BY MATTHEW HERBERT
G.K. Chesterton does his readers the service of being wrong at top volume. Whatever he says, he says loudly.
He despises the Japanese, for example, for the wiliness of judo. To wit: “I am told that the Japanese method of wrestling consists not of suddenly pressing, but of suddenly giving way. This is one of my many reasons for disliking the Japanese civilization. To use surrender as a weapon is the very worst spirit of the East.”
Of course, Chesterton is often not wrong, and he is occasionally subtle, but when a writer’s only voice is declamatory, his offenses will have a way of standing out and being remembered.
Our ideas today are all wrong, Chesterton believes, because they are forward looking. Yes, he really says this. He even puts a good literary metaphor at its service: “The modern man no longer presents the memoirs of his great grandfather; but is engaged in writing a detailed and authoritative biography of his great grandson. Instead of trembling before the specters of the dead, we shudder abjectly under the shadow of the babe unborn.”
Now, you may or may not like trembling before the dead–to each his own–but what on Earth could be wrong with bearing our future generations in mind as we evaluate ideas, think up policies, and vote for our lawmakers and so forth? (A friend and former professor of mine wrote a very good book arguing that data-driven, forward-looking policies are in fact excellent for our well being.)
In his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World? Chesterton sets out to do the same thing he always seems to be doing–arguing that Europeans and their descendents hunger for a return to the values, concepts and social patterns of the Middle Ages.
We get a clear idea what Chesterton will be up to in What’s Wrong when he opens by asserting with no argument at all that old, discredited ideas are often the very ones we need. Furthermore, rather than calling on practical “experts” to analyze our politics in the here and now, he asserts, we need zany theorists willing to go back and re-examine the lost causes of our past to find the ideas worth reviving. Like some old, unreconstructed communists, Chesterton seems to believe, mutatis mutandis, there’s nothing wrong in principle with being illiterate Catholic peasants; we just didn’t do it right the first time around.
Or, as Chetserton puts the case, “The Middle Ages were a rational epoch, an age of doctrine. Our age is, at best, a poetical epoch, an age of prejudice.” Cultural confidence is what Chesterton hankers after. “A doctrine,” he goes on, “is a definite point; a prejudice is a direction.”
Chesterton dislikes mere directions because, one gets the feeling, there is no telling where they will lead. Some of us like mere directions precisely for their unanticipated payoffs. No one knew in the 1950s USA, for example, that the budding civil rights movement would lead to better insitutional protection of the rights of animals, gays, women, children, and the disabled. Recognizing their dignity, indeed the dignity of anyone who happened not to be a healthy, white male human, just seemed like a good direction to push. (It still does.)
Chesterton, on the other hand, believes healthy white males are just the people to be deciding who has dignity and who doesn’t, because, well, haven’t they always run the show? In a chain of assertions that must be read in full to be appreciated, Chesterton “argues” that the male’s taste for loud, drunken talk about politics with one’s cigar-waving fellows is not just a good source of law and policy; it is actually one of the pillars of Western civilization. The little wifey’s nagging insistence that the capers not go on too long is the other pillar, by the way, and it is Chesterton’s special genius to describe this duty more exalted than the man’s. I will come back to that.
Despite appearing in 1910, What’s Wrong with the World is a surprisingly engaging book even today. Small wonder, though, as it turns out. It is basically a disputation about political ethos: whether our policy ideas should be otherworldly and reverent toward the past or secular and in search of reform. Although Chesterton was enormously intelligent (distinguishing himself from the Simian bookeaters of today’s reactionary right) he took an attitude toward science that matches much of the right’s outlook today. Science, he says, is shallow and confused because it leaves out theology. It just makes us mean and spins us around in God-knows-what direction. Better the religious certainties of yore, which were beautiful, Chesterton thinks, even when homicidal:
“The atmospheric ugliness that surrounds our scientific war is an emanation from that evil panic which is at the heart of it. The charge of the Crusades was a charge; it was charging towards God, the wild consolation of the braver. The charge of the modern armaments is not a charge at all. It is a rout, a retreat, a flight from the devil, who will catch the hindmost.”
As I said, Chesterton does not lower his voice even when he’s about to say something outrageously wrong. Half the (perverse) fun of reading What’s Wrong with the World is having this sort of nonsense blared directly in one’s face. It’s bracing, in its own way.
Still, anyone who defends the doctrines Chesterton likes, such as transubstantiation and original sin, must be capable of great literary inventiveness if he is to make any headway at all, or if he is to be remembered a hundred years after his books, as Chesterton is. This is why Chesterton remains worth reading. In the midst of his most abhorent efforts to turn back the clock, he often poses a problem in a surprisingly fresh or appealing way.
Take the suffrage, for example. Chesterton was against it. He did not want women to vote. Now without delving into Freud, I think Chesterton probably had deeply conventional reasons for wanting to keep women out of politics, but the pretext he fashioned for his position was surprisingly nuanced and, up to a point, persuasive.
Briefly, his argument runs like this: government is, at its foundation, an agreed-on authority for meting out coercion, including death. The punishment or killing of humans by the state is a humiliation for all involved. In a democracy, all voters are involved. (I’m with Chesterton so far. This is an unflinching analysis of the moral tradeoff we make when we set up a rule-of-law system based on popular consent. See Hobbes, who originally made this point.)
Men, Chesterton goes on, are naturally disposed to this tragically necessary humiliation. It’s what we face down and reason out in those loud, smoke-filled rooms. Women, to their immense credit, are not. Thus, denying women the vote protects their elevated moral status. QED.
There are several objections to be made to the latter inferences in this argument. One is that, as free agents, women deserve the determing say in whether they should be protected from the shared moral humiliation of state coercion. Chesterton is clearly right that killing prisoners or even locking them away for life is an act of incalculable brutality, but he is wrong to deny women their share of responsibility for it without consulting them.
Which leads to my next objection. It is not the vote that makes a citizen a stakeholder in state violence; it is the enjoyment of the law-bound protections the state provides. If you can reasonably expect the cops to come arrest your robber or the courts to try him, you are already in the troubled moral waters that Chesterton tries to portray as being walled off by the vote.
One of Chesterton’s implicit assertions, which I will not attack directly, is that the feminine character makes women a poor fit for political life. It is not just that women have, after millennia of child rearing and homemaking, ended up as angelic, nurturing types; they are made that way. It is women’s angelic nature, the second, and sturdier pillar of Western civilization by Chersterton’s account, that obligates them to come round and call a halt to man parties or fetch us out of the pub. I will not go near this silly assertion.
I would, however, like to mention the surprisingly winning way Chesterton describes the power and vitality of homemaking. The man, vivacious and politically minded as he is, is at the end of the day a narrow specialist, doomed to see his most cherished goals die a death of a thousand compromises with other specialists out abroad in the world. Subtracting the grubbier parts of what we all know go on in politics, this is actually a fair description of political debate and lawmaking. Moreover, for Chesterton, it may seem like the man is going out and having all the fun while the wife stays home with the kids, but the man is actually (once again) bowing to the woman’s superior nature, which finds expression in the scope of her work at home. Unlike the man, the woman is an all-powerful generalist, making decisions that go unchecked, creating real, existing humans. Far from a drudge, she is actually monarchical:
“To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whitely within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?”
My own feelings about home life both validate and repudiate what Chesterton says here. Minus the uniquely English references, I feel all the thrills and deep contentments of homemaking he alludes to here. And he is right to recognize the significant power of the home life, not just its quiet gratifications. I am indeed Aristotle to my children; I do explain the universe to them. Even when my efforts at child rearing are cheap or rushed, I feel like they are the most important things I do on any given day.
Indeed Chesterton hits upon something so vital with this insight, it is a monstrous disappointment to discover he is really just using it as a premise in a deeply perverse argument to advance the social control of women. Women who wish to vote, work, or even just go to the bar and yammer about politics, he says, are in fact not gaining liberties but surrendering their high, immaculate place in society. Why would they want to leave their natural province and join men in running the grubby affairs of the wider world, which is really not nearly as fun as it looks?
Despite the flaws in Chesterton’s argument, it is one every homemaker should consider, and put into better logical order. There is indeed a tradeoff to be made between going to work and being the same thing to everyone and staying home and being everything to someone. The choice is a poignant one. But it is not one to be made for ever and all time on your behalf by a fat, rambling Englishman who reeks of cigar smoke and papacy. Luckily, most of the developed world avoids backbreaking work these days, and men and women may choose rationally–at least as far as circumstances allow–between work life and home life. It is a hard choice but not one determined by our sex, still less one we should base on a philosophical argument.
My recommendation is, read Chesterton. He is much more full of surprises than I’ve suggested here, and it is a fascinating experience to occasionally be bewitched by his arguments that prove to be all wrong.