8/26/15

The Wrath of the Roses

THE position of the rose among flowers is like that of the dog among animals. It is so much that both are domesticated as that have some dim feeling that they were always domesticated. There are wild roses and there are wild dogs. I do not know the wild dogs; wild roses are very nice. But nobody ever thinks of either of them if the name is abruptly mentioned in a gossip or a poem. On the other hand, there are tame tigers and tame cobras, but if one says, "I have a cobra in my pocket," or "There is a tiger in the music-room," the adjective "tame" has to be somewhat hastily added. If one speaks of beasts one thinks first of wild beasts; if of flowers one thinks first of wild flowers.

But there are two great exceptions; caught so completely into the wheel of man's civilization, entangled so unalterably with his ancient emotions and images, that the artificial product seems more natural than the natural. The dog is not a part of natural history, but of human history; and the real rose grows in a garden. All must regard the elephant as something tremendous, but tamed; and many, especially in our great cultured centres, regard every bull as presumably a mad bull. In the same way we think of most garden trees and plants as fierce creatures of the forest or morass taught at last to endure the curb.

But with the dog and the rose this instinctive principle is reversed. With them we think of the artificial as the archetype; the earth-born as the erratic exception. We think vaguely of the wild dog as if he had run away, like the stray cat. And we cannot help fancying that the wonderful wild rose of our hedges has escaped by jumping over the hedge. Perhaps they fled together, the dog and the rose: a singular and (on the whole) an imprudent elopement. Perhaps the treacherous dog crept from the kennel, and the rebellious rose from the flower-bed, and they fought their way out in company, one with teeth and the other with thorns. Possibly this is why my dog becomes a wild dog when he sees roses, and kicks them anywhere. Possibly this is why the wild rose is called a dog-rose. Possibly not.

But there is this degree of dim barbaric truth in the quaint old-world legend that I have just invented. That in these two cases the civilized product is felt to be the fiercer, nay, even the wilder. Nobody seems to be afraid of a wild dog: he is classed among the jackals and the servile beasts. The terrible cave canem is written over man's creation. When we read "Beware of the Dog," it means beware of the tame dog: for it is the tame dog that is terrible. He is terrible in proportion as he is tame: it is his loyalty and his virtues that are awful to the stranger, even the stranger within your gates; still more to the stranger halfway over your gates. He is alarmed at such deafening and furious docility; he flees from that great monster of mildness.

Well, I have much the same feeling when I look at the roses ranked red and thick and resolute round a garden; they seem to me bold and even blustering. I hasten to say that I know even less about my own garden than about anybody else's garden. I know nothing about roses, not even their names. I know only the name Rose; and Rose is (in every sense of the word) a Christian name. It is Christian in the one absolute and primordial sense of Christian—that it comes down from the age of pagans. The rose can be seen, and even smelt, in Greek, Latin, Provencal, Gothic, Renascence, and Puritan poems. Beyond this mere word Rose, which (like wine and other noble words) is the same in all the tongues of white men, I know literally nothing. I have heard the more evident and advertised names. I know there is a flower which calls itself the Glory of Dijon—which I had supposed to be its cathedral. In any case, to have produced a rose and a cathedral is to have produced not only two very glorious and humane things, but also (as I maintain) two very soldierly and defiant things. I also know there is a rose called Marechal Niel—note once more the military ring.

And when I was walking round my garden the other day I spoke to my gardener (an enterprise of no little valour) and asked him the name of a strange dark rose that had somehow oddly taken my fancy. It was almost as if it reminded me of some turbid element in history and the soul. Its red was not only swarthy, but smoky; there was something congested and wrathful about its colour. It was at once theatrical and sulky. The gardener told me it was called Victor Hugo.

Therefore it is that I feel all roses to have some secret power about them; even their names may mean something in connexion with themselves, in which they differ from nearly all the sons of men. But the rose itself is royal and dangerous; long as it has remained in the rich house of civilization, it has never laid off its armour. A rose always looks like a mediaeval gentleman of Italy, with a cloak of crimson and a sword: for the thorn is the sword of the rose.

And there is this real moral in the matter; that we have to remember that civilization as it goes on ought not perhaps to grow more fighting—but ought to grow more ready to fight. The more valuable and reposeful is the order we have to guard, the more vivid should be our ultimate sense of vigilance and potential violence. And when I walk round a summer garden, I can understand how those high mad lords at the end of the Middle Ages, just before their swords clashed, caught at roses for their instinctive emblems of empire and rivalry. For to me any such garden is full of the wars of the roses.

~G.K. Chesterton: in Alarms and Discursions (1910)



8/25/15

"Not only is our civilisation not the best possible, it is not even the most civilised"

"IT does something towards destroying that absurd notion that the march of civilisation, must represent an improvement in the condition of every conceivable race of men. That European civilisation is a good thing for every people is a proposition about as sane as the proposition that a fur-lined overcoat and a pair of snow-shoes are good things for every climate. I do not consider European civilisation a disease. I consider it the remedy for many diseases; but while I do not wish to give everyone my malady, neither do I wish to give everyone my medicine. Not only is our civilisation not the best possible, it is not even the most civilised. In a great many points of essential polish and culture it is inferior to much that we call barbarism. For example, in the matter of politeness. If a Bond-street dandy went into the tent of Abraham or Isaac of Jacob, the chief impression he would produce would be simply that he did not know how to behave. Abraham would be sweeping the ground with half a dozen symbolic reverences while the European aristocrat would be playing about with a cigarette, and laughing and looking like a fool.

"Mr. Carpenter's general contention, therefore, that civilisation is relative and not absolute is of great value in making us realise that what we ourselves call civilisation does not suit all complaints. It is not a disease; it may be a medicine, but it is certainly not a panacea. The fact may restrain us from imagining that the Chinaman will immediately fall in love with the beauties of democracy, or that the population of Fiji can be to an unlimited extent increased and improved by doses of gin and gunpowder. But while this truth gives us an excellent reason for believing that our civilisation is not suitable to everybody, it gives us no reason whatever for supposing that it is not suitable to ourselves. Civilisation is like a wife; it represents the softening and ordering element in existence, and just as we are attached to our wife we are attached to our civilisation. We may not agree with the endless colonising and missionising of other civilisations....But, nevertheless, we need not agree with Mr. Edward Carpenter and kill her."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Daily News, Feb. 21, 1902.
(h/t: Mike Miles)

"He believes in himself"

"THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, 'That man will get on; he believes in himself.' And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written 'Hanwell.' I said to him, 'Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.' "

~G.K. Chesterton: from Orthodoxy, II.―The Maniac.

"We seem to be dealing with a new race"

"THE essential rectitude of our view of children lies in the fact that we feel them and their ways to be supernatural while, for some mysterious reason, we do not feel ourselves or our own ways to be supernatural. The very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had created something that he could not understand."

~G.K. Chesterton: A Defence of Baby-Worship.
See the complete essay here.


Maternal Admiration (1869),
by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

8/24/15

Christianity and Rationalism

MY friend, Mr. George Haw, has asked me to state, in one or two articles, my general belief on the subject of Christianity, to be inserted in the Clarion. I will not pretend to any particular reluctance to do so; but I ought not to do it without first of all offering to Mr. Blatchford our gratitude, and something which is better than gratitude, our congratulations, upon the very magnanimous action which he has taken in thus putting this paper into the hands of the religious opponents. In doing so he has scored, in a generous unconsciousness, a real point. 

Most of the awful revelations of Christian evil and ignorance do not, I am afraid, affect me in quite so serious a manner as they ought to. When I hear that a German professor has found the four-hundredth accurate origin of protoplasm, I try in vain to feel excitement; when I read that savages paint their faces green to please the ghosts (or what not), I have no feeling beyond a vague pleasure and sympathy. Both the German professor and the green-faced savage seem to me to be doing the same thingthat is, falling under the influence of that starry impulse which leads men to take a vast deal of trouble about quite useless things. 

But such things do not make much difference to my view of Christianity. In the whole of this controversy I have felt the force of one thing, which has really hit practical Christianity; I think it is a good argument; I think it is a terrible argument. It is not that this controversy is being conducted in a non-Christian paper. It certainly is a fair point scored against a religion that the people who seem to be most interested in it are those who believe it to be a fraud. I think, therefore, that Mr. Blatchford's magnanimity, like all magnanimity, is profoundly philosophical and wise. 

Nor do I blame him, as some have done, for having discussed it at great length; as the subject is the nature of the Universe, it is necessarily as large as the Universe, and as rich as the Universe, and I may add, as amusing as the Universe. 

In fact, I fancy there must be such a thing as Immortality, merely that Mr. Blatchford and I may have time to discuss whether it is true. 

Before I give an outline of my view, there is one other thing to be said in which I cannot avoid the personal note. I have begun to realise that there are a good many people to whom my way of speaking about these things appears like an indication that I am flippant or imperfectly sincere. Since, as a matter of fact, I am more certain of myself in this affair than I am of the existence of the moon, this naturally causes me some considerable regret; but I think I see the naturalness of the mistake and how it arose in people for removed from the Christian atmosphere. Christianity is itself so jolly a thing that it fills the possessor of it with a certain silly exuberance, which sad and high-minded Rationalists might reasonably mistake for mere buffoonery and blasphemy; just as their prototypes, the sad and high-minded Stoics of old Rome, did mistake the Christian joyousness for buffoonery and blasphemy. 

This difference holds good everywhere, in the cold Pagan architectrure and the grinning gargoyles of Christendom, in the preposterous motley of the Middle Ages and the dingy dress of this Rationlistic century. And if Mr. Blatchford wishes to know why we should be surprised if the Duke of Devonshire walked about with one leg red and the other yellow (as a nobleman might have done in the thirteenth century), I can obligingly inform him that it is because of the decay of our faith. Nowhere in history has there ever been any popular brightness and gaiety without religion. 

The first of all the difficulties that I have in controverting Mr. Blatchford is simply this, that I shall be very largely going over his own ground. My favourite text-book of theology is God and my Neighbour but I cannot repeat it in detail. If I gave each of my reasons for being a Christian, a vast number of them would be Mr. Blachford's reasons for not being one. 

For instance, Mr. Blatchford and his school point out that there are many myths parallel to the Christian story; that there were Pagan Christs, and Red Indian Incarnations, and Patagonian Crucifixions, for all I know or care. But does not Mr. Blatchford see the other side of this fact? If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumours and perversions of the Christian God? If the center of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the center have a muddled version of that fact? If we are so made that a Son of God must deliver us, is it odd that Patagonians should dream of a Son of God? 

The Blatchfordian position really amounts to this―that because a certain thing has impressed millions of different people as likely or necessary therefore is cannot be true. And then this bashful being, veiling his own talents, convicts the wretched G.K.C. of paradox! I like paradox, but I am not prepared to dance and dazzle to the extent of Nunquam, who points to humanity crying out to a thing, and pointing to it from immemorial ages, as a proof that it cannot be there. 

The story of a Christ is very common in legend and literature. So is the story of two lovers parted by Fate. So is the story of two friends killing each other for a woman. But will it seriously be maintained that, because these two stories are common as legends, therefore not two friends were ever separated by love or no two lovers by circumstances? It is tolerably plain, surely, that these two stories are common because the situation is an intensely probable and human one, because our nature is so built as to make them almost inevitable. 

Why should it not be that our nature is so built as to make certain spiritual events inevitable? In any case, it is clearly ridiculous to attempt to disprove Christianity by the number and variety of Pagan Christs. You might as well take the number and variety of ideal schemes of society, from Plato's Republic to Morris' News from Nowhere, from More's Utopia to Blatchford's Merrie England, and then try and prove from them that mankind cannot ever reach a better social condition. If anything, of course, they prove the opposite; they suggest a human tendency towards a better condition. 

Thus, in this first instance, when learned skeptics come to me and say, "Are you aware that the Kaffirs have a story of Incarnation?" I should reply: "Speaking as an unlearned person, I don't know. But speaking as a Christian, I should be very much astonished if they hadn't." 

Take a second instance. The Secularist says that Christianity has been a gloomy and ascetic thing, and points to the procession of austere or ferocious saints who have given up home and happiness and macerated health and sex. But it never seems to occur to him that the very oddity and completeness of the men's surrender make it look very much as if there were really something actual and solid in the thing for which they sold themselves. They gave up all human experiences for the sake on one superhuman experience. They may have been wicked, but it looks as if there were such an experience. 

It is perfectly tenable that this experience is as dangerous and selfish a thing as drink. A man who goes ragged and homeless in order to see visions may be as repellent and immoral as a man who goes ragged and homeless in order to drink brandy. That is a quite reasonable position. But what is manifestly not a reasonable position what would be, in fact not far from being an insane position, would be to say that the raggedness of the man, and the homelessness of the man, and the stupefied degradation of the man proved that there was no such thing as brandy. 

That is precisely what the Secularist tries to say. He tries to prove that there is no such think as supernatural experience by pointing at the people who have given up everything for it. He tries to prove that there is no such thing by proving that there are people who live on nothing else. 

Again I may submissively ask: "Whose is the paradox?" The frantic severity of these men may, of course, show that they were eccentric people who loved unhappiness for its own sake. But is seems more in accordance with commonsense to suppose that they had really found the secret of some actual power or experience which was, like wine, a terrible consolation and a lonely joy. 

Thus, then, in the second instance, when the learned sceptic says to me: "Christian saints gave up love and liberty for this one rapture of Christianity, I should have been surprised if they hadn't." 

Take a third instance. The Secularist says that Christianity produced tumult and cruelty. He seems to suppose that this proves it to be bad. But it might prove it to be very good. For men commit crimes not only for bad things, far more often for good things. For no bad things can be desired quite so passionately and persistently as good things can be desired and only very exceptional men desire very bad and unnatural things. 

Most crime is committed because, owing to some peculiar complication, very beautiful or necessary things are in some danger. For instance, if we wanted to abolish thieving and swindling at one blow, the best thing to do would be to abolish babies. Babies, the most beautiful things on earth, have been the excuse and origin of almost all the business of brutality and financial infamy on earth. 

If we could abolish monogamic or romantic love, again the country would be dotted with Maiden Assizes. And if anywhere in history masses of common and kindly men become cruel it almost certainly does not mean that they are serving something in itself tyrannical (for why should they?). It almost certainly does mean that something that they rightly value is in peril such as the food of their children, the chastity of their women, or the independence of their country. And when something is set before them that is not only enormously valuable, but also quite new, the sudden vision, the chance of winning it, the chance of losing it, drive them mad. It has the same effect in the moral world that the finding of gold has in the economic world. It upsets values, and creates a kind of cruel rush. 

We need not go far for instances quite apart from the instances of religion. When the modern doctrines of brotherhood and liberty were preached in France in the eighteenth century the time was ripe for them, the educated classes everywhere had been growing towards them, the world to a very considerable extend welcomed them. And yet all that preparation and openness were unable to prevent the burst of anger and agony which greets anything good. And if the slow and polite preaching of rational fraternity in a rational age ended in the massacres of September, what an a fortiori is here! What would be likely to be the effect of the sudden dropping into a dreadfully evil century of a dreadfully perfect truth? What would happen if a world baser than the world of Sade were confronted with a gospel purer than the gospel of Rousseau? 

The mere flinging of the polished pebble of Republican Idealism into the artificial lake of eighteenth century Europe produced a splash that seemed to splash the heavens, and a storm that drowned ten thousand men. What would happen if a star from heaven really fell into the slimy and bloody pool of a hopeless and decaying humanity? Men swept a city with the guillotine, a continent with the sabre, because Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were too precious to be lost. How if Christianity was yet more maddening because it was yet more precious? 

But why should we labour the point when One who knew human nature as it can really be learnt, from fishermen and women and natural people, saw from his quiet village the track of this truth across history, and, in saying that He came to bring not peace but a sword, set up eternally His colossal realism against the eternal sentimentality of the Secularist? 

Thus, then, in the third instance, when the learned sceptic says: "Christianity produced wars and persecutions," we shall reply: "Naturally." 

And, lastly, let me take an example which leads me on directly to the general matter I wish to discuss for the remaining space of the articles at my command. The Secularist constantly points out that the Hebrew and Christian religions began as local things; that their god was a tribal god; that they gave him material form, and attached him to particular places. 

This is an excellent example of one of the things that if I were conducting a detailed campaign I should use as an argument for the validity of Biblical experience. For if there really are some other and higher beings than ourselves, and if they in some strange ways, at some emotional crisis, really revealed themselves to rude poets or dreamers in very simple times, that the rude people should regard the revelation as local, and connect it with the particular hill or river where it happened, seems to me exactly what any reasonable human being would expect. It has a far more credible look than if they had talked cosmic philosophy from the beginning. If they had, I should have suspected "priestcraft" and forgeries and third-century Gnosticism 

If there be such a being as God, and He can speak to a child, and if God spoke to a child in the garden the child would, of course, say that God lived in the garden. I should not think it any less likely to be true for that. If the child said: "God is everywhere: an impalpable essence pervading and supporting all constituents of the Cosmos alike"―if, I say, the infant addressed me in the above terms, I should think he was much more likely to have been with the governess than with God. 

So if Moses had said God was an Infinite Energy, I should be certain he had seen nothing extraordinary. As he said He was a Burning Bush, I think it very likely that he did see something extraordinary. For whatever be the Divine Secret, and whether or no it has (as all people have believed) sometimes broken bounds and surged into our work, at least it lies on the side furthest away from pedants and their definitions, and nearest to the silver souls of quiet people, to the beauty of bushes, and the love of one's native place. 

Thus, then in our last instance (out of hundreds that might be taken), we conclude in the same way. When the learned sceptic says: "The visions of the Old Testament were local, and rustic, and grotesque," we shall answer: "Of course. They were genuine." 

Thus, as I said at the beginning, I find myself, to start with, face to face with the difficulty that to mention the reasons that I have for believing in Christianity is, in very many cases, to repeat those arguments which Mr. Blatchford, in some strange way, seems to regard as arguments against it. His book is really rich and powerful. He has undoubtedly set up these four great guns of which I have spoken. I have nothing to say against the size and ammunition of the guns. I only say that by some accident of arrangement he has set up those four pieces of artillery with the tails pointing at me and the mouths pointing at himself. If I were not so humane, I should say: "Gentlemen of the Secularist Guard, fire first." 

But there is more to be said. Mr. Blatchford, for some reason or other (possibly want of space), has neglected to urge all the arguments for Christianity. And, oddly enough, the two or three arguments he has omitted to state are the really vital and essential ones. Without them, even the excellent four facts which he and I have respectively explained may appear superficially unintelligible. 

Why will many of you not accept my four explanations? Obviously, in mere logic, they are as logical as Mr. Blatchford's. It is as reasonable, in the abstract, that a truth should be distorted as that a lie should be distorted; it is as reasonable, in the abstract, that men should starve and sin for a real benefit as for an unreal one. You will not believe it because you are armed to the teeth, and buttoned up to the chin with the great Agnostic Orthodoxy, perhaps the most placid and perfect of all the orthodoxies of mean. You could sooner believe that Socrates was a Government spy than believe that he heard a voice from his God. You could more easily think that Christ murdered His mother, than that He had a psychic energy of which we know nothing. I approach you with the reverence and the courage due to a bench of bishops.

~G.K. Chesterton

See additional essays by Chesterton in Religious Doubts and Democracy.


8/22/15

The Decline of the West

ALMOST immediately after the end of the Great War a German wrote a highly successful or widely boomed book called “The Decline of the West.” [by Oswald Spengler, 1880-1936] The most human inference (in the opinion of many) was that the German, having assisted at the spectacle of the Decline and Fall of the German Empire, naturally wanted all the rest of us to decline and fall with him. He felt it would be obviously a breach of taste and tact for any nation to flourish if Germany had declined; if indeed, he was even aware of the existence of such fringes of his Empire as France or Flanders or England. Anyhow, he applied his doctrine to all that is most active in our civilisation, whether we are so constituted as to call it the Indo-Germanic race or prefer to call it Christendom. But there was more in this theory of his about a general collapse; which was also a theory of a recurrent collapse. In this, indeed, and in his general idea of a modern phase of decline, his view was quite reasonable and very persuasively stated. But there was bound up with it another set of ideas which are not necessarily any part of the theory, either that civilisations periodically weaken or that our civilisation has weakened in our period. Those two theses may quite well be true; but the thesis of the book was false.

For me, at least, it was false because it was fatalist; false because it was unhistoric; and false because it involved a particular falsity about the very spirit of the great culture which the critic criticised. It is the whole point of that culture that it has been continuous; it was the whole point of the critic that it have been discontinuous and disconnected. He was not content to say that civilisations revolve in separate cycles, in the sense in which we might be said to belong to a different civilisation from the Druids. He cut up ordinary European history into chunks, that were supposed to have no more to do with each other than Chinese history and Aztec history. He chopped ordinary Christian history in two in the middle, in order to deny that either part of it was Christian. So far as I remember, he attributed the first half of it to entirely to the Moslem Arabs, because they were not Christians; and the second half of it to people of the type of Faust, because they were rather fishy sort of Christians, and Germans as well. And he talked about these divisions as they were like the abysses that might separate a stratum full of primordial crystals from a stratum, aeons afterwards, containing the first fantastic traces of marsupial life.

Now, I am quite certain, as a matter of mere common sense, that the history of Christendom, or even the history of Europe, was never so fragmentary as that. We are much more connected with the ancient Greeks than the German writer would allow us to be with the later mediaevals, or even the earlier moderns. The sort of distinction he suggested only happens when a cycle of civilisation really dies, and then fossilises and remains as inscrutable as an ammonite. We have no idea what was the religion of the Cro-Magnons, though we infer from certain pictures of ritual dances (as well as from our own common sense) that they had one. We do not know the significance of the Cup and Ring Stones, though the fortunate and civilised of us still use rings, as in the case of wedding-rings, or cups even in the sense of wine-cups. We do not even know if we interpret the signs rightly, or whether they are signs at all. Now, the Greek gods have never died in that fashion; and the Roman Empire has never dies at all. Of the most modern industrial cities in England, many have in their very names the title of the Roman Camp; and wherever there stood the Roman Camp, there stood afterwards the Christian Cathedral. There was never one moment, in the long history from Herodotus to Herr Spengler, when all the men who counted in any age did not count The Fall of Troy; there was never a generation when young poets did not make that old tale a topic for new poems. I wonder whether a poem by Heredia about Antony, or a poem by Morris about Arthur, belongs to the dead Greek period or the dead Arabic period? There was never a generation of poets that did not invoke Virgil, if only to imitate him. There was never a generation in which philosophers did not refer to Aristotle, if only to contradict him. The thread of our cultural continuity has never been broken.

I think the fact worth recording at the moment for two reasons. The first is that the same energetic German author has just launched another book, of much less dignity and of much more dogmatism, reaffirming his theory, and especially the most gloomy and barbaric parts of it. The other is that there is a horrible possibility that what he says falsely about our past may be said truly about our future. I mean that, hitherto, the men of our ancient tradition have done everything except forget. Whatever might be fanatical or ill-balanced about their religions or their revolutions, they have each, in turn, taken particular care to remember the deeds of their fathers. Even when they poisoned the purer Paganism if Homer and Pindar, they did not destroy it; they left it standing for ever against them as a reproach. Even when they dethroned the Greek gods they did not dismiss them; in the first just fury they denounced them as devils, but in the long run they let them remain as elves. They let them remain as fanciful and fabulous figures, for literary metaphor or plastic decoration, so that Christendom has left the nymph in poetry or the cupid in sculpture. It is true that now, for the first time, the race that always remembered is invited on every side to forget.

Yes; it is true that to-day, for the first time, our newspapers and our new politicians have asked us to forget, not what happened a thousand years ago or a hundred years ago, but what happened twenty years ago. When it is a question of shifting a policy or rehabilitating a politician, they will ask us to forget what happened two years ago or two months ago. Here, indeed, we have the great Spengler System, of total separation of one historical episode from another. Here is the true trick of regarding ourselves as divided by aeons and abysses not only from our fathers, but from ourselves. Thus, by reading the daily paper every day, and forgetting everything that it said on the previous day, we can divide human history into self-contained cycles; each consisting, not of five hundred years, but of twenty-four hours. By this means we can consider the slogans and swaggering policies which we ourselves cheered only recently, as if they were hieroglyphics as unintelligible as the Cup and Ring of Stones. This new quality of forgetfulness, in our current culture, does give some justification to the pessimism of the German professor; and if we accept such oblivion, then doubtless our “cycle” will really curl up like a worm on the floor and lie still for ever.

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, September 3, 1932.

Amazon

8/20/15

The Voter and the Two Voices

THE real evil of our Party System is commonly stated wrong. It was stated wrong by Lord Rosebery, when he said that it prevented the best men from devoting themselves to politics, and that it encouraged a fanatical conflict. I doubt whether the best men ever would devote themselves to politics. The best men devote themselves to pigs and babies and things like that. And as for the fanatical conflict in party politics, I wish there was more of it. The real danger of the two parties with their two policies is that they unduly limit the outlook of the ordinary citizen. They make him barren instead of creative, because he is never allowed to do anything except prefer one existing policy to another. We have not got real Democracy when the decision depends upon the people. We shall have real Democracy when the problem depends upon the people. The ordinary man will decide not only how he will vote, but what he is going to vote about.

It is this which involves some weakness in many current aspirations towards the extension of the suffrage; I mean that, apart from all questions of abstract justice, it is not the smallness or largeness of the suffrage that is at present the difficulty of Democracy. It is not the quantity of voters, but the quality of the thing they are voting about. A certain alternative is put before them by the powerful houses and the highest political class. Two roads are opened to them; but they must go down one or the other. They cannot have what they choose, but only which they choose. To follow the process in practice we may put it thus. The Suffragettes—if one may judge by their frequent ringing of his bell—want to do something to Mr. Asquith. I have no notion what it is. Let us say (for the sake of argument) that they want to paint him green. We will suppose that it is entirely for that simple purpose that they are always seeking to have private interviews with him; it seems as profitable as any other end that I can imagine to such an interview. Now, it is possible that the Government of the day might go in for a positive policy of painting Mr. Asquith green; might give that reform a prominent place in their programme. Then the party in opposition would adopt another policy, not a policy of leaving Mr. Asquith alone (which would be considered dangerously revolutionary), but some alternative course of action, as, for instance, painting him red. Then both sides would fling themselves on the people, they would both cry that the appeal was now to the Caesar of Democracy. A dark and dramatic air of conflict and real crisis would arise on both sides; arrows of satire would fly and swords of eloquence flame. The Greens would say that Socialists and free lovers might well want to paint Mr. Asquith red; they wanted to paint the whole town red. Socialists would indignantly reply that Socialism was the reverse of disorder, and that they only wanted to paint Mr. Asquith red so that he might resemble the red pillar-boxes which typified State control. The Greens would passionately deny the charge so often brought against them by the Reds; they would deny that they wished Mr. Asquith green in order that he might be invisible on the green benches of the Commons, as certain terrified animals take the colour of their environment.

There would be fights in the street perhaps, and abundance of ribbons, flags, and badges, of the two colours. One crowd would sing, "Keep the Red Flag Flying," and the other, "The Wearing of the Green." But when the last effort had been made and the last moment come, when two crowds were waiting in the dark outside the public building to hear the declaration of the poll, then both sides alike would say that it was now for democracy to do exactly what it chose. England herself, lifting her head in awful loneliness and liberty, must speak and pronounce judgment. Yet this might not be exactly true. England herself, lifting her head in awful loneliness and liberty, might really wish Mr. Asquith to be pale blue. The democracy of England in the abstract, if it had been allowed to make up a policy for itself, might have desired him to be black with pink spots. It might even have liked him as he is now. But a huge apparatus of wealth, power, and printed matter has made it practically impossible for them to bring home these other proposals, even if they would really prefer them. No candidates will stand in the spotted interest; for candidates commonly have to produce money either from their own pockets or the party's; and in such circles spots are not worn. No man in the social position of a Cabinet Minister, perhaps, will commit himself to the pale-blue theory of Mr. Asquith; therefore it cannot be a Government measure, therefore it cannot pass.

Nearly all the great newspapers, both pompous and frivolous, will declare dogmatically day after day, until every one half believes it, that red and green are the only two colours in the paint-box. THE OBSERVER will say: "No one who knows the solid framework of politics or the emphatic first principles of an Imperial people can suppose for a moment that there is any possible compromise to be made in such a matter; we must either fulfil our manifest racial destiny and crown the edifice of ages with the august figure of a Green Premier, or we must abandon our heritage, break our promise to the Empire, fling ourselves into final anarchy, and allow the flaming and demoniac image of a Red Premier to hover over our dissolution and our doom." The DAILY MAIL would say: "There is no halfway house in this matter; it must be green or red. We wish to see every honest Englishman one colour or the other." And then some funny man in the popular Press would star the sentence with a pun, and say that the DAILY MAIL liked its readers to be green and its paper to be read. But no one would even dare to whisper that there is such a thing as yellow.

For the purposes of pure logic it is clearer to argue with silly examples than with sensible ones: because silly examples are simple. But I could give many grave and concrete cases of the kind of thing to which I refer. In the later part of the Boer War both parties perpetually insisted in every speech and pamphlet that annexation was inevitable and that it was only a question whether Liberals or Tories should do it. It was not inevitable in the least; it would have been perfectly easy to make peace with the Boers as Christian nations commonly make peace with their conquered enemies. Personally I think that it would have been better for us in the most selfish sense, better for our pocket and prestige, if we had never effected the annexation at all; but that is a matter of opinion. What is plain is that it was not inevitable; it was not, as was said, the only possible course; there were plenty of other courses; there were plenty of other colours in the box. Again, in the discussion about Socialism, it is repeatedly rubbed into the public mind that we must choose between Socialism and some horrible thing that they call Individualism. I don't know what it means, but it seems to mean that anybody who happens to pull out a plum is to adopt the moral philosophy of the young Horner—and say what a good boy he is for helping himself.

It is calmly assumed that the only two possible types of society are a Collectivist type of society and the present society that exists at this moment and is rather like an animated muck-heap. It is quite unnecessary to say that I should prefer Socialism to the present state of things. I should prefer anarchism to the present state of things. But it is simply not the fact that Collectivism is the only other scheme for a more equal order. A Collectivist has a perfect right to think it the only sound scheme; but it is not the only plausible or possible scheme. We might have peasant proprietorship; we might have the compromise of Henry George; we might have a number of tiny communes; we might have co-operation; we might have Anarchist Communism; we might have a hundred things. I am not saying that any of these are right, though I cannot imagine that any of them could be worse than the present social madhouse, with its top-heavy rich and its tortured poor; but I say that it is an evidence of the stiff and narrow alternative offered to the civic mind, that the civic mind is not, generally speaking, conscious of these other possibilities. The civic mind is not free or alert enough to feel how much it has the world before it. There are at least ten solutions of the Education question, and no one knows which Englishmen really want. For Englishmen are only allowed to vote about the two which are at that moment offered by the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition. There are ten solutions of the drink question; and no one knows which the democracy wants; for the democracy is only allowed to fight about one Licensing Bill at a time.

So that the situation comes to this: The democracy has a right to answer questions, but it has no right to ask them. It is still the political aristocracy that asks the questions. And we shall not be unreasonably cynical if we suppose that the political aristocracy will always be rather careful what questions it asks. And if the dangerous comfort and self-flattery of modern England continues much longer there will be less democratic value in an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much alike that he would not mind choosing from them blindfold—and then for a great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.

~G.K. Chesterton: in A Miscellany of Men (1912)

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