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Samuel Butler

Author of "Erewhon"

Selections arranged and edited by

Henry Festing Jones

With an Introduction by

Francis Hackett




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In "The Doctor's Dilemma" there is a saucy reference to an unprofessional heretic who has views on art, science, morals and religion. Old Sir Patrick Cullen shocks the heretic's disciple by not even recognizing the name. "Bernard Shaw ?” he ponders, “I never heard of him. He's a Methodist preacher, I suppose.” Louis is horrified. "No, no.

“No, no. He's the most advanced man now living: he isn't anything.” The old doctor is not set back an inch. These "advanced” men who impress the young by employing the accumulations of genius—he knows them. "I assure you, young man,” he informs Louis, "my father learnt the doctrine of deliverance from sin from John Wesley's own lips before you or Mr. Shaw were born.”

It is a pleasant thing to claim that the man you admire is "advanced” and to believe serenely that you are progressive along with him. It is also a convenient thing to employ such question-begging phrases as heterodox, radical, free-thinker, anarchist. The trouble with such phrases, indicative and exciting as they are, is their plain relativity to something reprehensible that only you yourself have in mind. The world is full of moss-grown places called Newtown and Newburg and Nyköbing and Neuville. It is also full of moss-grown writers who once were advanced and revolutionary. If a writer is to be paraded as heterodox it has to be shown that he does something more than take up an agreeable position. It has to be shown that he has a manner, a method, of dealing with things that really deserve to be considered advanced.

This is Samuel Butler's claim on posterity. The urgently intelligent son of a dull English clergyman, he certainly did not lack incentives to heterodoxy. Besides that he was born in 1835 and was one of the first of Darwin's admirers, as later he was one of the first of his critics. But there was more than reflex action in Samuel Butler's heterodoxy. He

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was never anything so regular as an anarchist. He distrusted authority in religion and art and science without discarding religious, artistic or scientific values. He thought freely without being a freethinker, and radically without be ing a radical. To say he was lawless would entirely misrepresent him, he was not nearly so much a revolutionary as a conscientious objector on the loose. Here again he fell into none of the ordinary classifications. He was not a missionary. He had as little ambition to form a new orthodoxy as to attach himself to an old one. He had a marked propensity, that of thinking for himself-one of those perplexing propensities that nothing seems to determine, that may occur in an emperor or his slave and no one know how or why. And that propensity, the capital distinction of his many-sided life, gave him emancipation in a way that no one could have predicted and that was long quite difficult to label.

It was difficult to label mainly because Samuel Butler's intellectual adventure had come to an end before the label was invented. Samuel Butler was above everything a pragmatist, one of those forerunners of pragmatism who did not become conscious of its "universal mission" or its “conquering destiny," who nevertheless employed the method intuitively and "made momentous contributions to truth by its means. It is tragic, in many ways, that Butler had not the benefit of the formulation of pragmatism. Had he possessed it, however, he could not have been more closely, more consistently, its exponent. "Pragmatism," said William James in 1907, "represents a perfectly familiar attitude in philosophy, the empiricist attitude, but it represents it, as it seems to me, both in a more radical and in a less objectionable form than it has ever yet assumed. A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of the finality of truth.” This was the attitude Samuel

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