Scott McLemee
Omnivore: Joseph McCabe
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The Philosophers' Magazine, Issue 32 (Fall 2005)


During the Christmas break of 1895, the Very Reverend Father Anthony – a priest who had recently taken charge of a small Catholic college in Buckingham , England – sat down with a sheet of paper and drew a line down the middle of the page. In one column, he noted the strongest arguments for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. (He had been a professor of philosophy, so I imagine he could sum many of them up in a single word: “ontological,” “design,” etc.) In the other column, he indicated whether there were grounds for dismissing them.

He had gone over the arguments in his head for ten years. This exercise in metaphysical bookkeeping was intended finally to settle his account. “On Christmas Eve,” as he later recalled. “I wrote ‘bankrupt' at the foot [of the page].”

As the saying goes: it was all over but the shouting: By early spring, he left the church to begin a new life under his given name, Joseph McCabe. In a few years, he would become internationally famous. Or, rather, infamous: George Bernard Shaw once said that people smelled sulphur wherever McCabe went. (Lecturing and debating took him around the world more than once, so that was more than a quick whiff of hellfire.)

Resolving the inner struggle that had tied his brain in knots for a decade freed up an incredible amount of mental energy. HG Wells called McCabe a “trained athlete of disbelief”. As author, editor, and translator, he produced a small library's worth of books on science, history, literature, philosophy, and cultural commentary – the equivalent of five large volumes per year for most of the remaining decades of his life. 

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of McCabe's death, though there has been no move, so far, to celebrate it. Just a handful of his books remain in print. I only discovered McCabe a few months ago, but have been immersed in his work ever since. And when it came time to start a column called Omnivore, he seemed like my (as it were) patron saint.

McCabe was, by any definition, an encyclopaedist. For example, he wrote A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948), as well as a series of hefty and hard-hitting pamphlets criticising standard reference works of the day, such as the Britannica . And then there was his booklet Great Ideas Made Simple . It was issued in 1934 by the American socialist publisher E Haldeman-Julius (sometimes called “the Voltaire of Kansas”). McCabe wrote scores of short volumes for Haldeman-Julius, in cheap editions aimed primarily at a working-class audience unable to afford hardback books.

Great Ideas consists of a series of two-page essays that could be read, as McCabe notes in the preface, in spare moments. He explains research in physics and astronomy, gives thumbnail accounts of the philosophies of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, and argues why he finds modernist architecture more appealing than avant garde painting or music. He also describes a new technological development, still at the experimental stage, called “television”.

As intriguing as the essays themselves, it seemed to me, was McCabe's intellectual generosity: the booklet, now rare, was meant to explain complex ideas and a changing world to people without much formal education. Yet as I turned the pages, which were printed on cheap paper that is now more than seventy years old, they started to crumble.

McCabe would have declined the title of philosopher. He described himself, rather, as a “devout harvester of facts”. But as much as anyone, he was a thinker of the Enlightenment: a champion of “the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters”, as Immanuel Kant put it.

His legacy deserves better than its present neglect. Or, worse, the more permanent oblivion of having it turn, quite literally, into dust. A volume of McCabe's Selected Works is now overdue. Another half-century, and it may not be possible at all.