Shall we all commit suicide?

It has rarely been more important to recur to first principles in addressing the critical issues that lie before us. For me, the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here) is the periodical that lights the way. The new issue of the CRB includes two brilliant essays on Winston Churchill, a man whose life and works illuminate first principles. We bring these two essays to your attention courtesy of our friends at the CRB.
What human types are most worthy of our esteem and aspiration? So asks Algis Valiunas in “Shall we fight for King and Country?” Valiunas writes that twentieth-century England presents us with two alternatives.
First, there is Winston Churchill, an intellectual and a man of action, the public man par excellence. On the other side there is Bloomsbury, the assemblage of intellectuals and artists that included John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf and E.M Forster. The Bloomsberries (as they called themselves) professed to save the West from Churchill and his warlike kind. Preferring the peace of private life to the harshness of war and politics, the Bloomsberries saw in Churchill a barbarism antithetical to civilized life.
But, Valiunas argues, Churchill’s warlike disposition was necessary for civilization’s preservation. “At the time Virginia Woolf was contemplating the transfiguration of humanity along more womanly lines, Churchill was engaged in the comparatively mundane task of trying to stop Nazi Germany,” he writes. Churchill himself “wrote to revive the ideal of manhood ready for war when war is unavoidable.” It is his understanding of civilization, Valiunas concludes, that allows civilized thinkers like the Bloomsberries to enjoy the peace of private life undisturbed.
Yet as Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn shows in “A little light reading and some cataclysm,” even political men like Churchill have private lives. Arnn’s piece is occasioned by a new edition of Churchill’s Thoughts and Adventures, edited by James W. Muller and published by ISI Books. Thoughts and Adventures is a collection of essays both playful and serious including a consideration of cartoons, a guide to amateur painting, a how-to section on hobbies and, in “Mass Effects Effects in Modern Life” and “Shall We All Commit Suicide?,” profound meditations on modernity.
Arnn contrasts Thoughts and Adventures with The World Crisis, Churchill’s history of the First World War, which Arnn calls “a modern rival to Thucydides, grander and brought to completion.” The World Crisis and Thoughts and Adventures represent Churchill’s public and private sides. Public men like Churchill, Arnn explains, live under a constant “stress of soul.” To sustain this stress, these men require relief; for example, they require hobbies. Arnn explains: “The human soul has a magic property. It can wear down from overuse like the elbows of an old coat; but unlike the coat it can restore itself, not so much by rest but by the use of some other part of the soul.”
Arnn describes how Churchill’s “Painting as a Pastime” illustrates the similarity between Churchill’s public and private activities. Painting is like war, Churchill reveals, though perhaps less exciting. It requires “the same mastery of details, the same ability to render them into an order not apparent to the common mind.” Churchill’s private activities, Arnn shows, were similar to and in the service of his public work.
Taken as a whole, the essays Churchill collected in Thoughts and Adventures provide “a picture, or perhaps a painting, of how Churchill saw life, and a painting of his own life. He looked out upon a world in which the glories of the age might lead to the destruction of the age. He saw that human making had reached a pitch of perfection never seen before, a pitch so high that it could ameliorate much of the misery of man. But in this effort it could also extinguish the elevated things in man, reduce him from his station as the Lord of Creation, and cut him off from all nature, including his own.”
These two essays on a man who lived a long life and died nearly fifty years ago could not be more timely.

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