Our philosophy is valueless unless we bring it into life. With sufficient ingenuity we might frame theory after theory, and if they could not be put to the test of a work-a-day existence we but add another to the many dead theories that litter the History of Philosophy. Our principles are not to argue about, or write about, or hold meetings about, but primarily to give us a rule of life. To ignore this is to waste time and energy. To observe and follow it is to take from the clouds something that appeals to us, work it into life, by it interpret the problems to hand, make our choice between opposing standards, and maintain our fidelity to the true one against every opposition and through every fitful though terrible depression; so shall we startle people with its reality, and make for it a disciple or an opponent, but always at once convince the generation that there is a serious work in hand.
If our philosophy is to be worked into life the first thing naturally is to review the situation. If we are to judge rightly, we must understand the present, draw from the past its lesson, and shape our plans for the future true to the principles that govern and inform every generation. Let us survey the past, taking a sufficiently wide view between two points—say ’98 and our own time—and we see certain definite conditions. Great luminous years—’98, ’03, ’48, ’67, rise up, witness to a great principle, readiness for sacrifice, unshaken belief in truth, valour and freedom, and a flag that will ultimately prevail. In these years the people had vision, the blood quickened, a living flame swept the land, scorching up hypocrisy, deceit, meanness, and lighting all brave hearts to high hope and achievement—for, the whimperers notwithstanding, it was always achievement to challenge the enemy and stagger his power, though yet his expulsion is delayed. Between the glorious years of the living flame there intervened pallid times of depression, where every disease of soul and body crept into the open. True hearts lived, scattered here and there, believing still but disorganised and bewildered—the leaders were stricken down and in their place, obscuring the beauty of life, the grandeur of the past, and our future destiny, came time-servers, flatterers, hypocrites, open traffickers in honour and public decency, fastening their mean authority on the land. These are the two great resting-places in our historic survey: the generation of the living flame and the generation of despair; and it is for us to decide—for the decision rests with us—whether we shall in our time merely mark time or write another luminous chapter in the splendid history of our race.
Let us consider these two generations apart, to understand their distinctive features more clearly for our own guidance. Take first the years of vision and the general effort to replant the old flag on our walls. With the first enthusiasts breathing the living flame abroad, the kindling hope, the widening fires, the deepening dream, there grows a consciousness of the greatness of the goal, of the general duty, of the individual responsibility for higher character, steadier work, and purer motive; and gradually meanness, trickeries, and treacheries are weeded out of the individual and national consciousness: there is a realisation of a time come to restore the nation’s independence, and with passion and enthusiasm are fused a fine resolve and nerve. All the excited doings of the feverish or pallid years are put by as unworthy or futile. The great idea inspires a great fight; and that fight is made, and, notwithstanding any reverse, must be recorded great. Whatever concourse of circumstances mar the dream and delay the victory, those brave years are as a torch in witness to the ideal, in justification of its soldiers and in promise of final success.
Let us examine now the deadening years that intervene between the great fights for freedom. We have known something of these times ourselves, have touched on them already, and need not further draw out the demoralising things that corrupt and dishearten us. But what we urgently require to study is the kind of effort—more often the absence of effort—made in such years by those who keep their belief in freedom and feel at times impelled in some way or other to action. They have followed a lost battle, and in the aftermath of defeat they are numbed into despair. They refuse to surrender to the forces of the hour, but they lack the fine faith and enthusiasm of the braver years that challenged these forces at every point and stood or fell by the issue. They lie apathetic till, moved by some particular meanness or treachery, they are roused to spasmodic anger, rush to act in some spasmodic way—generally futile, and then relapse into helplessness again. They lack the vision that inspires every moment, discerns a sure way, and heightens the spirit to battle without ceasing, which is characteristic of the great years. They tacitly accept that theirs is a useless generation, that the enemy is in the ascendant, that they cannot unseat him, and their action, where any is made, is but to show their attitude, never to convince opponents that the battle is again beginning, that this is a bid for freedom, that history will be called on to record their fight and pay tribute to their times. Their action has never this great significance. When stung to fitful madness by the boastful votaries of power, their occasional frantic efforts are more as relief to their feelings than destructive to the tyranny in being. Let us realise this to the full; and seeing the futility in other years of every pathetic makeshift to annoy or circumvent the enemy, put by futilities and do a great work to justify our time.
We have, then, to consider and decide our immediate attitude to life, where we stand. There are errors to remove. The first is the assumption that we are only required to acknowledge the flag in places, offer it allegiance at certain meetings at certain times that form but a small part of our existence; while we allow ourselves to be dispensed from fidelity to our principles when in other places, where other standards are either explicitly or tacitly recognised. That we must carry our flag everywhere; that there must be no dispensation: these are the cardinal points of our philosophy. Life is a great battlefield, and any hour in the day a man’s flag may be challenged and he must stand and justify it. An idea you hold as true is not to be professed only where it is proclaimed; it will whisper and you must be its prophet in strange places; it is insistent of all things—you must glory in it or deny it; there is no escaping it, and there is no middle way; wherever your path lies it will cross you and you must choose.
Beware lest on any plea you put it by. You cannot elect to do nothing; the concourse of circumstances would take you to some side; to do nothing is still to take a side. Priest, poet, professor, public man, professional man, business man, tradesman—everyone will be called to answer; in every walk of life the true idea will find the false in conflict and the battle must be fought out there—the battle is lost when we satisfy ourselves with an academic debate in our spare moments. This is a debating club age, and a plea for an ideal is often wasted, taken as a mere point in an argument; but to walk among men fighting passionately for it as a thing believed in, is to make it real, to influence men never reached in other ways; it is to arrest attention, arouse interest and quicken the masses to advance. And wherever the appeal for the flag is calling us the snare of the enemy is in wait. Our history so bristles with instances that a particular concrete case need not be cited. We know that priests will get more patronage if they discourage the national idea; that professors will get more emoluments and honours if they can ban it; that public men will receive places and titles if they betray it; that the professional man will be promised more aggrandisement, the business man more commerce, and the tradesman more traffic of his kind—if only he put by the flag. Most treacherous and insidious the temptation will come to the man, young and able, everywhere. It will say, “You have ability; come into the light—only put that by; it keeps you obscure. And what purpose does it serve now? Be practical; come.” And you may weaken and yield and enter the light for the general applause, but the old idea will rankle deep down till smothered out, and you will stand in the splendour—a failure, miserable, hopeless, not apparent, indeed, but for all that, final. You may stand your ground, refuse the bribe, uphold the flag, and be rated a fool and a failure, but they who rate you so will not understand that you have won a battle greater than all the triumphs of empires; you will keep alive in your soul true light and enduring beauty; you will hear the music eternally in the heart of the high enthusiast and have vision of ultimate victory that has sustained all the world over the efforts of centuries, that uplifts the individual, consolidates the nation, and leads a wandering race from the desert into the Promised Land.
If we are to justify ourselves in our time we must have done with dispensations. Many honest men are astray on this point and think attitudes justifiable that are at the root of all our failures. What is the weakness? It is so simple to explain and so easy to understand that one must wonder how we have been ignoring it quietly and generally so long. A man, as we have seen, acknowledges his flag in certain places; in other places it is challenged and he pulls it down. He is dispensed. He believes in his heart, may even write an anonymous letter to the paper, will salute the flag again elsewhere, but he will not carry his flag through every fight and through every day. When a particular crisis arises, which involves our public boards, public men, and business men in action, that requires a decision for or against the nation, he will find it in his place in life not wise to be prominent on his own side, and he is silently absent from his meetings—he gives a subscription but excuses himself from attendance. He satisfies himself with private professions of faith and whispered encouragement to those who fill the gap—words that won’t be heard at a distance—and, worst of all, he thinks, because some stake in life may be jeopardised by bolder action, he is justified. The answer is, simply he is not justified. Nor should anyone who is prepared to take the risk himself take it on himself to absolve others—nor, least of all, openly preach a milder doctrine to lead others who are timid to the farther goal, believed in at heart. Encourage them by all means to practise their principles as far as they go; never restrict yours, or you will find yourself saying things you can’t altogether approve; and if you tell a man to do things you can’t altogether approve, and keep on telling him, it wears into you, and a thing you once held in abhorrence you come to think of with indifference. You change insensibly. Old friends rage at you, and because of it you rage at them—not knowing how you have changed. You dare not let what you believe lie in abeyance or say things inconsistent with it, else to-morrow you’ll be puzzled to say what you believe. You will hardly say two things to fit each other. Let us have no half policies. Our policy must be full, clear, consistent, to satisfy the restless, inquiring minds; when we win all such over, the merely passive people will follow. It should be clear that no man can dispense himself or his fellow from a grave duty; but for all that we have been liberal with our dispensations, and it has left us in confusion and failure. On the understanding that we will be heroes to-morrow, we evade being men to-day. We think of some hazy hour in the future when we may get a call to great things; we realise not that the call is now, that the fight is afoot, that we must take the flag from its hidden resting-place and carry it boldly into life. So near a struggle may touch us with dread; but to dread provoking a fight is to endure without resistance all the consequences of a lost battle—a battle that might have been won. And if we are to be fit for the heroic to-morrow we must arise and be men to-day.
At times we find ourselves on neutral ground. The exigencies of the struggle involve this; and unfortunately we have in our midst sincere men who do not believe in restoring Ireland to her original independence. Perhaps, from a tendency to lose our balance at times, it is well to have near by these men whose obvious sincerity may serve as a correcting influence. We have to make them one with us; in the meantime we meet them on neutral ground for some common purpose. Yet, we must take our flag everywhere? Yes, that is fundamental. What then of the places where men of diverging views meet; do we abjure the flag? By no means. The understanding here is not to force our views on others, but we must keep our principles clear in mind that no hostile view be forced on us. We must see to it that neutrality be observed. One of the pitfalls to be aware of is, that something which on our principles we should not recognise, is assumed as recognised by others because to attack it would be to violate neutrality. But if it may not be resisted, it may not be recognised; this is neutrality; it is to stand on equal terms. And since grave matters divide us—not directly concerned in our national struggle for freedom—let the dangerous idea be banished, that in entering on common ground we decry all opposing beliefs. For men who hold beliefs as vital it would not be creditable to either side to put them easily by. No, we do not ask them to forget themselves, but to respect one another—an entirely greater and more honourable principle. On neutral ground a man is not called on to abjure his flag; rather he and his flag are in sanctuary.
When we find the national idea touches life at every point, we begin to realise how frequent the call is to defend it without warning. It is not that men directly raise the idea purposely to reject it, but that their habit of life, to which they expect all to conform, is unconsciously assuming that our ruling principle can have no place now or in the future. Their assumption that the status quo cannot be changed will be the cause of most collision at first; and we must be quietly ready with the counter-assumption, stand for the old idea and justify it. We must realise, too, that the number of people who have definite, strong, well-developed views against ours are comparatively small. This small number embraces the English Government that commands forces, obeying it without reason, and influencing the general mass of people whose general attitude is indecision—adrift with the ruling force. It is this general mass of men we must permeate with the true idea, and give them more decision, more courage, more pride of race, and bring them to prove worthy of the race. They will begin to have confidence in the Cause when they begin to see it vindicated amongst them day by day; and that vindication must be our duty. That duty will not be to seek; it will offer itself and we shall have our test. How? Consider when men come together for any purpose where different views prevail and general things of no great moment form the subject of debate—suddenly, unconsciously or tentatively, one will raise some idea that may divide the company—say, acknowledging the English Crown in Ireland, putting by the claim for freedom, in the foolish hope of some material gain. There is much nonsense talked and confusion abroad on this head, and it is quite possible a man, believing in Ireland’s full claim, will find himself in a large company who ought to stand for Ireland, yet who have lost a clear conception of her rights. But he will find that they have no clear conception the other way, either; they are confused and generally pliable; and so, when the challenging idea is introduced, if he is quick and clear with the vital points, he can tear the surface off the many nostrums of the hour and prove them mean, worthless, and degrading; and, doing so, he will be forming the minds about him. He must be ready; that is the great need. Understand how a conversation is often turned by a chance word, and how governed by one man who has passionate, well-defined views, while others are cold and undecided. Be that one man. You do not know where the circumstances of life will take you; your flag may be directly challenged to your face, and you must reveal yourself. These are things to avoid. Be firm, rather than aggressive; but be always quietly prepared for the aggressive man; that is to inspire confidence in the timid. Avoid vituperation as a disease, but have your facts clear and ready for friend or foe. Whenever, and wherever least expected, a false idea comes wandering forth, put in at once a luminous word or two to clear the air, hearten friends and keep them steady. If you find yourself alone in the midst of opponents, who assume you are with them and expect your co-operation, you put them right with a word. This will arrest them; they will understand where you stand, and that you are ready; and they will generally yield you respect. But whether it involve a fight or not, thus do you declare your attitude. We may conveniently call it—putting up the flag.
It is well to consider something of the opposition that confronts a man who tries to fill his life with a brave purpose. He will be told it is an illusion; he is a dreamer, a crank, or a fool. And it may serve a purpose to see if our critics are blinded by no illusion, to contrast our folly with their wisdom. Here is one pushing by who will not be a fool, as he thinks—he’s for the emigrant-ship. Ask yourself if the people who go out from the remote places of Ireland, quiet-spoken and ruddy-faced, and return after a few years loud-voiced and pallid, have found things exactly as their hope. They protest, yes; but their voice and colour belie them. Take the other man who does not emigrate but who has his fling at home, who “knocks around” and tells you to do likewise and be no fool—mark him for your guidance. You will find his leisure is boisterous, but never gay. Catch him between whiles off his guard and you will find the deadening lassitude of his life. This votary of pleasure has a burden to carry in whatever walk of life, high or low. On the higher plane he may have a more fastidious club or two, a more epicurean sense of enjoyment, more leisure and more luxury; but the type wherever found is the same. Life is an utter burden to him; in his soul is no interest, no inspiration, no energy, and no hope. Let him be no object of envy. Here a friend pats you on the shoulder: “Quite right; be neither an emigrant nor a waster; but be practical; have no illusions; deal with possibilities—who can say what is in the future? We must face these facts.” Our confident friend lacks a sense of humour. He would put your plan by for its bearing on the future, but he proposes one himself that the future must justify. He tells you circumstances will not be in your favour: he assumes them in his own. But we only claim that our principles will rule the future as they have ruled the past; for the circumstances no man can speak. He calls you a dreamer for your principles, but he can’t show, now nor in history, that his exemplars were ever justified. We are all dreamers, then; but some have ugly dreams, while the dreams of others are beautiful worlds, star-lighted and full of music.
Let the newborn enthusiast, just come eagerly to the flag, be warned of hours of depression that seize even the most earnest, the boldest and the strongest. Our work is the work of men, subject to such vicissitudes as hover around all human enterprise; and every man enrolled must face hard struggles and dark hours. Then the depression rushes down like a horrible, cold, dark mist that obscures every beautiful thing and every ray of hope. It may come from many causes: perhaps, a body not too robust, worn down by a tireless mind; perhaps, the memory of long years of effort, seemingly swallowed in oblivion and futility; perhaps contact with men on your own side whose presence there is a puzzle, who have no character and no conception of the grandeur of the Cause, and whose mean, petty, underhand jealousies numb you—you who think anyone claiming so fine a flag as ours should be naturally brave, straightforward and generous; perhaps the seemingly overwhelming strength of the enemy, and the listlessness of thousands who would hail freedom with rapture, but who now stand aloof in despair—and along with all this and intensifying it, the voice of our self-complacent practical friend, who has but sarcasm for a high impulse, and for an immutable principle the latest expedient of the hour. Through such an experience must the soldier of freedom live. But as surely as such an hour comes, there comes also a star to break the darkened sky; let those who feel the battle-weariness at times remember. When in places there may be but one or two to fight, it may seem of no avail; still let them be true and their numbers will be multiplied: love of truth is infectious. When progress is arrested, don’t brood on what is, but on what was once achieved, what has since survived, and what we may yet achieve. If some have grown lax and temporise a little, with more firmness on your part mingle a little sympathy for them. It is harder to live a consistent life than die a brave death. Most men of generous instincts would rouse all their courage to a supreme moment and die for the Cause; but to rise to that supreme moment frequently and without warning is the burden of life for the Cause; and it is because of its exhausting strain and exacting demands that so many men have failed. We must get men to realise that to live is as daring as to die. But confusion has been made in our time by the glib phrase: “You are not asked now to die for Ireland, but to live for her,” without insisting that the life shall aim at the ideal, the brave and the true. To slip apologetically through existence is not life. If such a mean philosophy went abroad, we would soon find the land a place of shivering creatures, without the capacity to live or the courage to die—calamity, surely. All these circumstances make for the hour of depression; and it may well be in such an hour, amid apathy and treachery, cold friends and active enemies, with worn-down frame and baffled mind, you, pleading for the Old Cause, may feel your voice is indeed a voice crying in the wilderness; and it may serve till the blood warms again and the imagination recover its glow, to think how a Voice, that cried in the wilderness thousands of years ago, is potent and inspiring now, where the voice of the “practical” man sends no whisper across the waste of years.
What, then, to conclude, must be our decision? To take our philosophy into life. When we do that generally, in a deep and significant sense our War of Independence will have begun. Let there be no deferring a duty to a more convenient future. It is as possible that an opening for freedom may be thrust on us, as that we shall be required to organise a formal war with the usual movements of armies; in our assumptions for the second, let us not be guilty of the fatal error of overlooking the first. As in other spheres, so in politics we have our conventions; and how little they may be proven has been lately seen, when England went through a war of debate, largely unreal, over her constitution and her liberties, even while foreign wars and complications were still being debated; and in the middle of it all, suddenly, from a local labour dispute, putting by all thought of the constitution, feeling as comparatively insignificant the fear of invasion, all England stood shuddering on the verge of frantic civil war; and all Ireland, when the moment of possible freedom was given, when England might have been hardly able to save herself, much less to hold us—Ireland, thinking and working in old grooves, lay helpless. Let us draw the moral. We cannot tell what unsuspected development may spring on us from the future, but we can always be prepared by understanding that the vital hour is the hour at hand. Let the brave choice now be made, and let the life around be governed by it; let every man stand to his colours and strike his flag to none; then shall we recover ground in all directions, and our time shall be recorded, not with the deadening but with the luminous years. In all the vicissitudes of the fight, let us not be distracted by the meanness of the mere time-server nor the treachery of the enemy, but be collected and cool; and remembering the many who are not with us from honest motives or unsuspected fears, live to show our belief beautiful and true and, in the eternal sense, practical. Then shall those who are worth convincing be held, and our difference may reduce itself to what is possible; then will they come to realise that he who maintains a great faith unshaken will make more things possible than the opportunist of the hour; then will they understand how much more is possible than they had ever dared to dream: they will have a vision of the goal; and with that vision will be born a steady enthusiasm, a clear purpose, and a resolute soul. The regeneration of the land will be no longer a distant dream but a shaping reality; the living flame will sweep through all hearts again; and Ireland will enter her last battle for freedom to emerge and reassume her place among the nations of the earth.