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An essay by James Runciman


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

Of the ancestor generally assigned to us by gentlemen who must be right--because they say so--we have very few records save the odd scratches found on bones and stones, and the remnants of extremely frugal meals eaten ages ago. We gather that the revered ancestor hunted large game with an audacity which must have pleased the Rider Haggard of ancient days; at any rate, some simple soul certainly scratched the record of a famous mammoth-fight on a tusk, and we can now see a furious beast charging upon a pigmy who awaits the onset with a coolness quite superior to Mr. Quatermain's heroics. That Siberian hunter evidently went out and tried to make a bag for his own hand, and I have no doubt that he carried out the principle of individualism until his last mammoth reduced him to pulp. There is no indication of organization, and, although the men of the great deltas were able to indulge in oysters with a freedom which almost makes me regret the advance of civilization and the decay of Whitstable, yet I cannot trace one record of an orderly supper-party. This shows how the heathen in his blindness neglects his natural advantages. Long after the savage of the tundras passed away we find vestiges of the family; and thenceforward discipline advances steadily, though with occasional relapses toward anarchy, until we see the ordered perfection which enables us to have West-end riots and all-night sittings of the House of Commons without any trouble whatever. I do not care much to deal with the times when the members of the families elected each other promiscuously according to the success with which they managed to club their neighbours--in fact, I wish to come as soon as possible to the period when discipline, as understood by us, was gradually allowed to sway the lives of men, and when the sections of the race recognized tacitly the law of the strongest by appointing their best man as chief. At present we in England are passing through a dangerous and critical transition stage; a very strong party inclines to abolish discipline of all sorts, the views of the Continental anarchists are slowly filtering into our great towns, and, as soon as such a move is safe, we shall have a large number of people who will not scruple to cry out for free land, no taxation, free everything. We have heard so much about rights lately that some of us are beginning to question within ourselves as to what rights really are. If a gentleman, no matter how bookish or eloquent he may be, desires to do away with discipline altogether, I will give him credit for all the tongue-power which he happens to possess; but I must ask leave to think for myself in old-fashioned grooves just a little longer. After all, a system which--for civilized countries--has been growing gradually for more thousands of years than we dare compute cannot be entirely bad, no matter what chance faults we may see. The generations that have flown into the night may not have possessed complete wisdom, but they adapted their social systems step by step to the needs of each new generation, and it requires very little logic to tell that they would not be likely always to cast out the good. The noisy orator who gets up and addresses a London crowd at midnight, yelling "Down with everything!" can hardly know what he means to destroy. We have come a long way since the man of the swamps hunted the hairy elephant and burrowed in caves; that very structure in which the anarchists have taken to meeting represents sixty thousand years of slow progression from savagery towards seemliness and refinement and wisdom; and therefore, bitterly as we may feel the suffering of the poor orator, we say to him, "Wait a little, and talk to us. I do not touch politics--I loathe place-hunters and talkers as much as you do; but you are speaking about reversing the course of the ages, and you cannot quite manage that. Let us forget the windy war of the place-hunters, and speak reasonably and in a broad human way."

I do not by any means hold with those very robust literary characters who want to see the principle of stern Drill carried into the most minute branchings of our complex society. (By-the-way, these robust gentry always put a capital "D" to the word "Drill," as though they would have their precious principle enthroned as an object of reverence, or even of worship.) And I am inclined to think that not a few of them must have experienced a severe attack of wrath when they found Carlyle suggesting that King Friedrich Wilhelm would have laid a stick across the shoulders of literary men had he been able to have his own way. The unfeeling old king used to go about thumping people in the streets with a big cudgel; and Carlyle rather implies that the world would not have been much the worse off if a stray literary man here and there could have been bludgeoned. The king flogged apple-women who did not knit and loafers who were unable to find work; and our historian apparently fancies that the dignity of kingship would have been rather enhanced than otherwise had his hero broken the head of a poet or essayist. This is a clear case of a disciplinarian suffering from temporary derangement. I really cannot quite stomach such heroic and sweeping work. Carlyle, who was a Scotch peasant by birth, raised himself until he was deservedly regarded as the greatest man of his day, and he did this by means of literature; yet he coolly sets an ignorant, cruel, crowned drill-serjeant high above the men of the literary calling. It is a little too much! Suppose that Carlyle had been flogged back to the plough-tail by some potentate when he first went to the University; should we not have heard a good deal of noise about the business sooner or later? Again, we find Mr. Froude writing somewhat placidly when he tells us about the men who were cut to pieces slowly in order that their agony might be prolonged. The description of the dismemberment of Ballard and the rest, as given in the "Curiosities of Literature," is too gratuitously horrible to be read a second time; but Mr. Froude is convinced that the whole affair was no more than a smart and salutary lesson given to some obtrusive Papists, and he commends the measures adopted by Elizabeth's ministers to secure proper discipline. Similarly the wholesale massacre of the people in the English northern counties is not at all condemned by the judicious Mr. Freeman. The Conqueror left a desert where goodly homesteads and farms had flourished; but we are not any the less to regard him as a great statesman. I grow angry for a time with these bold writers, but I always end by smiling, for there is something very feminine about such shrill expressions of admiration for force. I like to figure to myself the troubles which would have ensued had Carlyle lived under the sway of his precious Friedrich. It was all very well to sit in a comfortable house in pleasant Chelsea, and enlarge upon the beauties of drill and discipline; but, had the sage been cast into one of the noisome old German prisons, and kept there till he was dying, merely because the kingly disciplinarian objected to a phrase in a pamphlet, we should have heard a very curious tune from our great humourist. A man who groaned if his bed was ill-made or his bacon ill-fried would not quite have seen the beauty of being disciplined in a foul cellar among swarming vermin.

The methods of certain other rulers may no doubt appear very fine to our robust scribblers, but I must always enter my own slight protest. Ivan the Terrible was a really thorough-paced martinet who preserved discipline by marvellously powerful methods. He did not mind killing a few thousands of men at a time; and he was answerable for several pyramids of skulls which remained long after his manly spirit had passed away. He occasionally had prisoners flayed alive or impaled merely by way of instituting a change; and I think that some graphic British historian should at once give us a good life of this remarkable and royal man. The massacre of the revolted peasants would afford a fine opening to a stern rhetorician; he might lead off thus--"Dost thou think that this king cared for noble sentiment? Thou poor creature who canst not look on a man without turning green with feminine terror, this writer begs to inform you and all creatures of your sort that law is law and discipline is discipline, and the divine origin of both is undeniable even in an age of advertised soap and interminable spouting. Ivan had no parliamentary eloquence under his control, but he had cold steel and whips and racks and wheels, and he employed them all with vigour for the repression of undisciplined scoundrels. He butchered some thousands of innocent men! Ah, my sentimental friend, an anarchic mob cannot be ruled by sprinkling rose-water; the lash and the rope and the stern steel are needed to bring them to order! When my Noble One, with a glare in his lion eyes, watched the rebels being skinned alive, he was performing a truly beneficent function and preparing the way for that vast, noble, and expansive Russia which we see to-day. The poor long-eared mortals who were being skinned did not quite perceive the beneficence at the time. How should they, unhappy long-eared creatures that they were? Oh, Dryasdust, does any long-eared mortal who is being skinned by a true King--a Canning, Koeniglich, Able Man--does the long-eared one amid his wriggles ever recognize the scope and transcendent significance of Kingship? Answer me that, Dryasdust, or shut your eloquent mouth and go home to dinner."

That is quite a proper style for a disciplinarian, but I have not got into the way of using it yet. For, to my limited intelligence, it appears that, if you once begin praising Friedrichs and Charlemagnes and Ivans at the rate of a volume or so per massacre, you may as well go on to Cetewayo and Timour and Attila--not to mention Sulla and Koffee Kalkalli. I abhor the floggers and stranglers and butchers; and when I speak of discipline, I leave them out of count. My business is a little more practical, and I have no time to refute at length the vociferations of persons who tell us that a man proves his capacity of kingship by commanding the extinction or torture of vast numbers of human creatures. My thoughts are not bent on the bad deeds--the deeds of blood--wrought out in bitterness and anguish either long ago or lately; I am thinking of the immense European fabric which looks so solid outwardly, but which is being permeated by the subtle forces of decay and disease. Discipline is being outwardly preserved, but the destroying forces are creeping into every weak place, and the men of our time may see strange things. Gradually a certain resolute body of men are teaching weaker people that even self-discipline is unnecessary, and that self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control are only phrases used by interested people who want to hold others in slavery. In our England it is plainer every day that the character of the people is changing. Individual men are obedient, brave to the death, self-sacrificing, just as they always were even in our darkest times; but, none the less, it is too plain that authority ordained by law is dying, and that authority which rests on vague and fluctuating sentiment gains power with steady swiftness. The judges sit and retain all their old confidence; the magistrates sentence daily their batches of submissive culprits; the policeman rules supreme over the streets--he scares the flower-girl, and warns the pensive burglar with the staccato thunder of his monarchical foot. All seems very firm and orderly; and our largest crowds maintain their attitude of harmless good-humour when no inflammatory talkers are there. But the hand has written, and true discipline cannot survive very much longer unless we rouse ourselves for a dead-lift effort. Take Parliament at the crown of the social structure, and the School--the elementary school--at the foundation, and we cannot feel reassured. All between the highest and the lowest is moderately sound; the best of the middle-classes are decent, law-abiding, and steady; the young men are good fellows in a way; the girls and young women are charming and virtuous. But the extremities are rotten, and sentiment has rotted them both. Parliament has become a hissing and a scorn. No man of any party in all broad England could be found to deny this, and many would say more. The sentimentalist has said that loutishness shall not be curbed, that a bawling ruffian who is silenced is martyred, that every man shall talk as he likes, and the veto of the Polish Assembly which enabled any one man to ruin the work of a session is revived in sober, solid England. So it is that all has gone to wreck; and an assembly once the noblest on earth is treated with unhidden contempt by the labourer in his field and the mechanic at his bench. And all this has arisen from lack of discipline.

In the School--the lower-class school--things are much worse. The lowest of the low--the beings who should be kept in order by sharp, firm kindness and justice--have been taught to mock at order and justice and to treat kindness as a sign of weakness. The lads will all soon be ready to aid in governing the country. May the good powers defend us! What a set of governors! The son of the aristocrat is easily held in order, because he knows that any infraction of discipline will be surely punished; the son and daughter of the decent artizan cause little trouble to any teacher, because they know that their parents are on the side of order, and, even if the children are inclined to be rebellious, they dare not defy the united authority of parents and teacher. But the child of the thief, the costermonger, the racecourse swindler, the thriftless labourer, is now practically emancipated through the action of sentimental persons. He may go to school or not, as he likes; and, while the decent and orderly poor are harried by School Board regulations, the rough of the slum snaps his fingers without fear at all regulations. If one of the bad boys from the "rookeries" does go to school, he soon learns that he may take his own way. If he is foul-mouthed, thievish, indecent, or insolent, and is promptly punished, he drags his teacher into a police-court, and the sentimentalists secure a conviction. No one can tell the kind of anarchy that reigns in some parts of England excepting men who dwell amidst it; and, to make matters worse, a set of men who may perhaps be charitably reckoned as insane have framed a Parliamentary measure which may render any teacher who controls a young rough liable at once to one hundred pounds fine or six months' imprisonment. This is no flight of inventive humour on our part; it is plain fact which may probably be seen in action as law before twelve months are over.

Tyranny I abhor, cruelty I abhor--above all, cruelty to children. But we are threatened at one pole of the State-world with a tyranny of factioneers who cultivate rudeness and rowdyism as a science, while at the other pole we are threatened with the uncontrolled tyranny of the "residuum." We must return to our common sense; the middle-classes must make themselves heard, and we must teach the wild spirits who aim at wrecking all order that safety depends upon the submission of all to the expressed will of the majority. Debate is free enough--too free--and no man is ever neglected ultimately if he has anything rational to say, so that a minority has great power; but, when once a law is made, it must be obeyed. England is mainly sound; our movement is chiefly to the good; but this senseless pampering of loutishness in high and low places is a bad symptom which tends to such consequences as can be understood only by those who have learned to know the secret places. If it is not checked--if anarchists, young and old, are not taught that they must obey or suffer--there is nothing ahead but tumult, heart-burning, and wreck.

_March, 1889._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Discipline