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Notes on Life and Letters

7. Tradition—1918
"Work is the law. Like iron that lying idle degenerates into a mass of useless rust,
like water that in an unruffled pool sickens into a stagnant and corrupt state, so
without action the spirit of men turns to a dead thing, loses its force, ceases
prompting us to leave some trace of ourselves on this earth." The sense of the
above lines does not belong to me. It may be found in the note- books of one of
the greatest artists that ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci. It has a simplicity and a
truth which no amount of subtle comment can destroy.
The Master who had meditated so deeply on the rebirth of arts and sciences, on
the inward beauty of all things,--ships' lines, women's faces--and on the visible
aspects of nature was profoundly right in his pronouncement on the work that is
done on the earth. From the hard work of men are born the sympathetic
consciousness of a common destiny, the fidelity to right practice which makes
great craftsmen, the sense of right conduct which we may call honour, the
devotion to our calling and the idealism which is not a misty, winged angel
without eyes, but a divine figure of terrestrial aspect with a clear glance and with
its feet resting firmly on the earth on which it was born.
And work will overcome all evil, except ignorance, which is the condition of
humanity and, like the ambient air, fills the space between the various sorts and
conditions of men, which breeds hatred, fear, and contempt between the masses
of mankind, and puts on men's lips, on their innocent lips, words that are
thoughtless and vain.
Thoughtless, for instance, were the words that (in all innocence, I believe) came
on the lips of a prominent statesman making in the House of Commons an
eulogistic reference to the British Merchant Service. In this name I include men of
diverse status and origin, who live on and by the sea, by it exclusively, outside all
professional pretensions and social formulas, men for whom not only their daily
bread but their collective character, their personal achievement and their
individual merit come from the sea. Those words of the statesman were meant
kindly; but, after all, this is not a complete excuse. Rightly or wrongly, we expect
from a man of national importance a larger and at the same time a more
scrupulous precision of speech, for it is possible that it may go echoing down the
ages. His words were:
"It is right when thinking of the Navy not to forget the men of the Merchant
Service, who have shown--and it is more surprising because they have had no
traditions towards it--courage as great," etc., etc.
And then he went on talking of the execution of Captain Fryatt, an event of
undying memory, but less connected with the permanent, unchangeable
conditions of sea service than with the wrong view German minds delight in
taking of Englishmen's psychology. The enemy, he said, meant by this atrocity to
frighten our sailors away from the sea.
"What has happened?" he goes on to ask. "Never at any time in peace have
sailors stayed so short a time ashore or shown such a readiness to step again
into a ship."