The Sentimentalists.

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


No sickly sentiment for us;
What nature bids is best.”
It was the Cannibal who thus
The Flesh-eater addressed

  Sentiment is a word much bandied about by the opponents of all humane measures; and they mean, even when they do not say so, the false sentiment, or mawkishness, for no one would be so foolish as to deny the beauty of tender feeling, however devoid of it he may be himself. What is charged against humanitarians is that they are “sentimental,” whether they are raising a voice against a threat of war, resource to the gallows or the lash, or some ill-usage of animals. The cry is always the same, “sentimentalist!” What is the amount of truth in it?

  In a world where there is so much suffering, so much wrong, it would certainly be strange if there were no exaggeration, no excessive feeling, on the part of those who make protest; and that sentimentalism is unknown in humanitarian quarters will not of course be here asserted. During my thirty years’ association with the Humanitarian League as its honorary secretary, when I saw and talked with many visitors at its office, I noted not a few cases of such emotion among kind-hearted people, and did my best to restrain it. Let that be admitted. But I can assert with confidence that the sentimentality of the sane” folk, the stout and sturdy fellows, who affect to laugh at the reformers, is much greater than that which they attribute to others. It is they themselves who, quite unaware of it, are the over-wrought, the morbid, the emotional.

  Peace is often represented as a period of softness, of “sentimentality,” in contrast with the heroic sternness of war. According to this notion, it is a time of slumber, of dreaming, of do-nothing, enervating to the virility of mankind—perhaps even sapping our morals—whereas war wakes and rouses us to the great realities of life. Were it not that, as Mr. Howard Moore pointed out in his book on Savage Survivals, the war-instinct “lies pretty close to the surface in the natures of even the highest people,” no reasoning person could thus describe pacifism as sentimental; for there is more sentimentalism of the most feverish kind in a single year of war than in a century of peace. Grant to the full the personal courage and hardihood of the combatants, it remains true that a nation engaged in war is in an intensely emotional state of mind, often verging on the hysterical; and it is no exaggeration to say that peace, compared with war, is a time of cold, calm, logical deliberateness and self-possession. The fallacy which depicts peace as “sickly” is not only untrue, it is the exact opposite of the truth. It is war that is sickly; it is peace that is sane.1

  What, for instance, are we to think of the military experts who were so affected by an exhibition of “silent artillery” discovered by two Italian engineers, that in their enthusiasm they were moved even to embrace the inventors? Think of the ridicule and contempt that would be poured on humanitarians who should greet in this manner the discovery of any real benefit for mankind! Yet we are expected to read without surprise, as an incident in itself likely and natural, of this idiotic reception accorded to a cruel and diabolic contrivance.

  Take, too, from the same patriotic journal,2 the account of how General Seely, at a dinner of the Authors’ Club, spoke of a boy under his command in the Great War, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. “General Seely, who was in command of the Canadians in this battle, told the story in a choking voice, and when he finished he almost collapsed in his chair.” The true pathos of the tragedy would seem to be that a young boy should be concerned at all in the horrors of a battlefield; but what would be thought of a pacifist who should tell his view of such an occurrence in a choking voice and almost collapsing in his chair? It is not difficult to imagine what would be said of him in imperialistic circles!

  Then certain forms of brutal punishment, most of all flogging, excite violent emotions in those who uphold them; indeed there are persons who, in discussing the question of the Lash, are hardly self-possessed. Mark what was said by Mr. J. F. P. Rawlinson, when a Bill to extend the punishment of flogging was before the House of Commons:

  “We know the extraordinary hysterical emotion which this Bill has aroused. We get letters from all sorts of people, chiefly women, ‘flog them, crucify them,’ and anything else you like. It is a cry we have had all down the ages.’ (November 1st, 1912.)

  There is in truth a mental disease known as “flagellomania,” “a special disorder of the imagination,” as Mr. Bernard Shaw has called it, akin perhaps to the malady of those mediæval fanatics, the Flagellants; but the subject is so unpleasant that it is commonly avoided. Yet, in face of these facts, the opponents filthy punishment have been charged from the Bench3—with sentimentality!

  I may be pardoned if at this point if I quote some remarks made by a writer in the Lancet,4 in a review of a book of my own:

  “In this connexion it has also to be borne in mind that judicial whipping, whatever be its value as a corrective of criminal tendencies, may in many cases have permanent psychic effects of a peculiarly undesirable kind, especially when the punishment is inflicted on boys about the age of puberty. This is an aspect of the question about which advocates of corporal punishment generally know very little, and they may therefore profit by perusing the sensible remarks which Mr. H. S. Salt devotes to the point in his recently published essay on ‘The Flogging Craze.’”

  It seems, as I have said, to be usually forgotten that the feeling uppermost in the minds of humane persons is not mere pity for the offender but disgust that such penalties should still be in use. Once, when I was a Master at Eton, a lady who called to arrange about placing a new boy in my House expressed a wish that I should lose no opportunity of having him flogged, and on my telling her that I could do nothing of the kind, took him elsewhere.

  What says Hamlet?:

  “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.”

  Hanging seems to excite fewer of these morbid emotions than flogging does, but it cannot be said to be wholly free from them. What are we to think of the Judge’s “assuming of the black cap” before passing the death sentence? Is it not a piece of sensationalism that might well disappear from a scene that is already too painful? And those who ask questions on the subject, receive idiotic replies from officials, such as: “It is the function of the Judge.” Of that there is no doubt: the question is whether such functions had not better be discontinued.

  But it is when we come to the treatment of the lower animals that we find sentimentalism most rampant; and among the worst offenders are the hunters and anglers themselves, with their silly talk of their “runs” and their “bags.” A frequent theme with the fisherman when he writes his reminiscences is the weight of his captures. Their weight! It is nothing less than childish; yet if I were to advise him to leave those fish in their rivers, he would tell me not to be sentimental.

  Much foolish as well as kindly feeling is expended on domestic animals, and not usually by those who love them best. An important truth is illustrated in one of the amusing stories told of Father Stanton, the anecdote of the lady whose cat had died. “Is it not wonderful,” she said, “to think that my little Tibby will meet me in the hereafter?” “Yes, my dear,” was the reply, “but remember that the goose you had for lunch yesterday will also have something to say to you.” The diet question, so commonly, and so conveniently, forgotten, is often a sharp test between the true sentiment and the false.

  Of the nonsense printed in poems and anecdotes about shepherds “tending their flocks,” the rising song of larks, and so on, there is no end; and the folk who are most addicted to it would seldom abstain from leg of mutton or lark-pie.

  Humanitarians, as I have said, must take their due share of the blame for all such inanities, but it is not they, in nine cases out of ten, who are the worst offenders. It is from the “patriots,” the advocates of hanging and flogging, the blood-sportsmen, the flesh-eaters, that we get the most flagrant display of sentimentalism.

1 See Chapters V. and VI.
2 Morning Post, August 13th and November 15th, 1932.
3 As by Mr. Justice A. T. Lawrence, in 1908. Passing a sentence of the lash at Exeter, in October, 1934, Mr. Justice Humphreys made remarks about “people who call themselves humanitarians” which showed that he was entirely ignorant of the grounds on which flogging is condemned. It seems strange that high judicial authorities, to whom such great powers are entrusted, should not consider it a part of their duties to make themselves acquainted with the facts.
4 December 9th, 1916.

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