Approaching Stephen Leacock’s 150th Birthday

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In less than two weeks, on Monday, December 30th, we will celebrate Stephen Leacock’s 150th birthday with a party of friends, a cake, and an unveiling of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice as manifested in 2019. Stephen Leacock wrote a book about that in 1919, one hundred years ago, making 2019 another significant Leacock anniversary. The third was the 75th anniversary of his death, on March 28th. I have been celebrating his Anniversaries since that day, an endeavour that did not, I regret to say, go viral. It appears that Stephen Leacock, if not absolutely dead, is well along that way. Leslie and I know, of course, from our 2017 western tour, that there remain people who still find him interesting, rather more who still find him amusing, at least when he is at his best.

The writer of Ecclesiastes pronounced, many years ago, quite accurately as it turns out, that there is no end to the writing of books, and new writers can be forgiven if they prefer that the number of old books in circulation should be kept to a minimum. We can remember an old writer for his books, of course, if they are good enough, but perhaps a worthy alternative for some writers is to remember them for the seeds they planted. I think it entirely likely that I will never read another Leacock book, having read a great many during the several phases of this project. There are fifty-three of them; I have not read them all. From now on I will remember him, not for the few favourites that I find worth remembering, but for two seeds that he planted in my mind. I have been cultivating those seeds, and intend to continue, for their own sake, not for his, but primarily for the sake of my children, grand-children, and beyond, and for everyone else’s.

The two seeds are, first, the title of the book whose 100th anniversary I am celebrating:

The UNSOLVED RIDDLE of SOCIAL JUSTICE

It’s the title that matters most to me, not the book. I consider that Social Justice, widely conceived, is the greatest cause that humanity can and does pursue. Stephen Leacock identified it as an Unsolved Riddle, a type of ideal that is not to be answered with some pat “solution”, but to probed and wrestled with endlessly in the cause of improvement, or “progress” as it used to be called, and should continue to be called. Because when the world’s store of poverty, pain, misery, alienation, exploitation, oppression, violence, unnatural death, and other ills has been lessened, then that is progress, even if these ills persist. To identify Social Justice as an Unsolved Riddle is a huge, brilliant insight, a creative response to idealogues of all kinds, whose prescriptions have a nasty habit of increasing the ills, not the reverse. It is unfortunate that Stephen Leacock himself did not enlarge upon his insight, even in his book. That work remains.

The second seed grew out of my efforts to summarize the lessons he was trying to drum home to us in his fifty-three books, numerous individual pieces, public lectures, and lifetime of teaching about economics, politics, education, culture, and ways of life. The tools that he brought to his quest, and that he recommends to us, form a Tetrad:

KNOWLEDGE + IMAGINATION + COMPASSION + HUMOUR

One of my favourite passages in all of the literature I know is the opening to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where the narrator, walking through “the wilderness of this world”, falls asleep and dreams of a man with “a great burden on his back”. Our burden comes with the benefits we have created for ourselves in our adoption of the industrial, commercial, technological, scientific, intricately interconnected way of life that brings us such a range of benefits. The burden is the costs that come with them, and the duty to deal with them for our own and the futures’ sakes. There is nothing wrong with wanting our lives to be prosperous, comfortable, secure, convenient, richly informed, and entertaining. We fool ourselves tragically when we can assume they can be that way without cost.

The Leacock Tetrad does not remove the burden, but has the capacity to lighten the carry, because these tools, taken together, will help us work to alleviate the costs without adding new ones, and to reassure us that we are doing the best we can. We are fated to muddle our way through the muddle we have ourselves created, because that is the nature of our creation. We all crave Social Justice, although we may vary somewhat in our definitions. Social Justice is an Unsolved Riddle. We cannot make it otherwise. Stephen Leacock is one of those people who gives us tools we need to work with it.

Who else? My current list: William Blake, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, George Eliot, Henry George, Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, B.W. Powe, and newly arrived to my notice this week: Marilynne Robinson. More about them in the weeks and months ahead. I will also tell you about the œvirsagas and where they fit. Stephen Leacock had something to do with them too, or one of them at least. In Canada they are four in number, another Tetrad: Aboriginal, National, Political, and Urbanismal. They too are tools to grapple with the Unsolved Riddles and lighten the burden.

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