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  • G.B.S. and "The Law of Change"
  • A. M. Gibbs (bio)

The quotation in my title comes from the aphorism that Shaw created as a heading for one of the sections in his 1924 preface to Saint Joan: "The Law of Change is the Law of God." This essay explores various manifestations of the concept of change in Shaw's work as a philosophical thinker, as a political and social activist, and as a dramatist and reflects on his achievement as a herald and creator of cultural and social change in his own time.

The theme of change can be seen as a signature tune in all of Shaw's lifework. One of the well-chosen musical pieces played at his funeral ceremony in 1950 was the Elgar setting of Arthur O'Shaugnessy's ode "We Are the Music Makers." In this poem the music makers are described as "world losers and world forsakers"; but—the poet asserts—they are also "the movers and shakers / Of the world for ever, it seems." Shaw was one of the great "movers and shakers" of his age. Change was his element, and of course his struggles for change made him a controversial, and at times even reviled, figure. Looking back on his career from the present vantage point in time, however, it seems remarkable how often he was advocating change that, whatever hostility it provoked at the time, later seemed beneficial and desirable.

The immediate context of Shaw's saying in the preface to Saint Joan is an argument about the need for tolerance and understanding of heresy and unconventional behavior. "All evolution in thought and conduct," he argues, "must at first appear as heresy and misconduct."1 Shaw was taking up a theme here that he had already developed in his essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism, where he enlists Ibsen in an argument that all human progress depends on disobedience and dissent from existing institutions and ideas of duty. As Shaw puts it in the pithy final sentences of the passage under discussion in the preface to Saint Joan :

. . . though all society is founded on intolerance, all improvement is founded on tolerance, or the recognition of the fact that the law [End Page 28] of evolution is Ibsen's law of change. And as the law of God in any sense of the word which can now command a faith proof against science is a law of evolution, it follows that the law of God is a law of change.2

The idea of change is at the center of Shaw's idea of God. For Shaw, God is an evolving phenomenon, and this of course is quite different from conventional ideas about him as an unchanging, everlastingly stable entity—the kind of figure evoked in the popular hymn written in the eighteenth century by Isaac Watts, "Oh God Our Help in Ages Past":

Before the hills in order stood,Or earth received her frame,From everlasting Thou art God,To endless years the same.

"To endless years the same" is precisely what the godhead is not, nor should be, according to Shaw. If our ideas of God are inconsistent with our developing understanding of the universe, we need not to scrap our understanding of the universe—as exponents of creationism and intelligent design seem to want us to do—but to change our thinking about God. In short we need a religion to fit the facts, a religion that embraces rather than ignores the development of scientific knowledge of the universe. This is what I take Shaw to mean by the phrase "a faith proof against science" in the passage from the preface to Saint Joan. What Shaw wanted was "a revival of religion on a scientific basis."3 It is worth recalling here that, despite his support of theories about evolution that conflicted with the Darwinian account, Shaw did not think Darwin was "finally refutable."4 I imagine he would have thought current arguments about intelligent design—which in my view seem a curious and unintelligent throwback to eighteenth-century deism—to be simply evasive and futile.5

My favorite exposition of the Shavian idea of the evolving, changing...


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pp. 28-41
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