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We Moderns

Excerpts, from the 1918 Volume

Edwin Muir

Summer, 2022


Modern Realism

How crude and shallow is the whole theory of modern realism: a theory of art by the average man for the average man! It makes art intelligible by simplifying or popularizing it; in short, as Nietzsche would say, by vulgarizing it. The average man perceives, for instance, that there is in great drama an element of representation. Come, he says, let us make the representation as “thorough” as possible! Let every detail of the original be reproduced! Let us have life as it is lived! And when he has accomplished this, when representation has become reproduction, he is very well pleased and thinks how far he has advanced beyond the poor Greeks. But it is hardly so! For the Greeks did not aim at the reproduction but at the interpretation of life, for which they would accept no symbol less noble than those ideal figures which move in the world of classical tragedy. To the Greeks, indeed, the world of art was precisely this world: not a paltry, sober and conscientious dexterity in the “catching” of the aspects of existence (nothing so easy!), but a symbolizing of the deepest questions and enigmas of life—a thing infinitely more noble, profound and subtle than realistic art. The Greeks would have demanded of realism, Why do you exist? What noble end is served by the reproduction of ordinary existence? Are you not simply superfluous—and vilely smelling at that? And realism could have given no reply, for the truth is that realism is superfluous. It is without a raison d’être.

The average man, however, takes a second glance at classical tragedy and reaches a second discovery. There is something enigmatical, he finds, behind the Greek clearness of representation, something unexplained; in short, a problem. This problem, however, is not sufficiently clear. Let us state our problems clearly, he cries! Let us have problems which can be recognized at a glance by every one! Let us write a play about “the marriage question,” or bad-housing, or the Labour Party! But, again, the theory of the Greeks, at least before Euripides, was altogether different. The “problem” in their tragedies was precisely not a problem which could be stated in a syllogism or solved in a treatise: it was the eternal problem, and it was not stated to be “solved.”

Thus the Moderns, in their attempt to simplify art, to understand it or misunderstand it—what does it matter which word is used?—have succeeded in destroying it. The realistic and the “problem” drama alike are for the inartistic. The first is drama without a raison d’être, the second is a raison d’être without drama.

A Modern Problem

It has been observed again and again that as societies—forms of production, of government, and so on—become more complex, the mastery of the individual over his destiny grows weaker. In other words, the more man subjugates “nature,” the more of a slave he becomes. The industrial system, for instance, which is the greatest modern example of man’s subjugation of nature, is at the same time the greatest modern example of man’s enslavement. What are we to think, then? Is the problem a moral one, and shall we say that a conquest of nature which is not preceded by a conquest of human nature is bound to be bad? In a society which has not surpassed the phase of slavery does every addition to man’s power over nature simply intensify the slavery? Or is the problem intellectual? And when the intellect concentrates upon one branch of knowledge to the neglect of the other, is the outcome bound to be the enslavement of the others? For instance the nineteenth century devoted far more of its brains to industry than to politics—its politics, indeed, was merely the reflection of its industry—with the result that industry has now enslaved us all. Yes, it has enslaved us all—not merely the wage-earners, not merely the salariat! In the old days the workman, indeed, was a slave, but now the employer is a slave as well.

In this age, therefore, in which man appears as the helpless appendage of a machine too mighty for him, it is natural that theories of Determinism should flourish. It is natural, also, that the will should become weak and discouraged, and, consequently, that the power of creation should languish. And so the world of art has withered and turned barren. The artist needs above all things a sense of power; it is out of the abundance of this sense that he creates. But confronted with modern society, that vast machine, and surrounded by its hopeless mechanics and slaves, he feels the sense dying within him; nor does the evil cease there, for along with the sense of power, power itself dies.

Well, does not the moral become clearer and clearer? If art and literature are to flourish again, artists, writers, nay, the whole community must regain the sense of power. Therefore, economic emancipation first!

The Public

 Of the modern writers who are in earnest, Mr. Chesterton has had the most ironical fate: he has been read by the people who will never agree with him. To the average man for whom he writes he is an intellectual made doubly inaccessible by his orthodoxy and his paradoxy. It is the advanced, his bête noire, who read him, admire him, and—disagree with him.

Middle Age’s Betrayals

 It is not easy to tell by a glance what is the character of a young man; his soul has not yet etched itself clearly enough upon his body. But one may read a middle-aged man’s soul with perfect ease; and not only his soul but his history. For when a man has passed five-and-forty, he looks—not what he is, perhaps—but certainly what he has been. If he has been invariably respectable, he is now the very picture of respectability. If he has been a man about town or a secret toper, the fact is blazoned so clearly on his face that even a child can read it. If he has studied, his very walk, to use a phrase of Nietzsche’s, is learned. As for the poet, we know how terribly poetical he looks in middle age—poor devil! Well, to every one of you, I say, Beware!

Art in Industry

In those wildernesses of dirt, ugliness and obscenity, our industrial towns, there are usually art galleries, where the daintiest and most beautiful things, the flowers of Greek statuary, for instance, bloom among the grime like a band of gods imprisoned in a slum. The spectacle of art in such surroundings sometimes strikes us as being at once ludicrous and pathetic, like something delicate and lovely sprawling in the gutter, or an angel with a dirty face.


Society is a conspiracy, said Emerson, against the great man. And to blast him utterly in the centre of his being, it invented Original Sin. Is Original Sin, then, a theological dogma or a political device?

If Men Were Equal

If men had been equal at the beginning, they would never have risen above the savage. For in absolute equality even the concept of greatness could not have come into being. Inequality is the source of all advancement.

Against the Ostentatiously Humble

He who is truly humble conceals even his humility. 


The fever of modern thought which burns in our veins, and from which we refuse to escape by reactionary backdoors—Christianity and the like—is not without its distinction: it is an “honourable sickness,” to use the phrase of Nietzsche. I speak of those who sincerely strive to seek an issue from this fever; to pass through it into a new health. Of the others to whom fever is the condition of existence, who make a profession of their maladies, the valetudinarians of the spirit, the dabblers in quack soul-remedies for their own sake, it is impossible to speak without disdain. Our duty is to exterminate them, by ridicule or any other means found effectual. But we are ourselves already too grievously harassed; we are caught in the whirlwind of modern thought, which contains as much dust as wind. We see outside our field of conflict a region of Christian calm, but never, never, never can we return there, for our instincts as well as our intellect are averse to it. The problem must have a different solution. And what, indeed, is the problem? To some of us it is still that of emancipation—that which confronted Goethe, Ibsen, Nietzsche, and the other great spirits of last century. It is an error to think that these men have yet been refuted or even understood; they have simply been buried beneath the corpses of later writers. And it is the worst intellectual weakness, and, therefore, crime, of our age that ideas are no longer disproved, but simply superseded by newer ideas. The latest is the true, and Time refutes everything! That is our modern superstition. We have still, then, to go back—or, rather, forward—to Goethe, Ibsen and Nietzsche. Our problem is still that of clearing a domain of freedom around us, of enlarging our field of choice, and so making destiny itself more spacious; and, then, having delivered ourselves from prejudice and superstition—and how many other things!—of setting an aim before us for the unflinching pursuit of which we make ourselves responsible.

Greater freedom, and therefore greater responsibility, above all greater aims, an enlargement of life, not a whittling of it down to Christian standards—that is our problem still!

Apropos the Cynic

He wrote with an assumption of extreme heartlessness, and the public said, “How tender his heart must be when he hides it under such a disguise!” But what he was hiding all the time was his lack of heart.

Life as Expression

Schopenhauer interpreted life as the expression of a Will to Live. Nietzsche showed with profound truth that beneath this will there was something more fundamental, the Will to Power. Have we here got to the foundation, or shall we find that underlying the Will to Power there is something more fundamental still? Why do all living things strive for power? Is it, indeed, power that they desire in their striving, power for the sake of power? That which everything by a law of its being searches for is expression: the Will to Power is merely an outcome of that search. For seeing that the sum of created Life is split up into individuals, related and yet diverse, the expression of one unit is bound to collide with that of another, and the outcome is a conflict. Life, therefore, is essentially something that injures itself, and injures itself the more the more powerful it is; in a word, Life is essentially tragic. Most people, however, live in illusion, knowing nothing of this. The philosophers, and, before them, the priests, were those who perceived that Life was of this nature; but, alas, from the truth they drew the immediate and not the more profound conclusion. They sought, unconscious Hedonists, a palliative for Life, and contemned expression, which they saw was the cause of suffering. These were the creators of that morality which has prevailed to our own day; a morality antagonistic to Life, anti-tragic, negative. All the systems which have been created in this way are colossal panaceas and remedies: they are not fundamental.

There were others, however, who saw as the priests did that Life was tragic, but who at the same time affirmed it. These were the tragic poets. They were more deeply versed in Life than the priests: tragic art is more profound than morality. For morality is based on the belief that man desires above everything else Happiness. But Tragedy has perceived that this is not so. Man will express himself, it proclaims, whatever the outcome, whether it be joy or suffering.

Since then morality has sunk deep into Life, and there is now almost a second instinct in man striving against expression. Consequently there are many existences passed without expression; sometimes even in a resolute struggle against it, as in the case of innumerable religious men and ascetics. To some men it seems that their spirit has been lying frozen and dead within them, until one day an influence touches them, and they feel an imperious desire to express themselves, to create. This influence is nothing else than Love, which is the desire for expression itself. When its rule is recognized and obeyed Life reaches its highest degree of joy and of pain, and becomes creative. This is the state which is glorified by the tragic poets. To those who affirm, it is the highest condition of Life.


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