Tolstoy and the Cult of Simplicity

The whole world is certainly heading for a great simplicity, not deliberately, but rather inevitably. It is not a mere fashion of false innocence, like that of the French aristocrats before the Revolution, who built an altar to Pan, and who taxed the peasantry for the enormous expenditure which is needed in order to live the simple life of peasants. The simplicity towards which the world is driving is the necessary outcome of all our systems and speculations and of our deep and continuous contemplation of things. For the universe is like everything in it; we have to look at it repeatedly and habitually before we see it. It is only when we have seen it for the hundredth time that we see it for the first time. The more consistently things are contemplated, the more they tend to unify themselves and therefore to simplify themselves. The simplification of anything is always sensational. Thus monotheism is the most sensational of things: it is as if we gazed long at a design full of disconnected objects, and, suddenly, with a stunning thrill, they came together into a huge and staring face.
Few people will dispute that all the typical movements of our time are upon this road towards simplification. Each system seeks to be more fundamental than the other; each seeks, in the literal sense, to undermine the other. In art, for example, the old conception of man, classic as the Apollo Belvedere, has first been attacked by the realist, who asserts that man, as a fact of natural history, is a creature with colourless hair and a freckled face. Then comes the Impressionist, going yet deeper, who asserts that to his physical eye, which alone is certain, man is a creature with purple hair and a grey face. Then comes the Symbolist, and says that to his soul, which alone is certain, man is a creature with green hair and a blue face. And all the great writers of our time represent in one form or another this attempt to re-establish communication with the elemental, or, as it is sometimes more roughly and fallaciously expressed, to return to nature. Some think that the return to nature consists in drinking no wine; some think that it consists in drinking a great deal more than is good for them. Some think that the return to nature is achieved by beating swords into ploughshares; some think it is achieved by turning ploughshares into very ineffectual British War Office bayonets. It is natural, according to the Jingo, for a man to kill other people with gunpowder and himself with gin. It is natural, according to the humanitarian revolutionist, to kill other people with dynamite and himself with vegetarianism. It would be too obviously Philistine a sentiment, perhaps, to suggest that the claim of either of these persons to be obeying the voice of nature is interesting when we consider that they require huge volumes of paradoxical argument to persuade themselves or anyone else of the truth of their conclusions. But the giants of our time are undoubtedly alike in that they approach by very different roads this conception of the return to simplicity. Ibsen returns to nature by the angular exterior of fact, Maeterlinck by the eternal tendencies of fable. Whitman returns to nature by seeing how much he can accept, Tolstoy by seeing how much he can reject.
Now, this heroic desire to return to nature is, of course, in some respects, rather like the heroic desire of a kitten to return to its own tail. A tail is a simple and beautiful object, rhythmic in curve and soothing in texture; but it is certainly one of the minor but characteristic qualities of a tail that it should hang behind. It is impossible to deny that it would in some degree lose its character if attached to any other part of the anatomy. Now, nature is like a tail in the sense that it is vitally important if it is to discharge its real duty that it should be always behind. To imagine that we can see nature, especially our own nature, face to face is a folly; it is even a blasphemy. It is like the conduct of a cat in some mad fairy-tale, who should set out on his travels with the firm conviction that he would find his tail growing like a tree in the meadows at the end of the world. And the actual effect of the travels of the philosopher in search of nature when seen from the outside looks very like the gyrations of the tail-pursuing kitten, exhibiting much enthusiasm but little dignity, much cry and very little tail. The grandeur of nature is that she is omnipotent and unseen, that she is perhaps ruling us most when we think that she is heeding us least. 'Thou art a God that hidest Thyself,' said the Hebrew poet. It may be said with all reverence that it is behind a man's back that the spirit of nature hides.
It is this consideration that lends a certain air of futility even to all the inspired simplicities and thunderous veracities of Tolstoy. We feel that a man cannot make himself simple merely by warring on complexity; we feel, indeed, in our saner moments that a man cannot make himself simple at all. A self-conscious simplicity may well be far more intrinsically ornate than luxury itself. Indeed, a great deal of the pomp and sumptuousness of the world's history was simple in the truest sense. It was born of an almost babyish receptiveness; it was the work of men who had eyes to wonder and men who had ears to hear.
'King Solomon brought merchant menBecause of his desireWith peacocks, apes and ivory,From Tarshish unto Tyre.'
But this proceeding was not a part of the wisdom of Solomon; it was a part of his folly—I had almost said of his innocence. Tolstoy, we feel, would not be content with hurling satire and denunciation at 'Solomon in all his glory.' With fierce and unimpeachable logic he would go a step further. He would spend days and nights in the meadows stripping the shameless crimson coronals off the lilies of the field.
The new collection of 'Tales from Tolstoy,' translated and edited by Mr R. Nisbet Bain, is calculated to draw particular attention to this ethical and ascetic side of Tolstoy's work. In one sense, and that the deepest sense, the work of Tolstoy is, of course, a genuine and noble appeal to simplicity. The narrow notion that an artist may not teach is pretty well exploded by now. But the truth of the matter is, that an artist teaches far more by his mere background and properties, his landscape, his costume, his idiom and technique—all the part of his work, in short, of which he is probably entirely unconscious, than by the elaborate and pompous moral dicta which he fondly imagines to be his opinions. The real distinction between the ethics of high art and the ethics of manufactured and didactic art lies in the simple fact that the bad fable has a moral, while the good fable is a moral. And the real moral of Tolstoy comes out constantly in these stories, the great moral which lies at the heart of all his work, of which he is probably unconscious, and of which it is quite likely that he would vehemently disapprove. The curious cold white light of morning that shines over all the tales, the folklore simplicity with which 'a man or a woman' are spoken of without further identification, the love—one might almost say the lust—for the qualities of brute materials, the hardness of wood, and the softness of mud, the ingrained belief in a certain ancient kindliness sitting beside the very cradle of the race of man—these influences are truly moral. When we put beside them the trumpeting and tearing nonsense of the didactic Tolstoy, screaming for an obscene purity, shouting for an inhuman peace, hacking up human life into small sins with a chopper, sneering at men, women, and children out of respect to humanity, combining in one chaos of contradictions an unmanly Puritan and an uncivilised prig, then, indeed, we scarcely know whither Tolstoy has vanished. We know not what to do with this small and noisy moralist who is inhabiting one corner of a great and good man.
It is difficult in every case to reconcile Tolstoy the great artist with Tolstoy the almost venomous reformer. It is difficult to believe that a man who draws in such noble outlines the dignity of the daily life of humanity regards as evil that divine act of procreation by which that dignity is renewed from age to age. It is difficult to believe that a man who has painted with so frightful an honesty the heartrending emptiness of the life of the poor can really grudge them every one of their pitiful pleasures, from courtship to tobacco. It is difficult to believe that a poet in prose who has so powerfully exhibited the earth-born air of man, the essential kinship of a human being, with the landscape in which he lives, can deny so elemental a virtue as that which attaches a man to his own ancestors and his own land. It is difficult to believe that the man who feels so poignantly the detestable insolence of oppression would not actually, if he had the chance, lay the oppressor flat with his fist. All, however, arises from the search after a false simplicity, the aim of being, if I may so express it, more natural than it is natural to be. It would not only be more human, it would be more humble of us to be content to be complex. The truest kinship with humanity would lie in doing as humanity has always done, accepting with a sportsmanlike relish the estate to which we are called, the star of our happiness, and the fortunes of the land of our birth.
The work of Tolstoy has another and more special significance. It represents the re-assertion of a certain awful common-sense which characterised the most extreme utterances of Christ. It is true that we cannot turn the cheek to the smiter; it is true that we cannot give our cloak to the robber; civilisation is too complicated, too vainglorious, too emotional. The robber would brag, and we should blush; in other words, the robber and we are alike sentimentalists. The command of Christ is impossible, but it is not insane; it is rather sanity preached to a planet of lunatics. If the whole world was suddenly stricken with a sense of humour it would find itself mechanically fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount. It is not the plain facts of the world which stand in the way of that consummation, but its passions of vanity and self-advertisement and morbid sensibility. It is true that we cannot turn the cheek to the smiter, and the sole and sufficient reason is that we have not the pluck. Tolstoy and his followers have shown that they have the pluck, and even if we think they are mistaken, by this sign they conquer. Their theory has the strength of an utterly consistent thing. It represents that doctrine of mildness and non-resistance which is the last and most audacious of all the forms of resistance to every existing authority. It is the great strike of the Quakers which is more formidable than many sanguinary revolutions. If human beings could only succeed in achieving a real passive resistance they would be strong with the appalling strength of inanimate things, they would be calm with the maddening calm of oak or iron, which conquer without vengeance and are conquered without humiliation. The theory of Christian duty enunciated by them is that we should never conquer by force, but always, if we can, conquer by persuasion. In their mythology St George did not conquer the dragon: he tied a pink ribbon round its neck and gave it a saucer of milk. According to them, a course of consistent kindness to Nero would have turned him into something only faintly represented by Alfred the Great. In fact, the policy recommended by this school for dealing with the bovine stupidity and bovine fury of this world is accurately summed up in the celebrated verse of Mr Edward Lear:
'There was an old man who said, "HowShall I flee from this terrible cow?I will sit on a stile and continue to smile,Till I soften the heart of this cow."'
Their confidence in human nature is really honourable and magnificent; it takes the form of refusing to believe the overwhelming majority of mankind, even when they set out to explain their own motives. But although most of us would in all probability tend at first sight to consider this new sect of Christians as little less outrageous than some brawling and absurd sect in the Reformation, yet we should fall into a singular error in doing so. The Christianity of Tolstoy is, when we come to consider it, one of the most thrilling and dramatic incidents in our modern civilisation. It represents a tribute to the Christian religion more sensational than the breaking of seals or the falling of stars.
From the point of view of a rationalist, the whole world is rendered almost irrational by the single phenomenon of Christian Socialism. It turns the scientific universe topsy-turvy, and makes it essentially possible that the key of all social evolution may be found in the dusty casket of some discredited creed. It cannot be amiss to consider this phenomenon as it really is.
The religion of Christ has, like many true things, been disproved an extraordinary number of times. It was disproved by the Neo-Platonist philosophers at the very moment when it was first starting forth upon its startling and universal career. It was disproved again by many of the sceptics of the Renaissance only a few years before its second and supremely striking embodiment, the religion of Puritanism, was about to triumph over many kings, and civilise many continents. We all agree that these schools of negation were only interludes in its history; but we all believe naturally and inevitably that the negation of our own day is really a breaking up of the theological cosmos, an Armageddon, a Ragnorak, a twilight of the gods. The man of the nineteenth century, like a schoolboy of sixteen, believes that his doubt and depression are symbols of the end of the world. In our day the great irreligionists who did nothing but dethrone God and drive angels before them have been outstripped, distanced, and made to look orthodox and humdrum. A newer race of sceptics has found something infinitely more exciting to do than nailing down the lids upon a million coffins, and the body upon a single cross. They have disputed not only the elementary creeds, but the elementary laws of mankind, property, patriotism, civil obedience. They have arraigned civilisation as openly as the materialists have arraigned theology; they have damned all the philosophers even lower than they have damned the saints. Thousands of modern men move quietly and conventionally among their fellows while holding views of national limitation or landed property that would have made Voltaire shudder like a nun listening to blasphemies. And the last and wildest phase of this saturnalia of scepticism, the school that goes furthest among thousands who go so far, the school that denies the moral validity of those ideals of courage or obedience which are recognised even among pirates, this school bases itself upon the literal words of Christ, like Dr Watts or Messrs Moody and Sankey. Never in the whole history of the world was such a tremendous tribute paid to the vitality of an ancient creed. Compared with this, it would be a small thing if the Red Sea were cloven asunder, or the sun did stand still at mid-day. We are faced with the phenomenon that a set of revolutionists whose contempt for all the ideals of family and nation would evoke horror in a thieves' kitchen, who can rid themselves of those elementary instincts of the man and the gentleman which cling to the very bones of our civilisation, cannot rid themselves of the influence of two or three remote Oriental anecdotes written in corrupt Greek. The fact, when realised, has about it something stunning and hypnotic. The most convinced rationalist is in its presence suddenly stricken with a strange and ancient vision, sees the immense sceptical cosmogonies of this age as dreams going the way of a thousand forgotten heresies, and believes for a moment that the dark sayings handed down through eighteen centuries may, indeed, contain in themselves the revolutions of which we have only begun to dream.
This value which we have above suggested, unquestionably belongs to the Tolstoians, who may roughly be described as the new Quakers. With their strange optimism, and their almost appalling logical courage, they offer a tribute to Christianity which no orthodoxies could offer. It cannot but be remarkable to watch a revolution in which both the rulers and the rebels march under the same symbol. But the actual theory of non-resistance itself, with all its kindred theories, is not, I think, characterised by that intellectual obviousness and necessity which its supporters claim for it. A pamphlet before us shows us an extraordinary number of statements about the New Testament, of which the accuracy is by no means so striking as the confidence. To begin with, we must protest against a habit of quoting and paraphrasing at the same time. When a man is discussing what Jesus meant, let him state first of all what He said, not what the man thinks He would have said if he had expressed Himself more clearly. Here is an instance of question and answer:
Q. 'How did our Master Himself sum up the law in a few words?'
A. 'Be ye merciful, be ye perfect even as your Father; your Father in the spirit world is merciful, is perfect.'
There is nothing in this, perhaps, which Christ might not have said except the abominable metaphysical modernism of 'the spirit world'; but to say that it is recorded that He did say it, is like saying it is recorded that He preferred palm trees to sycamores. It is a simple and unadulterated untruth. The author should know that these words have meant a thousand things to a thousand people, and that if more ancient sects had paraphrased them as cheerfully as he, he would never have had the text upon which he founds his theory. In a pamphlet in which plain printed words cannot be left alone, it is not surprising if there are mis-statements upon larger matters. Here is a statement clearly and philosophically laid down which we can only content ourselves with flatly denying: 'The fifth rule of our Lord is that we should take special pains to cultivate the same kind of regard for people of foreign countries, and for those generally who do not belong to us, or even have an antipathy to us, which we already entertain towards our own people, and those who are in sympathy with us.' I should very much like to know where in the whole of the New Testament the author finds this violent, unnatural, and immoral proposition. Christ did not have the same kind of regard for one person as for another. We are specifically told that there were certain persons whom He specially loved. It is most improbable that He thought of other nations as He thought of His own. The sight of His national city moved Him to tears, and the highest compliment He paid was, 'Behold an Israelite indeed.' The author has simply confused two entirely distinct things. Christ commanded us to have love for all men, but even if we had equal love for all men, to speak of having the same love for all men is merely bewildering nonsense. If we love a man at all, the impression he produces on us must be vitally different to the impression produced by another man whom we love. To speak of having the same kind of regard for both is about as sensible as asking a man whether he prefers chrysanthemums or billiards. 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 affection 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.
But the greatest error of all lies in the mere act of cutting up the teaching of the New Testament into five rules. It precisely and ingeniously misses the most dominant characteristic of the teaching—its absolute spontaneity. The abyss between Christ and all His modern interpreters is that we have no record that He ever wrote a word, except with His finger in the sand. The whole is the history of one continuous and sublime conversation. Thousands of rules have been deduced from it before these Tolstoian rules were made, and thousands will be deduced afterwards. It was not for any pompous proclamation, it was not for any elaborate output of printed volumes; it was for a few splendid and idle words that the cross was set up on Calvary, and the earth gaped, and the sun was darkened at noonday.

~G.K. Chesterton: in Twelve Types: A Collection of Mini-Biographies.


Poem: The Nativity

The thatch on the roof was as golden,
   Though dusty the straw was and old,
The wind had a peal as of trumpets,
   Though blowing and barren and cold,
The mother's hair was a glory
   Though loosened and torn,
For under the eaves in the gloaming
           A child was born.

Have a myriad children been quickened.
   Have a myriad children grown old,
Grown gross and unloved and embittered,
   Grown cunning and savage and cold?
God abides In a terrible patience,
   Unangered, unworn,
And again for the child that was squandered
           A child is born.

What know we of æons behind us,
   Dim dynasties lost long ago,
Huge empires, like dreams unremembered,
   Huge cities for ages laid low?
This at least—that with blight and with blessing
   With flower and with thorn,
Love was there, and his cry was among them,
           "A child is born."

Though the darkness be noisy with systems,
   Dark fancies that fret and disprove,
Still the plumes stir around us, above us
   The wings of the shadow of love:
Oh! princes and priests, have ye seen it
   Grow pale through your scorn.
Huge dawns sleep before us, deep changes,
           A child is born.

And the rafters of toil still are gilded
   With the dawn of the star of the heart,
And the wise men draw near in the twilight,
   Who are weary of learning and art,
And the face of the tyrant is darkened.
   His spirit is torn,
For a new King is enthroned; yea, the sternest,
           A child is born.

And the mother still joys for the whispered
   First stir of unspeakable things,
Still feels that high moment unfurling
   Red glory of Gabriel's wings.
Still the babe of an hour is a master
   Whom angels adorn,
Emmanuel, prophet, anointed,
          A child is born.

And thou, that art still in thy cradle,
   The sun being crown for thy brow.
Make answer, our flesh, make an answer,
   Say, whence art thou come—who art thou?
Art thou come back on earth for our teaching
   To train or to warn—?
Hush—how may we know?—knowing only
          A child is born.

~G.K. Chesterton

The Holy Night (The Nativity), by Carlo Maratti. Oil on canvas, 1650s; Gem√§ldegalerie, Dresden.

Poem: A Child of the Snows

There is heard a hymn when the panes dim
And never before or again,
When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.

And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown.
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold.
And a Child comes forth alone.

~G.K. Chesterton

"You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother"

"YOU cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Everlasting Man, Part II, The God in the Cave.

The Nativity, by Jacob de Backer (c. 1555 – c. 1585).
Oil on panel; private collection.

The Truce of Christmas

Passionate peace is in the sky ─ 
And in the snow in silver sealed
The beasts are perfect in the field,
And men seem men so suddenly ─ 
(But take ten swords and ten times ten
And blow the bugle in praising men
For we are for all men under the son,
And they are against us every one
And misers haggle and madmen clutch
And there is peril in praising much,
And we have the terrible tongues uncurled
That praise the world to the sons of the world).

The idle humble hill and wood
Are bowed about the sacred birth,
And for one little hour the earth
Is lazy with the love of good ─ 
(But ready are you, and ready am I,
If the battle blow and the guns go by;
For we are for all men under the sun,
And they are against us every one;
And the men that hate herd all together,
To pride and gold, and the great white feather,
And the thing is graven in star and stone
That the men who love are all alone).

Hunger is hard and time is tough,
But bless the beggars and kiss the kings,
For hope has broken the heart of things,
And nothing was ever praised enough.
(But hold the shield for a sudden swing
And point the sword when you praise a thing,
For we are for all men under the sun,
And they are against us every one,
And mime and merchant, thane and thrall
Hate us because we love them all,
Only till Christmastide go by
Passionate peace is in the sky).

~G.K. Chesterton

A Christmas Carol

The Chief Constable has issued a statement declaring that carol singing in the streets by children is illegal, and morally and physically injurious. He appeals to the public to discourage the practice. ─DAILY PAPER

GOD rest you merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
The Herald Angels cannot sing,
The cops arrest them on the wing,
And warn them of the docketing
Of anything they say.

God rest you merry gentlemen,
May nothing you dismay:
On your reposeful cities lie
Deep silence, broken only by
The motor horn’s melodious cry,
The hooter’s happy bray.

So, when the song of children ceased
And Herod was obeyed,
In his high hall Corinthian
With purple and with peacock fan,
Rested that merry gentleman;
And nothing him dismayed.

~G.K. Chesterton



THERE IS no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are a modern Christian Englishman, you hail (of course) with the same explosion of gaiety the appearance of the English Sunday. But I say that whatever the day is that is to you festive or symbolic, it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before. And all the old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. Especially it ought to be observed in connection with what are called the Christmas numbers of magazines. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be still lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favour the editors being tied up in brown paper. Whether the leg or arm of an editor should ever be allowed to protrude I leave to individual choice.

Of course, all this secrecy about Christmas is merely sentimental and ceremonial; if you do not like what is sentimental and ceremonial, do not celebrate Christmas at all. You will not be punished if you don't; also, since we are no longer ruled by those sturdy Puritans who won for us civil and religious liberty, you will not even be punished if you do. But I cannot understand why any one should bother about a ceremonial except ceremonially. If a thing only exists in order to be graceful, do it gracefully or do not do it. If a thing only exists as something professing to be solemn, do it solemnly or do not do it. There is no sense in doing it slouchingly; nor is there even any liberty. I can understand the man who takes off his hat to a lady because it is the customary symbol. I can understand him, I say; in fact, I know him quite intimately. I can also understand the man who refuses to take off his hat to a lady, like the old Quakers, because he thinks that a symbol is superstition. But what point would there be in so performing an arbitrary form of respect that it was not a form of respect? We respect the gentleman who takes off his hat to the lady; we respect the fanatic who will not take off his hat to the lady. But what should we think of the man who kept his hands in his pockets and asked the lady to take his hat off for him because he felt tired?

This is combining insolence and superstition; and the modern world is full of the strange combination. There is no mark of the immense weak-mindedness of modernity that is more striking than this general disposition to keep up old forms, but to keep them up informally and feebly. Why take something which was only meant to be respectful and preserve it disrespectfully? Why take something which you could easily abolish as a superstition and carefully perpetuate it as a bore? There have been many instances of this half-witted compromise. Was it not true, for instance, that the other day some mad American was trying to buy Glastonbury Abbey and transfer it stone by stone to America? Such things are not only illogical, but idiotic. There is no particular reason why a pushing American financier should pay respect to Glastonbury Abbey at all. But if he is to pay respect to Glastonbury Abbey, he must pay respect to Glastonbury. If it is a matter of sentiment, why should he spoil the scene? If it is not a matter of sentiment, why should he ever have visited the scene? To call this kind of thing Vandalism is a very inadequate and unfair description. The Vandals were very sensible people. They did not believe in a religion, and so they insulted it; they did not see any use for certain buildings, and so they knocked them down. But they were not such fools as to encumber their march with the fragments of the edifice they had themselves spoilt. They were at least superior to the modern American mode of reasoning. They did not desecrate the stones because they held them sacred.

Another instance of the same illogicality I observed the other day at some kind of "At Home." I saw what appeared to be a human being dressed in a black evening-coat, black dress-waistcoat, and black dress-trousers, but with a shirt-front made of Jaegar wool. What can be the sense of this sort of thing? If a man thinks hygiene more important than convention (a selfish and heathen view, for the beasts that perish are more hygienic than man, and man is only above them because he is more conventional), if, I say, a man thinks that hygiene is more important than convention, what on earth is there to oblige him to wear a shirt-front at all? But to take a costume of which the only conceivable cause or advantage is that it is a sort of uniform, and then not wear it in the uniform way—this is to be neither a Bohemian nor a gentleman. It is a foolish affectation, I think, in an English officer of the Life Guards never to wear his uniform if he can help it. But it would be more foolish still if he showed himself about town in a scarlet coat and a Jaeger breast-plate. It is the custom nowadays to have Ritual Commissions and Ritual Reports to make rather unmeaning compromises in the ceremonial of the Church of England. So perhaps we shall have an ecclesiastical compromise by which all the Bishops shall wear Jaeger copes and Jaeger mitres. Similarly the King might insist on having a Jaeger crown. But I do not think he will, for he understands the logic of the matter better than that. The modern monarch, like a reasonable fellow, wears his crown as seldom as he can; but if he does it at all, then the only point of a crown is that it is a crown. So let me assure the unknown gentleman in the woollen vesture that the only point of a white shirt-front is that it is a white shirt-front. Stiffness may be its impossible defect; but it is certainly its only possible merit.

Let us be consistent, therefore, about Christmas, and either keep customs or not keep them. If you do not like sentiment and symbolism, you do not like Christmas; go away and celebrate something else; I should suggest the birthday of Mr. M'Cabe. No doubt you could have a sort of scientific Christmas with a hygienic pudding and highly instructive presents stuffed into a Jaeger stocking; go and have it then. If you like those things, doubtless you are a good sort of fellow, and your intentions are excellent. I have no doubt that you are really interested in humanity; but I cannot think that humanity will ever be much interested in you. Humanity is unhygienic from its very nature and beginning. It is so much an exception in Nature that the laws of Nature really mean nothing to it. Now Christmas is attacked also on the humanitarian ground. Ouida called it a feast of slaughter and gluttony. Mr. Shaw suggested that it was invented by poulterers. That should be considered before it becomes more considerable.

I do not know whether an animal killed at Christmas has had a better or a worse time than it would have had if there had been no Christmas or no Christmas dinners. But I do know that the fighting and suffering brotherhood to which I belong and owe everything, Mankind, would have a much worse time if there were no such thing as Christmas or Christmas dinners. Whether the turkey which Scrooge gave to Bob Cratchit had experienced a lovelier or more melancholy career than that of less attractive turkeys is a subject upon which I cannot even conjecture. But that Scrooge was better for giving the turkey and Cratchit happier for getting it I know as two facts, as I know that I have two feet. What life and death may be to a turkey is not my business; but the soul of Scrooge and the body of Cratchit are my business. Nothing shall induce me to darken human homes, to destroy human festivities, to insult human gifts and human benefactions for the sake of some hypothetical knowledge which Nature curtained from our eyes. We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty. If we catch sharks for food, let them be killed most mercifully; let any one who likes love the sharks, and pet the sharks, and tie ribbons round their necks and give them sugar and teach them to dance. But if once a man suggests that a shark is to be valued against a sailor, or that the poor shark might be permitted to bite off a nigger's leg occasionally; then I would court-martial the man—he is a traitor to the ship.

And while I take this view of humanitarianism of the anti-Christmas kind, it is cogent to say that I am a strong anti-vivisectionist. That is, if there is any vivisection, I am against it. I am against the cutting-up of conscious dogs for the same reason that I am in favour of the eating of dead turkeys. The connection may not be obvious; but that is because of the strangely unhealthy condition of modern thought. I am against cruel vivisection as I am against a cruel anti-Christmas asceticism, because they both involve the upsetting of existing fellowships and the shocking of normal good feelings for the sake of something that is intellectual, fanciful, and remote. It is not a human thing, it is not a humane thing, when you see a poor woman staring hungrily at a bloater, to think, not of the obvious feelings of the woman, but of the unimaginable feelings of the deceased bloater. Similarly, it is not human, it is not humane, when you look at a dog to think about what theoretic discoveries you might possibly make if you were allowed to bore a hole in his head. Both the humanitarians' fancy about the feelings concealed inside the bloater, and the vivisectionists' fancy about the knowledge concealed inside the dog, are unhealthy fancies, because they upset a human sanity that is certain for the sake of something that is of necessity uncertain. The vivisectionist, for the sake of doing something that may or may not be useful, does something that certainly is horrible. The anti-Christmas humanitarian, in seeking to have a sympathy with a turkey which no man can have with a turkey, loses the sympathy he has already with the happiness of millions of the poor.

It is not uncommon nowadays for the insane extremes in reality to meet. Thus I have always felt that brutal Imperialism and Tolstoian non-resistance were not only not opposite, but were the same thing. They are the same contemptible thought that conquest cannot be resisted, looked at from the two standpoints of the conqueror and the conquered. Thus again teetotalism and the really degraded gin-selling and dram-drinking have exactly the same moral philosophy. They are both based on the idea that fermented liquor is not a drink, but a drug. But I am specially certain that the extreme of vegetarian humanity is, as I have said, akin to the extreme of scientific cruelty—they both permit a dubious speculation to interfere with their ordinary charity. The sound moral rule in such matters as vivisection always presents itself to me in this way. There is no ethical necessity more essential and vital than this: that casuistical exceptions, though admitted, should be admitted as exceptions. And it follows from this, I think, that, though we may do a horrid thing in a horrid situation, we must be quite certain that we actually and already are in that situation. Thus, all sane moralists admit that one may sometimes tell a lie; but no sane moralist would approve of telling a little boy to practise telling lies, in case he might one day have to tell a justifiable one. Thus, morality has often justified shooting a robber or a burglar. But it would not justify going into the village Sunday school and shooting all the little boys who looked as if they might grow up into burglars. The need may arise; but the need must have arisen. It seems to me quite clear that if you step across this limit you step off a precipice.

Now, whether torturing an animal is or is not an immoral thing, it is, at least, a dreadful thing. It belongs to the order of exceptional and even desperate acts. Except for some extraordinary reason I would not grievously hurt an animal; with an extraordinary reason I would grievously hurt him. If (for example) a mad elephant were pursuing me and my family, and I could only shoot him so that he would die in agony, he would have to die in agony. But the elephant would be there. I would not do it to a hypothetical elephant. Now, it always seems to me that this is the weak point in the ordinary vivisectionist argument, "Suppose your wife were dying." Vivisection is not done by a man whose wife is dying. If it were it might be lifted to the level of the moment, as would be lying or stealing bread, or any other ugly action. But this ugly action is done in cold blood, at leisure, by men who are not sure that it will be of any use to anybody—men of whom the most that can be said is that they may conceivably make the beginnings of some discovery which may perhaps save the life of some one else's wife in some remote future. That is too cold and distant to rob an act of its immediate horror. That is like training the child to tell lies for the sake of some great dilemma that may never come to him. You are doing a cruel thing, but not with enough passion to make it a kindly one.

So much for why I am an anti-vivisectionist; and I should like to say, in conclusion, that all other anti-vivisectionists of my acquaintance weaken their case infinitely by forming this attack on a scientific speciality in which the human heart is commonly on their side, with attacks upon universal human customs in which the human heart is not at all on their side. I have heard humanitarians, for instance, speak of vivisection and field sports as if they were the same kind of thing. The difference seems to me simple and enormous. In sport a man goes into a wood and mixes with the existing life of that wood; becomes a destroyer only in the simple and healthy sense in which all the creatures are destroyers; becomes for one moment to them what they are to him—another animal. In vivisection a man takes a simpler creature and subjects it to subtleties which no one but man could inflict on him, and for which man is therefore gravely and terribly responsible.

Meanwhile, it remains true that I shall eat a great deal of turkey this Christmas; and it is not in the least true (as the vegetarians say) that I shall do it because I do not realise what I am doing, or because I do what I know is wrong, or that I do it with shame or doubt or a fundamental unrest of conscience. In one sense I know quite well what I am doing; in another sense I know quite well that I know not what I do. Scrooge and the Cratchits and I are, as I have said, all in one boat; the turkey and I are, to say the most of it, ships that pass in the night, and greet each other in passing. I wish him well; but it is really practically impossible to discover whether I treat him well. I can avoid, and I do avoid with horror, all special and artificial tormenting of him, sticking pins in him for fun or sticking knives in him for scientific investigation. But whether by feeding him slowly and killing him quickly for the needs of my brethren, I have improved in his own solemn eyes his own strange and separate destiny, whether I have made him in the sight of God a slave or a martyr, or one whom the gods love and who die young—that is far more removed from my possibilities of knowledge than the most abstruse intricacies of mysticism or theology. A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.

~G.K. Chesterton: All Things Considered.


On Being Moved

I AM sitting and trying to write this article in a room with nothing in it except a dining-room table, a kitchen chair, and a dislocated bookcase. There are no carpets, but plenty of dust. I write with an old chalk pencil on such pieces of wall-paper, etc., as I can find lying about. I try to imagine myself to be a starving genius in a bare garrett, a man brilliant, indeed, but (alas!) embittered against his kind. The illusion is periodically disturbed by the entrance of enormous men with green baize aprons who tramp in and out, taking things away. They would take my chair away but for the formidable necessity of carrying me away in it; a task from which the most enormous shrink. But sideboards and pianos melt away at their lightest gesture and bedsteads simply flee before them. Like some landslide, chair by chair . . . what is it that Tennyson says in the pretty lyric about Amphion? I get up and go to the dislocated bookcase to verify the quotation. But there is no dislocated bookcase. They have taken it away. I come back to my writing table and sit down again.

I wonder what the dickens I shall write about ( I am not the Dickens who could write about anything): I get up again and go to the window . A white morning mist chokes either end of the road and veils Battersea Park, which I love and leave; making it like the ghost of a greenwood. I am glad it is not what people call fine weather; there is something merciful and proper in this cloud and twilight on the borderland between two lives. For the modern fate is fallen on me; I am moving into the country; I am going into exile; into England. I am going . . . if, indeed, I go, for all my mind is clouded with a doubt . . . why am I haunted with scraps of Tennyson, especially now that they have taken away the bookcase, and I cannot spell the island valley of Avilion? Avilion is a very nice place, situation in Buckinghamshire; but like Arthur after his last battle, I feel it fitting that a vapour should veil the moment of passing; the slipping through from state to state . . . Tennyson again. Hades, the place of shadows of which the pagan poets sang, is not our state after death; it is simply death itself, the instant of transition and dissolution. In the end the dim beneficent powers will take the cosmos to pieces all around me, as my house is being taken to pieces now. I am glad that a cloud sits on Battersea to cover this monstrous transformation.

I go back to my writing table; at least I do not exactly go back to it, because they have taken it away, with silent treachery, while I was meditation on death at the window. I sit down on the chair and try to write on my knee; which is really difficult, especially when one has nothing to write about. I feel strangely grateful to the noble wooden quadruped on which I sit. Who am I that the children of men should have shaped and carved for me four extra wooden legs besides the two that were given to me by the gods? For it is the point of all deprivation that it sharpens the idea of value; and, perhaps, this is, after all, the reason of the riddle of death. In a better world, perhaps, we may permanently possess, and permanently be astonished at possession. In some strange estate beyond the stars we may manage at once to have and to enjoy. But in this world, through some sickness at the root of psychology, we have to be reminded that a thing is ours by its power of disappearance. With is the prize of life is one great, glorious cry of the dying; it is always “morituri te salutant”. At the four corners of our human temple of happiness stand a lame man pointing to one road, and a blind man worshipping the sun, a deaf man listening for the birds, and a dead man thanking God for his creation.

I begin to be moved; I perceive that there are many mysteries concealed in that kitchen chair. That kitchen chair may truly be called (as they say in the colleges) the Chair of Philosophy. I stride up and down the room, rejoicing in the divine meaning of chairs. I wave away, with wild gestures, that merely dingy and spiteful democracy which consists in declaring that every chair is a throne. I return rapturously to the chair; but I do not sit down in it. Wisely; because it is not there. It has been taken away. I sit down on the floor, which the enormous workmen assure me (with elephantine courtesy) they will not want for the present.

What is it, then, that makes it impossible to write anything connected or intelligible to-day? It is not mere interruption: I wrote my first criticisms of books in an office with two typewriters going at once and clerks rushing in and out every five minutes. It is not mere discomfort; I have in my youth written articles in the middle of the night, leaning against the stall of a hot-potato man. It is not for me to say that the articles were good, but they were as good as anything else I have ever written. No; I know what it is . . . it is Battersea. I have the strongest and most sensible reasons in the world for going into the country. Going into the country is a joyful thing: but leaving London is a sad one. Here at least you have a harmless alphabetical paradox; one admitted by the souls of all sane men and women. It is glorious to become a man; but pathetic to leave off being a child. It is jolly to become a married man; yet it is depressing to leave off being a bachelor. Permit to us who pass from one state to another something of the pathos that is to be permitted to those that approach to death. We are happy to go into the country, but we are unhappy to leave the town. I am leaving the most living part of London, the most romantic, the most realistic, the borough that has led the people. I am leaving the borough of Battersea. I cannot write of that; and I cannot rite of anything else. When I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning; that is, let it forget how to write, in blue chalk on old wall-paper, and article about nothing at all.

~G.K. Chesterton:  Lunacy & Letters.  


"The word amateur..."

"THE word amateur has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it."

~G.K. Chesterton: Robert Browning, Chap. IV.

Robert Browning; Woodburytype portrait
by Herbert Rose Barraud, c. 1888.


A Fairy Tale

IN NOVELS, romances, scientific reports and similar documents, we have all come across the story of the man who, on waking up, forgets his name and wanders out into the streets without an identity. He can exercise an ordinary intelligence; he can perform all ordinary functions, but he cannot remember who he is. I am in this position. But then, as it is a comfort for me to reflect, so are you. Every human being has forgotten who he is and where he came from. We are all blasted with one great obliteration of memory. We none of us saw ourselves born; and if we had, it would not have cleared up the mystery. Parents are a delight; but they are not an explanation. The one thing that no man, however learned, can ever know, is his own name. It is easier to comprehend the cosmos than to comprehend the ego; it is easier even to know where you are than to know who you are. We have forgotten our own meaning, and we are all wandering the streets without keepers. All that we call commonsense and practicality and worldly wisdom only means that we forget that we have forgotten. All that we mean by religion and poetry only means that for one wild moment we remember that we forget.

I was sitting the other day on a heap of stones in the Isle of Thanet, when I remembered that I had forgotten. Not a straw has stirred; not a bird had spoken; but my blood ran cold, and I knew at once that I was in fairyland. The commonplace country landscape of Thanet lent itself more to the fairy notion than any imaginable mountains or lakes or caves. It is always easier to see this elvish look in plain and familiar objects because of a fact that men in mostly our day fail to understand; because it is exactly the homeliest part of man that is nearest to heaven and hell. We can think of a stool or a pot being bewitched; we cannot easily think of a cartoon by Raphael being bewitched. Neither can we think easily of the Alps being bewitched; it would require a witch of some force and character. But a domestic and even prosaic landscape, like that of this flat corner of Kent, can be soaked in a supernaturalism all the more awful from being detached and alien from the landscape itself. Everything that stood up around me stood up shapeless and yet with some horrible hint of the human shape. Everything looked as if it had a face somewhere, but a face that was hidden or turned away. I seemed to be looking at the ugly back of everything. The stunted hedge looked like a line of hoary and hairy hobgoblins staring away from me towards the sun. The dwarfish trees were deformed and twisted by the silent and evil magic of the sea; they seemed to have hump-backs and hidden faces. Everything was at once secretive and vigilant; even the heap of stones beneath me seemed to be all eyes. But all external oddities were secondary to, or perhaps only symbolic of, the sudden sense of a sacred and splendid ignorance that had fallen upon my soul; the enigma of being alive. Saints have not discovered the answer. Philosophers have not even discovered the riddle. But in that moment at least I remembered that I could not remember.

But there is one merely human work in which the fundamental mood is truly and wisely recorded—I mean in fairly tales. I can never understand why it is that those who happen to disbelieve in Christianity do not go back to the great, healthy, permanent human tradition outside Christianity. Because you cannot rise to faith, you need not sink to natural philosophy. If I did not put my faith in the Gospel, I should not put it in Haeckel. I should put it in Jack the Giant Killer. I should put it in these enduring human stories, with their celebration of hope, surprise, courage, the fulfilment of contracts, and the natural relations of mankind. The point is apart from my present purpose, and I will not pursue it here; but I fancy that it is one of the strange testimonies to Christianity that its opponents do not get clear of it into the original human condition, but go mad with mere reaction and anarchy. Those who object to the faith often object to the human fables; those who dislike Christianity carry their absurdity to the point of disliking Paganism too.

The essence of fairyland is this; that it is a country of which we do not know the laws. This is also a peculiarity of the universe in which we live. We do not know anything about the laws of nature; we do not even know whether they are laws. All that we can do is to take first by faith (from our parents, aunts, and nurses), and afterwards by very meager experiment (during the miserably insufficient period of three score years and ten), the general proposition that there is some sort of strange connection, often repeated but still unexplained, between lighted gunpowder and a loud bang. And it is here that we may see the deep and sound philosophy of the fairy tale. The chemist says: “Mix these three substances and the bang will follow.” The good wizard in the fairy tale says: “Eat these three apples and the giant’s head will fall off.” But the chemist talks in a particular tone and style, which suggests that there is an abstract philosophy, some sort of inevitable connection between the three substances and the bang. Sometimes he calls it a necessity, which means a thing that cannot be broken. Sometimes he calls it a law, which means a thing that can be broken. But he always means that the mind sees a connection between the two things—as the mind sees a connection between four and eight—and the mind does nothing of the sort. The fairy-tale method is far more philosophical. The wizard says: “Do this one extraordinary thing and that other totally different extraordinary thing does continually follow. I don’t know why it does; I don’t even know that it will always do it. But it is a tip worth knowing when you want to kill a giant.” We do not know that these natural repetitions all around us are laws; we do not know that they are necessities. What we do know about them is that they are magic spells—that is, conditions which exist, but the nature of which is mystical altogether. Water is bewitched, so that it always goes downhill. Birds are bewitched, so that they fly. The sun is bewitched, so that it shines.

I rose from the heap of stones having become altogether a citizen of fairyland. I grasped my stick like a sword and went up the white road looking for giants. I was disappointed for some little time, the two or three people whom I met being so far as I could estimate actually smaller than myself. But there was something of a rapid rigidity in the road running in front of me like a lean white hound, that dragged me on in undiminished confidence in the wonders that awaited me. For it is a mark of the essential morality of fairyland (a thing too commonly overlooked) that happiness in fairyland, like happiness anywhere else, involves an object and even a challenge; we can only admire scenery if we want to get past it. No man can take his ease in Elfland as in the land of the lotus eater. Children are its citizens, and children do not want to take their ease. I hoped to find a castle and an ogre; if I had luck a three-headed ogre, for in Elfland all sport is the defiance of something stronger; our only hunting is the hunting of big game. I wanted him large and wicked, very wicked. A minute after the road and hedges turned at an abrupt angle, and I saw before me something that snapped my last faith in reasonable things.

There in front of me, solid and silent in the sun, was the unmistakable ogre’s castle—turreted and castellated, with an extravagant skyline, exactly as I had seen it brightly coloured in my nursery picture-books. With all my elvish feelings I had not really believed that I should find such a fantastic fortress on a road in Kent. Turning to a fat, elderly countryman who was standing by a haystack (himself no doubt a fairy), I said, “Who lives in this place?” “That place,” he said, “why that’s Mr. Harry Marks’ place.” And I leaned upon my stick and gazed and thought of the war in Elfland.

~G.K. Chesterton: Lunacy & Letters.