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September 22, 2005

The Boys' Book of All Knowledge - Winwood Reade's The Martyrdom of Man

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Martyrdom of Man
by Winwood Reade
first published 1872
Pp. 454. Watts (Thinkers' Library)

One night, when I was about 15, I picked a copy of The Martyrdom of Man off one of the shelves in our house and took it to bed with me. By the time dawn came up I was convinced – as 15-year olds can be convinced – that I now understood everything. When Reade says (on p.381) that he has summarised

The period . . . which begins with the animal globules preying on the plant globules in the primeval sea and ends with the conquest by the carnivorous shepherds of the vegetable eaters in the river plains. . .
and that this period may be termed War, I accepted every word of it.

Martyrdom is an astonishing book, a provocative essay on the entire history of our planet and species. It could only have been written by a young man (he was in his early thirties) and it belongs securely in the mid-Victorian period: it was first published in 1872. It has the classic Victorian ingredients: lots of Darwin and evolution, faith in science and progress and excitement at the new discoveries in geography, geology, anthropology, etc. For the period there is relatively little of the racialism of Knox, Gobineau and their like: instead of ineradicable racial characteristics Reade sees the possibility of progress. The book is divided into four giant chapters on War, Religion, Liberty and Intellect. These can be said to be the dominant themes of four periods, but also four aspects of all human life. The books it most resembles are Ernst Haeckl's The Ascent of Man, H.G.Wells' Outline of History and Engels' Origins of Private Property, Family and the State. The image of "martyrdom" is invoked in order to stress that (p. 447):

Our own prosperity is founded on the agonies of the past.
In other words, that as progress is inevitable so suffering is its necessary condition.

William Winwood Reade himself was an Oxford graduate and the heir to a great fortune which he did not receive because he died when he was 36, three years after this book's publication. He was Africa correspondent for The Times and it was in Africa that he caught the disease from which he died. His uncle (not his brother as George Orwell boldly states) was the popular novelist Charles Reade and Winwood tried his hand at several novels without success.

The book has had a curious fate: it is claimed that no favourable review of it ever appeared in print until 1906, by which time it had been printed seventeen times. It continued to be printed in popular editions in the inter-war period and numbered Conan Doyle and Orwell among its fans, but interest in it largely died out after 1945. I note the copy I read was in the University of Warwick library from the beginning in 1964, but that nobody took it out until I did in 2005. However, it is re-established as a cult book, much discussed on the internet. Christians attack it; Muslims use it to attack Christianity; anti-trinitarian Christians quote it to attack orthodoxy; "free thinkers" extol it; Africans are upset by the account of Africa which is central to the book; and feminists take exception to the description of the period in history when women were (p. 416):

tamed and broken in . . . set free, and became beautiful, long-haired, low-voiced, sweet-eyed creatures, delicate in form, modest in demeanour and refined in soul.
But it is Reade's account of religion which is almost bound to have the major impact on the reader. It is not, quite, that he is against religion; indeed, there are two distinct ways in which he defends the role of religion in human progress. The first is that for a long time religious belief is necessary for both morality and meaning; at this stage, (p. 146):
The mind of an ordinary man is in so imperfect a condition that it requires a creed . . .
The second is that some form of religion must be true. It is a kind of religion beyond religion which compares to Christianity as that religion does to fairy tales:
... the Supreme Power is not a Mind, but something higher than a Mind, . . . not a Being, but something higher than a Being, something for which we have no words, something for which we have no ideas . . .
The deal with It, then, is that we can't blame It for our mess (which was an insoluble problem with Him), but that It doesn't tell us what to do. It is exactly parallel to the moment at which Ernst Haeckl tells us that his scientistic philosophy has a religious dimension, which he calls Monism.

There is no doubt of Reade's hostility to Christianity, however, which he sees as a nasty slice of orientalism, a piece of dirty litter on the road to progress. The person of Christ is described (pp. 180-185) as a "dervish", populist, inconsistent, typical of his time and place and having nothing interesting to say to us. Mohammed is given a better press. As a religion, Christianity is (p. 432) "blasphemous and foul". It is much more objectionable than other religions such as Islam, argues Reade, precisely because it doesn't belong here: we ought to know better, whereas the orient cannot (yet) be expected to. Science is all the meaning and beauty we will ever need: trust it and it will make us gods. Religion, like war, has been useful in its time, but that time has passed. The Crimean War, for example, represents a set-back to progress: Russia and England ought not to be fighting each other, but co-operating in the liberation of Asia.

In politics, Reade is a progressive conservative. Trade is the great engine of progress, empire a necessary condition of trade. He has no time at all for egalitarianism. Nor for the nationalist sympathies of many liberals, referring to the (p. 415):

sickly school of politicians who declare that all countries belong to their inhabitants and that to take them is a crime.
He considers the British constitution the best in the world (specifically, better than the American) and the House of Lords a good check on the excesses of democracy. As a believer in progress his defence of the monarchy seems a little half-hearted (p. 418):
. . . it costs little and is useful as an emblem.

As a prophet (and he certainly has been praised as a prophet) Reade has his moments. The idea that three inevitable developments – food technology, air travel and a form of engine much better than steam – will radically improve human life (p. 422) looks a lot better in 2005 than it would have in 1945. But Reade would surely have had great difficulty in accounting for the resistance to reason and progress in the twentieth century: he would have been appalled by Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism as by the haste with which we left Africa to its moral, political and economic implosion.

Reade is a fine descriptive writer, vastly superior to the likes of Haeckl and Engels in that respect. Flowery, yes, sometimes a tad overblown, very much of his times, but always vivid and never evasive. He feels, at least, as if he knows exactly what it was like to be a hunter after the kill ten thousand years ago or to sit down to dinner at an Egyptian country house four thousand years ago. Or to be moving west across the USA of his day believing you are going to make a fortune. And he shares the clarity of his vision with you.

In understanding my excitement at my initial contact with Reade I am forced back to (the English version of) an obscure phrase and theory used by his contemporary, Haeckl: "ontogeny recapitulates philogeny". In other words, the development of the individual is parallel to that of the species. At 15, I was a Victorian, excited by all the new knowledge, wanting to put it together into a system. Only later did I have to specialise and to develop greater intellectual caution. Then I loved statements of the form (p. 147):

As a single atom, man is an enigma: as a whole, he is a mathematical problem. As an individual, he is a free agent: as a species, the offspring of necessity.

The unity of the universe is a scientific fact. To assert that it is the operation of a single Mind is a conjecture based on analogy, and analogy may be a deceptive guide.

Later, I was taught to take such statements to pieces and stopped loving them. But I find it easy to recapture the excitement of Martyrdom and would recommend everybody to read it, preferably when they are 15.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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On my first read of this article, it reminded me of how T.H.Huxley also preferred Islam to Christianity, but in his case he sided with the Chechens against the Russians. But were he and Reade alive today, I think they might be horrified at the historical nemesis that has overtaken their ideas. The faith in science, naively expressed by Aneurin Bevan when he set up the National Health Service, declaring that he would

"rather be kept alive in the efficient if cold altruism of a large hospital than expire in a gush of sympathy in a small one"

is on the wane, to the detriment of science itself. The Theory of Evolution is under attack, not because of any holes in it, but through guilt by association with authors from Huxley to Mao und so weiter ad nauseam who have abused it to attack religion or to propagate their own version of utopia. And the Islam that they preferred to Christianity may come to make European civilization seem as passé as Ancient Egypt does to the modern Egyptians.

Dr Allison finishes with:

Later, I was taught to take such statements to pieces and stopped loving them.

But how many people ever learn to do that? It took me years to grow out of H.G.Wells' Outline of History. Moreover, he

would recommend everybody to read it, preferably when they are 15.

Deep down, does he in fact hate Christianity as did Reade? Why else would he be recommending 15-year-olds to read what is, in effect, Hell’s Own Propaganda?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 25, 2005 02:27 PM

That was a very good review of the book, Dr Allison. I read that book at Kyambogo University here in Uganda, East Africa, and found it very astonishing indeed. However I was old enough intellectually and spiritually to separate its great insights from its wavering critique of the Kingdom of God as Jesus Christ taught. Yet 15 year olds are yet to attain this ability. At that level people have a tendency of believeing what they are told. Especially if the info is coming from a fairly well explained by a work like this. So pliz do not give this book to any 15 year old as a gift to read whatsoever.
Thanx for that analysis, Lincoln. It was a refresher for me having read the book some eight years back.

Posted by: Andrew Ssempala Ssengendo at August 19, 2010 09:22 AM

I have read about 50% of the book (June 2011) and I find it fascinating. I will not recommend it to a 15 year old, not because the book will cause any harm but because it is difficult to understand it in full. You need good basic knowledge of life, history and human behavior. I am an atheist myself and yes I believe this book may be a kind of bible for atheists.
I think Dr. Allison did a fine job with his review

Posted by: Raul Escarcega at June 5, 2011 12:42 AM
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