Perspectives from A Fine Book on the World We Live in Today

March 20, 2018


A fascinating book which presents the beliefs and lives of Winston Churchill and George Orwell.  Most impressive about it is the brilliantly selective use of quotations from both writers and what I found to be wise perspective on the meaning of their lives on our contemporary situation and my own life. 

A few examples:

·      I am struck by how often in history the “wisest” writers and thinkers have felt the world was going down the drain.  The historian Arnold Toynbe began the 1930s observing that it was becoming common to think that “the Western system of society might break down and cease to work.”  In 1935, the Shakespearean scholar, A.L. Rowse, wrote that it was “too late to save any liberalism, perhaps too late to save socialism.”  In 1938, after the Munich Agreement, the novelist, Virginia Woolf, wrote to her sister, lamenting “the inevitable end of civilization.”  

Despite the easy-to-support assertions, “civilization” has shown the ability to sustain itself against great setbacks.  It’s worth remembering that today as we bemoan what’s going on around us and work to make it right. 

As George Orwell wrote after World War II, lamenting what was going on around him but still looking forward:  “Spring is here, even in London…and they can’t stop you from enjoying it.  The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going around the sun and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

On the other hand, we must not fail to see how narrow the gap is between calamity and avoiding calamity.  If it hadn’t been for Churchill, a “peace agreement” might have been reached between the leaders of Britain and Hitler.  Many leaders, including Lord Halifax, wanted to find such an agreement.  And also, in our own history in America, there were those who advocated that Lincoln agree to the Confederate states withdrawing from the Union.  The challenge Churchill faced in World War II was huge.  As just one example, in 1942, Churchill was crushed one day to learn that, of a convoy of 34 ships coming from Canada, 20 had been sunk.  

·      I’ve often remarked on how every life is made up of “successes” and “failures.”  That is certainly true of the lives of Churchill and Orwell.  Churchill’s defeats were many prior to World War II and after World War II.  Yet, he displayed towering strength and willpower during the war.  Without him, it may not have ended the way it did.

Orwell, with his books Animal Farm and 1984, has achieved more notoriety and success after his death than before.  When he was alive, his book sales were measured in the hundreds and thousands.  Since his death, an estimated 50 million copies of his books have been sold.

In Animal Farm, Orwell described an existence that spoke directly to the tragedy of Communism.  Later, he wrote, “Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of truth.”  It is not just the future that belongs to the all-powerful, but also the past.

·      Both Churchill and Orwell were, at their very heart, focused on understanding reality and, drawing from that, conclusions in a direction that fostered individual freedom.

I love this from Ricks:  “In war time, people will believe the worst if they are not told the truth, or something close to it, perhaps mixed with a vision of the way forward.”  That is what any leader in any time must provide to his or her organization.

Orwell, like Churchill, would spend the post-war period warning of the great dangers that still existed despite the defeat of the Nazis.  In fact, “great dangers” will always exist as part of human nature.  These tendencies to exercise power to one’s own or to one’s group’s advantage. 

We must always stay rooted, to the best of our ability, in the sanctity of the individual and doing what we are called on to do and what we believe is right. 

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