Religion and the Rebel, Part 17

Religion and the Rebel, Part 17


Everyone is ill at ease until he has found his natural place, whether it be above or below his birthplace. . . . Besides, this finding of one’s place may be made very puzzling by the fact that there is no place in ordinary society for extraordinary individuals. . . .1

This is the experience of all Outsiders. The youth of the extraordinary individual is usually fraught with trouble and misery until, at some point, he or she discovers that there is, indeed, something one is very good at. If he or she pursues it with discipline and will, things usually fall into place, but the Outsider is still estranged from society. One can never fit into the bourgeois life without betrayal of one’s dreams and ideas. One shouldn’t have to. Of Shaw, Wilson writes:

The young Shaw was, emphatically, an Outsider, and what he has described is the position of every young man of genius before he has convinced himself or anyone else of his genius. There is no place in society for the extraordinary individuals, and neither should there be; all their power and importance lies in their being outside society.2

It is because the Outsider creates his greatest work outside of society. It is more of a boon to mankind in general for there to be a subset of genius Outsiders who create what is beautiful and meaningful. It is they who travel at will through that wild country called the imagination; it is they who return from their sometimes harrowing sojourns with valuable gifts of creation for the world.

Shaw introduced a theatrical device “which was to become the dramatic centre of all his plays: the clash of wills. He puts two people of strong character on to the stage, and the audience watches with fascination for the explosion.”3 The will to power was very strong in Shaw’s work, according to Wilson. Moral fortitude and “the refusal to be browbeaten” are central to this. Rebellion and the defiance of authority are very important to him. Wilson says, “it is theme of all his plays.”4

Now the Outsider is not necessarily the rebel, but the rebel is undoubtedly a most important type of Outsider. The rebel attempts to asset that existence comes before essence, that will comes before authority. In another form, this existentialist theme is presented in Bergson in the opposition between ‘open and closed religion.’ Open religion is the inspired religious insight of the prophet and saint; closed religion is the ritual and law of a Church. On any level, this opposition between the living force and the forms which it puts on like garments, implies existentialism. And all forms of this are present in Shaw’s work. . .5

In Shaw’s play, Caesar and Cleopatra, he portrays Caesar as the Outsider. Just as he stated that Hamlet was an Outsider, so is Caesar: “because he has evolved a stage beyond his fellow men, and is quite alone among them, alone and incomprehensible.”6 The opening line finds Caesar addressing the Sphinx in that lonely desert scene:

Hail, Sphinx; salutation from Julius Caesar! I have wandered in many lands, seeking the lost regions from which my birth into this world exiled me, and the company of creatures such as I myself. I have found flocks and pastures, men and cities, but no other Caesar, no air native to me, no man kindred to me, none who can do my day’s deed, and think my night’s thought. . . .Sphinx, you and I, strangers to the race of men, are no strangers to one another.7

Shaw famously criticized Shakespeare in the Preface to Caesar and Cleopatra. He stated that Shakespeare “understood human weakness without understanding human strength.”8 Wilson says,

This criticism contains the essence of Shaw, and it also contains the essence of the Outsider’s position. For the Insider, moral and intellectual ideas are unimportant in comparison with aesthetic satisfaction. But for the Outsider, nothing matters but moral heroism. The Insider does not mind people being trivial and unheroic because life is still good. The Outsider cannot begin living until he has solved the question of how to live; like Ivan Karamazov, he rejects the world, he rejects life if it must be lived trivially. He craves greater intensity of life. In the twentieth century, the Insider’s position is the philosophy of our civilisation – the ‘go-getter’ utilitarianism. That is why, for any Outsider, all that matters is that men should become bigger; that is why the Outsider is the heroic figure of our time, and Outsider tragedies – those of Nietzsche, Lawrence, Van Gogh, Nijinsky – are the great tragedies of our time. That is why the great bulk of modern literature must be detestable to the Outsider: for, like Shakespeare, it cares only about human weakness; it looks at human beings through a microscope, not a telescope.9

Shaw takes Shakespeare to task with his criticism that the latter does not know about “human strength of the Caesarian type. His Caesar is a failure. . . .”10 He does not discount the greatness of Shakespeare, but he certainly draws a clear distinction between his philosophy and that of the Bard of Avon. Shaw’s philosophy, of course, is that of the Outsider. The Insider cares little for moral fortitude, courage, and strength of will. His only goal is the good life, an aesthetically pleasing life. As long as life is pleasurable for the Insider, and he is having fun above all else, to hell with moral courage and strength of will. The Outsider, on the other hand, suffers in anguish until, at some point, he determines what life means to him and how to live it, and then he “craves” it with “greater intensity.” The twentieth and twenty-first century Insider has the “go-getter” mentality: he wants to succeed at making money and having fun at all cost. Capitalism is the answer to the Insider’s American Dream, while it is the height of misery to the Outsider. “All that matters,” to the Outsider, “is that men should become bigger,” gain more strength of will, moral heroism, imagination, and awareness. These things mean very little to the Insider. Like Shakespeare, the Insider only cares about human foibles. This is why Shaw believes his Caesar is superior.




Shaw, George Bernard. Three Plays for Puritans. Brentano’s: New York, 1906.

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


  1. George Bernard Shaw, qtd. in Religion and the Rebel, 253
  2. ibid.
  3. Religion and the Rebel, 258
  4. ibid.
  5. Religion and the Rebel, 259
  6. ibid.
  7. qtd. in ibid.
  8. Religion and the Rebel, 260
  9. Religion and the Rebel, 260-261
  10. Three Plays for Puritans, xxx

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