The Great Shipwreck as Analogy

G. K. Chesterton


May 11, 1912

The Illustrated London News


The tragedy of the great shipwreck is too terrific for any analogies of mere fancy. But the analogy which springs to the mind between the great modern ship and our great modern society that sent it forth--this analogy is not a fancy. It is a fact; a fact perhaps too large and plain for the eyes easily to take in. Our whole civilization is indeed very like the TITANIC; alike in its power and its impotence, it security and its insecurity. Technically considered, the sufficiency of the precautions are a matter for technical inquiry. But psychologically considered, there can be no doubt that such vast elaboration and system induce a frame of mind which is inefficient rather than efficient. Quite apart from the question of whether anyone was to blame, the big outstanding fact remains: that there was no sort of sane proportion between the provision for luxury and levity, and the extent of the provision for need and desperation. The scheme did far too much for prosperity and far too little for distress--just like the modern State. Mr. Veneering, it will be remembered, in his electoral address, "instituted a new and striking comparison between the State and a ship"; the comparison, if not new, is becoming a little too striking. By the time you have made your ship as big as a commonwealth it does become very like a ship--rather like a sinking ship.

For there is a real connection between such catastrophes and a certain frame of mind which refuses to expect them. A rough man going about the sea in a small boat may make every other kind of mistake: he may obey superstitions; he may take too much rum; he may get drunk; he may get drowned. But, cautious or reckless, drunk or sober, he cannot forget that he is in a boat and that a boat is as dangerous a beast as a wild horse. The very lines of the boat have the swift poetry of peril; the very carriage and gestures of the boat are those of a thing assailed. But if you make your boat so large that it does not even look like a boat, but like a sort of watering-place, it must, by the deepest habit of human nature, induce a less vigilant attitude of the mind. An aristocrat on board ship who travels with a garage for his motor almost feels as if he were travelling with the trees of his park. People living in open-air cafes sprinkled with liqueurs and ices get as far from the thought of any revolt of the elements as they are from that of an earthquake under the Hotel Cecil. The mental process is quite illogical, but it is quite inevitable. Of course, both sailors and passengers are intellectually aware that motors at sea are often less useful than life-boats, and that ices are no antidote to icebergs. But man is not only governed by what he thinks but by what he chooses to think about; and the sights that sink into us day by day colour our minds with every tint between insolence and terror. This is one of the worst evils in that extreme separation of social classes which marks the modern ship--and State.

But whether or no our unhappy fellow-creatures on the TITANIC suffered more than they need from this unreality of original outlook, they cannot have had less instinct of actuality than we have who are left alive on land: and now that they are dead they are much more real than we. They have known what papers and politicians never know--of what man is really made, and what manner of thing is our nature at its best and worst. It is this curious, cold, flimsy incapacity to conceive what a THING is like that appears in so many places, even in the comments on this astounding sorrow. It appears in the displeasing incident of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, who, immediately after the disaster, seems to have hastened to assure the public that men must get no credit for giving the boats up to women, because it was the "rule" at sea. Whether this was a graceful thing for a gay spinster to say to eight hundred widows in the very hour of doom is not worth inquiry here, Like cannibalism, it is a matter of taste. But what chiefly astonishes me in the remark is the utter absence which it reveals of the rudiments of political thought. What does Miss Pankhurst imagine a "rule" is--a sort of basilisk? Some hundreds of men are, in the exact and literal sense of the proverb, between the devil and the deep sea. It is their business, if they can make up their minds to it, to accept the deep sea and resist the devil. What does Miss Pankhurst suppose a "rule" could do to them in such extremities? Does she think the captain would fine every man sixpence who expressed a preference for his life? Has it occurred to her that a hundredth part of the ship's population could have thrown the captain and all the authorities into the sea? But Miss Pankhurst's remark although imbecile, is informing. Now I see the abject and idolatrous way in which she uses the word "rule," I begin to understand the abject and idolatrous way in which she uses the word "vote." She cannot see that wills and not words control events. If ever she is in a fire or shipwreck with men below a certain standard of European morals, she will soon find out that the existence of a rule depends on whether people can be induced to obey it. And if she ever has a vote in the very low state of European politics, she will very soon find out that its importance depends on whether you can induce the man you vote for to obey his mandate or any of his promises. It is vain to rule if your subjects can and do disobey you. It is vain to vote if your delegates can and do disobey you.

But, indeed, a real rule can do without such exceptions as the Suffragettes; de minimis non curat lex. And if the word "rule" be used in the wider sense of an attempt to maintain a certain standard of private conduct out of respect for public opinion, we can only say that not only is this a real moral triumph, but it is, in our present condition, rather a surprising and reassuring one. It is exactly this corporate conscience that the modern State has dangerously neglected. There was probably more instinctive fraternity and sense of identical interests, I will say, not on an old skipper's vessel, but on an old pirate's, than there was between the emigrants, the aristocrats, the journalists, or the millionaires who set out to die together on the great ship. That they found in so cruel a way their brotherhood and the need of man for the respect of his neighbour, this is a dreadful fact, but certainly the reverse of a degrading one. The case of Mr. Stead, which I feel with rather special emotions, both of sympathy and difference, is very typical of the whole tragedy. Mr. Stead was far too great and brave a man to require any concealment of his exaggerations or his more unbalanced moods; his strength was in a flaming certainty, which one only weakens by calling sincerity, and a hunger and thirst for human sympathy. His excess, we may say, with real respect, was in the direction of megalomania; a childlike belief in big empires, big newspapers, big alliances--big ships. He toiled like a Titan for that Anglo-American combination of which the ship that has gone down may well be called the emblem. And at the last all these big things broke about him, and somewhat bigger things remained: a courage that was entirely individual; a kindness that was entirely universal. His death may well become a legend.

G. K. Chesterton


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