Table of Contents
Introduction
The Romance of Rhyme
Hamlet and the Psycho-Analyst
The Meaning of Mock Turkey
Shakespeare and the Legal Lady
On Being an Old Bean
The Fear of the Film
Wings and the Housemaid
The Slavery of Free Verse
Prohibition and the Press
==>The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett
A Defence of Dramatic Unities
The Boredom of Butterflies
The Terror of a Toy
False Theory and the Theatre
The Secret Society of Mankind
The Sentimentalism of Divorce
Street Cries and Stretching the Law
Why Reforms Go Wrong
The Innocence of the Criminal
The Prudery of the Feminists
How Mad Laws Are Made
The Pagoda of Progress
The Myth of the "Mayflower"
Much Too Modern History
The Evolution of Slaves
Is Darwin Dead?
Turning Inside Out
Strikes and the Spirit of Wonder
A Note on Old Nonsense
Milton and Merry England
 

The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett

Mr. Arnold Bennett recently wrote one of his humorous and humane “causeries” pleading very properly for social imagination and the better understanding of our fellows. He carried it, however, to the point of affirming, as some fatalists do, that we should never judge anybody in the sense of condemning anybody, in connexion with his moral conduct. Some time ago the same distinguished writer showed that his mercy and magnanimity were indeed on a heroic scale by reviewing a book of mine, and even saying many kind things about it. But to these he added a doubt about whether true intelligence could be consistent with the acceptance of any dogma. In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don't know it. My only advantage over the gifted novelist lies in my belonging to the former class. I suspect that his unconsciousness of his dogmas extends to an unconsciousness of what he means by a dogma. If it means merely the popular idea of being dogmatic, it might be suggested that saying that all dogmatism is unintelligent is itself somewhat dogmatic. And something of what is true of his veto on dogma is also true of his veto on condemnation; which is really a veto on vetoes.

Mr. Arnold Bennett does not darken the question with the dreary metaphysics of determinism; he is far too bright and adroit a journalist for that. But he does make a simple appeal to charity, and even Christianity, basing on it the idea that we should not judge people at all, or even blame them at all. Like everybody else who argues thus, he imagines himself to be pleading for mercy and humanity. Like everybody else who argues thus, he is doing the direct contrary. This particular notion of not judging people really means hanging them without trial. It would really substitute for judgment not mercy but something much more like murder. For the logical process through which the discussion passes is always the same; I have seen it in a hundred debates about fate and free-will. First somebody says, like Mr. Bennett: "Let us be kinder to our brethren, and not blame them for faults we cannot judge." Then some casual common-sense person says: "Do you really mean you would let anybody pick your pocket or cut your throat without protest?" Then the first man always answers as Mr. Bennett does: "Oh, no; I would punish him to protect myself and protect society; but I would not _blame_ him, because I would not venture to judge him." The philosopher seems to have forgotten that he set out with the idea of being kinder to the cut-throat and the pick-pocket. His sense of humour should suggest to him that the pick-pocket might possibly prefer to be blamed, rather than go to penal servitude for the protection of society.

Now of course Mr. Bennett is quite right in the most mystical and therefore the most deeply moral sense. We do not know what God knows about the merits of a man. Nor do we know what God knows about the needs of a community. A man who poisons his little niece for money may have mysterious motives and excuses we cannot understand. And so he may serve mysterious social purposes we cannot follow. We are not infallible when we think we are punishing criminals; but neither are we infallible when we think we are protecting society. Our inevitable ignorance seems to me to cut both ways. But even in our ignorance one thing is vividly clear. Mr. Bennett's solution is not the more merciful, but the less merciful of the two. To say that we may punish people, but not blame them, is to say that we have a right to be cruel to them, but not a right to be kind to them.

For after all, blame is itself a compliment. It is a compliment because it is an appeal; and an appeal to a man as a creative artist making his soul. To say to a man, "rascal" or "villain" in ordinary society may seem abrupt; but it is also elliptical. It is an abbreviation of a sublime spiritual apostrophe for which there may be no time in our busy social life. When you meet a millionaire, the cornerer of many markets, out at dinner in Mayfair, and greet him (as is your custom) with the exclamation "Scoundrel!" you are merely shortening for convenience some such expression as: "How can you, having the divine spirit of man that might be higher than the angels, drag it down so far as to be a scoundrel?" When you are introduced at a garden party to a Cabinet Minister who takes tips on Government contracts, and when you say to him in the ordinary way "Scamp!" you are merely using the last word of a long moral disquisition; which is in effect, "How pathetic is the spiritual spectacle of this Cabinet Minister, who being from the first made glorious by the image of God, condescends so far to lesser ambitions as to allow them to turn him into a scamp." It is a mere taking of the tail of a sentence to stand for the rest; like saying 'bus for omnibus. It is even more like the case of that seventeenth century Puritan whose name was something like "If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned, Higgins"; but who was, for popular convenience, referred to as "Damned Higgins." But it is obvious, anyhow, that when we call a man a coward, we are in so doing asking him how he can be a coward when he could be a hero. When we rebuke a man for being a sinner, we imply that he has the powers of a saint.

But punishing him for the protection of society involves no regard for him at all. It involves no limit of proportion in the punishment at all. There are some limits to what ordinary men are likely to say that an ordinary man deserves. But there are no limits to what the danger of the community may be supposed to demand. We would not, even if we could, boil the millionaire in oil or skin the poor little politician alive; for we do not think a man deserves to be skinned alive for taking commissions on contracts. But it is by no means so certain that the skinning him alive might not protect the community. Corruption can destroy communities; and torture can deter men. At any rate the thing is not so self-evidently useless as it is self-evidently unjust and vindictive. We refrain from such fantastic punishments, largely because we _do_ have some notion of making the punishment fit the crime, and not merely fit the community. If the State were the sole consideration, it may be inferred a priori that people might be much more cruel. And in fact, where the State was the sole consideration, it was found in experience that they were much more cruel. They were much more cruel precisely because they were freed from all responsibilities about the innocence or guilt of the individual. I believe that in heathen Rome, the model of a merely civic and secular loyalty, it was a common practice to torture the slaves of any household subjected to legal enquiry. If you had remonstrated, because no crime had been proved against the slaves, the State would have answered in the modern manner: "We are not punishing the crime; we are protecting the community."

Now that example is relevant just now in more ways than one. Of course I do not mean that this was the motive of all historical cruelties, or that some did not spring from quite an opposite motive. But it was the motive of such tyranny in the heathen world; and in this, as in other things, the modern world has largely become a heathen world. And modern tyranny can find its prototype in the torturing of heathen slaves in two fundamental respects. First, that the modern world has returned to the test of the heathen world, that of considering service to the state and not justice to the individual. And second, that the modern world, like the heathen world, is here inflicting it chiefly on subordinate and submerged classes of society; on slaves or those who are almost slaves.

For the heathen state is a Servile State. And no one has more of this view of the state than the State Socialists. The official Labour Politician would be the first to say in theory that punishment must not be a moral recompense, but merely a social regulation. And he would be the first to say in practice that it is the poor and ignorant who must be regulated. Doubtless it is one thing to be regulated and another to be tortured. But when once the principle is admitted broadly, the progress towards torture may proceed pretty briskly. In the psychological sphere, it is already as bad as it has ever been. It may come as a surprise to the humanitarian to learn it; but it is none the less true, that a mother may undergo moral torture in the last degree, when her children are taken from her by brute force. And that incident has become so common in the policing of the poor nowadays as hardly to call for notice. And that example is particularly relevant to the present argument. Nobody could pretend that the affectionate mother of a rather backward child _deserves_ to be punished by having all the happiness taken out of her life. But anybody can pretend that the act is needed for the happiness of the community. Nobody will say it was so wicked of her to love her baby that she deserves to lose it. But it is always easy to say that some remote social purpose will be served by taking it away. Thus the elimination of punishment means the extension of tyranny. Men would not do things so oppressive so long as they were vindictive. It is only when punishment is purged of vengeance that it can be as villainous as that.

For that matter, it would be easy to find examples much nearer than this one to the torturing of the Roman slaves. There is a very close parallel in the Third Degree, as applied by the police to the criminal class on suspicion, especially in America; for the criminal class is a submerged class like the slaves; and it is but an experiment on the nerves in one way instead of another, like a preference for the rack rather than the thumbscrew. But the point is that it is applied to the criminal type without any proof that it is in this case criminal; and the thing is justified not by the criminality of the individual but by the needs of the State. The police would answer exactly as the pagans answered: "We are not punishing the crime; we are protecting the community."

This tyranny is spreading. And there is no hope for liberty or democracy until we all demand again, with a tongue of thunder, the right to be blamed. We shall never feel like free men until we assert again our sacred claim to be punished. The denunciation of a man for what he chose to do is itself the confession that he chose to do it; and it is beneath his dignity to admit that he could have done nothing else. The only alternative theory is that we can do nothing but what we do, and our rulers can do anything whatever to restrain us. Compared with that, it would be better that roaring mobs should rise all over England, uproariously demanding to be hanged.