The Evangelist and the Evolutionist

From William Jennings Bryan to George Bernard Shaw

GBShaw1900It might seem like a rather big leap from our previous two blog posts to this one — from the Bible-thumping Bryan to the vitalist Shaw. But consider what Shaw had to say about the theory of Natural Selection:

[W]hen its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration…. To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter, but eternally impossible to the spirits and souls of the righteous.

jpegThis is from the preface to Shaw’s monumental five-play cycle Back to Methuselah, written some six years before Bryan took the witness stand in Dayton, Ohio. Of course, he and Bryan had both fallen for a gross caricature of what Daniel Dennett calls “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” But that’s hardly a surprise. Theirs was the heyday of “Social Darwinism,” the idea that “might makes right” in human society as well as in nature.

Also, as William Jennings Bryan says in the play I recently posted, “There was a war, remember?” Bryan believed that neo-Darwinism had done nothing less than bring civilization to the brink of suicide during the years 1914 – 18. Shaw said precisely the same thing in Back to Methuselah

Neo-Darwinism in politics had produced a European catastrophe of a magnitude so appalling, and a scope so unpredictable, that as I write these lines in 1920, it is still far from certain whether our civilization will survive it.

140px-William-Jennings-Bryan-speaking-c1896Bryan and Shaw were of sharply opposing mentalities, to put it mildly. Even so, they were both men of faith for whom the idea of a universe devoid of meaning was intolerable. But Shaw’s faith, unlike Bryan’s, was by no means conventional. As he wrote to Leo Tolstoy,

To me God does not yet exist; but there is a creative force constantly struggling to evolve an executive organ of godlike knowledge and power; that is, to achieve omnipotence and omniscience; and every man and woman born is a fresh attempt to achieve this object.

Shaw was seeking a new religion that would harmonize with scientific thought. At the same time, he yearned like Bryan for a creed that the materialistic science of his age seemed actively to deny. But did “faith” mean the same thing for Shaw as it did for Bryan? I think they would at least have understood each other’s meaning.

Both Shaw and Bryan studied and admired the Christian anarchist writings of Leo Tolstoy, who rejected St. Paul’s definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” His was a definition of faith that Bryan and Shaw could have agreed upon:

Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must believe in something. If he did not believe that there was something he must live for he would not live. If he does not see and comprehend the illusion of the finite he will believe in the finite. If he does understand the illusion of the finite, he is bound to believe in the infinite. Without faith it is impossible to live.

Tolstoy and the Shaker

AnnasWorldcoversmallThe work Pat and I do together leads us on some fascinating detours. While we were researching the Shakers for our multiple-award-winning novel Anna’s World, we ran across a startling letter from the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy himself …

I received the tracts that you sent me, and read them, not only with interest, but with profit; and cannot criticise them, because I agree with everything that is said in them …

Tolstoy was writing to Frederick W. Evans, a Shaker elder based in New Lebanon, New York. The date was February 15, 1891. By then Tolstoy was a thoroughgoing Christian anarchist-pacifist, cantankerous and iconoclastic enough to look back upon his own masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina with utter disgust. And the communistic, celibate Shakers were right up his alley. He and Evans kept on writing back and forth, exchanging ideas about religion, society, and justice.

shakers-dancingFrederick Evans had been a socialist since his youth. In 1830, when he was about 22 years old and every inch a materialist and secularist, he went out scouting New York state for a place to found his own utopian community. He stopped in New Lebanon to visit the Shakers there, expecting to find “the most ignorant and fanatical people in existence.” Instead he was promptly converted, convinced that he had found just the ideal society he had envisioned.

Evans’s life as a Shaker was anything but cloistered. He served the Shakers as an ambassador to what they called simply “the World.” At the height of the Civil War, Evans and another elder visited the White House, petitioning President Lincoln for exemption from the draft. Although deeply opposed to slavery and actively supportive of the Union, the Shakers were steadfast and devoted pacifists for whom fighting was morally unthinkable.

Lincoln was impressed by the elders. After they finished making their case, he asked …

“Well, what am I to do?”

“It is not for me,” Elder Frederick replied, “to advise the President of the United States.”

“You ought to be made to fight,” Lincoln said. “We need regiments of such men as you.”

Even so, Lincoln granted the petition.

10606140_910718692290831_759700197982803500_nIn their correspondence, Evans and Tolstoy hit it off famously. When Evans died, Tolstoy wrote a letter of sympathy to another Shaker elder …

I can not tell you how sorry I am, not for the death of our dear and honored friend Evans, but for you and for all those who loved him and were fortified by his spirit. I am one of them.… I loved him very much.

In Anna’s World, I hope that Pat and I wrote a novel that both Frederick Evans and Leo Tolstoy might enjoy. I expect that our chances might have been better with Evans. Shaker intellectuals weren’t too otherworldly to disdain all fiction, and they much admired Tolstoy’s then quite scandalous story “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

But I suspect it would have been tougher to please Tolstoy, whose literary standards eventually got to be downright quirky. In his old age, he had this to say to poor Anton Chekhov

You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.