11/11/14

The Unknown Warrior

THE recent ritual of Armistice Day was overshadowed, as everyone knows, by the shadowy figure of the Unknown Warrior. And this was well; for that figure, however like a shadow, alone possesses something of the character of a statue. It is one of the very few monumental things in modern civilisation. The world will never forget that altar which St Paul saw as he passed by, where the Greeks had built a shrine to the Unknown God. So it is in this case, almost alone among all modern cases; it is really possible that the world may never forget that we built a shrine to the Unknown Man.

For whatever the future is like, it will not be Futurist. The very notion of always talking in terms of tomorrow is a passing taste that will soon be a thing of yesterday. Those who are concerned for the coming thing are really rather concerned for the vanishing thing, concerned to catch a fashion before it vanishes. Most of the artistic experiments and social prophecies which appeal to the next age, are in fact stamped with all the special marks and limitations of this age. Our Utopian predictions may not be very easily fulfilled, but they will be very easily dated. Our Futurist pictures may be mistaken at the first glance for the primitive drawings of the Sandwich Islanders, but a more expert examination will certainly reveal the characteristic conventions of the twentieth century. This is as true of War Memorials as of everything else; and those who insisted on things of immediate usefulness were mostly denying and destroying the whole of their ultimate use. Whatever else might be said of such War Memorials, they do not happen to discharge the function of being memorials of the war. With a changing Society these practical things will become impracticable; these useful things will be disused. The building of cottages, let us say, is vital to the present shortage of housing; but it might become almost unintelligible in a society with a decently distributed power over the means of production, where a common man could afford to build his own cottage. A club or institute may be established with enthusiasm and applause; it may be regarded as a mere saving of wealth and life by 'keeping people out of the public house'. But it may be regarded as a meaningless waste by people who will, perhaps, have restored the public house to the proper public dignity, and made the old Christian inn a place for Christian men. These things are at best modern medicines for modern maladies. They will appear to another age like some special provisions against the Black Death, or some particular warning against the Norse pirates. But though the advanced ideas of our own age are the very last that are likely to endure into another age, neither is it enough to express common ideas in the sense of conventional ideas. That is, it is not enough to express common ideas in a conventional way.

If there are many mad pamphlets and queer pictures and fantastic flags of revolt in the dust-bin of the ages, it is equally true that there are whole rubbish-heaps of lost Latin epitaphs and dead English epics, and pompous monuments like the urns and nymphs in a deserted garden. The thing that survives is that which has a certain combination of normality with distinction. It has simplicity with a slight touch of strangeness; as has the style of Milton or Michelangelo. It is a tale just sufficiently unusual to be worth telling, and yet immediately intelligible when told. It is what the hero is to the human being; a thing magnified but made to scale. Of this really enduring quality I know no other modern example except the burial of the Unknown Warrior, with a King for his chief Mourner.

It is a tale that could be told in any future society, and remain simple and striking. It is a monument that could be looked at by any future generation, with any customs or costumes, and looked at with the same mixture of mystery and familiarity. If we wish to imagine the feelings of the future, the best approximation to it is not to trust the fancies of our own futurism, but to note the facts of our own attitude towards the past, especially the remote past. Now this story of the Unknown Warrior would have a point and a pathos if it were told about a prehistoric tribe burying a man in a barrow, or an ancient Egyptian procession bearing a faceless mummy to a pyramid. If we read that a nameless legionary was buried high upon the Capitol, and that the Roman Emperor offered some sacrifice or libation to his manes, we should understand what was meant. If we were told that some great medieval king spent wealth on masses to be sung in some great cathedral for the soul of some unknown archer, picked up at random on the field of Courtrai or Crecy, we should feel what we were meant to feel. We should feel what we felt on Armistice Day in London. It is something perhaps better expressed, in any age, by the silent symbol of gesture and action than by any definition of a thing so deep. It is strange that the same thinkers who disapprove of dogma often disapprove of ritualism. For ritualism is the only possible alternative to dogma. In this case the dogma is so deep and vital that its verbal definition invariably leads to disputes and absurd misunderstandings. It is a truth that worries people when put into words; so that they talk the wildest nonsense about it, and especially against it. Perhaps, therefore, it is just as well that their subconscious faith in this dogma should only be expressed in a grave and graceful ceremonial action. But the dogma itself, the truth symbolised itself, is something that was almost rediscovered in the realities of war: it is that in the darkness of battle, and in the very heart of the whirlwind of death, is discovered that mystery whose name is the quality of men.

Men are not equal in their realisation of equality. They are really equal in many other essentials of the true egalitarian idea, but they are not equal in that. Certain conditions favour the growth of plutocratic fashions obscuring our brotherhood; certain other conditions make intensely vivid the great things we have in common, as compared with the small things that divide us. And anyone who understands the real doctrine of equality (there are not very many in the modern world who do) will understand that some sense of it vaguely but invariably comes to the surface under the hideous conditions of war. An army, which in one sense would seem the very home of subordination, has nevertheless an ultimate tendency to encourage equality; because, whatever may be the rule or the orders, the facts are those of an intense independence. If any man really fails to understand the mystical dogma of the equality of man, he can immediately test it by thinking of two men, of totally different types and fortunes, falling on the same field at some terrible crisis in the war which saved our country. One might be, and often was, a gentleman of the finer tradition, fortunate in his friends, in his tastes, in his culture as well as his character.

Another might be some stunted serf of our servile industrial slums, a man whom all modern life conspired to crush and deform. In the hour when the flag of England was saved, there was no man who dared to say, or would have dreamed of saying, that one death was less glorious than the other.

~G.K. Chesterton: from The Apostle and the Wild Ducks and other essays.

The British tomb of The Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during WWI. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, London on 11 November 1920.

"This vast illusion"

"UNDER all this vast illusion of the cosmopolitan planet, with its empires and its Reuter's Agency, the real life of man goes on concerned with this tree or that temple, with this harvest or that drinking-song, totally uncomprehended, totally untouched. And it watches from its splendid parochialism, possibly with a smile of amusement, motor-car civilization going its triumphant way, outstripping time, consuming space, seeing all and seeing nothing, roaring on at last to the capture of the solar system, only to find the sun cockney and the stars suburban."

~G.K. Chesterton: Heretics, III. "On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small."

"The State is run by the big businesses"

"THERE is less difference than many suppose between the ideal, Socialist system, in which the big businesses are run by the State, and the present Capitalist system, in which the State is run by the big businesses." 

~G.K. Chesterton: The Innocent Conservatism of Youth. (Illustrated London News, Oct. 10, 1928)

11/4/14

The Thing

THE WIND awoke last night with so noble a violence that it was like the war in heaven; and I thought for a moment that the Thing had broken free. For wind never seems like empty air. Wind always sounds full and physical, like the big body of something; and I fancied that the Thing itself was walking gigantic along the great roads between the forests of beech.

Let me explain. The vitality and recurrent victory of Christendom have been due to the power of the Thing to break out from time to time from its enveloping words and symbols. Without this power all civilisations tend to perish under a load of language and ritual. One instance of this we hear much in modern discussion: the separation of the form from the spirit of religion. But we hear too little of numberless other cases of the same stiffening and falsification; we are far too seldom reminded that just as church-going is not religion, so reading and writing are not knowledge, and voting is not self-government. It would be easy to find people in the big cities who can read and write quickly enough to be clerks, but who are actually ignorant of the daily movements of the sun and moon.

The case of self-government is even more curious, especially as one watches it for the first time in a country district. Self-government arose among men (probably among the primitive men, certainly among the ancients) out of an idea which seems now too simple to be understood. The notion of self-government was not (as many modern friends and foes of it seem to think) the notion that the ordinary citizen is to be consulted as one consults an Encyclopaedia. He is not there to be asked a lot of fancy questions, to see how he answers them. He and his fellows are to be, within reasonable human limits, masters of their own lives. They shall decide whether they shall be men of the oar or the wheel, of the spade or the spear. The men of the valley shall settle whether the valley shall be devastated for coal or covered with corn and vines; the men of the town shall decide whether it shall be hoary with thatches or splendid with spires. Of their own nature and instinct they shall gather under a patriarchal chief or debate in a political market-place. And in case the word "man" be misunderstood, I may remark that in this moral atmosphere, this original soul of self-government, the women always have quite as much influence as the men. But in modern England neither the men nor the women have any influence at all. In this primary matter, the moulding of the landscape, the creation of a mode of life, the people are utterly impotent. They stand and stare at imperial and economic processes going on, as they might stare at the Lord Mayor's Show.

Round about where I live, for instance, two changes are taking place which really affect the land and all things that live on it, whether for good or evil. The first is that the urban civilisation (or whatever it is) is advancing; that the clerks come out in black swarms and the villas advance in red battalions. The other is that the vast estates into which England has long been divided are passing out of the hands of the English gentry into the hands of men who are always upstarts and often actually foreigners.

Now, these are just the sort of things with which self-government was really supposed to grapple. People were supposed to be able to indicate whether they wished to live in town or country, to be represented by a gentleman or a cad. I do not presume to prejudge their decision; perhaps they would prefer the cad; perhaps he is really preferable. I say that the filling of a man's native sky with smoke or the selling of his roof over his head illustrate the sort of things he ought to have some say in, if he is supposed to be governing himself. But owing to the strange trend of recent society, these enormous earthquakes he has to pass over and treat as private trivialities. In theory the building of a villa is as incidental as the buying of a hat. In reality it is as if all Lancashire were laid waste for deer forests; or as if all Belgium were flooded by the sea. In theory the sale of a squire's land to a moneylender is a minor and exceptional necessity. In reality it is a thing like a German invasion. Sometimes it is a German invasion.

Upon this helpless populace, gazing at these prodigies and fates, comes round about every five years a thing called a General Election. It is believed by antiquarians to be the remains of some system of self-government; but it consists solely in asking the citizen questions about everything except what he understands. The examination paper of the Election generally consists of some such queries as these: "I. Are the green biscuits eaten by the peasants of Eastern Lithuania in your opinion fit for human food? II. Are the religious professions of the President of the Orange Free State hypocritical or sincere? III. Do you think that the savages in Prusso-Portuguese East Bunyipland are as happy and hygienic as the fortunate savages in Franco-British West Bunyipland? IV. Did the lost Latin Charter said to have been exacted from Henry III reserve the right of the Crown to create peers? V. What do you think of what America thinks of what Mr. Roosevelt thinks of what Sir Eldon Gorst thinks of the state of the Nile? VI. Detect some difference between the two persons in frock-coats placed before you at this election."

Now, it never was supposed in any natural theory of self-government that the ordinary man in my neighbourhood need answer fantastic questions like these. He is a citizen of South Bucks, not an editor of 'Notes and Queries'. He would be, I seriously believe, the best judge of whether farmsteads or factory chimneys should adorn his own sky-line, of whether stupid squires or clever usurers should govern his own village. But these are precisely the things which the oligarchs will not allow him to touch with his finger. Instead, they allow him an Imperial destiny and divine mission to alter, under their guidance, all the things that he knows nothing about. The name of self-government is noisy everywhere: the Thing is throttled.

The wind sang and split the sky like thunder all the night through; in scraps of sleep it filled my dreams with the divine discordances of martyrdom and revolt; I heard the horn of Roland and the drums of Napoleon and all the tongues of terror with which the Thing has gone forth: the spirit of our race alive. But when I came down in the morning only a branch or two was broken off the tree in my garden; and none of the great country houses in the neighbourhood were blown down, as would have happened if the Thing had really been abroad.

~G.K. Chesterton: A Miscellany of Men.

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: A Miscellany of Men

"Politicians have no politics"

"HE was very public, as public men go; but they all seem to become hazier as they mount higher. It is the young and unknown who have decisive doctrines and sharply declared intentions. I once expressed it by saying, I think with some truth, that politicians have no politics."

~G.K. Chesterton: Autobiography.

Animals and rights

"I REJECT all talk about animals having the same rights as human beings, all talk about our having no moral right to kill or control them, all talk of their being perhaps better than we, all talk of the only division between us and them being the fact that they are “dumb”; which they are not." 

~G.K. Chesterton: “Undergraduate Ragging,” in the Illustrated London News. (Dec. 28, 1907)