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Ethical Assumptions and Attitude for Western Culture

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In Major Barbara (1907), George Bernard Shaw questions the prevailing ethical assumptions and attitudes of Western culture on social engineering and poverty. Like Nietzsche, he calls for the revaluation of values, as the meaning of concepts like “good,” “evil,” and “truth,” with no eternal, rigid, absolute, objective meaning, depends on an ever-shifting context of the will to power and the practical world. Written with a sense of perspectivism, it challenges the audience to struggle with its own prejudices, forcing inward reflection. For Shaw, Christian values no longer fit the context, the world situation – “God is dead; but given the way people are, there may still for a millennia be caves in which they show his shadow” (Nietzsche 108), god died and Christianity survived its death. The Salvation Army center that Barbara works at is the cave where the shadow persists; “I see no darkness here [Perivale St. Andrews], no dreadfulness. In your Salvation center, I saw poverty, misery, cold, and hunger. You gave them bread and treacle dreams of heaven” (Shaw 155). A god has “fled, ” its light burnt out, closing a past world of understanding, serving no useful purpose for reality (its ways nothing but mere illusions); Cusins, after accepting Undershaft’s offer, puts it appropriately, “the world can never be really touched by a dead language and a dead civilization” (Shaw 158). The values of the past have failed, “Poverty and slavery have stood for centuries to your sermons and leading articles” (156), why continue to pursue them?

Sir Andrew Undershaft, the great arms industrialist of Europe, gives Barbara this advice on value systems, “you have made for yourself a something that you call a morality or a religion or what not. It doesn’t fit the facts. Well, scrap it. Scrap it and get one that does fit. That is what is wrong with the world at present” (155). Our created social structures and systems are no different than the technology we create; however, we have the need to hold onto old belief systems, giving the delusion of permanence, only scrapping technology – “It [the West] scraps its obsolete steam engines and dynamos; but it won’t scrap its old prejudices and its old moralities and its old religions and its old political constitutions” (155). What is the result? Undershaft observes, “In machinery it does very well; but in morals and religion and politics it is working at a loss” (155). His philosophy here closely resembles the Marxist, dialectical materialist, opposition between the infrastructure, the economic sphere of productivity, and the superstructure, the social sphere of ideology, including morality, religion, politics, and all “traditional” attitudes. The superstructure evolves more slowly and is more resistant to change than the economic infrastructure, especially in the modern industrial age. Undershaft believes, for society to function smoothly, for real solutions concerning social problems, the superstructure must progress like the economic infrastructure, “If your religion broke down yesterday, get a newer and a better one for tomorrow” (155). What is the proposed “solution,” the new understanding and logic?

If Shaw did write in Nietzchean perspectivism, then, like a sculpture, the phenomenon of poverty, and its possible solutions, must be looked at in various perspectives. Through Undershaft, Shaw offers a “solution” opposite of what is standard, familiar, and taken for granted, in a type of deconstructive act. For Undershaft, salvation and progress stems from money and power:

You talk of your half-saved ruffian in West Ham [at the Salvation Army center]: you accuse me of dragging his soul back to perdition. Well, bring him to me here [Perivale St. Andrews]; and I will drag his soul back again to salvation for you. Not by words and dreams; but by thirty-eight schillings a week, a sound house in a handsome street, and permanent job (156).

He points out the charade and hypocrisy of Barbara’s method of salvation, “It is cheap work converting starving men with a Bible in one hand and a slice of bread in another” (156). Undershaft “buys” the Salvation Army; the very source of evil the Army condemns. Shaw leaves us with question,” if everything operates under money and power, why then can it not be a solution to the social problems that have continued to plague our society for so very long?”

Works Cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science (Philosophical Classics). Minneapolis: Dover Publications, 2006.

Shaw, George Bernard. “Major Barbara.” Modern and Contemporary Drama. Ed. Miriam Gilbert, Carl H. Klaus, Bradford S. Field, Jr. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994. 121-160.

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