History Bite

The Reign of Common Sense

Rudyard Kipling, Indian born, Victorian poet and Nobel prize winner of the early 20th century,  whose writing shed light on his intellectual critique of the encroachment of  Western liberalism on the Indian culture in the late 19th century,  illustrates the perspective of a conservative mind.   While Kipling was in support of a traditional form of imperialism such as is delicately described in this quote by Benjamin Disraeli, 1872:

“The issue is not a mean one. It is whether…you will be a great country- an Imperial country- a country where your sons, when they rise to paramount positions, and obtain not merely the esteem of their countrymen, but command the respect of the world,”

he was much less enthusiasm for the “new imperialism” (Western influenced liberal democracy) which was seeping into the fiber of traditional Indian government and culture.

Kipling’s views on government ran parallel with those of the Indian Civil Service, a small elite ultimately responsible for the major offices of Indian government.  Government was understood to be despotic by its very nature with its function being to rule humanely over a static society,  protecting citizens from criminals and adjudicating disputes.  Government was not a force to promote change but rather simply maintain order and defend peace.  The dynamism of culture was in the people (peasants, warriors, gypsies…) living in a deeply traditional, rigid societal structure.  For Indian society, in general, change should be slow, evolutionary and almost imperceptible making the concepts of liberalism and modernism unappealing at best and completely avoidable at worst.  Representative government for the ICS was incompatible with the function of good government.  Western individualism and liberalism, through its introduction of modernization and capitalism ushers in “social politics”- a system certain to abandon traditional principles and beliefs doomed to keep its government in constant volition and flux.  The only redeeming aspect of modernization, for Kipling, was the promise of technological advancement.  Technological advancements in basic infrastructure such as canal building or widespread provision of medications were of societal benefit but, otherwise, modernization was a morally void proposition offering technical skills but nothing of moral value for the people. Kipling battled with the Liberal Party opposing the advance of democracy and liberalism believing fundamentally that the imperatives of good government were to conserve and constrain rather than liberate and change.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,

I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.

Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us.  They showed us each in turn

That Water would certainly we us, as Fire would certainly burn:

But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind.

So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace.

Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place.

But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come

That a tribe had been wiped off its ice field, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,

They denied that they Moon was Stilton; they denied they were even Dutch;

They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;

So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming.  They promised perpetual peace.  

They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.

But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller life

(Which started by loving our neighbor and ended by loving his wife)

Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “the Wages of Sin is Death.”

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all, 

By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;

But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy.

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man

There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.

That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,

And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins

When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,

The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Rudyard Kipling 1919