Rudyard Kipling wrote The Gods of the Copybook Headings, parts of which are included herein, in 1919; nearly 100 years later it has proven enduringly popular – and for good reason. It is just as apropos today as when men lived in trees because it is elemental, going to the bedrock foundation of our knowledge and beliefs. The poem reveals eternal wisdom and common sense in an early twenty-first century world that has badly lost its way.
“We ignore The Gods of the Copybook Headings only at our grave peril – risking terror and slaughter!”
Copybooks disappeared from schools in the 1940s. Each page contained an uber-large heading in perfect cursive. The headings consisted of proverbs, hortatory or aphorisms which students copied on the rest of the page to hone handwriting skills. Kipling’s poem traces man’s knowledge and superstitions through the epochs. Indeed, the Gods of the Copybook Headings outlast all ersatz and transient feel-good bromides; we ignore them only at our grave peril!
As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
The “Gods of the Market Place” refer to transient and ephemeral trends and fads such as Tulip Mania and the South Sea Bubble. Today such Gods would include the housing bubble, mortgage backed securities and yes – manmade global warming, bottomless fiscal deficits, ethanol subsidies, stimulus packages and carbon credits. Back to Kipling and Pigs with Wings.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”
The Gods of the Market Place tell people that which they wish to hear. Today the Market tells us we can spend and borrow without limit; we can disarm (slash defense spending); and we can choke private initiative – all without consequence. Nevertheless, reality, with all its discomforts and irritation, is manifest in the Gods of the Copybook Headings which tell us this isn’t so. People and nations succeed when they act in conformity with the copybook headings, i.e. the collected wisdom and experience of mankind on our planet. When the copybook headings are ignored, we run out of credit and are bound and delivered to our foes.
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
Man has achieved his present exalted state by slowly accumulating nuggets of truth, morality and wisdom over the millennia; by, in effect, sorting the wheat from the chaff. Nonetheless, every so often we lose touch with the veracity of the copybook headings. We then take destructive actions that set us aback, invariably with much collateral grief, suffering and death. The fact we may be technological geniuses does not shield us from being economic, moral and political cretins. Following is the apt conclusion of Kiplinger’s epic.
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
As Kipling describes, moral and economic truths a/k/a copybook headings are timeless and immutable; disregarding them leads inevitably to, using Kiplinger’s words, terror and slaughter. The market is nothing but pigs with wings, i.e. fad, fable, fashion and foolishness. There are no shortages today of smooth-talking wizards promising a brave new world of perpetual peace, abundance for all, men paid merely for existing and no wages of sin. All the while such wizards mock the copybook headings. Indeed, all of today’s economic and geopolitical woes can be traced to defiance of the copybook rules we learned as children, what Henry Ford called “the essence of human wisdom”.
“We can worship the Gods of the Market Place for a fleeting time; but in the end The Gods of the Copybook Headings return to exact their revenge.”
Yes, we blithely can worship the Gods of the Market Place for a fleeting time. But lemonade doesn’t flow in rivers and basic, immutable and unchanging human nature invariably will return to every people and nation that permits itself to become self-indulgent. Science still trumps superstition; chemistry still beats alchemy; real doctors still are superior to witch doctors; and reality always outstrips illusion, ideology and dogma. Substance eternally thumps hope and change. And Water still wets us and Fire still burns. There is no question about that whatsoever.
The only uncertainty is the one posed in Kipling’s final stanza; how much terror and slaughter must there be before the Gods of the Copybook Headings return?
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