Sunday, October 26, 2008

Arthur J. Penty

by Stanley B. James




There is all the more need to pay the tribute of friendship to the memory of the man named at the head of this brief article because, being completely identified with no one school of thought, Penty was never able to command the services of a claque and cannot do so now that he is gone. His robust independence exacted that penalty. I have known no more honest man and this honesty prevented him from accepting party statements with which he was only conventionally agreed. That he loved controversy and needed its stimulus in order to achieve his best was obvious to all who knew him. But the causes for which he fought were causes in which he believed with all his heart, and it was because he believed in them that he fought.

It was his normality which made him so different from the rest of men. He had all the normal instincts, and especially those that are characteristic of Englishmen, to the full. You might say that he carried out a sort of apostolate on behalf of Everyman. Thatis why he found himself up against most men; for there is no one of whom democracy is so suspicious as the genuine democrat who represents common values. It is why he stood alone in a standardized civilization, protesting against all the dehumanizing influences of our age. It was characteristic of him that, as an architect, he believed that the dwelling house, the human habitation, the family abode, constituted the norm and provided the genesis of the building craft.

There was only one thing which was fixed in Penty’s case – his loyalty to truth, not truth in the bare rationalistic sense but in the broadly human meaning of the term. The truth to which he was loyal was not that of a formula: it was personal. He had belonged at different times to various movements and schools. He had lived in a fluid age and in the thick of controversies which brought him into close contact with diverse minds. That prevented him from settling prematurely in one mould. And it meant too, that when he reached his final conclusions, they were like the mouth of that river by which he lived, and bore in their current the waters of many tributary streams. It is surprising how many seemingly conflicting sociological creeds he managed to combine! He had been called a medievalist, a thought he was one of those for whom the world came to an end with the invention of the printing press. Certainly he was an artist who had no particular bent towards mechanism. Yet in one of his later volumes, Communism and the Alternative, he has a striking passage laying down the conditions governing the use of machinery. He had been a Fabian and a Socialist and nowhere is he betrayed by his love of freedom into anarchy, yet that love of freedom remained conspicuous. He was a Liberal in the G.K.C.’s sense of the term, but a Liberal who waged unceasing war against Adam Smith and Free Trade. He was mainly concerned with social and economical affairs, yet his strongest plea was for the dominance of the spiritual factor. On more than one occasion he fell foul of Distributists yet his last work is a Manifesto which the League had agreed to publish just one week before his death. This combination of many points of view did not result in an eclectic hash of oddments. The outcome was a genuine synthesis which will repay study. Personally, I doubt if anyone has succeeded so well in drawing together and weaving into an intelligible pattern the various threads of our complicated and confused age-so far, I mean, as social and economic matters are concerned. He began as an architect and applied to the task of reconstruction set by the era in which he lived the lessons he had learned in that sphere. Securing firm and broad foundations, he built a sense of balance which is both artistic and scientific.

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