It is not difficult to make a list – from Ayer to Popper to Russell and Moore – of academic philosophers who have shaped 20th century British philosophy. However, one name that is unlikely to be on many people’s lists is that of C. E. M. Joad (1891-1953).
Yet in his time, Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad was the best-known philosopher in Britain, renowned for his habit of carefully deconstructing questions on the BBC’s wartime radio program, the Brains Trust. His Socratic habit of prefacing responses with the words: ‘It all depends what you mean by ….’ became a catch-phrase. As a later UK populariser of philosophy, Bryan Magee later acknowledged, this was likely ‘the first time most of the population had heard such routine clarification carried out in a businesslike and unpedantic way’.
Clarifying concepts is what philosophy has always been about, and certainly what 20th century British philosophy was preoccupied with. Yet, in its obituary for Joad, on April 10 1953, The Times described him as a ‘civil servant, university teacher, controversialist and entertainer’ – but not a philosopher. An entertainer! To underline the point, The Times continued: ‘A star performer as a popular educator…’ but a man who ‘had no original contribution to make as a philosopher’.
In this article, I hope to make the case for this once-famous, but now almost-forgotten philosopher, to be given his due place in English philosophy and culture. He needs to be remembered as a thinker who shaped public discussion of critical issues, and opened up philosophy to a wider audience. As Geoffrey Thomas said in his short biography of Joad, this was a man ‘who believed that philosophy should not be a mere academic speciality, but a power in everyday life’.
I have no doubt that the author of that Times obituary was mistaken. The account conjures up an image of an ill-remembered man – if remembered at all – who nonetheless ‘quickened the sluggish mind of the nation’ as the Evening Standard put it more generously the same year. Sixty or so years on, let history speak. C. E.. M. Joad, ‘the Professor’ of the BBC’s Brains Trust, popularised philosophy for millions, encouraged people think more clearly, and contributed to public morale during the darkest years of the Second World War. I hope to capture something of Joad’s vitality, fallibility, wit and crystal-clear thinking. These are qualities that are needed more than ever for humanity’s survival in the 21st century.
Joad wrote over 100 books and a similar number of academic papers, as well as countless newspaper and magazine articles. He was Head of the Philosophy Department (originally Philosophy and Psychology) at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, for 23 years from its inception in 1930 until his death at his Hampstead home, aged just 61. He was never made a Professor, a point his detractors made much of, but was still the first to put the Birkbeck ‘on the map’ as a philosophy department.
Joad says that the philosopher: ‘… looks for a clue to guide him through the labyrinth, for a system wherewith to classify, or a purpose in terms of which to make meaningful. Has the universe, for example, any design, or is it merely a fortuitous concourse of atoms? Is mind a fundamental feature of the universe, in terms of which we are ultimately to interpret the rest, or is it a mere accident, an eddy in the primeval slime, doomed one day to finish its pointless journey with as little noise and significance as it began it? Are good and evil real and ultimate principles existing independently of men, or are they merely the names we give to the things of which we happen to approve and to disapprove?’
Joad was gifted, but fallible – and thus vulnerable. His private life, especially with women, I would tactfully describe as ‘varied, colourful and not without complication’. His public life, especially with his celebrity ‘Brains Trust’ status, brought a high level of personal hubris, and accompanying nemesis, in 1948. This was his ‘annus horribilis’, the year in which his fame plummeted after an all-too-public ‘scandal’ regarding train ticket non-payments.
But let’s first look at Joad’s work and ideas. The early Joad is a political philosopher and pacifist. The background is World War I. In 1919, we find Joad – a staunch, young, Oxford-educated pacifist – editing The Diary of a Dead Officer (Pelican Press), a book about his friend, and war poet, Arthur Graeme West who had been killed by a sniper’s bullet in April 1917.
Joad, like George Bernard Shaw, was fully involved in the Fabian Society, and seems to have tried to model himself on the great writer. By 1933, still as a socialist philosopher and pacifist, he becomes President of the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals, the group based on the visionary ideas of H. G. Wells – which later ‘morphed’ into the Socialist League. This was the year of the famous (and infamous) Oxford Union Debate on the motion:
‘That under no circumstances will we fight for King and Country’.
Joad took part in it, and won. When graduate members, led by Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, tried to expunge the 275 to 153 vote from the official record, they were defeated 750 to 138.
Fifteen years later, in Volume 1 of his History of World War Two (‘The Gathering Storm’), Winston Churchill cited this as one reason why Hitler believed this country would never go to war : ‘It was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent and degenerate Britain took deep root, and swayed many calculations’. Whether this view is fair to history – or Joad – or mere sour grapes, the reader must judge.
The ‘Middle Joad’ years see the emergence of the Brains Trust philosopher and celebrity. In 1941 (January 1), Joad became one of three panelists in an experimental BBC idea to boost morale for the blitz-ridden and war-weary. The Brains Trust exceeded all expectations. As it ‘took off’ it also made Joad the most recognised and renowned philosopher during the war, it seems much to Bertrand Russell’s chagrin, who mocked Joad publicly and professionally at every opportunity. Nonetheless, the public were amused and beguiled by Joad and his down-to-earth style revealed in comments such as:
There is no reason, at least I know of none, why the universe should necessarily be intelligible to the mind of a Twentieth-century human being, and I…remind him how late a comer he is upon the cosmic scene, and how recently he has begun to think…
If we put the past of life at one hundred years, then the past human life works out at about a month, and of human civilisation (giving the most generous interpretation to the term ‘civilisation’) at about one-and-three-quarter hours. On the same time-scale, the future of ‘civilisation’ – that is to say, the, future during which it may be supposed that man will continue to think – is about one hundred thousand years.
In fact, Joad frequently struck a Socratic posture, writing at one point:
In philosophy, then, as in daily life, cocksureness is a function of ignorance, and dunces step in where sages fear to tread. The wise man is he who realises his limitations.
However, although a media success, Joad’s moral philosophy no longer chimed with the times – nor did his socialist politics, particularly his enthusiastic advocacy of the Soviet Union after a visit there.
There were no rich and in the towns no poor; all citizens were living on incomes ranging from about, £100 to £200 a year. What is more, the Bolsheviks had succeeded in establishing a society in which the possession of money had been abolished as a criterion of social value. The effects were far-reaching, and, so far as I could see, entirely beneficial. The snobbery of wealth, which is so important a factor in the social life of Anglo-Saxon communities, was absent. There was no ostentation and no display, and the contemporary fat man, complete with fur coat, white waistcoat, champagne and cigars, was missing. It was only when one returned to England that one realized by contrast the vulgarity of wealth… The Russians, admittedly, are poor and live badly, but the sting is removed from poverty if it is not outraged by the continual spectacle of others’ wealth. I cannot believe that complete equality of income would not produce similar effects here, and, if snobbery and vulgarity were eliminated from English society, the gain would be incalculable.
To an age governed by the stomach-and-pocket view of life and accustomed to demand of every activity proffered for its approval that it shall deliver the goods, understanding seems no doubt an inadequate object of pursuit. Yet something is, it is obvious, grievously wrong with our civilization, and it is high time we set about the business of trying to understand what it is. Science has won for us powers fit for the gods, yet we bring to their use the mentality of schoolboys or savages.
The Plight of Civilization (1941)
He fought against the prevailing orthodoxies of secular materialism and moral relativism – with little visible success. When Joad draws on the ‘facts’ of Jesus Christ’s divinity and the existence of miracles to support some of his arguments, he did so in a way that had not been acceptable to philosophy for many centuries.
Joad’s moral intuitionism is perhaps his real legacy. Could this have been a prescient philosophy on his part, rather than old-fashioned? Did he understand that humanity was coming unhinged? Did he understand that he needed to rescue the ‘common man’? Did he pass the baton too soon? If he is to be rehabilitated, one should understand what for, in our own day.
This aspect of his work centred on a values-based philosophy, almost a new metaphysics. As a moral realist, Joad believed that the ultimate values of truth, beauty and goodness were objective, absolute and independent of the mind (we discover them). This belief was diametrically opposed to the moral relativists, who believed such values were subjective, relative and dependent on the mind (we create them).
He also believed these three values were not only immanent within the mind, but also transcendent of it – and this primary idea later developed into what I would dub a theory about the ‘Transcendence-Immanence Theory of the Soul’
These three values are ‘objective’ in the sense that they are found by the human mind – found as ‘given’ in things – and not projected into things or contributed to them by our own minds, and ‘ultimate’, in the sense that whatever we value can be shown to be valued because of the relation of the thing valued to some one or other of the three values. Thus, while other things are valued as means to one or other of these three, they are valued as ends in themselves.
Moreover, these values are not just arbitrary, pieces of cosmic furniture lying about, as it were, in the universe without explanation, coherence or connection, but are revelations of a unity that underlies them; are, in fact, the ways in which God reveals Himself to man. Hence, those human activities which consist in, or which arise out of, the pursuit of Truth, the cultivation of moral goodness, or the creation and enjoyment of Beauty, are such that we cannot help but value and revere them.
What we call the Values – and it is under this term that [Plato’s] Forms may, I think, be most appropriately referred to in respect of their most outstanding manifestations, as Truth, Goodness and Beauty – are the modes of God’s revelation of His Nature to man.
If the early Joad was very much an atheist, and the middle Joad avoided the subject, in his ‘Late’ period he changed to a “religious values-based philosophy”. This Joad takes Plato’s Forms and re-formulates them as Values – or Divine Attributes, which he says are transcendent realities underlying, yet manifesting themselves, in the familiar, natural world.
Joad writes that the universe is to be conceived of as two orders of reality:
… the natural order, consisting of people and things moving about in space and enduring in time, and a supernatural order neither in space nor in time, which consists of a Creative Person or Trinity of Persons from which the natural order derives its meaning, and in terms of which it receives its explanation.
This supernatural order, he continues, is fully real ‘in some sense in which the natural order is less than real; it is also perfect in a sense in which the natural order is morally imperfect’. The eternal reality which is the supernatural order is related to the natural order. ‘The nature of the relationship depends at least in part upon the living human souls which are denizens of the natural order. It is of great importance – at least to them – to ensure that the relation is a right one.’
The supernatural order cannot be investigated using the same methods as those that are effective in the natural sphere. Knowledge instead must be vouchsafed by divine revelation, or sought by submission to special discipline, or achieved by obedience to a revealed law. Joad thinks that the supernatural order may, from time to time, manifest itself in natural phenomena, but these manifestations are not predictable far less controllable.
Divine revelation, that is, such information as is vouchsafed to us in regard to the supernatural order, is consistent with reason and may, indeed, find support from the use of reason, but the knowledge which it conveys cannot be attained by the operations of reason alone.
This part of Joad’s thesis is reminiscent of Kierkegaard, who also speaks of the need for a ‘leap of faith’ to bridge the gap left by reason. Joad again:
Thus, the believer in Christianity holds that he is possessed, or can be possessed of, a source of knowledge other than and distinct from that attainable by scientific explanation. He maintains, therefore, that there are limits beyond which scientific knowledge can never hope to pass…
These ideas were never taken seriously by his professional peers. In reviewing Joad’s book, Matter, Life and Value (1929) in the late 1960s, John Passmore wrote:
Within a seam-bursting eclecticism, Russell, Bergson and Plato had somehow all to make room for themselves as the representatives – respectively – of Matter, Life and Value. The result was a conglomeration of considerable popular appeal, but little philosophical consequence.
And Bryan Magee’s assessment of Cyril Joad could scarcely be harsher:
He was an engaging but essentially fraudulent character. His popular books on philosophy thick-skinnedly recycled Russell’s work without acknowledgement; asked once to write a recommendation of a book by Joad, Russell replied : ‘Modesty forbids’.
Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee – 1997
However, at the time, J.B. Coates had said enthusiastically of Joad in his book, Ten Modern Prophets (1944) that:
He possesses…a capacity for seeing modern issues from the standpoint of the universal. It is no mean purpose to seek to make the average citizen think out his problems in terms of Truth, Beauty and Goodness; but that is the purpose which Joad has sought to achieve with no little success, and in so doing, has made the British listener familiar with the thoughts of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. It is a misfortune that the BBC, with characteristic timidity in the intellectual field, has restricted the play of Joad’s mind…to relatively unimportant issues.
‘The 1945 Revolution’ saw Joad attempting to be taken seriously as a Labour politician. It was not to be. Joad was rejected by North Aberdeen Labour Party but then adopted as prospective candidate by South Aberdeen, but turned it down as he was hoping – according to Hugh Gaitskell – to secure Romford. Was this a foretaste of the perils of hubris?
In 1947, Harold Nicolson, husband of Vita Sackville-West (and friend of Cyril), wrote in his Diary – May 9th:
‘Viti has had Cyril Joad to luncheon. He poured out to her his unhappiness and disappointments. He has lost his faith in agnosticism, and has not found a compensating faith in God. He has lost his faith in Socialism, and not found any faith to supplement it. Underneath, I suppose, he must feel that he is in a false position. He has acquired notoriety instead of fame. He knows he is a popular, and as such a slightly comic, figure. He wishes he had acquired either the cloistered dignity of a scholar and philosopher, or the arena victories of the politician. He has no domestic background. He has quarreled with his son; his daughters have married; his wife has left him. He is famous and alone.’
And so we arrive at 1948 – the annus horribilis .- in which Joad was convicted of travelling on a Waterloo to Exeter train – a considerable distance occasioning a considerable fare – without a valid ticket. His fall from grace was extremely rapid. He was dismissed by the BBC. His readers deserted him. His professional colleagues shunned him. The dream of a Birkbeck Professorship evaporated. Adverse comments by respected figures like Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell mocked him again :
Joad has lost his ticket and found God.
He became ill. As his good friend, John Guest, sadly summed up those days, for BBC’s ‘Radio Lives’ in 1993: ‘Poor Joad’.
Even so, in 1950, Joad was taking part in, and winning again – by 224 to 179 votes – another provocative Oxford Union Debate, this time on the motion: ‘That this House regrets the influence exercised by the US, as the dominant power among the democratic nations’.
The debate saw former pacifist Joad and Randolph Churchill square-off again: ‘Money is the sole American standard of value’, said Cyril. ‘The nations are heading for hell, and it is America which is leading us there…[American influence] corrupts, infects and pollutes whatever it touches’. And: ‘What a genius the Americans have for coming into a war late, on the winning side’. Angry shouts of ‘Shame’ greeted Joad’s remark.
Other shouts, however, drowned out Randolph – husband of American heiress Pamela Harriman – when he proclaimed in mocking tones: ‘Back the ‘Professor’ comes after seventeen years with his rotten advice, trying to lure yet another generation along the wrong path’. The President of the Students Union, Robin Day, (himself later to become famous on BBC’s Question Time, very much the successor to the Brains Trust), rang the bell for silence, but Winston’s son again stood up and bellowed :
It may be just a joke for the ‘Professor’, this Third-Class Socrates, but he is corrupting, infecting and polluting the good relations between Britain and the US.
Here indeed was a cruel jibe by Churchill – designed to hurt, because ‘Third-Class’ alluded to the 1948 train ticket incident. However, by using the name ‘Socrates’ he unintentionally paid Joad the highest of all compliments for a philosopher.
In 1952, Joad wrote what would be his ‘swansong’ – The Recovery of Belief – A Restatement of Christian Philosophy. In this, he developed extensively, and with some originality, a religious values-based philosophy and a Theory of the Soul. The year also saw him produce a short book for his philosophy students, which offers in conclusion:
Plato’s Theory of Ideas…constitutes the nearest approach that philosophers, by the unaided light of their own reason, have made to the Christian conception of what the world is like which, to my mind, is the true one.
And, early in 1953, when Joad knew he was dying from cancer, he wroteFolly Farm – posthumously published in 1954. It is a bitter and even cantankerous account. The celebrated poet laureate, John Betjeman, wrote the Foreword, but if the intention was good, the effect is depressing.
This book was written during the final stages of Cyril Joad’s painful illness. He planned it after he knew that he had only a few months to live, and that the increasing pain from which he was suffering could not be alleviated. He wrote it to keep his mind active and to drive off self-pity – the second a needless precaution, for he was never prone to it. It concerns things about which he felt very strongly – the preservation of the country, the depredation of it by service departments, his own farming in Sussex, good cooking and good wine, as well as many other general topics which he liked to discuss.
In the book, the autobiographical hero, ‘Mr. Longpast’ has:
…permitted himself the growth and indulgence of prejudices to such an extent that, having spent most of his life as an orthodox left-wing Socialist, he was now bidding fair to qualify for the traditional role of the rustic British eccentric.
… Among his prejudices was a hatred of machines of all sorts, especially cars and planes; a fear of America and all things American; a dislike of women (he was too old, he said, to need these for functional purposes, and he failed to see on what other ground a reasonable man could wish to cultivate their company); an abounding contempt for British food and those who provided it; a total incomprehension of contemporary music and art; and a general dislike of any development in the sphere of politics, literature or the British way of life that had occurred since the early ‘twenties.
… Though – thanks to his early Socialist training, he had the grace not to say that the world was going to the dogs – that indubitably was his opinion.
‘Folly Farm’ was, in fact, an amalgam of the two Sussex farms he loved – South Stoke Farm, in a beautiful hamlet nestled deep in the South Downs near Arundel Castle, and Meadow Hills, Stedham – also in the South Downs in the Rother Valley. In this local area, Joad is not forgotten. His 50th Anniversary in 2003 was celebrated at South Stoke, while his 60th Anniversary in 2013 was celebrated at Stedham. Indeed, plans are underway for C. E.. M. Joad’s 70th Anniversary in 2023.
BOX: THE SOUL AS ‘PERSONALITY’
The question of whether soul’s are individual and reflect individual personalities has been much debated over the centuries. Aristotle’s view was that the soul is not immortal at all, but only the intellect – which he called nous – is. This view caused theological problems for the later Christian philosophers. Exploring the issue, the Islamic philosopher, Averroes warns that the intellect is not the property of individuals but rather transcends them. This view, of course, undercut both the Islamic and the Christian teachings about individual responsibility and chances of redemption and was considered deeply heretical. Joad says:
… suppose that to think of the personality as resulting from the concurrence of a number of parts was misleading from the first. Suppose that the personality is logically prior, and that the parts derive from it, in the sense that it is in the parts that it expresses itself and finds its embodiment…
Christianity regards the whole, which I have been calling the personality, as an immortal soul which will survive the break-up of the body, even if it did not precede its formation….
If this is true, there is a sense in which the personality is more than its expressions both in the body and in the psyche, so that besides being immanent, it is also transcendent…
…life, mind, spirit and value cannot be adequately conceived in material terms as off-shoots of, or emanations from, matter; secondly, that they are non-spatial; thirdly, that on both counts, science is disabled from giving an adequate account of them…
There is…an element, or factor, in the mind – or, as I should in this connection prefer to call it, the soul – which is timeless…
Now, I do not wish to suggest that it is easy to see how a timeless mind (or soul) can be aware of events which have not yet occurred; I content myself with pointing out that such a possibility is no harder to envisage than its awareness of, and apparent participation in, events which are occurring in what is called the present.
email Richard Symonds <email@example.com>
Richard Symonds is a Founder Member of the Joad Society and is co-writing a book with Geoffrey Thomas on Joad called The People’s Philosopher.. Please contact him for details on the planned local events celebrating Joad’s anniversary.