Read THE FALLACY OF A NATION of Prose Fancies (Second Series), free online book, by Richard Le Gallienne, on ReadCentral.com.

It is, I am given to understand, a familiar axiom of mathematics that no number of ciphers placed in front of significant units, or tens or hundreds of units, adds in the smallest degree to the numerical value of those units.  The figure one becomes of no more importance however many noughts are marshalled in front of it ­though, indeed, in the mathematics of human nature this is not so.  Is not a man or woman considered great in proportion to the number of ciphers that walk in front of him, from a humble brace of domestics to guards of honour and imperial armies?

A parallel profound truth of mathematics is that a nought, however many times it be multiplied, remains nought; but again we find the reverse obtain in the mathematics of human nature.  One might have supposed that the result of one nobody multiplied even fifty million times would still be nobody.  However, such is far from being the case.  Fifty million nobodies make ­a nation.  Of course, there is no need for so many.  I am reckoning as a British subject, and speak of fifty million merely as an illustration of the general fact that it is the multiplication of nobodies that makes a nation.  ‘Increase and multiply’ was, it will be remembered, the recipe for the Jewish nation.

Nobodies of the same colour, tongue, and prejudices have but to congregate together in a crowd sufficiently big for other similar crowds to recognise them, and then they are given a name of their own, and become recognised as a nation ­one of the ‘Great Powers.’

Beyond those differences in colour, tongue, and prejudices there is really no difference between the component units ­or rather ciphers ­of all these several national crowds.  You have seen a procession of various trades-unions filing toward Hyde Park, each section with its particular banner with a strange device:  ‘The United Guild of Paperhangers,’ ’The Ancient Order of Plumbers,’ and so on.  And you may have marvelled to notice how alike the members of the various carefully differentiated companies were.  So to say, they each and all might have been plumbers; and you couldn’t help feeling that it wouldn’t have mattered much if some of the paper-hangers had by mistake got walking amongst the plumbers, or vice versa.

So the great trades-unions of the world file past, one with the odd word ‘Russia’ on its banner; another boasting itself ’Germany’ ­this with a particularly bumptious and self-important young man walking backward in front of it, in the manner of a Salvation Army captain, and imperiously waving an iron wand; still another ‘nation’ calling itself ‘France’; and yet another boasting the biggest brass band, and called ‘England.’  Other smaller bodies of nobodies, that is, smaller nations, file past with humbler tread ­though there is really no need for their doing so.  For, as we have said, they are in every particular like to those haughtier nations who take precedence of them.  In fact, one or two of them, such as Norway and Denmark ­were a truer system of human mathematics to obtain ­are really of more importance than the so-called greater nations, in that among their nobodies they include a larger percentage of intellectual somebodies.

Remembering that percentage of wise men, the formula of a nation were perhaps more truly stated in our first mathematical image.  The wise men in a nation are as the units with the noughts in front of them.  And when I say wise men I do not, indeed, mean merely the literary men or the artists, but all those somebodies with some real force of character, people with brains and hearts, fighters and lovers, saints and thinkers, and the patient, industrious workers.  Such, if you consider, are really no integral part of the nation among which they are cast.  They have no part in what are grandiloquently called national interests ­war, politics, and horse-racing to wit.  A change of Government leaves them as unmoved as an election for the board of guardians.  They would as soon think of entering Parliament or the County Council, as of yearning to manage the gasworks, or to go about with one of those carts bearing the legend ‘Aldermen and Burgesses of the City of London’ conspicuously upon its front.  Their main concern in political changes is the rise and fall of the income-tax, and, be the Cabinet Tory or Liberal, their rate papers come in for the same amount.  It is likely that national changes would affect them but little more.  What more would a foreign invasion mean than that we should pay our taxes to French, Russian, or German officials, instead of to English ones?  French and Italians do our cooking, Germans manage our music, Jews control our money markets; surely it would make little difference to us for France, Russia, or Germany to undertake our government.  The worst of being conquered by Russia would be the necessity of learning Russian; whereas a little rubbing up of our French would make us comfortable with France.  Besides, to be conquered by France would save us crossing the Channel to Paris, and then we might hope for cafes in Regent Street, and an emancipated literature.  As a matter of fact, so-called national interests are merely certain private interests on a large scale, the private interests of financiers, ambitious politicians, soldiers, and great merchants.  Broadly speaking, there are no rival nations ­there are rival markets; and it is its Board of Trade and its Stock Exchange rather than its Houses of Parliament that virtually govern a country.  Thus one seaport goes down and another comes up, industries forsake one country to bless another, the military and naval strengths of nations fluctuate this way and that; and to those whom these changes affect they are undoubtedly important matters ­the great capitalist, the soldier, and the politician; but to the quiet man at home with his wife, his children, his books, and his flowers, to the artist busied with brave translunary matters, to the saint with his eyes filled with ’the white radiance of eternity,’ to the shepherd on the hillside, the milkmaid in love, or the angler at his sport ­what are these pompous commotions, these busy, bustling mimicries of reality?  England will be just as good to live in though men some day call her France.  Let the big busybodies divide her amongst them as they like, so that they leave one alone with one’s fair share of the sky and the grass, and an occasional, not too vociferous, nightingale.

The reader will perhaps forgive the hackneyed references to Sir Thomas Browne peacefully writing his Religio Medici amid all the commotions of the Civil War, and to Gautier calmly correcting the proofs of his new poems during the siege of Paris.  The milkman goes his rounds amid the crash of empires.  It is not his business to fight.  His business is to distribute his milk ­as much after half-past seven as may be inconvenient.  Similarly, the business of the thinker is with his thought, the poet with his poetry.  It is the business of politicians to make national quarrels, and the business of the soldier to fight them.  But as for the poet ­let him correct his proofs, or beware the printer.

The idea, then, of a nation is a grandiloquent fallacy in the interests of commerce and ambition, political and military.  All the great and good, clever and charming people belong to one secret nation, for which there is no name unless it be the Chosen People.  These are the lost tribes of love, art, and religion, lost and swamped amid alien peoples, but ever dreaming of a time when they shall meet once more in Jerusalem.

Yet though they are thus aliens, taking and wishing no part in the organisation of the ‘nations’ among which they dwell, this does not prevent those nations taking part and credit in them.  And whenever a brave soldier wins a battle, or an intrepid traveller discovers a new land, his particular nation flatters itself, as though it ­the million nobodies ­had done it.  With a profound indifference to, indeed an active dislike of, art and poetry, there is nothing on which a nation prides itself so much as upon its artists and poets, whom, invariably, it starves, neglects, and even insults, as long as it is not too silly to do so.

Thus the average Englishman talks of Shakespeare ­as though he himself had written the plays; of India ­as though he himself had conquered it.  And thus grow up such fictions as ‘national greatness’ and ’public opinion.’

For what is ‘national greatness’ but the glory reflected from the memories of a few great individuals? and what is ‘public opinion’ but the blustering echoes of the opinion of a few clever young men on the morning papers?

For how can people in themselves little become great by merely congregating into a crowd, however large?  And surely fools do not become wise, or worth listening to, merely by the fact of their banding together.

A ‘public opinion’ on any matter except football, prize-fighting, and perhaps cricket, is merely ridiculous ­by whatever brutal physical powers it may be enforced ­ridiculous as a town council’s opinion upon art; and a nation is merely a big fool with an army.