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An essay by James Runciman


Title:     Fraternity
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

So far as we can see it appears plain that the wish for brotherhood was on the whole reasonable, and its fulfilment easier than the wild desire for liberty and equality. No doubt Omar and Cromwell and Hoche and Dumouriez have chosen in their respective times an odd mode of spreading the blessings of fraternity. It is a little harsh to say to a man, "Be my brother or I will cut your head off;" but we fear that men of the stamp of Mahomet, Cromwell, and the French Jacobins were given to offering a choice of the alternatives named. Perhaps we may be safe if we take the roughness of the mere proselytizers as an evidence of defective education; they had a dim perception of a beautiful principle, but they knew of no instrument with which they could carry conviction save the sword. We, with our better light, can well understand that brotherhood should be fostered among men; we are all children of one Father, and it is fitting that we should reverently acknowledge the universal family tie. The Founder of our religion was the earliest preacher of the divine gospel of pity, and it is to Him that we owe the loveliest and purest conception of brotherhood. He claimed to be the Brother of us all; He showed how we should treat our brethren, and He carried His teaching on to the very close of His life.

So far from talking puerilities about equality, we should all see that there are degrees in our vast family; the elder and stronger brethren are bound to succour the younger and weaker; the young must look up to their elders; and the Father of all will perhaps preserve peace among us if we only forget our petty selves and look to Him. Alas, it is so hard to forget self! The dullest of us can see how excellent and divine is brotherhood, if we do assuredly carry out the conception of fraternity thoroughly; but again I say, How hard it is to banish self and follow the teaching of our divine Brother! If we cast our eyes over the world now, we may see--perhaps indistinctly--things that might make us weep, were it not that we must needs smile at the childish ways of men. In the very nation that first chose to put forward the word "fraternity" as one of the symbols for which men might die we see a strange spectacle. Half that nation is brooding incessantly on revenge; half the nation is bent only on slaying certain brother human beings who happen to live on the north and east of a certain river instead of on the south and west. The home of the solacing doctrine of fraternity is also the home of incessant preparations for murder, rapine, bitter and brutal vengeance. About a million of men rise every morning and spend the whole day in practising so that they may learn to kill people cleverly; hideous instruments, which must cause devastation, torture, bereavement, and wreck, should they ever be used in earnest, are lovingly handled by men who hope to see blood flow before long. The Frenchman cannot yet venture to smite his Teutonic brother, but he will do so when he has the chance; and thus two bands of brethren, who might have dwelt together amicably, may shortly end by inflicting untold agonies on each other. Both nations which so savagely await the beginning of a mad struggle are supposed to be followers of the Brother whose sweet message is read and repeated by nearly all the men who live on our continent, yet they only utter bitter words and think sullen thoughts, while the more acrid of the two adversaries is the country which once inscribed "Brotherhood" on its very banners. All round the arena wherein the two great peoples defy each other the nations wait anxiously for the delivery of the first stroke that shall give the signal for wrath and woe; and, strangely, no one can tell which of the onlookers is the more fervent professor of our Master's faith. "Let brotherly love continue!"--that was the behest laid on us all; and we manifest our brotherly love by invoking the spirit of murder.

We know what exquisite visions floated around the twelve who first founded the Church on the principle of fraternity. No brother was to be left poor; all were to hold goods in common; every man should work for what he could, and receive what he needed; but evil crept in, and dissension and heart-burning, and ever since then the best of our poor besotted human race have been groping blindly after fraternity and finding it never. I always deprecate bitter or despondent views, or exaggerating the importance of our feeble race--for, after all, the whole time during which man has existed on earth is but as a brief swallow-flight compared with the abysmal stretches of eternity; but I confess that, when I see the flower of our race trained to become killers of men and awaiting the opportunity to exercise their murderous arts I feel a little sick at heart. Even they are compelled to hear the commands of the lovely gospel of fraternity, and, unless they die quickly in the fury of combat, their last moments are spent in listening to the same blessed words. It seems so mad and dreamlike that I have found myself thinking that, despite all our confidence, the world may be but a phantasmagoria, and ourselves, with our flesh that seems so solid, may be no more than fleeting wraiths. There is no one to rush between the scowling nations, as the poor hermit did between the gladiators in wicked Rome; there is no one to say, "Poor, silly peasant from pleasant France, why should you care to stab and torment that other poor flaxen-haired simpleton from Silesia? Your fields await you; if you were left to yourselves, then you and the Silesian would be brothers, worshipping like trusting children before the common Father of us all. And now you can find nothing better to do than to do each other to death!" Like the sanguine creatures who carried out the revolutionary movements of 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1860, the weak among us are apt to cry out--"Surely the time of fraternity has come at last!" Then, when the murderous Empire, or the equally murderous Republic, or the grim military despotism arrives instead of fraternity, the weak ones are smitten with confusion. I pity them, for a bitterness almost as of death must be lived through before one learns that God indeed doeth all things well. The poor Revolutionists thought that they must have rapid changes, and their hysterical visions appeared to them like perfectly wise and accurate glances into the future. They were in a hurry, forgetting that we cannot change our marvellous society on a sudden, any more than we can change a single tissue of our bodies on a sudden--hence their frantic hopes and frantic despair. If we gaze coolly round, we see that, in spite of a muttering, threatening France and a watchful Germany, in spite of the huge Russian storm-cloud that lowers heavily over Europe, in spite of the venomous intrigues with which Austria is accredited, there are still cheerful symptoms to be seen, and it may happen that the very horror of war may at last drive all men to reject it, and declare for fraternity. Look at that very France which is now so electric with passion and suspicion, and compare it with the France of long ago. The Gaul now thinks of killing the Teuton; but in the time of the good King Henry IV. he delighted in slaying his brother Gaul. The race who now only care to turn their hands against a rival nation once fought among themselves like starving rats in a pit. Even in the most polished society the men used to pick quarrels to fight to the death. In one year of King Henry's reign nine thousand French gentlemen were killed in duels! Bad as we are, we are not likely to return to such a state of things as then was seen. The men belonged to one nation, and they ought to have banded together so that no foreign foe might take advantage of them; and yet they chose rather to slaughter each other at the rate of nearly one hundred and ninety per week. Certainly, so far as France is concerned, we can see some improvement; for, although the cowardly and abominable practice of duelling is still kept up, only one man was killed during the past twelve months, instead of nine thousand. In England we have had nearly two hundred years of truce from civil wars; in Germany the sections of the populace have at any rate stopped fighting among themselves; in Italy there are no longer the shameful feuds of Guelf and Ghibelline. It would seem, then, that civil strife is passing away, and that countries which were once the prey of bloodthirsty contending factions are now at least peaceful within their own borders.

If we reason from small things to great, we see that the squabbling nests of murderers, or would-be murderers, who peopled France, England, Germany, Austria, and Italy have given way to compact nations which enjoy unbroken internal peace. The struggles of business go on; the weak are trampled under foot in the mad rush of the cities of men, but the actual infliction of pain and death is not now dreamed of by Frenchman against Frenchman or German against German. We must remember that there never was so deadly and murderous a spirit displayed as during the Thirty Years' War, and yet the peoples who then wrestled and throttled each other are now peaceful under the same yoke. May we not trust that a time will come when nations will see on a sudden the blank folly of making war? Day by day the pressure of armaments is growing greater, and we may almost hope that the very fiendish nature of modern weapons may bring about a blessed _reductio ad absurdum_, and leave war as a thing ludicrous, and not to be contemplated by sane men! I find one gun specially advertised in our Christian country, and warranted to kill as many men in one minute as two companies of infantry could in five! What will be the effect of the general introduction of this delightful weapon? No force can possibly stand before it; no armour or works can keep out the hail of its bullets. Supposing, then, that benevolent science goes on improving the means of slaughter, must there not come a time when people will utterly refuse to continue the mad and miserable folly of war? Over the whole of Britain we may find even now the marks of cannon-shot discharged by Englishmen against the castles of other Englishmen. Is there one man in Britain who can at this present moment bring his imagination to conceive such an occurrence as an artillery fight between bodies of Englishmen? It is almost too absurd to be named even as a casual supposition. So far has fraternity spread. Now, if we go on perfecting dynamite shells which can destroy one thousand men by one explosion; if we increase the range of our guns from twelve miles to twenty, and fight our pieces according to directions signalled from a balloon, we shall be going the very best way to make all men rise with one spasm of disgust, and say, "No more of this!"

We cannot hope to do away with evil speaking, with verbal quarrelling, with mean grasping of benefits from less fortunate brethren. Alas, the reign of brotherhood will be long in eradicating the primeval combative instinct; but, when we compare the quiet urbanity of a modern gathering with the loud and senseless brawling which so often resulted from social assemblies even at the beginning of this century we may take some heart and hope on for the best. Our Lord had a clear vision of a time when bitterness and evil-doing should cease, and His words are more than a shadowy prediction. The fact is that, in striving gradually to introduce the third of the conditions of life craved by the poor feather-witted Frenchmen, the nations have a comparatively easy task. We cannot have equality, physical conditions having too much to do with giving the powers and accomplishments of men; we can only claim liberty under the supreme guidance of our Creator; but fraternity is quite a possible consummation. Our greatest hero held it as the Englishman's first duty to hate a Frenchman as he hated the Devil; now that mad and cankered feeling has passed away, and why should not the spread of common sense, common honesty, bring us at last to see that our fellow-man is better when regarded as a brother than as a possible assassin or thief?

Our corporate life and progress as nations, or even as a race of God's creatures, is much like the life and progress of the individual. The children of men stumble often, fall often, despair often, and yet the great universal movement goes on, and even the degeneracy which must always go on side by side with progress does not appreciably stay our advance. The individual man cannot walk even twenty steps without actually saving himself by a balancing movement from twenty falls. Every step tends to become an ignominious tumble, and yet our poor body may very easily move at the rate of four miles per hour, and we gain our destinations daily. The human race, in spite of many slips, will go on progressing towards good--that is, towards kindness--that is, towards fraternity--that is, towards the gospel, which at present seems so wildly and criminally neglected. The mild and innocent Anarcharsis Clootz, who made his way over the continent of Europe, and who came to our little island, in his day always believed that the time for the federation of mankind would come. Poor fellow--he died under the murderous knife of the guillotine and did little to further his beautiful project! He was esteemed a harmless lunatic; yet, notwithstanding the twelve millions of armed men who trample Europe, I do not think that Clootz was quite a lunatic after all. Moreover, all men know that right must prevail, and they know also that there is not a human being on earth who does not believe by intuition that the gospel of brotherhood is right, even as the life of its propounder was holy. The way is weary toward the quarter where the rays of dawn will first break over the shoulder of the earth. We walk on hoping, and, even if we fall by the way, and all our hopes seem to be tardy of fruition, yet others will hail the slow dawn of brotherhood when all now living are dead and still.

September, 1888.

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Fraternity