Religion and the Rebel, Part 15

Religion and the Rebel, Part 15

Wilson’s book is almost complete, but there are few more thinkers he wants to discuss, one of the most important being the great Irish playwright, critic, and polemicist, George Bernard Shaw. Wilson explains that, for himself,

Shaw’s reputation will increase with time, until it is seen that his position in relation to Western thought is as important as that of Augustine or Aquinas to mediaeval thought. For me, the Outsider is the symbol of the whole problem of Western civilisation in the past five centuries of ‘Faustian culture.’ Shaw once said that he had solved every major problem of our civilisation, and people still go on propounding them as if they are unsolved. This seems to me to be true. Shaw touched on the Outsider problem at almost every point, and came closer to providing a complete solution than any other thinker. 1

I must admit, I do not recall ever having read Bernard Shaw, but his work sounds fascinating. I will try and present Wilson’s most salient points concerning Shaw and his near “complete solution to the Outsider problem.” If this is true, then Shaw will become one of my favorites quickly, I am sure. This chapter may take several essays to cover, since there is much material here that is relevant for the Outsider.

Wilson ranks Shaw as being equal to a Plato or a Goethe; he belongs in “a rare class of men…”2 First of all, Shaw is indubitably an existentialist thinker “in the profoundest sense of the word…”3 Wilson calls Plato, Goethe, and Shaw all existentialists because “all three were thinkers for whom thought and life were inseparable.”4 Wilson makes a distinction between certain types of thinkers: those who excel at both “sensibility and…powers of analysis,”5 and those who develop only one or the other. In the latter category, he places men like Shakespeare, Kant, Dante, and Hegel. But a Plato, Goethe, or Bernard Shaw belong to that rare breed “who go beyond the mere artist or thinker.”6 

The artist fails to cultivate his analytical faculty; the thinker fails to cultivate his sensibility. But certain thinkers have believed that life itself is the stuff of philosophy – the living, raw impressions which the artist puts into his art. They do not believe that the artist’s passive acceptance of his experience  – the ‘negative capability’ – is the sole necessity. But neither do they believe that the thinker’s ability to roll the universe into a (theoretical) ball is of primary importance. Philosophy should not be built with thoughts and analyses, any more than houses should be built with cards; it should be built out of living experience.7

Being a sensitive person “means relaxing the will, making the personality transparent, becoming completely receptive; and analysis means essentially reacting, using the will, strengthening the personality.”8 This is about discipline and self-control. If a person cannot control the side of them that Blake called the Spectre (which is Reason in man totally separated from Imagination) they are basically a slave to one side of their humanity. Wilson says that “the ideally great existentialist, then, would have the ability to use his will power in analysis, and yet at a moment’s notice to become completely negative, transparent, and receptive. There would, that is to say, be complete self-control.”9 This is Wilson’s description of the “ideally great existentialist,” which he says Bernard Shaw is. Self-discipine and self-transformation, he says, is the “religious idea,” and this is exactly what the existentialist embraces. His thinking cannot be “abstract” because “it is always involved in a concrete situation.”10

Wilson continues to describe the existentialist:

He never treats the universe as if he were sitting apart from it all, in a celestial armchair, ‘logicising’ about it. When the field of his own immediate being is no longer in question, he ceases to think and again becomes the receptive artist-poet. For the existentialist, the only form of abstract thought which is not unutterable nonsense is mathematics, and that is because mathematics is the dumbbell exercise of the existentialist, his mental gymnasium. But essentially, existentialism is not the building of an intellectual system. It is the building of an insight, a building of many insights into a total vision, an attempt to extend the consciousness, to extend the sphere of the living being into the unliving. It is made of moments of insight that come to the poet.11

As we have noted before, Wilson has his own definition of the existentialist, which is somewhat different than a Sartre or a Camus. I have studied Philosophy for years and I’ve never heard of Bernard Shaw being an existentialist, but, as I said, I’ve never read him. I was aware that Pascal, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche were said to be good examples of existentialists, which they are, but I never associated existentialism with Goethe, Plato, or Dante. I am gaining much new knowledge in this study. It has been a long one, I admit, but a fascinating journey, nevertheless! More on Bernard Shaw in the next installment.




Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.

  1. Religion and the Rebel, 242
  2. Religion and the Rebel, 243
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. Religion and the Rebel, 244
  9. ibid.
  10. ibid.
  11. Religion and the Rebel, 245

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2 thoughts on “Religion and the Rebel, Part 15

  1. Like you, I’ve heard about Shaw, seen his name attached to many a great quote, heard he wrote a lot of plays but that’s about it. I agree, he’s worth getting to know…

  2. Yes, definitely. I have never been a reader of plays so much, but years ago I read a few by Ibsen, who was very influential to Shaw, apparently. Ibsen is another playwright I’d like to get to know more, too. So much to read, so little time! 🙂

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