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Churchill’s Novel “Savrola”, Part 1: Polestar of a Statesman’s Philosophy
Churchill didn’t write this in his novel Savrola, but it easily could have appeared there:
Civilization derives from civilians. It replaces the rule of warfare with the rule of law. It nurtures freedom, comfort and culture, affords the mass of people a wider and less harassed life. Civilization preserves the inheritance of past wise and valiant leaders. But principles of civilization are not automatically guaranteed. They must be supported, not only by instruments and agencies of force, but by “qualities of civic virtue and manly courage.”1
In Britain’s finest hour, Churchill pointed to the exercise of statesmanship, with its character and principles, as civilization’s front line of defense against barbarism. When did Churchill formulate this principled understanding of statesmanship? His earliest effort at articulating the moral and political principles informing civilization was presented in Savrola.
Savrola is the great Democrat who leads a revolution to restore and extend the ancient liberties in the Republic of Laurania, after the despotic President Antonio Molara manipulated the franchise to the disadvantage of the people. As the revolt gets under way, Savrola falls in love with Lucille, the President’s wife. After the death of Molara at the hands of communist extremists, who then take over the revolt, Savrola and Lucille are exiled, later to return to lead the people of Laurania.
A literary achievement
Savrola has always been considered to be Churchill’s third book. But as Ronald Cohen has explained, the bulk of the composition occurred prior to Churchill’s other two works. At a minimum, Savrola ought to be recognized as Churchill’s first substantial literary composition. More important, however, is that it is arguably Churchill’s premier literary effort. It gives dramatic voice to his mature philosophical reflections about his fundamental political and ethical principles, at the very moment when he settled on them for the rest of his life.
Churchill wrote later that Savrola was composed during his intellectually formative period. For the ten months he worked on it, he wrote, the novel alone “filled and still fills my mind.”2 Yet he also found time for thoughtful and regular correspondence with his mother, brother, and the Head Master of Harrow. Simultaneously he began extensive reading in history, philosophy and religion. He also read and annotated the Parliamentary debates for 1874-75. He visited Naples and Rome, made his first political speech, and composed a brief but suggestive work on political oratory entitled the Scaffolding of Rhetoric. Finally, he wrote the Malakand Field Force in five weeks, while serving in a frontier war.3
All these extraordinary events are incorporated into or influence the direction of the dialogue and philosophy of Savrola.4 For these biographical reasons, as well as for its intrinsic merit, Savrola might be read as the polestar of all Churchill’s future literary efforts. It was far more than a temporary poetic deviation from his public prose writing. Forever after, it would characterize the greater part of his literary effort.
Faith in his pen
This elevated view of Savrola might seem to overlook Churchill’s original trepidation about publishing it, which he reaffirmed in 1956.5 Yet A.L. Rowse, reviewing the 1956 edition, cautions against taking Sir Winston’s apparent modesty too literally. In fact, Rowse tells us, the story “holds one’s attention for its own sake.”6 Even Churchill’s self-deprecating claim that the book had no other purpose than to amuse7 must be assessed carefully. For, in the next breath, he will say that Savrola enabled him to find faith in his pen: “All my philosophy is put into the mouth of the hero…I have unbounded faith in myself.”8 On hisown terms, Savrola should not be as neglected as it has been by scholars.
The claim that Savrola is important does fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Reviewers tend to dismiss it as an insignificant mimic of better novels by Haggard, Hope, Disraeli, Bulwer-Lytton, even Conrad.9 At best, a few proffer some small compliment by identifying the distinctive quality of Savrola as autobiographical revelation. Some view its dialogues as a prophecy of Churchill’s political life to come, by which he offers philosophy by proxy.10 Only a few reviewers come close to connecting the two dimensions. The most significant autobiographical dimension of Savrola might be precisely the philosophical dialogues in which Churchill presents his understanding of important moral and political principles.
Savrola as autobiography
The best correlation of Savrola with Churchill’s career as statesman, Winston Churchill by “Ephesian” (Bechhofer Roberts), was published in 1927.11 Each of its ten chapters is headed by lines from Savrola. Chapter I (on Churchill’s rise to public promise) quotes lines on Savrola’s ambition. Chapter X (evaluating Churchill’s political future) quotes Savrola’s self-knowledge about his status: “a factor to be reckoned with.”
Reading these quotations separately from the book suggests that Savrola is autobiographical—not for historical or psychological reasons, but because the main character and the author accepted and lived by identical philosophical principles of politics and morals. To Rowse, Savrola articulated “the spirit and beliefs with which he would confront…challenges and tests.”12 Unfortunately, neither Roberts nor Rowse develop the philosophical autobiography that they point to in Churchill’s novel.
By contrast, Brian Magee (1965) recognizes that Savrola’s philosophy—not its seemingly prophetic autobiography—is its original strength.13 But Magee interprets the story as non-political—a psychological account of abstract realities to which the characters cling in adversity. This is a misleadingly existentialist reading of Churchill’s philosophy. Magee also reduces Savrola’s statesmanship to the status of just another way of facing the threat of death.
A search for first principles
When composing Savrola, Churchill was more exposed to and influenced by philosophy than at any other time in his life. He had a natural predilection for examining life in terms of first principles. He credits the “great works” he read in India in 1895 as motivation to conduct his public life by principles.14 Two years later he still yearned for “a liberal education and of the power to appreciate the classical works.”15
Churchill divides education between two kinds of learning. The first is measured by what one knows; the second by what one is.16 In politics, “a man, I take it, gets on not so much by what he does, as by what he is. It is not so much a question of brains as of character and originality.”17 Learning what you are is important, Churchill says. But it is useless without learning what you ought to know—which for him includes philosophy and history.18
Churchill always intended to be a man of politics, not a man of learning. Nonetheless, he recognized that the statesman needs to be philosophically and historically steeped in moral and political principles. Writing to his mother, he acknowledges his preference for educating himself in history, philosophy and economics.19 After all, he says, “food and philosophic temperament are man’s only necessities.”20 Still, he found a way of substituting for a formal philosophical education. Over nine months, he read history (Gibbon and Macaulay), philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Malthus), and certain religious thinkers.21 This left him well equipped for political life.
Though Churchill does not consider himself a philosopher, he partakes of philosophic courage and composure.22 He has a rigorous understanding of philosophy as the examination of principles from the standpoint of reason. This led to his cultivation of a logical and consistent mind.23 Churchill uses this conception of reasoning to determine whether or not authors “rise to the level of a philosopher.”24 He reveals a decided preference for approaching life from the perspective of reason rather than of faith.25 To his mother and old head master, he articulates the difference between explaining life by reason or by faith.26
Forty years later, Churchill would resort to the same distinction. Examining the principles governing British policy during the Munich crisis, he said:
The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not in these terms that ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding their States…. There is however one helpful guide, namely, for a nation to keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations to allies. This guide is called honour. It is baffling to reflect that what men call honour does not correspond always to Christian ethics.27
Churchill’s philosophic readings, drawn from classical and modern sources, are metaphysical and religious as well as political and moral. At first glance, he seems more influenced by the late modern metaphysical philosophy of Schopenhauer, of whom he speaks approvingly.28 Nonetheless, Schopenhauer’s influence on his religious views was neither profound nor lasting. Even at the time, he wrote his mother that the sad metaphysical philosophy of his fictional hero. Savrola claimed only a good deal of his sympathy.29
Religious and moral philosophy
Churchill characterized his views during the Savrola period as “a violent and aggressive anti-religious rationalistic phase.” This extreme reasoning, he wrote, did not last. It was frequently contradicted by the comfort he derived from religious practice during times of danger and need.30 As Churchill grew older, his respect for classical rather than modern thinkers increased steadily. By 1947 in Oslo, receiving an honorary doctorate, he declared:
But I must admit that I have altered my views about the study of classical literature as I have grown older. At school I never liked it…. But it seems to me that should the classic studies die out in Europe and in the modern world, a unifying influence of importance would disappear.31
The seeds of Churchill’s enhanced appreciation for classical thought are strongly apparent in Savrola. In his reading of ancient philosophers, moral and political principles had a decisive effect. Indeed, the hero Savrola’s moral educators are ancients: “Zeno had shown him how to face adversity, and Epicurus how to enjoy pleasure.”32 But it was Socrates, the ancient moral and political philosopher, who was particularly attractive to Churchill. He “had called something into being long ago which was very explosive. Intellectual dynamite.”33 Apparently, it was Socrates who taught that “a man’s life must be nailed to the cross of either thought or action.”34
Plato and Aristotle in Savrola
Much of what Churchill read in Plato’s Republic found its way into Savrola. In literary form, Savrola imitates Plato’s dramatic dialogue as a vehicle for philosophical ideas. In content, Churchill borrows Plato’s emphasis on the leadership of a wise or philosophic man. Like Plato, Churchill distinguishes between a public life of ambition and a private life of eros. Likewise we find in Savrola the preference for a republic within a city. The hero aspires to found a just society—to distinguish what can and cannot be spoken publicly.35 Churchill says explicitly that the Republic left him sympathetic to the Socratic idea that political order should legislate a specific moral education for the youth. However, he recognized that “this would upset a lot of things.” Indeed “it would cause commotion and bring perhaps in the end a hemlock draught.”36
Churchill’s awareness of the conflict between Socrates and his city-state helps account for why he turned to reading Aristotle. In the Politics, Aristotle provides more practical possibilities for philosophically influencing the moral character of political order.37 Churchill felt a kinship with Aristotle’s more moderate conception of political reform and moral virtues of statesmanship. After reading the Ethics, Churchill remarked, “…it is extraordinary how much of it I had already thought out for myself.”38
Savrola reflects Churchill’s admiration for the Aristotelian notion of the public-minded and thoughtful gentleman-statesman. Not for Churchill is the extreme Platonic notion of the philosopher-king. This is revealed by his essay, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric. Here Churchill associates Aristotle with rhetoric, suggesting that he may have read the translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric published by J.E.C. Welldon, his Harrow head master. Churchill’s own political moderation is reflected in Savrola’s restrained rhetoric, high-minded ambition, and respect for the rule of law.39
Continued in Part 2.
1Winston S. Churchill, Into Battle (London: Cassell, 1941), 35f.
2Randolph S. Churchill, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 2, Young Soldier 1896-1900 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2006.) Hereafter cited as DV2. See pages 779-1157, passim.
3The events are discussed in DV2, 779-941. WSC’s reading program, consult note 22 below. For the Annual Register, see DV2, 742, 757-768. For the visit to Rome, DV2, 749, 768ff. On the Bath speech, DV2, 770-76. On The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, DV2, 813, 815, 816-21, 825, 834, 915. For The Story of the Malakand Field Force, DV2, 804-40, 873. For military action, DV2, 830, 885.
5Winston S. Churchill, Savrola, Second American Edition (New York: Random House, 1956), Prefatory Note to Original Edition; Foreword to New Edition, vii. Also, DV2, 924.
6A.L. Rowse, The New York Times Book Review 15 April 1956, 5.
8Ibid., 922, 779, 924 respectively.
9See the following for representative commentary: A. MacCallum Scott, Winston Spencer Churchill (London: Methuen, 1905), 87; “The Reader,” The Bookman, July 1908, 35ff; A.L. Rowse, Times Book Review, 5; Manfred Weidhorn, Sword and Pen (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), 40ff.
10Malcolm Muggeridge, “Churchill, The Biographer and Historian,” in Charles Eade, ed., Churchill by His Contemporaries (Toronto: World Books Society, 1953), 234.
11Ephesian (Bechhofer Roberts), Winston Churchill, Third Revised Edition (London: Newnes, 1936).
12Rowse, Times Book Review, 5.
13Brian Magee, “Churchill’s Novel,” Encounter 25 (October 1965), 45-51.
14DV2, 724, 746.
15WSC to his Oxford-bound brother Jack, 1897. Ibid., 721.
21Ibid., 724f, 746, 757; Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930), pp. 125f.
22DV2, 716, 839.
24Ibid., 24f, 746.
25Churchill, Savrola, 85f, on the standpoint of reason.
26Letters to his mother and Bishop Welldon, ibid., 712f, 724f.
27Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (London: Cassell, 1948), 250f.
28DV2, 878, 942.
29WSC to Lady Randolph Churchill, ibid., 725, 815, 924.
30Churchill, My Early Life, 129f.
31Winston S. Churchill, “The Flame of Christian Ethics,” Oslo, 1947, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols., (New York: Bowker, 1974), VII, 7644.
32Churchill, Savrola, 64.
33Churchill, My Early Life, 124.
35Churchill, Savrola, 110.
36Churchill, My Early Life, 127.
38Ephesian, Winston Churchill, 117.
39Aristotle, The “Art” of Rhetoric, trans. & intro. by John Henry Freese (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912), xxxiv; DV2, 816f.
Dr. Powers is editor of the upcoming latest and finest edition of Savrola, including the famous 1950 woodcut illustrations by André Collot. This article is a revised and extended from its first appearance in 1992.
Antoine Capet, “Savrola: Churchill’s Novel and Its Most Beautiful Appearance.”