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George Gissing: Next stage in civilization: peace made a religion

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

George Gissing: Selections on war

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George Gissing
From The Crown of Life

With a boldness natural to the hour, he drew nearer, nearer, watching his opportunity. The chair by Irene’s side became vacant; he stepped forward, and was met with a frank countenance, which invited him to take the coveted place. Miss Derwent spoke at once of her interest in the Russian sectaries with whom – she had heard – Otway was well acquainted, the people called Dukhobortsi, who held the carrying of arms a sin, and suffered persecution because of their conscientious refusal to perform military service. Piers spoke with enthusiasm of these people.

“They uphold the ideal above all necessary to our time. We ought to be rapidly outgrowing warfare; isn’t that the obvious next step in civilisation? It seems a commonplace that everyone should look to that end, and strive for it. Yet we’re going back – there’s a military reaction – fighting is glorified by everyone who has a loud voice, and in no country more than in England. I wish you could hear a Russian friend of mine speak about it, a rich man who has just given up everything to join the Dukhobortsi. I never knew before what religious passion meant. And it seems to me that this is the world’s only hope – peace made a religion. The forms don’t matter; only let the supreme end be peace. It is what people have talked so much about – the religion of the future.”

His tones moved the listener, as appeared in her look and attitude.

“Surely all the best in every country lean to it,” she said.

“Of course! That’s our hope – but at the same time the pitiful thing; for the best hold back, keep silence, as if their quiet contempt could prevail against this activity of the reckless and the foolish.”

“One can’t make a religion,” said Irene sadly. “It is just this religious spirit which has decayed throughout our world. Christianity turns to ritualism. And science – we were told you know, that science would be religion enough.”

“There’s the pity – the failure of science as a civilising force. I know,” added Piers quickly, “that there are men whose spirit, whose work, doesn’t share in that failure; they are the men – the very few – who are above self-interest. But science on the whole, has come to mean money-making and weapon-making. It leads the international struggle; it is judged by its value to the capitalist and the soldier.”

“Isn’t this perhaps a stage of evolution that the world must live through – to its extreme results?”

“Very likely. The signs are bad enough.”

“You haven’t yourself that enthusiastic hope?”

“I try to hope,” said Piers, in a low, unsteady voice, his eyes falling timidly before her glance. “But what you said is so true – one can’t create the spirit of religion. If one hasn’t it- -” He broke off, and added with a smile, “I think I have a certain amount of enthusiasm. But when one has seen a good deal of the world, it’s so very easy to feel discouraged. Think how much sheer barbarism there is around us, from the brutal savage of the gutter to the cunning savage of the Stock Exchange!”

Irene had a gleam in her eyes; she nodded appreciation.

“If,” he went on vigorously, “if one could make the multitude really understand – understand to the point of action – how enormously its interest is peace!”

“More hope that way, I’m afraid,” said Irene, “than through idealisms.”

“Yes, yes. If it comes at all, it’ll be by the way of self-interest. And really it looks as if the military tyrants might overreach themselves here and there. Italy, for instance. Think of Italy, crushed and cursed by a blood-tax that the people themselves see to be futile. One enters into the spirit of the men who freed Italy from foreigners – it was glorious; but how much more glorious to excite a rebellion there against her own rulers! Shouldn’t you enjoy doing that?”

At times, there is no subtler compliment to a woman than to address her as if she were a man. It must be done involuntarily, as was the case with this utterance of Otway’s. Irene rewarded him with a look such as he had never had from her, the look of rejoicing comradeship.

“Indeed I should! Italy is becoming a misery to those who love her. Is no plot going on? Couldn’t one start a conspiracy against that infamous misgovernment?”

“There’s an arch-plotter at work. His name is Hunger. Let us be glad that Italy can’t enrich herself by manufactures. Who knows? The revolution against militarism may begin there, as that against feudalism did in France. Talk of enthusiasm! How should we feel if we read in the paper some morning that the Italian people had formed into an army of peace – refusing to pay another centesimo for warfare?

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