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Sri Aurobindo

Bande Mataram

Early Political Writings. 1890 — May 1908

Bande Mataram. November 18, 1907

By the Way

In Praise of Honest John

Mr. John Morley is a very great man, a very remarkable and exceptional man. I have been reading his Arbroath speech again and my admiration for him has risen to such a boiling point that I am at last obliged to let it bubble over into the columns of the Bande Mataram. Mr. Morley rises above the ordinary ruck of mortals in three very important respects; first, he is a literary man; secondly, he is a philosopher; thirdly, he is a politician. This would not matter much if he kept his literature, politics and philosophy apart in fairly watertight compartments; but he doesn't. He has not only doubled his parts, he has trebled them; he is not merely a literary philosopher and philosophic litterateur, he is a literary philosopher-politician. Now this is a superlative combination; God cannot better it and the devil does not want to. For if an ordinary man steals, he steals and there are no more bones made about it; he gets caught and is sent to prison, or he is not caught and goes on his way rejoicing. In either case the matter is a simple one without any artistic possibilities. But if a literary philosopher steals, he steals on the basis of the great and eternal verities and in the choicest English.

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And so all along the line. An ordinary man may be illogical and silly and everybody realises that he is illogical and silly; but the literary man when he goes about the same business will be brilliantly foolish and convincingly illogical, while the philosopher will be logically illogical and talk nonsense according to the strictest rules of philosophical reasoning. An ordinary man may turn his back on his principles and he will be called a turncoat or he may break all the commandments and he will be punished by the law and society, unless of course he is an American millionaire or a member of the ruling race in India; but the literary philosopher will reconcile his principles with his conduct by an appeal to a fur-coat or a syllogism from a pair of jackboots; he will abrogate all the commandments on the strength of a Solar Topee. A politician again will lie and people will take it as a matter of course, especially if he is in office, but a literary philosopher-politician will easily prove to you that when he is most a liar, then he is most truthful and when he is juggling most cynically with truth and principle, then he most deserves the name of Honest John; and he will do it in such well-turned periods that one must indeed have a very bad ear for the rhythm of a sentence before one can quarrel with its1 logic. Oh yes, a literary philosopher-politician is the choicest work of God, when he is not the most effective instrument in the hands of the Prince of Darkness. For the Prince of Darkness is not only a gentleman as Shakespeare discovered, but a gentleman of artistic perceptions who knows a fine and carefully-worked tool when he sees it and loves to handle it with the best dexterity and grace of which he is capable.

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Of course it is not his speeches alone for which I admire John Morley. I admire him for what he has done almost as much as for the way in which he has done it. He is not so great a man as his master Gladstone who was the biggest opportunist and most adroit political gambler democracy has yet engendered and yet persuaded himself and the world that he was an enthusiast and a man of high religious principle. But Gladstone was a genius and his old henchman is only a man of talent. Still Mr. Morley has done the best of which he is capable and that is not a poor best. He has served the devil in the name of God with signal success on two occasions. The first was when he championed the cause of the financiers in Egypt, the men who gamble with the destinies of nations, who make money out of the groans of the people and coin into gold the blood of patriots and the tears of widows and orphans, when abusing his influence as a journalist, he lied to the British public about Arabi and urged on Gladstone to crush the movement of democratic and humanitarian Nationalism in Egypt, the movement in which all that is noble, humane and gracious in Islam sought fulfilment and a small field on earth for the fine flowering of a new Mahomedan civilisation. The second is now when he is trying in the sordid interests of British capital to crush the resurgent life of India and baffle the attempt of the children of Vedanta to recover their own country for the development of a revivified Indian civilisation. The two foulest crimes against the future of humanity of which any statesman in recent times could possibly have been guilty, have been engineered under the name and by the advocacy of honest John Morley. Truly, Satan knows his own and sees to it that they do not do their2 great work negligently.

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Mr. Morley is a great bookman, a great democrat, a great exponent of principles. No man better fitted than he to prove that when the noblest human movements are being suppressed by imprisonment and the sword, it is done in the interests of humanity; that when a people struggling to live is trampled down by repression, pushed back by the use of the Goorkha3 and the hooligan, the prison walls and the whipping-post into the hell of misery, famine and starvation, the black pit of insult, ignominy and bonds from which it had dared to hope for an escape, the motive of the oppressor finds its root in a very agony of conscientiousness and it is with a sobbing and bleeding heart that he presses his heel on the people's throat for their own good; that the ruthless exploitation and starvation of a country by foreign leeches is one of the best services that can be done to mankind, the international crimes of the great captains of finance a supreme work of civilisation and the brutal and selfish immolation of nations to Mammon an acceptable offering on the altar of the indwelling God in humanity. But these things have been done and said before; they are the usual blasphemous cant of nineteenth century devil-worship formulated when Commerce began to take the place once nominally allowed to Christ and the Ledger became Europe's Bible. Mr. Morley does it with more authority than others, but his own particular and original faculty lies in the direction I indicated when drawing the distinction between the ordinary man and the extraordinary Morley. What he has done has been after all on the initiative of others; what he has said about it is his own, and nothing more his own than the admirably brilliant and inconsequential phrases in which he has justified wickedness to an admiring nation.

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Man has been defined sometimes as a political animal and sometimes as a reasoning animal, but he has become still more pre-eminently a literary animal. He is a political animal who has always made a triumphant mess of politics, a reasoning animal whose continual occupation it is to make a system out of his blunders, a literary animal who is always the slave of a phrase and not the least so when the phrase means nothing. The power of the phrase on humanity has never been sufficiently considered. The phrase is in the nostrils of the vast unruly mass of mankind like the ring in the nose of a camel. It can be led by the phrase-maker wherever he wishes to lead it. And the only distinction between the sage and the sophist is that the phrases of the sage mean something while the phrases of the sophist only seem to mean something. Now Mr. Morley is an adept in the making of phrases which seem to mean something.

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Take for instance his phrase “The4 anchor holds.” Mr. Morley complains that he who has served Liberalism so long and so well, is not allowed to be illiberal when he likes, that when he amuses himself with a little reaction he is charged with deserting his principles! “It is true, gentlemen,” says Mr. Morley, “that I am doing things which are neither liberal nor democratic; but, then, my anchor holds. Yes, gentlemen, I dare to believe that my anchor holds.” So might a clergyman detected in immorality explain himself to his parishioners, “It is true I have preached all my life continence and chastity, yet been found in very awkward circumstances; but what then? My anchor holds. Yes, dear brethren in Christ, I dare to believe that my anchor holds.” So might Robespierre have justified himself for the Reign of Terror, “It is true, Frenchmen, that I have always condemned capital punishment as itself a crime, yet am judicially massacring my countrymen without pause or pity; but my anchor holds. Yes, citizens, I dare to believe that my anchor holds.” So argues Mr. Morley and all England applauds in a thousand newspapers and acquits him of political sin.

But of course Mr. Morley's crowning mercy is the phrase about the fur-coat. It is true that the simile about the coat is not new in the English language; for a man who abandons his principles has always been said to turn his coat; but never has that profitable manoeuvre been justified in so excellently literary and philosophical5 a fashion before. Mr. Morley has given us the philosophy of the turn-coat. “Principles,” he has said in effect, “are not a light by which you can guide your steps in all circumstances, but a coat which is worn for comfort and convenience. In Canada, which is cold, you have to wear a fur-coat, there is no help for it; in Egypt, which is hot, you can change it for thin alpaca; in India, where it is very hot indeed, you need not wear a coat at all; the natives of the country did not before we came and we should not encourage them to go in for such an uncomfortable luxury. It is just so with principles, democratic and other.” The reasoning is excellent and of a very wide application. For instance, it may be wrong in England to convict a political opponent for political reasons of an offence of which you know him to be innocent and on evidence you know to be false, or to sentence a man to be hanged for a murder which you are quite aware somebody else committed, or to disregard the plainest evidence and allow a bestial ravisher to go free because he happens to be a dog6 with a white skin, but it is absurd to suppose that such principles can keep in the heat of the Indian sun. It is difficult to know what inequity7 reasoning of this sort would not cover. “I thoroughly believe in the Ten Commandments,” Caesar Borgia might have said in his full career of political poisonings and strangulations, “but they may do very well in one country and age without applying at all to another. They suited Palestine, but mediaeval Italy is not Palestine. Principles are a matter of chronology and climate, and it would be highly unphilosophical and unpractical of me to be guided by them as if I were Christ or Moses. So I shall go on poisoning and strangling for the good of myself and Italy and leave ‘impatient idealists’ to their irresponsible chatter. Still I am a Christian and the nephew of a Pope, so my anchor holds, yes, my anchor holds.”

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Mr. Morley's fur-coat is one of the most comprehensive garments ever discovered. All the tribe of high-aiming tyrants and patriotic pirates and able political scoundrels and intelligent turncoats that the world has produced, he gathers together and covers up their sins and keeps them snug and comforted against the cold blasts of censure blowing from a too logical and narrow-minded world, all in the shelter of a single fur-coat. And the British conscience too, that wondrous production of a humorous Creator, seeking justification of8 the career of cynical violence its representatives have entered on in India, rejoices in Mr. Morley's fur-coat and snuggles with a contented chuckle into its ample folds. Am I wrong in saying that Honest John is a wonder-worker of the mightiest and that Aaron's magic rod was a Brummagem fraud compared with Mr. Morley's phrases? Vivat John Morley!

 

Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.- Set in 37 volumes.- Volumes 6-7.- Bande Mataram: Political Writings and Speeches. 18901908 .- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2002.- 1182 p.

1 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: his

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2 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: not their

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3 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Gurkha

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4 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: My

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5 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: philosophic

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6 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: hog

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7 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: iniquity

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8 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: for

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