Plato, Patriotism, Prejudice

E.M. Forster, The Longest Journey (Chp. 4):

“Now we must complete the chapel.” He paused reverently, and said, “And here is a fragment of the original building.” Rickie at once had a rush of sympathy. He, too, looked with reverence at the morsel of Jacobean brickwork, ruddy and beautiful amidst the machine-squared stones of the modern apse. The two men, who had so little in common, were thrilled with patriotism. They rejoiced that their country was great, noble, and old.

“Thank God I’m English,” said Rickie suddenly.

“Thank Him indeed,” said Mr. Pembroke, laying a hand on his back.

“We’ve been nearly as great as the Greeks, I do believe. Greater, I’m sure, than the Italians, though they did get closer to beauty. Greater than the French, though we do take all their ideas. I can’t help thinking that England is immense. English literature certainly.”

Mr. Pembroke removed his hand. He found such patriotism somewhat craven. Genuine patriotism comes only from the heart. It knows no parleying with reason. English ladies will declare abroad that there are no fogs in London, and Mr. Pembroke, though he would not go to this, was only restrained by the certainty of being found out. On this occasion he remarked that the Greeks lacked spiritual insight, and had a low conception of woman.

“As to women—oh! there they were dreadful,” said Rickie, leaning his hand on the chapel. “I realize that more and more. But as to spiritual insight, I don’t quite like to say; and I find Plato too difficult, but I know men who don’t, and I fancy they mightn’t agree with you.”

“Far be it from me to disparage Plato. And for philosophy as a whole I have the greatest respect. But it is the crown of a man’s education, not the foundation. Myself, I read it with the utmost profit, but I have known endless trouble result from boys who attempt it too soon, before they were set.”

“But if those boys had died first,” cried Rickie with sudden vehemence, “without knowing what there is to know—”

“Or isn’t to know!” said Mr. Pembroke sarcastically.

“Or what there isn’t to know. Exactly. That’s it.”

“My dear Rickie, what do you mean? If an old friend may be frank, you are talking great rubbish.” And, with a few well-worn formulae, he propped up the young man’s orthodoxy. The props were unnecessary. Rickie had his own equilibrium. Neither the Revivalism that assails a boy at about the age of fifteen, nor the scepticism that meets him five years later, could sway him from his allegiance to the church into which he had been born. But his equilibrium was personal, and the secret of it useless to others. He desired that each man should find his own.

“What does philosophy do?” the propper continued. “Does it make a man happier in life? Does it make him die more peacefully? I fancy that in the long-run Herbert Spencer will get no further than the rest of us. Ah, Rickie! I wish you could move among the school boys, and see their healthy contempt for all they cannot touch!” Here he was going too far, and had to add, “Their spiritual capacities, of course, are another matter.” Then he remembered the Greeks, and said, “Which proves my original statement.”

Submissive signs, as of one propped, appeared in Rickie’s face. Mr. Pembroke then questioned him about the men who found Plato not difficult. But here he kept silence, patting the school chapel gently, and presently the conversation turned to topics with which they were both more competent to deal.

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