About Beliefs

SOME time ago, when a stir was made by a rather striking book called Who Moved the Stone? which might almost be described, with all reverence, as a divine detective story and almost a theological thriller, a pugnacious little paper in Fleet Street made a remark which has always hovered in my memory as more mysterious than any mystery story in the world. The writer said that any man who believes in the Resurrection is bound to believe also in the story of Aladdin in the Arabian Nights. I have no idea what he meant. Nor, I imagine, had he. But this curious conjunction of ideas recurs to my mind in connexion with a rather interesting suggestion made by Mr. Christopher Dawson about what we may call the History of Science. On the face of it, the remark I have quoted from the pugnacious paper seems to have no quality whatever except pugnacity. There is no sort of logical connexion between believing in one marvellous event and believing in another, even if they were exactly alike and not utterly different. If I believe that Captain Peary reached the North Pole, I am not therefore bound to believe that Dr. Cook also reached the North Pole, even if they both arrived with sledges and dogs out of the same snows. It is a fallacy, therefore, even where the two things are close enough to be compared. But the comparison between the Gospel miracle and the Arabian fairy-tale is about the most unfortunate comparison in the world. For in the one case there is a plain and particular reason for thinking the thing true, or at least meant to be true. And in the other case there is a plain and particular reason for realizing that the tale is not only untrue, but is not even meant to be true.

The historical case for the Resurrection is that everybody else, except the Apostles, had every possible motive to declare what they had done with the body, if anything had been done with it. The Apostles might have hidden it in order to announce a sham miracle, but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham. In the case of the Apostles' testimony, the general circumstances suggest that it is true. In the case of the Arabian tale, the general circumstances avow and proclaim that it is false. For we are told in the book itself that all the stories were told by a woman merely to amuse the king and distract his attention from the idea of cutting off her head. A romancer in this personal situation is not very likely to confine herself strictly to humdrum accuracy, and it would be impossible more plainly to warn the reader that all the tales are taradiddles. In the one case, then, we have witnesses who not only think the thing true, but do veritably think it is as true as death, or truer than death. They therefore prefer death to the denial of its truth. In the other case we have a story-teller who, in trying to avoid death, has every motive to tell lies. If St. John the Baptist had wished to avoid being beheaded, and had saved his life by inventing a long string of Messianic or Early Christian legends on the spur of the moment, in order to hold the attention of King Herod, I should not regard any "resurrection myth" he might tell as a strong historical argument for the Resurrection. But, as the Apostles were killed as St. John was killed, I think their evidence cannot be identified by sound scholarship as a portion of the Arabian Nights.

I merely pause for a moment upon this wild and preposterous parallel as a passing example of the queer way in which sceptics now refuse to follow an argument and only follow a sort of association or analogy. But the real reason for recalling this strange remark about the Arabian Nights is to be found in a much more genuine analogy between Western Science and Eastern Sorcery. Nobody but a lunatic would look either for his facts or his faith in the Arabian Nights. But, oddly enough, there really was a touch of the Arabian magicians in the Arabian mathematicians. There really was a faint flavour of the Oriental wizardry about the quite genuine Oriental wisdom; even when that wisdom was really doing work for which the world will always be grateful, in geometry or chemistry, in mathematics or medicine.  Thus we find the paradox: that a man might, after all, look for some of the elements of science in the Arabian Nights, though he would hardly look there for anything very edifying or elevating in the way of the elements of religion. In short, the old dim, or even dark, connexion between Medicine and Magic has a sort of hidden meaning of great historical interest. It is developed by Mr. Dawson in an essay on the Eastern element in early mediaeval science, and occurs in a book of essays called Mediaeval Religion.

But this particular point is not concerned with religion, but is connected in a curious way with science. The point is this: that Magic (in the ancient sense) and Medicine (in the modern sense) are really in one way very like each other, because they are both very unlike the pure and abstract idea of Science as conceived by the Ancient Greeks. Science only means knowledge; and for those ancients it did only mean knowledge. They wanted nothing but the pleasure of knowing; they were particularly proud of knowing a great deal of utterly useless knowledge. Thus the favourite science of the Greeks was Astronomy, because it was as abstract as Algebra. And when the Philistine among them said: "What are the Pleiades to me?" the Philosopher really answered the Philistine by saying: "They are all the more to me because they are nothing to me." We may say that the great Greek ideal was to have no use for useful things. The Slave was he who learned useful things; the Freeman was he who learned useless things. This still remains the ideal of many noble men of science, in the sense that they do desire truth as the great Greeks desired it; and their attitude is an eternal protest against the vulgarity of utilitarianism. But there was and is another side of science, also to be respected, which was from the first represented by things like Medicine. And if there were some association of Medicine with Magic, it was because Magic was always extremely practical.

The modern Magician, often a most respectable gentleman, may have altered his opinion that sticking pins in the wax image of a politician would be a practical act of social utility. But so the modern Medicine-Man may have altered his opinion that the blood of badgers mixed with wine and salt is always an immediate cure for rheumatism. But there is nothing in this change of opinion on the mere fact or details that differs from any other modern change in medical method, as in curing consumption first by shutting all the windows and then by opening all the windows. The point is that both types of Medicine-Man were employed by people who wanted something prompt and practical, such as killing politicians or curing rheumatism. And the note of this sort of science, which Mr. Dawson traces to the East, is that it always boasts of possessing Power, as distinct from the other sort set upon enjoying Truth. We have most of us met the kind of theosophical mystic who is always whispering that he can show us the Path to Power; that if we will only say "I am Wisdom; I am Power" seventy-seven times before the looking-glass we shall control the cosmos. There was some such note even in mediaeval medicine. Mediaeval science was really more practical than Pagan science, but sometimes it did really sound a little too practical to be quite wholesome. So some modern hygienic idealists are rather more concerned about health than is quite healthy. It is hard to dwell perpetually on this element of power without poisoning it with some element of pride. So, queerly enough, Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp really has some remote relation with the miracles of science, though hardly any with the miracles of religion.

~G.K. Chesterton: As I Was Saying. (1936)

"About Beliefs" is included in In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton. 

A Patriotic Song

The Golden Hind went bowling
Nor'westward of the Main,
And Drake drank deep of Spanish wine
And spat the lees at Spain.
Till northward on the colder coasts
The savages came out
To hail the ship with tossing spear
And tomahawk and shout:
For the red gods and the witch-doctors
Had cursed the golden grape
Bidding him yield up Malvoisie
And wine in every shape.

  And need I say that Drake complied
  And poured the wine over the side,
  Invited all the Reds inside
  And let them ransack far and wide
  The ship that was his sinful pride
  For anything his men might hide,
  That so he might escape.

The top-sails of the Victory
Turned westward on a day
Great Nelson saw his sunrise land
Like a sunset fade away.
And pledged immortal beauty
And the isle beyond the foam
In the dark wine of Oporto
That his father drank at home.
His hand and glass were lifted
When they reached the rebel shore
And Hiram Hugginburg came forth
And bade him drink no more.

  And naturally Nelson ran
  To do his bidding and began
  To empty every cup and can
  And snatch the rum from every man
  Who (ignorant of Hiram's ban)
  Had broken with him the battle-van
  From the Nile to Elsinore.

Lo, of that leaping pennant learn,
Of those world-wandering graves,
In what more modest modern style
Britannia rules the waves.

  If, loyal to some foreign cause,
  We still are careful, clause by clause,
  Obeying other countries' laws.
  We never shall be slaves.

~G.K. Chesterton


On the Mythology of Scientists

WHAT I venture to criticize in certain men, whom some call scientists and I call materialists, is their perpetual use of Mythology. One half of what they say is so true as to be trite; the other half of what they say is so untrue as to be transparent. But they cover both their platitudes and their pretences by an elaborate parade of legendary and allegorical images. I read this in some remarks on Darwinism by one of the last surviving Darwinians: ‘Among the individuals of every species there goes on, as Malthus had realized, a competition or struggle for the means of life, and Nature selects the individuals which vary in the most successful direction.’ Now when men of the old religions said that God chose a people or raised up a prophet, at least they meant something; and they meant what they said. They meant that a being with a mind and a will used them in an act of selection. But who is Nature, and how does she, or he, or it, manage to select anything or anybody? All that the writer actually has to say is that some individuals do emerge when other individuals are extinguished. it hardly needed either Darwin or Darwinians to tell us that. But Nature selecting those that vary in the most successful direction means nothing whatever, except that the successful succeed. But this tautological truism is wrapped up in clouds of mythology, by the introduction of a mythical being whom even the writer regards as a myth. The reader is to be impressed and deluded by the vision of a vast stone goddess sitting on a mountain throne, and pointing at a particular frog or rabbit and saying, in tones of thunder, that this alone is to survive. All we know is that it does survive (for the moment), and then we pride ourselves on being able to repeat the mere fact that it does survive in half a hundred variegated and flowery expressions: as that it has survival value; or that it is naturally selected for survival; or that it survives because it is the fittest for survival; or that Nature’s great law of the survival of the fittest sternly commands it to survive. The critics of religion used to say that its mysteries were mummeries; but these things are in the special and real sense mummeries. They are things offered to a credulous congregation by priests who know them to be mummeries. It is impossible to prove that the priests know that there is no god in the shrine, or no truth in the oracle. But we know that the materialist knows that there is no such thing as a large fastidious lady, called Nature, who points a finger at a frog.

The particular case in which this mythological metaphor was used is of course another matter. It is, indeed, a matter which has involved at various times a great deal of this element of materialist mythology. To see what truth was really in it we should have to go back to the old Darwinian debate; which I have not the least intention of doing here. But I may observe, in passing, that this notion of Nature selecting things is specially incompatible with all that can really be said for their own case; and that the very name of natural selection is a most unnatural name for it. For it is their whole case that everything happened, in the ordinary human sense, by accident. We should rather call it coincidence; and some of us call it quite incredible coincidence. But, anyhow, the whole case for it is that one quadruped happened to have a longer neck, and happened to live at a moment when it was necessary to reach a taller tree or shrub. If these happenings happen to happen about a hundred times in succession, in exactly the same way, you can by that process turn some sort of sheep or goat into a giraffe. Whether this is probable or not is another question. But the whole Darwinian argument is that it is not a case of Nature selecting, any more than of God selecting, or any one else selecting, but a case of things falling out in that fashion. We are quite ready to discuss trees and giraffes in their place, without perpetual references to God. Could the materialists not so far control their rhetorical and romantic sentimentalism as to do it without perpetual reference to Nature? Shall we make a bargain: that we will for the moment leave out our theology, if they will leave out their mythology?

But the mythological habit is not entirely and exclusively confined to men of science, or even to materialists. This sort of mythology is rather generally scattered over the modern world. The popular form of the mythological is the metaphorical. Certain figures of speech are fixed in the modern mind, exactly as the fables of the gods and nymphs were fixed in the mind of pagan antiquity. It is astonishing to note how often, when we address a man with anything resembling an idea, he answers with some recognized metaphor, supposed to be appropriate to the case. If you say to him, ‘I myself prefer the principle of the Guild to the principle of the Trust,’ he will not answer you by talking about principles. He can be counted on to say, ‘You can’t put the clock back,’ with all the regularity of a ticking clock. This is a very extreme example of the mental break down that goes with a relapse into metaphor. For the man is actually understating his own case out of sheer love of metaphor. It may be that you can not put time back, but you can put the clock back. He would be in a stronger position if he talked about the abstraction called time; but an all-devouring appetite for figurative language forces him to talk about clocks. Of course, the real question raised has nothing to do with either clocks or time. It is the question of whether certain abstract principles, which may or may not have been observed in the past, ought to be observed in the future. But the point is here that even the man who means that we cannot reconstruct the past can hardly ever reconstruct his own sentence in any other form except this figurative form. Without his myth, or his metaphor, he is lost.

Another mass of metaphors is drawn from the phenomena of morning, or the fact that the sun rises; or, rather (I grovel in apology to the man of science), appears to rise. It is a perfectly natural metaphor for poets; or, indeed, for all men, in that aspect in which all men are mystics. That there is a mystery in these natural things, which the imagination understands more subtly than the reason, is true enough. Nor have I any contempt even for mythology considered as mythology. But when we want to know what somebody wants to do, when we ask a free-thinker what he thinks, and why he thinks it, it is a little tiresome to be told that he is waiting for the Dawn, or engaged at the moment in singing Songs Before Sunrise. One is tempted to retort that Dawn is not always an entirely cheerful thing, even for those who have exercised their free thought upon the conventional traditions of their own society. There is such a thing as being shot at Dawn.

I do not mean for a moment, of course, that we should do without myths and metaphors altogether. I am constantly using them myself, and shall continue to do so. But I think we ought all to be on our guard against depending on them as a substitute for reason. Perhaps it would be well to have a Fast Day, on which we undertook to abstain from every thing but abstract terms. Let us all agree that every Friday we will do without metaphors as without meat. I am sure it would be good for the intellectual digestion.

~G.K. Chesterton: Come to Think of It, XXIII. 

"The equality of men"

"CARLYLE said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men."

~G.K. Chesterton: Heretics.

"The democracy of the dead"

"TRADITION may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, Chap. IV.



"Something that He hid from all men"

"JOY, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, Chap. IX.

"War is a dreadful thing"

“WAR is a dreadful thing; but it does prove two points sharply and unanswerably—numbers, and an unnatural valor. One does discover the two urgent matters; how many rebels there are alive, and how many are ready to be dead.”

~G.K. Chesterton: What's Wrong with the World.


"The permanent austerity of the democratic idea"

"DEMOCRACY must always be severe. Without either desire or dread of paradox, we may go even further. Democracy must always be unpopular [...] it asks men to do what they cannot do; to think steadily about the important things [...] it asks men to consider the dark, fugitive, erratic realities, to ignore the gigantic, glaring and overpowering trivialities. It rests upon the fact that the things which men have in common, such as a soul and a stomach, such as the love of children or the fear of death, are to infinity more important than the things in which they differ, such as a landed estate or an ear for music, the capacity to found an empire or to make a bow.[...] Every little variety we have we gossip and boast of eagerly; it is upon uniformity that we preserve the silence of terrified conspirators. [...] It is the nature of man to talk, so to speak, largely and eagerly about every new feather he sticks in his hair, but to conceal like a deformity the fact that he has a head. This is the secret of the permanent austerity of the democratic idea, of its eternal failure and its eternal recurrence, of the fact that it can never be popular and can never be killed. It withers into nothingness in the light of a naked spirituality those special badges and uniforms which we all love so much, since they mark us out as kings or schoolmasters, or gentlemen or philanthropists. It declares with a brutal benignity that all men are brothers just at the very moment that every one feels himself to be the good grandfather of every one else. To our human nature it commonly seems quite a pitiful exchange to cease from being poets or vestrymen, and be put off with being the images of the everlasting. That is the secret, as I say, of the austerity of republicanism, of its continual historic association with the stoical philosophy, of its continual defeat at the hands of heated mobs. It strikes men down from the high places of their human fads and callings, and lays them all level upon a dull plane of the divine."

~G.K. Chesterton: in The Fortnightly Review, Vol. LXXIV., Jul. to Dec., 1903.

h/t Mike Miles


"Censorship by the press"

"SO again, we have almost up to the last instant trusted the newspapers as organs of public opinion. Just recently some of us have seen (not slowly, but with a start) that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are, by the nature of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men. We have not any need to rebel against antiquity; we have to rebel against novelty. It is the new rulers, the capitalist or the editor, who really hold up the modern world. There is no fear that a modern king will attempt to override the constitution; it is more likely that he will ignore the constitution and work behind its back; he will take no advantage of his kingly power; it is more likely that he will take advantage of his kingly powerlessness, of the fact that he is free from criticism and publicity. For the king is the most private person of our time. It will not be necessary for any one to fight again against the proposal of a censorship of the press. We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, Chap. VII. The Eternal Revolution.



"And seven swords were in her heart"

The King looked up, and what he saw
Was a great light like death,
For Our Lady stood on the standards rent,
As lonely and as innocent
As when between white walls she went
And the lilies of Nazareth.

One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly—
But she was a queen of men.

Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart—
But one was in her hand.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Ballad of the White Horse, Bk. VII.

Mater Dolorosa, by Titian.
Oil on marble, 1553-1554. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.


Poem: Americanisation

Britannia needs no Boulevards,
  No spaces wide and gay:
Her march was through the crooked streets
  Along the narrow way.
Nor looks she where, New York's seduction,
The Broadway leadeth to destruction.

Britannia needs no Cafes:
  If Coffee needs must be,
Its place should be the Coffee-house
  Where Johnson growled for Tea;
But who can hear that human mountain
Growl for an ice-cream soda-fountain?

She needs no Russian Theatre,
  Where Father strangles Mother,
In scenes where all the characters
  And colours kill each other:
Her boast is freedom had by halves,
And Britons never shall be Slavs.

But if not hers the Dance of Death,
  Great Dostoievsky's dance,
And if the things most finely French
  Are better done in France—
Might not Americanisation
Be best applied to its own nation?

Ere every shop shall be a store
  And every Trade a Trust . . .
Lo, many men in many lands
  Know when their cause is just.
There will be quite a large attendance
When we Declare our Independence.

~G.K. Chesterton

Ronald Knox's influence on Chesterton

Ronald Knox contributions as an influencer of Chesterton and the author of the ten commandments for the Detection Club have largely been forgotten. (essay by Benjamin Welton)

Dean of Detective Fiction’s Decalogue: An Appreciation for Monsignor Ronald Knox

Ronald Knox, like his fellow Englishman G.K. Chesterton, was both a Roman Catholic and a detective fiction writer. Originally, it was Chesterton’s writing that lead Knox, a former Anglican priest at Trinity College, Oxford, towards converting to Catholicism. When Knox converted in 1917, Chesterton was still the Anglican son of a somewhat apathetic Unitarian family. Later, after Chesterton became a Catholic in 1922, the stream of influence switched course and Chesterton began to come under the joyful sway of Knox. Knox even delivered the gripping homily for Chesterton’s requiem mass at Westminster Cathedral in 1936.

In most Roman Catholic and conservative circles, Chesterton is justly lionized as one of the twentieth century’s greatest champions of Christian compassion and clear-headed reason. While the rest of the world was falling under the spells of irrational science, unquestioned technological advancement, and deeply atheistic politics, Chesterton was the strongest and brightest light in the forest, and because of that The Imaginative Conservative and other likeminded publications spend much of their time and effort highlighting the eternal truths espoused by the jolly and rotund man from Kensington.

Comparatively, Knox has flown somewhat under the radar. Although the Ronald Knox Society of North America maintains a website dedicated to his legacy and accomplishments, far too few articles or papers have been written about this fascinating Englishman.

Continue reading this essay here.

"Our scientific civilization"

"IF we look at the progress of our scientific civilization we see a gradual increase everywhere of the specialist over the popular function. Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better. If scientific civilization goes on (which is most improbable) only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest."

~G.K. Chesterton: Heretics, Chap. XVI.


Saint Clare

THIS rough outline can only be rounded off here with some description of the Second and Third Orders, though they were founded later and at separate times. The former was an order for women and owed its existence, of course, to the beautiful friendship of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. There is no story about which even the most sympathetic critics of another creed have been more bewildered and misleading. For there is no story that more clearly turns on that simple test which I have taken as crucial throughout this criticism. I mean that what is the matter with these critics is that they will not believe that a heavenly love can be as real as an earthly love. The moment it is treated as real, like an earthly love, their whole riddle is easily resolved. A girl of seventeen, named Clare and belonging to one of the noble families of Assisi, was filled with an enthusiasm for the conventual life; and Francis helped her to escape from her home and to take up the conventual life. If we like to put it so, he helped her to elope into the cloister, defying her parents as he had defied his father. Indeed the scene had many of the elements of a regular romantic elopement; for she escaped through a hole in the wall, fled through a wood and was received at midnight by the light of torches. Even Mrs. Oliphant, in her fine and delicate study of Saint Francis, calls it “an incident which we can hardly record with satisfaction.”

Now about that incident I will here only say this. If it had really been a romantic elopement and the girl had become a bride instead of a nun, practically the whole modern world would have made her a heroine. If the action of the Friar towards Clare had been the action of the Friar towards Juliet, everybody would be sympathising with her exactly as they sympathise with Juliet. It is not conclusive to say that Clare was only seventeen. Juliet was only fourteen. Girls married and boys fought in battles at such early ages in mediaeval times; and a girl of seventeen in the thirteenth century was certainly old enough to know her own mind. There cannot be the shadow of a doubt, for any sane person considering subsequent events, that Saint Clare did know her own mind. But the point for the moment is that modern romanticism entirely encourages such defiance of parents when it is done in the name of romantic love. For it knows that romantic love is a reality, but it does not know that divine love is a reality. There may have been something to be said for the parents of Clare; there may have been something to be said for Peter Bernardone. So there may have been a great deal to be said for the Montagues or the Capulets; but the modern world does not want it said; and does not say it. The fact is that as soon as we assume for a moment as a hypothesis, what Saint Francis and Saint Clare assumed all the time as an absolute, that there is a direct divine relation more glorious than any romance, the story of Saint Clare’s elopement is simply a romance with a happy ending; and Saint Francis is the Saint George or knight-errant who gave it a happy ending. And seeing that some millions of men and women have lived and died treating this relation as a reality, a man is not much of a philosopher if he cannot even treat it as a hypothesis.

For the rest, we may at least assume that no friend of what is called the emancipation of women will regret the revolt of Saint Clare. She did most truly, in the modern jargon, live her own life, the life that she herself wanted to lead, as distinct from the life into which parental commands and conventional arrangements would have forced her. She became the foundress of a great feminine movement which still profoundly affects the world; and her place is with the powerful women of history. It is not clear that she would have been so great or so useful if she had made a runaway match, or even stopped at home and made a mariage de convenance. So much any sensible man may well say considering the matter merely from the outside; and I have no intention of attempting to consider it from the inside. If a man may well doubt whether he is worthy to write a word about Saint Francis, he will certainly want words better than his own to speak of the friendship of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. I have often remarked that the mysteries of this story are best expressed symbolically in certain silent attitudes and actions. And I know no better symbol than that found by the felicity of popular legend, which says that one night the people of Assisi thought the trees and the holy house were on fire, and rushed up to extinguish the conflagration. But they found all quiet within, where Saint Francis broke bread with Saint Clare at one of their rare meetings, and talked of the love of God. It would be hard to find a more imaginative image, for some sort of utterly pure and disembodied passion, than that red halo round the unconscious figures on the hill; a flame feeding on nothing and setting the very air on fire.

~G.K. Chesterton: Saint Francis of Assisi, Chap. VII, The Three Orders.

Poem: The Apology of Bottom the Weaver

Once when an honest weaver slept,
  And Puck passed by, a kindly traitor,
And on his shoulders set the head
  Of a Shakespearean commentator,

The man had walked proverbial ways,
  Fair Science frowned not on his birth,
Nor lost in long and tangled dreams,
  The mother-wit of mother-earth.

Elaborate surgeons had not found
  The cobweb made the cure too brief,
Nor vegetarians taught the rule
  Of eating mustard without beef.

Only in that green night of growth
  Came to him, splendid, without scorn,
The lady of the dreams of men;
  The rival of all women born.

And he, for all his after weaving,
  Drew up from that abysmal dream
Immortal art, that proves by seeming
  All things more real than they seem.

The dancing moth was in his shuttle,
  The pea's pink blossom in his woof,
Your driving schools, your dying hamlets,
  Go through them all and find the proof—

That you, where'er the old crafts linger,
  Draw in their webs like nets of gold,
Hang up like banners for a pattern,
  The leavings of the looms of old.

And even as this home-made rhyme
  Drags but the speech of Shakespeare down,
These home-made patterns but repeat
  The traceries of an ancient clown.

And while the modern fashions fade,
  And while the ancient standards stream,
No psycho-analyst has knocked
  The bottom out of Bottom's dream.

~G.K. Chesterton

Note: Nick Bottom is a character in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream who provides comic relief throughout the play, and is famously known for getting his head transformed into that of a donkey by the elusive Puck.

A Prohibitionist Poem

Though Shakespeare's Mermaid, ocean's mightiest daughter,
With vintage could the seas incarnadine:
And Keats's name that was not writ in water
                         Was often writ in wine.

Though wine that seeks the loftiest habitation
Went to the heads of Villon and Verlaine,
Yet Hiram Hopper needs no inspiration
                       But water on the brain.

~G.K. Chesterton


Poem: The Modern Magic

Prester John on his lands looked down
He bore in one mystery mitre and crown,
And the scaly webs of the strange attire
Stripped from the dragon that feeds on fire,
And high over luminous rocks and trees
And the purple fish of his secret seas
And the whole sprawled map of the magical place,
A crystal mirror before his face
For ever stood; in whose circle shone
The world and all that is done thereon.

And the Seven Kings by his throne that stand
Cried, "Tell us the news from the Holy Land."

"Richard the King, of the scarlet ships,
Sweeps over Acre, but swerves and slips
From Godfrey's gate and from God's own crown,
And is shot in the ditch of a small French town.
Such is the news of the world," he said;
"But the signs of the world will never be read
In a glass darkly, by anyone;
We must wait for the sunrise," said Prester John.

Nigh on a thousand years were past:
To the strange priest's paradise pierced at last,
The men of the west, with the wondrous things
Of western wizards and western kings,
And high on their staggering engines borne
A marvel of marvels, the mighty Horn
Within whose cave, like a giant's ear,
Might all men speak and might all men hear
The noise of a battle, the noise of a bird,
Even all the sounds of the earth were heard.

And the Seven Kings said "It is ended then,
The demon of distance, rending men,
Deafness of deserts and random deeds,
When everyone knows what everyone needs,
Seeing that words like winds can come,
All will be Bethlehem, all will be Rome,
And all men answer and understand,
Tell us the news from the Holy Land."
"No battle-noise and no battle-news,
But shaking of shekels and laughter of Jews,
And a rattle of golden balls they toss
High o'er the ruin of Crescent and Cross,
And a usurer's voice in cold command,
These are the sounds from the Holy Land.

O, horns may call us from far away,
But men hear only what men can say,
And words may go as the wide wind blows,
But what everyone wants is what nobody knows:
And the Horn will not tell it to anyone,
We must wait for the Trumpet," said Prester John.

~G.K. Chesterton


Prester John, Wikipedia
Prester John, Catholic Encyclopedia

Boer War and Imperialism

“THE attitude on the war, the personal love of his sovereign, both belonged to a social and political philosophy that Gilbert was slowly working out. One side of it found expression in The Napoleon of Notting Hill: the poetry of limitations, the belief in small nations and strict boundaries. Patriotism appeared to him not akin to Imperialism but its very opposite. The patriot loves his own country, the imperialist wants to swallow other countries. He opposed in the Boer War the imperialism of England and was entirely logical in opposing in the first world war the imperialism of Germany. He was never a pacifist but always an anti-imperialist patriot.”

~Maisie Ward: Return to Chesterton, pp. 54-55.


"I prefer a more grey and gracious haze"

“THE hot weather, which has been almost coincident with the new reign, might serve, perhaps as another omen, if I were one who likes omens—or like hot weather. Unfortunately, I am one of those heretics who tend (during a strong summer) to the somewhat hasty opinion of certain early Christians, that Apollo is a devil. Or if he is a beneficent deity, he is one of a highly searching and even ruthless sort; a flaming fact, picking out and emphasing other facts; making the world all too realistic. The chief gift of hot weather to me is the somewhat unpopular benefit called a conviction of sin. All the rest of the year I am untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. But in hot weather I feel untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. Sitting in a garden-chair in a fresh breeze under a brisk grey and silver sky, I feel a frightfully strenuous fellow: sitting on the same garden-chair in strong sunshine, it begins slowly to dawn on me that I am doing nothing. In neither case, of course, do I get out of the chair. But I resent that noontide glare of photographic detail by the ruthless light of which I can quite clearly see myself sitting in the chair. I prefer a more grey and gracious haze, something more in the Celtic-twilight style, through which I can only faintly trace my own contours, vast but vague in the dusk and distance."

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, "The Collapse of the Victorian Compromise"; June 11, 1910.

Lines To An Old Pro-Boer Who Asked For A Contribution To A Peace Periodical

You cannot think my heart so tough
  To shrieks that ring or shards that rend;
You cannot think me bad enough
  Nor good enough for tortures, friend.

Nor do I lightly talk of tears
  Through some vague pageant of the past;
The shriek of shafts, the shock of spears,
  The bursting of the arbelast.

Do you recall in that base fight,
  When men were crushed with clubs of gold,
The meek and murderous flag of white
  Of which our English lies were told,

Till white had washed away the red
  And a calmed country found release?
Look forth to-day, and count the dead
  Under your leprous flag of peace.

Rather than peace's pearl to pray,
  When cast before us by such swine,
I would again your friends and mine
  Were riding to Pretoria.

~G.K. Chesterton


The Common Man

THE explanation, or excuse, for this essay is to be found in a certain notion, which seems to me very obvious, but which I have never, as it happens, seen stated by anybody else. It happens rather to cut across the common frontiers of current controversy. It can be used for or against Democracy, according to whether that swear-word is or is not printed with a big D. It can be connected, like most things, with religion; but only rather indirectly with my own religion. It is primarily the recognition of a fact, quite apart from the approval or disapproval of the fact. But it does involve the assertion that what has really happened, in the modern world, is practically the precise contrary of what is supposed to have happened there.

The thesis is this: that modern emancipation has really been a new persecution of the Common Man. If it has emancipated anybody, it has in rather special and narrow ways emancipated the Uncommon Man. It has given an eccentric sort of liberty to some of the hobbies of the wealthy, and occasionally to some of the more humane lunacies of the cultured. The only thing that it has forbidden is common sense, as it would have been understood by the common people. Thus, if we begin with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we find that a man really has become more free to found a sect. But the Common Man does not in the least want to found a sect. He is much more likely, for instance, to want to found a family. And it is exactly there that the modern emancipators are quite likely to begin to frustrate him; in the name of Malthusianism or Eugenics or Sterilisation or at a more advanced stage of progress, probably, Infanticide. It would be a model of modern liberty to tell him that he might preach anything, however wild, about the Virgin Birth, so long as he avoided anything like a natural birth; and that he was welcome to build a tin chapel to preach a twopenny creed, entirely based on the text, "Enoch begat Methuselah", so long as he himself is forbidden to beget anybody. And, as a matter of historical fact, the sects which enjoyed this sectarian freedom, in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, were generally founded by merchants or manufacturers of the comfortable, and sometimes of the luxurious classes. On the other hand, it is strictly to the lower classes, to use the liberal modern title for the poor, that such schemes as Sterilisation are commonly directed and applied.

It is the same when we pass from the Protestant world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the Progressive world of the nineteenth and twentieth. Here the form of freedom mostly claimed, as a boast and a dogma, is the freedom of the Press. It is no longer merely a freedom of pamphlets but a freedom of papers; or rather, it is less and less a freedom at all, and more and more a monopoly. But the important point is that the process, the test and the comparison are the same as in the first example. Modern emancipation means this: that anybody who can afford it can publish a newspaper. But the Common Man would not want to publish a newspaper, even if he could afford it. He might want, for instance, to go on talking politics in a pothouse or the parlour of an inn. And that is exactly the sort of really popular talk about politics which modern movements have often abolished: the old democracies by forbidding the pothouse, the new dictatorships by forbidding the politics.

Or again, it is the boast of recent emancipated ethics and politics not to put any great restraints upon anybody who wants to publish a book, especially a scientific book, full of psychology or sociology; and perhaps unavoidably full of perversions and polite pornography. As that modern tendency increased, it was less and less likely that the police would interfere very much with a man publishing the sort of book that only the wealthy could publish with sumptuous artistic plates or scientific diagrams. It is much more probable, in most modern societies, that the police would be found interfering with a man singing a song, of a coarse and candid description, bawling out a ballad of the grosser sort, or even using the more restrained medium of prose with a similar lack of restraint. Yet there is a great deal to be said for song, or even speech, of the old ribald sort, as compared with writing of the new sort, when it is at once analytic and anarchic. The old obscenity had a gusto and a great virility even in its violence, which is not easily rendered in a diagram or a table of statistics and the old was always normal and never had any of the horrors of abnormality. The point is that, here again, the Common Man does not generally want to write a book, whereas he may occasionally want to sing a song. He certainly does not want to write a book on psychology or sociology─or to read, it. But he does want to talk, to sing, to shout, to yell and howl on due and suitable occasions; and, rightly or wrongly, it is when he is thus engaged that he is much more likely to fall foul of a policeman than when he is (as he never is) writing a scientific study of a new theory of sex. The upshot of uplift, in the modern sense, is the same in practice as in the previous examples. In the actual atmosphere of the age, men will still be arrested for using a certain kind of language, long after they cannot be arrested for writing a certain kind of literature.

It would be easy to give other examples; but these contemporary examples are already too continuous to be a coincidence. It is equally true, for instance, that the liberating movement of the eighteenth century, the life in the American and French Revolutions, while it did really vindicate many virtues of republican simplicity and civic liberty, also accepted as virtues several things that were obviously vices: that had been recognised as vices long before, and are now again beginning to be recognised as vices so long afterwards. Where even ambition had once been a pardonable vice, avarice became an utterly unpardonable virtue. Liberal economics too often meant merely giving to those already rich the liberty to grow richer, and, magnificently granting to the poor the permission to remain rather poorer than before. It was much more certain that the usurer was released to practise usury than that the peasant was released from the practices of the usurer. It was much more certain that the Wheat Pit was as big as the Bottomless Pit, than that the man who grew wheat would ever be found anywhere except at the bottom.

There was a sense in which "liberal economics" were a proclamation of freedom, for the few who were rich enough to be free. Nobody thought there was anything queer about talking of prominent public men "gambling" in the Wheat Pit. But all this time, there were laws of all kinds against normal human gambling; that is, against games of chance. The poor man was prevented from gambling, precisely because he did not gamble so much as the rich man. The beadle or the policeman might stop children from playing chuck-farthing; but it was strictly because it was only a farthing that was chucked. Progress never interfered with the game of chuck-fortune, because much more than a farthing was being chucked. The enlightened and emancipated age especially encouraged those who chucked away other people's fortunes instead of their own. But anyhow, the comparison remains continuous and clear. Progress, in the sense of the progress that has progressed since the sixteenth century, has upon every matter persecuted the Common Man; punished the gambling he enjoys and permitted the gambling he cannot follow; restrained the obscenity that might amuse him and applauded the obscenity that would certainly bore him; silenced the political quarrels that can be conducted among men and applauded the political stunts and syndicates that can only be conducted by millionaires; encouraged anybody who had anything to say against God, if it was said with a priggish and supercilious accent; but discouraged anybody who had anything to say in favour of Man, in his common relations to manhood and motherhood and the normal appetites of nature. Progress has been merely the persecution of the Common Man.

Progress has a hagiology, a martyrology, a mass of miraculous legends of its own, like any other religion; and they are mostly false and belong to a false religion. The most famous is the fancy that the young and progressive person is always martyred by the old and ordinary person. But it is false. It is the old and ordinary person who is almost always the martyr. It is the old and ordinary person who has been more and more despoiled of all his old and ordinary rights. In so far as this progress progresses, it is far more likely that six million men will be forbidden to go to sleep, because six men say that certain breathing exercises are a substitute for slumber, than that any of the six million somnambulists will wake up sufficiently to clout the six men over their highbrowed but half-witted heads. There is no normal thing that cannot now be taken from the normal man. It is much more likely that a law will be passed to forbid the eating of grain (notoriously the parent of poisons like beer and whisky) than that it will be even faintly suggested, to men of that philosophy, that the economic evil is that men cannot grow grain, and that the ethical evil is that men are still despised for growing it. Given the purely progressive principle, and nothing else as a guide to our future, it is entirely possible that they may be banged or buried alive for growing it. But of course, in a scientific age, they will be electrocuted─or perhaps only tortured by electricity.

Thus far my thesis is this: that it is not the Uncommon Man who is persecuted; but rather the Common Man. But this brings me into direct conflict with the contemporary reactions, which seems to say, in effect, that the Common Man had much better be persecuted. It is quite certain that many modern thinkers and writers honestly feel a contempt for the Common Man; it is also quite certain that I myself feel a contempt for those who feel this contempt. But the actual issue must be faced more fully; because what is called the reaction against democracy is at this moment the chief result of democracy. Now on this quarrel I am democratic, or at least defiant of the attacks of democracy. I do not believe that most modern people have seen the real point of the advantage or disadvantage of popular rule; and my doubt can be very largely suggested and summarised under this title of the Common Man.

To put it briefly; it is now the custom to say that most modern blunders have been due to the Common Man. And I should like to point out what appalling blunders have in fact been due to the Uncommon Man. It is easy enough to argue that the mob makes mistakes; but as a fact it never has a chance even to make mistakes until its superiors have used their superiority to make much worse mistakes. It is easy to weary of democracy and cry out for an intellectual aristocracy. But the trouble is that every intellectual aristocracy seems to have been utterly unintellectual. Anybody might guess beforehand that there would be blunders of the ignorant. What nobody could have guessed, what nobody could have dreamed of in a nightmare, what no morbid mortal imagination could ever have dared to imagine, was the mistakes of the well-informed. It is true, in a sense, to say that the mob has always been led by more educated men. It is much more true, in every sense, to say that it has always been misled by educated men. It is easy enough to say the cultured man should be the crowd's guide, philosopher and friend. Unfortunately, he has nearly always been a misguiding guide, a false friend and a very shallow philosopher. And the actual catastrophes we have suffered, including those we are now suffering, have not in historical fact been due to the prosaic practical people who are supposed to know nothing, but almost invariably to the highly theoretical people who knew that they knew everything. The world may learn by its mistakes; but they are mostly the mistakes of the learned.

To go back no further than the seventeenth century, the quarrel between the Puritans and the populace was originally due to the pride of a few men in being able to read a printed book, and their scorn for people who had good memories, good traditions, good stories, good songs, and good pictures in glass or gold or graven stone, and therefore had less need of books. It was a tyranny of literates over illiterates. But it was the literates who were narrow, sullen, limited and often oppressive; it was the illiterates who were, at least relatively, gay and free and fanciful and imaginative and interested in everything. The Uncommon Men, the elect of the Calvinist theory, did undoubtedly lead the people along the next stretch of the path of progress; but what it led to was a prison. The book-reading rulers and statesmen managed to establish the Scottish Sabbath. Meanwhile, a thousand traditions, of the sort they would have trampled out, yet managed to trickle down from the medieval poor to the modern poor, and lingering as legends in countless cottages and farmhouses, were collected by Scott (often repeated orally by people who could not read or write) to combine in the construction of the great Scottish Romances, which profoundly moved and partly inspired the Romantic Movement throughout the world.

When we pass to the eighteenth century, we find the same part played by a new and quite contrary party; differing from the last in everything except in being the same sort of rather dried up aristocracy. The new Uncommon Men, now leading the people, are no longer Calvinists, but a dry sort of Deists drying up more and more like Atheists; and they are no longer pessimists but the reverse; only their optimism is often more depressing than pessimism. There were the Benthamites, the Utilitarians, the servants of the Economic Man; the first Free-Traders. They have the credit of having first made clear the economic theories of the modern state; and the calculations on which were mainly based the politics of the nineteenth century. It was they who taught these things scientifically and systematically to the public, and even to the populace. But what were the things, and what were the theories? Perhaps the best and broadest of them was a most monstrous and mythical superstition of Adam Smith; a theological theory that providence had so made the world that men might be happy through their selfishness; or, in other words, that God would overrule everything for good, if only men could succeed in being sufficiently bad. The intellectuals in this epoch taught definitely and dogmatically that if only men would buy and sell freely, lend or borrow freely, sweat or sack freely, and in practice, steal or swindle freely, humanity would be happy. The Common Man soon found out how happy; in the Slums where they left him and in the Slump to which they led him.

We need not continue, through the last two centuries, all the tale of the frenzy and folly inflicted by the fickleness of the educated class on the relative stability of the uneducated. The fickle intellectuals next rushed to the other extreme, and became Socialists, despising small property as they had despised popular tradition. It is quite true that these intellectuals had a lucid interval in which they proclaimed some primary truths along with many priggish falsehoods. Some of them did rightly exalt liberty and human dignity and equality, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But even that was so much mishandled that there is now a disposition to deny the truth along with the falsehood. There has been a reaction against Democracy; or, in plain words, the prigs are now too bored even to go on with their normal routine about the Common Man; the familiar routine of oppressing him in practice and adoring him in theory.

I do not adore him, but I do believe in him; at least I believe in him much more than I believe in them. I think the actual history of the relations between him and them, as I have narrated it, is enough to justify my preference. I repeat that they have had all the educational advantages over him; they have always led him; and they have always misled him. And even in becoming reactionaries, they remain as raw and crude as when they were revolutionaries. Their anti-democracy is as much stuffed with cant as their democracy. I need only allude to the detestable new fashion of referring to ordinary men as morons. First, it is pedantry, the dullest form of vanity; for a moron is only the Greek for a fool; and it is mostly sham pedantry, for most of those who mention morons hardly know they are talking Greek, still less why on earth they should. It also involves this moral evil: that a man who says that men are mostly fools knows at least that he has often made a fool of himself; whereas the morons are thought of like monkeys; as if they were a fixed tribe or caste. The Common Man may well be the victim of a new series of tyrannies, founded on this scientific fad of regarding him as a monkey. But it is doubtful whether he can be much more persecuted for having the instincts of a moron, than he has already been for having the instincts of a man.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Common Man (published posthumously in a collection of essays by the same title)


Poem: The Buried City

You that go forth on the buried cities,
  Whose witchcraft holds the withered kings together,
Seals up the very air of ancient seasons,
  Like secret skies walled up from the world’s weather.
You that dig up towns—arise and strive:
Strike through the slums and save the towns alive!

Dig London out of London; pierce the cavern
  Where Manchester lies lost in Manchester.
You that re-chart the choked-up squares and markets,
  Retrace the plan our blindness made a blur:
Until a name no more, but wide and tall,
Arise and shine the shield of London Wall.

Strike you the stones of these most desert places,
  Huge warehouses the lonely watchmen tread,
Where ringed in noise the hollow heart of London
  Lies all night long a city of the dead.
Or does One watch high o’er this maze that sprawls,
High on the varnished spire of Old St. Paul’s?

Lift up your heads, ye gates of our remembrance,
  Be lifted up, ye everlasting walls,
The gates revolve upon their giant hinges,
  The guilds return unto their ancient halls.
Tell Bishopsgate a Bishop rides to town,
Not only come to pull the churches down.

You that let light into the sunken cities,
  Let life into the void where light is vain
Ere vandals wreck the temples, porch and pillar,
  Bring back the people to the porch again,
Who find in tombs strange flowers, flattened and dried,
Quicken the incredible seed of London Pride.

If our vain haste has smothered home in houses
  As our vain creeds have smothered man in men,
Though in that rock-tomb sleeps the King less deeply
  Than in this brick-tomb sleeps the Citizen,
What will not God achieve if Man awake,
Since a rock-tomb was rended for our sake?

~G.K. Chesterton

Poem: The Old Gentleman in the Park

Beyond the trees like iron trees,
The painted lamp-posts stand.
The old red road runs like the rust
Upon this iron land.

Cars flat as fish and fleet as birds,
Low-bodies and high speeded,
Go on their belly like the Snake,
And eat the dust as he did.

But down the red dust never more
Her happy horse-hoofs go.
O, what a road of rust indeed!
O, what a Rotten Row!

~G.K. Chesterton

"The Catholic is much more certain about the fixed truths"

"THE old unpsychological school of instructors used to say: "What possible sense can there be in mixing up arithmetic with religion?" But arithmetic is mixed up with religion, or at the worst with philosophy. It does make a great deal of difference whether the instructor implies that truth is real, or relative, or changeable, or an illusion. The man who said, "Two and two may make five in the fixed stars," was teaching arithmetic in an anti-rational way, and, therefore, in an anti-Catholic way. The Catholic is much more certain about the fixed truths than about the fixed stars."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Common Man.