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Speech

University of Otago Graduation Ceremony

Issue date: 
Monday, 8 May 1961
Speaker: 
Viscount Cobham, GCMG, TD

The One Priceless Asset

Not long ago I found myself engaged in mild controversy with some junior members of my family over the relative merits of the Viennese Waltz and Rock-'n'-Roll. You will probably guess that, in favouring the former, I found myself in a minority of one.

Family arguments invariably tend to veer from the abstract to the personal, and I was prepared for some such development - nor indeed was I disappointed. When it came, however, I was surprised at the term used in the attack; it was one with which I had hitherto been unfamiliar. I had braced myself against an accusation that I was old-fashioned, stuffy, reactionary and bigoted; I was somewhat shaken to find myself described as a "square."

This seemed to me to combine geometrical inaccuracy with terminological incomprehensibility, and I sought enlightenment. I discovered that, roughly speaking, it meant that I was old-fashioned, stuffy, reactionary and bigoted - so we were, so to speak, back to Square One.

I insisted that although I undoubtedly had length and breadth of roughly equal sides, these sides were circular rather than straight; moreover that I was entitled at least to a modicum of height, and that I would therefore settle for being called a "cube." But no, a square I am, and a square I will remain, to all, it seems, except my tailor.

I am content, although I indignantly refute the charge that I am a reactionary in so far as it means that I am opposed to change. I am only opposed to change when it implies a change for the worse; where things have changed for the worse, I would like to change 'em back again - quickly.

Not long ago, Van Wyck Brooks wrote the following passage:

Unless humanity is intrinsically decent, heaven help the world indeed, for more and more we are going to see Man naked. There is no stopping the world's tendency to throw off imposed restraints - the religious authority which is based on the ignorance of the many, the political authority that is based upon the knowledge of the few. The time is coming when there will be nothing to restrain men, except what they find in their own bosoms; and what hope is there for us, then, unless it is true that, freed from fear, men are naturally disposed to be righteous and just?

Now, there is one thudding mis-statement in this, and that is where Brooks writes that "there is no stopping the world's tendency to throw off imposed restraints." This may be true of the free world: it is certainly not true of the Communist world. In those lands there is not only no tendency to throw off imposed restraints, but if the reports of impartial travellers in Russia and China are to be relied upon, no general wish to try to do so.

In those countries, the startling social, agrarian and technological advances of recent years have seemingly blinded people; they no longer see the purpose of life as the spiritual struggle of each individual against the Old Enemy, but as a purely material struggle against hunger, poverty and ignorance. To achieve victory in this struggle, the Russians and the Chinese people are willing to sacrifice their freedom of thought and action. They are applying the whole mobilised nation to the task of educational, technological and cultural advancement, and in these fields their success has been phenomenal.

What have we, in our Western world, to counter these steeled and disciplined technocracies? The one priceless asset, freedom - freedom for people to worship and think as they like, and to live and to work where they like. There was a civilised nobility in the words of Mr Justice Salmon when passing sentence upon the moronic hooligans who assaulted inoffensive coloured people in Notting Hill in 1958:

"Everyone," he said, "irrespective of the colour of his skin, is entitled to walk through our streets in peace, with head erect and free from fear. This is a right which these Courts will always unfailingly uphold."

This is good, but unfortunately freedom imposes great responsibilities, and, frankly, I do not think that democracies have yet learnt how to use freedom wisely. Freedom can so terribly easily turn to sloth and licence; people are free to eat their picnic lunch beside the road, but they are also free to litter the beautiful countryside with disgusting relics like old newspapers and ice-cream cartons. They are free to drive a care, provided they have passed a test and possess a licence; but they are also free to get into it and drive to the danger of the public - unless and until they are spotted doing so by a traffic officer.

To be able to use freedom wisely, a person needs many qualities, of which the first is a sense of pride, by which I do not mean conceit or arrogance. You probably remember Bernard Shaw's superb answer to the man with whom he was arguing and who remarked sneeringly, "But then, of course, you are a very superior person."

"Naturally," replied Shaw urbanely, "at least that is what I have always tried to be."

If we are not in this world to try to become superior people, then what are we here for? What great work has ever been performed by an inferior person? And what "superior person" was ever not at heart a really humble human being?

When I say "pride," I mean pride in work, pride in the past and present achievements of one's country, and the integrity which makes it impossible for a person to cheat, or to do shoddy work, not from fear of being discovered, but because he knows that he has let himself down. Clinton Rossiter put it admirably when he wrote:

The price of liberty today, as through all history, is self-reliance and self-discipline. Nothing has happened in this revolutionary age to relieve each of us of the prime responsibility for the state of his own freedom. Liberty is offered by the good society, but it is achieved and practised by the person.

As I see it, our civilisation, by which I mean our liberal Western tradition, is at present being pulled out of shape by the necessity for keeping pace with the two technological giants - the United States and Russia. We have discarded the toys that once contented us, and are perforce condemned to pick up new ones almost daily. Even for children, the kite has given way to the model jet-aircraft.

And yet, as F. L. Lucas wrote recently: "If we want a civilised humanity, not a super ant heap, science alone, as yet, seems very far from being enough. It has rearmed Goliath the Philistine with strength to life mountains with his little finger - but Goliath remains Goliath still."

This has produced an oddly ephemeral effect upon our way of life; nothing appears to be related to any idea beyond itself, nothing seems to have a drift or a relation. The search for knowledge has replaced the search for wisdom, whereas the two should surely move forward in tandem - with wisdom leading. Unless science, religion, philosophy and art interlock, we become like members of a family doing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in different rooms, and nobody really has any idea of what the completed puzzle is supposed to represent.

Speaking of architecture at the close of the nineteenth century, Viollet-le-Duc wrote: "To make architecture a mystery, and art shut up within certain conventional methods, which the profane can neither see nor comprehend, may be, it is true, the means of preserving a kind of monopoly to those who enjoy it; but is it not to be feared that the initiated will be left alone to their mysteries?"

Yes, I think that this indeed to be feared, and we have seen it come to pass in such humble fields of human endeavour as county cricket in England. The initiated were, indeed, left alone to their mysteries last year, and unless the players of the game soon suit their methods to the taste of their public, they will find themselves playing, so to speak, in vacuo to empty stands.

In 1959, Sir Charles Snow, in his Rede Lectures at Cambridge, first drew attention to the gulf between the "two cultures" of science and the arts. It can hardly be doubted that this division exists, and it would be an unprofitable exercise to attempt to apportion the blame for this state of affairs, if, indeed, blame is the right word. I imagine that the split exists mainly by reason of the different ways in which science and the humanities set about solving their problems.

"You have only to put forward a hypothesis," wrote Clerk Maxwell, "for the proofs to follow." It seems, then, that the scientist's method can almost be described ad "backing a hunch" and that he can rarely be sure that his guess will work.

As A. J. P. Taylor wrote recently in the Observer: "(the scientist) is a gambler, not an actuary. Darwin's guess about Natural Selection, for instance, remained a brilliant hypothesis until the development of Mendelian genetics provided a solid base for it after his death. Rutherford guessed rightly that the atom could be split; he guessed wrongly that the result would be of no practical importance. Had he foresight or not?"

The "humanist," to use a convenient word, works in a more cautious but possibly less inspired way. Like Newman, he does not ask to see the distant scene; one step is enough for him. He cannot even see how the improvement of mankind can be brought about purely or even mainly through scientific discovery. He believes that the social and economic diseases of our day are primarily spiritual and can only be cured by spiritual means. He believes that unless we live by principle and gueid or feet by some whorth-while standard or exemplar, we are no longer mane and women but merely animials blessed with cunning.

Sir Miles Thomas said recently, "the cost of speed is phenomenal. It is the most expensive thing in the world." This is certainly true of speed when it is applied to engineering, but is it not equally true of speed when we apply it to human beings? The coelacanth fish has remained unchanged for 300 million year, and yet we try to solve our social, political and economic problems in the course of a generation or two.

The scientists are interested in research, development, discovery; they adhere to a purity in the specialty, but have not yet discovered how to develop an effective relationship to religion, philosophy and the arts. Their progress has been so stupendous during the past century, while almost all else has [so] retrogressed that a large part of mankind has come to believe that all human problems can be solved, so to speak, by formula.

And the tragedy of our age is that this has been largely achieved in the Communist countries. There, the formula is that the individual is merged into the State. There, the people believe in their materialistic religion as we of the Western World once believed in our Christian one. Before our Faith dwindled in the cataclysms of two world wars, there were 577 divorces; that are the figures for Great Britain in 1913. In 1947 there were 60,000. Crimes of violence, theft, sexual offences, all have risen, and are still rising year by year.

This state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely: It behoves us to remember Clemenceau's dictum that "Liberty is the right to discipline oneself in order not to be disciplined by others," and also Macaulay's grim prophecy, contained in a letter to Henry Randall a century and more ago:

I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must sooner or later destroy liberty or civilisation or both. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of Government with a strong hand, or your republic will be laid waste by barbarians in the 20th century as the Roman Empire was in the fifth.

The hoisting of a man into space has been achieved through sacrificing hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of consumer goods. It is beside the point that the sacrifice was enforced; it was made none the less.

It should not be forgotten that our own British industrial revolution was carried through by means so destructive of human rights and happiness that they amounted to slavery. Men, women and children worked for a pittance in unspeakably horrid conditions. It is sheer hypocrisy to maintain that in the 1830s the English poor were free; as a noted English judge once sardonically remarked, "The law is free to all; so is the Ritz Hotel."

But now the democracies have achieved reasonable equality of opportunity and wealth, a high standard of living and increased leisure for all. Are we sure that we know what to do with these benefits? Is there not something missing? And is not that something a new vision, a new revolution in goals, a change in what we value, what we preserve and what we pursue? Is it not time that we ceased to look to the State for our salvation when all experience and history prove that the path to contentment is lone and personal?

The cantilever principle may be a good principle when applied to engineering, but it is a poor one for society; where everyone leans on somebody else, nobody stands upright. Is it not time for us all to get down to a bit of real hard work; in schools, in offices, and industry?

R. L. Bruckberger wrote in his fine book "Image of America," "Live the Fascist systems, Communism is not a cause but a symptom of Europe's disintegration." If that is so, and I believe it is, isn't it about time that we began to reintegrate ourselves?

There are two sorts of fools, according to Inge: One says, "This is old, therefore it is good"; the other says, "This is new, therefore it is better." We have somehow to unite the old with the new; we have to learn that we who believe in God cannot afford to neglect the revelations of science, but equally that science is a mere dangerous toy unless it is used in the service of God. For, in the last analysis, a country is not composed of hideous nouns of collection such as "Labour" and "Capital," living in "accommodation units," but of men, women and children living in homes, with much the same aspirations as their predecessors.

And so I give you - this year's graduates of this famous university - one message and say: You are citizens of no mean country, a country with fine traditions of initiative and loyalty. Preserve those traditions faithfully, and weld them into scientific knowledge which is unfolding year by year - and quicken the whole with integrity and hard work. The nations which have put mankind and posterity most in their debt have been small States - Athens, Israel, Florence, Elizabethan England. Let New Zealand's contribution, already a most significant one, grow as the hastening years unfold.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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