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Editor’s Essay – FH 138

Churchill’s Optimism

Churchill’s optimism for humanity was tempered with a conviction that “the genus homo” never changes. The same imperfect being is presented by the advance of science with increasingly potent and dangerous toys: “This vast expansion was unhappily not accompanied by any noticeable advance in the stature of man, either in his mental faculties, or his moral character. His brain got no better, but it buzzed the more.”1

His splendid essay, “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” took up his concern about the levelling of man to a low common denominator: “Are not modern conditions—at any rate throughout the English-speaking communities—hostile to the development of outstanding personalities and to their influence upon events”?2 Churchill wondered.

Would the “moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations” hold their own against “formidable scientific evolutions”?3 Was it possible that, in abandoning its theocratic principles, mankind would lose the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and substitute instead a kind of vague, utopian concept of wishful thinking? Churchill worried not so much that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it, but that the loss of the past would mean “the most thoughtless of ages. Everyday headlines and short views.”4

In the end, Churchill hoped that a merciful Providence would pass “the sponge of oblivion across much that is suffered”: a “blessed dispensation,” through which pain would be forgotten and glory and honor exalted.5

Although often pilloried as an extremist by both the Left and Right, Winston Churchill genuinely believed in a “middle road” between the radicals and the reactionaries, the jingoes and the appeasers. He was proud that his country’s constitution was unwritten, that “the English never draw a line without blurring it.”6

Sir Martin Gilbert, who, while writing and editing over eight million words about Winston Churchill, has the ability to summarize him in a few lines, captured the essence of the Great Man when he wrote, in his final words of the official biography:

“Churchill was indeed a noble spirit, sustained in his long life by a faith in the capacity of man to live in peace, to seek prosperity, and to ward off threats and dangers by his own exertions. His love of country, his sense of fair play, his hopes for the human race, were matched by formidable powers of work and thought, vision and foresight. His path had often been dogged by controversy, disappointment and abuse, but these had never deflected him from his sense of duty and his faith in the British people….

“In the last years, when power passed, to be followed by extreme old age with all its infirmity and sadness, Churchill’s children expressed to him in private the feelings which many of his fellow countrymen also felt. In August 1955, four months after the end of his Premiership, his son Randolph wrote to him: ‘Power must pass and vanish. Glory, which is achieved through a just exercise of power—which itself is accumulated by genius, toil, courage and self-sacrifice— alone remains’….From his daughter Mary had come words of equal solace nine years later, when at last his life’s great impulses were fading. ‘In addition to all the feelings a daughter has for a loving, generous father,” she wrote, “I owe you what every Englishman, woman & child does—Liberty itself.’”7

—Richard Langworth, Editor Finest Hour

1. WSC, House of Commons, 31 March 1949.

2. “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” Strand Magazine, May 1931.

3. “Fifty Years Hence,” Strand Magazine, February 1931.

4. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V (London: Heinemann, 1976), 319.

5. Fourth Alamein Reunion, Empress Hall, London, 21 October 1939. Churchill, In the Balance (London: Cassell, 1951), 119.

6. WSC, House of Commons, 16 November 1948.

7. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. VIII (London: Heinemann, 1988), 1365-66.

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