Rudyard Kipling wrote The Gods of the Copybook Headings, excerpted herein, in 1919; It remains as apropos today as when men lived in trees because it is elemental, going to the fountainhead of our knowledge and beliefs. Kipling’s poem reveals eternal wisdom and common sense in a twenty-first century world that has badly lost its way.
Copybooks disappeared from schools in the 1940s. Each page contained a large heading in perfect cursive – which common core now abolishes. The headings consisted of proverbs, hortatory or aphorisms which students copied to hone handwriting skills. Kipling’s poem traces man’s knowledge and superstitions through the epochs. Yet still the Gods of the Copybook Headings outlast all ersatz and transient feel-good bromides; we ignore them at our grave peril!
As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
Kipling’s “Gods of the Market Place” refer to transient and ephemeral trends and fads. Today such Gods would include manmade global warming, endless debt and deficits, organic food, common core and ObamaCare. Back to Kipling and Pigs with Wings.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”
The Gods of the Market Place tell us what we wish to hear. Today they tell us we can spend and borrow without limit; Iran is not really building a bomb; and we can slash defense spending, appease tyrants and manifest weakness to our enemies without consequence. They tell us we can provide medical care to millions more people while simultaneously slashing the costs. However, reality, with all its discomforts and irritation, is manifest in the Gods of the Copybook Headings which tell us this isn’t so. People and nations succeed when they act in conformity with the copybook headings, i.e. the collected wisdom and experience of mankind on our planet. When copybook headings are ignored, we are bound and delivered to our foes. As Jefferson put it: “He who beats his sword into plowshares shall plow for those who didn’t.”
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
Man has achieved his present state by gradually accumulating nuggets of truth, morality and wisdom over the millennia. Nonetheless, every so often we lose touch with the veracity of the copybook headings. We then take destructive actions that set us aback, invariably with much collateral grief, suffering and death. We may be technological geniuses but we are economic, moral and political cretins. Following is the apt conclusion of Kiplinger’s epic.
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
As Kipling describes, moral and economic truths a/k/a copybook headings are timeless and immutable; disregarding them leads inevitably to terror and slaughter. The market place is nothing but pigs with wings, i.e. fad, fable, fashion and foolishness. There are no shortages today of smooth-talking wizards promising a brave new world of perpetual peace, abundance for all, men paid merely for existing and no wages of sin. All the while such wizards mock the copybook headings. Indeed, all today’s woes can be traced to defiance of the copybook rules, what Henry Ford called “the essence of human wisdom, or as Thomas Jefferson put it: “Those who turn their swords into plowshares, will plow for those who didn’t“.
We can worship the Gods of the Market Place for a fleeting time. But lemonade doesn’t flow in rivers and basic, immutable and unchanging human nature invariably returns to every person and nation that permits itself to become self-indulgent or to believe in myths. Science still trumps superstition; chemistry still beats alchemy; real doctors still are superior to witch doctors; and reality always outstrips illusion, ideology and dogma. Substance eternally thumps hope and change and water still wets us and fire still burns. The only uncertainty is how much terror and slaughter must there be before the Gods of the Copybook Headings return?