From William Jennings Bryan to George Bernard Shaw …
It 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.
This 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.
Bryan 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.