Walking with Chesterton into an Age of Disillusion

     Reading G.K. Chesterton’s weekly Illustrated London News columns offers an interesting contemporary look into how the events of his day were being perceived at the time. With an eye towards the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I later this year, Chesterton’s columns are well placed to grant us a unique view of the buildup and progression of the war that would initiate the decimation of European Civilization.

          By this August, when guns first rang out and armies began crossing borders in 1914, I suspect we will have heard a good many explanations and reflections on the Great War, with each theorist assigning blame in varying degrees to the different participants. What is too often lost in the study of history, however, is the voice of those who were actually there at the time, something Chesterton’s regularly written columns may help provide.

          Although his journalistic writings at the time cover a breadth of subjects, for any Englishman, the years of 1914 to 1918 were defined by World War I, and Chesterton was no more immune to the war’s influence than the average European.

          This year’s regrettable anniversary marks the shattering of the relative quiet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and will supply us with an abundance of blood-drenched 100-year memorials basically for the next century at least if my knowledge of modern history is accurate. How much attention the passing of these days actually garners depends on how much people care I suppose, and for most Americans World War I seems to be of limited interest, especially before the U.S. entered the fray in 1917.


Cecil Edward Chesterton (1879-1918)
Credit: The Chesterton Society via Oxford DNB

          So as we mark the beginning of a 100 year period that has witnessed killing on an unprecedented scale, the rise and fall of empires, and a loss of innocence that completely altered Western culture, may we be guided by G.K. Chesterton, who himself was of course personally affected by the war which claimed the life of his younger brother Cecil.

          Following Chesterton into the darkness that lays ahead, like a lantern in the night, I am reminded of the words of Gabriel Syme:

“You can only destroy. You will destroy mankind; you will destroy the world. Let that suffice you. Yet this one old Christian lantern you shall not destroy.”

          And so below is Chesterton’s column from 100 years ago today.

February 21, 1914

On Missing the Point

What bothers me is everybody missing the point. I do not mean that they miss my point, but everybody’s point: they miss the point of Plato or Mohammed or Augustine or Calvin or Karl Marx. And the great proof is this: that they not only falsify the thing, but they falsify it the wrong way round. The thing is not only not so black as it is painted, but it never set out to be black at all: it is like confusing salt with soot. Thus, the enemies of Socialism will say, “If we divide all the property to-morrow, it will be just the same in the long run.” That is exactly as if the enemies of Judaism were to say, “And if they did eat all that pork, it would probably make them ill.” It is prophesying the failure of a project which has not only never been entertained, but which has been by primary necessity repudiated. A socialist cannot believe in dividing property, for the simple reason that he cannot believe in property. If he believes in any such thing, he must believe in combining property, in concentrating it in the hands of the State and the statesman—whom lately we have learnt to love so much.

Or again, I saw lately, in that veteran but virile paper the Clarion, somebody writing what he called “Questions for Christians.” And one of the questions was: Why do Christians ask men to be content with all earthly sufferings in the hope of a better world? Now that proposition is not Christianity. But it is not only not Christianity—it is exactly and precisely the opposite of Christianity: just as cutting up private property is the opposite of Socialism, or eating nothing but pork the opposite of Judaisrn. Whatever else Christianity means or ever meant, it obviously means or meant an interference with the physical sorrows of humanity by the physical appearance of Divinity. If it does not mean that, I cannot conceive what it does mean. There seems to be no point in the story. Numberless other people have believed in immortality and in a world higher than our own. As certainly as you can (and must) believe in reincarnation if you are a Buddhist, as certainly as you can (and must) disbelieve in the Incarnation if you are a Mohammedan, so certainly, if you do believe in it, you must believe in its great model, and in the duty of practical medicament for the pains of men.

In short, the modern attack is not an exaggeration: it is simply a flat contradiction of the truth. Cutting up all property into small pieces is not an exaggeration of Socialism; it is not even a slander on Socialism. It is simply the opposite of Socialism. Relying wholly on the spiritual world and neglecting the physical world is not an exaggeration of Christianity; it is not even a slander on Christianity. It is simply the opposite of Christianity. There is a great deal to be said for both of them, as there is a great deal to be said both against Socialism and against Christianity. But I repeat that what worries me is most people missing the point—the point of Socialism or Anti-Socialism, the point of Christianity or infidelity. The Anti—Socialists are utterly ignorant of what Socialism is; they are actually more ignorant than the Socialist. The assailants of the Christian Church are so incredibly ignorant that they actually know less about it than the Churchmen do.

I think the real weakness which undermines our country really is this attempt to make an organ or instrument do the opposite of its function. It is as if we used a corkscrew for putting in the cork, instead of for pulling it out. It is as if we tried to pull out nails with a hammer, instead of knocking them in. The instrument is not suited to the experiment, and there never was any reason to suppose that it was. Thus Science is seriously a very grand human achievement. Christianity, if it is only a human achievement, is a much grander one. But when you combine the two and call it Christian Science you have simply manufactured a composite instrument which is something between a hammer and a corkscrew. The only property that is intellectually peculiar to itself is plain enough: there is enough of the hammer in it to prevent it drawing corks, there is enough of the corkscrew in it to prevent it knocking in nails. Christian Science does not get rid of what is irritating in Christian sentiment, the suggestion of unworldly weakness that has exasperated men of action in all ages. It does not get rid of the weak part of the religion. What it does get rid of is the strong part of the religion—the story of bodily manhood, bodily valour, and bodily death. And though I am here comparing a thing I despise with a thing I admire, I cannot help feeling about the Guild Socialism (so brilliantly set forth by Mr. Orage and others in the New Age) something of what I feel about Christian Science. Intellectually, of course, they are at opposite ends of the ladder. But I still feel that a Guild is one thing and Socialism is another; and that, when all is said and done, a Guild is the opposite of Socialism. For when I was a Socialist, in the tame days of my youth, which preceded the madness of my middle age and the present delirium of my dotage, I supposed that Socialism meant making everything dependent on the State. With such faculties as are not fading from me, I perceive that the making of a Guild is the making of something independent of the State. That is why I like Trades Unions—and don’t like the Board of Trade.

I do not particularly object to the pot calling the kettle black. The Party System is made like that. But I do strongly object to the pot calling the kettle white. I do object to the pot taunting the kettle with having no acquaintance with hot water, with being a cool and crystalline silver urn which has never felt the fire. And that is the sort of unjust charge that is brought against great historic beliefs and institutions. Thus there are royalists and reactionaries to-day who will talk of a Republic as a thing necessarily prosaic and pacifist, incapable of chivalry and the charge. They seem to forget that Republicans have charged further and shown chivalry on a larger scale than almost any other of the children of men; that they were Republicans who rode through Lombardy and broke Berlin. In exactly the same manner, Christianity is wronged, not by enemies who exaggerate its worldiness, but by those who exaggerate its unworldliness. Christianity is not Buddhism. If Christianity has failed (which I should not admit), it has failed by defiling itself with the world, but certainly not by feeling superior to it. The distinction is so clear that I do not care how you choose to put it. Say, if you like, that the temptation of the Buddhist is to be a prig. Say, if you like, that the temptation of the Christian is to be a snob. But do not say that a religion which really has no other point of difference from the other great religions, except that it maintains a material appearance of its highest divinity among men, is a religion that does not care about this world. Please don’t say it. It makes you look silly.

It is so in all the social and political questions. Disagree with Socialists if you like. Disagree with Anarchists if you like. Both habits, if exercised in moderation, are good for the health. But do not lose your temper, for this is always fatal to the generous and humane institution which we call an argument. Do not tell the Socialist he is an Anarchist; he is not. He is quite the opposite. I write impartially, because I dislike both of them—almost as much as I dislike all the respectable and responsible order which they attack. I hope that is impartiality anyhow. I dislike the doctrine that expands suddenly like a bomb: I dislike yet more the doctrine that concentrates and collects itself into a small compass like a poison. But whether you or I prefer death by dynamite or death by a liqueur, we owe it to the delicacy and fine taste of our murderers to distinguish between two definite types of assault. Explosion is expansion, and is therefore the opposite of concentration. The fact is so simple that even a modern philosopher might grasp it. And when he has grasped that, he might discover all sorts of extraordinary things. He might discover that Christianity is the opposite of Christian Science. He might discover that Christianity is the opposite of the oppression of the poor. I speak only of the logical antithesis: I have never said of Christian Science that there was nothing to be said for it. For that matter I do not say of the oppression of the poor that there is nothing to be said for it. Anyhow, there is a great deal being done for it.


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