5. H. F. Scott-Stokes to Harrod, 3.8.20

care of Robin Snow




My dear Harrod,

You'll understand that my fingers have been itching to answer your last letter ever since I received it; in deference to your anti-epistolary opening I have refrained for a week, but really I can restrain them no longer - I agree with you as to normal correspondence, but here is something different and well worth the writing; if you find the fear of inconsistency a deterrent you need have no such qualms on my account; consistency is clearly an essential of a completed system of thought, but when thought's in the making, as it should be at our age, unchanging and steadfast opinions seem to me a sign of nothing but stupidity and prejudice - a combination which is commonly supposed to make for `character' in a man; and indeed in a literal sense of that word it does; but you and I have no need for or envy of such a quality.

As to my Mother, you read the case pretty well; tho' she be stark staring mad to-day she is happier than she has been this many a long day; and that's my main concern. Only it shakes me to the very roots of my being to see her now in such a house, so old and desolate of friends, in such company, there to live and die: few things can move me to tears now, but that: my own agony at the awful decision I made last Christmas left me utterly prostrate. I will speak later of the ethical view of this question: in passing, she is passed the `change of life' now - we hoped once that it was only that - and there can be no reasonable hope that she will ever recover. I would to God that she were dead - if I had my way, she and all persons so afflicted would be.

Of course ethics isn't a matter of a hedonistic or other calculus, but that wasn't what I meant by saying that it was irrational - I meant something far more devastating. One of the few reasonable remarks which Plato made was that the world to be intelligible must not only be coherent but somehow good - that there was something irrational about evil, whereas goodness seemed to demand no explanation; it was not enough for him that the universe should be seen to be somehow fulfilling its purpose - that purpose must in itself be good. My problem then was the problem of evil - how can an almighty all-good God allow such things: as madness and the senseless pain of incurable disease; a fortiori, how can he command men so to act that such horrors will result - I say `command' for one can only objectify the dictates of one's conscience by supposing that they do somehow express to one the will of God - this without any theories about Heaven & Hell, of course. Voltaire, puzzling over this problem, concluded `j'aime mieux adorer un Dieu fini qu'un Dieu méchant'; Plato himself became a Manichee in his old age; and I, who can and will adore no God at all, am led to the awful suspicion that one's moral code is after all nothing but the satisfaction of one's own exalted vanity with the corollary that one should jettison the whole and seek only to make mankind (or, at least, one's immediate neighbour) a little happier in `this vale of tears'; that at least is a work well worth doing, and there can be no doubt of its objectivity. And yet the odd thing is that the `moral sense' remains - a mere survival, maybe, of a bigoted upbringing - and one feels very clearly that there is such a thing as right and wrong; the Americans deny it, and speak easily of `valuable customs & prejudices (e.g. chastity), useful for the survival and happiness of the human race'; McDougall denies it; and I am left wondering ....Of course I agree with you in attacking the moralists for saying you should do what you don't want to - it is their root error, based on the damnable doctrine of original sin, & the outrageous view that man is a `fallen creature'. Belief in the perfectability of human nature is the natural outcome of disbelief in religion - it is incompatible with Christianity - see Tocqueville on the irreligion of France in 1789: `si les Français qui firent la Révolution étaient plus incrédules que nous en fait de réligion, il leur restait du moins une croyance admirable qui nous manque; ils croyaient en eux-mêmes...' and again `Ils mettaient dans leur propres forces cette confiance orgueilleuse qui mène souvent à l'erreur, mais sans laquelle un peuple n'est capable que de servir ...' So I; that's the root of that egotism with which you charge me - the necessary heir of religion in the mind of a civilised man. Certainly it would be more difficult for me to abandon my ideals - I see no value in that fantastical morality which merely does things because they're unpleasant. Wise old Aristotle long ago saw the little truth that there is in that way of thinking, when he said that, human nature being what it is, we should in any moral problem incline towards that excess which is least attractive to us, because we are thus most likely to hit the mean - very true, and all the truth there is in this doctrine of `painful duty'. I'm afraid you're rather cynical about `ought' and `cutting the best figure'; I admit that the latter does, in practice, tho' I cannot see how it should in theory, affect one's conduct; my basis is ultimately simply the most exalted `greatest good of the greatest number', pursued by all the methods which my conscience will allow (its restrictions are purely arbitrary, I admit - they're a .... which I can't get over), simply because that seems to me the thing most worth doing in the world... Truth, no, not supreme, but far more so than the Jesuit, for instance would allow; largely, I admit, because intercourse without it is impossible.



  1. 1. British Library, Harrod Collection, Folder Add. 72732, fol. 89-90 (transcribed by Charity Scott Stokes)

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