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   Chapter 14 ATTEMPTS AT SOCIAL UNITY

The War and Unity By Various Characters: 14103

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Let me ask your attention now to a few of the attempts which have been made to create a deeper social unity.

Some of these were naturally and inevitably developed in primitive days by the simple fact that "birds of a feather flock together."

Men engaged in pastoral pursuits gathered themselves into the tribe with its strong blood bond. The tillage of the fields led to the existence of the clan, with its family system and its elaborate organisation of the land. In the same way industrial activity produced the Guild, that is the grouping of men by crafts, a grouping which might well be revived and encouraged on a larger scale in the rearrangements of the future.

I need not remind you how large a place was occupied by the Guilds in English life. They were not Trade Unions in the modern sense, for they included both masters and men in one organisation. Nor must we attribute a modern meaning to those two phrases, masters and men, when we speak of the ancient Guild. For in a large measure every man was his own employer. He was a member of the league; he kept the rules; but he was his own master. The master did not mean the manager of the workmen, but the expert in the work. He was the master of the art in question, and though his fellows might be journeymen or apprentices, they all belonged to the same social class, and throughout the Guild there was a spirit of comradeship which was consecrated by the sanctions of religion.

For it was the Guilds which were the prime movers in organising those Miracle Plays which were the delight of the Middle Ages, and which formed the main outlet for that dramatic instinct which used to be so strong in England, and which paved the way for Shakespeare and the modern stage.

The Guild was not concerned mainly with money but with work, and still more with the skill and happiness of the worker, and its aim was to resist inequality. It was, in the pointed words of Mr Chesterton,

to ensure, not only that bricklaying should survive and succeed, but that every bricklayer should survive and succeed. It sought to rebuild the ruins of any bricklayer, and to give any faded whitewasher a new white coat. It was the whole aim of the Guilds to cobble their cobblers like their shoes and clout their clothiers with their clothes; to strengthen the weakest link, or go after the hundredth sheep; in short to keep the row of little shops unbroken like a line of battle[23].

The Guild in fact aimed at keeping each man free and happy in the possession of his little property, whereas the Trade Union aims at assembling into one company a large number of men who have little or no property at all, and who seek to redress the balance by collective action. The mediaeval Guild therefore will certainly go down to history as one of the most gallant attempts, and for the time being one of the most successful, to create a true comradeship among all who work, and to keep at a distance those mere class distinctions which, though their foundations are often so flimsy, tend to grip men as in an iron vice.

But I must not pass by another social organisation which looms very large in the old days, and which approached social unity from a side wholly different from those I have mentioned, namely from the military side: I mean the Feudal System. Here there has been much misunderstanding. Its very name seems to breathe class distinction. We have come casually and rather carelessly to identify it with the tyranny and oppression which exalted the few at the expense of the many. This point of view is however a good deal less than just. It is quite true that as worked by William the Norman and several of his successors the system became only too often an instrument of gross injustice and crass despotism; but at its best, and in its origin, it was based on the twin foundations of protection on the one hand and duty on the other. I will venture to quote a high authority in this connexion, namely Bishop Stubbs.

The Feudal System, with all its tyranny and all its faults and shortcomings, was based on the requirements of mutual help and service, and was maintained by the obligations of honour and fealty. Regular subordination, mutual obligation, social unity, were the pillars of the fabric. The whole state was one: the king represented the unity of the nation. The great barons held their estates from him, the minor nobles of the great barons, the gentry of these vassals, the poorer freemen of the gentry, the serfs themselves were not without rights and protectors as well as duties and service. Each gradation, and every man in each, owed service, fixed definite service, to the next above him, and expected and received protection and security in return. Each was bound by fealty to his immediate superior, and the oath of the one implies the pledged honour and troth of the other[24].

This system indeed was very far from perfect, but it certainly was an attempt to bind the nation together in one social unit, to provide a measure of protection for all, and to demand duties from all. It sought to lay equal stress on rights and duties. In this respect-and I am still thinking of the system at its best-it was far ahead of modern 19th century Industrialism, a system which might be described with but little exaggeration as laying sole emphasis on rights for one class and duties for the other.

But the supreme attempt which so far has been made to promote unity between classes has approached the problem from a far loftier standpoint; not industrial, nor military, but religious. And this attempt has been on a larger scale and on firmer foundations than any of the others, for it has sought to unite men in spite of their differences. It has tried, that is, to get below the varieties of race or family or occupation, and create a unity which, because it transcends them all, may hope to last. As a fact this attempt has so far surpassed all others, and has met with the greatest measure of success. And lest I should be suspected of prejudice I will quote an outside witness:

A very pregnant saying of T. H. Green was that during the whole development of man the command, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" has never varied, what has varied is the answer to the question-Who is my neighbour?... The influence upon the development of civilisation of the wider conception of duty and responsibility to one's fellow-men which was introduced into the world with the spread of Christianity can hardly be overestimated. The extended conception of the answer to the question Who is my neighbour? which has resulted from the characteristic doctrines of the Christian religion-a conception transcending all the claims of family, group, state, nation, people or race and even all the interests comprised in any existing order of society-has been the most powerful evolutionary force which has ever acted on society. It has tended gradually to break up the absolutisms inherited from an older civilization and to bring into being an entirely new type of s

ocial efficiency[25].

Or to take another witness equally unprejudiced, who puts the same truth more tersely still, the late Professor Lecky. "The brief record of those three short years," referring to Christ's life, "has done more to soften and regenerate mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and exhortations of moralists." For a third witness we will call Mazzini. "We owe to the Church," he declared, "the idea of the unity of the human family and of the equality and emancipation of souls." That this is amply borne out by the history of the Church in early days is not difficult to prove. The unexceptionable evidence of a Pagan writer is here very much to the point. Says Lucian of the Christians:

"Their original lawgiver had taught them that they were all brethren, one of another.... They become incredibly alert when anything ... affects their common interests[26]."

In the same way the ancient Christian writer Tertullian observes with characteristic irony: "It is our care for the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. Only look, they say, 'look how they love one another[27]!'" It is not surprising that this was so when you look into the writings which form the New Testament. Apart from the words and example of the Founder of Christianity, few men have ever lived who were more alive to existing social distinctions, and also to the splendour of that scheme which transcends them all, than St Paul. In proof of this it is sufficient to point to that immortal treatise on social unity which is commonly called the Epistle to the Ephesians. In this the fundamental secret is seen to consist, not in a rigid system but in a transforming spirit working through a divine Society in which all worldly distinctions are of no account. Slavery, for instance, was, in his view, and was actually in process of time, to be abolished not by a stroke of the pen but by a change of ideal. Nor is the witness lacking in writings subsequent to the New Testament. To instance one of the earliest. In an official letter sent by the Roman Church to the Christians in Corinth towards the end of the first century, in a passage eulogising the latter community this suggestive sentence occurs: "You did everything without respect of persons."

Needless to say however, this point of view, this new spirit, only gradually permeated the Christian Church itself, let alone the great world outside. We are not surprised to learn that it was a point of criticism among the opponents of the religion that among its adherents were still found masters and slaves. An ancient writer in reply to critics who cry out "You too have masters and slaves. Where then is your so-called equality?" thus makes answer:

Our sole reason for giving one another the name of brother is because we believe we are equals. For since all human objects are measured by us after the spirit and not after the body, although there is a diversity of condition among human bodies, yet slaves are not slaves to us; we deem and term them brothers after the spirit, and fellow-servants in religion[28].

Pointing in the same direction is the fact that the title "slave" never occurs on a Christian tombstone.

It is plain from this, and from similar quotations which might be multiplied, that the policy of Christianity in face of the first social problem of the day, namely slavery, was not violently to undo the existing bonds by which Society was held together, in the hope that some new machinery would at once be forthcoming-a plan which has since been adopted with dire consequences in Russia-but to evacuate the old system of the spirit which sustained it; and to replace it with a new spirit, a new outlook on life, which would slowly but inevitably lead to an entire reconstruction of the social framework.

Already too, within the Church this sense of brotherhood was making itself felt on the industrial side as well as where more directly spiritual duties were concerned. It seems to have been recognised in the Christian Society that every brother could claim the right of being maintained if he were unable to work. Equally it was emphasised that the duty of work was paramount on all who were capable of it. "For those able to work, provide work; to those incapable of work be charitable." This aspect of the matter finds a singular emphasis in a second century document known as "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," in which this sense of industrial brotherhood finds very significant expression. Speaking of visitors from other Churches it is directed that "if any brother has a trade let him follow that trade and earn the bread he eats. If he has no trade, exercise your discretion in arranging for him to live among you as a Christian, but not in idleness. If he will not do this, that is to say, to undertake the work which you provide for him, he is trafficking with Christ. Beware of men like that."

On this side of its life therefore, the Church came very near to being a vast Guild where with the highest sanction rights and duties were intermingled in due proportion, and that true social unity established, which while it refuses privileges bestows protection. On these foundations the organisation was reared, which like some great Cathedral dominated that stretch of centuries usually known as the Middle Ages. We could all of us hold forth on its drawbacks and evils, yet its benefits were tremendous. For one thing it created an aristocracy wholly independent of any distinction of blood or property. Anyone might become an Archbishop if only he had the necessary gifts. Still more anyone might become a Saint. The charmed circle of the Church's nobility was constantly recruited from every class, and was therefore a standing and effectual protest against the flimsier measurements of Society and the more ephemeral gradations of rank. Obviously this process found as great a scope in England as elsewhere. It was the Church which was the most potent instrument in bringing together Norman and Saxon as well as master and slave. For, as Macaulay has said with perfect truth, it

creates an aristocracy altogether independent of race, inverts the relation between the oppressor and the oppressed, and compels the hereditary master to kneel before the spiritual tribunal of the hereditary bondman.... So successfully had the Church used her formidable machinery that, before the Reformation came, she had enfranchised almost all the bondmen in the kingdom except her own, who, to do her justice, seem to have been very tenderly treated[29].

This makes it particularly deplorable that in consequence of the great reaction in religion from the corporate to the personal, to which I have alluded, the Church's power, as far as Britain was concerned, though so splendidly exercised in the preceding centuries, should have been almost non-existent just at the moment when it was most required, in the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution of comparatively modern times.

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