12/31/13

Poem: Evening

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

~G.K. Chesterton: Notebook.

Poem: A Second Childhood

When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing.

Wherein God's ponderous mercy hangs
On all my sins and me,
Because He does not take away
The terror from the tree
And stones still shine along the road
That are and cannot be.

Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for wine,
But I shall not grow too old to see
Unearthly daylight shine,
Changing my chamber's dust to snow
Till I doubt if it be mine.

Behold, the crowning mercies melt,
The first surprises stay;
And in my dross is dropped a gift
For which I dare not pray:
That a man grow used to grief and joy
But not to night and day.

Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for lies;
But I shall not grow too old to see
Enormous night arise,
A cloud that is larger than the world
And a monster made of eyes.

Nor am I worthy to unloose
The latchet of my shoe;
Or shake the dust from off my feet
Or the staff that bears me through
On ground that is too good to last,
Too solid to be true.

Men grow too old to woo, my love,
Men grow too old to wed:
But I shall not grow too old to see
Hung crazily overhead
Incredible rafters when I wake
And find I am not dead.

A thrill of thunder in my hair:
Though blackening clouds be plain,
Still I am stung and startled
By the first drop of the rain:
Romance and pride and passion pass
And these are what remain.

Strange crawling carpets of the grass,
Wide windows of the sky:
So in this perilous grace of God
With all my sins go I:
And things grow new though I grow old,
Though I grow old and die.

~G.K. Chesterton

Poem: Eternities

I cannot count the pebbles in the brook.
Well hath He spoken: 'Swear not by thy head,
Thou knowest not the hairs,' though He, we read,
Writes that wild number in His own strange book.

I cannot count the sands or search the seas,
Death cometh, and I leave so much untrod.
Grant my immortal aureole, O my God,
And I will name the leaves upon the trees.

In heaven I shall stand on gold and glass,
Still brooding earth's arithmetic to spell;
Or see the fading of the fires of hell
Ere I have thanked my God for all the grass.

~G.K. Chesterton

"Where there is anything there is God"

"SO, later on, when I was on the Daily News, I defended, against the dramatic critic, the dramatic merit of a later play, which is full of good things; the play [by Yeats] called "Where There Is Nothing There Is God." But I was all groping and groaning and travailing with an inchoate and half-baked philosophy of my own, which was very nearly the reverse of the remark that where there is nothing there is God. The truth presented itself to me, rather, in the form that where there is anything there is God. Neither statement is adequate in philosophy; but I should have been amazed to know how near in some ways was my Anything to the Ens of St. Thomas Aquinas."

~G.K. Chesterton: Autobiography, Ch. VI.


12/29/13

Poem: The Great Minimum

It is something to have wept as we have wept,
It is something to have done as we have done,
It is something to have watched when all men slept,
And seen the stars which never see the sun.

It is something to have smelt the mystic rose,
Although it break and leave the thorny rods,
It is something to have hungered once as those
Must hunger who have ate the bread of gods.

To have seen you and your unforgotten face,
Brave as a blast of trumpets for the fray,
Pure as white lilies in a watery space,
It were something, though you went from me to-day.

To have known the things that from the weak are furled,
Perilous ancient passions, strange and high;
It is something to be wiser than the world,
It is something to be older than the sky.

In a time of sceptic moths and cynic rusts,
And fatted lives that of their sweetness tire,
In a world of flying loves and fading lusts,
It is something to be sure of a desire.

Lo, blessed are our ears for they have heard;
Yea, blessed are our eyes for they have seen:
Let thunder break on man and beast and bird
And the lightning. It is something to have been.

~G.K. Chesterton

"A holy family of child, mother and father"

"THIS triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilisations which disregard it. Most modern reformers are merely bottomless sceptics, and have no basis on which to rebuild; and it is well that such reformers should realise that there is something they cannot reform...."

"From its first days in the forest this human group had to fight against wild monsters; and so it is now fighting against these wild machines. It only managed to survive then, and it will only manage to survive now, by a strong internal sanctity; a tacit oath or dedication deeper than that of the city or the tribe. But though this silent promise was always present, it took at a certain turning point of our history a special form which I shall try to sketch in the next chapter. That turning point was the creation of Christendom by the religion which created it. Nothing will destroy the sacred triangle; and even the Christian faith, the most amazing revolution that ever took place in the mind, served only in a sense to turn that triangle upside down. It held up a mystical mirror in which the order of the three things was reversed; and added a holy family of child, mother and father to the human family of father, mother and child."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Superstition of Divorce, V. The Story of the Family.



The Two Trinities, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
Oil on canvas, 1675-82;  National Gallery, London.

12/28/13

Christmas and Salesmanship

“I TAKE a grim and gloomy pleasure in reminding my fellow hacks and hired drudges in the dreadful trade of journalism that the Christmas which is now over ought to go on for the remainder of the twelve days. It ought to end on the Twelfth Night, on which occasion Shakespeare has himself assured us that we ought to be doing What we Will. But one of the queerest things about our own topsy-turvy time is that we all hear such a vast amount about Christmas just before it comes, and suddenly hear nothing at all about it afterwards. My own trade, the tragic guild to which I have already alluded, is trained to begin prophesying Christmas somewhere about the beginning of autumn; and the prophecies about it are like prophecies about the Golden Age and the Day of Judgment combined. Everybody writes about what a glorious Christmas we are going to have. Nobody, or next to nobody, ever writes about the Christmas we have just had. I am going to make myself an exasperating exception in this matter. I am going to plead for a longer period in which to find out what was really meant by Christmas; and a fuller consideration of what we have really found. There are any number of legends, even of modern legends, about what happens before Christmas; whether it is the preparation of the Christmas tree, which is said to date only from the time of the German husband of Queen Victoria, or the vast population of Father Christmases who now throng the shops almost as quickly as the customers. But there is no modern legend of what happens just after Christmas; except a dismal joke about indigestion and the arrival of the doctor. I am the more moved to send everybody and after-Christmas greeting, or, if I had the industry, an after-Christmas card; and in truth there is a craven crowd who escape by falling back upon New Years cards. But I should like to examine this problem of after-Christmas custom and festivity a little more closely.

Of course it is a mark of a commercial community that it thus advertises in Advent. The whole object of such a system is to deliver the goods. When once they are delivered there is a deadly silence; at least as an absence of any burst of joy over the creation of new things; a comparative silence about morning stars singing together or the shouting of the sons of God. In other word, when we have delivered the goods, it is not now quite certain that anybody has looked on them and seen that they are good. And the immense importance of announcement everywhere diminishes the corresponding importance of appreciation. I know that in the commercial case there are sometimes proofs of appreciation. I know that nobles ladies and actresses (I hope this is the right order of precedence) do write testimonials about their pleasure in consuming some sort of soap; and that leading literary men are found to declare that they would have been practically half-witted but for some particular training of the mind. But, taking modern announcements and advertisements and assertions as a whole, there is no comparison between the bulk of promises and the bulk of acknowledgements. Everybody knows the advertisements, but few could quote the acknowledgments. This all the more obvious in the case of Christmas, because Christmas is still rightly recognised as a feast of children. Perhaps it is natural that telling a little boy that he is going to have some toffee should be more explicit and explanatory than the little boy himself when he is actually eating the toffee; when he is stuffed and stuck to his chair with toffee; and is in no mood to symbolize gratitude except by greed. One would not ask of him even a lyric cry that might become a hymn of thanksgiving; still less a piece of perfect prose analyzing his own impressions. Little boys should be seen and not heard. In other words, they come to buy toffee, not to praise it. So long as no excessive noises are made in the mastication of that confection, we will excuse the youth from any long oratorical exercises in the way of returning thanks. And a certain amount of this natural disproportion between thrills and thanks is to be allowed for among all young people. The dreary agonies through which many a little boy must be going at this moment, in order to write three lines of thanks to his grandmother who gave him the toffee, is in itself no reflection on the toffee. Gratitude, being nearly the greatest of human duties, is also nearly the most difficult. And as grown-up people hardly ever think of being grateful for the sun and moon and their own souls and bodies, it is easy to excuse the immature for finding it difficult to say thank you for a bag of sweets. Only, as I say, when all these allowances have been made, there is still a disproportion between the promises of any such great symbolic feast and the strange fulfilment of the promise. And it is connected with a certain commercial habit of certain people promising everything or anything, so that the other people have a tendency to thank them for nothing. There is a sort of silence about the absorption of many modern things, as compared with the loud shouts that heralded their arrival.

I cannot help suspecting that in this there is a snag about what is enthusiastically called the Art of Salesmanship. I do not say that salesmanship cannot be an art; nor do I say that it has become too artful. Yet it is not its foes but its friends who are always hinting that it does not mean making people buy what they do not want. A transaction of that sort would fully explain the happy noises of the opening negotiations as compared with the silence afterwards. It is the triumph of the salesman that he has made the customer realize that he has long needed an electric tooth-brush or a self starting pencil, which he has never heard of before. But it is not always the triumph of the customer when he rightly and gravely considers them afterwards. And it does seem to me that our civilisation is in some degree out of joint, at the precise point of this juncture between the fierce and eager supply and the somewhat faint and wavering demand. There is such an impressive pressure of praise and recommendation, on the one side and such a lack of reaction either of protest or praise on the other, that I doubt whether the consumer is contributing enough constructive criticism to the State. After all, the original foundation of all trade is the ideas came from the consumer; and that he really did know what he wanted to consume. The dreams and visions of the consumer were then embodied and, as it were, incarnated, in the crafts and arts which fulfilled them. Of course, the craftsmen and the artists did something in detail which the consumer could not do so for himself; but the consumer had done something not in detail but in design. In a sense, he was the architect and they were the builders. But if the architect is to be covered with a totally different sort of building, and told that this is what he really wanted without knowing it, then he is not being housed, but buried. My only point at the moment is that, when all is said, he is now rather silent in his tomb.

I know there is a great difficulty in organising any expression of those who have really got what they liked; chiefly because it would involve the alarming alternative of their expressing themselves about what they did not like. I suppose there never has been a really convincing advertisement of Smith’s Soap or testimonial to Tomkinson’s Tea. For the one really thrilling assertion about Smith’s Soap would be that it is much better than Brown’s Soap; and the one quite convincing commendation of Tomkinson’s Tea would be a testimonial saying “What a relief it was after the absolutely filthy taste of Wilkinson’s Tea.” And this is forbidden by all commercial custom; and I rather fancy even by the law of the land. I do not say for a moment that it would be easy to get a real record of the reception of good things, especially when they are really good; and if the modern world were in that mood, I fancy there would be a longer period of appreciation, and perhaps even some final festival of thanks after the festival of Christmas. Puritans in America established Thanksgiving Day in order to avoid Christmas Day. It would be a real Anglo-American reconciliation to combine the two; and have a Thanksgiving Day for the turkey we had eaten at Christmas.

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News,’ Dec. 28, 1935.



 
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The Humour of King Herod

IF I SAY that I have just been very much amused with a Nativity play of the fourteenth century it is still possible that I may be misunderstood. What is more important, some thousand years of very heroic history will be misunderstood too. It was one of the Coventry cycle of mediaeval plays, loosely called the Coventry Mysteries, similar to the Chester Mysteries and the Towneley Mysteries.

And I was not amused at the blasphemy of something badly done, but at a buffoonery uncommonly well done. But, as I said at the time, the educated seem to be very ignorant of this fine mediaeval fun. When I mentioned the Coventry Mystery many ladies and gentlemen thought it was a murder in the police news. At the best, they supposed it to be the title of a detective story. Even upon a hint of history they could only recall the story of Godiva; which might be called rather a revelation than a mystery.


Now I always read police news and I sometimes write detective stories; nor am I at all ashamed of doing either. But I think the popular art of the past was perhaps a little more cheerful than that of the present. And in seeing this Bethlehem drama I felt that good news might perhaps be as dramatic as bad news; and that it was possibly as thrilling to hear that a child is born as to hear that a man is murdered.

Doubtless there are some sentimental people who like these old plays merely because they are old. My own sentiment could be more truly stated by saying that I like them because they are new. They are new in the imaginative sense, making us feel as if the first star were leading us to the first child.

But they are also new in the historical sense, to most people, owing to that break in our history which makes the Elizabethans seem not merely to have discovered the new world but invented the old one. Nobody could see this mediaeval play without realizing that the Elizabethan was rather the end than the beginning of a tradition; the crown and not the cradle of the drama.

Many things that modern critics call peculiarly Elizabethan are in fact peculiarly mediaeval. For instance, that the same stage could be the place where meet the extremes of tragedy and comedy, or rather farce. That daring mixture is always made a point of contrast between the Shakespearean play and the Greek play or the French classical play. But it is a point of similarity, or rather identity, between the Shakespearean play and the miracle play.

Nothing could be more bitterly tragic than the scene in this Nativity drama, in which the mothers sing a lullaby to the children they think they have brought into safety the moment before the soldiers of Herod rush in and butcher them screaming on the stage. Nothing could be more broadly farcical than the scene in which King Herod himself pretends that he has manufactured the thunderstorm.

In one sense, indeed, the old religious play was far bolder in its burlesque than the more modern play. Shakespeare did not express the unrest of King Claudius by making him fall over his own cloak. He did not convey his disdain for tyranny by letting Macbeth appear with his crown on one side. This was partly no doubt an improvement in dramatic art; but it was partly also, I think, a weakening of democratic satire.

Shakespeare's clowns are philosophers, geniuses, demigods; but Shakespeare's clowns are clowns. Shakespeare's kings may be usurpers, murderers, monsters; but Shakespeare's kings are kings. But in this old devotional drama the king is the clown. He is treated not so much with disdain as with derision; not so much with a bitter smile as with a broad grin. A cat may not only look at a king but laugh at a king; like the mythical Cheshire cat, an ancient cat as terrible as a tiger and grinning like a gargoyle. But that Cheshire cat has presumably vanished with the Chester Mysteries, the counterpart of these Coventry Mysteries; it has vanished with the age and art of gargoyles.

In other words, that popular simplicity that could see wrongful power as something pantomimically absurd, a thing for practical jokes, has since been sophisticated by a process none the less sad because it is slow and subtle. It begins in the Elizabethans in an innocent and indefinable form. It is merely the sense that, though Macbeth may get his crown crookedly, he must not actually wear it crooked. It is the sense that, though Claudius may fall from his throne, he must not actually fall over his footstool.

It ended in the nineteenth century in many refined and ingenuous forms; in a tendency to find all fun in the ignorant or criminal classes; in dialect or the dropping of aitches. It was a sort of satirical slumming. There was a new shade in the comparison of the coster with the cat; a coster could look at a king and might conceivably laugh at a king; but most contemporary art and literature, was occupied in laughing at the coster.

Even in the long lifetime of a good comic paper like Punch we can trace the change from jokes against the palace to jokes against the public-house. The difference is perhaps more delicate; it is rather that the refined classes are a subject for refined comedy; and only the con1mon people a subject for common farce. It is correct to call this refinement modern; yet it is not quite correct to call it contemporary. All through the Victorian time the joke was pointed more against the poor and less against the powerful; but the revolution which ended the long Victorian peace has shaken this Victorian patronage. The great war which has brought so many ancient realities to the surface has re-enacted before our eyes the Miracle Play of Coventry.

We have seen a real King Herod claiming the thunders of the throne of God, and answered by the thunder not merely of human wrath but of primitive human laughter. He has done murder by proclamations, and he has been answered by caricatures. He has made a massacre of children, and been made a figure of fun in a Christmas pantomime for the pleasure of other children. Precisely because his crime is tragic, his punishment is comic; the old popular paradox has returned.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Uses of Diversity.



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12/27/13

"He nor anyone else can love humanity"

"CHRIST did not love humanity, He never said He loved humanity; He loved men. Neither He nor anyone else can love humanity; it is like loving a gigantic centipede. And the reason that the Tolstoians can even endure to think of an equally distributed love is that their love of humanity is a logical love, a love into which they are coerced by their own theories, a love which would be an insult to a tom-cat."

 ~G.K. Chesterton: Tolstoy and the Cult of Simplicity (Twelve Types).

On Fragments

AS I have said before I am a believer in staring blankly at things; if you do it something always happens. For instance, I am staring blankly at this sheet of paper and I firmly believe that something more or less intelligible will happen soon. Men stared at the blank blue sky and invented a million mythologies. Staring stupidly at live people is more dangerous; but even this has its fascination; and if you ever see your companion's face turned towards you with the rounded and complete expression of a congenital idiot, you may be certain again that he is nearer at that moment than at any other to knowing what you really are; which I fancy is the last thing that you desire. When we cast 'an intelligent look' (as they say in books) at a thing, it only means that we stamp our own significance upon it. When we look wisely at a post we see what we mean by a post. But when we look stupidly at a post we see what a post means.

In such a trance of divine imbecility I remember once staring at the paving-stones under my feet, until I went off into a sort of dream of paving-stones. They passed perpetually under my feet like flat and silent waves of stones, and all the time I was asking myself what they were. Street after street I passed, looking at the ground like a cow. And then it suddenly seemed to me that they were all gravestones; the gravestones of innumerable and utterly forgotten men. For under every one of them, almost certainly, there was human dust. I seemed to see fantastic epitaphs on them, commemorating the deeds of heroes who are too old and too great to be remembered. There, for instance, was the man who found fire and the man who made the first wheel; men too necessary to be ever named. There were the dim poets who gave names to the flowers, and have utterly lost their own.

And among those imaginary benefactors in all ages I seemed to see one class especially predominant. I mean the people who in the dim beginning of time united one thing artificially, but permanently, with another. What primeval priest, for instance, married bread and cheese? Who was the wild visionary (of later times) who, after ransacking all the forests, and counting all the fruits of the earth, discovered that almonds and raisins had been looking for each other since the world began? Who, above all, discovered such a thing as the happy marriage between music and literature? The men who are least known from the past are certainly the men who made this combination. And the men who are best known at the present day are certainly those who are tearing such combinations in pieces.

This is the worst element in our anarchic world of today. The whole is one vast system of separation - an enormous philosophical Divorce Court. The theory of art for art's sake, for instance, as applied to painting, was a proposal to separate a picture from the subject of the picture. Sentiment would be better without art, art would be better without sentiment. In other words, a picture would be a better picture if it were not a picture of anything. And a subject would be all the better subject if you did not paint it. Such moderns easily might, I think some moderns really have, applied the same principle to that ancient combination called a song. A very modern poet might easily say that the words would convey their own natural rhythms much better without a tune. A very modern musician might easily say that the only perfectly musical songs would be songs without words. No one has yet had the star-defying audacity to hint at a separation between bread and cheese. But we must be prepared to have it said before long by some profligate aesthete that bread would be more breadish without cheese, and that cheese would be more exquisitely and penetratingly cheesy without bread. We must be prepared, I say, for a perpetual tendency towards such cleavages; and we must be prepared to answer them by insisting on the immemorial right of mankind to perpetuate such alliances. Man has from the beginning joined spoken words to an air, and the two have grown old and wise together. Those whom man hath joined let no man sunder.

This endless process of separation of everything from everything else has a good example, for instance, in the case of religion. Religion, a human and historic religion, like Christianity or Buddhism or some great periods of Paganism was, as a matter of fact, a combination of all the important parts of life. Every one of the main human interests was in old times made a part of the creed. Every one of those human interests is now put apart by itself, as if it were a monomania like collecting stamps. A religion, as understood by humanity in the past, always consisted at least of the following elements. First, of a theory of ultimate truth and of the nature of the universe. That is now put by itself and called Metaphysics. Second, of a groping communication with some being other than man. This is now put by itself and called Psychical Research. Third, of a strict rule of behaviour, with many irritating vetoes. This is now put by itself and called Ethics. Fourth, of a certain flamboyant tendency to break out into colours and symbols, to do wild and beautiful things with flowers or with garments or with fire. This is now put by itself and called Art. Fifth, of a tendency to feel that matter and locality can be sacred, that certain soils or features of the landscape can be a part of the peace of the soul. This is now put by itself and called Patriotism. And the typically modern men are mainly proud of having thus torn up the original unity of the religious idea. Ethics for ethics' sake, and art for art's sake are like the tatters of what was once the seamless robe. They have parted his garments among them, and for his vesture they have cast lots.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Spice of Life and Other Essays.

Divorce versus Democracy

PREFACE

I have been asked to put forward in pamphlet form this rather hasty essay as it appeared in "Nash's Magazine"; and I do so by the kind permission of the editor. The rather chaotic quality of its journalism it is now impossible to alter. The convictions upon which it is based are unaltered and unalterable. Indeed, in so far as circumstances have since affected them, they are greatly strengthened. In so far as there was something sporadic and seemingly irrelevant in the writing, it was partly because I was contending against an evil that was diffused and indefinable, at once tentative and ubiquitous. Since then that disease has come to a head and burst; primarily in the North of Europe. By that historic habit which generally makes one European people the standard bearer of a social tendency, which made the Empire a Roman Empire and the Revolution a French Revolution, the North Germans have become the peculiar champions of that modern change which would make the State infinitely superior to the Family. It is even asserted that Prussian political authority is now encouraging the abandonment of common morality for the support of population; and even if this horrible thing be untrue, it is highly significant that it can be plausibly said of Prussia and certainly of no other Christian State. And in the new light of action it is possible to trace more clearly the trend towards divorce, as also that trend towards the other pagan institution of slavery, which would certainly have accompanied it. But the enslaving force in Europe struck too early; and the whole movement has been brought to a standstill.

The same circumstances have given an importance to a formula of my own which I still think rather important. It may be summarised as the patriotism of the household. In the experience of nationality we do not admit that any excess of despair can come into the same logical world as desertion. No amount of tragedy need amount to treason. The Christian view of marriage conceives of the home as self-governing in a manner analogous to an independent state; that is, that it may include internal reform and even internal rebellion; but because of the bond, not against it. In this way it is itself a sort of standing reformer of the State; for the State is judged by whether its arrangements bear helpfully or bear hardly on the human fullness and fertility of the free family. Thus the Wicked Ten in Rome were condemned and cast down because their public powers permitted a wrong against the purity of a private family. Thus the mediaeval revolt against the Poll Tax began by the authority of an official insulting the authority of a father. Men do not now, any more than then, become sinless by receiving a post in a bureaucracy; and if the domestic affairs of the poor were once put into the hands of mere lawyers and inspectors, the poor would soon find themselves in positions from which there is no exit save by the sword of Virginius and the hammer of Wat Tyler. As for the section of the rich who are still seeking a servile solution, they, of course, are still seeking the extension of divorce. It is only '"divide et impera"; and they want the division of sex for the division of labour. The very same economic calculation which makes them encourage tyranny in the shop makes them encourage licence in the family. But now the free families of five great nations have risen against them; and their plot has failed.

G.K. Chesterton

DIVORCE VERSUS DEMOCRACY

On this question of divorce I do not profess to be impartial, for I have never perceived any intelligent meaning in the word. I merely (and most modestly) profess to be right. I also profess to be representative: that is, democratic. Now, one may believe in democracy or disbelieve in it. It would be grossly unfair to conceal the fact that there are difficulties on both sides. The difficulty of believing in democracy is that it is so hard to believe-- like God and most other good things. The difficulty of disbelieving in democracy is that there is nothing else to believe in. I mean there is nothing else on earth or in earthly politics. Unless an aristocracy is selected by gods, it must be selected by men. It may be negatively and passively permitted, but either heaven or humanity must permit it; otherwise it has no more moral authority than a lucky pickpocket. It is babytalk to talk about "Supermen" or "Nature's Aristocracy" or "The Wise Few." "The Wise Few" must be either those whom others think wise--who are often fools; or those who think themselves wise--who are always fools.

Well, if one happens to believe in democracy as I do, as a large trust in the active and passive judgment of the human conscience, one can have no hesitation, no "impartiality," about one's view of divorce; and especially about one's view of the extension of divorce among the democracy. A democrat in any sense must regard that extension as the last and vilest of the insults offered by the modern rich to the modern poor. The rich do largely believe in divorce; the poor do mainly believe in fidelity. But the modern rich are powerful and the modern poor are powerless. Therefore for years and decades past the rich have been preaching their own virtues. Now that they have begun to preach their vices too, I think it is time to kick.

There is one enormous and elementary objection to the popularising of divorce, which comes before any consideration of the nature of marriage. It is like an alphabet in letters too large to be seen. It is this: That even if the democracy approved of divorce as strongly and deeply as the democracy does (in fact--disapprove of it--any man of common sense must know that nowadays the thing will be worked probably against the democracy, but quite certainly by the plutocracy. People seem to forget that in a society where power goes with wealth and where wealth is in an extreme state of inequality, extending the powers of the law means something entirely different from extending the powers of the public. They seem to forget that there is a great deal of difference between what laws define and what laws do. A poor woman in a poor public-house was broken with a ruinous fine for giving a child a sip of shandy-gaff. Nobody supposed that the law verbally stigmatised the action for being done by a poor person in a poor public-house. But most certainly nobody will dare to pretend that a rich man giving a boy a sip of champagne would have been punished so heavily--or punished at all. I have seen the thing done frequently in country houses; and my host and hostess would have been very much surprised if I had gone outside and telephoned for the police. The law theoretically condemns any one who tries to frustrate the police or even fails to assist them. Yet the rich motorists are allowed to keep up an organised service of anti-police detectives--wearing a conspicuous uniform-- for the avowed purpose of showing motorists how to avoid capture. No one supposes again that the law says in so many words that the right to organise for the evasion of laws is a privilege of the rich but not of the poor. But take the same practical test. What would the police say, what would the world say, if men stood about the streets in green and yellow uniforms, notoriously for the purpose of warning pickpockets of the presence of a plain-clothes officer? What would the world say if recognised officials in peaked caps watched by night to warn a burglar that the police were waiting for him? Yet there is no distinction of principle between the evasion of that police-trap and the other police-trap--the police-trap which prevents a motorist from killing a child like a chicken; which prevents the most frivolous kind of murder, the most piteous kind of sudden death.

Well, the Poor Man's Divorce Law will be applied exactly as all these others are applied. Everybody must know that it would mean in practice that well-dressed men, doctors, magistrates, and inspectors, would have rnore power over the family lives of the ill-dressed men, navvies, plumbers, and potmen. Nobody can have the impudence to pretend that it would mean that navvies, plumbers, and pot men would (either individually or collectively) have more power over the family lives of doctors, magistrates, and inspectors. Nobody dare assert that because divorce is a State affair, therefore the poor citizen will have any power, direct or indirect, to divorce a duchess from a duke or a banker from a banker's wife. But no one will call it inconceivable that the power of rich families over poor families, which is already great, the power of the duke as landlord, the power of the banker as money-lender, might be considerably increased by arming magistrates with more powers of interference in private life. For the dukes and bankers often are magistrates, always the friends and relatives of magistrates. The navvies are not. The navvy will be the subject of the new experiments; certainly never the experimentalist. It is the poor man who will show to the imaginative eye of science all those horrors which, according to newspaper correspondents, cry aloud for divorce--drunkenness, madness, cruelty, incurable disease. If he is slow in working for his master, he will be "defective." If he is worn out by working for his master, he will be "degenerate." If he, at some particular opportunity, prefers to work for himself to working for his master, he will be obviously insane. If he never has any opportunity of working for any master he will be "unemployable." All the bitter embarrassments and entanglements incidental to extreme poverty will be used to break conjugal happiness, as they are already used to break parental authority. Marriage will be called a failure wherever it is a struggle, just as parents in modern England are sent to prison for neglecting the children whom they cannot afford to feed.

I will take but one instance of the enormity and silliness which is really implied in these proposals for the extension of divorce. Take the case quoted by many contributors to the discussion in the papers-- the case of what is called "cruelty." Now what is the real meaning of this as regards the prosperous and as regards the struggling classes of the community? Let us take the prosperous classes first. Every one knows that those who are really to be described as gentlemen all profess a particular tradition, partly chivalrous, partly merely modern and refined--a tradition against "laying hands upon a woman, save in a way of kindness." I do not mean that a gentleman hates the cowing of a woman by brute force: any one must hate that. I mean he has a ritual, taboo kind of feeling about the laying on of a finger. If a gentle man (real or imitation) has struck his wife ever so lightly, he feels he has done one of those things that thrill the thoughts with the notion of a border-line, something like saying the Lord's Prayer backwards, touching a hot kettle, reversing the crucifix, or "breaking the pledge." The wife may forgive the husband more easily for this than for many things; but the husband will find it hard to forgive himself. It is a purely class sentiment, like the poor folks' dislike of hospitals. What is the effect of this class sentiment on divorce among the higher classes?

The first effect, of course, is greatly to assist those faked divorces so common among the fashionable. I mean that where there is a collusion, a small pat or push can be remembered, exaggerated, or invented; and yet seem to the solemn judges a very solemn thing in people of their own social class. But outside these cases, the test is not wholly inappropriate as applied to the richer classes. For all Gentlemen feeling or affecting this special horror, it does really look bad if a gentleman has broken through it, it does look like madness or a personal hatred and persecution. It may even look like worse things. If a man with luxurious habits, in artistic surroundings, is cruel to his wife, it may be connected with some perversion of sex cruelty, such as was alleged (I know not how truly) in the case of the millionaire Thaw. We need not deny that such cases are cases for separation, if not for divorce.

But this test of technical cruelty, which is rough and ready as applied to the rich, is absolutely mad and meaningless as applied to the poor. A poor woman does not judge her husband as a bully by whether he has ever hit out. One might as well say that a school-boy judges whether another schoolboy is a bully by whether he has ever hit out. The poor wife, like the schoolboy, judges him as a bully by whether he is a bully. She knows that while wife-beating may really be a crime, wife-hitting is sometimes very like just self-defence. No one knows better than she does that her husband often has a great deal to put up with; sometimes she means him to; sometimes she is justified. She comes and tells this to magistrates again and again; in police court after police court women with black eyes try to explain the thing to judges with no eyes. In street after street women turn in anger on the hapless knight-errant who has interrupted an instantaneous misunderstanding. In these people's lives the rooms are crowded, the tempers are torn to rags, the natural exits are forbidden. In such societies it is as abominable to punish or divorce people for a blow as it would be to punish or divorce a gentleman for slamming a door. Yet who can doubt, if ever divorce is applied to the populace, it would be applied in the spirit which takes the blow quite seriously? If any one doubts it, he does not know what world he is living in. It is common to meet nowadays men who talk of what they call Free Love as if it were something like Free Silver--a new and ingenious political scheme. They seem to forget that it is as easy to judge what it would be like as to judge of what legal marriage would be like. "Free Love" has been going on in every town and village since the beginning of the world; and the first fact that every man of the world knows about it is plain enough. It never does produce any of the wild purity and perfect freedom its friends attribute to it. If any paper had the pluck to head a column "Is Concubinage a Failure?" instead of "Is Marriage a Failure?" the answer "Yes" would be given by the personal memory of all. Modern people perpetually quote some wild expression of monks in the wilderness (when a whole civilisation was maddened by remorse) about the perilous quality of Woman, about how she was a spectre and a serpent and a destroying fire. Probably the establishment of nuns, situated a few miles off, described Man also as a serpent and a spectre; but their works have not come down to us.

Now all this old-world wit against Benedick the married man was sensible enough. But so was the bachelorhood of the old monks, who said it, sensible enough. It is perfectly true that to entangle yourself with another soul in the most tender and tragic degree is to make, in all rational possibility, a martyr or a fool of yourself. Most of the modern denunciations of marriage might have been copied direct from the maddest of the monkish diaries. The attack on marriage is an argument for celibacy. It is not an argument for divorce. For that entanglement which celibacy avowedly avoids, divorce merely reduplicates and repeats. It may have been a sort of solemn comfort to a gentleman of Africa to reflect that he had no wife. It cannot be anything but a discomfort to a gentleman of America to wonder which wife he really has. If progress means, as in the ludicrous definition of Herbert Spencer, "an advance from the simple to the complex," then certainly divorce is a part of progress. Nothing can be conceived more complex than the condition of a man who has settled down finally four or five times. Nothing can be conceived more complex than the position of a profligate who has not only had ten liaisons, but ten legal liaisons. There is a real sense in which free love might free men. But freer divorce would catch them in the most complicated net ever woven in this wicked world.

The tragedy of love is in love, not in marriage. There is not unhappy marriage that might not be an equally unhappy concubinage, or a far more unhappy seduction. Whether the tie be legal or no, matters something to the faithless party; it matters nothing to the faithful one. The pathos reposes upon the perfectly simple fact that if any one deliberately provokes either passions or affections, he is responsible for them as long as they go on, as the man is responsible for letting loose a flood or setting fire to a city. His remedy is not to provoke them, like the hermit. His punishment, when he deserves punishment, is to spend the rest of his life in trying to undo any ill he has done. His escape is despair--which is called, in this connection, divorce. For every healthy man feels one fundamental fact in his soul. He feels that he must have a life, and not a series of lives. He would rather the human drama were a tragedy than that it were a series of Music-hall Turns and Potted Plays. A man wishes to save the souls of all the men he has been: of the dirty little schoolboy; of the doubtful and morbid youth; of the lover; of the husband. Re-incarnation has always seemed to me a cold creed; because each incarnation must forget the other. It would be worse still if this short human life were broken up into yet shorter lives, each of which was in its turn forgotten.

If you are a democrat who likes also to be an honest man-- if (in other words) you want to know what the people want and not merely what you can somehow induce them to ask for-- then there is no doubt at all that this is what they want. You can only realise it by looking for human nature elsewhere than in election reports, but when you have once looked for it you see it and you never forget it. From the fact that every one thinks it natural that young men and women should carve names on trees, to the fact that every one thinks it unnatural that old men and women should be separated in work houses, millions and millions of daily details prove that people do regard the relation as normally permanent; not a vision, but as a vow.

Now for the exceptions, true or false. I would note a strange and even silly oversight in the discussion of such exceptions, which has haunted most arguments for further divorce. The ordinary emancipated prig or poet who urges this side of the question always talks to one tune. "Marriage may be the best for most men," he says, "but there are exceptional natures that demand a more undulating experience; constancy will do for the common herd, but there are complex natures and complex cases where no one could recommend constancy. 1 do not ask (at the present Stage of Progress) for the abolition of marriage; I hereby ask that it may be remitted in such individual and extreme examples."

Now it is perfectly astounding to me that any one who has walked about this world should make such a blunder about the breed we call mankind. Surely it is plain enough that if you ask for dreadful exceptions, you will get them--too many of them. Let me take once again a rough parable. Suppose I advertised in the papers that I had a place for any one who was too stupid to be a clerk. Probably I should receive no replies; possibly one. Possibly also (nay, probably) it would be from the one man who was not stupid at all. But suppose I had advertised that I had a place for any one who was too clever to be a clerk. My office would be instantly besieged by all the most hopeless fools in the four kingdoms. To advertise for exceptions is simply to advertise for egoists. To advertise for egoists is to advertise for idiots. It is exactly the bore who does think that his case is interesting. It is precisely the really common person who does think that his case is uncommon. It is always the dull man who does think himself rather wild. To ask solely for strange experiences of the soul is simply to let loose all the imbecile asylums about one's ears. Whatever other theory is right, this theory of the exceptions is obviously wrong--or (what matters more to our modern atheists) is obviously unbusinesslike. It is, moreover, to any one with popular political sympathies, a very deep and subtle sort of treason. By thus putting a premium on the exceptional we grossly deceive the unconsciousness of the normal. It seems strangely forgotten that the indifference of a nation is sacred as well as its differences. Even public apathy is a kind of public opinion--and in many cases a very sensible kind. If I ask every body to vote about Mineral Meals and do not get a single ballot-paper returned, I may say that the citizens have not voted. But they have.

The principle held by the populace, against which this plutocratic conspiracy is being engineered, is simply the principle expressed in the Prayer Book in the words "for better, for worse." It is the principle that all noble things have to be paid for, even if you only pay for them with a promise. One does not take one's interest out of England as one takes it out of Consols. A man is not an Englishman unless he can endure even the decay and death of England. And just as every citizen is a potential soldier, so every wife or husband is a potential hospital nurse-- or even asylum attendant. For though we should all approve of certain tragedies being mitigated by a celibate separation-- yet the more real love and honour there has been in the marriage, the less real mitigation there will be in the parting. But this sound public instinct both about patriotism and marriage also insists that the first vow or obligation shall be mitigated, not merely erased and forgotten. Many a good woman has loved and refused a doubtful man, with the proviso that she would marry no one else; the old institution of marriage has the same feeling about the tragedy that is post-matrimonial. The thing remains real; it binds one to something. If I am exiled from England I will go and live on an island somewhere and be as jolly as I can. I will not become a patriot of any other land.

(1916)


12/26/13

Poem: The Neglected Child

(Dedicated, in a glow of Christmas charity, to a philanthropic society)

The Teachers in the Temple
They did not lift their eyes
For the blazing star on Bethlehem
Or the Wise Men grown wise.

They heeded jot and tittle,
They heeded not a jot
The rending voice of Ramah
And the children that were not.

Or how the panic of the poor
Choked all the field with flight,
Or how the red sword of the rich
Ran ravening through the night.

They made their notes; while naked
And monstrous and obscene
A tyrant bathed in all the blood
Of men that might have been.

But they did chide Our Lady
And tax her for this thing,
That she had lost Him for a time
And sought Him sorrowing.

~G.K. Chesterton

"What was really meant by Christmas"

“I TAKE a grim and gloomy pleasure in reminding my fellow hacks and hired drudges in the dreadful trade of journalism that the Christmas which is now over ought to go on for the remainder of the twelve days. It ought to end on the Twelfth Night, on which occasion Shakespeare has himself assured us that we ought to be doing What we Will. But one of the queerest things about our own topsy-turvy time is that we all hear such a vast amount about Christmas just before it comes, and suddenly hear nothing at all about it afterwards. My own trade, the tragic guild to which I have already alluded, is trained to begin prophesying Christmas somewhere about the beginning of autumn; and the prophecies about it are like prophecies about the Golden Age and the Day of Judgment combined. Everybody writes about what a glorious Christmas we are going to have. Nobody, or next to nobody, ever writes about the Christmas we have just had. I am going to make myself an exasperating exception in this matter. I am going to plead for a longer period in which to find out what was really meant by Christmas; and a fuller consideration of what we have really found.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, Dec. 28, 1935.

12/24/13

Poem: Gloria in Profundis

THERE HAS fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all—
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

~G.K. Chesterton

 Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds, by Bernardino Luini.
Fresco, 1520-25; Musée du Louvre, Paris.

12/23/13

"Orthodox theology"

"IT was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the Freethinkers unsettled the mind. They do. They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalists made me question whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll's atheistic lectures, the dreadful thought broke into my mind, 'Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.'  I was in a desperate way."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy.

12/22/13

Compulsory insurance

"But it was, as we have seen, especially in social reform that Germany was believed to be leading the way, and to have found the secret of dealing with the economic evil. In the case of Insurance, which was the test case she was applauded for obliging all her workmen to set apart a portion of their wages for any time of sickness; and numerous other provisions, both in Germany and England, pursued the same ideal, which was that of protecting the poor against themselves. It everywhere involved an external power having a finger in the family pie; but little attention was paid to any friction thus caused, for all prejudices against the process were supposed to be the growth of ignorance." (A Short History of England)

"I am not a Conservative, whatever I am; I am certainly not a Unionist, whatever I am; but the general atmosphere of liberality was too illiberal to be endured... Mr. Lloyd George’s Insurance Act roughly marks the moment of my disappearance; for I thought it a step to the Servile State; as legally recognising two classes of citizens; fixed as masters and servants." (Autobiography)

~G.K. Chesterton

12/21/13

Poem: The House of Christmas

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

~G.K. Chesterton


The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Giorgione.
Oil on panel, 1505-10; National Gallery of Art, Washington.

12/20/13

"The best of all impossible worlds"

"THE world is not to be justified as it is justified by the mechanical optimists; it is not to be justified as the best of all possible worlds. . . Its merit is precisely that none of us could have conceived such a thing; that we should have rejected the bare idea of it as miracle and unreason. It is the best of all impossible worlds."

~G.K. Chesterton: Charles Dickens.

12/19/13

Poem: The Ancient of Days

A child sits in a sunny place,
Too happy for a smile,
And plays through one long holiday
With balls to roll and pile;
A painted wind-mill by his side,
Runs like a merry tune,
But the sails are the four great winds of heaven,
And the balls are the sun and moon.

A staring doll's-house shows to him
Green floors and starry rafter,
And many-coloured graven dolls
Live for his lonely laughter.
The dolls have crowns and aureoles,
Helmets and horns and wings,
For they are the saints and seraphim,
The prophets and the kings.

~G.K. Chesterton

"The root of all religion"

“IT IS the root of all religion that a man knows that he is nothing in order to thank God that he is something.”

~G.K. Chesterton: The Resurrection of Rome.


Amazon


12/18/13

Christian Festivities and the Termite State

“THE modern world has, in the literal sense of the word, made everybody much too insignificant. It has, in the old Greek sense of the word, made every man far too much of an idiot. For insignificance only means lack of significance; and idiot in the old Greek sense only meant a man without any public or philosophic or religious significance. I might, to my deep and desolating grief, cause offence if I said that the commercial and industrial world is now conducted by a vast army of idiots. But Plato would have understood what I mean; and many more are understanding it, especially those who substitute the more respectful description of an army of ants. What is called the Termite State has followed on what was understood, or rather not understood, by the Servile State. It is only too likely, on the face of it, that the ant-hill will rise higher than mere mountains like Sinai or Olympus or Calvary; that mankind will be directed to a monstrous uniformity in which the individual ideals of the past will be lost; and the quarrels of the sects will yield to the complete comradeship of the insects. But any man who keeps Christmas in his own home is resisting the tragic transformation of the home into the hive.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, Dec. 21, 1935. 


"Half-truths"

“THE thing from which the world suffers just now more than from any other evil is not the assertion of falsehoods, but the endless and irrepressible repetition of half-truths.”

~G.K. Chesterton: G.F. Watts.

12/17/13

"I was in the wrong place"

"I HAD OFTEN called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist's pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, V.

12/16/13

"Life is too large for us as it is"

"WE read a good novel not in order to know more people, but in order to know fewer.  Instead of the humming swarm of human beings, relatives, customers, servants, postmen, afternoon callers, tradesmen, strangers who tell us the time, strangers who remark on the weather, beggars, waiters, and telegraph-boys--instead of this bewildering human swarm which passes us every day, fiction asks us to follow one figure (say the postman) consistently through his ecstasies and agonies. That is what makes one impatient with that type of pessimistic rebel who is always complaining of the narrowness of his life and demanding a larger sphere.  Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to. All true romance is an attempt to simplify it, to cut it down to plainer and more pictorial proportions. What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity; people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side. By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humorist, or a murderer, or a man who had seen a ghost."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Inside of Life ("The Glass Walking Stick").

12/15/13

On Original Sin

ONCE upon a time when Mr. H. G. Wells was setting forth on his varied and splendid voyage from Utopia to Utopia, he announced as a sort of watchword or war-cry that the new world would have nothing to do with the idea of Original Sin. He did not specially speak, and, indeed, there was no reason for him to speak, about his other beliefs or unbeliefs. He had not then compared the Trinity to a dance; but neither had he called adoring multitudes to the shrine of the Invisible King. But, standing at the end of the great scientific nineteenth century, he thought it time to announce that the one doctrine he did not believe in was Original Sin. Standing at the beginning of the still more scientific twentieth century, Mr. Aldous Huxley calmly announces that the one doctrine he does believe in is Original Sin. He may be a sceptic or a heretic about many things, but on that point he is quite orthodox. He may not hold many theological dogmas, but about this dogma he is quite dogmatic. There is one fragment of the ancient creed which he not only clings to, but declares to be necessary to all clear minds of the new generation. And that is the very fragment which Mr. Wells threw away thirty years ago, as something that would never be needed any more. The stone that the builder of Utopia rejected . . .

It is not a mere verbal coincidence that original thinkers believe in Original Sin. For really original thinkers like to think about origins. That should be obvious even to the negative thinkers of the nineteenth-century tradition, who for two or three generations claimed all originality, all novelty, all revolutionary change of thought for a book called The Origin of Species. But it is even more true of moral discovery than of material discovery; and it is even more true of the twentieth-century reaction than of the nineteenth-century revolution. Men who wish to get down to fundamentals perceive that there is a fundamental problem of evil. Men content to be more superficial are also content with a superficial fuss and bustle of improvement. The man in the mere routine of modern life is content to say that a modern gallows is a relatively humane instrument or that a modern cat-o’-nine tails is milder than an ancient Roman flagellum. But the original thinker will ask why any scourge or gibbet was ever needed, or ever even alleged to be needed? And that brings the original thinker back to original sin. For that is not affected as a universal thing by whether we approve or disapprove of the particular things. Whether we call it infamous tyranny or inevitable restraint, there is some sort of sin either in the scourger or the scourged.

Nevertheless, I often feel that the original thinker is not quite original enough. I mean that he does not get quite so near to the truth as the old tradition could take him. I say it without arrogance, for many of us owe the truth as much to tradition as to originality. But I am often struck by the fact that original thinkers originate trains of thought, but do not finish them. It is the great trouble with the advanced that they will not advance any further. Now, Mr. Aldous Huxley sees very clearly that medieval religion was more realistic than modern idealism and optimism. He says that the latest scientific view is more like the old Catholic view than was the intervening illusion of the Romantic Movement. But he adds that the scientific view of man necessitates a sort of original sin, if it be only the residuum of his animal ancestry.

Now, that is exactly where I should like him to advance a step further; and he does not. For sin, whatever else it is, is not merely the dregs of a bestial existence. It is something more subtle and spiritual, and is in some way connected with the very supremacy of the human spirit. Mr. Huxley must know well enough that this is so with the most execrable sins, such as often figure in his own admirable satires. It is not merely a matter of letting the ape and tiger die, for apes are not Pharisees, nor are tigers prigs. The elephant does not turn up his long nose at everything with any superior intention; and the totally unjust charge of hypocrisy might well be resented by any really sensitive and thin-skinned crocodile. The giraffe might be called a highbrow, but he is not really supercilious about his powers of Uplift. Man has scattered his own vices as well as virtues very arbitrarily among the animals, and there may be no more reason to accuse the peacock of pride than to accuse the pelican of charity.

The worst things in man are only possible to man. At least we must confine their existence to men, unless we are prepared to admit the existence of demons. There is thus another truth in the original conception of original sin, since even in sinning man originated something. His body may have come from animals, and his soul may be torn in pieces by all sorts of doctrinal disputes and quarrels among men. But, roughly speaking, it is quite clear that he did manufacture out of the old mud or blood of material origins, with whatever mixture of more mysterious elements, a special and a mortal poison. That poison is his own recipe; it is not merely decaying animal matter. That poison is most poisonous where there are fine scientific intellects or artistic imaginations to mix it. It is just as likely to be at its best — that is, at its worst — at the end of a civilization as at the beginning. Of this sort are all the hideous corruptions of culture; the pride, the perversions, the intellectual cruelties, the horrors of emotional exhaustion. You cannot explain that monstrous fruit by saying that our ancestors were arboreal; save, indeed, as an allegory of the Tree of Knowledge. The poison can take the form of every sort of culture — as, for instance, bacteria-culture. But the poison itself has always been there. Indeed it is as old as any memory of man. Wherefore, we have to posit of it that it also was of the human source and fountain head, that it was in the beginning, or, as the old theology affirms, original.

I suggest, therefore, with great respect, that it is not even now a case of having to admit that the old religion had come very near to the truths of the most modern science. It is rather a case of the most modern science having come very near to the truths of the old religion — but not quite near enough.


~G.K. Chesterton: Come To Think Of It.

12/14/13

"The Incarnation"

"HERE I am only giving an account of my own growth in spiritual certainty. But I may pause to remark that the more I saw of the merely abstract arguments against the Christian cosmology the less I thought of them. I mean that having found the moral atmosphere of the Incarnation to be common sense, I then looked at the established intellectual arguments against the Incarnation and found them to be common nonsense."

~G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

"The danger at present"

“ANYONE who is not an anarchist agrees with having a policeman at the corner of the street; but the danger at present is that of finding the policeman half-way down the chimney or even under the bed.”

~G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America. (1922)

12/12/13

A Christmas Carol

The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)


The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)


The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)


The Christ-child stood at Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.


~G.K. Chesterton

12/10/13

The Blunders of Our Parties

THE PARTY SYSTEM was founded on one national notion of fair play. It was the notion that folly and futility should be fairly divided between both sides. It was not sportsmanlike that one side should have a rich accumulation of rubbish, while the other was left with nothing but the bare truth. It was not fair play that one combatant should be clad in a shining armour of shams and lies, while the other was handicapped by the nakedness of truth. The game could not be played properly unless the various pieces of nonsense and hypocrisy were most carefully and equitably distributed. There must be no corner in claptrap, no arrogant privilege in absurdity. Each competitor carried weights of about the same degree of gravity and inconvenience; each was loaded with some leaden stupidity or other which he was forbidden to drop. To drop it would be to gain an unfair advantage over an opponent still chivalrously staggering under his own lump of silliness. Thus it will be noted that these dead weights seldom have anything to do with the original ideals or aims of the two combatants. Thus the Tory or traditionalist had to profess to the last a perfectly meaningless and morbid hatred of Catholic and agricultural Ireland. Thus the Liberal or champion of liberty had to make an exception in favour of a superstitious and savage taboo against popular drink like beer. I was not so much that he thought it unfair to deprive the Tory of the popularity. It was one of the Tory’s recognized perquisites that he should have as much of the support of the public as he could get from the support of the public-house. In the same way, the Tory squire felt it would be a trick unworthy of a gentleman to go in for such a dishing of the Whigs as a decent treatment of the Irish. It was his duty as a good fellow to go on governing badly and give his critics a chance. This may seem a rather extraordinary arrangement; but it really was something like the arrangement between the two parties.

That was the superficial or sporting character of the Party system—a thing of the same kind as the Dark Blue and Light Blue passions aroused at the Boat-Race. But now that the formal structure of the two-party system has been thrown out of balance and superseded, it become an intensely interesting matter to note whether anything like a real principle had existed behind it or has remained after it. And it must be said in fairness that there was a deeper sort of difference and that it really has remained. Just as there are real differences between shades of blue, though they are both blue, or real differences between Oxford and Cambridge, though they are both genteel playgrounds, there was, after all, something behind the attitude of the Tory to his opponent, whether Liberal or Labour. It is interesting, and might be stated somewhat thus.


The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have the two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.

In history the whole business of the Tories was to defend the actions of the Whigs. An old Unionist orating about Ulster would probably be surprised to be called a revolutionist. Yet even by his own account he would be taking his stand on the principles of the Revolution—meaning the Revolution of 1688. In short, the tory of two or three years ago existed in order to defend what the Tory of two hundred years ago was trying to prevent. And as it was with the Whig Revolution, so it has been exactly with the Industrial Revolution. When the average conservative or Constitutionalist stands up to defend Capitalism he is defending the deplorable result of the very latest blunder of the Radicals. It was the Radicals who made the Industrial Revolution, with its sweating and its slums, its millionaires and millions of wage-slaves. But as soon as the Progressive has done this happy thing, it instantly becomes the duty of the Conservative to prevent it from being undone. Capitalism is simply the chaos following the failure of Individualism. But those very traditionalists who never fell into the error of Individualism at all are forbidden to point out that Individualism has failed. The Manchester policy has been accepted so abjectly as something that succeeded that its conquered enemies did not even dare to see that it had failed. It becomes the duty of the Tory to defend the Radical triumph even when it ends in defeat. Rather in the same way, it is incredible but true that some people still go on talking about German efficiency, though they have staring them in the face exactly what it was the Germans effected. So the respectable person considers it a sort of Bolshevism to talk about the collapse of Capitalism. But if Bolshevism were to blow up the whole City with dynamite, hurling the cross of St. Paul across the Thames and sending the Monument flying beyond the hills of Highgate, it would then become the duty of the respectable Conservative to conserve these fragments in the precise places where they had fallen, and to resist any revolutionary attempt to put them back in their proper place.
Now if there is one thing more than another of which I am convinced, it is that what we want is to put things in the right place, however long they have been in the wrong place. I am convinced that the curse of the last two or three centuries has always fallen in this fashion and followed this course. It has always hqappened that impatient people precipitated the Deluge; and then custom and caution froze it into a sort of permanent Ice Age and endless Arctic Circle. It always happened that men moved when they might have stood still; and then immediately stood still when they really ought to have moved. The spirit of innovation always went far enough to get into a mess; and then the spirit of stability returned incongruously and told them to remain in the mess. Something of the sort may be noted, for the hundredth time, in the curious deadlock that seems to exist in Bolshevist Russia—or rather, in the Russia that is supposed to be Bolshevist. It looks as if Russia might remain for an indefinite time in the queer congested compromise of decayed Communism and alien Capitalism, and servile or conscript labour and defiant peasant proprietorship, into which indescribable patchwork that society has settled down after the Revolution. It has had the energy to jump into the fire and not the energy to jump out again. It may be a little more comfortable, but hardly more comprehensible, because the fire itself now largely consists of ashes. But it is not only in Russia that everything is choked up with the ashes of burnt-out things. In a less conspicuously chaotic fashion, the same is true of the recent history of the more orderly civilization of the West. There also a lumber of dead revolutions lies like a load on top of us. There also we are oppressed with old novelties. It would be alright if the innovators really had new ideas they had adopted recently, and the traditionalists really had old ideas that they treasured still. But the reactionary is only clinging to revolutions of which even the revolutionist is weary. He is mere a man one generation behind in the general disillusion about the last discovery. The only sort of reform proposed is one which Conservatives will treat as a convention as soon as it is established; and which reformers are already treating as a convention even before it is established. It is true in a sense to say that things will  be worse before they are better. But it is truer still to say that we shall have to go even further back before we can get any further forward.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Illustrated London News, April 19, 1924.

12/9/13

"I am the Immaculate Conception"

FOUR years after these potentates had their regrettable difference, while the Bishop still frowned and the parish priest feared to believe, little knots of poor peasants began to gather round a strange starved child before a crack in the rocks, from whence was to spring a strange stream and almost a new city; the rocks she had heard resound with a voice crying, “I am the Immaculate Conception. . . .”

“Good Lord, how little wealthy people know!”

~G.K. Chesterton: 'The Strange Talk of Two Victorians' (The Common Man).


Immaculate Conception, by Juan Antonio Frias y Escalante.
Oil on canvas, 1663; Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.

"Fundamentalists"

"THE Fundamentalists are funny enough, and the funniest thing about them is their name. For, whatever else the Fundamentalist is, he is not fundamental. He is content with the bare letter of Scripture—the translation of a translation, coming down to him by the tradition of a tradition—without venturing to ask for its original authority."

~G.K. Chesterton: All is Grist.

"God is by its nature a name of mystery"

"MOST modern histories of mankind begin with the word evolution, and with a rather wordy exposition of evolution, for much the same reason that operated in this case. There is something slow and soothing and gradual about the word and even about the idea. As a matter of fact, it is not, touching these primary things, a very practical word or a very profitable idea. Nobody can imagine how nothing could turn into something. Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining how something could turn into something else. It is really far more logical to start by saying 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth' even if you only mean 'In the beginning some unthinkable power began some unthinkable process.' For God is by its nature a name of mystery, and nobody ever supposed that man could imagine how a world was created any more than he could create one. But evolution really is mistaken for explanation. It has the fatal quality of leaving on many minds the impression that they do understand it and everything else; just as many of them live under a sort of illusion that they have read the Origin of Species."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Everlasting Man.

12/8/13

"Conservatives and Progressives"

“THE whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have the two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called balance or mutual check, in our Constitution.”

~G.K. Chesterton: ‘The Blunders of Our Parties,’ Illustrated London News, April 19, 1924.

12/7/13

"Poverty"

"THE sort of snob who sneers at poverty commonly calls himself a Conservative."

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, Dec. 22, 1923.

12/5/13

"The completion of the incomplete"

"IT is still a strange story, though an old one, how they came out of orient lands, crowned with the majesty of kings and clothed with something of the mystery of magicians. That truth that is tradition has wisely remembered them almost as unknown quantities, as mysterious as their mysterious and melodious names; Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that had watched the stars in Chaldea and the sun in Persia; and we shall not be wrong if we see in them the same curiosity that moves all the sages. They would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things, and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Everlasting Man.


The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot.
Oil on canvas, c. 1894; Minneapolis Institute of Arts.