Question for Readers: What did Churchill Mean by “Man is Spirit”?

Question for Readers: What did Churchill Mean by “Man is Spirit”?

“Man is spirit”

Win­ston Churchill retired as Prime Min­is­ter on 5 April 1955. On April 3rd, he met with his non-Cab­i­net min­is­ters. His last words were report­ed by William Sid­ney, Vis­count De L’Isle and Dud­ley, his neigh­bor in West­er­ham, to Mar­tin Gilbert. “Man is spir­it,” he told them. Then he added: “Nev­er be sep­a­rat­ed from the Americans.”

The lat­ter is well under­stood. In 1956, when he wasn’t around, there was quite a seri­ous sep­a­ra­tion, over Suez. “Man is spir­it” is hard­er to under­stand. What did Churchill mean?

A pro­fes­sor teach­ing Churchill’s states­man­ship says his class is going back and forth on that. It’s a good question.

The pro­fes­sor asked my friend Andrew Roberts, who offered a thought­ful expla­na­tion. “Churchill meant that giv­en spirit—by which Vic­to­ri­ans like him meant courage, dri­ve, gump­tion and spunk—people can achieve any­thing regard­less of all oth­er lim­i­ta­tions. Despite appear­ances, we are not bound by the phys­i­cal but are part of the meta­phys­i­cal.” Andrew then hand­ed off to me, as if I knew a lot more! He did send me trawl­ing through the sources.

Something metaphysical?

Few his­to­ri­ans have tack­led the ques­tion of what “Man is spirt” meant. One was Jon Meacham, who wrote in Franklin and Win­ston:

“I believe that man is an immor­tal spir­it,”: [Churchill] often said, lead­ing Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne, his last pri­vate sec­re­tary, to call him “an opti­mistic agnos­tic.” Churchill’s essen­tial view: “Whether you believe or dis­be­lieve, it is a wicked thing to take away Man’s hope.”

It seems pos­si­ble that “Man is spir­it” meant some­thing meta­phys­i­cal, as Andrew sug­gests, beyond the Vic­to­ri­an virtues.

Spirit as self-belief?

In 2006 the late John Rams­den pub­lished “Churchill: A Man who Believed,” in the Catholic mag­a­zine The Tablet. Rams­den fleshed out Mon­tague Browne’s “opti­mistic agnostic”:

Churchill once said that he was not a pil­lar of the Church but more like a buttress—he sup­port­ed it from the out­side. He had been brought up in the 1880s firm­ly with­in the Angli­can tra­di­tion that had then bare­ly changed for two cen­turies. [In The Dream, he tells the ghost of his father he is “Epis­co­palian.”]

His direct involve­ment with the Church was though at best semi-detached…. Churchill was not a Chris­t­ian believ­er in any con­ven­tion­al sense. Arch­bish­op Fish­er of Can­ter­bury thought that WSC “had a very real reli­gion, but it was a reli­gion of the Eng­lish­man. He had a real belief in Prov­i­dence, but it was God as the God with a spe­cial care for the val­ues of the British people…..

What Churchill seems nev­er to have had was a belief in a per­son­al God. He joked as he aged that he was ready to meet his Mak­er, and spec­u­lat­ed as to whether the Almighty was look­ing for­ward to their inter­view with equal plea­sure; but he did not in fact believe in an after-life, except per­haps as some per­pet­u­al sleep in sur­round­ings of peace­ful, black velvet….

What Churchill did believe in was him­self, fate, and his per­son­al voca­tion to lead­er­ship…. Believ­ing in him­self as he did, he found with­in the capac­i­ty to make the British peo­ple believe in them­selves too, a cru­cial his­tor­i­cal act that even today can be cit­ed to the cyn­ics as proof that indi­vid­u­als can and do make a difference

A question for readers

Per­haps that has some­thing to do with what Churchill was try­ing to express by say­ing “Man is Spir­it.” Cer­tain­ly his spir­it abides, and still guides us today.

But my knowl­edge of Churchill and the meta­phys­i­cal is thin. If any read­er would like to take a stab at Churchill’s mean­ing, do send me your thoughts.  (Scroll down to “Leave a Reply,” below.)

Further reading

Read­er Richard Cohen sug­gests that the answers may lie a let­ter Churchill left for wife. It was just before depart­ing for Flan­ders in the First World War. See: “To be opened in the event of my death.”

4 thoughts on “Question for Readers: What did Churchill Mean by “Man is Spirit”?

  1. We must be mind­ful of the con­text to under­stand the mean­ing. Here Sir Win­ston Churchill was giv­ing pearls of very prac­ti­cal and applic­a­ble wis­dom, not just the­o­ry or beliefs. To deal with men you must under­stand you’re deal­ing with the human spir­it. As Napoleon wrote, “A man does not have him­self killed for a few half­pence a day or for a pet­ty dis­tinc­tion. You must speak to the soul [the spir­it in man] in order to elec­tri­fy the man.”

  2. As I read your query this morn­ing I am in the midst of read­ing Pro­fes­sor Paul A. Cantor’s Shakespeare’s Rome: Repub­lic and Empire. In his intro­duc­tion and first chap­ter he clear­ly describes the dif­fer­ence between men who are moved by spirit­ed­ness (in Greek, thu­mos) and men who are moved by their appetites (in Greek, eros). Shake­speare seems to have known of the dis­cus­sion of the impor­tance of thu­mos in the soul in Plato’s Repub­lic. This would be a good place to begin in con­sid­er­ing what Churchill meant by say­ing “man is spirit.”

  3. Charles, that’s very thought­ful, and much appre­ci­at­ed. Of course as Andrew Roberts remarked, God in WSC’s belief sys­tem had a very spe­cial respon­si­bil­i­ty, which was look­ing out for Win­ston Churchill. Giv­en WSC’s many nar­row escapes from Cubans, Pathans, Dervish­es, Boers, Ger­mans, Feni­ans, New York motorists, and assort­ed nation­al­ists who took a decid­ed­ly dim view of his pub­lic work, he might have been right.

  4. Richard,
    Giv­en WSC’s strong belief in “Des­tiny”, both his own and that of the Eng­lish-speak­ing people’s, I have con­clud­ed that his fre­quent use of the term sig­ni­fied a belief in a pow­er (even) greater than him­self, which to humankind of any/all reli­gions sig­ni­fies a belief in God. Whether or not the Chris­t­ian God is idle spec­u­la­tion and not tru­ly impor­tant. Churchill had and felt a con­nec­tion with the best of the human “spir­it” which I have con­clud­ed was his God. As he got old­er he became more aware of that “Spir­it”, as we all do.

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