‘Civilisation is but a vast, theatric, backward step in the social life of humanity.’
Bart Kennedy (1861-1930)
I have avoided reading Kennedy's A Tramp's Philosophy (1908) up to now, not wishing to be influenced by his own philosophy of tramping when reading the other six tramp writers I have researched to date. The more practical reason is that the book is sadly out of print, neither is it available in electronic text. There was a used copy on Amazon UK for £199.75, so I did the obvious thing and invested the grand sum of £4 with my local library to track down a copy through the British Library network, eventually receiving the copy pictured above from Wetherby in Yorkshire. Thanks then to the library system, but as I believe that writing should be more freely available, and given that the book has not been republished for over 100 years (so presumably out of copyright) I am devoting most of this post to reproducing significant passages from A Tramp's Philosophy. In two instances, because it has added to a particular theme from Kennedy's philosphy, I have included passages from his
autobiography, A Man Adrift (1899), and these are identified in the text.
autobiography, A Man Adrift (1899), and these are identified in the text.
Unlike my other posts on tramp writers, where I have tried to combine their biography and philosophy into a single essay, this post will concentrate only on Kennedy's philosophy. A separate post is devoted to those books by Kennedy that are more autobiographical in nature; adventures and experiences that well account for the philosophy Kennedy was to formulate later in life. Having said which, the biographical information is extremely thin; a difficulty I have encountered with some of the other tramp writers I have written on. But for now, having read A Tramp's Philosophy, I was delighted to discover that it is a thoroughly worthy and cynical demolition of human civilisation in true Nietzschean style, containing much that will allow me to expand on my own philosophy of tramping in due time.
As with Nietzsche, Kennedy applies the term 'cynicism' in both its popular negative form, as well as it's positive role of denouncing human dogma and stupidity: ‘It is good to be cynical. It means that the scales have fallen from your eyes.’ Like Nietzsche also, Kennedy both disconnects himself from and associates himself with 'the masses', using multiple irony and the form of the diatribe—albeit softened with mock deference. Indeed, the resonances between Nietzsche and Kennedy (who does not refer to the other philosopher) are so strong that I will draw attention to them where this reinforces Kennedy's philosophy; if only for the reason that this philosophy, if not entirely unknown, is certainly forgotten—and further, that it is likely to be dismissed by our guardians of knowledge for coming out of the mouth of a little known tramp and not a university professor! But it is the reverse premise, as we shall see, that Kennedy unleashes on academics. There is also something of Montaigne in the way Kennedy has produced discursive essays on nearly every possible aspects of human life and behaviour—not all of which will be covered here. Kennedy reflects on his ironic and satirical writing style in the final passage of his book when he says:
‘I often say hard things against the world, but even I must admit that it has a sense of humour. Its humour is a humour that has a bite in it, but better this humour than none at all.’
Neither are the ancient Cynics referred to directly by Kennedy, although there is plenty of praise for the ancient Greeks in general. However, Kennedy's philosophy is clearly influenced by the Hellenistic philosophers, as his use of animals as a model for criticising human behaviour and his denunciation of money as a tool for achieving happiness, testify. When I attempt later in my work-in-progress to link the philosophy of the Cynics and other ancient ascetics, to the philosophy of the tramp, I will do so in the knowledge that Kennedy has already done half of the job for me!
But enough of my clumsy analysis of this writer. It is time for Kennedy to speak for himself. I have said that Kennedy's writing style is discursive, for instance, both the first and last chapters deal with the theme of Work. And so, as many of the targets of Kennedy's vituperation are repeated in more than one chapter of his book, I will discuss them here under the main subject areas that emerge, rather than Kennedy's own chapter headings. I start with Education (that does come from a single chapter—titled 'Cynicisms'), because it is on education that Kennedy, like Nietzsche, places most of the blame for human stupidity.
This first passage well illustrates Kennedy's ironic writing style of politely apologising to his reader—in an almost grovelling way—for what he is about to say, and then sticking it to them anyway!
‘It pains me to say what I am going to say, for I revere the race of beings to whom I have the honour of belonging with the strongest and most powerful kind of reverence. But a fact is a fact. And the fact is that men get more stupid as they grow older. The human being starts with a good bright mind. As everyone knows, children are famous for their straight and apt and acute way of viewing things. But the child's mind is soon, alas! dulled by the process that is called education. Schools and colleges and other brain-benumbing institutions kill the mother-wit that the human began with.’
That formal education actually makes us more stupid concurs with Nietzsche's premise that there is something the child sees and hears that others do not, and his view that 'that something' is the most important thing of all. According to Nietzsche, we need to invent a totally different approach to education if we are to retain the open inquisitiveness of childhood: ‘At present the labours of higher education produce merely the savant or the official or the business man . . . But the difficulty lies in unlearning what we know and setting up a new aim.’
In the passage below, Kennedy agrees with Nietzsche that education was designed to cultivate the professional, political and business classes, ensuring that the divisions in society are maintained for the privilege of these elites. Divisions that are still being desperately protected today; as the UK example of the poor and disabled paying the cost for the criminal activities of bankers starkly illustrates. It also seems incredible that over 100 years ago, Kennedy had already anticipated the use of the soundbite as a substitute for real knowledge:
‘Listen! The world is too full of education already. The schoolmaster should be put to carrying the hod. The world is too full of ready-made formulas that masquerade under the name of ideas. The world is too full of phrases ... that either mean nothing, or that were designed for the especial purpose of hoodwinking the masses. ... The fact of the matter is that, mentally, the masses of civilisation are kept where they are for the advantage of what might be called professional men of intellect and their descendants and followers. And the aim of all education is, broadly speaking, to keep them there.’
Here also, we are introduced to Kennedy's term 'the masses', a term that recurs throughout his book. But just as with Nietzsche's use of the term 'the human herd', the masses are not meant to describe the proletariat, but rather a broad term for all those who are slaves to received wisdom rather than independent of thought:
‘When I say masses, I also include those who have suffered the disadvantage of having received an expensive education. In fact, this select portion of the masses is composed of bigger fools than usual. And if they had to earn their living without favour, they would be nowhere. Public schools and colleges are essentially brain-chloroforming institutions. Of course we get our rulers from them. Of course.’
Concerning Art and Artists
Kennedy's scorn for educators is applied to all those who arrogantly assume the right to tell the rest of us what we should appreciate about the world and how we should regard and understand it:
‘I fear that the professional art critic is as other professional critics. He is an authoritative, exacting person, who can do nothing, and who feels that he is dowered with a divine right to tell the earth all about something just because he knows nothing about this something.’
Then Kennedy employs his irony to satirise artists for also taking themselves too seriously:
‘I like artists, for, taking them by and large, they are the nicest of fellows. But I wish they had more sense of humour. I wish they could see that the grass would still grow even if they stopped producing masterpieces. [...] It is a merry and comic world, my good artist lads. A world where it doesn't do to get too much vexed. Especially when one has so soft and easy a time as we artists.'
In his chapter titled 'Cynicisms', Kennedy is cheered by the fact that however much the thinker, idealist and patriot may try to make the world a perfect place, they will fail miserably—ensuring also an endless supply of targets for the cynic's scorn. Not that such problems can't be fixed: ‘Their solution is the easiest thing in the world. You, or the other person, have but to act in a certain way, and lo! the thing is solved.’ But, Kennedy continues, this depends on a clear, sharp-sighted, disinterested person providing the solution. Sadly it is never thus in life, for people substitute 'sense' for 'intellect'. And here, as did the ancient Cynics, who only acknowledged information received through the senses, Kennedy employs the model of lower animals to emphasise his point: ‘I wonder if animals have problems. But the thought at once comes to me that animals do not posses intellect. They only posses sense.’
Kennedy continues to mock the self-appointed problem solvers of the world, when he says that:
‘In the old, ancient, moss-covered days he [ancient man] had a distaste for expert advice regarding the problems that confronted him. ... It wasn't so easy in those good old ancient times to slap a king or an empower on the back—if I may use so daring a metaphor—and tell him a thing or two about running his show. ... The old ancient mossy days were sorry days for the problem-solvers. But now happily all this is over. The world brims with exact advice about everything. If you are an emperor, and things don't go like clockwork, all you have to do is peruse the writings of some noble and thoughtful person, and you will receive tips of the most invaluable character.’
On Civilisation and Human Nature
Consider the quotation at the head of this post. Kennedy asserts that the primary concern of civilised societies, is to maintain the privilege of cliques at the expense of the majority of its citizens, regardless of their potential. The recent row over the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, surrounding himself in Government with other old Etonians (the school, founded in 1440 by Henry VI that still excludes women) is just such an example of this practice.
‘No social system or state can be really worth anything where the paramount aim is not to allow the individual to develop to the fullest, both mentally and physically. And this aim has never been the aim of any civilised state. ... The aim of all civilised states has been to keep the masses in subjugation for the benefit of cliques. And this is as true of republics as it is of autocracies. ... The money clique that rules America is more oppressive than is the Grand Ducal clique of Russia. It has a far worse effect on the American character.’
Kennedy recognises the simple truth that the Cynics understood over 2,000 years ago, that there is no such thing as the march of human progress—at least in intellectual terms. True, human beings might be able to invent ever more effective killing machines, but have they passed any wisdom from one generation to the next on how to prevent wars? Where is the evidence that we learn the mistakes of history? As Kennedy observes, so far as we can imagine it, 'human nature' cannot have changed since pre-historic times:
‘I must say that it makes me tired when I think of the way that the world has been insulted, and is still being insulted, by irresponsible ruffians who are called men of genius. ... Men of genius ought the be locked up. ... The truth of the matter is that human nature is now as it was in the days when it lived in the cave. It has exactly the same ideas.’
Indeed, for Kennedy, although the world may be progressing technologically, morally and culturally he regards civilisation as in decline. Below, Kennedy, like Nietzsche, extols the virtues of the ancient Greeks. Yet unlike Nietzsche, who also celebrated the virtues of the Imperium Romanum, Kennedy expresses nothing but contempt for the Romans and their legacy:
‘I am no believer in civilisation, but if it were possible for me to believe in civilisation, I would certainly believe in the old Greek civilisation. ... The Greeks stood upon the bodies of slaves even as we do, the men of the present time. But let us be fair to them. A least they were just and generous enough to feed their slaves. ... The Greeks were people who lived round and full lives. Their philosophy grew out of the contemplation of the beautiful things that lay around them ... From the Greek materialism sprang a life of wonder and glory ... I care not for the Romans. Nor am I in any way impressed by the accounts of their conquering wars. They were essentially a brutal, arrogant, domineering, inartistic people. ... It is hard to think that the fine Greeks were vanquished by the Romans. The people of intellect and joy and art were forced aside by people whose ideals were mathematical and pushful.’
It was Epicurus, 2,300 years ago, who first questioned whether people’s ability to kill ever greater numbers of their own kind more efficiently, should make us reconsider the view of civilisation as progress. This is a theme Kennedy explores when attempting to puncture the pomposity of those Westerners who consider themselves more civilised than societies they dismiss as primitive:
‘It may be pointed out that in fighting, a civilised people are superior to savage people. And the civilised nonentity will perhaps be foolish enough to point with pride to the fact that the white men have beaten the Indians, or the Arabs. But all this really shows is that the white men have been able to take advantage of these people by murder-machines. ... The assertive and immodest American knows that, man for man, the Indians were better fighters than white men. In fact, they were better men in every way than the average white man. The present-day American is indeed a parlous lot when compared with the fine people they murdered by the aid of machinery.’
In the piece entitled, 'Shall Women Vote', Kennedy begins ironically by suggesting that women are impatient in their campaign for the right to vote, and that they should wait hundreds of years until, ‘by the drip of time’, men's opposition to voting will have worn away. Kennedy then digresses into suggesting that the vote is in any case of no use at all, and that elections are just manufactured by ‘the liars and tricksters who are classed under the generic name politicians’, to con us into thinking that we have a choice over how we are governed: ‘At present the vote is an utterly worthless thing. It is machined for the benefit of corrupt political cliques...’ By the end of this piece Kennedy is asking, ‘Might not women bring saner and and nobler influences into politics? [...] If women want the vote they must have it. It might bring the vote back into some repute.’ Finishing the piece with the call to arms: ‘Go on, women. Get the vote ... And I am glad to see that you have at last adopted the only means of getting it. Which is to fight!’
But regardless of the involvement of women, Kennedy holds that democracy as a political system is fundamentally flawed. He challenges the myth of democracy in the chapter 'On Votes and Vote-Catchers', when he contemplates the belief that voters are the authors of their own destiny:
‘And so, after the election is over, you sit down and rest easy ... A glow of satisfied pride steals through you. You are glad and thankful that you have done your poor suffering country a bit of good. ... For years things have not gone well with England. The traitors who were so long in power had done their deliberate best to ruin the country! ... The main point is that you have now put into Parliament a powerful and virile man who by the force of his personality will make himself felt as a power for good. ... you dream ... How this lion of debate will thunder forth if anything goes wrong ... hear the swelling tones of his resonant and reaching voice ... see his eyes flash, as his opponent wilts and withers before him. The bewigged Speaker listens to him with awed respect. Sleepy members shake themselves from their sleepiness as he grandly denounces Wrong and sets up on its pedestal, Right. His wit pierces as a sword. By the force of himself and his eloquence he sets things going as they ought to...
A beautiful dream, but alas, alas, only a dream.
For your true-hearted man who voices your ideals has as much power in the House of Commons as a feather has in a gale of wind. No one wilts or withers before him ... Your true-hearted member is just a common ordinary nobody ... He must do as he is told by the Party, or be one who is utterly and absolutely useless. ... Your member has less power than the ordinary voter at a General Election, for the ordinary voter can vote as his alleged intelligence directs. But your member must vote exactly as he is told ... It matters not what his views are.
The meaning of the word, Party? It is this:— Party means a small knot of men who wield power, and whose end and aim and ambition and object is to keep wielding power. [...] You know the saying about a corporation—that it has neither a body or a soul. This saying fits the Party, only that there is some check on a corporation. But on the political party their is none. ... It can ruin, or take chances upon ruining, its country so as to keep in power. And often it does this.’
In the following chapter, 'The People who Govern', Kennedy's satire of party politics gets straight to the point of naked self-interest from the very first line: ‘The people who govern see to it that they have the first whack at the cakes and ale.’
‘The dreadful and tremendous French Revolution was a somewhat stiff price to pay for the word "Republic". ... It is a word that falls delightfully upon the ear. It has a fine, free ring about it. But there are moments when it really sounds no better than the word "autocracy."
The people who govern! They always were, and are, and will be the same. It matters not whether they are pompful emperors and kings, or modestly attired presidents. ... It matters not whether they are administrators of religion who tell you vivid fairy stories about the wonderful place that you will go to after you are dead. These people are always the same. They are—even when they least believe it—but people who are out for the first whack of the cakes and ale.’
It should be noted, that although here is one of the few references to religion in A Tramp's Philosophy, the one line in the passage above is enough to acquaint us with Kennedy's sentiments on that subject. It is a subject, however, that he is much more effusive about in his 1899 autobiography, A Man Adrift (for Kennedy's characterisation of Jesus as a tramp view this post). But to compensate for the lack of Kennedy's critique on Christianity here, I am inserting some lines that well illustrate Kennedy's philosophy on this subject.
On Christianity and Charitable Organisations (from A Man Adrift)
And you think that if Christ lived now in this Christian civilisation He would mayhap be lying yonder starved and hungry and cold. Yonder under the shadow of the Sphinx.
On Christianity and Charitable Organisations (from A Man Adrift)
‘They are poor human shadows. They come from out of the great black, sinister shadow of the town. They are ghosts of wrecked lives. There is no one to help them. There is no one to give them shelter. There is no one to give them warmth or food or love. They are lost. They are but shadows.
Why have they to starve and shiver in the midst of plenty? Over yonder is a palace wherein a thousand such as these might be housed. Over yonder is a church mark you! a church ! wherein shelter might be had. What would Christ say to this?
But Christ is dead.
A word as to charitable organisations.
They are no good. At least, I, who have had need of them, have found them to be no good. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Yes, I assert that they are no good. This statement is sweeping but listen to a cold fact. If you are hungry and homeless, and apply to one of them for relief from misery they will do nothing for you. I know what I am talking about, for I have applied to them.
Of course, there is an excellent reason for their not helping the destitute, just as
there is an excellent reason for everything.
The destitute man may not have a satisfactory pedigree; he may be a criminal;
he may be undeserving ; he may be just a hair's-breadth beyond their alleged scope
of action. Again, he may not possess a spotless reputation. To get help from a charitable organisation you must possess a spotless reputation. You must be good and worthy, and able to stand searching cross-examination.
And, above all, you must be able to fast and do without sleep for a month after your application.
Still, it is an ill wind that blows nobody good. The charity organisations provide fat salaries for the officials who run them.
If you are ever destitute, steer clear of them; for if they do take you in and give you a piece of bread, they will take more than the worth of it out of you. It is much better for you to go out on the Embankment.
They talk of the cloven hoof of wickedness, but I tell you it is as nothing compared with the iron heel of organised charity.
No, if a man ever asks you for fourpence for his night's lodging, give it to him if you can. Even though you feel almost sure that he'll go and get a drink with it. Supposing he does. What then? Doesn't the poor chap need a drink to cheer him up a little? See, he is dirty and hungry and half-starved and badly clothed. He is worse off than a homeless
dog. No one has any use for him. But remember that he has feelings, that he has
a heart, that he has red blood just like you have. He may have been a man who once held a good position. Or he may have but never mind what he was. It is what he is. He is a man who needs help. Christ would have helped him and asked no questions. Do thou likewise.
People often say than any man can get work if he wishes to work. This is false. The army of unemployed increases day by day. I am not going to argue as to why this is. I only state a fact.
No, give the poor fellow fourpence, and give him the price of a drink if you can spare it. And you will be doing an act of which Christ would have approved.’
On Crime, the Law and Killing
Now one of the things that tramps and Cynics—and Nietzsche too—had in common, was a healthy disrespect for the law; a disrespect based on the belief that, as laws are man-made they have no universal validity. And, giving the example, for instance, that one is free—even encouraged through advertising—to consume alcohol in one society, yet in another consuming alcohol is punishable by death, the law is also inherently stupid. The tramp, like the Cynic, is cosmopolitan in spirit, rejecting state and national boundaries for the autonomy to wander freely wherever he or she pleases. Nietzsche expressed the same citizen of the world spirit when he wrote:
‘Why cling to your bit of earth, or your little business, or listen to what your neighbour says? It is so provincial to bind oneself to views which are no longer binding a couple of hundred miles away.’
But even within the same society; customs, laws and morality can have relative values—something that Kennedy returns to frequently in his writing. Here again we return to the theme of killing:
‘There are many human acts, specified upon the statute-books of the world as crimes, about which there is a difference of opinion as to whether they are crimes or not. There are many human acts that at times are crimes and that at other times are not crimes. Killing is not a crime in times of war. Neither is theft.’
But, according to Kennedy, this does not signify that killing in times of war cannot also be criminal. In another chapter of his book, Kennedy comments: ‘The most atrocious and revolting crimes are committed in times of war—which is legalised by the State.’ And here Kennedy turns up the satire to emphasise just in what way he feels politicians are implicated in the iniquity of war:
‘Of course, they don't go to war themselves. It would be too common place and too vulgar a thing for them to get in the firing line themselves. They might get shot—and then how would the people whom they govern get on? What a dreadful calamity it would be if the Prime Minister of a country, or a foreign minister, or any other sort of governing official, were to be killed in a war they had created. ... Such an awful thing would never do. ... They have the patriotic thoughtfulness to see to it that they keep well out of harm's reach. [...] Usually the people who govern declare these wars in safe and comfortable chambers. They are sorry when they are declaring them, but the other governing people of the other lucky country were not polite—and so there must be satisfaction. [...] And everyone is pleased and gratified. And tuneful and inspiring bands play off the men who go forth to do the mere bit of fighting.’
In the following passage, Kennedy continues the the theme of the relative morality of killing when he satirises the manner in which our national leaders can turn killing into a virtue when it suits them to do so:
‘People don't like to be killed, and they have made laws calculated to discourage such acts. ... At present it is not quite the thing to do to go around killing people. But if the people—who honour you by making a handsome thing out of ruling you—get vexed, they can suddenly turn killing into the highest kind of a virtue. They will clap a uniform on your back and send you out with bands of other uniformed persons to kill as many people as you possibly can.’
Turning to domestic crime, Kennedy continues his attack on politicians and others in authority. He underlines the hypocrisy of demonising tramps and petty criminals when those who commit ‘the worst crimes against the social order are never punished.’ One need look no further than the way bankers were protected from the ravages of the current financial crash—of which they were the authors—compared to the ordinary citizen who paid the price for their greed. The worst criminals, Kennedy says, live in ease and splendour; quoting an unnamed ruler of ‘one of the greatest states in the world’ who stated publicly that the predatory rich are more dangerous than anarchists. ‘Remember’, Kennedy adds, ‘that the possibilities of crime are in all of us.’ And he is in no doubt who the real criminals are:
‘It is not the crooks who give the most bother to society. Rather it is the good and disinterested people who posses the idea of running the world on fair lines. ... Not the thieves, and professional criminals. Oh, no. The police have at heart kindly and brotherly feelings toward them. The crooks are really the employers of the police and judges.’
Although Kennedy expresses some ambivalent feelings for the police in the passage below, he at least acknowledges that many in the police recognise and treat criminals as human beings:
‘The hardest thing of all that a man, who has done time, has to bear is the being treated as though he were a leper. And whatever else the police are guilty of, they are not guilty of this. I am against the police. I would abolish all of them if I could. ... A policeman may by nature be dull, but this fact is soon forced upon him. And he loses the feeling of loathing for men who have been in prison.’
But if the police have a certain understanding and tolerance toward the petty criminal, Kennedy is clear that the laws (formulated by politicians who pander to public fears and anxieties as a diversion to failures of government) inflicted on the petty criminal (Kennedy includes tramps and beggars in his definition of those society regards as criminals) are disproportionate to the harm done by such individuals to society. And certainly bears no equivalency to the harm done to society by politicians, bankers, etc.:
‘The people who are called criminals are at present treated by Society in a most cruel manner. A man commits an act of crime and often the wrong that society inflicts upon him is a thousand times greater than the wrong he has committed.’
On Capitalism and the Economy
Kennedy's irony is at its best when he satirises 'capital': ‘People have often tried to explain the mystery of capital to me. But my dull head has never been able to grasp the explanation.’ And for him the capitalist, ‘the person who owns capital’, is an even greater mystery: ‘I don't properly understand what he does, or how he does it, but I am very much obliged to him for all that.’
If it were not for the capitalist, Kennedy continues, millions of us would be denied the privilege of working. He compares the capitalist to the genie in the bottle: he may be on one side of the world and make things happen on the other: ‘The whole thing is wonderful. The modern capitalist beats the ancient genie into a cocked hat. He at once does nothing and everything.'
In a chapter called ‘The Power of Gold’, a time when electronic money was still nearly a century away, Kennedy anticipated the collapse of free market economics when he warned that: ‘The time is even now coming when the gigantic debts that gold has forced upon the world will be repudiated.’ But Kennedy cannot have known just how long it would be, or has yet to be, before humans renounce money as the most critical tool in their lives:
‘This foolish proceeding cannot, of course, last. Man may be many things, but he is not by nature an idiot. Nations will repudiate these absurd things that are called national debts. Indeed, nations will have to do it whether they like it or not, for the strain that it puts upon Labour to satisfy these unjust calls will in the end be too much. Nations will become bankrupt. In fact it only requires one to become bankrupt for the rest to follow.
A Bank of England note is in no sense value. It is simply a piece of paper upon which is printed an order to get something of value. ... The power of gold will pass. ... In fact it has become its own enemy. For not content with its power it has magnified it a million-fold. Gold acts as though it were incomparably bigger than it is. It has inflated itself almost beyond conception. It has taken on a bigger load than it can carry.’
It is incredible that we are only just starting to question the real value of money for our lives today over 100 years after Kennedy stated the obvious. Of course, Marx had already formulated a similar hypothesis on capital to Kennedy's by the time Kennedy was born, but unlike Marx, Kennedy had no more time for socialism than he did for capitalism. He claims to be working class, he is sorry for the working class, but he knows that the so called intelligentsia of whatever persuasion are both incompetent and corruptible:
‘Socialism will plunge them [the working class] deeper into the mire of slavery. For Socialism is an extension and intensifying of the power of the State. ... Bad though the present system is, unjust though it is, it is infinitely better to Socialism. For in the present system a man has some chance to grow. ... I am afraid of these labour leaders. I fear these men who are more arrogant and domineering than men such as the descendants of the old feudal barons. ... They [socialists] are going in the wrong direction. You cannot cure slavery by enslaving the people still further. ... In a state of Socialism you will still be pawns in the game.’
And here are the basic foundations of Kennedy's tramp philosophy. He recognises the folly and the failure of successive regimes and political movements to create a fair and just world. He also understands the corruption (criminality even) that rulers and politicians engage in to maintain their own privileges. He is fiercely protective of the right to remain an individual. He is free, he says, because he is an individual!
Concerning Work and Tramps
And so we finally get down to the business of tramping itself. Kennedy covers this in both his first chapter 'Concerning Work' and in his last chapter 'Doing Nothing'. I will deal with Kennedy's ideas on tramping together in this final section the better to link his philosophy on tramping to other aspects of society and civilisation above. Kennedy is not suggesting that society would be improved if we all gave up our jobs overnight and took to the road. No more than his use of lower animals as a standard to demonstrate just how corrupt our own civilisation has become, suggests that we should live like animals.
Compare again the quotation at the start of this essay that, ‘Civilisation is but a vast, theatric, backward step in the social life of humanity’ with Diogenes the Cynic's retort to people who were ridiculing him for walking backward on a porch: “While you are criticising the way I walk, you are going backward in your way of living”. Kennedy's is a personal philosophy of survival in a world bankrupt of ideas, so it is easy to see why he would look back to the ancient Greeks as a model for his way of being in the world. Epicureanism—also influenced by the Cynics—contrasted with Plato’s view (still the predominant view held today) that society was made up of essentially rational people whose beliefs were soundly based. Rather Epicurus saw society in the same way as Kennedy, a society that had been essentially corrupted. Epicurus held that true human good lay in the healthy desires experienced by animals, and, like Kennedy and Nietzsche also, the desires of children before being corrupted by teaching and discourse. And so, if the Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans had pointed to the behaviour of animals to demonstrate human folly, it is hardly surprising that Kennedy would do likewise; not to use animals as a model for human behaviour, but rather as an admonition to humans to reappraise their own false values and beliefs:
‘Man has done a good deal of work in the world, and how is he better for it? Is he happier? He is not. Has he as good a time as the animals? No. However, it is not only fair to say that no really intelligent man works if he can get out of it. ... The nearest approach that a really intelligent man gets to work is to make others do it.’
Before continuing with Kennedy's treatise on work, it should be emphasised that his words must be taken with a large pinch of irony. This is a personal philosophy of a tramp, even a manifesto that could be adopted by other tramps; regardless of which, Kennedy did fill his life with work—if only travelling and writing to excess. This is not an ideology of the sloth. Tramping is work, begging is hard and humiliating work. The challenge from Kennedy—at least to those who equate money with attaining happiness—is that we should find more time, as fellow tramp writer W.H. Davies put it, 'to stand and stare'; to appreciate the simple pleasures that the world provides for free, instead of the ever onward frantic rush to obtain more money than we need to subsist. And for what? To exchange for more material possessions that end up replacing the first lot of material possessions that end up as trash because we got bored with them. But let's return to Kennedy's exposition which makes the point far more eloquently than I have:
‘Really noble and self-respecting animals do nothing, and delight in the doing of it. Some of them hunt, but you can hardly call that work, for even the most pronounced doer of work—be he of the man breed—will hunt. ... They [animals] are not skilled in book philosophy, but they have brains enough to know that the sun was given to them to bask in, and that the world generally is not half such a bad place if you will only take it as it is and not be for ever trying to displace things and trying to get hold of knowledge that in the end means less than nothing. ... Of course they have not the intelligence to work, you say. True they have not. And I might add that they are not particularly ambitious to posses such intelligence.’
And so, what is it that the tramp acquires from tramping that the labouring citizen is denied?
‘The open air! Is there anything so grand and fine and beautiful as the open air? How glorious it is to go along to no place in particular, neither thinking of or caring for the morrow! Despite what fools—who are sometimes called wise men—may say, man gets more out of life when he lets to-morrow take care of itself. I was never so happy in all my life as I was in the old days of wandering along. Security! Man, when he is in a heathy state, cares absolutely nothing for it. Security is at best a cowardly word. I know men who are "secure." I know men who have plenty of money. And, taking it all round, they don't get as much out of life as those who live from hand to mouth. [...] The fine glamour of the unexpected! It shines into the life of the tramp. As he goes along he wonders what will turn up next. He is faced with the mystery of the changing, inscrutable face of life. Life holds for him an interest that it holds for no one else. Yes, he begs his bread! And what of that? Who is to despise him because of that? Surely not the one who lives of the labours of others!’
With regard to common sense over intellect; Kennedy dismantles the myth of human superiority in the animal kingdom. As for the further myth that money can purchase health, happiness, novelty and security, Kennedy has repudiated that also. He now gets down to the business of defining the basic character of the tramp:
‘I must dispel here an illusion that some people have to the effect that the tramp is a danger to the State. Never was their illusion more baseless. The tramp is too much of a philosopher to be a revolutionist. As long as he can live without the doing of useful work, he is as satisfied with life as the most brilliant Cabinet minister that ever slept in Westminster. He is just as anxious to keep things as they are. Neither is he a Socialist. For socialists are parlous, unimaginative ruffians, whose ideal it would be to make everyone work ... Neither is the tramp a Liberal. He is a Conservative to the backbone: a conserver of his energy.’
I like this use of the word conservative. It does not apply to party politics, for which Kennedy had nothing but disdain. There is something in the use of this word, particularly when applied to the British (including a certain upper class Tory toff) that sums up eccentricity and individualism. Although I am no flag-waving loyalist, rather identifying with the Cynic concept of cosmopolitanism, there is something a bit deranged about the British and their willingness, pleasure even, for self-deprecation and self-mockery that is quaint and endearing (strange though, that the British are so sexually repressed). With the possible exception of New Yorkers, British humour often falls on stony ground, irony (incuding mock rudeness) being received at face value, with polite seriousness or surprise.
And so unlike the tramp in America (at least in Victorian times), Kennedy understood that the tramp in Britain—not only the eccentric intellectual, the 'gentleman of the road'—could elevate himself in society even above the labouring classes, thereby giving him a certain dignity denied to his working cousin. As Kennedy further explains, the tramp's attitude to manual labour—as opposed to intellectual labour—was that it was looked down upon and despised by the 'managing classes'. His life as a labourer, he says, was 'lower than the lot of a dog', and only by becoming a tramp did he become 'more of a man':
‘He [the labourer] is one who is born into the slave class. He is of the vast, dark pit that lies at the base of the social fabric ... so hard, so terrible, so merciless is the task that is set him that he rebels against it if he has inherited any spark of manhood.
And so the one who is a slave goes forth into the world. He goes forth into the light and the shine of the sun. He refuses to work longer. Better is it for him to beg his bread than to endure slavery down in the darkness. ... Life for him is hard but he no longer dwells underground. ... Those who labour not, but who live in high places, say that he will not work. True, he will not work. And not all the laws that can be devised by well-fed government drones will force him to work. The tramp has realised that even his death is a finer thing than slavery. He has become wise.’
And so in turn, Kennedy the tramp has only disdain for the politician and the 'drone' (civil servant), whose livelihoods, he says, are dependent on the working (servant) class:
‘He [the tramp] knows that trouble will come to this civilisation, but not from men like him. It will come from the idiot slaves whose ideal is to be as well of as their masters. ... He is the only honest shirker of work in the world. He is the pioneer of a finer and calmer life. He wanders along, a real philosopher.’
A Man Adrift
I now also include here a reflective piece on tramping from Kennedy's autobiography, A Man Adrift. The writing here reflects Kennedy's more immediate responses, and some of his bitterness, to the tramp he himself was as a young man:
A Man Adrift
I now also include here a reflective piece on tramping from Kennedy's autobiography, A Man Adrift. The writing here reflects Kennedy's more immediate responses, and some of his bitterness, to the tramp he himself was as a young man:
‘To be penniless and on tramp is a curious experience. You care for no one, and no one cares for you. Things about you seem vague and elusive. You are in a mental chaos. You are a link dissevered from the human chain. And you wander hardly knowing or caring where you wander.
As you shuffle along people glance at you as they pass. Scorn is in their eyes, for you are a man without a home a man without friends. You are dispirited, dirty, and without self-respect. The aphorism that the world owes every man a living does not apply to you.
You haven't spirit enough to steal; you haven't continuity of mind enough to plan a course of action. Your thoughts waver. You will forget where and how you began to think. Projects will come up before you, and they will fade before you grasp them. If you had force enough in you you would hate everything and everybody. You would feel hard, sharp resentment.
You would like to do murder, to rob, to destroy. You would like to hold the world in the hollow of your hand so that you might crush it.
But you are impotent your pulse is down you shuffle along. Who you are or what you were matters not. You may be a man with a past, you may be a man with a future. You may be one who has belonged to the topmost class; you may be a labourer, or a man from out the filth of the slums, or a dispirited low-down thief.
And you beg for bread. You knock at the doors of houses and ask for something to eat, or you ask alms of stray, passing men. It may have been that at one time in your life you would have thought it impossible for you to beg. You would have shuddered at the bare idea. How shameful ! You would have thought that death would be preferable. If a man had
said that you would come to this you would have struck him in the face. Perhaps when you did think of able-bodied men begging you thought of them as wretches hardly worth the powder and ball it would take to kill them.
You feel sad.
Still there are times when a fine moment comes to you. It may be that you will feel the curious sense of power that belongs to utter loneliness. It may be that you will feel the sense of freedom that comes from a total lack of responsibility. No one is dependent upon you. No one is waiting for you. If people have a contempt for you, at least they let you alone. And this is something.
You are thrown in upon yourself. For the first time in your life, perhaps, you really begin to know who and what you are. You are interested in the strange unfoldings of yourself. You have dreams and fancies and curious longings. A world opens to you within yourself. And you walk on and on, bearing with you a wonderful dream world.
What matters to you the contempt of people who move in grooves, who themselves fear the opinions of others ? After all, they will die, even as you will die.
Yes, they will die in a day. They will come to dust. For you the sun shines as it shines for them. For you the water flows as it flows for them. In common with them you have the air to breathe. In common with them you can see the strange pictures in the clouds. In common with them you can move and think and see and hear.
In moments when these thoughts are with you, you move along with a brisk step you ask for bread without shame.’
‘The longer I live the more I am inclined to doubt the all-magic of the human mind. Believe me when I assure you that the other animals know a thing or to that we don't know. They neither write books nor build motor-cars, nor do they make foolish guesses about the planetary system. But they know enough to let one and other alone as much as possible—a thing that we with all our alleged wisdom have yet to learn. And they know things that neither you nor I nor any other man know anything about. They are wise enough to know that to live is in itself the highest and most absolute thing of all. They are wise enough to know that if they do this they do everything.’
Return to Part 1, Bart Kennedy's Life & Times
Return to Part 1, Bart Kennedy's Life & Times