “with those who view the past history of the world mainly as the tale of exceptional human beings, whose thoughts, actions, qualities, virtues, triumphs, weaknesses and crimes have dominated the fortunes of the race.” (255-56)
The progress of modern science, however, may be altering the truth about whether men are responsible for their history. Churchill asks whether the “powerful changes” that science brings mean that the life of mankind is “already escaping from the control of individuals,” so that “our affairs” are “increasingly being settled by mass processes.” He wonders whether “modern conditions” are “hostile to the development of outstanding personalities, and to their influence upon events,” noticing that “blameless mediocrities” lead the professions that were led by eminent men even a generation before. (256) The “enormous processes of collectivization “that have transformed modern life have” immense economic and social advantages,” but
the results upon national character and psychology are more questionable. We are witnessing a great diminution in the number of independent people who had some standing of their own, albeit a small one, and who if they conducted their affairs with reasonable prudence could “live by no man’s leave underneath the law.” They may be better off as the salaried officials of great corporations; but they have lost in forethought, in initiative, in contrivance, in freedom and in effective civic status. (257)
Men and women have lost responsibility not only in acting for themselves but also in thinking for themselves:
The newspapers do an immense amount of thinking for the average man and woman. In fact they supply them with such a continuous stream of standardized opinion, borne along upon an equally inexhaustible flood of news and sensation, collected from every part of the world every hour of the day, that there is neither the need nor the leisure for personal reflection. All this is but a part of a tremendous educating process. But it is an education which passes in at one ear and out at the other. It is an education at once universal and superficial. It produces enormous numbers of standardized citizens, all equipped with regulation opinions, prejudices and sentiments. (257-58)
Churchill admits that there has been a “great diffusion of knowledge, information and light reading of all kinds,” but he wonders whether mass effects are “destructive of those conditions of personal stress and mental effort to which the masterpieces of the human mind are due.” (258)
If democratic citizens “throughout the English-speaking communities” have advanced further along this modern course than their more backward counterparts, the disappearance of individual initiative is visible in its most radical form in the “universal standardization” of communism (256, 258-59):
No one is to think of himself as an immortal spirit, clothed in the flesh, but sovereign, unique, indestructible. No one is to think of himself even as that harmonious integrity of mind, soul and body, which, take it as you will, may claim to be “the Lord of Creation.” (258)
Churchill asks whether this is the morality of “the Beehive,” but he decides that it cannot be, “for there must be no queen and no honey, or at least no honey for others.” Instead, he says that the Russian Bolsheviks model their society “upon the Ant,” for every “social or economic principle or concept” in their philosophy has been “realized, carried into action, and enshrined in immutable laws a million years ago by the White Ant.” (258-59) “But,” he observes, “human nature is more intractable than ant-nature,” and the communists, “having attempted by tyranny and by terror to establish the most complete form of mass life and collectivism of which history bears record,” have failed to achieve even the economic benefits of mass society that free nations enjoy. Churchill concludes that “we have not much to learn from them, except what to avoid.” (259)
Of all the cases one might adduce of mass effects in modern society, they are most evident in modern war. “The intense light of war,” he writes,
illuminates as usual this topic more clearly than the comfortable humdrum glow of peace. We see the modern commander entirely divorced from the heroic aspect by the physical conditions which have overwhelmed his art…Instead our Generals are to be found on the day of battle at their desks in their offices fifty or sixty miles from the front, anxiously listening to the trickle of the telephone for all the world as if they were speculators with large holdings when the market is disturbed. (261-62; cf. 166)
Such men are “at their posts,” but despite their useful calculations they will hardly be honored as heroes; for a hero risks his life.
The heroes of modern war lie out in the cratered fields, mangled, stifled, scarred; and there are too many of them for exceptional lion ours. It is mass suffering, mass sacrifice, mass victory. The glory which plays upon the immense scenes of carnage is diffused. No more the blaze of triumph irradiates the helmets of the chiefs. There is only the pale light of a rainy dawn by which forty miles of batteries recommence their fire, and another score of divisions flounder to their death in mud and poison gas. (262-63)
Modern science has distributed the risk so equally that particular honors and dishonors are difficult to fix. But each man still dies alone. While the effective power of the mass army may be less adventitious, for the individual soldier accident has regained its mastery.
Accidents are one of Churchill’s most important themes in the essays on war, which makes it clear that we cannot escape them. In “The German Splendour,” Churchill was trying to talk turkey to a visiting Turk while their German escort followed at a discreet distance, but it was no accident that four times the German galloped up behind them, trying to hide his spying by pretending that he was unable to control a spirited horse. (83) In “My Spy Story,” Churchill tells how a spotlight used to spot deer from a rooftop mistakenly attracted suspicion on an unsporting Scot. During his time “With the Grenadiers,” he left his bunker to meet an old friend, now a general, who summoned him to an inconvenient appointment and then stood him up. When Churchill returned, not without irritation, to his company, he discovered that his bad luck was good luck, because his dugout had been blown up about five minutes after he left. (107-10) One of the commonest human experiences is to find “that we have been helped by our mistakes and injured by our most sagacious decisions.” (15) In wartime, “Chance casts aside all veils and disguises and presents herself nakedly from moment to moment as the direct arbiter over all persons and events.” (106) In his essay on the bombardment of the village in Flanders that the Scots dubbed “Plugstreet,” Churchill was worried that his secret memorandum on tank warfare, which turned up missing after the attack, might have fallen into the hands of the enemy. Three days later he discovered it in his inner breast-pocket, which recalled to him the old man’s remark that his life had been full of troubles “most of which had never happened.” (113)
The chances of war set the stage on which men make the choices that bring them honor or dishonor. Only because the outcome is not infallibly determined is there room for human virtue and vice. Yet now
There is no reason why a base, degenerate, immoral race should not make an enemy far above them in quality, the prostrate subject of their caprice or tyranny, simply because they happened to be possessed at a given moment of some new death-dealing or terror-working process and were ruthless in its employment. The liberties of men are no longer to be guarded by their natural qualities, but by their dodges; and superior virtue and valour may fall an easy prey to the latest diabolical trick. (251)
Virtuous men have never found their virtue sufficient for success: they have always had to add good fortune to their own abilities. Yet modern progress, which offers men the assurance of success, threatens to make success the only virtue, as Churchill suggests by offering the following parable:
My gardener last spring exterminated seven wasp’s nests. He did his work most efficiently. He chose the right poison. He measured the exact amount. He put it stealthily in the right place, at the right time. The entire communities were destroyed. Not even one wasp got near enough to sting him. It was his duty and he performed it well. But I am not going to regard him as a hero. (264)
Ludendorff’s master plan for German victory treated the enemy not as noble foes to be bested but as animals to be slaughtered-which he sought to do as efficiently as cattle are dispatched in the stockyards of Chicago. This was his “great design,” in his view a mental proposition “of rare quality,” but there is nothing of nobility in it. As Churchill says, “the reader will observe how low the art of war had sunk.” (152, 155) When war loses its adventure, “the idea of war” becomes “loathsome” to mankind, and young men no longer find military life romantic. (264) War does not cease, but it loses the joys that once went with its sorrows.
The theme of Thoughts and Adventures will appear from considering the problem of human responsibility in the first essay, which Churchill calls “A Second Choice.” He asks whether it would be good to be able to live your life over again. But if you had the same defect of information the second time, you would simply make the same mistakes again. The real alternative would be to have the chance to relive your life with foreknowledge. In effect, you would be able to live your life twice, the first time provisionally and without irreversible consequences, and the second time for keeps. No doubt the result would be that you would never be brought up short by making a mistake. You would be perfectly safe, perfectly unworried, perfectly spared from unpleasant surprises. This life is marked by continual prospering–it is the ultimate extreme of comfortable self-preservation. Yet it is only human to think it would be a bore. Human life holds our attention because of its chances, especially when we take responsibility for accomplishing something by striving for it against the odds. A life without accidents would be a truncated life that made no demands on the human spirit. But it is precisely towards this life, Churchill fears, that our science proudly tends to convey us, because in mastering nature it in effect offers us this “second choice” that excludes all adventure.
The promise of this new science is apparently compelling. Armed with foreknowledge, Churchill says,
I shall know what to make for and what to avoid; then surely I shall be able to choose my path with certainty. I shall have success in all my dealings. Thus armed I shall be able to guide others and, indeed, guide the human race away from the follies in which they wallow, away from the errors to which they are slaves, away from the endless tribulations in which they plunge themselves.(12)
In fact, however, the foreknowledge that science offers us to replace the risky business of human choice would only be reliable so long as no unpredictable choices interposed themselves. Foreknowledge could be fully effective only until you made one choice that upset what you already knew had happened, because after you disrupted the world of which you had foreknowledge, the picture would become blurred and inscrutable. The human spirit is the fly in the ointment. Science can predict how men will act only by understanding them as material objects moved by the same laws as everything else in the universe–science can explain human behavior only by denying human choice.
If he were offered a choice to live his life over again, then, Churchill would refuse it. No scientific calculation of a perfect course would be likely to make him happier than he has been with the little bit of foresight vouchsafed to mortal men. “Let us be contented,” he urges,
with what has happened to us and thankful for all we have been spared. Let us accept the natural order in which we move. Let us reconcile ourselves to the mysterious rhythm of our destinies, such as they must be in this world of space and time. Let us treasure our joys but not bewail our sorrows. The glory of light cannot exist without its shadows. Life is a whole, and good and ill must be accepted together. The journey has been enjoyable and well worth making – once. (19)
Churchill does not expect to be able to save himself or the human race from follies, slavery, or tribulations, but he can be grateful for the happiness he has had and take pride in having acted in politics mostly “as I felt I wanted to act.” (16) Any other course would have done violence to his nature and left him without his self-respect.
When Marx in The German Ideology writes of abolishing all natural limits on human power and creating a new man who is a species-being, one of the necessary implications is overcoming the natural resistance in human beings that comes from their spiritedness. Churchill sees that the progress of science eventually entails human mastery over human nature as well. “The present nature of man,” he explains in “Fifty Years Hence,” “is tough and resilient. It casts up its sparks of genius in the darkest and most unexpected places.” But it might be possible to use modern science to “produce beings specialized to thought or toil.” (277) In the Politics Aristotle describes the uncertainty that arises from nature’s failure to make any such obvious visible distinctions among human beings, and for him it is the root of our arguments about justice. Spirited men have to assert the relevance of invisible distinctions of virtue in claiming an unequal right to rule. But modern science suggests a way to avoid these arguments about justice by remaking human beings in a surer mould. “The production of creatures, for instance, which have admirable physical development with their mental endowment stunted in particular directions, is almost within the range of human power.” Churchill admits that in the free world certain traditions, and especially religion, will prevent “such fearful eventualities,” but there is nothing in the idea of remaking human beings that is inconsistent with modern science. And
might not lop-sided creatures of this type fit in well with the Communist doctrines of Russia? Might not the Union of Soviet Republics armed with all the power of science find it in harmony with all their aims to produce a race adapted to mechanical tasks and with no other ideas but to obey the Communist State? (277)
One thinks of Stalin the patron of Lysenko and, after the appearance of Solzhenitsyn, irresistibly of his report that under Soviet rule the most spirited men end up in the concentration camps or, increasingly, in the psychiatric wards. Here, alas, is the “City of Enslavement” that Churchill foresaw:
Despotisms and tyrannies will be able to prescribe the lives and even the wishes of their subjects in a manner never known since time began. If to these tremendous and awful powers is added the pitiless subhuman wickedness which we now see embodied in one of the most powerful reigning governments, who shall say that the world itself will not be wrecked, or indeed that it ought not to be wrecked? There are nightmares of the future from which a fortunate collision with some wandering star, reducing the earth to incandescent gas, might be a merciful deliverance. (278)
Curiously, then, “the two alternative Infernos” towards which modern science conducts us are simply two sides of the same nightmare. Whether our choices end with enslavement or destruction, in neither case can human freedom or happiness survive the unrestrained culmination of human control.
In earlier times, as it is even today in less advanced nations, human presumptions were elevated and restrained by religious tradition. A venerated man, who at length became a god, cast his “majestic shadow” over the human community he formed. (266) To illustrate this possibility, Churchill writes his essay on “Moses – the Leader of a People.” Moses, “the great leader and liberator of the Hebrew people,” freed them from enslavement or destruction at the hands of Pharaoh. (283) Churchill’s Moses chafed under the ill treatment which he saw his people undergo, and “not for a moment” did he hesitate to kill the Egyptian who was beating an Israelite. (286) Thereupon he fled to Sinai, where he heard God speaking from the burning bush, exhorting him to free his people, telling him that life in the wilderness would be better than slavery; but “God went a good deal further” and said: “I will endow you with superhuman power. There is nothing that man cannot do, if he wills it with enough resolution. Man is the epitome of the universe. All moves and exists as a result of his invincible will, which is My Will.” (288) According to the story of Moses, human success depends on the favor of God: human beings are invested with superhuman powers not by their own agency but by the Divinity. With God’s help, Moses worked miracles that allowed his people to prevail over the Egyptians. Even “the local magicians” had to admit “with professional awe” that they could not match the successes of a man who had so great a Preceptor. (289)
Churchill allows that the miracles which favored the Israelites” the pollution of rivers, the flies, frogs, lice, sandstorms, and pestilence among men and cattle”–are natural phenomena which happen often in the East. Many have tried to account for the story in Scripture without allowing that God had a part. But
all these purely rationalistic and scientific explanations only prove the truth of the Bible story. It is silly to waste time arguing whether Jehovah broke His own natural laws to save His Chosen People, or whether He merely made them work in a favourable manner. At any rate there is no doubt about one miracle. This wandering tribe, in many respects indistinguishable from numberless nomadic communities, grasped and proclaimed an idea of which all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome were incapable. There was to be only one God, a universal God, a God of nations, a just God, a God who would punish in another world a wicked man dying rich and prosperous; a God from whose service the good of the humble and of the weak and poor was inseparable. (292-93)
Churchill admits that there are “learned and laboured myths” according to which Moses did not really exist but was only “a legendary figure upon whom the priesthood and the people hung their essential social, moral, and religious ordinances.” But in the face of the miracle of God’s revealing Himself to us, Churchill remains “unmoved by the tomes of Professor Gradgrind and Dr. Dryasdust.” (293)
Human communities depend for their virtue on the idea of a Power above man. When the new natural science revolutionizes politics by constantly giving human beings new possibilities, it shatters that traditional reliance and threatens to confound democratic government. Parliaments have enough trouble using the experience of former times to avoid falling anew into old errors, and it is no help to be without any experience to use as a guide. Democracy removes the distance between rulers and ruled, but men who feel ordinary cannot rule well. (261) Without eminent men who have the courage to guide them,
Democratic governments drift along the line of least resistance, taking short views, paying their way with sops and doles and smoothing their path with pleasant-sounding platitudes. Never was there less continuity or design in their affairs, and yet towards them are coming swiftly changes which will revolutionize for good or ill not only the whole economic structure of the world but the social habits and moral outlook of every family. (278; cf. 232-40)
Our modern science seems unable to provide us with a new justification of the pre-modern traditions which make their persistent contribution to civilization in the liberal countries even today. (cf. 259- 60) The communists offer something to put in their place, but “it is a plan fatal to personal freedom and a gospel founded upon Hate.” (279) In place of God, we tend to say that history will decide, but “the Muse of History to whom we all so confidently appeal has become a Sphinx,” and only the propagandists are confident that they understand her aright. (260-61) Not even their public relations can make up for our loss. (264)
The difficulty, then, is that in modernity human beings have made great strides in natural science without making any progress in political science: that is, they have vastly increased their power to do what they want without learning anything more about how they should use that power. As Churchill writes,
Certain it is that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing and measureless speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement as the centuries have rolled. The brain of a modern man does not differ in essentials from that of the human beings who fought and loved here millions of years ago. The nature of man has remained hitherto practically unchanged.
What is to be apprehended is that we will have “the strength of civilization without its mercy.” Science marches on, threatening to uncover” secrets which once penetrated may be fatal to human happiness and glory.” (279) Yet every traditional impediment to its progress has been destroyed or undermined by science itself. Churchill argues that nothing is more important now than that men should recall their spiritual nature in the midst of this materialist science, and that both moral philosophy and the inherent virtue of human beings expressed in daily life are necessary to our safety as well as to our happiness.
In the last paragraph of “Fifty Years Hence” he imagines a future race of beings who “had mastered nature,” so that no physical achievement was beyond their powers: ” A state was created whose citizens lived as long as they chose, enjoyed pleasures and sympathies incomparably wider than our own, navigated the inter-planetary spaces, could recall the panorama of the past and foresee the future.” But in the end they were no happier than we, because for all their power they had no better answer to the question of how they should live. Is the congregation of men in cities really superfluous if its end is the common endeavor to discover or defend an answer to this question? Churchill denies that any “material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul”; for man needs “a vision above material things.” (280)
His essay has a surprising conclusion for modern men accustomed to thinking that their happiness depends on the increase of human power. Churchill argues that it is just this inability of human beings, a fact “more wonderful than any that Science can reveal,” that is the most promising sign that human science will not abolish human happiness and “all will be well.” The situation of mankind is after all not completely without precedent, for “once more,” he says, as in the olden times, “the choice is offered between Blessing and Cursing.” After centuries of human obeisance to superhuman power, modern science cursed human dependence and tried to overcome it. Churchill’s suggestion is that that dependence may be a blessing. He urges us to reconsider the traditional idea that there is something above human power – that nature or God has given us a life that is sweet, and that the proper posture for a human being is therefore gratitude rather than defiance. Unless men recover “the hope of immortality and the disdain of earthly power and achievement,” looking up to something above themselves, “their hearts will ache” and “their lives will be barren.” (280)
The essay ends without a prediction as to whether men will recover from materialism, leaving that choice up to us; but perhaps the example of Winston Churchill, who found the political wilderness not so barren, gives us the best grounds for hope. Here was a man of towering ambition who even in his youth wrote a novel, Savrola, about a revolutionary statesman with no illusions about the attractions of politics who sought solace by training a telescope on the stars. Gilbert reports what Churchill told his wife several decades later after visiting Lick Observatory in San Francisco:
Although I had often heard of the ring of Saturn, I had no conception of the perfectness and splendour of this orb. Indeed, I thought at first that it was the reflection of a powerful electric light which they had forgotten to turn out….Next we saw the moon-then in her first quarter. She was so bright that one’s eyes were temporarily blinded after looking for only a few moments. The dawn was just beginning on the moon and all her great mountain tops were bathed in the light while deep violet shadows spread through the craters and valleys….It appears that there are several million universes, each consisting of hundreds of millions of suns equipped with planets, which again are attended by moons. After contemplating the heavens for some hours one wonders why one worries about the Epping Division.
Contemplation of the beings above us lowers human things to their just proportions but raises human thought to its highest peak. His capacity for detachment from human things, a rarity for a political man, is what made Churchill’s thoughts his adventures. It is what caused him, in his essay on “Hobbies,” to recommend reading above all as a diversion appropriate to the statesman. It is what drew him to “Painting as a Pastime,” the subject of his final essay, wherein he took a rest from political responsibility and tried to discern and imitate the outlines of beings naturally articulated by powers above our own. The American exhibit of Churchill’s paintings at the Smithsonian Museum in 1983 evinced his discovery that contemplation of our world provides us with the opportunity for delight. In oils or in words Churchill’s paintings invest life in the twentieth century with color and light and convey his conviction, once described by John Maynard Keynes in a review in the New Republic, that the world does allow men “a kind of dignity and even nobility.”
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1. Winston S. Churchill, Amid These Storms: Thoughts and Adventures (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), 5. Parenthetical page references in the text refer to this edition.
2. Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982), 53.
3. Churchill, ” Fifty Years Hence,” Thoughts and Adventures , 259, 277; cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 1, 1094b10-1095a14.
4. Eightieth Birthday, November 30, 1954, Presentation from Both Houses of Parliament, Westminster Hall, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897-1963, vol. 8, 1950-1963 (New York: Chelsea House, 1974), 8608-9.
5. See Piers Brendon, Winston Churchill: An Authentic Hero (London: Methuen, 1984), 120. On this question a serious person must take the side of the flagrant curiosity of the journalist, not to say his superficiality, over against the self-important superiority that academics often affect towards actual political problems, dooming their methodical researches to sterility and irrelevance. Cf. Leo Strauss, “An Epilogue,” in Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics, ed. Herbert Storing (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 305-27, esp. at the end; and Strauss’ s remarks on Churchill’s death in Statesmanship: Essays in Honor of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, ed. Harry V. Jaffa (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), ix.
6. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 55, 57. Compare what Churchill says at the end of his preface to Thoughts and Adventures, 5-6.
7. For a more extensive discussion of” A Second Choice” and intriguing observations about a number of other essays in Thoughts and Adventures , see Jaffa, “Can There Be Another Winston Churchill?” in Statesmanship, 25-39, whose argument I follow on certain points.
8. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol 5., 1922-1939: The Prophet of Truth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), 346. Savrola had very similar thoughts when he beheld Jupiter: see Churchill, Savrola (New York: Random House, 1956), 33-35; cf. 86. This passage from Churchill’s novel comes in for discussion by Anthony Storr in his uncomprehending account of Churchill “the man,” in A.J.P. Taylor et al., Churchill Revised: A Critical Reassessment (New York: Dial Press, 1969), 245-46. Storr, trained as a psychiatrist, has no hesitation in taking Savrola’s detachment from human things, which he correctly imputes to Churchill as well, as a sign of maladjustment. At the beginning of his essay (229-30) he says that Churchill, “though he provided many autobiographical details,” did not provide ” the kind of details which are of much service to the psychiatrist. Storr says of his study that Churchill “would have been the first to dismiss this essay as both futile and impertinent.” Indeed. 9. J.M. Keynes, ” Mr. Churchill on the Peace,” New Republic, vol. 58, no. 747 (March 27, 1929), 178-79.