It is really, I suppose, our old friend “compulsion” again. We hate Prussianism in the realm of thought as much as in the realm of action. If I tell you you’ve got to believe so-and-so, your disposition is to refuse to do anything of the sort. It was the voluntary instinct that breathes in all of us that made Falstaff refuse to give Prince Hal reasons: “I give thee reasons? Though reasons were as plenty as blackberries I would not give thee reasons on compulsion—I.”
I was once talking to a member of Parliament, who was lamenting that he had failed to win the ear of the House. He was puzzled by the failure. He was a fluent speaker; he knew his subject with great thoroughness, and his character was irreproachable; and yet when he rose the House went out. He was like a dinner-bell. He couldn’t understand it. Yet everybody else understood it quite well. It was because he was always “telling you,” and there is nothing the House of Commons dislikes so much as a schoolmaster. Probably the most successful speaker, judging by results, who ever rose in the House of Commons was Cobden. He was one of the few men in history who have changed a decision in Parliament by a speech. He did it because of his extraordinarily persuasive manner. He kept the minds of his hearers receptive and disengaged. He did not impress them with the fact that he was right and they were wrong. They forgot themselves when they saw the subject in a clear, white light, and were prepared to judge it on its merits rather than by their prejudices.
One of the few persuasive speakers I have heard in the House of Commons in recent years is Mr. Harold Cox. Many of his opinions I detest, but the engaging way in which he presents them makes you almost angry with yourself at disagreeing with him. You feel, indeed, that you must be wrong, and that such open-mindedness and such a friendly conciliatory manner as he shows must somehow be the evidence of a right view of things. As a matter of fact, of course, he is really a very dogmatic gentleman at the bottom—none more so. As indeed Franklin was. But he has the art to conceal the emphasis of his opinions, and so he makes even those who disagree with him listen to his case almost with a desire to endorse it.
It is a great gift. I wish I had got it.
I was asked the other day to send to a new magazine a statement as to the event of the war which had made the deepest impression on me. Without hesitation I selected the remarkable Christmas demonstrations in Flanders. Here were men who for weeks and months past had been engaged in the task of stalking each other and killing each other, and suddenly under the influence of a common memory, they repudiate the whole gospel of war and declare the gospel of brotherhood. Next day they began killing each other again as the obedient instruments of governments they do not control and of motives they do not understand. But the fact remains. It is a beam of light in the darkness, rich in meaning and hope.