Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Thomas Dewar ('Harry') Weldon

In WWII, philosopher T. D. Weldon was Sir Arthur ('Bomber') Harris' assistant in Bomber Command. He helped Harris formulate the arguments and draft the documents that would promote the program of area bombing. Weldon was also a philosophy tutor in Magdalen College at Oxford University.

My interest in Weldon was piqued by C. S. Lewis' description of him. Lewis and Weldon were colleagues at Magdalen. They seem not to have been fond of each other. Here's some of what Lewis has to say about Weldon:
...determined to be a villain. ... a frequent and loud laugher .... carries a great deal of liquor without being drunk. ... He is insolent by custom to servants and to old men .... He has great abilities, but would despise himself if he wasted them on disinterested undertakings. He gives no quarter and would ask none. He believes that he has seen through everything and lives at rock bottom. ... Contempt is his ruling passion: courage his chief virtue. (Lewis, All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-1927, ed. Walter Hooper [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1991], pp. 482-3)
Lewis modeled a fictional character partly on Weldon in two scifi novels, Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength. The character in question is Dick Devine (aka Lord Feverstone), who is supposed to reflect Weldon's atheism and rationalism (in the loose and popular sense).

Before teaching at Oxford, Weldon served on the western front in WWI. He joined the Royal Field Artillery in France in 1915. From humble beginnings, Weldon was promoted to the rank of 'acting captain' ('Weldon, Thomas Dewar (1896–1958),' Mark J. Schofield in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Lawrence Goldman [Oxford: OUP, 2004[). He was wounded and awarded 'the Military Cross and bar' (Ibid.). According to R. W. Johnson, 'Those familiar with the mores of the British Army will recognize that this meant that he was quite insanely brave and clearly on the verge of a Victoria Cross' (Johnson, 'Exploring the Secret Garden', chap. 4 in Look Back in Laughter: Oxford's Postwar Golden Age [Newbury, UK: Threshold Press, 2015])

Weldon was a philosophy tutor at Magdalen College from 1922 until his death in 1958. He was known to have a good rapport with his students. According to the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he was 'not only accessible but also hospitable to his students, rewarding their efforts with a glass of sherry or a tankard of beer.' ('Weldon', Schofield, ODNB) (Weldon was a drinker. Another student, Robert Paul Wolff, recounts a discussion with a 'clearly inebriated' Weldon.) One of Weldon's more well known students was John ('Jack') Frederick Wolfenden, Baron Wolfenden of the Wolfenden Report. Weldon was the godfather of Baron Wolfenden's son, the brilliant, tragic journalist and spy Jeremy Wolfenden. (Incidentally, in his biography of Wolfenden (the younger), Sebastian Faulks says that Weldon took the nickname 'Harry' from a 'music-hall comedian' (Faulks, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives, [NY: Vintage, 2002], p. 212).)

In WWII,  Weldon worked in the civil service from 1939 until 1942, at which time he became Sir Arthur Harris' Personal Staff Officer at Bomber Command. ('Weldon', Schofield, ODNB) Wing Commander Weldon was tasked with defending Bomber Harris' program of bombing German cities. The program had been challenged by a Cabinet Minister and Christian socialist, Sir Stafford Cripps. On Dec. 8, 1944, Cripps gave a lecture at Bomber Command Headquarters, in which he condemned area bombing as a decidedly un-Christian thing to do. Harris wasn't there, but the officers who attended the lecture were quite put out. In response, Harris had Weldon give a lecture the following night in defense of area bombing. (Jonathan Glover, Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001], p. 86) In his lecture, 'The Ethics of Bombing', Weldon denied that area bombing was terrorism, arguing that its purpose was to save lives by shortening the war. (My information about Weldon's lecture is drawn from Glover's above-cited book and from David I. Hall, '“Black, White and Grey”: Wartime Arguments for and against the Strategic Bomber Offensive', Canadian Military History 7 [1998]: 7-19). Among Weldon's critics at the time was the Rev. John Collins, the Anglican chaplain at Bomber Command who referred to Weldon's talk as the 'bombing of ethics' (and who would later be instrumental in forming the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). (C. S. Lewis also was opposed to Harris' policy.)

It's odd that Weldon should have resorted to such a rationale, for he appears to have been a Kantian. A. J. Ayer characterized him as such. Actually, what Ayer says (in the course of explaining why neither he nor J. L. Austin won the John Locke Prize in 1933) is that Weldon was 'a Fellow of Magdalen, who was later to become an inflexible linguistic philosopher but was then an orthodox Kantian'. (Ayer, Part of My Life [London: Collins, 1977], p. 152) So, Weldon was an orthodox Kantian in 1933 but might not have been by the time WWII rolled around. Also, while Weldon was in some sense a Kantian, I don't know if he ever endorsed Kantian ethics.

There's a consensus among those who have written about him that Weldon was psychologically maimed by his battle-field experience in WWI. This comes through in C. S. Lewis' characterization of Weldon (as one who had the air of having 'seen through everything and [who] lived at rock bottom') as well as in a note about Weldon by a former student (Canadian-born Anthony King). R. W. Johnson says that Weldon 'was a man of steel who, in both wars, had had to face appalling situations and ultimate questions'. (Johnson, Ibid) Perhaps, then, Weldon's willingness to advocate area bombing was a case of brutalized (in WWI) and brutalizing (in WWII). Kantian and other alternatives to utilitarianism were fine for discussions at Magdalen College, but in the horrifying world of 20th-century warfare, it's massacre or be massacred.The anger, the drinking, talk of a suicide (though that's disputed)* -- today, Weldon would be in treatment for PTSD. In his day, he was wheeled out as a mouthpiece for the designers of terror bombing.

A few more notes about Weldon:

His Introduction to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1945) was enlarged and republished 1958 under a shortened title (Kant's Critique of Pure Reason). R. G. Collingwood (for whom Weldon had been a teaching assistant) appears to have refereed the 1945 version of Weldon's Kant book -- at least, he expressed approval for the text in a letter that he wrote to Clarendon Press in 1939 (Nov. 17), where Collingwood wrote that the book 'tackles the subject in the one and only right way, i.e. as an historical subject'. (R. G. Collingwood: A Research Companion, James Connelly, Peter Johnson, and Stephen Leach [London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015], p. 90)

Weldon was active in the administration of Magdalen. Margaret Simons reports that he 'was, according to his biographers, responsible not only for forming the Modern Greats curriculum, but also for transforming Magdalen from an easygoing place, in which wealth and family position were key selection criteria, to an academic meritocracy'.

On Weldon's death, Ayer says that Gilbert Ryle had intended to drive to Venice with 'his friend Harry Weldon' to attend the 12th International Congress of Philosophy in 1958, but Weldon died, and Ryle invited Ayer 'to take his [Weldon's] place'. (Ayer, More of My Life [London: Collins, 1984], p. 157)

*The official cause of death was a brain hemorrhage.

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