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


"The Holy Family" by Franz Ittenbach (1813–1879)



How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?

Can we see the little Child?
Is He within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?

May we stroke the creatures there
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
Jesus asleep?

If we touch His tiny hand
Will He awake?
Will He know we’ve come so far
Just for His sake?

Great kings have precious gifts
And we have naught
Little smiles and little tears
Are all we have brought.

For all weary children
Mary must weep
Here, on His bed of straw
Sleep, children, sleep.

God in His mother’s arms
Babes in the byre
Sleep, as they sleep who find
Their heart’s desire.

~Frances A. Chesterton (1917)

"The Nativity" by Ferico Fiori Barocci.
Oil on canvas, 1597; Museo del Prado, Madrid.



THERE is heard a hymn when the panes are 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

The Holy Night (The Nativity), by Carlo Maratti.
Oil on canvas, 1650s; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.


The Inside of Life

THE NEWS that some Europeans have been wrecked on a desert island is gratifying, in so far as it shows that there are still some desert islands for us to be wrecked on. Moreover, it is also interesting because these, the latest facts, also support the oldest stories. For instance, superior critics have often sniffed at the labours of Robinson Crusoe, specifically upon the ground that he depended so much upon stores from the sunken wreck. But these actual people shipwrecked a few weeks ago depended entirely upon them; and yet the critics might not have cared for the billet. A few years ago, when physical science was taken very seriously, a clever boys’ book was written, called ‘Perseverance Island’. It was written in order to show how ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ought to have been written. In this story, the wrecked man gained practically nothing from the wreck. He made everything out of the brute materials of the island.

As a matter of fact, of course, it is quite unfair to compare ‘Robinson Crusoe’ with such boys’ books as ‘Perseverance Island’, or even ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’, not only because it is much greater literature, but because it is literature with an entirely different aim. To lump it with the others because they all occurred on a desert island is no better than comparing ‘Wuthering Heights’ with ‘Northanger Abbey’ because both concern an old country house; or bracketing ‘Salem Chapel’ with ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ because they are both about a church. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ is not a story of adventure; rather it is a story of the absence of adventure — that is, in the first and best part of it. Twice Crusoe runs away to sea in disobedience, and twice escapes with wreck or other peril; the third time we feel that he is set apart for some strange judgement by God. And the strange judgement is the great central and poetical idea of ‘Robinson Crusoe’. It is a visitation not of danger but of a dreadful security. The salvage of Crusoe’s goods, the comparative comfort of his life, the natural riches of his island, his human relations with many of the animals — all this is an exquisitely artistic setting for the awful idea of a man whom God has cast out from among men. A mere scurry of adventures would have left Crusoe no time for thinking; and the whole object of the book is to make Crusoe think. It is true that, later in the story, Defoe entangles him with Indians and Spaniards; and for that very reason I think the story loses the naked nobility of its original idea. It is absurd to compare a book like this with ordinary stories about schooners and palm-trees, cutlasses and scalps. It was not an adventurous life but an unadventurous life that was the doom and curse of Crusoe.

But this, perhaps, is wandering from the subject — if there is a subject. Let us try to get back to the desert island and the moral to be drawn from all the happy Australians and their adventure. The first and most important point is this: that when one reads of these forty-five persons tipped out into an empty island in the Pacific, one’s first and instantaneous flash of feeling is one of envy. Afterwards one remembers that there would doubtless be inconveniences; that the sun is hot, that awnings give you no shelter until you have put them up; that biscuits and tinned meat might begin to taste monotonous, and that the most adventurous person, having got on to the island, would before very long begin to turn his thoughts to the problem of getting off again. But the fact remains that before all these reflections the soul of man has said like the snap of a gun, ‘How jolly!’ I think this instinct in humanity is somewhat interesting; it may be worth while to analyse this secret desire to be wrecked on an island.

The feeling partly arises from an idea which is at the root of all the arts — the idea of separation. Romance seeks to divide certain people from the lump of humanity, as the statue is divided from the lump of marble. 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.

I do not believe that there are any ordinary people. That is, I do not believe that there are any people whose lives are really humdrum or whose characters are really colourless. But the trouble is that one can so quickly see them all in a lump, like a land surveyor, and it would take so long to see them one by one as they really are, like a great novelist. Looking out of the window, I see a very steep little street, with a row of prim little houses breaking their necks downhill in the most decorous single file. If I were landlord of that street, or a visiting philanthropist making myself objectionable down that street, I could easily take it all in at a glance, sum it all up and say, ‘Houses at £40 a year.’ But suppose I could be father confessor to that Street, how awful and altered it would look! Each house would be sundered from its neighbour as by an earthquake and would stand alone in a wilderness of the soul. I should know that in this house a man was going mad with drink, that in that a man had kept single for a woman, that in the next a woman was on the edge of abysses, that in the next a woman was living an unknown life which might in more devout ages have been gilded in hagiographies and made the fountain of miracles. People talk much of the quarrel between science and religion; but the deepest difference is that the individual is so much bigger than the average, that the inside of life is much larger than the outside.

Often when riding with three or four strangers on the top of an omnibus I have felt a wild impulse to throw the driver off his seat, to drive the omnibus far out into the country and tip them all out into a field, and say, ‘We may never meet again in this world; come, let us under stand each other.’ I do not affirm that the experiment would succeed, but I think the impulse to do it is at the root of all the tradition of the poetry of wrecks and islands.

~G.K. Chesterton

Collected in The Glass Walking Stick: Selections from the Illustrated London News

The House of Christmas

Nativity with Pilasters, by Andrea della Robbia.
1490s, partially gilt glazed terracotta; private collection.

   *      *      *
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


Introduction to "A Christmas Carol"

By G.K. Chesterton

THE POPULAR paradox of "A Christmas Carol" is very well symbolised in its title. Everybody has heard Christmas carols; and certainly everybody has heard of Christmas. Yet these things are only popular because they are traditional; and the tradition has often been in need of defence, as Dickens here defended it. If a little more success had crowned the Puritan movement of the seventeenth century, or the Utilitarian movement of the nineteenth century, these things would, humanly speaking, have become merely details of the neglected past, a part of history or even of archology. The very word Christmas would now sound like the word Candlemas. Perhaps the very word carol would sound like the word vilanelle. In this sense a Christmas carol was only one historical type of poem, and Christmas one historical type of festival. Dickens might seem a strange champion for so historical and poetical a tradition. He wrote no poetry; he knew no history. For the historical book which he wrote for children has not half so much right to be called history as Sam Weller's cheerful song beginning "Bold Turpin vunce" has to be called poetry. He saved Christmas not because it was historic, but because it was human; but his own adventure serves to show how many things equally human had been suffered to become merely historic. Dickens struck in time; and saved a popular institution while it was still popular. A hundred aesthetes are always ready to revive it as soon as it has become unpopular. The modern intellectuals show great eagerness in reviving an old custom when once it is destroyed. They show particular eagerness in reviving it when they have themselves destroyed it. The educated classes are everlastingly sweeping things away as vulgar errors, and then trying to recall them as cultured eccentricities. The intellectuals of the twentieth century are now crying out for the folk-songs and morrice dances which the intellectuals of the nineteenth century condemned as superstition, and the intellectuals of the seventeenth century as sin. It would be an exaggeration perhaps to say that the advanced intelligence is always wrong. But it would be safe to say at least that it is always too late.

But Dickens was not too late. It was precisely because he was a man of the people that he was able to perpetuate the popular hold upon one of the customs that had only begun to slip from the popular grasp. If he had appeared twenty years later, when the new Puritanism of the industrial age had run its course, the popular enjoyments of Christmas might have become refined merely by becoming rare. Art critics might be talking about the exquisite proportions of a plum-pudding as of an Etruscan pot; and cultured persons might be hanging stockings on their bed-posts as gravely as they hung Morris curtains on their walls. But coming when he did, Dickens could appeal to a living tradition and not to a lost art. He was able to save the thing from dying, instead of trying to raise it from the dead.

In this one work of Dickens, therefore, the historical and moral importance is really even greater than the literary importance. In this respect it bears some resemblance to another of his works, which might seem superficially its very contrary. "A Christmas Carol" is perhaps the most genial and fanciful of all his stories. "Hard Times " is perhaps the most grim and realistic. But in both cases the moral beauty is perhaps greater than the artistic beauty; and both stand higher in any study of the man than of the writer. And although one represents the first skirmish in defence of the old traditions, and the second the final pitched battle against the new theories, in both cases the author is fighting for the same cause. He is fighting an old miser named Scrooge, and a new miser named Gradgrind; but it is not only true that the new miser has the old avarice, it is also true that the old miser has the new arguments. Scrooge is a utilitarian and an individualist; that is, he is a miser in theory as well as in practise. He utters all the sophistries by which the age of machinery has tried to turn the virtue of charity into a vice. Indeed this is something of an understatement. Scrooge is not only as modern as Gradgrind but more modern than Gradgrind. He belongs not only to the hard times of the middle of the nineteenth century, but to the harder times of the beginning of the twentieth century; the yet harder times in which we live. Many amiable sociologists will say, as he said, "Let them die and decrease the surplus population." The improved proposal is that they should die before they are born.

It is notable also that Dickens gives the right reply; and that with a deadly directness worthy of a much older and more subtle controversionalist. The answer to anyone who talks about the surplus population is to ask him whether he is the surplus population; or if he is not, how he knows he is not. That is the answer which the Spirit of Christmas gives to Scrooge; and there is more than one fine element of irony involved in it. There is this very mordant moral truth, among others; that Scrooge is exactly the sort of man who would really talk of the superfluous poor as of something dim and distant; and yet he is also exactly the kind of man whom others might regard as sufficiently dim, not to say dingy, to be himself superfluous. There is something of a higher sarcasm, even than that to be read on the surface, in the image of that wretched little rag of a man so confident that the rags and refuse of humanity can safely be swept away and burned; in the miser who himself looks so like a pauper, confidently ordering a massacre of paupers. This is true enough even to more modern life; and we have all met mental defectives in the comfortable classes who are humoured, as with a kind of hobby, by being allowed to go about lecturing on the mental deficiency of poor people. We have all met professors, of stunted figure and the most startling ugliness, who explain that all save the strong and beautiful should be painlessly extinguished in the interests of the race. We have all seen the most sedentary of scholars proving on paper that none should survive save the victors of aggressive war and the physical struggle for life; we have all heard the idle rich explaining why the idle poor deserve to be left to die of hunger. In all this the spirit of Scrooge survives; especially in that central irony of his unconsciousness of the application of his own argument to his own case. But in justice to Scrooge, we must admit that in some respects the later developments of his heathen philosophy have gone beyond him. If Scrooge was an individualist, he had something of the good as well as the evil of individualism. He believed at least in the negative liberty of the Utilitarians. He was ready to live and let live, even if the standard of living was very near to that of dying and letting die. He partook of gruel while his nephew partook of punch; but it never occurred to him that he could forcibly forbid a grown man like his nephew to consume punch, or coerce him into consuming gruel. In that he was far behind the ferocity and tyranny of the social reformers of our own day. If he refused to subscribe to a scheme for giving people Christmas dinners, at least he did not subscribe (as the reformers do) to a scheme for taking away the Christmas dinners they have already got. He had no part in the blasphemy of abolishing in work-houses the Christmas ale that had been the charity of Christian people. Doubtless he would have regarded the charity as folly, but he would also have regarded the forcible reversal of it as theft. He would not have thought it natural to pursue Bob Cratchit to his own home, to spy on him, to steal his turkey, to run away with his punch-bow), to kidnap his crippled child, and put him in prison as a defective. To do these things he would need to be the more enlightened employer of a more progressive age than that in which "A Christmas Carol" was written. These antics were far beyond the activities of poor Scrooge, whose figure shines by comparison with something of humour and humanity.




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  (1915)


The Wonder of Christmas
by Jean Monti (1965)