Churchill on the Century

Churchill on the Century

Churchill at 47 (Valentine’s postcard)

Who here is in their For­ties? Are you as pes­simistic as he was?

Win­ston Churchill was 48 when he penned some “Reflec­tions on the Cen­tu­ry,” which may arrest you with their prescience—and their eerie relevance.

His words below are in his orig­i­nal “speech form.” This is the way they were set out on the notes he car­ried with him, how­ev­er well he mem­o­rized his lines. They appear in this style in my col­lec­tion of quo­ta­tions, Churchill by Him­self, but dif­fer from the way you may have encoun­tered them in oth­er books:


What a dis­ap­point­ment [this] cen­tu­ry has been.…

     We have seen in ev[ery] coun­try a dissolution,

          a weak­en­ing of those bonds,

               a chal­lenge to those principles,

                    a decay of faith

                         an abridge­ment of hope

                              on wh[ich] struc­ture & ulti­mate exis­tence of civilised soci­ety depends.

We have seen in ev[ery] part of the globe

     one g[rea]t coun­try after another

          wh[ich] had erect­ed an order­ly, a peace­ful, a pros­per­ous struc­ture of civilised society,

                relaps­ing in hideous suc­ces­sion into bank­rupt­cy, bar­barism or anarchy.

Can you doubt, my faith­ful friends

     as you sur­vey this som­bre panorama,

          that mankind is pass­ing through a peri­od marked

              not only by an enor­mous destruc­tion & abridge­ment of human species,

                   not only by a vast impov­er­ish­ment & reduc­tion in means of existence,

                        but also that destruc­tive ten­den­cies have not yet run their course?

And only intense, con­cert­ed & pro­longed efforts

     among all nations

          can avert fur­ther & per­haps even greater calamities?”

One might think these the words of some mod­ern Cas­san­dra, speak­ing about the 21st Cen­tu­ry. But no, it is Churchill, nine­ty-four years ago, at a sim­i­lar junc­ture in the cen­tu­ry before—the 20th. We may debate whether things now are quite as for­bid­ding as his descrip­tion then. In 1922, “greater calami­ties” were indeed coming.

Churchill’s Political Philosophy

Churchill was a sea­soned thinker by then, Sir Mar­tin Gilbert tells us. Not yet fifty, he could look back on two decades of pub­lic life. For much of that time, he had been an active par­tic­i­pant at the cen­tre of pol­i­cy­mak­ing, argu­ing his points with men of expe­ri­ence and exper­tise, test­ing his ideas amid the dai­ly pres­sure of depart­men­tal busi­ness, and reflect­ing, with each year, on the evo­lu­tion of the world scene, and the nature of man.”

He had evolved what Gilbert described as “three  inter­wo­ven strands” of polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy: “the appease­ment of class bit­ter­ness at home, the appease­ment of the fear­ful hatreds and antag­o­nisms abroad, and the defence of Par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cy and demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues….” To achieve these, his method was “con­cil­i­a­tion…the path of mod­er­a­tion. But where force alone could pre­serve the lib­er­tar­i­an val­ues, force would have to be used. It could only be a last resort—the hor­rors of war, and the very nature of democ­ra­cy, ensured that—but in the last resort it might be nec­es­sary to defend those val­ues by force of arms.”*

“These reflec­tion were some­times som­bre,” Sir Mar­tin added. They are per­haps no less som­bre a cen­tu­ry later.


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