A Book of Words – XXVI

“Work in the Future”

by Rudyard Kipling

ON reflection—such reflection as such a dinner as this induces—it strikes me that the toast I have to propose is more than usually superfluous. It is too easy. All I have to do for the next few minutes is to wish you prosperity. All you have to do for the next few years is to go out and get it. As, of course, you will. Indeed, you cannot very well escape doing so. Your path has been smoothed for just that end.When Mr. Rhodes was brooding over his scheme of the scholarships, he used to say: “The game is to get them to knock up against each other qua students. After they’ve done that for three years at Oxford they’ll never forget it qua individuals.” Accordingly he so arranged what he called his “game” that each man, bringing with him that side of his head which belonged to the important land of his birth, was put in the way of getting another side to his head by men belonging to other not unimportant countries.

It is an asset towards prosperity, even for those whose lot will be cast altogether in one land, to get full and first-hand information about the men they will meet later. You know the formula better than I. The style of a man’s play, plus the normal range of his vices, divided by the square of his work, and multiplied by the coefficient of his nationality, gives, not only his potential resistance under breaking-strain, but indicates, within a few points, how far he may be trusted to pull off a losing game. This knowledge can only be acquired in the merciless intimacy of one’s early days. After that, one has to guess at the worth of one’s friends or enemies; but youth, which, between ourselves, sometimes knows almost as much about some things as it thinks it always does about everything, can apply its own tests on its own proving-grounds, and does not forget the results.

Rhodes and Jameson, for example, did not draw together impersonally over the abstract idea of Imperial service. They had tried each other out long before, across the poker-tables of the Kimberley Club, beside the death-beds of friends, and among the sudden and desperate emergencies of life on the Diamond Fields. So when their work began, neither had to waste time in reading up the other’s references. They simply fell into step side by side, and there remained till death parted them.

May something like their experience be yours with your friends here and throughout all your world. For you are exploring and assaying the minds of countries as well as of men. You have had samples of all the English-speaking teams to play with and against at leisure, in a cool grey atmosphere which gives full value to all attitudes—even to the attitude of the youngest and most rampant reformer who comes up fresh and fresher each year. When the scholarships were first created, one was afraid that Mr. Rhodes’s large and even-handed mixing up of unrelated opposites might infect weaker souls with the middle-aged failings of toleration, impartiality, or broadmindedness. And you know, gentlemen, that when these symptoms break out on a young man, it is a sure sign of early death or—of a leaning towards unpractical politics. Fortunately, what one has seen and heard since then proves that one’s fears were groundless.

There is a certain night, among several, that I remember, not long after the close of the War, when a man from Melbourne and a man from Montreal set themselves to show a couple of men from the South and Middle West that the Constitution of the United States was not more than 150 years out of date. At the same time, and in the same diggings, a man from California was explaining to a man from the Cape, with the help of some small hard apples, that no South African fruit was fit to be sold in the same market with the Californian product. The ring was kept by an ex-private of Balliol who, having eaten plum-and-apple jam in the trenches for some years, was a bigoted anti-fruitarian. He assured me that none of the disputants would be allowed to kill each other, because they were all wanted whole on the river next day; but even with murder barred, there was no trace of toleration till exhaustion set in. Then somebody made a remark which (I have had to edit it a little) ran substantially as follows: “Talking of natural resources, doesn’t it strike you that what we’ve all got most of is howling provincialism?” That would have delighted Rhodes. It was just the sort of thing he himself would have jerked out, half aloud, at a Cabinet meeting, and expanded for minutes afterwards. There must be other phrases also, perhaps even more direct, which have equally emerged from the peace and quiet of such gatherings as the one which I attended. If that be so, you might do worse than use them at a pinch, later on, as passwords among your associates throughout the world.

I suggest this because, when you move up into the line, and the Gods who sell all things at a price are dealing you your places and your powers, you may find it serviceable, for ends outside yourself, to remind a friend on the far side of the world of some absurd situation or trivial event which parallels the crisis or the question then under your hands. And that man, in his station, remembering when and how the phrase was born, may respond to all that it implies—also for ends not his own. None can foresee on what grounds, national or international, some of you here may have to make or honour such an appeal; whether it will be for tangible help in vast material ventures, or for aid in things unseen; whether for a little sorely needed suspension of judgement in the councils of a nation as self-engrossed as your own; or, more searching still, for orderly farewells to be taken at some enforced parting of the ways. Any one of these issues may sweep to you across earth in the future. It will be yours to meet it with sanity, humour, and the sound heart that goes with a sense of proportion and the memory of good days shared together.

For you will be delivered to life in a world where, at the worst, no horror is now incredible, no folly unthinkable, no adventure inconceivable. At the best, you will have to deal and be dealt with by communities impatient of Nature, idolatrous of mechanisms, and sick of self-love to the point, almost, of doubting their own perfections. The Gods, whom they lecture, alone know what these folk will do or think. And here, gentlemen, let me put before you the seductive possibility that some of you may end your days in refuges for the mentally afflicted—not because you will necessarily be more insane than you are at present, but because you will have preached democracy to democracies resolute that never again shall their peace be troubled by Demos. Yet, out of all this welter, you will arrive at prosperity, as youth, armour-plated by its own absorption in itself, has always arrived. In truth, there is but one means by which you can miss it, and that is, if you try to get the better of the Gods who sell everything at a price. They continue to be just Gods, and should you hold back even a fraction of the sum asked for your heart’s desire, they will say nothing, but they will furnish you with a substitute that would deceive the elect—that will deceive even you until it is too late. So, I would advise you to pay them in full; making a note that goods obtained for personal use cost rather more than those intended for the honour and advancement of others.

My apology for mentioning these sordid bonds is that I saw the man in whose dream you move, pay the price which the Gods demanded of him, for his heart’s desire. And now I see some portion of his reward. It is your prosperity.