The Sanity of the Family

DR. SALEEBY, as a eugenic enthusiast and champion of the medical treatment of moral questions, is a man with whose views I have often very decisively differed, but to whose intentions I am glad to think that I always did justice. I am glad of it, because Dr. Saleeby has just startled the scientific and progressive world with a dynamite explosion of sanity; an earthquake of common-sense undreamed of in those regions. A certain effect is produced when a man suddenly goes mad in society; a similar effect is produced when a man goes sane in sociology. But Dr. Saleeby’s remarks were not only frank and forcible in themselves, but they refer directly to a matter I recently discussed on this page. I mean the position of the European peasantries, as a power resisting the European anarchy. And I mean especially the only practical lesson from that fact: the end of making property popular; that is of making property proper.

The example taken is the case of the peasant owner nearest and most native to our own system. The peasant in the extreme West of Ireland has always been described as a man permanently engaged in perishing. This duty or pleasure has occupied him for several centuries; but until lately, at least, it was supposed to be going on still. At one time it was said that the peasants were perishing because they were Celts; and some people say it still, who would now be horribly ashamed of being Teutons. At another time the peasants were perishing because they were Papists; and some people say it still, who are now by no means sure that they themselves are Protestants. But there has been a general feeling, throughout, that at least the peasants must be perishing because they were peasants. They must be a rotting remnant, because they were small proprietors; and the London School of Economics has recently passed a law that small proprietors were to rot as rapidly as they could make it convenient to do so. But while we were discussing whether they were vanishing through racial decay, or vanishing through superstition, or vanishing through subdivision of land, it was suddenly discovered that they were not vanishing at all. Dr. Saleeby, a life-long champion of all the scientific social appliances, the organisation of “home-visiting” and “baby welfare,” mentioned the matter to illustrate the breakdown of all this modern machinery in our modern cities. He pointed out facts which were quite coldly scientific. In the West of Ireland there are no welfare workers, and not enough welfare—at least for those who think of welfare as wealth in a few very large heaps. There are no home visitors, and not enough homes; or rather, there are many homes, but not enough houses. Yet the birth-rate goes up to fifty, or four times that of most of our great cities. That alone might prove little; for high birth-rates and high death-rates go together in great slums. But the point is that the death-rate is only thirty, while it is a hundred and eighteen in Bradford, the very capital and holy city of these experiments in organised philanthropy. In the same industrial Utopia the birth-rate is only thirteen, to the forty or fifty of the perishing and vanishing peasantry. If there was anything in these scientific calculations and predictions, we should be obliged to say that it is Bradford which is vanishing from our eyes. But Bradford may be reassured, and soothed again to slumber. There is nothing in scientific predictions; nothing whatsoever. But there is often something in scientific men, and something of manhood as well as science; and Dr. Saleeby has done a very real service, not only to manhood, but also as it happens, to womanhood.

For he also emphasises another point, which is part of the saner morality; the folly of merely driving all women from the family to the factory. It is in the cold economic sense a waste; it is uneconomic in the full sense if being thriftless. For, obviously, such a neglect of family feeling is the neglect of a natural force, If the mother must not take an interest in her children, somebody else must be paid to do what she alone could have a particular pleasure in doing. Examples of silliness on a gigantic scale are recorded of some of the mad Roman emperors, and even of some high meaningless monument or tower of rubbish called a Folly. I believe most of the great social reforms of our time will remain in history as Follies. I believe the ancient sense of humour, the most English thing in England, will return upon them and make them rigid like fantastic fossils; so that simpler men in happier times will tell tales about the wise men of Gotham. But certainly there is no case no more moonstruck than the modern tendency to pit the factory against the family. Nothing could be madder, in the treatment of women, than to take them from conditions that are natural to women, and then put then in conditions that are unnatural for anybody. Nothing could be madder, except calling it the emancipation of women. The is no old crazy tale to compare with the notion of making a free wife and mother dependent on commercial monopoly, and then calling it the economic independence of woman. The men of Gotham, who fished for the moon in the pond, are but faintly figurative of the folly of those who fish for the light of liberty in the muddy pool of modern industrialism. The same philosophers, when they imprisoned the cuckoo in a hedge to keep the spring, were wiser than their followers who imprison woman in a factory to free her soul. And in the end the English laughter will open like an earthquake and swallow them.

We shall never return to social sanity till we begin at the beginning. We must start where all history starts, with a man and a woman, and a child, and the province of liberty and property which these need for their full humanity. As it is, we begin where history ends, or, rather, where disjointed journalism ends. We stop suddenly with the accidental truncation of today’s news; and judge everything by the particular muddle of the moment. Ours is a sociology of snapshots; and snapshots always fix human figures in postures not only silly but stiff. If a vast social calamity does, indeed, overwhelm our civilisation, it will not be much like a revolution that urged Paris to change, as like the deluge that made Pompeii unchangeable. The lava flood will not merely find the man in the workshop or the woman in the kitchen; it will also find the burglar in the pantry, the beggar at the doorstep, and the butler drunk in the cellar. To modern sociologists all these seem to be of the same social value and importance; but I shall continue to plead pathetically that the householder has a right to be in the house, and the burglar has not; and that, save upon that foundation of small property, no liberty can re-arise.

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, May 3, 1919.

Roman Peasant Family, by Leopold Pollak. Oil on canvas, 1836; Private collection.