On Being Sorry for Ourselves
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The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 24 Jan 1924, p. 31-44


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Sandwell, Professor Bernard K., Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
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Some personal background of the speaker. A very profound spirit of unrest and apprehension, and an absolute, flat pessimism that is abroad today both in Economics and Literature and in most quarters. Today's age as an age which is decidedly sorry for itself. A discussion of that fact, deploring it, and suggesting some means by which we may possibly remedy it. Reference to some utterances of Prof. Malcolm Wallace. Evidence of the pessimism of the age. Some pertinent reminiscences of the speaker from happier, confident, spacious days. Causes of the pessimism prevalent amongst us. Effects of excessive expectations. The optimism of the 19th century which ran over into the opening years of the 20th. By what right do we demand all these good things, the absence of which is so greatly disappointing us? Conditions under which men and nations will become unselfish and perfectly honest, willing to deal with one another as brothers and sisters instead of as outsiders. The lack of right to complain that peace is not established universally and permanently, and that war still raises its head as a possibility. The speakers asks a number of similar questions as to our right to demand something, and responds to them. Ceasing to undertake to do anything for ourselves. Having recourse to the government for things that ought to be done and can only be efficiently done by the individual citizen. Some of the demands that we are presenting to governments at the present time. Seeming to have adopted the attitude in our dealing with governments that the authority of government is something unlimited, something which can be invoked. The exercise of governmental authority as one of the most expensive privileges that any community can enjoy. Comparing this attitude to that of people in the 1890s. The reason why we are sorry for ourselves: because we are not doing anything personally, individually, to better our own position and to better the world against which we level accusations. The importance of adopting the proper manner of looking at things. The need for individual work if there is going to be any improvement in the world.
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24 Jan 1924
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English
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ON BEING SORRY FOR OURSELVES AN ADDRESS BY PROFESSOR BERNARD K. SANDWELL. Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, January 24th, 1924.

PRESIDENT BROOKS introduced the speaker, who was received with applause.

Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Empire Club,--May I, before starting on the substance of this very serious address, express the very great pleasure that it affords me to be back in Toronto and meet so many old friends once more. I am afraid I am inescapably a Toronto product, although I was not born here, but I spent the four most important years of my school life here, and the four years of my university career here; and were it not for the presence of some gentlemen who participated in the business of educating me, and whom I should not like to embarrass, I might pause here to pay a few tributes to the educational facilities which I enjoyed. (Laughter) It is always a very great pleasure to get back to that city which, more than any other city--although I have lived in Montreal now for a matter of twenty-three years, and in Kingston for three months--is really that which feels to me like home. I am not willing to admit that I received the whole of my education in Toronto. I have enjoyed exceptional facilities in the matter of education, because I early discovered the fact that it is

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Mr. Sandwell is a graduate of the University of Toronto, with the gold medal in Classics. After completing his course in Arts, he spent some time in journalism. Later he became a professor in McGill University, and is now English professor Queen's. He is one of the founders of the Canadian Authors' Association, and was its secretary.

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possible to get people to pay you for becoming educated-for educating yourself.

Immediately after I left the University I went into the newspaper profession. There is no profession into which a young man knowing nothing can enter so readily (laughter) and in which he will so rapidly acquire, if he has any intelligence whatever, a very useful, impressive, catholic and widespread education concerning the affairs of the world. (Laughter) So I educated myself at the expense of the Montreal Herald and the general public of Montreal for quite a number of years on quite a number of subjects. (Laughter) Then later I drifted from that into financial journalism, for which I had no educational prerequisites, and acquired a certain amount of education in that at the expense of the readers of the Financial Times. (Laughter) Having got started in the subject of Economics by that means, I was invited to come up to McGill University and to learn economics up there by the sole efficient means of learning anything, namely, that of teaching it to students. (Laughter) For six or seven years I taught Economics to some students with more or less success, and to myself with great pleasure, and I think advantage; and having learned all the Economics that I thought was really necessary to a good career in Canada, I received an invitation to come to Queen's University and to learn English Literature at the expense of that institution, which I am now doing. (Laughter) When I have finished--when I have learned all the English Literature which I consider necessary to me--I shall look around and see if somebody will not appoint me to a chair in Theology in order that I may become somewhat learned in that really important subject. (Laughter)

So that you will see that I am an exceptionally widely-educated man. I do not put that forward as a boast, because it is quite possible to be a widely educated man and to be a perfect fool. (Laughter) You will be in an adequate position to judge whether my education has been of any advantage to me or not by the time I reach the end of my address.

My removal to Kingston, which is a quiet, peaceful, reflective sort of a place (laughter) has given me an opportunity to do a lot of serious thinking about the age in which we live, and that serious thinking has taken form in this address, which I have been practising on less distinguished gatherings than this for three or four months, and which I am now venturing to put forward to a real audience.

It has been borne in upon me by my consecutive study of Economics and English Literature that there is abroad today both in Economics and Literature a very profound spirit of unrest and apprehension, and indeed in most quarters an absolute, flat pessimism. The age is an age which is decidedly sorry for itself; and I want to discuss that fact, and to deplore it--it is no use discussing a fact that you do not deplore; we never discuss facts that everybody is satisfied with. (Laughter) I want to discuss that fact, to deplore it, and suggest some means by which we may possibly remedy it.

I shall not take time--because I have not very much time this morning--to prove that the age is a pessimistic age. In any case it would be a work of supererogation before an audience of this kind; you are all of you familiar with the current trend of literature, and most of you probably also with the current trend of Economic thought. I may, however, take the liberty of referring to the utterances in this city not more than 45 hours ago of a distinguished colleague of mine, Prof. Malcolm Wallace, Professor of English in one of our institutions, who discussed the present state of the Novel, described it as a position of decided unrest and pessimism, and blamed that position, quite rightly, entirely on the age in which the present novel is being produced. With that I rest, and need go no further. (Laughter)

But we may find plenty of evidence of the pessimism of the age without having to read Novels. You may find it in the daily Press every day. In fact, on previous occasions when I wanted to deliver this address I just had to produce the latest number of a daily paper such as the Globe and to read the headlines to prove that the attitude of the age is one of pessimism. If you want to go still further you can take the editorial column of the Toronto Telegram (great laughter); but that is an extreme example (laughter) and I would hesitate to bolster up any serious argument by such an extreme instance.

What a change is this, Gentlemen, from the days of my youth? I was brought up in this city in the noble nineties. Now, it is true that the nineties in England were beginning to develop this twentieth century pessimism of ours, but it had not reached this somewhat outlying portion of the British Empire before the end of the nineteenth century, and in those nineties we were cheerful, we were happy, we were contented. Why, I can remember a Toronto in which everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I can remember a Toronto in which everything that Goldwin Smith said or believed was necessarily wrong--(laughter)--because Goldwin Smith was always a pessimist, and it followed that the rest of Toronto was optimistic. I can remember a Toronto in which the rising spectre of Sir Wilfrid Laurier was perhaps the only fly in the ointment, the only cloud on the horizon; and it could always be reflected that Sir Wilfrid was only mortal and would eventually pass out. I can remember a Toronto in which the Toronto street-car franchise was the ultimate and final solution of all urban transportation problems. (Laughter) The whole question of how to operate the local transport of a great city, a great and growing city, was solved by that franchise when I was a young man. I can remember a Toronto in which the ravages of socialism were checked, stopped, walled off for good by the simple process of prohibiting public meetings in Queen's Park. (Laughter) I can remember a Toronto in which it was admitted that Europe had its problems, but Europe was a long way off, and was handicapped by age and the number of survivals of illogical institutions, and those problems would be solved in due course by a gradual migration of 'he population of Europe to the wide and fertile plains of Canada. (Laughter) I can remember a Toronto in which those immigrants who came from Europe, and settled in the wide and fertile plains of Canada, were expected to become perfectly good and satisfactory Canadian citizens just like ourselves after five years or so of Canadian education, and as the result of the gift of the Canadian ballot; and nobody dreamed of worrying that they would ever give us any trouble. They would learn in that short five years to buy our products, and, still more than that, to vote for our policies; and that was all that we expected of them. (Laughter)

Those were happy, confident, spacious days. I won't mention the names of the great financiers who were bringing into Canada the money that helped us to be so happy and so spacious and so confident, nor of the undertakings for the assistance of which they were bringing them in-very good undertakings, but some of them are now giving us some trouble. (Laughter)

I remember a Toronto in which the admirably true phrase--the 20th century was to be Canada's--was accepted as the general watchword; only nobody had begun to realize what a rotten century the twentieth was going to be. (Laughter)

What a change, Gentlemen, is our attitude in the present time? What are the causes of the pessimism that I have asked you to admit to be rather generally prevalent amongst us now-a-days? In part, surely, they are the excessive expectations that were entertained in those good old days. When you have a period of excessive optimism, and an optimism that is rather extensively based on economic factors--upon the growing wealth and growing development of the community, and not their spiritual advancement--you are fairly certain to have a period of reaction, and we are now in that period of reaction and experiencing it very strongly.

The optimism of the 19th century ran over into the opening years of the 20th, at which time Europe and even the United States--that most confident, most optimistic, not to say Pollyannistic, of all nations,--was beginning to question whether all the institutions under which it had grown up were exactly what they had purported to be during the whole of the nineteenth century. But we in Canada went on being very cheerful and optimistic, right up to the restriction of credit about the year 1913, which was simply a fore-runner, a fore-warning, if we had known it, of the arrival of the war. And then in the war we had our grand climax of optimism--a rather artificially-induced optimism, and it was not our fault so much as it was due to the artificially-induced optimism in the United States. We were told that the world was then going through a struggle which was to have the effect of readjusting it, of restoring it to the Golden Age; that we were having a war which was to end war, which was to wind up in a state of universal brotherhood, with everybody loving everybody else, and every community falling upon the neck of all its sister communities.

Our expectations were very greatly aroused. They had to be aroused, I think, to a very great extent, and I have no complaint to make against the men who aroused them. When a nation is being carried through a great and protracted and extremely difficult and painful war, a very active stimulus must be resorted to, and I am not disposed to criticize those statesmen and leaders and others who did ask us to be a little more optimistic than the circumstances warranted. But we are paying for that jag of optimism. We have come through the war; we have got to a reasonable distance from it; we find that it has not ended war, that there does not seem to be any prospect of it ending war; that the world is not particularly better than it was before the war; that its morals are not visibly improved; that the distribution of wealth and poverty is not visibly better; and altogether that the war has not done any of the things that we were told it was going to do; and we are very much embittered and disappointed about it. We shall recover in due course; the whole object of this address of mine is to see whether you can recover a little more rapidly than you otherwise would. {Laughter)

By what right are we demanding all those good things the absence of which is so greatly disappointing us? By what right do we suggest that we are entitled to peace upon earth? When human nature has been radically changed, when men are no longer selfish individually, when they are all unselfish and perfectly honest individually, then I presume nations equally will become all unselfish and perfectly honest, willing to deal with one another as brothers and sisters instead of as outsiders. When we have reached that stage I think then we shall be entitled to complain at the arising of war. At the present moment most of our characteristics are such as are bound at intervals, when developed to a fairly strong point in a given community, to lead to a conflict with other communities.

I do not see that we have any right, in the present state of the world, to complain that peace is not established universally and permanently, and that war still raises its head as a possibility.

By what right do we demand that industrial peace shall be permanent and unbroken and eternally assured? We shall have the right to make that demand when we in business are all members of one family, one with another, all treating our fellow-men as a brother, and nobody trying to get any advantage over anybody else. (Hear hear). When we have done that we shall have a right to demand industrial peace. At the present moment all that we can do with the industrial situation is to endeavour to mitigate its evils as fast as we possibly can; but to expect that there will be no evils in the industrial situation is to expect the utterly unattainable, and to ensure disappointment and bitterness.

By what right do we demand--as I see people demanding all around me--absolute security for all our possessions? By what right do we demand that banks shall never be allowed to fail? (Laughter) By what right do we demand that prices, although they shall be permitted to go up--because that involves a profit to somebody--shall never be permitted to go down-because that involves a loss to somebody else? So long as business is carried on by human means in the present unbusiness-like manner--and I feel very strongly in regard to this after my five or six years' experience as an economist--there will be losses as well as gains, and unfortunately it is in the nature of human affairs that those losses will very largely fall upon the people who have perhaps least deserved them, because the people who have most deserved them have most skill in protecting themselves against them. (Laughter and applause)

By what right do we demand that the community in which we dwell shall be a perfect community and shall allow us the fullest expression of our individuality, and at the same time conform to our ideas of what the individuality of everybody else ought to be? (Laughter) Most of you probably have read that admirable and typical work by Mr. Masters--the Spoon River Anthology--a collection of epitaphs written on themselves by the deceased persons who at one time were members of the community of Spoon River--everyone of them an accusation levelled against that community; the accusation--"You made me what I am today; I hope you are satisfied." And that is the attitude we take towards the community, the prevalent attitude of a man towards the community today--that it owes him a duty, the duty of allowing himself complete and full self-expression, and yet at the same time he seems to think also that it owes him the duty of making everybody else conform to his ideas of how everybody ought to behave a very complex requirement to make of any community; and no man has any right to require of any community more than he has put into it. (Hear, hear, and applause) The man who is willing to do his best to perfect and develop his own character, under such restrictions as must necessarily be put upon any individual in the community, will be doing what he can to ensure that the community will be as good a community as it can possibly be, and his fellow-men will have the same opportunity to develop themselves.

To whom is it that we present the unreasonable demands that I have just been enumerating? Not to ourselves; none of us go out and undertake to do any individual work for the satisfaction of any of those demands. Occasionally we form a society for the satisfaction of them. I am not referring to the Canadian Authors' Association, which I myself assisted to form not long ago, because that is a perfectly harmless society; it is only for the purpose of improving the Copyright Act, and the business status of authors. (Laughter) We are constantly forming societies for the suppression of war, for the suppression of alcohol, for the suppression of industrial conflicts, and various other things, but in the main our activities both as individuals and in these organizations are directed to demanding that the government shall step in and regulate something or other, or enact something or other which we want enacted. (Applause)

We have ceased to undertake to do anything for ourselves. We have recourse to the government every day for things that ought to be done and can only be efficiently done by the individual citizen. (Hear, hear)

What are some of the demands that we are presenting to governments at the present time? We are demanding, for one thing, that the government shall stop wars and rumours of wars--that I have referred to already; that it shall stop banks from failing; that it shall stop people from getting divorces-or make it easier to get divorces, according to the way we think; that it shall stop churches from getting united, or get them united, according to the way we happen to think; that it shall stop the over-production or under-production of certain classes of goods; that it shall stop too high wages and too low wages; that it shall stop strikes. ' In Quebec the other day we demanded that it should stop cows from walking about on the road at night without lamps on. (Great laughter)

Some of us are very energetically calling upon it to keep down forest fires. I never knew a government that started a forest fire; it is individuals that start forest fires. And so forth, and so on--that it shall regulate the morals of students in universities; we do not always appeal to the government for that, but we always appeal to some body. The authorities of Queen's University are very busily occupied much of their time--which ought to be devoted to much more important things--in determining how much light or how little light should be tolerated at certain stages of undergraduate dances in the evening. (Laughter)

Now, we seem to have adopted the attitude, in our dealings with governments, that the authority of government is something unlimited, something which can be invoked, turned on, fired in any direction to achieve any given end, simply as the result of the pressure of bodies, the vote of the community, as if governmental authority were a sort of hydro-electric power, and all you had to do was to harness it and run a wire to the place where it is to be provided. Governmental authority is nothing of the kind. The exercise of governmental authority is one of the most expensive privileges that any community can enjoy. The more you ask the government to do, the more the government will have to collect out of your pockets for doing it; and if what you want it to do is something that you can do yourselves you will find that the government will charge you ten times what it would cost you to do it yourselves.

In the spacious nineties, although we were beginning to be a little reliant on authority, there was a good deal left to the individual in Canada. An example: I was a student in the University in the nineties, students were not compelled in those days to attend lectures. It was left to the individual student to determine whether a lecture was good enough for him to attend, ox whether it was not. (Laughter) I do not believe there is an institution in Canada in which that is the case today. We have undertaken to apply regulation and compulsion to everybody, and personally I would far rather feel that the students who attend my lectures, or who do not attend them or who would not attend them, as the case might be, were coming or staying away in the exercise of their own more or less adult wisdom, and thereby developing their characters and their judgment, than to feel that they were herded in before me like a flock of sheep nine hours every week to sit passive, open-mouthed and open-eared, while I poured the true milk of the literary word into them. (Laughter)

I am glad to say that the gentlemen at whose feet I sat in Toronto University, and who are here with us this afternoon, are gentlemen whose lectures I attended with great regularity, for they were good lectures, (applause; and even in those days I had considerable judgment-which I formed and developed and perfected in those four years at the University-as to what constituted a good and profit able lecture, and what did not. Look at the results. (Renewed laughter)

Things used to be left then to the individual. Very little is left now to the individual, except to violate law. (Laughter) And in those days, I think also, a little more than is now left used to be left to God. We pay so much attention to the government that we leave God out of sight now-a-days. We have reduced Him, as it were, to the position of a governor-general of Canada under the British North American Act. He is expected to preside formally, and attend the opening and closing of Parliament; but if He were to interfere practically in any of our attempts to save our souls by our own democratic methods we should be extremely peeved. (Applause)

And now, Mr. President, I come to the concluding point of the whole text and body and importance of my address. This, Mr. President, is why we are sorry for ourselves: Because we are not doing anything personally, individually, to better our own position and to better the world against which we level these accusations. (Applause)

A man who is doing something is a man who is guided by hope. It is impossible to do something without having and developing and strengthening hope in the breast of the doer. A man who is lying flat on his back, calling to the government to come to his rescue, has no hope, or at least if he starts out with having hope, by the time he has called on the government for five years he has lost hope. (Laughter)

The world is really not worse than it was--(hear, hear); or if it is, it is only because the individuals in it are worse, less confident, less energetic, less self-reliant, less disposed to perform their tasks as individuals in the world. Personally I believe the world just as good a place as it ever was, and that everything is in the way you look at it.

It is very important to adopt the proper manner of looking at things. I hear people discussing the question of prohibition. It is astonishing how easy it is to hear people discussing prohibition, and I find that everybody is grieved about it. People who approve of drinking are grieved about prohibition because they say it prevents men from drinking. People who approve of not drinking are grieved because it does not prevent men from drinking. (Laughter) Surely that is all a matter of looking at it. If my friends who are in favour of drinking would only realize the beauty of the fact that Prohibition, while it satisfies those who like a law against drinking, does not prevent men from drinking, then they would be perfectly satisfied, (laughter); and if only my friends who approve of laws to prevent people from drinking would concentrate their attention on the fact that they have a law to prevent people from drinking, they, too, would be satisfied. (Laughter) Direct your attention to the proper phase of the question--the phase that will give you something to be happy and cheerful about, instead of always looking at that aspect of it that is most painful and most unsatisfactory to you.

But that is a side issue, and perhaps not a fittingly serious reflection with which to close this very serious discussion. The point I want to leave with you is the point that if there is going to be any improvement in the world it is going to come from individuals working hopefully and energetically and strongly for their own conception of what the world ought to be, and not from constant appeals to governments to increase their interference with the communal life. There is too much accent upon the community, particularly upon the community in its organized capacity as a City, as a Province, as a State, and so on, and too little upon the individual man. That I believe to be the main reason why we are pessimistic as to the future. The means whereby we can change our pessimism for optimism is merely by going in for individual work. (Loud applause)

PRINCIPAL HUTTON expressed the thanks of the Club for the interesting address, remarking, amid laughter, that the speaker had obtained all his wit and wisdom from the study of Greek in the University of Toronto.

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On Being Sorry for Ourselves


Some personal background of the speaker. A very profound spirit of unrest and apprehension, and an absolute, flat pessimism that is abroad today both in Economics and Literature and in most quarters. Today's age as an age which is decidedly sorry for itself. A discussion of that fact, deploring it, and suggesting some means by which we may possibly remedy it. Reference to some utterances of Prof. Malcolm Wallace. Evidence of the pessimism of the age. Some pertinent reminiscences of the speaker from happier, confident, spacious days. Causes of the pessimism prevalent amongst us. Effects of excessive expectations. The optimism of the 19th century which ran over into the opening years of the 20th. By what right do we demand all these good things, the absence of which is so greatly disappointing us? Conditions under which men and nations will become unselfish and perfectly honest, willing to deal with one another as brothers and sisters instead of as outsiders. The lack of right to complain that peace is not established universally and permanently, and that war still raises its head as a possibility. The speakers asks a number of similar questions as to our right to demand something, and responds to them. Ceasing to undertake to do anything for ourselves. Having recourse to the government for things that ought to be done and can only be efficiently done by the individual citizen. Some of the demands that we are presenting to governments at the present time. Seeming to have adopted the attitude in our dealing with governments that the authority of government is something unlimited, something which can be invoked. The exercise of governmental authority as one of the most expensive privileges that any community can enjoy. Comparing this attitude to that of people in the 1890s. The reason why we are sorry for ourselves: because we are not doing anything personally, individually, to better our own position and to better the world against which we level accusations. The importance of adopting the proper manner of looking at things. The need for individual work if there is going to be any improvement in the world.