EUROPE—A SEARCH FOR IDEAS
AN ADDRESS BY
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Conquergood
Thursday, March 15, 1945
MR. CONQUERGOOD: There are not many people in this country who use the hyphenated forth in their surnames. The name of Smith is not unknown here, nor is the surname Ross, but our telephone book only records one telephone number where these names are linked with a hyphen. The party who bears this unusual title is Mr. James Smith-Ross, our guest speaker for today.
Mr. Smith-Ross is not a stranger to The Empire Club. A year ago this week, in fact, he was our guest speaker and addressed us on the subject of "The Empire in a Changing World".
Mr. Smith-Ross is an author, editor and traveller. He has visited Europe each year, even during the war. Indeed, he is only back in Toronto a few weeks since his most recent visit.
Mr. Smith-Ross is entitled to an honorable mention also on another count. In the army they use reserves when needed; in baseball they have the pinch-hitter; but in Toronto we have Smith-Ross. His first appearance on this platform was a brief talk- in December, 1943, when our guest speaker failed to arrive. Last year, he came to us in March instead of an April date, which had been accepted, and, today again, he has been good enough on about twenty-four hours notice to accept an invitation when the speaker who was announced to be our guest today was taken ill.
I have much pleasure in presenting Mr. James Smith Ross, who will address us on "Europe--A Search for Ideas".
MR. JAMES SMITH-ROSS: Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Guests, Members of The Empire Club, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Radio Audience: My work as a publisher, and before that as a businessman, concerned itself with the basic ideas that govern human behavior. I have always tried to keep my attention focused on practical matters, but it seems to me the longer one lives, the more it seems that to get at the truth of the simplest human act one has to dig very deeply, sometimes so deeply that the earth closes in about one and one loses sight of the sun and of one's fellow beings.
There is little enough to encourage man to search for knowledge. You may remember the words of Solomon "The thing that has been is that which shall be and there is no new thing under the sun."
And the Persian Bard, Omar Khayam, having spent a lifetime searching for the truth, finally could say nothing better than to advise men to fill their cup with wine and forget the riddle of life.
Then there was Socrates, than whom no one had a better insight into human nature. The best that he could say with his last breath was: "I owe a coch to Aesculapi us" By that I suppose he meant either that he had neglected to pay tribute to the gods during his lifetime or that in fact he did owe a coch to Aesculapius, and that life was made up of a lot of trivialities. For simplicity his last words are matched only by those of Voltaire, who finally summed up all his life's philosophy by saying, "Well, we must cultivate our gardens." As if he said, "That is all very fine but get on with the job."
Through this last summer, having completed and established the job that was very near to my heart, I decided to let go and to detach myself and to see whether in Europe, with the tremendous stimulating atmosphere of war, I might not be able to marshal the great confusion of ideas in the world and my mind, and to see whether I could come back with a few simple premises that could be of practical service.
The report I will give you now is the summary of my search and my journey. I came away, not with any new discoveries in the realm of thought but with fresh confirmation of a rule of life which 1 consider good for man and for nations, and now I suppose, like Clemenceau, I will spend the rest of my days writing the same article and delivering the same address in different ways.
This finality in my mind may seem to you like an immaturity, but I am very glad that 1 have faced the question of making a firm decision of what I want in the world, in Canada and in myself.
The four most significant nations in Europe, in my opinion, are Britain, Italy, France and Russia. I visited the first three, as well as Holland and Belgium. I loved all three for different reasons and I shall be very glad if, as well as being a citizen of the British Empire, I could also be a citizen of Italy and France. Those who press me to become fanatical in my allegiance to things Canadian must first show me how I can also in the same embrace hold a deep love of Italy and France.
It happens that I have spoken French and Italian since my childhood and therefore I was able to get very near to the people of those countries. Italy, I think, will go back to the Church, with fervour and humility. That is why I think she is a significant country. In Europe I think she will head the list of those who will throw themselves back on the altar and say, "Lord, forgive my vanity, forgive me for believing that I knew better than the ageless Church. I resign my will, my hopes, my adoration, to the Church. I will obey her commands. I will put ambition away from me."
Of course there are many Italians who scoff at this attitude, because, they say, it is a return to medieval superstition and is a denial of man's reasoning ability. There is a strong extreme Socialist faction in Italy. They tend to say the Church is fundamentally to blame for having discouraged the people of Italy to think courageously, and if these Socialists should prevail in Italy, the Church there is in for a difficult time, to put it mildly. I think the Socialists or Communists would curb the power of the Church as they did in Russia and as they did in France after the Revolution. Many Italians are tremendously impressed by the achievements of Russia and they realize they are more advanced than the Russians were when they revolted. Yet they say, "Look what Russia has been able to do. In twenty-five years she has become almost the dominant nation of the world."
It is always a source of regret to me when people fail to specify in speaking of Russian advancement that it is an advancement of a physical nature. I think it is confusing not to tabulate things properly.
The fight of ideas in Italy, in my view, is therefore between those who feel that there should be this humble return to the adoration of the Church and those who feel that a passionate bid should be made for a socialized state. Of course the Monarchy is sidling along with the Church, hopefully. I think as far as the opinion of the masses is concerned, the Church is ahead, but I suppose it would be a mistake to underestimate the strong appeal of the Socialist claims.
In Italy I saw the delicate featured, beautiful children of cultured Italians cleaning the shoes of coarse African and Indian soldiers. Can't you hear an Italian saying, "Lord, my children are well bred, beautiful and gentle. They have great artistry and a love of beauty. These soldiers, whose shoes they clean, are primitive and coarse. O Lord, why is it so?"
How would we answer that question? By discovering the answer, we can avoid a similar fate perhaps for our own children in years to come.
I hope many Canadians will visit Italy after the war. Rome, I think, is the most beautiful city in the world. They have lovely wide streets, beautiful marble-faced buildings, and breath-takingly lovely monuments. Strangely enough, many of the people are fair. I wonder whether the people of Rome would exchange the beauty of their city for all the wealth of Toronto? I suppose they would. Before leaving Italy, I should like to tell you of an experience I had in Naples. I went to the top of the mountain and I wanted to look across the Bay at Capri. It is a beautiful sight on a sunny day. Although it was November the sun was shining beautifully. I saw the sight and then I wandered into a little cafe and ordered a glass of wine. It was good wine--rather strong I thought, but I ordered another glass and that is the last I distinctly remember. A couple of Italian ex-service men, I vaguely remember, came into the place. One took me by one arm and other by the other and they started me off to what I suppose was their house. There was a statuesque looking woman there. She was very beautiful. They saw my condition and removed my battle dress and put me to bed. Well, seven hours or so later I was taken back to the street. I thought what had happened to me? These people have been very kind to me at a time when I had perhaps indulged "not wisely but too well." When I staggered back to my hotel, I found they had enriched themselves--with my small belongings.
I remembered in Egypt after the last war there were many places found where British soldiers had been robbed, and I suppose were killed and buried underground, and with that recollection in my mind I remembered to thank the Lord for my continued existence.
I don't blame those Italians. I felt lucky. I thought they had done the thing very gently. I remembered there was music in the restaurant and Italian music I find very lovely, but really the poverty of Naples is indescribable. I ' ' saw at least one child faint in the street. Nobody pays much attention. The hunger and the poverty are very depressing.
A much travelled man once said to me, "The Italians are the salt of the earth." I said, "Yes, but why did they kill our soldiers?" Why do gentle people kill? What causes these things? I know from my knowledge of Italy that ninety per cent of the Italian people like the English and despise the Germans. Why was it then that they killed Englishmen and helped the Germans?
I took my bag of questions next to France. I remember one night, as I entered my hotel, I found an American officer leaning against the wall, looking up at the buildings. He grabbed me by the arm--they are generally pretty friendly--and he said, "What is it about this city that makes you feel so free? I am an American, which I hope is fairly obvious. My country is supposed to be the freest country in the world. In my country I don't feel free. Here, I feel wonderful." Of course he had had a drink or two-I expect that helped. But he stretched out his arms as if he would embrace the whole world.
But actually in Paris, when I was there, people were on the borders of dire hunger. A Frenchman said to me, "Why is it everybody talks about the soul of France? Why doesn't somebody talk about the stomach of France?" And I agreed heartily. I think the best slogan for France would be "Roast Beef for Resurrection". They need food. They need food very badly. Most French people will tell you that France was corrupt before the war. Are they interpreting the facts correctly or are they making another of these ghastly mistakes analytically, which will drive them back? Morality is not a question of "who beats who".
I knew France. I worked there as a youngster. She was not more corrupt than Germany or any other European nation. There was much there to make a man happy. There were corrupt people at the top but that is a very different thing. I suppose a nation is not what the few at the top are but what all her people are and the people of France were poor.
The fight of ideas in France, as I saw it, is between those with a continued faith in logic and those who have a feeling that they should return to animal discipline. This, I think, is the danger in France. People say France needs a strong man to guide her destiny but that is what the people of Germany used to say.
Will France be democratic after this war? That is not as easy a question to answer as you think. When I was in Paris the censor forbade any severe criticism of De Gaulle. It was a known thing to see daily in the newspapers great chunks of space just bodily taken out by the censor. I think the mood of the French people at present is such that they would submit to a strong man. What will happen after they become nourished and regain their strength is anybody's guess. History at least proves that strong men don't give up power. They back their love of power with all sorts of patriotic excuses. What they generally say is that they have to defend the nation against anarchy.
Many writers will tell you that France's spirit is not restored. Some people are angry with France for not being sorry. I don't fully understand what people want France to be sorry about. She should have been strong, but is that a question of morality?
At any rate, I think the significant thing in France today is the opposition of those who continue to have faith in France's famous logic and those who feel that France's logic was merely a useless form of mental titivation that was impotent before a cannon and what they now need is an authoritative man.
From Paris I went by jeep to Brussels. I don't know why they don't put covers on those jeeps. I think that was the coldest trip I ever had in my life. En route we stopped at a French chateau. It was a lovely place, owned by a very handsome French widow and I thought we were going to lose at least one of our party. She told us that in going through there the Germans sawed children in the neighbourhood in. two at the sawmill, and when she saw the expressions on our faces she said, "You English people (whether English or Canadians, it makes no difference) are extraordinary. You don't seem to be able to get it into your heads that these Germans are barbarians."
I arrived in Brussels shortly after the riots there. They were not very serious. They were small things. Most of the Belgians were Conservative before the war and I think they would continue to be if there were more food in Belgium; but under existing circumstances there has been a perceptible shift to the Left and I should suppose--my figures may be inaccurate--that fifty or sixty percent of the Belgian people now are Socialist. The Communists, I would say, represent only about six to ten per cent, and they will get nowhere unless this hunger persists, in which case they may be able to capitalize on people's despair. They certainly do everything they can in Belgium through their newspapers to incite the people to upset the existing order.
Belgium, incidentally, as those of you who have been there will know, is very much like Canada. She is a reliable nation, a hard working nation, and she tends to take a utilitarian view of things generally. You can see from the architecture that things are built for use rather than for what they look like.
From Brussels I went to Holland, and for the first time on my trip I found myself unable to speak to the natives. I felt completely out of touch and after a short time I went on to the Canadian Front, as I had done in Italy. I went up to, I suppose, within a mile of the Front Line and I got a magnificent view. I must say I took off my hat--I think it was the Knights of Columbus that were within a matter of a thousand yards of the Front Line, where then had a canteen, selling cigarettes to the men, showing them films and supplying chocolate. The man who runs the canteen took me to the upstairs window. He said, "Don't look through it--you might get shattered--but if you stand on the side you will get a good view."
It is a curious thing on the Front Line--I don't know if service men have noticed it before, but as you approach, in spite of the cannons, men talk in whispers. I have noticed it in the north country. They seem to be awed by the grandeur or something or other and they talk in whispers. I remember going to the Brigade Headquarters, and I was welcomed almost in whispers. It was most impressive and rather uncanny.
About the Canadian soldiers abroad, I would just like to say that in my opinion the Canadian soldier is better looked after, all things considered, than the soldiers of any other nation. I was in uniform myself. I had been asked to go to Italy by Canadian Military Headquarters, although you will have gathered from my remarks I am an internationalist, and a very adamant one. Time and again I remember feeling thankful that in the accidental way of things my son was born in Canada, and I suppose that really is the acid test of where one's heart lies.
I spent a great deal of time in England. The significant thing about England, I think, at least the quintessence of the current movement in my opinion, is the love of Eliza bethanism that seems to be infecting intellectuals there, Claude Rains, the actor, who was in England making "Caesar and Cleopatra" told me that he couldn't understand the way the youngsters act. He used to be a teacher in the Royal Academy of Art. He said, "They leap and jump about the stage". It is one more indication of the love of the Elizabethan in England. It was obviously a way of simulating the original actors in Shakesperian parts. Of course they won't go back, but the significant thing is that Britain seems to be accentuating the physical side of life.
Incidentally, I am sorry I can't tell you more about it, but the most important thing I saw in England was the Woolton Plan on Unemployment. It was really a most inspiring thing. It tells me England is going to be in the forefront of social change and she will do it without suffering the upheaval that would be necessary if a socialized state were adopted. If you get a chance, I recommend that you read it. I really believe that Britain is going to solve the problem of unemployment and will do it with the utmost harmony and that in my opinion will be a great achievement.
The principle, to put it very crudely, is similar to the Exchange and Equalization Fund England introduced when she went off the gold standard. They are now going to adopt what virtually amounts to an employment equalization fund. That is, when industry is using labour, the government will relax its hold on labour. When industry is relaxing its hold on labour, the government will buy it.
Now, to summarize: Italy, in my opinion, says, "Go back to the Church." France is saying, "Let's have less reasoning and more disciplined authority." Britain says, "Give us more old-time lusty children with as much brawn as brain."
And once again we recall Solomon's words, "There is nothing new under the sun."
Is this true? Is Britain trying to relearn the lessons of the past? Is France trying to unlearn the lessons of recent times? And is Italy trying to give up learning altogether?
Memories are very short and, if France goes back, it is certain she will come forward again and then go back, and so on. This recognition of the recurring movements in history causes a great deal of pessimism among thinkers in Europe. It deprives them of faith in real progress. The French have a saying, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." The more it changes the more it remains the same thing.
Is there no escape from this vicious circle of recurrent events? Does history always repeat itself in the way indicated in Spengler's "Decline of the West"?
It is not enough for us to say we believe in progress. We must know what causes progress and what causes decadence.
Is it true that great wealth brings decadence? No, I believe that is a gross untruth. What causes decadence is wealth among the few and poverty among the many. Neither great wealth, nor great intellect, nor great spiritual qualities, bring decadence in their train. It is an extremity in any one of these three that causes trouble.
In simple words, if a nation is strong only, but hasn't developed its mental or its spiritual side, it will fail; or, if it is very religious but it hasn't looked after its strength or its wisdom, it will fail.
I believe the answer lies in a balance of those three things--strength, wisdom and spiritual qualities.
To sum up, I believe to be wise we must first be strong, and to be spiritual we must first be wise.
And to people who ask me, "How can Canada become a great nation?" I would say: Let her be among the greatest in strength, wisdom and devoutness. We can maintain this balance on a constantly rising scale and therefore, for us, the symbol in life must be not a circle but a spiral. Let us not envy those who are rich but have diseased, neglected bodies or those, who being rich in health and wealth, have warped souls.
What is the most exciting thought with which I can leave you? I suppose, if we must have a faith in the future, it is the hope that pain will be eliminated from life. To this, the Italian would say, "What a fool you are to try and change the work of the Lord"; and the French would say, "Man must learn not to fear pain but to defy it"; and the English I think would say, "Why not compromise?"