On Sophistication

SOME are complaining that the rising generation is sophisticated; and it is true that some members of it are too sophisticated even to believe in sophistry. They believe in nothing; which I suppose is one way of returning to simplicity. The golden age of the sophists was somewhere about the last half of the nineteenth century. The Victorians were lectured and led a dance by any number of sophists; but that was because the Victorians were unsophisticated. They believed the most crazy paradoxes; as that it was more practical not to be logical; which is like saying that we should make sure of having a chain and not bother whether it consists of missing links. They believed that men must always have the same morality, though they had a new religion or no religion; that is, they said that what was done now for a definite reason would be done indefinitely for no reason. Those sturdy Saxon ideas were all sophistries; but that did not mean that the sturdy Saxon who accepted them was necessarily a sophist. What I think has really happened, in the ease of the more sophisticated youth of to-day, is that they have become sceptical of everything, including scepticism. And though two blacks do not make a white, it has sometimes been known, in grammar and philosophy, that two negatives make a positive. So that the sophisticated youth who has seen through the sophistical old men, may even yet see something worth seeing.

But there is one way in which the young seem to me not sophistical but very simple; and there is one type or section of them that is sufficiently simple to be called silly. A great deal of the current cult of pleasure, of luxury, of liberty in love, and all the rest of it, appears to me to be perfectly childish and childish in the literal sense that it is greedy without any grasp of consequences. I read novels and poems in which the seeker after pleasure simply goes on saying, over and over again: ‘I must have Happiness. I must have Life. I must have Love. Why do you reproach me because I cannot live without passing from ecstasy to ecstasy?’ This seems to me about as simple as the speech of a savage who should say: ‘I must have Gin. I like Gin. I like more and more Gin. Why will you not instantly provide me with a hundred bottles of Gin?’ It does not seem to require much intellectual strenuousness to say this. It is, like other simple things, quite true as far as it goes. But in the matter of connected thought and the sense of consequence it does not go very far. Gin does make a man happy; up to a point more gin will make him more happy; but even more gin will make him many other things as well. By a succession of phases not contemplated by the philosopher in his first phase, it will make him first drunk, then dead drunk, and then dead to the world, and then very possibly dead altogether. That also seems to be a simple truth, requiring no great subtlety; but the savage cannot see it, and the sex novelist cannot see it. He cannot see, what nearly everybody in history has hitherto seen, that there are certain laws and limits to the mind, as there are certain laws and limits to the body. There is such a thing as concentration; there is such a thing as contrast; there is such a thing as proportion; there is emphatically such a thing as boredom. Above all, there is such a thing as a contradiction in terms; and it is a contradiction in terms to have every moment a crisis, every event an escapade, every fact an exception, every person an eccentric, every day a holiday, or society an endless Saturnalia. If people try to do that, they will find it dull; just as certainly as, if they drink unlimited gin, we shall find them drunk. If you do literally paint the town red, you will not be able to use it as a background, either to the red flag of Bolshevism or the red flower of a blameful life. If you do literally go on till all is blue, you will not be able to distinguish the special and delicate blueness even of the decadents’ blue roses and blue wine. These are laws of the mind, analogous to laws of the eye. And the laws of the eye are not altered by everybody putting on the same sort of horned spectacles, that each one of them may look separate and distinguished.

But there is one particular form of this modern simplicity that has always puzzled me very much. I mean the way in which those who dislike certain old things, such as war or discipline or various forms of danger, talk about ending them without asking how they begin. They always assume an association between these things, which none of us particularly likes, and other things which they particularly dislike. They say, for instance, that kings or capitalists, or some other privileged class, have invented flags and frontiers, that we may be drilled to defend them with guns and bayonets. They do not seem to see that they might need the guns and bayonets even if they were not defending the frontiers and flags. They might need them if they were defending anything. They might need them if they were defending their own ideal social state. And, as a matter of historical fact, they always do find that they need them to defend the very state that was invented to do away with them. But I am very much puzzled by the childlike simplicity with which idealists walk into this trap. It was true to some extent of the eighteenth century republicans, though those old republicans were a hundred times more intelligent than most of our twentieth century sceptics. Still, some of those charming philosophical gentlemen, of the age of Rousseau and Voltaire, did tend to talk as if the Natural Man would find it easy to break the sword when once he had broken the sceptre. They did talk as if nobody but kings would ever want cannons, and battles could only arise out of the dynastic ambitions of despotic states. We all know the ironic but very inspiring sequel. The sequel was that the Republic was born amid the roar of its own cannons; that it could only manage to survive by fighting battle after battle with merciless valour and armies growing more military every day; until the final fury of that militancy sent forth the greatest warrior of the world.

In the face of this example, the Bolshevists did exactly the same. In face even of the Bolshevist example, our own English Communists are doing exactly the same. The Russian revolutionists also began by being pacifists. They also set all their hopes on merely dissolving the discipline of the despotic armies. They also seem never to have reflected that they would want to have revolutionist armies, if only to fight the despotic armies. And of course, in an incredibly short period of time, they found out the very simple fact that revolutionists cannot be pacifists. They may set up what they call a peaceful republic, but they have to make up their minds what to do, if other people will not leave it in peace.

Suppose the Utopian has founded his Utopia, and another country makes war on Utopia. What, when all is said and done, is he to do? Is he to allow his perfect state (or what he is so simple as to think his perfect state) to be destroyed and disappear? Or is he to defend it by the only weapons that will defend it? One would think this dilemma was so staringly obvious that anybody must have seen it from the very first. That dilemma has nothing in the world to do with crowns or sceptres or capitalism or private property. Let anybody imagine any sort of simplified society, and I can imagine it being attacked. That fact seems simple enough for an infant to see. Yet I have read scores of young pacifist poets and prophets who could not see it. That is an example of what I mean by a sort of simplicity almost more exasperating than sophistry. That is a case of the same sort of simplicity as supposing that cocktails can be unlimited or gate-crashing continue when there are no gates.

~G.K. Chesterton: All is Grist