7/22/16

The Contented Man

THE word content is not inspiring nowadays; rather it is irritating because it is dull. It prepares the mind for a little sermon in the style of the Vicar of Wakefield about how you and I should be satisfied with our countrified innocence and our simple village sports. The word, however, has two meanings, somewhat singularly connected; the "sweet content" of the poet and the "cubic content" of the mathematician. Some distinguish these by stressing the different syllables. Thus, it might happen to any of us, at some social juncture, to remark gaily, "Of the content of the King of the Cannibal Islands' Stewpot I am content to be ignorant"; or "Not content with measuring the cubic content of my safe, you are stealing the spoons." And there really is an analogy between the mathematical and the moral use of the term, for lack of the observation of which the latter has been much weakened and misused.

The preaching of contentment is in disrepute, well deserved in so far that the moral is really quite inapplicable to the anarchy and insane peril of our tall and toppling cities. Content suggests some kind of security; and it is not strange that our workers should often think about rising above their position, since they have so continually to think about sinking below it. The philanthropist who urges the poor to saving and simple pleasures deserves all the derision that he gets. To advise people to be content with what they have got may or may not be sound moral philosophy.

But to urge people to be content with what they haven't got is a piece of impudence hard for even the English poor to pardon. But though the creed of content is unsuited to certain special riddles and wrongs, it remains true for the normal of mortal life. We speak of divine discontent; discontent may sometimes be a divine thing, but content must always be the human thing. It may be true that a particular man, in his relation to his master or his neighbour, to his country or his enemies, will do well to be fiercely unsatisfied or thirsting for an angry justice. But it is not true, no sane person can call it true, that man as a whole in his general attitude towards the world, in his posture towards death or green fields, towards the weather or the baby, will be wise to cultivate dissatisfaction. In a broad estimate of our earthly experience, the great truism on the tablet remains: he must not covet his neighbour's ox nor his ass nor anything that is his. In highly complex and scientific civilisations he may sometimes find himself forced into an exceptional vigilance. But, then, in highly complex and scientific civilisations, nine times out of ten, he only wants his own ass back.

But I wish to urge the case for cubic content; in which (even more than in moral content) I take a personal interest. Now, moral content has been undervalued and neglected because of its separation from the other meaning. It has become a negative rather than a positive thing. In some accounts of contentment it seems to be little more than a meek despair.
But this is not the true meaning of the term; it should stand for the idea of a positive and thorough appreciation of the content of anything; for feeling the substance and not merely the surface of experience. "Content" ought to mean in English, as it does in French, being pleased; placidly, perhaps, but still positively pleased. Being contented with bread and cheese ought not to mean not caring what you eat. It ought to mean caring for bread and cheese; handling and enjoying the cubic content of the bread and cheese and adding it to your own. Being content with an attic ought not to mean being unable to move from it and resigned to living in it. It ought to mean appreciating what there is to appreciate in such a position; such as the quaint and elvish slope of the ceiling or the sublime aerial view of the opposite chimney-pots. And in this sense contentment is a real and even an active virtue; it is not only affirmative, but creative. The poet in the attic does not forget the attic in poetic musings; he remembers whatever the attic has of poetry; he realises how high, how starry, how cool, how unadorned and simple—in short, how Attic is the attic.

True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare. The absence of this digestive talent is what makes so cold and incredible the tales of so many people who say they have been "through" things; when it is evident that they have come out on the other side quite unchanged. A man might have gone "through" a plum pudding as a bullet might go through a plum pudding; it depends on the size of the pudding—and the man. But the awful and sacred question is "Has the pudding been through him?" Has he tasted, appreciated, and absorbed the solid pudding, with its three dimensions and its three thousand tastes and smells? Can he offer himself to the eyes of men as one who has cubically conquered and contained a pudding?

In the same way we may ask of those who profess to have passed through trivial or tragic experiences whether they have absorbed the content of them; whether they licked up such living water as there was. It is a pertinent question in connection with many modern problems.

Thus the young genius says, "I have lived in my dreary and squalid village before I found success in Paris or Vienna." The sound philosopher will answer, "You have never lived in your village, or you would not call it dreary and squalid."

Thus the Imperialist, the Colonial idealist (who commonly speaks and always thinks with a Yankee accent) will say, "I've been right away from these little muddy islands, and seen God's great seas and prairies." The sound philosopher will reply, "You have never been in these islands; you have never seen the weald of Sussex or the plain of Salisbury; otherwise you could never have called them either muddy or little."

Thus the Suffragette will say, "I have passed through the paltry duties of pots and pans, the drudgery of the vulgar kitchen; but I have come out to intellectual liberty." The sound philosopher will answer, "You have never passed through the kitchen, or you never would call it vulgar. Wiser and stronger women than you have really seen a poetry in pots and pans; naturally, because there is a poetry in them." It is right for the village violinist to climb into fame in Paris or Vienna; it is right for the stray Englishman to climb across the high shoulder of the world; it is right for the woman to climb into whatever cathedrae or high places she can allow to her sexual dignity. But it is wrong that any of these climbers should kick the ladder by which they have climbed. But indeed these bitter people who record their experiences really record their lack of experiences. It is the countryman who has not succeeded in being a countryman who comes up to London. It is the clerk who has not succeeded in being a clerk who tries (on vegetarian principles) to be a countryman. And the woman with a past is generally a woman angry about the past she never had.

When you have really exhausted an experience you always reverence and love it. The two things that nearly all of us have thoroughly and really been through are childhood and youth. And though we would not have them back again on any account, we feel that they are both beautiful, because we have drunk them dry.

~G.K. Chesterton: A Miscellany of Men

7/21/16

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



The new coalition government including Winston Churchill, Andrew Bonar Law,
Lord Kitchener, Herbert Asquith, David Lloyd George, Edward Grey,
Augustine Birrell, Edward Carson and Lord Lansdowne
(Illustrated London News, 5 June 1915)

Chesterton responds:

● “Would you prefer to be thin?”
“No. My weight gives us a subject with which to start these questions and answer sessions.”

● “What are your thoughts on Hell?”
“I regard it as a thing to be avoided.”

● “If you were stranded on a desert island with only one book, what book would you want that to be?”
“'Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.'”

● “Isn’t Truth merely one’s own conception of things”?
“That is the Big Blunder. All thought is an attempt to discover if one’s own conception is true or not.”

● “You seem to know everything.”
“I know nothing, Madam, I’m a journalist.”

● In the event of your having to change your original position, what tactic do you adopt?”
“On such occasions, I invariably commit suicide.”

● Chesterton claimed he was one of the most polite people in England. After all, he could stand up and offer his seat to “three” ladies on a bus.

● “Could you speak louder please?”
“Good sister, don’t worry. You aren’t missing a thing!”

7/14/16

In the Place de La Bastille

ON the first of May I was sitting outside a café in the Place de la Bastille in Paris staring at the exultant column, crowned with a capering figure, which stands in the place where the people destroyed a prison and ended an age. The thing is a curious example of how symbolic is the great part of human history. As a matter of mere material fact, the Bastille when it was taken was not a horrible prison; it was hardly a prison at all. But it was a symbol, and the people always go by a sure instinct for symbols; for the Chinaman, for instance, at the last General Election, or for President Kruger's hat in the election before; their poetic sense is perfect. The Chinaman with his pigtail is not an idle flippancy. He does typify with a compact precision exactly the thing the people resent in African policy, the alien and grotesque nature of the power of wealth, the fact that money has no roots, that it is not a natural and familiar power, but a sort of airy and evil magic calling monsters from the ends of the earth. The people hate the mine owner who can bring a Chinaman flying across the sea, exactly as the people hated the wizard who could fetch a flying dragon through the air. It was the same with Mr. Kruger's hat. His hat (that admirable hat) was not merely a joke. It did symbolise, and symbolise extremely well, the exact thing which our people at that moment regarded with impatience and venom; the old-fashioned, dingy, Republican simplicity, the unbeautiful dignity of the bourgeois, and the heavier truisms of political morality. No; the people are sometimes wrong on the practical side of politics; they are never wrong on the artistic side.
.....

So it was, certainly, with the Bastille. The destruction of the Bastille was not a reform; it was something more important than a reform. It was an iconoclasm; it was the breaking of a stone image. The people saw the building like a giant looking at them with a score of eyes, and they struck at it as at a carved fact. For of all the shapes in which that immense illusion called materialism can terrify the soul, perhaps the most oppressive are big buildings. Man feels like a fly, an accident, in the thing he has himself made. It requires a violent effort of the spirit to remember that man made this confounding thing and man could unmake it. Therefore the mere act of the ragged people in the street taking and destroying a huge public building has a spiritual, a ritual meaning far beyond its immediate political results. It is a religious service. If, for instance, the Socialists were numerous or courageous enough to capture and smash up the Bank of England, you might argue for ever about the inutility of the act, and how it really did not touch the root of the economic problem in the correct manner. But mankind would never forget it. It would change the world.

Architecture is a very good test of the true strength of a society, for the most valuable things in a human state are the irrevocable things—marriage, for instance. And architecture approaches nearer than any other art to being irrevocable, because it is so difficult to get rid of. You can turn a picture with its face to the wall; it would be a nuisance to turn that Roman cathedral with its face to the wall. You can tear a poem to pieces; it is only in moments of very sincere emotion that you tear a town-hall to pieces. A building is akin to dogma; it is insolent, like a dogma. Whether or no it is permanent, it claims permanence like a dogma. People ask why we have no typical architecture of the modern world, like impressionism in painting. Surely it is obviously because we have not enough dogmas; we cannot bear to see anything in the sky that is solid and enduring, anything in the sky that does not change like the clouds of the sky. But along with this decision which is involved in creating a building, there goes a quite similar decision in the more delightful task of smashing one. The two of necessity go together. In few places have so many fine public buildings been set up as here in Paris, and in few places have so many been destroyed. When people have finally got into the horrible habit of preserving buildings, they have got out of the habit of building them. And in London one mingles, as it were, one's tears because so few are pulled down.
.....

As I sat staring at the column of the Bastille, inscribed to Liberty and Glory, there came out of one corner of the square (which, like so many such squares, was at once crowded and quiet) a sudden and silent line of horsemen. Their dress was of a dull blue, plain and prosaic enough, but the sun set on fire the brass and steel of their helmets; and their helmets were carved like the helmets of the Romans. I had seen them by twos and threes often enough before. I had seen plenty of them in pictures toiling through the snows of Friedland or roaring round the squares at Waterloo. But now they came file after file, like an invasion, and something in their numbers, or in the evening light that lit up their faces and their crests, or something in the reverie into which they broke, made me inclined to spring to my feet and cry out, "The French soldiers!" There were the little men with the brown faces that had so often ridden through the capitals of Europe as coolly as they now rode through their own. And when I looked across the square I saw that the two other corners were choked with blue and red; held by little groups of infantry. The city was garrisoned as against a revolution.

Of course, I had heard all about the strike, chiefly from a baker. He said he was not going to "Chomer." I said, "Qu'est-ce que c'est que le chome?" He said, "Ils ne veulent pas travailler." I said, "Ni moi non plus," and he thought I was a class-conscious collectivist proletarian. The whole thing was curious, and the true moral of it one not easy for us, as a nation, to grasp, because our own faults are so deeply and dangerously in the other direction. To me, as an Englishman (personally steeped in the English optimism and the English dislike of severity), the whole thing seemed a fuss about nothing. It looked like turning out one of the best armies in Europe against ordinary people walking about the street. The cavalry charged us once or twice, more or less harmlessly. But, of course, it is hard to say how far in such criticisms one is assuming the French populace to be (what it is not) as docile as the English. But the deeper truth of the matter tingled, so to speak, through the whole noisy night. This people has a natural faculty for feeling itself on the eve of something—of the Bartholomew or the Revolution or the Commune or the Day of Judgment. It is this sense of crisis that makes France eternally young. It is perpetually pulling down and building up, as it pulled down the prison and put up the column in the Place de La Bastille. France has always been at the point of dissolution. She has found the only method of immortality. She dies daily.

~G.K. Chesterton: Tremendous Trifles, IX.─In the Place de La Bastille


7/13/16

"The Church would still somehow exist in God"

MacIan burst out like a man driven back and explaining everything.

"The Church is not a thing like the Athenaeum Club," he cried. "If the Athenaeum Club lost all its members, the Athenaeum Club would dissolve and cease to exist. But when we belong to the Church we belong to something which is outside all of us; which is outside everything you talk about, outside the Cardinals and the Pope. They belong to it, but it does not belong to them. If we all fell dead suddenly, the Church would still somehow exist in God. Confound it all, don't you see that I am more sure of its existence than I am of my own existence? And yet you ask me to trust my temperament, my own temperament, which can be turned upside down by two bottles of claret or an attack of the jaundice. You ask me to trust that when it softens towards you and not to trust the thing which I believe to be outside myself and more real than the blood in my body."


~G.K. Chesterton: The Ball and the Cross, Chap. IV.─A Discussion at Dawn.

● See this book at Amazon
● Read online here.

7/10/16

Vengeance

THE whole object of literature is to prevent truths from becoming truisms. We must not only keep our truths but keep them alive; we must not only guard our truths, but feed them. It is quite possible to regard something for ten years as a truism and still to jump into the air with astonishment on discovering that it is true. I always believe in the theory that the poor are ordinary human beings. But I shall never forget the moment of shattering astonishment when I discovered that they really were. If we have omitted to examine and test any stock idea in our heads we ought not to refrain from testing it merely because we are certain that it is true. It may be true, and we may not know how true. There is, perhaps, in our world a little too much of the practice of poring over new ideas until they become old. We require a little of the practice of poring over old ideas until they become new.

Here is a case of a phrase we must all of us have often used; a phrase that has a thought in it, only that it is used quite thoughtlessly. The phrase I mean is this: ‘Punishment should not be vindictive; it is only for the protection of society’. When next we use this phrase let us stop and think about it for five minutes, unless, of course, we are using it in the middle of a political speech, when so long a reflective pause would rather be a strain on the audience.


****

What is it that is really evil about revenge? Certainly not that it is selfish; there is nothing immoral merely in pleasing oneself; it is selfish to read Virgil; it is selfish to get up and see the sun rise. Not that it is violent or destructive; it cannot be wrong to redress wrongs; Sir Galahad was violent and destructive.

The evil of vindictiveness is the same as that of every other sin; it is that in some extraordinary way it tends to destroy the soul, to blacken and eat up the whole nature. This is really the whole quarrel between the moralists and the immoralists. A celebrated decadent wrote, ‘The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it’. Yet that unhappy man himself was a complete contradiction of his own epigram; his life narrowed and darkened to a dungeon because he was unable to get rid of the hideous desires that he had satisfied. Yielding to a temptation is like yielding to a blackmailer; you pay to be free, and find yourself the more enslaved. The reality of sin arises, in fact, that the same truth which makes the reality of human poetry and joy. It arises from the fact that the smallest thing in this world has its own infinity. A mouse has an eternity of truth tied on to its tail. A prisoner in an empty cell has been known to occupy himself for decades with the natural history, philosophy, and morality of a single mouse.

Now just as a good man can find everlasting joy in looking at a mouse, so it is possible for a bad man to find everlasting joy in torturing a mouse. It is not true that cutting off its tail is a mere episode and that the man passes on to pat his children or day his prayers. The truth is that having cut off the mouse’s tail is the first suggestion of the artistic interest of cutting off its ears. The hellish happiness renews itself, and has an infinity of its own.

That is the whole point of the position of sin in human psychology, and that is the whole point of the peril of revenge. Hatred is bad not because it is personal or destructive, but because it narrows the soul to a sharp point. It is not merely that Jones desires the death of Brown. Under certain circumstances, instantaneous or impersonal, he might justly desire it. The evil is that the death of Brown becomes the whole life of Jones. The violent man, in short, tries to break out; but he only succeeds in breaking in. He breaks into smaller and smaller cells of his own subterranean heart till he is suffocated in the smallest, and dies like a rat in a hole.

But a whole people can hardly die like a rat in a hole. It is not very likely that an entire nation will go mad upon one point of morbidity. A million city men with black hats and bags will not all be dreaming at the same moment of how they may poison Brown. Therefore we must first remember that the public acts done by a whole people, though they may be fierce and tragic, will hardly be vindictive in this stagnant, secretive, and poisonous sense. The people may be a butcher; but the people can hardly be an assassin. You may happen to think that the killing of Charles I. as lawless or cruel as the killing of his friend Buckingham. But you will hardly deny that Bradshaw, with all his bitterness, was in a more open and bracing frame of mind than Felton fingering the knife in his pocket and brooding over his private wrongs.

While assenting, therefore, to the ultimate proposition that punishment must not be mere vengeance, we have to point out first that it never is mere vengeance in the sense that mere vengeance can corrupt and weaken an individual soul. And, second, we have to point out that in continually repeating without reflection that it must not be vindictive, we lay the foundation of another evil more cruel than vengeance itself. There is no fear of modern English punishment being excessively revengeful; it has not enough life in it. It is attacking altogether the wrong danger to tell a modern judge that he must not shudder from head to foot with horror of sin or foam at the mouth with the hatred of individuals. You might as well tell the stonebreaker in the road not to be an iconoclast. You might as well reproach the tax collector with his fanatical Socialism, or earnestly assure the scavenger that he must not value too transcendentally and supremely the mere ideal of hygiene.

The evil in our modern law is not one of barbaric passions, but one of passionless routine. The trouble is not that a lawyer really flies into a passion when he thinks about petty larceny; the trouble is that he never really thinks about it at all. It is not that the authorities have an excessive horror of the idea of sin; it is that they have a quite insufficient horror of the idea of punishment. The professional lawyer punishes more drearily and mechanically than the professional thief thieves. To tell him not to punish from mere vengeance is like telling an oyster not too run too fast. He has about as much vindictive feeling against criminals as butcher has against oxen and immeasurably less than a gardener has against snails.

Now in this legal atmosphere a burst of decent human vengeance would be an almost unmixed benefit. There is nothing in the least Christian or charitable about not being vindictive. It is Christian to love your enemies, but there is nothing Christian in the mere fact of hurting them without hating them. Real tenderness is really the better, because it is effected with difficulty. But cruelties are not any better because they are effected with composure. Thus we see that this modern phrase, ‘Punishment should not be vindictive’, is exactly the wrong phrase; innocent as it seems[,] it puts the matter precisely in the wrong way. Say that we ought to have a flaming charity or a fierce pity, say that we ought to be like the saint who kissed the criminal’s severed head or the saint who took the convict’s seat in the galleys; say that and you may raise the banner of a really valuable revolt. But to say simply that we must not be vindictive is merely to say that we must not only do a heartless thing, but do it in a heartless manner.

And there is one more point that should be emphasised yet more pointedly. By merely saying that we must not avenge, we make it much easier to punish a poor and feeble class of criminals against whom no sane man can feel vengeful. And we make it much more difficult to punish the only class of criminals on whom we might really wish to be avenged. The prosperous oppressor, the successful swindler may really inflame vindictive feelings; but they escape – because punishment is not vindictive. The desperate tramp, the dreary pickpocket, could not make anyone feel vindictive; but they can be crushed under wheels of iron – because punishment is not vindictive.

In short, the theory that we must not be angry is the very charter of escape for all evil-doers who are strong enough to awaken anger. We are not told to love; that divine and terrible commandment has died with the superstitions of our infancy. But we are told not to hate. And so the tyrant escapes – because he is only hateful.

~G.K. Chesterton: Daily News, August 8, 1908

The Seven Virtues: Justice,
by Giotto di Bondone.
Fresco, 1306; Cappella Scrovegni, Padua.

"Dickens and America"

"THE famous quarrel between Dickens and America, which finds its most elaborate expression in "American Notes," though its most brilliant expression in "Martin Chuzzlewit," is an incident about which a great deal remains to be said. But the thing which most specially remains to be said is this. This old Anglo-American quarrel was much more fundamentally friendly than most Anglo-American alliances. In Dickens’s day each nation understood the other enough to argue. In our time neither nation understands itself even enough to quarrel."

~G.K. Chesterton: Introduction to Dickens' "American Notes"