The Unsolved Riddle of Everything: Thoughts on the withdrawn Teck Resources Oil Sands Project

Today, when I heard about the company’s withdrawal, I wrote an e-mail to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney. It said:

Dear Prime Minister and Premier,

I am writing to congratulate you both on the happy outcome of this matter. It is difficult to see how it could possibly have worked out better for both of you.

Mr. Trudeau, you have been saved from the need to make a decision about a project that did not yet exist except as an idea. It is difficult to see how you could possibly have made any decision that would not have caused trouble. I did think it odd that you and your colleagues, on behalf of the Canadian people, were being asked to approve a project that was entirely hypothetical. What could you possibly have said, except that years from now, when the company provides details, you, assuming you are still the government of the day, promise to look at them very carefully with due regard for benefits, costs, and the net public interest? I am delighted you been rescued from this necessity, although possibly not as delighted as you are.

Mr. Kenney, while I sympathize with your loss of this particular dream, I am sure you are aware that the people of Alberta have many dreams that you can help them pursue. They may not be as big as this one, but they are within reach as this one never was. I speak from experience, because I was an Albertan myself for twenty-five years, as my children and grandchildren remain. I always found Alberta to be fertile soil for my dreams, which took me from the Cypress Hills to the Crowsnest Pass, from Rainbow Lake to Fort Chipewyan, and just about everywhere in between, talking to people in their communities as they tried to understand what was happening and to make decisions.

I make no judgement as to whether there should or should not be another massive oil sands project on the lower Athabasca. I was there for Syncrude, and know something of the complexities: technical, economic, environmental, social, cultural, and political. It was my job at the time to know them. Of course circumstances may have changed, but I suspect the underlying reality has not: that the benefits of these massive projects are immediate and ephemeral, and some of their very real costs slow to reveal themselves and possibly permanent. I also believe that they bring opportunity costs with them that may never be directly observed, because they are the things that did not happen as the massive project took all the attention and money, and did not leave them room.

I believe there will always be an oil economy in Alberta, because that’s where the oil is, and because oil, in some form, is such an amazing gift of Nature that people will always be able to find uses for it, no matter what happens to specific uses along the way. My experience tells me, however, that producing raw bitumen and shipping it elsewhere in bulk for low margins is an extreme form of the Old Oil economy, and that dreaming, and inventing, and investing, ought to focus on the New Oil economy and all the potential it offers. I don’t pretend to know exactly what the New Oil economy looks like, but I suspect it will be more creative, more value-added, more human-scale, more beneficial, with fewer costly externalities, than any mining and shipping of raw bitumen can ever be.

The people I met in the resource industries of Alberta were very smart people indeed. I suspect they know that the Old Oil economy and way of thinking is going to be replaced by New Oil, and they passionately want to be part of it. I respectfully urge both of you, Prime Minister and Premier, to get behind those people and to help them put Old Oil out to pasture, along with the people who cannot see beyond it. We can argue about the past merits of Old Oil, and whether its huge accomplishments out-weigh its ultimate costs, but the evidence now seems overwhelming, for many different kinds of reasons, that its day is done.

Out with Old Oil, Old Politics, Old Journalism, Old Thought. In with New!

Thank you for listening.

A few subsequent thoughts:

1. I do not blame the company for this decision, but I do for having kited this project in the way they did, and getting Premier Kenney and others all worked up about it. I do congratulate them on having the grace to withdraw it. I suspect, however, there is a strategy of some kind being played out. I have no reason to believe that a company of this stature would truly offer Canadians a pig in a poke, and expect anyone (except Premier Kenney perhaps) to want us to buy it. Teck Resources has done us all a favour. I wonder what the quid pro quo will look like, when they present that.

2. I see no future in massive energy projects. They are intensely political, and the politics have become bad. They have always worked on the assumption that their short-term economic benefits matter, and that their environmental and social costs do not. Anything and anyone that gets in their way can be pushed aside. They hold governments and peoples hostage: do what we want, or we’ll pull the plug. Fortunately this company did that long before they had even started to fill the tub. That is refreshing and unusual. The usual phalanx of loud supporters who would have invested in expectation can surely not have got around to it yet, at least on any large scale. Few should be hurt by yesterday’s decision.

3. We should not get trapped into thinking that huge projects are the only possible channel for investment, even in energy projects. While controversy may swirl around large projects, making them highly visible, smaller ones are going on all the time. We just don’t notice them. Statistics Canada does. We need to pay more attention to the macro-statistics and to understand what they are saying.

4. We should not get trapped into thinking that there are pat solutions to the Unsolved Riddles of our time, which are legion. A recent CBC opinion column spoke of people’s impatience with the inability of the Federal Government to articulate a policy that would occupy the space between the contradictory extremes of our Unsolved Riddles. Policy can clarify the extremes, and specify their relative importance. The space between them cannot be generalized. It is discovered, issue by issue and project by project, through the application of human ingenuity and conversation, a continuous creative process.

5. A little patience and understanding would go a long way towards lowering the pressure, on all sides.

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Not Yet a Voice of Fire, but Working On It

I published this image today, as it says, on the Voyageur Storytelling web site. Much of what happens here for the next few months will evolve from the new rendition of Leacock’s title, which itself evolved from last year’s writing of The Marriage of Social Justice with Unsolved Riddles, which itself evolved from the previous year’s writing of The Unsolved Riddle(s) of Stephen Leacock, which itself evolved from the “My Discovery of the West” Re-Tour of 2017, which itself evolved from performing Stephen Leacock’s stories in our Country Supper Storytelling Concerts, which themselves evolved from the wondrous unfolding of my life.

During the Leacock Project I wrote fairly regularly on two blogs, which are linked on the margins of this one. Now they have served their purpose, and need a new one. Four principal channels opened during the writing of last year’s book. First, if we want Social Justice as we must if we intend to remain human in the sense that has evolved over the centuries, if we wish, that is, to be something more than highly sophisticated scavengers, then we must elevate the idea to top spot in our hierarchy of political goals. Second, in order to cope with the Unsolved Riddles, the complexities and internal contradictions that come with Social Justice, we must learn to think in new ways, which we must frame both analytically, that is with our minds, and narratively, that is with all the sensory, mental, emotional, and spiritual resources that come into play when we create, hear, read, or watch stories. The third channel has to do with Tetrads and Labyrinths, heuristic devices that may help us to think in the new ways required. The fourth has to do with the Œvirsagas, the super-stories that we use to frame and shape the plethora of stories we are told or tell about ourselves, and thus to create our notion of who we are. I don’t want to get bogged down in an explanation of those last two today. They will take weeks or months to work out, and I am just getting started.

To begin, I think I will devote the “Playstephenleacock” blog to the Tetrads, Labyrinths, and associated ideas, calling it the Tetrads Blog for short. The “Mariposabyconway” blog can suitably become the Œvirsagas Blog, because there is a sense in which Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town was intended by Stephen Leacock to represent a particular telling of the Canadian National Œvirsaga, or perhaps a prophetic demi-œvirsaga intended to serve as a warning,—in any case the fact that careless reading turned it into a petty undirsaga of no great importance beyond casual amusement makes Mariposa an interesting element in the CNŒ and forms a link that I might as well use.

This blog, then, which I have tentatively calling the Politico-Literary Blog, will serve I think to keep the whole thing grounded in the reality of events and practices both historical and current, in all their absurdity and potential for instruction.

In other words: one blog for how we think; one blog for stories; one blog for what we are doing and have done. The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice may then evolved beyond today’s image into something that will really do justice to the title of Leacock’s book.

The renaming, describing, and linking of all this may take a week or two. I apologize for any confusion caused by uneven adjustment.

PWC; January 16, 2020

Stephen Leacock’s 150th Birthday!!! December 30, 2019

Leacock Post 12-30.jpgStephen Butler Leacock was born on December 30th, 1869, in southern England. His parents emigrated to Ontario six years later and he, as he put it, decided to go with them. He lived on a farm south of Lake Simcoe, then in Toronto, then in Chicago (as a graduate student), then in Montreal for the rest of his life, except in the summers (after 1908) when he migrated to his cottage on Lake Couchiching just outside Orillia.

By profession he was first a teacher, first in Uxbridge, Ontario, for six months, then at Upper Canada College in Toronto, for ten years, then at McGill University, for 35 years. His academic field was Political Economy.

By profession he was also a writer, first of academic texts, then as a humorist and popular historian, then as an essayist writing without fear about anything he chose. His production is, or ought to be, legendary, although largely forgotten.

By profession he was also a public lecturer, beginning with learned propaganda concerning the British Empire, and expanding eclectically from there.

He was a dutiful son to his mother Agnes, eventually a hostile son to his father Peter, a conscientious brother to his ten siblings, a loving but somewhat overbearing husband to  his wife Beatrix (who died in 1925) and father to his son Stevie (born in 1915), a generous sponsor and employer to his niece Barbara Ulrichsen, and a good friend to many.

He died of throat cancer in Toronto on March 28, 1944.

His legacy, viewed in the best way: He planted seeds, in particular, a perception of Social Justice as embedded in Unsolved Riddles, and tools for thinking about them embracing Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour. He left to us the rich satisfactions of cultivation.

My tribute to him:

The Ballad of Stephen Butler Leacock

Come, readers and writers and I’ll sing you the song
Of a man who could write even when he was wrong;
He wrote his way to money and fame :
You’d best remember if you want the same;
He wrote, and he thought, and he talked, and he read,
Up early in the morning and early to bed :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He wrote in the morning when the day was new;
He wrote the words that he thought were true;
He wrote in the hope that people would laugh,
But of all that he wrote that was never more than half;
He wrote of the rich, and he wrote of the poor,—
Social Justice and a whole lot more:
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He preached prosperity, he cursed at graft,
He teased their foibles and the people laughed;
He told the stories of the present and past—
Much that he wrote wasn’t fated to last;
He wrote for his time, and he wrote for his place,
He wrote stupid things about women and race :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He wrote his country, and the Empire wide,
He wrote his people and he wrote with pride,
He wrote through depression, and he wrote through war,
He wrote for peace, and romance, and more;
He wrote for laughter, and he wrote to touch;
He wrote for money, and he wrote too much :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! He had his moment of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Enjoy it if you get the same
As much as he did.

With a little effort he can serve to inspire English Canadians who read, write, explore, create, think, care, and laugh. Our cultural lives will be richer if we remember him well.

Approaching Stephen Leacock’s 150th Birthday

Leacock Post 12-19.jpeg

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:


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:


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.

Ringing in the Tetrads

I have not posted here for some time. I apologize. I have been running three blogs during the months of the Leacock Anniversaries, with different postings. This week, for a change, as I swing into yet another break, this one for two or even three weeks, I am posting the same text on all three. When you have read one you have read them all.

This week’s pictoverbicon, as displayed on the Voyageur Storytelling web site (, the Leacock’n Bulletin linked thereto, and my Twitter page ( introduces the Idea of Tetrational Thinking:

Leacock Post 10-31.jpeg

I have occupied much of the past two months in writing a book called The Marriage of Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles, in which I am attempting to convince readers that Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles belong together. The narrative approach that I adopted for this task I find subsequently to be consistent with Northrop Frye’s intention which was, according to his biographer John Ayre, “to spread imaginative poetic thought throughout society to soften and cancel the effects of procrustean logic and ideology.” This is most satisfying, because for a Canadian of my generation who graduated from the University of Toronto, to be consistent with Northrop Frye is always consoling.

I have talked before about Stephen Leacock’s Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour as a form of quadruple-thinking Both-Andian (or All-Andian) cast of mind able to work us toward Social Justice. When we pursue the Tetrational Way we find ourselves of course in a forest of Unsolved Riddles, that is, inherently conflicting or contradictory goods, but what is the alternative? How difficult would it be to tune our collective minds in all four of these directions at once? Quite difficult, I think, but possible with practice. Both Northrop Frye and Stephen Leacock insisted on Imagination as the linchpin of this whole way of thinking. That seems obvious, because the Tetrad demands that we step outside our normal, simplified, linear ways of thinking, the ones that enable us to get on with our lives from day to day without going mad, and view our lives together, our society, in a much more complicated way. In order to do that we have to free our imaginations from the “procrustean logic and ideology” which powerful forces press upon us so insistently.

One of the great Unsolved Riddles of our time declares the possibility that the simplified, linear thinking which helps us individually to avoid going mad from day to day, when applied collectively, to our social situation, constitutes itself a form of madness. I am convinced that Tetrational Thinking would ease the collective madness. We might too find that it creates an even higher form of sanity for us individually.

Reading Northrop Frye’s biography (by John Ayre) I learned that he set down a Tetrad of his own in a letter to one Betty Cole in April of 1974: “I think there has to be an assumption that life is better than death, freedom better than slavery, happiness better than misery, equality better than exploitation, for all men everywhere without exception.” (In the interests of exact quotation I leave in Frye’s “all men” and do not substitute “all people” or “everyone” as I feel strongly inclined to do, because that is obviously what Frye meant.) Is his assumption perhaps the irreducible first principle of Social Justice?

As an exercise in Tetrational Thinking, I invite you to stare fixedly at the following tetragammon (Is it a mandala? I’m not sure.) keeping in mind the four elements simultaneously. I have tried it, and find that it does in fact tend to break apart the procrustean logic and ideology.  When I have time I’ll create one for Frye’s Tetrad of Life + Freedom + Happiness + Equality, as well as its antipode, the Death + Slavery + Misery + Exploitation that is the tragic lot of so much of humanity and that we must never willingly accept.


Stare at that Tetrad for a long time. Think about the words and what they mean both individually and for each other. Weave circles around them and close your eyes in holistic dream. Imagine them becoming more than they are, more than you ever dreamed they could be. Don’t become discouraged if nothing magic happens the first time you try. It will come.

When I resume posting here later in November I will take up these ideas more fully, both theoretically and practically. I shall strive to integrate the Tetrads of Stephen Leacock and Northrop Frye with B.W. Powe’s “attentive sensitivity to multi-dimensional meaning”, Isaiah Berlin’s “loose texture  and a measure of inefficiency and even muddle”, Marshall McLuhan’s gnomic utterance that “The Medium is the Message” (which I think means that how we think or communicate determines, or at least heavily influences,  what we think or communicate), and George Eliot’s celebration, in one of her characters, of a benign influence that is “incalculably diffusive”.

We are not machines. Our minds are not governed by sequential cause and effect. They can leap.

In the meantime I leave you with the following jingle:

The Mud between the Minds
Like muds of other kinds,
Constitutes a kind of wealth
Or viscous form of filth :
This is the Unsolved Riddle
Of the Muddle.


Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles I: Wednesday

When I am writing intensely, as I most certainly am these days, I don’t read any new books. I read the old, familiar ones. The aging brain can take only so much. Last night I plucked from the shelf Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. As with all familiar books I did not begin at the beginning. I read some scenes that I like, including the one where Dunstan Ramsay re-encounters Paul Dempster performing as a magician in Mexico City. In the run-up to that life-changing event, Ramsay is sitting in a church watching the people who have come to see and experience a famous robe displaying a miraculous picture of the Virgin Mary, “the goddess of mercy, the Holy Mother, the figure of divine compassion” and admires the beauty of their faces. He then asks himself where mercy and divine compassion will come from for these poor people, when they have received the “inestimable benefit” of modern education? He goes on to muse:

Or are such things necessary to people who are well fed and know the wonders that lie concealed in an atom? I don’t regret economic and educational advance; I just wonder how much we will have to pay for it, and in what coin.

Wonder no more, dear Ramsay, at least about the coin. We do not yet know how much of it we will pay. The coin is “economic and educational advance” run amok in an orgy of consumption, commodification, technological displacement, financial speculation, and violence. What was, briefly, benign and even meritorious in this advance, turns rapidly into a nightmare. The coin is alienation from Nature, whom we now treat, not as the beloved mother of Humanity and all Life, but as a property, a colony, a servant or even a slave, a commodity, a garbage dump, a thing to be exploited, an expendable. The coin is alienation from each other, a disintegration of nations, regions, cultures into tribes who eye each other in degrees of separation ranging from indifference to open hostility. Tools for communication on a scale hitherto unimaginable have become weapons in inter-tribal rivalries, assertiveness, and violence. The coin is incessant noise, so that we can no longer hear each other speak or ourselves think, let alone the “choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world”, as George Eliot described it. The coin is alienation from our own individual and collective humanity to the point where everything good in human nature, in our selves and others, becomes, one way or another, something to be exploited for base or trivial purposes, or distrusted, or abandoned as irrelevant. In short, the coin is the perversion of everything holy, everything benign, everything that natural and cultural evolution and human creativity have achieved. This perversion is not yet complete, has not yet become irredeemably grotesque, although the situation is grave. To steal a phrase from W.H. Auden, a little but not entirely out of context: This is the Abomination. This is the wrath of God.

I do not make or believe any predictions, because the future is in principal unknowable. I am however prepared to assign probabilities, based on knowledge and experience, not only my own. I am even prepared, with all humility and caution, to extrapolate a little, given the necessary data and rigorous estimation of relationships. I was highly trained to do that, and have spent my working life practising. I perform these intellectual and imaginative exercises as conscientiously as I can. I look at the results, and they are full of menace.

Not all is doom and gloom, however. We can still talk, and we can still listen. We can still write, and we can still read. We can still create, and we can still absorb. We can still use our five senses and our brains, our hands to reach out, our feet to cross divides. We do not have to tag along. Stephen Leacock, over the whole of his wide career as a writer, speaker, and teacher, advised us to bring to bear a creative melange of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion and Humour. We can still do that. We do not need to stop or reverse the economic, educational, and other long list of advances that have done us so much good. We have evolved wonderful tools. They remain wonderful. They are being perverted by vicious self-serving people and our own appetites for consumption, comfort, security,  convenience, and entertainment. We do not need to disavow the advance. We need to recognize the perversion for what it is, and put a stop to it.

* * * * *

P.S. I am now writing my Leacock Anniversaries book, The Marriage of Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles. The Preface was released quietly on Saturday, August 24th, and the first chapter will be released on Saturday, August 31st, one hundred years to the day since Stephen Leacock published his first chapter in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, and other newspapers. If you want a copy, e-mail me at and you shall have it. There’s no charge, but there is a condition: I am looking for feedback, and reserve the right to beg you for it.

Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapter VII

Stephen Leacock called the last chapter of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice “What Is Possible and What Is Not”, although he starts with what is not. Socialism is not, neither is individualism, or, he hastens to qualify, “at least the older individualism that we have hitherto made the basis of the social order.” He did not qualify his judgement of socialism. He could have said, but did not, “at least the all-encompassing socialism presented by Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward.” He gives no evidence that he knows anything about Marx or Engels, although he probably knew something. He mentions Marx in his 1903 Ph.D. thesis on The Doctrine of Laissez Faire, without suggesting he has read him. By the time he wrote his textbook on Political Science (published 1906), however, he certainly had. One could speculate on the reasons why he chooses Edward Bellamy as the spokesman for socialism and not Marx or the English, French, or German socialists he writes about elsewhere, but this is not the place. He is prepared to qualify individualism, but leaves the socialist alternative in an extreme state, forgetting his textbook admission that “the greater number of socialists now favor the amelioration of present conditions rather than their complete overthrow.”

He makes another extreme statement as he sets up for his recommendations in The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, written you will recall, in 1919, when he refers to “principle of selfishness that has been the survival instinct of existence since life first crawled from the slime of a world in evolution”. So much for the sharing ethic so prevalent among people living in aboriginal conditions on the edge of survival. Leacock himself is a convinced “sharist”,  however, as the recommendations themselves show.

A legislative code that starts from sounder principles than those which have obtained hitherto can do a great deal towards progressive betterment. Each decade can be an improvement upon the last. Hitherto we have been hampered at every turn by the supposed obstacle of immutable economic laws. The theory of “natural” wages and prices of a supposed economic order that could not be disturbed, set up a sort of legislative paralysis. The first thing needed is to get away entirely from all such preconceptions, to recognize that the “natural” order of society, based on the “natural” liberty, does not correspond with real justice and real liberty at all, but works injustice at every turn. And at every turn intrusive social legislation must seek to prevent such injustice.

Progressive betterment. An incremental approach, at least once the accumulated injustices of the past century have been mitigated, and the lessons of the latest Great War incorporated, jobs to be done through legislation. After all, he insists, if the legislative hammer and taxation can be used to fight a war, as they had so forcefully so recently, then they can be used for the positive betterment of people’s lives. The principle has been established.

What is radical in Leacock’s approach as laid out in this last crucial chapter, is not the content, but the cast of mind. What he recommends is, in brief, simply a comprehensive social safety net in the context of a liberal democracy that values individual creativity and enterprise and restrains individual greed and abuses of power.

The safety of the future lies in a progressive movement of social control alleviating the misery which it cannot obliterate and based upon the broad general principle of equality of opportunity.

Put into the plainest of prose, then, we are saying that the government of every country ought to supply work and pay for the unemployed, maintenance for the infirm and aged, and education and opportunity for the children.

The war had shown that social enterprise on the necessary scale was feasible in practical, legislative, productive, and financial terms. The external foe had been defeated. It was time to vanquish the internal enemy. It could be done. Q.E.D.

Leacock’s nation is a Both-And place, both individualistic and socialistic. The two ideologies may be poles apart, but they can mix perfectly well. The Unsolved Riddle is in our minds, in our belief, defiant of all experience, that one ideology is right and the other is wrong, that they cannot be mixed. Nothing but disaster, he insists, can follow the pure pursuit of one or the other. To believe in a perfect world or no world at all is ridiculous, even insane. The modern industrial system, even in his day let alone ours, is simply too complex for ideology. Pragmatism is the only way. That is what he believed, and that is what we believe. Enjoy the Muddle, he says. It works. Understand it. Cherish it. Laugh at it. Improve it. That is The Cause.

When we look broadly across his writings we see constant reference to four ways in which we can and must tune our minds, a quadruple Both-And, using Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. I am not going to suggest that Stephen Leacock pulled that off. In fact, I am not sure that any one person, however powerful the mind and wide the reading, can pull it off. That’s why we don’t like dictators. We do it together. Improvement is a collective act. The Muddle may be messy, and frighteningly verbose, but that’s how the magic happens.

* * * * * * *

This ends my explicit consideration of Leacock’s book. I have now begun to write my 100-years-later extension of his approach and cast of mind, my version of his book, the Preface to be released on Saturday of this week, a chapter a week thereafter for seven weeks. I am following his model slavishly, although in my own style. In this blog, from now until the end of December when the Anniversaries time ends, I will tell stories of My Discovery of Stephen Leacock, which continues, and gossip about his life and ideas. But I think I have delighted you enough with his economic and social ideas. It’s time to get back to the humour.

Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapters V and VI

Today’s chapters from The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice are: V. The Land of Dreams: The Utopia of the Socialist; and VI. How Mr. Bellamy Looked Backward. They could be taken as one chapter, because Leacock segues explicitly from the first to the next, using Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1887 and immensely popular in its day,—you can find it on-line at,—and still listed as in print by Penguin Random House with an introduction by Cecelia Tichi, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and Professor of American Studies at Vanderbilt University. So you see, Bellamy’s book can still attract the attention of a serious scholar of literature, if not of political economy. It is in fact a fascinating work of fiction and I am pleased to have read it.

Looking Backward (the title refers to the perspective of the narrator, who is looking back on 1887 from the year 2000 in which he finds himself after a sleep of 113 years) quickly made a Canadian footprint, albeit a faint one. In 1891 some people wanted to found a community to be called Bellamy Village in Scarborough Township, Ontario, just east of Toronto. They got as far as negotiations with the township council. The idea ran into resistance and died, its only legacy being the name of Bellamy Road in Scarborough, which beginning at Kingston Road proceeds northward with only one break for railroad tracks finally to meld perpendicularly into Corporate Drive. But I digress.

Stephen Leacock’s views on socialism, as they stood in 1919, are neither sophisticated nor interesting today, although clearly stated. What is important is the cast of mind he brings to them:

For in the whole program of peaceful socialism there is nothing wrong except one thing. Apart from this it is a high and ennobling ideal truly fitted for a community of saints. And the one thing that is wrong with socialism is that it won’t work. That is all. It is, as it were, a beautiful machine of which the wheels, dependent upon some unknown and uninvented motive power, refuse to turn. The unknown motive force in this case means a power of altruism, of unselfishness, of willingness to labor for the good of others, such as the human race has never known, nor is ever likely to know.

He does not doubt that those he later called people “of good will, whose hearts are in the cause”, who embrace a spirit of “righteousness”, can be found, even among officials. What he doubts is the human capacity to sustain that kind of virtue in a system where officials,—even if elected under the best possible rules,—are given the raw power literally to decide everything to do with economic life.

Mr. Bellamy pictures his elected managers,—as every socialist has to do,—as a sagacious and paternal group, free from the interest of self and the play of the baser passions and animated only by the thought of the public good. Gravely they deliberate; wisely and justly they decide. Their grey heads—for Bellamy prefers them old—are bowed in quiet confabulation over the nice adjustment of the national production, over the petition of this or that citizen. The public care sits heavily on their breast. Their own peculiar fortune they have lightly passed by. They do not favor their relations or their friends. They do not count their hours of toil. They do not enumerate their gain. They work, in short, as work the angels.
Now let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found?

“With perfect citizens any government is good,” he claims towards the end of the chapter. “In a population of angels a socialistic commonwealth would work to perfection. But until we have the angels we must keep the commonwealth waiting.”

Last week I drew attention to Leacock’s own dream of a “sane, orderly and continuous social reform”, yet in the peroration to his chapter on Mr. Bellamy he scorns the figure of “the gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, [who ]frames for himself a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of socialism achieved little by little, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they are to reach somehow or somewhere in cloud land the nirvana of the elimination of self.” Suppose I were to rephrase that just a little, imagining:

a gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, framing for his country a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of social reform achieved little by little in a sane, orderly and continuous process, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they reach by this means and in this land a practical, muddled, benign kind of nirvana where the valid claims to well-being of both self and others are accommodated in a humane way.

I don’t think Stephen Leacock would disagree with that. I think that’s where deep down he wants to go. I think it’s where he was, almost, in 1912 when he wrote Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, a little town that for all its muddled thinking and living achieves a kind of organic unity and spirit of accommodation if not reform. It’s where Isaiah Berlin, prophet of Pluralism, arrived in 1950.

Did Stephen Leacock get there in 1919? Muddled or otherwise, we’ll find out next week when we look into Chapter VII of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. What Is Possible? What is Not?


Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapters III and IV

The two chapters I am going to cover today are:

III. The Failures and Fallacies of Natural Liberty; and

IV: Work and Wages.

Stephen Leacock begins his lecture on the failures and fallacies of natural liberty with the following sentence, as true in our day as in his: “The rewards and punishments of the economic world are singularly unequal.” He then contrasts them for the manual labourer, the stock market speculator, the unemployed person, the landlord, the lucky, the loafer. He then goes on:

Yet all are free. This is the distinguising mark of them as children of our era. They may work or stop. There is no compulsion from without. No man is a slave. Each has his “natural liberty,” and each in his degree, great or small, receives his allotted reward.

But is the allotment correct and the reward proportioned by his efforts? Is it fair or unfair, and does it stand for the true measure of social justice?

This is the profound problem for the twentieth century.

He then addresses, and goes on to trash, a central economic doctrine of his day, which he states as follows: Under perfectly free competition the value or selling price of everything equals, or is perpetually tending to equal, the cost of its production. In other words, “there is a ‘natural price’ of everything, and that all ‘natural prices’ are proportionate to cost and to one another; that all wages, apart from temporary fluctuations, are derived from, and limited by, the natural prices paid for the things made; that all payments for the use of capital (interest) are similarly derived and similarly limited; and that consequently the whole economic arrangements, by giving to each person exactly and precisely the fruit of his own labor, conforms exactly to social justice.”

He has earlier drawn attention to the effect on simple apparent truths of the “perfect labyrinth of complexity” that governs actual economic life. He now goes after the heart of the logic, pointing out that “the trouble with the main proposition … is that each side of the equation is used as the measure of the other. … It is a  mere argument in a circle.” In other words,—and unfortunately he does not use these words despite the title of the book,—the cost and the price of something are both an Unsolved Riddle, because each is a function of the other. Something else is going on to set their levels, and that something grows out of the “perfect labyrinth of complexity”. The idea that “every many in this just world gets what is coming to him, … gets what he is worth, and is worth what he gets” offers no explanation beyond the tautology that he gets what he gets.

He concludes the chapter with this promise:

If one knocks out the keystone of the arch in the form of a proposition that natural value conforms to the cost of production, then the whole edifice collapses and must be set up again, upon another plan and on another foundation, stone by stone.

Is it possible that the distribution of rewards in our complex world is effectively random, or would be if it were left to its own devices? Is that what a world governed by Unsolved Riddles means? If so, is that tolerable? If not, what are we going to do about it? What are we doing, and is it working? Stephen Leacock puts a great deal of stock in what works. Socialism is misguided because it doesn’t work. Laissez-faire-ism is misguided because it  doesn’t work. What does work? Or must we just muddle along, doing our best in a world we don’t really understand because, in the face of its complexity, we cannot?

In Chapter IV,—Work and Wages, he follows his thread further: “Prices, wages, salaries, interest, rent and profits do not, if left to themselves, follow the simple law of natural justice. To think so is an idle dream.”

The real truth is that prices and wages are all the various payments from hand to hand in industrial society, are the outcome of a complex of competing forces that are not based upon justice but upon “economic strength.”

The subsequent twenty pages of combined analysis and rhetoric amplify that statement and make, for me at least, tedious reading. I am running out of space today, and will leave you to look it up for yourself if you are curious. I want to get on to where he is going:

By what means and in what stages can social progress be further accelerated? This I propose to treat in the succeeding chapters, dealing first with the proposals of the socialists and the revolutionaries, and finally with the prospect for a sane, orderly and continuous social reform.

Sane, orderly, and continuous. That sounds wonderful! But suppose that we, due to the nature of the world we are given and the one we have created, in all their complexities and Unsolved Riddles, are stuck with social reform that is disorderly, discontinuous, and even sometimes apparently insane, as for example when we take great leaps of imagination and faith to do things that have never been done before? How do we act in that case? Where is Social Justice in that case? How do we think properly in that case?

This is the profound problem for the twenty-first century.

Leacock’s next two chapters deal with Socialism, the spectre that haunted his dreams, the hope that illuminated those of many in his day. We will look next week at how he dealt with it, to see whether we can learn anything we could apply to the hard-edged ideologies of our day, such as the “corporatism” and “technologism” and “fossil-fuel-ism” so prevalent in the dreams of today, and I don’t mean only those of self-interested corporatists, technologists, and fossil-fuel-ists. The ideologies whose primary approach is to oppose these, are they effective for Social Justice? What ideology would be, in a positive way?

In his last chapter he turns to “What is Possible and What Is Not”. We’ll get there two weeks from today. After that we get to work on our own.


Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice: Chapters I and II

For the next four weeks I am going to walk you lightly through The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, as written by Stephen Leacock 100 years ago, syndicated chapter by chapter from late August to early October 1919, and published by S.B. Gundy in Toronto, the John Lane Company in New York, and John Lane, The Bodley Head in London in January 1920. This book has seven chapters; I am going to cover them at the rate of two per week for the first six, treating the last (“What Is Possible and What Is Not”)  by itself. This approach is easily justified, because much of Leacock’s analysis is dated, although his recommendations are not, at least in principle.

Certainly NOT dated is Leacock’s insight that Social Justice is an Unsolved Riddle, requiring an appropriate cast of mind and set of intellectual and policy tools. The cast of mind of an autocrat and the tools of a mechanic are not appropriate. He took these ideas as far as he could at the time. We may regret that he did not take them further. Better late than never. So here we go.

First we look at his ideas.

Chapter I. “The Troubled Outlook of the Present Hour”.

“These are troubled times.” So  he begins. He describes the troubles, beginning with industrial unrest due to the lingering turbulence of the World War One and all the post-war adjustments. “The world seems filled with money [inflated by war-time financial measures] and short of goods, while even in this very scarcity a new luxury has broken out.” The danger of revolution looms, as in Russia. He sees “a vast social transformation in which there is at stake, and may be lost, all that has been gained in the slow centuries of material progress and in which there may be achieved some part of all  that has been dreamed in the age-long passion for social justice.”

The surrounding “appalling inequality” is intolerable, and no longer necessary. Scarcity has been confronted by “the age of machinery and power”. Humanity entered a real “new world” when “the sudden progress of liberated science bound the fierce energy  of expanding stream [he may have written ‘steam’] and drew the eager lightning from the cloud.” Production steadily increased and would go on increasing, replacing want with surplus, becoming “an unconscious element in the thought and outlook of the civilized world.”

The story of material progress is well known, its “perplexing paradox … lies concealed within its organization.” “The essential contrast lies between the vastly increased power of production and its apparent inability to satisfy for all humanity the most elementary human wants; between the immeasurable saving of labor effected by machinery and the brute fact of the continuance of hard-driven, unceasing toil.” Why, he asks, does production of essentials expand and then, while scarcity still remains for some, re-direct itself to inessentials and on to the colossal human and material wastes of war and the frivolous wastes of luxury? And what should be done?

Chapter II: Live, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Leacock begins the second chapter, after tipping his hat to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, by summarizing the teaching of the first:

It has been shown that the age of machinery has been in a certain sense one of triumph, of the triumphant conquest of nature, but in another sense one of perplexing failure. The new forces controlled by mankind have been powerless as yet to remove want and destitution, hard work and social discontent. In the midst of accumulated wealth social justice seems as far away as ever.

That’s the first part the Unsolved Riddle. He then turns his attention to the cast of mind arising from this, what he calls the “outlook”, giving us a brief and interesting lecture on classical economic theory (Adam Smith and his 19th century followers)  and its understanding of the (somewhat qualified but still fundamental) importance of “[private] property, contract and the coercive state”, and the “further assumption of a general selfishness or self-seeking as the principal motive of the individual in the economic sphere.” He identifies this as “an unpalatable truth”, none the less “the most nearly true of all the broad generalizations that can be attempted in regard to humankind.” Earlier, however, he has drawn attention to one effect of industrial production, which has been the entanglement of people with their fellow citizens, until a person is “no longer an individualist …  [but] has become by brute force of circumstances a sort of collectivist, puzzled only as to how much of a collectivist to be.” Aha. Another dimension of the Unsolved Riddle.

Here, I think, we see Leacock floundering with the dilemma he does not really shake for the rest of his life. He wants to believe, insists on believing, on the idea of “every man for himself and his family”, of that kind of individualism, as a foundation of his ideology. And yet he recognizes that the “entanglement” caused by modern methods of production makes inevitable a kind of collectivism that requires a different way of thinking. He sees the Unsolved Riddle, but he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to embrace it. Perhaps he fears the raw power of unchecked collectivism. He certainly fears that the “bosses” in a collectivist society (‘socialism’) will use their power for individualistic benefit, just as the oligarchs of finance and industry use theirs. The lash may pass into other hands; it will remain a lash, even possibly a worse one, and will be used as such. This is not an idle fear, as subsequent history has shown.

“The argument of the classicists (he means the classical economists) ran thus. If there is everywhere complete economic freedom, then there will ensue in consequence a régime of social justice.” He knows that doesn’t work; he knows that ‘socialism’ doesn’t work; he distrusts power in the hands of individuals no matter what system they work under. Just as did Tolstoy (according to Isaiah Berlin) he sees the complexity and multiplicity and fundamental unruliness of the human condition, which he seeks to moderate in the cause of Social Justice. Yet he distrusts (with good reason) all ideologies invented for the purpose. He does not see, or at least does not integrate the fragments of his vision into, the explicit idea that ‘Unsolvedriddleism’ as an ideology could be just what the doctor ordered. It may even be what we practise in our lives and politics.

He was surrounded by tidy thinkers and feared their scorn. He himself was an untidy thinker, and believed in the humanity and democracy of such an outlook. We will see more of his untidy thinking and what it may mean for us in the weeks ahead.

Next week: Chapters III and IV: The Failures and Fallacies of Natural Liberty; Work and Wages.