Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters

by Hilaire Belloc

To Maurice Baring

I have taken the liberty of using your name in connection with this very short preface to my very short study upon our common friend Gilbert Chesterton. I am sure your name ought to be connected with any memory of his, so greatly did he admire your work and so much do you stand for what you and I and he had in common by the end of our various pilgrimages. We share, I believe, also a common and deep respect for his memory.

On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters

What follows are the notes of a friend (but an intimate friend) on a great contemporary writer. I attempt no panegyric, nor even an analysis of Gilbert Chesterton's writings. No doubt I exaggerate some aspects of Chesterton's character and literary action; I also know too little about other aspects of his life and work.

Thus I have no full familiarity with the Church of England in its domestic and intimate character, and I have had few relations with the Anglican Clergy.  Chesterton during the middle part of his life was in close touch with the Establishment, and he and his wife were particular friends and intimates of more than one distinguished Anglican clergyman. But the family tradition in which I was born and by which I was moulded in early years was, socially, of the Birmingham Unitarian world from which my English family derived. It was by this world, its literature and moral habit, that I was surrounded in those (1) early years when character is formed, and we inherited much of our domestic atmosphere from the memory of that illustrious man of Science, Dr. Joseph Priestley whose portraits on the walls of the house are part of my surroundings. Now Gilbert Chesterton came also in early youth under the Unitarian influence. We were both of us acquainted with the spirit.

But my chief claim to know and interpret Chesterton is, of course, a permanent and active personal friendship, through which we were very close companions for more than 30 years and during nearly the whole of his literary activity. We collaborated in the long series of weekly literary work beginning with the Eye Witness, which I founded in 1911 and the editorship of which his brother Cecil Chesterton, took on in the following year.

Between us we were instrumental in exposing the Marconi scandal. Both before I went into Parliament, and while I was in the House of Commons, I had ample opportunity for observing the rapid decline of public life through its unchecked corruption, the mark of which was (and still is) the strange absence of public discussion thereon. But the thing was equally apparent to men who were free from the business of Westminster and no one was clearer in vision and harder in action during the vain struggle for purity in public life than these two brothers.

It is now too late to set things right in this department; the Parliamentary profession in England, despite its long national tradition, has lost its former vigour and respect. It will linger on indefinitely as a form, but is now rarely of vital effect upon public affairs. These are now almost openly controlled by the great monopolies, especially those of the banking system, and comment upon political speeches and votes has become futile.

Recognising this as he did, Gilbert Chesterton turned more and more to the two living activities which should most occupy serious attention: social philosophy and religion.

In the former field, he grew more and more definite in his attitude. He defended the common man and his freedom; therefore he defended the institution of property and particularly defended and preached the doctrine that property to survive must be founded on so considerable a division of land and the instruments of production that widespread ownership should be the foundational institution of the state. He appreciated, of course, as all must, the immense difficulty in re-establishing property in a society which has become, as ours has, proletarian and controlled in every activity by an ever-narrowing plutocracy. He saw that the weapon to be used against this mortal state of affairs was perpetual influence by illustration and example upon the individual. It was his to change as far as might be the very lethargic mind of his fellow-citizens in these affairs. This political preoccupation of Gilbert Chesterton's was of special importance because it is the major temporal concern of our time.

The group to which he and I belonged recognized that the main social event of our generation was the destruction of freedom through the universal growth of Capitalist monopoly, and the ruin of economic independence in the mass of private citizens.

Perhaps the evil has so established itself in England as to be beyond remedy.  Certainly our contemporaries so regard it. All affirm that the revival of freedom among Englishmen is now past praying for. They must consent to living as dependents upon a small class which controls the very means of livelihood and therefore life itself.

Nowhere is this control more apparent than in the English Press, which has sunk beyond that of any other public instrument of information in Christendom, and has become a mere commercial dependence upon Big Business.

It is essential to a comprehension of Gilbert Chesterton's life, even in the field of literature (which stands half apart today from politics), to understand that this political aim to which he and I and all our group were vowed, the Restoration of Property, the struggle against Communism and Capitalism whence Communism springs, was our (and his) chief temporal aim. It may be a forlorn hope but it is by far the most outstanding of public efforts in the ruined society of our day; and for all our isolation and presumable failure, posterity will note that a little body wherein he was so conspicuous, still defended the cause of the free family and of the man master of his own home.

But such a temporal object must, like all external worldly objects, depend upon an underlying internal spirit. Only a philosophy can produce political action and a philosophy is only vital when it is the soul of a religion.

Now here we come to the thing of chief value and of chief effect in Gilbert Chesterton's life and work: his religion. In this department I have a task quite different from the common appreciation of literary style and matter. From a man's religion (or accepted and certain philosophy) all his actions spring, whether he be conscious of that connection or no. In the case of Gilbert Chesterton, the whole of whose expression and action were the story of a life's religion, the connection was not only evident to himself but to all around, and even to the general public. That public of modern England, has been taught universally that religion is at once a private personal affair and of little external effect. Our public is more agreed upon religion, and less acquainted with its diverse and multitudinous actions, than any other in the modern world; but even so all those who know anything of him, even if it be but his name, are aware of that great accident (or design) whereby he advanced towards the Faith over many years and was ultimately in full communion with it.

He approached the Catholic Church gradually but by a direct road. He first saw the city from afar off, then approached it with interest and at last entered.  Few of the great conversions in our history have been so deliberate or so mature. It will be for posterity to judge the magnitude of the event. We are too near it to see it in scale.  It may be that England will soon lose what fragment it retains of the Creed which made Europe, and by the survival of which may Europe survive. It may be just the other way:  England may be passing through a crisis and turning point in this matter and may be destined to recover by some unexpected return of fate the influence which brought the nation into being and against which the nation has come to stand in so extreme an opposition. These things are of the future and the future is veiled from man.

* * * *

I now leave this profound matter and resume my survey of the writer. The main points of what I have to say in my fragment upon the conditions of survival of Gilbert Chesterton's writings, may be tabulated as follows:

I. The leading characteristic of Chesterton as a writer and as a man (the two were much more closely identified in him than in most writers) was that he was national.

I will point out in a moment what the effects of this were upon his treatment of various subjects.

II.  The next characteristic was an extreme precision of thought, such as used to be characteristic of Englishmen, though in modern times it has broken down and people have forgotten how native it was to the English mind in the past.

III.  The third characteristic I note about his writing and thought is a unique capacity for parallelism. He continually illumined and explained realities by comparisons. This was really the weapon peculiar to Chesterton's genius. It was the one thing which he in particular had, and which no one else in his time came near to, and few in the past have approached. It is the strongest element in his writing and thinking, after the far less exceptional element of sincerity.

IV.  The structure upon which his work, like that of all modern men, had been founded, was historical:  but it was only in general historical; it was far more deeply and widely literary.  (I believe I notice this the more because with me it has always been the other way about; I have a very great deal of reading and experience upon history, far less upon literature.)

V.  Charity.  He approached controversy, his delight, hardly ever as a conflict, nearly always as an appreciation, including that of his opponent.

VI.  Lastly there is that chief matter of his life and therefore of his literary activity, his acceptation of the Faith.

* * * *

Let me consider each of these six points separately.

I.  Chesterton I say was national in every way it is possible for a writer and thinker to be national, or for a character to be national in private life apart from its public activity with pen or voice. It is one of the things, perhaps the main thing, in which Chesterton can be bracketed with the great character to whom he was so often compared: Samuel Johnson.

Often in his conversation with me I have noticed some colouring adjective or short phrase which showed how all his mind referred experience to national standards. Here, as in other matters, he drew from sources older and far stronger than the perversion of nationalism which had afflicted Englishmen more and more since his own youth.

The characteristic writer of this degraded mood is Kipling. With the mention of that name we are reminded of the opposing fates that confront the future of England. Each is national—but in very different ways. Chesterton is national in himself. He is English of the English. To follow his mind and its expression is an introduction to the English soul. He is a mirror of England, and especially is he English in his method of thought, as he is in his understanding of things and men.

He writes with an English accent.

Kipling has little about him of England or indeed of those islands. He has no sense of the English past or of the things natively and essentially English; he is rather of Asia and of the transplanted. But he is a representative of modern England through his enormous audiences. All that which we call today "The suburbs" is full of Kipling, and to Kipling the English urban middle class immediately respond. His verse especially appeals to it, far more than do his few powerful short stories.

All of us who have travelled can witness to the effect of Kipling upon the reputation of England abroad.  Kipling's ignorance of Europe, his vulgarity and its accompanying fear of superiors (which modern people call an inferiority-complex) have profoundly affected and affected adversely the reputation of England and the Englishman throughout the world. This for two reasons:

(a) The fact that Kipling was un-English and Imperial threw him at once into contact with the New World, by which term I mean the United States of the Protestant tradition and Australasia.

(b) Fate would have it that Kipling should be translated into French by a genius, who makes him in that language a far greater writer than he is. Now French being, after Latin, the universal language of civilised Western man, the Continent of Europe has approached Kipling and has been affected by him and has given him a reputation upon these lines.

Chesterton was the opposite of Kipling as a nationalist and conservative.(2) Because his family and individual tradition were of an older and far more cultured time than our own, he could not appeal either to the New World or to the Continental world in a way either could easily understand. Chesterton's work has never been properly translated into French, and three-quarters of the ideas he had to put forward, were so unfamiliar to foreigners that they could hardly be understood by them. His most concise and epigrammatic judgments are often taken as mere verbal exploits, and the half-educated and uncultured, who are of the stuff by which modern opinion is ruled, use of him the term "paradoxical", in that special meaning of their own which they give to this word, meaning "nonsense through contradiction"; not the original and cultured meaning of "paradox": "illumination through an unexpected juxtaposition".

This national character of Chesterton came out strongly in his appreciation of the English landscape.  He had little experience of seafaring life; he saw the sea not from a deck but as it is seen from the land: from an English cliff.  He was strongly impressed by its clean horizon and by its strength; even by the great voice of it, which is only heard when it comes in contact with its limits on the shore.  But in this omission, as it were, of seafaring, he was more national than ever; for though the English have a strong political and literary passion for the sea, they have as a people little personal familiarity with it, save on its shores. Thus you do not find among them the knowledge of the blind impersonal force of the sea which some have called the cruelty of the sea.  Nor do you find among them a regard of the sea as the road to things other than themselves. The sea in the modern English mind is a road to commerce and to their colonial fellow subjects or administrators.

The nationalism of Chesterton was providential, not only for his own fame but for its effect upon his readers.  It formed a bridge or link between the English mind as it has been formed by the Reformation (and particularly the later part of the Reformation, during the 17th century), and the general culture of Europe which was created by, and can only be preserved through, the Catholic Church.

Chesterton by his intellectual inheritance from the high Unitarian English culture was highly sympathetic with the general classical culture of Europe.  He could illustrate it and pass it on (often unconsciously), as could not a writer or a man who knew not the soul of that culture. He could not have conceived a world which should be of our civilisation in a fashion and yet not based on Latin and Greek.

I remember, some years before he was received into the Church and before he ever visited America, his asking me, as one with a wide experience of the United States, whether it were true that the Latin and Greek classics were there of no effect. I told him this was increasingly so, save in a very few academic coteries and, of course, in the ubiquitous and very numerous Catholic clergy, and those influenced by them.

I had a private conversation with him walking in the lanes of Beaconsfield in which he said to me, some two or three years before being received into the Catholic Church, that an obstacle which always presented itself to him was the alien character of the Faith in the eyes of a modern Englishman.  He said that I myself was cosmopolitan in experience, for I had often talked with him about the way in which I had torn myself up by the roots in my twentieth year and had gone all over America by myself and had later undertaken the adventure of service in a foreign army. Also I had a foreign name and certain ties of blood abroad.

I pointed out that among his intimate acquaintance apart from myself was the example of Maurice Baring.  He answered with justice that Maurice Baring also was cosmopolitan in his experience and outlook. "What I want," he said (I recall his exact words, for they made a profound impression on me), "is some-one entirely English who should none the less have come in."  The objection is one that has occurred to all Englishmen in a spiritual crisis of this kind. It is inevitable.

I may conclude this point by repeating that the national character of Chesterton is strongly marked in his style. The construction of his paragraphs and the sequence of his reasoning is so thoroughly national that efforts at translating him have, as I have said above, failed. I also here repeat that if he had been less national foreign nations of the Catholic culture would be more familiar with him to-day than they are.

One example of this national character and style is the way in which the word suggests the word in his writing: a thing not unconnected with the effect of the Jacobean Bible on the English mind since the 17th century, particularly the Epistles of St. Paul. Renan has remarked on this connection that the frequent use of puns, or, when they are not puns, plays upon words in Chesterton's writings, should be noted.

Lastly, there is the national character of high individualisation, which some have also called "localisation"; the preference of concrete connotation to abstraction. Chesterton is in the full tradition of those creative English writers from Chaucer to Dickens, who dwell not upon ideas but upon men and women, and especially is he national in his vast survey of English letters, whereof Kipling is wholly ignorant.(3)

* * * *

II.  I have said that the second leading characteristic of Chesterton's mind and habit of writing is precision in reasoning. Many might superficially say that this talent clashed with his nationalism and was even contradictory thereto. I cannot agree.

The English, even the modern English, formed by the Reformation, have excelled in precision of thought.  You see it in their vast volume of deduction in law, comparable to that of no other nation. You see it also in their special department of economics—a science which one may say was created in England.

This highly English tendency to precision has intellectual drawbacks as well as intellectual advantages, though the advantages can hardly be exaggerated.  One drawback lies in this: that a man having exactly defined his terms and noted the weakness of an opponent's argument from the use of the same word in various senses, tends to verbalism. He is always in some danger of missing an opponent's just conclusions, when these have been arrived at from erroneous premises.

All thought is deductive. The opposition of "induction" to "deduction" is but a verbal jingle. Induction is not thought at all. We have it in common with the animals. It is mere experiment and observation. Strictly speaking, when you think out a conclusion, that process must be deductive. For that very reason, you must be certain before you establish your conclusion firmly that your premises other than the mathematical are wholly universal. So true is this that modern sophists have even sunk to attempting the reconciliation of contradictories. Great havoc have they made with this folly.

Take it by and large, Chesterton's passion for precision of thought was an overwhelming advantage for him over all his modern opponents in controversy, especially for his modern opponents of English speech, or rather of Protestant English culture.

In theology, for instance, he excluded Modernism with the nearest approach to contempt that a mind of such wide sympathy could achieve. He was impatient of all ambiguous nonsense, but it was in his nature to leave it aside rather than to transfix it with ridicule or invective. Had he indulged more in the latter, it is my judgment that his effect would have been stronger and perhaps more permanent:  for it has been well said that the fame and effect of a man are buttressed by his enemies. As I shall come to say when I speak of his spiritual virtue, he made no enemies.

This habit of precision in thought and diction made of Chesterton a sort of what the French call a revenant on the highest phase of European and Christian thought. A revenant is one who comes back, one who reappears. 

Unfortunately, it also means a ghost. If you exemplify in your mind and also in your style an intellectual perfection which your contemporaries have lost, you will be a revenant and in danger of having less effect on those contemporaries. Although Chesterton's precision of thought and supreme talent for exact logic had much to do with his failure to conduct the mind of his contemporaries, he did influence that mind through the emotions.

For indeed, his contemporaries of the Protestant culture live upon emotion and know of hardly any other process for arriving at conviction.

Fools are fond of repeating in chorus that the English are not a logical nation.  They might as well say that the Italians are not an artistic nation, nor the Spaniards a soldierly nation. The English have been the special masters of logic in the past and still use it with a razor-like edge in circumscribed contemporary discussion, as you may see any day by listening to the pleadings in an English law-court, or by reading any one of the principal arguments advanced for theories in physical science by the English discoverers of the 19th century such as the great Huxley.

What men mean when they say that the English are not a logical nation is that nothing in their modern education makes them familiar with logic in the largest matters, whether these be political or the supreme matters of religion.  It is a weakness, for with politics especially, but also with religion on its moral and practical side, an error in first premises is usually disastrous.

Thus you may predicate as a first principle the equality of man, which is an absolutely certain truth: men are only men by the qualities they have in common with their fellows. But unless you (a) get the term in its exact meaning and (b) supplement it by other equally certain general principles, you might be led into such absurdities as thinking that the two sexes have similar aptitudes for public life, or regarding the inexperienced as equally wise with the experienced, or denying the effect of wealth on the opportunities for acquiring experience and manners.

One effect of Chesterton's unique and exceptional precision of thought is the peculiar satisfaction his writing gives to men of philosophical training or instinct. But I use the word "philosophical" here to mean the search for truth in the reasonable hope of attaining it; not a contemptible shilly-shally of opinion, or the still more contemptible practice of advocacy in defence of all theories or of none.

Men who are accustomed to the terse and packed rational process of the past, and particularly to the master mind of St. Thomas, will always eagerly seek a page of exposition from the pen of Gilbert Chesterton.  But men who cannot taste a truth unless it be highly seasoned with epigram and shock, will misunderstand his manner, because it will satisfy them for the wrong reason. Chesterton is perpetually pulling up the reader with a shock of surprise, and his pages are crammed with epigram.

Neither the one nor the other is the heart of his style. The heart of his style is lucidity, produced by a complete rejection of ambiguity: complete exactitude of definition.

While there is in this, as I have said, a peril to his contemporary effect and to its permanence in one way, because he wrote in the English tongue and for a public melted into the last dilution of English Protestantism—a public therefore which was almost physically incapable of appreciating precision in the major matters of life—there is, on the other hand, a strong chance of permanence in another way.  For your precise thinker stands unchanged: unaffected by the fluctuations of fashion in expression.

Here, as in many other connections, the permanent effect of Gilbert Chesterton's writing must largely depend upon our return or non-return to the high culture which we have lost. This means in practice the return or non-return of England to the Catholic Church. The English-speaking public, apart from the Irish race, is now Protestant. It has been strongly and increasingly Anti-Catholic for now 250 years.Through the effect of time it is to-day more soaked in Protestantism than ever it was before.

Here, as in every other matter, the permanence of Chesterton's fame will depend upon the very doubtful contingency—the conversion of England.

* * * *

III.  I have said that parallelism was the weapon peculiar to Chesterton's genius.

His unique, his capital, genius for illustration by parallel, by example, is his peculiar mark. The word "peculiar" is here the operative mood. Many have precision, though few have his degree of precision. Multitudes, of course, are national in their various ways. No one whatsoever that I can recall in the whole course of English letters had his amazing—I would say almost superhuman—capacity for parallelism.

Now parallelism is a gift or method of vast effect in the conveyance of truth. Parallelism consists in the illustration of some unperceived truth by its exact consonance with the reflection of a truth already known and perceived.

A truth may be missed by too constant a use, so that familiarity has dulled it; or by mere lack of acquaintance with it (the opposite danger); or by the repeated statement of it in false and imperfect forms. When the truth has been missed, it is recalled and fixed in the mind of the hearer by an unexpected and vivid use of parallelism.

Whenever Chesterton begins a sentence with, "It is as though," (in exploding a false bit of reasoning,) you may expect a stroke of parallelism as vivid as a lightning flash. Thus if some ass propounds that a difference of application destroys the validity of a doctrine, or that particulars are the enemies of universals, Chesterton will answer: "It is as though you were to say that I cannot be an Englishman because I am a Londoner," or "It is as though you were to say that I cannot be an Englishman because I travel," or "As though you were to say Brown and Smith cannot both be Englishmen because one of them talks West Country and the other North Country."

This invaluable instrument of exposition, parallelism, you will find enshrined in metaphor; and in metaphor (or in its parent, simile) Chesterton also excelled.

But he was at his greatest and most forcible when he fully developed the method through open and explicit parallelism.

He introduces it in more than one form; with the phrase I have just quoted, "It is as though," or more violently, the phrase "Why not say while you are about it," followed by an example of the absurdity rebuked.

For instance, to one who said all concealment was falsehood, he would reply: "Why not say, while you are about it, that 'Wearing clothes is a falsehood?'"

Sometimes he would use the form, "What should we think of a person who might say?" Sometimes he left out exordium altogether and merely stated the parallelism without addition. Always, in whatever manner he launched the parallelism, he produced the shock of illumination. He taught.

He made men see what they had not seen before. He made them know. He was an architect of certitude, whenever he practiced this art in which he excelled.

The example of the parable in Holy Writ will occur at once to the reader. It is of the same origin and of similar value. The "parable" of the Gospels differs only from pure parallelism in the artifice of introducing a story in order to capture the reader's mind. But in essence a parable is the same thing as a parallelism.

Let us remark in conclusion that parallelism is of particular value in a society such as ours which has lost the habit of thinking. It illustrates and thereby fixes a truth or an experience as a picture fixes a face or landscape in the mind.

It is (alas!) unlikely that this invaluable instrument will be so used again by any other; but Chesterton has used it to perfection and in abundance.

It permeated not only his vigorous expository prose, but still more his private conversation. How well I recall the discussions upon all affairs, of art, of politics, of philosophy, in which this genius of his appeared! All he advanced as argument was lit up by the comparison of an unknown by a known truth; of something half hidden by something fully experienced among us all.

Parallelism was so native to his mind; it was so naturally a fruit of his mental character that he had difficulty in understanding why others did not use it with the same lavish facility as himself.

I can speak here with experience, for in these conversations with him or listening to his conversation with others I was always astonished at an ability in illustration which I not only have never seen equalled, but cannot remember to have seen attempted. He never sought such thing; they poured out from him as easily as though they were not the hard forged products of intense vision, but spontaneous remarks.

I know what I am talking about.  Over and over again I have myself attempted to make something clear to my fellows by sharp, exact and revealing parallel. I have always had to seek long before I found anything approaching what I needed and the thing itself I never found.  I have never been able to form a parallel which could satisfy my desire for illustration; and even metaphor, in which my contemporaries abound, I have, by a sort of instinct, avoided:  perhaps because I was not competent therein: perhaps from scorn.

For it must be noted that metaphor lends itself to abuse.  I remember a good laugh which Chesterton and I had together over the opening words of a politically-minded Anglican Bishop speaking on some tawdry public occasion. The prelate had been badly bitten, probably in youth (perhaps in the days of Cecil Rhodes, William Stead and the more valuable Mahan), by Oceanic visions. He opened his speech, which was almost a sermon, with the phrase, "Let us strengthen while we loosen the bonds of Empire."

We both heard these words together and they became deathless in each of our memories, as the example of how to talk nonsense which will go down.

Thus, if England were attacked by a savage foe determined to annihilate her commerce and destroy her wealth, and a Dominion were to open the ball by proclaiming its neutrality in the war, that would be an excellent result of what we have been doing for the last lifetime: strengthening the bonds of Empire by loosening them. We shall probably have a complete example of it in the near future.

The original of the metaphor is obvious. You can strengthen the attachment of a boat to its moorings by paying out rope to avoid too taut a strain; but to use that metaphor as an argument for slipping your moorings altogether, as has been done with the Dominions, would be folly.

In so far as this supreme gift of parallelism lessened Chesterton's reputation with his contemporaries, instead of enhancing it as it should have done, it so lessened his reputation because his contemporaries were warped by the pestilent habit of advocacy.

Advocacy is the chief political disease of Englishmen to-day. They have pushed it so far that they excuse the basic immorality of legal chicanery by talking of "the lawyer's duty to his client." And every single one of our public questions is argued threadbare, not with a desire to reach truth, but with the desire to excel in forensic debate, which has become with us a rooted and universal decadent habit.

Now for advocacy Gilbert Chesterton had all his life not only an invincible repulsion but an inability to be attracted by it; or even to use it.  In his early youth he enjoyed mere debate, and has told me of his experiences in this.  But long before maturity, when he was still a young man, indeed, from the moment I first knew himin his twenty-seventh yearhe had done with it as a man has done with the toys of childhood.

Others all around him played with those toys all their livesusually for pay:  as leader-writers; as politicians; as humbugs of every kind. He remained fixed in his integrity.

* * * *

IV.  My next point is Chesterton's historical basis.

All men who are interested in public affairs, but especially those who desire to influence such affairs, must concern themselves with two intellectual activities: History, without which one cannot understand mankind or one's own times and people; Literature, which is the expression of conscious and reasoning mankind.

Gilbert Chesterton, having for his supreme interest the business and fate of his own country and of Christendom, occupied himself with history and literature, as supports and nourishment to the philosophy which it was his main business to expound.

Of these two departments, he was much better grounded in literature than in history; and he had a far wider field of action in literature than in history.  The English society in which he grew upthat of the public schools and the social classes formed by themis not taught history seriously at all. This defect attached to all the English world during his career; and the same defect attaches to English teaching now. There is no sign that it will be remedied.

Instinctively modern Englishmen have only thought of history as a department of politics; they desire only such history to be taught (if you can call it history at all) which shall strengthen the State or at least make its citizens feel self satisfied.

Thus certain national figures, like the pirates Drake and Hawkins, were set up as idols.  The names mixed with isolated stories of occasional petty victories, especially naval, were repeated. The general development of Europe was left aside, and England was hardly regarded as a part of that development.  It wasand israre to meet an educated Englishman to-day who is familiar with the main lines of religious history on which all the rest is founded. The portentous revolution of the fourth and fifth centuries, whereby Christendom was established, is never seen in its magnitude, nor even in its character.  The next most important event, the disruption of Christendom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is not grasped, in modern England, because the Catholic Church, which was the matter of the tragedy, is not known there. The Catholic Culture is to the Englishman of to-day a foreign country.

From these inhibitions Gilbert Chesterton in a large measure freed himself. By right instinct and speech with the right men he guessed what Europe had been and filled in with right proportion the pitifully faint and imperfect (but above all false) outline which our modern books give to young men upon the past.

Thus some of his finest verse was historical and the history therein was just, with a particular appreciation of the defence of Christendom against the barbarian and the Mohammedan. No one else but Gilbert Chesterton could have written such a poem as Lepanto in English, and no one has attempted it; while the Ballad of the White Horse is an extension of the same theme.

He had a very strong appreciation of what the Industrial Revolution had been and of how it warped the democratic revolution which might have led to a free peasantry here as it did in other countries.

But his triumph (if I may so call it), in the historical field was his appreciation of Ireland. No other English writer has come near to Chesterton in understanding both the nature of Ireland and the overwhelming importance of the Irish in the English story.

His treatment of the whole Irish question was, from the beginning, after he first became fully acquainted with it, that of a man who really understands the historical origins and historical consequences of three historical things:

(1) The conflict between tribal and feudal in the Middle Ages;
(2) the far more fundamental conflict between Catholic and Anti-Catholic from the mid-sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth centuries;
(3) the failure of hostile forces to destroy Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yes, their failure; for although that destruction was very nearly accomplished in the climax of the Irish Famine Ireland rose from the dead.

He was almost the only writing man with a sufficient English public who knew (to take one particular point) the volume and decline of the Irish seafaring trade; or (to take another, larger point) the fact that all domestic Irish history after 1700 turns on the effort persistently undertaken by the Irish to recover property of their own soil. They had been dispossessed at the end of the seventeenth centurynot two life-times before the days in which his own parents and their generation had lived. They have recovered it by indomitable tenacity and enduring political purpose in spite of ruin and exile. What writer among us except Chesterton understood the enormous thing or its effect on the fate of England herself?  Read what he wrote on St. Patrick's Bell at the Eucharistic Congress of Dublin: one of the most perfect passages in his works.

Finally, Chesterton understood historically what was meant by the word Rome. He had the singular good fortune to escape the University.  Had he gone to Cambridge, or worse still to Oxford, he would afterwards have had to unlearn laboriously a whole complex of bad history most imperfect and even more false than it was imperfect. As it was, he was able to go straight to the root of the matter and to interpret it to such of his fellow citizens as would listenand they are but a very small proportion of the whole.

Still, on history he was not sufficiently grounded; though the just perspective which nearly all his contemporaries lacked was his. In that perspective he understood for instance, the nations of Catholic culture, and particularly, France.

It was remarkable that he should possess this general view of the European Past for most of his English contemporaries had no such acquaintance with it.  General history is not taught in England to-day and if taught would hardly be understood.

So much for history in the making of an English man of letters; he had vision of it: no more. But in the English literature pure and simple he had an acquaintance very wide, accurate and, what is of more moment, critical. His first essay in this department was, I believe, the book on Robert Browning; but after that, in a mass of articles and books and in a myriad of allusions and comments, coming in as it were from the side, he expounded English letters perpetually and at large.

Everything he wrote upon any one of the great English literary names was of the first quality.  He summed up any one pen (that of Jane Austen, for instance) in exact sentences; sometimes in a single sentence, after a fashion which no one else has approached. He stood quite by himself in this department. He understood the very minds (to take the two most famous names) of Thackeray and of Dickens. He understood and presented Meredith. He understood the supremacy in Milton.  He understood Pope. He understood the great Dryden.  He was not swamped as nearly all his contemporaries were by Shakespeare, wherein they drown as in a vast seafor that is what Shakespeare is. Gilbert Chesterton continued to understand the youngest and latest comers as he understood the forefathers in our great corpus of English verse and prose. It was a feat the more remarkable because all that corpus is conditioned by the Reformation, from the ethic and general philosophy of which he differed more and more as his life proceeded.

On this account, from his very profound science and vision came a difficulty in obtaining sufficient appreciation. He ought to be regarded as by far the best, almost the only, surveyor of that wide field.  But in all that field the fine judgments he made were out of tune with what nine out of ten English audiences had taken for granted all their lives.

Nevertheless, his influence in explaining English letters to Englishmen was great, though perpetually frustrated. He was here a teacher who was more listened to than if he had expended the same energy on, and had acquired the same voluminous acquaintance with, history.

It is thus that I see his principal advantage and disadvantage for the acquirement of permanent future fame. I for my part, who suffer from a singular ignorance of English literature, learnt most of what I know from him, but more from the benefit of his conversation even than from his writing. It is through him that I know what little I know of English fiction and prose in its right proportion. With English verse I can claim a better acquaintance.

* * * *

V.  Chesterton's connection with the Faith is much the most important aspect of his literary life, and deserves more detailed treatment than any other part of his activities.  I have already dealt with its general character. I would now like to deal with it in more detail as a special department of any rational enquiry into the work and effect of this great man.

Here I must begin by a statement so unusual that my readers may well think it extravagant.  But unless that statement is made at the very beginning of this division all judgment on the man and his work falls out of proportion. This preliminary statement is an affirmation that the Catholic Church, its Creed and Doctrine, its action upon human life, its whole function is beyond comparison the most important fact not only in European history but in the modern world to-day.

My contemporaries are quite unfamiliar with this piece of common sense. All the more reason for insisting upon it.

Here an important distinction must be made between the importance of a religion and its truth.  I suppose ninety-nine Englishmen out of a hundred (including the greater part of that very small body which is both English by race and Catholic by religion) will regard my affirmation here as a mere personal opinion and distorted at that. "The writer is himself a Catholic," they will say, "and therefore gives to the Catholic Faith and practice an importance which is not to be discovered in the real world. The Catholic Church is but one of many things in the society around us; to give it this overwhelming and unique value is to exaggerate absurdly its place and function. No one could hold such a view unless he accepted himself the Faith and doctrine in question, and to propound it for the acceptance of other men is ridiculous."

That, I say, is certainly the way in which nearly all Englishmen would regard the judgment that the Catholic Faith is the dominating fact, not only in the history of Europe (and therefore of the world) but in our own contemporary society.

Yet so it is; and by the extent to which a man recognises that truth you may test his knowledge or his ignorance upon the things of the present or the past.  But the recognition of such a fact has nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of the Catholic claims. The Church claims to be in exclusive possession of the only philosophy which explains man's place in the Universe, reveals man's relation with his Creator and gives him a rational account of his own nature. Therefore Her Doctrine is absolute and in Her eyes unquestionable. But that claim is far from being universally accepted, it is for the greater part of men, even in this European civilisation of ours which was moulded by the Faith, inadmissible.

Granted.  It is in the nature of things that such a claim must sound monstrous to all those who reject it.  But that has nothing to do with the importance of the institution which makes the claim. Those minds (in this country the great majority) who can hardly conceive that the claim exists and who certainly never connect the Catholic Church with any universal philosophy are fundamentally ignorant. They do not know the world they are living in. They do not see things as they are.

As an example of such ignorance, you may take the common insistence upon race as the chief factor in human society. Those who advance the proposition that race determines everything are talking without a knowledge of their subject. Race is an important factor in the development of human things and of social arrangements, but it is not the dominant or central factor. The dominant and central factor is, and must always be, an accepted scheme of values, especially of moral values. And such schemes we call religions.

Those who understand public affairs even less than do the racialists will ascribe to nationality the same overwhelming role which the racialists attach to race. They are even more wrong than the racialists, for a common nationality does not bind men save where the nation is enshrined as an idol to be worshipped by all.

There are many who take up an even less intelligent position than do the nationalists, and who make their test nothing more fundamental than mere language. These will talk of "Anglo-Saxons" or "The English-speaking world"such people may be earnestly recommended to travel.

When you go about the world and see men as they are, when you watch their groupings and what are called to-day their "reactions", you soon discover that the lines of cleavage among them follow the lines of religion: not necessarily of religion conscious and expressed, but of ultimate religious training and formation.

Your popular writer on political matters is not only ignorant of this but is at some pains to substitute false terms for the true ones. Rather than talk of Catholic and Protestant cultures in Europe, for instance, he will talk of Teutons and Latins.  And his readers are at least as much out of touch with reality as himselfotherwise he would not be a popular writer. The man who perceives, defines and extends truths by the pen is more likely to be an unpopular writer.

There is a test immediately to hand by which we may judge the place of the Church in human society.  It is an ephemeral test but a striking one. It is the test of war and peace.

Even the most cretinous must by now perceive that modern war may be the destruction of all our world.  In terror at that prospect men seek remedies for the chaos or defences against it.  The most absurd of such experiments was, I suppose, the so-called "League of Nations" which left Islam out of account and yet gave sovereign authority to Abyssinia. It was founded on a silly falsehood and was unworthy of the mighty fruit it has producedwhich is no less than the mortal peril wherein we now stand.

Others would seek a defence against this peril of death by setting up one power stronger than the rest to be the universal master over all. Mr. Christopher Hollis, for instance, who is justly prominent among those who discuss international matters, has suggested (in a very remarkable article (4) to which too much attention can hardly be paid) that the natural candidate for such a paramount position is modern Prussianised Germany, on account of its numbers, its disciplined unity and what is called its "efficiency"that is its reduction of human activity to mechanics. Others have dreamt of a European unity to be restored in the Roman tradition, and this is the noble part of the Fascist extravagance. Others would prefer to live under the despotism of Moscow, enjoying all the delights and variety of Communism. Others more old-fashioned sigh for a strict alliance between Great Britain and the United States who should enjoy between them the domination of the world.

All these various reformers and Utopians omit what should surely be, according to all human experience, the one necessary spiritual foundation for unity, and that is a common religion.

This enormous omission, this flying in the face of common sense, may be excused in men and women who suffer from a general lack of experience and can conceive of no moral atmosphere save that which they breathed in early youth.  Thus it has been very justly remarked of Mr. H. G. Wells (the most representative English writer of our time) that he is a Bible Christian who has lost his God.  It may be similarly remarked of almost any common radical French politician taken at random from the rubbish heap of the now ruined French parliament that he is an anti-Catholic Catholic who has lost his Catholicism, and the same is true of fellow Masons in Rome and Madrid.  It is strange but informing to discover that these wretchedly provincial attitudes of mind always think themselves universal, and nothing surprises world reformers of such a sort more than the discovery that other men differ from them. They are sure the benighted fellows can be easily set right by another little bout of propaganda.

Now it is, or should be, self-evident, that a religion accepted as universal settles the quarrel and it is the only conceivable force that can do so: hence the overwhelming interest which all reasonable men should attach to the religion which so proposes to be universal.

That one of Chesterton's innumerable pieces of work wherein the effect of the Faith is most evident is also his best piece of work. Of all his books it is by far the most profound and the most clear, and for my part I should like to make it a test of any man's critical sense to have him take up that last volume of Essays, not the very last, I think, but among the last which he published and which was given to the world under the title of "The Thing". (5)

"The Thing" first appeared nearly eleven years ago in the Autumn of 1929. I am curious and even meditative upon its probable fate. If it is read by the generation now rising, that will mean that England is beginning to think. If it is forgotten, that will mean that thought is failing; for nowhere had there been more thorough thinking or clearer exposition in our time.

To illustrate this I will break my general rule and admit a quotation from what is perhaps the chief essay in a work crowded with intellectual triumphs. I refer to the essay which bears the plain title "Why I am a Catholic":

"I would undertake to pick up any topic at random, from pork to pyrotechnics, and show that it illustrates the truth of the only true philosophy; so realistic is the remark that all roads lead to Rome. Out of all these I have here only taken one fact; that the thing is pursued age after age by unreasonable hatred that is perpetually changing its reason.  Now of nearly all the dead heresies it may be said that they are not only dead, but damned; that is, they are condemned or would be condemned by common sense, even outside the Church, when once the mood and mania of them is passed.  Nobody now wants to revive the Divine Rights of Kings which the first Anglicans advanced against the Pope. Nobody now wants to revive the Calvinism which the first Puritans advanced against the King. Nobody now is sorry that the Iconoclasts were prevented from smashing all the statues of Italy. Nobody now is sorry that the Jansenists failed to destroy all the dramas of France. Nobody who knows anything about the Albigensians regrets that they did not convert the world to pessimism and. perversion Nobody who really understands the logic of Lollards (a much more sympathetic set of People) really wishes that they had succeeded in taking away all political rights and privileges from everybody who was not in a state of grace. "Dominion founded on Grace" was a devout ideal; but considered as a plan for disregarding an Irish policeman controlling traffic in Piccadilly, until we have discovered whether he has confessed recently to his Irish priest, it is wanting in actuality. In nine cases out of ten the Church simply stood for sanity and social balance against heretics who were sometimes very like lunatics. Yet at each separate moment the pressure of the prevalent error was very strong; the exaggerated error of a whole generation, like the strength of the Manchester School in the 'fifties, or of Fabian Socialism as a fashion in my own youth. A study of the true historical cases commonly shows us the spirit of the age going wrong, and the Catholics at least relatively going right. It is a mind surviving a hundred moods.

"As I say, this is only one aspect; but it was the first that affected me and it leads on to others.  When a hammer has hit the right nail on the head a hundred times, there comes a time when we think it was not altogether by accident.  But these historical proofs would be nothing without the human and personal proofs, which would need quite a different sort of description. It is enough to say that those who know the Catholic practice find it not only right, but always right when everything else is wrong; making the Confessional the very throne of candour where the world outside talks nonsense about it as a sort of conspiracy; upholding humility when everybody is praising pride; charged with sentimental charity when the world is talking a brutal utilitarianism; charged with dogmatic harshness when the world is loud and louse with vulgar sentimentalism—as it is to-day. At the place where the roads meet there is no doubt of the convergence. A man may think of all sorts of things, most of them honest and many of them true, about the right way to turn in the maze at Hampton Court. But he does not think he is in the centre; he knows."

An excerpt never does justice to a writer.

Least of all can an excerpt do justice to anything from the great flood of Chestertonian invention. His mind was oceanic, subject indeed to a certain restriction of repeated phrase and manner, but in no way restricted as to the action of the mind. He swooped upon an idea like an eagle, tore it with active beak into its constituent parts and brought out the heart of it. If ever a man analysed finally and conclusively Chesterton did so.

It was, I think, this in him, the intellectual dynamic action, which made it so difficult for his sluggish and superficial contemporaries to understand him. It would have been better perhaps had he never fallen into verbalism (wherein he tended to exceed). For fools were led thereby to think that he was merely verbalist whereas he was in reality a thinker so profound and so direct that he had no equal.

Anyhow, verbalist he was. It was his superficial defect and on that point I would like for a moment to linger.

God knows I do not use the term "verbalist" in derogation of his expression. I should be more proud than I can say if I could even have approached his clarity of speech, wherein he had but one rival, I think, Mr. H. G. Wells. But there is this difference between the two men: Chesterton had great things to say, while poor Wells never had anything to say, only other people's nothings to repeat.

Chesterton, being verbalist, was in most of his books (of Essays at least) perpetually punning. Now the teachers of the human race often exceeded in the direction of punning. The fathers of the Church were always at it (among whom I may quote the old tag "Non est mendacium sed mysterium" which is, I believe, St. Augustine. Let me also quote "Mutans Evae Nomen". I spare you five hundred others.)

To revel in words is the mark of a master of words.  The great Rabelais will nod and approve this verdict from his throne in heaven. It is no wonder that Chesterton in his magnificent exuberance should exceed where words were concerned and therefore fall into punning, which trope is based upon the word suggesting the word. But I always wish, when I am reading him, that he had avoided the temptation and had concentrated upon direct expression, wherein, like his contemporary H.G. Wells, he was a master.

Now let me turn to something else in the weighing of this genius. That he was exuberant we know.  That he was profoundly English we know. That he loved to discover and to propound truth (the high task of a man!) we also know.  That he had a unique capacity for propounding truth (usually, alas! to men who did not understand what they were hearing) we also know. But there is another quality about him which should be remembered and will be tested also by the years as they pass. He had universality.

By this I mean that he understood all men (wherein also was rooted his charity, whereon I next touch) and in particular his countrymen who are after their fashion the most diverse as they are certainly the most united and the most humorous of European men.

It seems to me that Gilbert Chesterton at his baptism was visited by three fairies. Two good and one evil one. The two good fairies were the Fairy of fecundity in speech and the Fairy of wide appreciation. The bad fairy was struck dead as she entered the churchand served her right. He was blessed in knowing nothing of the acerbities which bite into the life of writing men.

The life of writing men has always been, since our remote fathers engaged upon it in the high Greek world, a bitter business. It is notoriously accompanied, for those who write well, by poverty and contempt; or by fatuity and wealth for those who write ill. It is unrewarded in this world and probably in the next(seeing, that those who write well do so with their backs put up like spitting catswitness the immortal Swift).

The writing man, I say, is a most unhappy beast of burden (and I know something about it); he bears upon his back for conveyance to others the joys and consolations, the visions that make life in this bad world tolerable. But he may not enjoy them himself any more than the donkey may enjoy the vegetables that he bears to market.

Now Gilbert Chesterton enjoyed this singular, this very happy fate, that, though he was a writing man the bitterness of the trade never approached him. He was spared its ignominies and its trials, which are a sort of martyrdom whereby the writer earns fame—which is worth nothing. He himself had something much more worth while, called Virtue.

I have said nothing in this short essay to judge his verse. I have avoided it for two reasons.  First of all because I know myself to be fastidious in the matter, secondly because time judges these things and the date is too recent. There is hardly one example, at least among contemporaries, of a man being praised for his verse during his own lifetime for the right reasons.

But I will say this about Chesterton's verse:  that, while it suffered from being voluminous and therefore loose, it struck perpetually the inward note. Here again I will quote:

"Our Lady stroked the tall live grass, as a man stroke his steed."

That is good stuff!  That is inward stuff!  That is stuff you don't get in Anthologies! And again I will quote:

"Don Juan of Austria has gone by Alcalar."

That is from Lepanto, and it is a trumpet call! But indeed the whole of that poem Lepanto is not only the summit of Chesterton's achievement in verse but the summit of high rhetorical verse in all our generation. I have said this so often that I am almost tired of saying it again, but I must continue to say it. People who cannot see the value of Lepanto are half dead. Let them so remain.

Well, what will be the harvest of all this?  How much will remain to English letters from the great fertile flood of writing and of thinking (but especially of thinking) which made this man so exceptional in our time?

I would answer, that no one can tell. The result depends not upon him but upon his country. It may be that his country is in decline and will be unable to learn the great lesson. It may be that this country (which he so deeply loved and so exactly represented) will rise to things even greater than those of its great past.  If it does so, Gilbert Chesterton's name will be among the first of English names. If it does not, he will be forgotten.

* * * *

VI.  All men one may say, or very nearly all men, have one leading moral defect.  Few have one leading Christian virtue. That of Gilbert Chesterton was unmistakably the virtue of Christian charity:  a virtue especially rare in writing men, and rarest of all in such of them as have a pursuing appetite for controversythat is, for bolting out the truth.

He loved his fellow-men. Through this affection, which was all embracing he understood the common man; and that virtue, which was so conspicuous in all his private life and broad river of daily speech, was both a strength and a weakness to his fame.

It was a strength because it gave him access to every mind; men will always listen to a friend; and so much was he a friend of all those for whom he wrote that all were prepared to listen, however much they were puzzled. I shall always remember how once in America a man said to me, a man who I believe had never seen Chesterton in the flesh:

"When I read of his death I felt the shock one feels upon the loss of a daily and beloved acquaintance."

The drawback, however, of this virtue of charity as regards its action upon his fame was that it prevented the presence in what he wrote of that acerbity or "bite" which gives an edge or rather a spearhead to every effort at persuasion. It preserved him from enmities. He had no enemies; and in a society such as ours in Modern England, a society which above all demands comfort and ease, this gave him a universality of appeal but furnished no occasion for attack. You do not rise from the reading of one of Chesterton's appreciations with that feeling of being armed which you obtain from the great satirists and particularly from the masters of irony.

He wounded none, but thus also he failed to provide weapons wherewith one may wound and kill folly. Now without wounding and killing, there is no battle; and thus, in this life, no victory; but also no peril to the soul through hatred.

Of the personal advantage to himself of so great and all-pervading a charity, too much cannot be said; but I believe it to be a drag upon his chances of endurance upon paperfor what that may be worthand it is worth nothing compared with eternal things.

Christendom would seem to be now entering an ultimate phase in the struggle between good and evil, which is, for us, the battle between the Catholic Church and its opponents.  In that struggle, those will stand out in the future most vividly who most provoked hostility. To his lasting advantage in the essential things of the spirit, of his own individual soul, he did not provoke it.

He was aided in the preservation of such serenity by the gradualness of the approach he made to the right side of the battle. His name and writings were already familiar before his conversion, to a general public, which had no idea of the Faith. They were thus familiar and accepted long before he threw down the last challenge by fully accepting the Creed, the Unity and the temporal disabilities of Catholic allegiance. He had before his reception acquired, as it were, a privileged position which permitted him to be still listened to after he had crossed that frontier of the Faith beyond which lies all that his fellow-countrymen oppose.

Herein he was blessed and may be justly envied by those who are condemned by their Faith to exclusion and exile. In the appreciation of a man rather than of a writer virtue is immeasurably more important than literary talent and appeal. For these last make up nothing for the salvation of the soul and for an ultimate association with those who should be our unfailing companions in Beatitude:  the Great Company. Of that Company he now is; so that it is a lesser and even indifferent thing to determine how much he shall also be of the company, the earthly and temporal company, of the local and temporarily famous.

What place he may take according to that lesser standard I cannot tell, because many years must pass before a man's position in the literature of his country can be called securely established.

We are too near to decide on this. But because we are so near and because those (such as I who write this) who were his companions, knew him through his very self and not through his external activity, we are in communion with him.

So be it.  He is in Heaven.

1) My mother was received into the Catholic Church four years before I was born. Her approach to the Faith was through the intelligence.

2) I do not use this word "conservative" in the silly and now obsolete sense of a Parliamentary Party but in its true sense: "Conservative of Tradition", especially of tradition social and national.

3) He who would judge the Nationalism, the "Englishry" of Chesterton's mind in contrast with the "Imperialism," the un-English tone of Kipling's should contrast their drawings as well as their writings. Chesterton's innumerable drawings of human expression are quintessentially English, distilled and double distilled English. Kipling's efforts in this line are as decadent as the French Latin quarter of a life-time ago, or as Aubrey Beardsley's exact and poisonous line.

4) The article here alluded to appeared in the London weekly newspaper Truth in the number published on Thursday, July 25th, 1940.

5) The reader may find the book in small convenient form reprinted by its original publishers, Messrs. Sheed & Ward, in the Unicorn Library.

London, Sheed & Ward, September 1940.
Text source:  G. K. Chesterton's Works on the Web by Martin Ward.

Conversation Piece (G.K. Chesterton; Maurice Baring; Hilaire Belloc),
by Sir Herbert James Gunn. Oil on canvas, 1932; National Portrait Gallery, London.

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