The “Gods of the Copybook Headings” by Rudyard Kipling is a hauntingly beautiful snapshot of the human struggle.
This is my own interpretation, but it seems to me that the “Copybook Headings” reference holds two meanings: 1) in the 19th century, children would practice their calligraphy with eternal maxims thought universally true (he provides Western examples, but the concept transcends culture); 2) these edicts are simple recitations of interpreted natural law that don’t promise beautiful things, but represent truth. It is not kind, good, fair or evil; it just is.
The Gods of the Marketplace peddle promises and ideas, various schemes for “social progress”, and fallacious ideologies based on defying basic truths. The peddlers are politicians, philosophers, social engineers, elitist academics, pundits, tyrants, etc.
Throughout history, as society advances from the jungle to civilization, we’ve a habit of ignoring natural law or universal maxims (water is wet, fire burns) in pursuit of wordly or “new” ideas of the marketplace, or society; these false hopes and grand lies based on hope and change are often peddled by ideological salesmen, which wield the power of new ideas to control humanity.
In pursuit of new wisdom, “[we seek] a truth that will help us deny our limited creature nature and exalt us for our mental or physical or moral prowess. Truth, that, supposedly none has known or seen before – these ideas change and pass like women’s clothing fashions.”
Our desire to defy nature, conquer natural law and evolve toward a state greater than our flawed humanity brings advancement, but leaves us susceptible for manipulation by the Gods of the Marketplace. In time, understanding of natural law is replaced by worship of marketplace ideas, education, entertainment, and even religion, which are ultimately superficial and therefore short-lived.
Entire power structures from kingdoms to civilizations have been built and lived with these marketplace ideas as their foundation. As time cycles, favoring one power structure for another, death and destruction follow the failure of these marketplace ideas and humanity painfully realizes old truths, or natural law, out lives social, government or man-made promises.
When these Gods of government, religion and civilization fail, we are left with the violence of natural law and human nature, which is not kind, good, fair or evil; it just is.
From another intellectual, “The only sociopolitical element is the inference that “Social Progress” – this constant following of the “market place” truths will end up with mankind justifying their own existence and loosing sight that they are imperfect. From that unfortunate vantage point, they have “progressed” to the point where their downfall is the only possible fate.
The implication, then, is that those who build a life based on the truths of the Gods of the Copybook Headings will do wisely and avoid destruction. What is unclear is whether Kipling believed men capable of following the truths of the Gods of the Copybook Headings or whether he had a more cynical view of mankind and believed we are all meant to “learn the hard way” and return to them after having ignored them [universal truth, natural law] at our peril.”
History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes and every few hundred years wealth, power and fashionable marketplace ideas rise to greatness and crash and burn. Mesopotamia, Persia, Macedonia, Greece, Roman Empire, Byzantium, Mongolian Empire, Ming Dynasty, Ottoman Empire, Hapsburg Empire, French-Bourbon Monarchy, British Empire, Third Reich, Soviet Union, and United States of America.
In these modern times, the West’s unsustainable “ideas of the marketplace” steadily march toward reckoning day. In the United States, the empire upon which the entire global financial fiat-money scheme is centered, the state has erected itself as a welfare/warfare entity, defying natural law in a myriad of ways.
As we (Americans) “progressed” away from principles of self-determination and self-reliance, we’ve bought into the marketplace ideas of dependence and expectation of comfort, luxury, opportunity and entitlement only the state can promise to provide. We’ve chosen to value positive rights over protecting our negative rights, or natural rights. The Gods of the Marketplace are convincing, persuasive and full of promises they’re unable to keep (the government doesn’t even collect enough tax revenue to cover the costs of endless wars, mandatory entitlement programs and interest on the debt; we’ll eventually default or drastically cut the cord for the dependent class, which will not be pretty).
Everything about this situation screams unsustainable, but the Gods of the Marketplace continue to promise, and we continue to listen not to nature, but to them. They’re hustlers peddlers and scheming opportunists now as they’ve always been. So goes mankind marching toward its destruction once more. In the end, perhaps that’s all we really understand.
AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”
On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
Final thought: I cannot discern whether Kipling’s ultimate message was one of nihilism or hope that eventually, in our perpetual quest for evolution, we will evolve away from the same cycles that entrap and define us.