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Pathologist of contemporary liberalism

by Jeremiah Wilkes

In the early part of this century a strange beast stalked the streets of London. It was mainly to be seen around Fleet Street and its attendant watering holes, and had a striking appearance: sometimes massive in height and girth, sometimes cloaked in black, striking a pose that was at once pugnacious, purposeful, and confident. It was called by Bernard Shaw (in 1908) the ‘Chesterbelloc’, but to him it resembled “a very amusing pantomime elephant”. One half of Shaw’s sardonic “quadrupedal illusion” was of course Hilaire Belloc; the other was Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

Shaw’s lampoon was not altogether inaccurate. For several decades Belloc and Chesterton formed something of a team, both frequently contributing to the magazine first called The New Witness (successor to the seminal campaigning magazine The Eye Witness edited by Gilbert’s brother Cecil, with help from Belloc), later called simply GK’s Weekly (1925-36). They defended each other against attack, and attacked each other’s enemies. They were, quite simply, on the same side. On the other were Shaw and Wells, the Webbs, and the many other spokesmen for secularism, atheism, socialism, modernism, materialism, and everything that has come to characterise the times in which we now live. That Shaw had to descend to crude parody is indicative of what a formidable team Chesterton and Belloc made. They may have lost the battle for men’s minds - the evidence is all around us. But their prescience, and the timelessness of their views, suggest that they won the argument and may yet emerge victorious in the war of ideas.

Chesterton and Belloc are probably the two greatest English-speaking Catholic apologists of the century. Not wishing to denigrate Belloc for a moment, I venture that, qua apologist in the strict sense, Chesterton was the greater. Much more of his output is deliberately apologetical. Whereas Belloc’s approach is primarily historical, and his style triumphalist, Chesterton takes a mainly philosophical stance. His philosophising is far from the textbooks, however, and generously laced with epigrammatic utterances and asides, poetic thoughts and sublime ruminations. His apologetical influence is still being felt, though sadly most of his works, like Belloc’s, are out of print. Journals discuss his distinctive style and contribution to religious debate. Many readers know him from the brilliant Father Brown stories, and also from his poetry, biography, essays, and much else. Since it is impossible to resume G.K. Chesterton’s thought in a few pages, what I shall do is introduce you to him through a brief account of how he saw the modern world. He diagnosed its ills with incomparable incisiveness; to appreciate that diagnosis is to have the scales pulled from one’s eyes.

Foremost in Chesterton’s thinking was his opposition to the fragmentation of man. Psychic, bodily and moral disintegration is something that modern man has come almost to accept as inevitable: he lives in a society bound together by little more than a consumerism which panders to his purely material instincts, the drug of the mass media and the pseudo-religion of sport. His family ties, if not wholly evaporated, are threadbare; he barely knows his neighbours, his local community means little to him, he is alienated from those who rule over him. His national pride has dwindled to a spark which is allowed to glow only at inane football matches. He is bombarded by the blatherings of a know-nothing elite of talking heads unable to differentiate between culture and dross. He is invariably a wage-slave or a benefit junkie, either way dulled by a societal opiate designed to prevent him thinking about his ultimate end, the purpose of his existence, the point of even being alive. Any spiritual or transcendent yearnings in modern man, if not derided and stamped upon by his licensed cultural masters, are channelled into ridiculous pursuits, whether the latest New Age fad, or psycho-babble, or bizarre sects and cults. Is it any wonder that the suicide rate (especially among young males) is the highest in history, or that there are no unemployed counsellors, or that drug use is now an accepted part of social life? Sixty or more years ago things were not as bad, but the signs of the times were there, and it is to Chesterton’s credit that he read them brilliantly. One of the messages for him of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation - God’s becoming man - is that man is a whole being essentially composed of both spirit and flesh, body and soul. Sunder these, and you sunder man himself. In a sane society (in the literal sense of ‘sane’) both the spiritual and the material have their place. Man’s bodily needs are satisfied but not exaggerated. He has what is required for a healthy life, but he is not a prisoner of the economists. There is no consumerism in a balanced world, nor materialism. Man is not seen as an automaton, a cog in the wheel of production and consumption, a plaything of doctors or bio- technologists, an insect to be prodded and probed by reductionist scientists anxious for their next Penguin popular science paperback on the ‘real’ workings of the brain-machine.

Nor, by contrast, does man in a sane society retreat into his own mind. The legacy of Descartes was precisely to split mind and matter: with matter stripped of its vitality and meaning, all that was left was for the philosopher to cogitate ad nauseam over the contents of his own mental space, desperately cleaning his psychic spectacles in the quest for ‘clarity and distinctness’. Needless to say, if you make a prison for yourself out of your own mind you will not escape, and if you avoid the madness of solipsism (‘Only I am real’) you will end up mired in scepticism (‘I can know nothing for certain’) and relativism (‘My beliefs are true-for-me and yours for you, but neither of us can rationally convince the other that he is wrong, nor should we try’). ‘Putting man back together’, for Chesterton, means precisely that we must emphasise the spiritual-material wholeness of man, and tailor society to meet that reality, thereby avoiding the twin dangers of value-free materialism and prison-like subjectivism. One principal symptom of society’s neglect of the whole man is the way in which social problems are tackled. The fake freedom of liberalism - the ‘freedom’ which you give a person lost in the woods when, instead of handing him a map, you tell him to exercise his liberty and find his own way home - involves endless experimentation. Try it, and see what the consequences are. Divorce, drugs, abortion, promiscuity, pornography, multi-culturalism, undisciplined educational methods, unprincipled capitalism, oppressive egalitarianism...what effect will it all have on society? Let’s not think too hard - let’s just see. And when the damage is done - as calculated by utilitarian moralists with no vision beyond that of a cost-benefit analysis of social policy - then, just maybe, one or two policy- makers will say ‘We were wrong, let’s rein things in’ (the vast majority remaining convinced that the policy in question has been an unqualified triumph, or too arrogant to admit their mistake). But of course it will be too late, the foundations will have been weakened just a little more, and strengthening them will require too much upheaval.

As Chesterton points out, modern society has no agreed model by which it can judge in advance what the results of a social experiment will be: “...only the knowledge of evil remains to us... A modern morality can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow breaches of the law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill. It can only point to imperfection. It has no perfection to point to.” The lingering ‘middle class respectability’ that slows the tide of degeneracy brought on by know-nothing liberalism cannot do the job that a positive social and moral ideal is supposed to do; it is no more than a using up of the cultural capital bequeathed to us by Christianity. What we have, then, according to Chesterton, is “a great, silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment” that has “fallen on our Northern civilization.” “All previous ages”, he explains, “have sweated and been crucified, in an attempt to realise what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.” Endless prattle about ‘liberty’ and ‘progress’, the shibboleths of modern ‘civilisation’, are but code words for the stark realisation that in a secular society all that we can say to our children is, in Chesterton’s words, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it. ...Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” In other words, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

If the intelligentsia refuses to recognise that man is a moral and spiritual being who starves without a positive transcendent ideal on which to model himself, they will look for pseudo-explanations of what man is and how society must be organised. This will usually involve seeing man as homo economicus, a locus of greed and acquisitiveness to be placated by the stimuli of materialistic capitalism. Or as a dumb productive animal good for no more than working himself to death in a socialistic juggernaut travelling to a non-existent land of classless paradise. In both cases a veneer of scientific respectability is painted onto the picture by telling man that he is a queer biological mechanism which can be tinkered with by eugenicist engineers so as to extinguish the remaining kernel of his humanity, without which he will no longer hanker after anything beyond what is on his plate or on the flickering screen before his eyes. In other words, the ‘problem of man’ can be solved, in the words of CS Lewis, by abolishing man himself!

Needless to say, some thinkers have recoiled at this prospect, and have sought to celebrate man by glorifying his Will. Rightly repulsed by the thought of reducing man to an ingredient in the utilitarian calculus, by the idea that man can be satisfied by having his needs reduced to those of the lowest common denominator, he revels in man’s unconquerable creative will, his genius, his art, his profound speculations. Tempting though this outlook has been for the disciples of Nietzsche, Chesterton sees the error at its heart: “You cannot praise an action because it shows will; for to say that is merely to say that it is an action. By this praise of will you cannot really choose one course as better than another. And yet choosing one course as better than another is the very definition of the will you are praising.” And in a paradoxical observation of the type for which Chesterton is famous, he concludes: “The worship of the will is the negation of the will. To admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.”

The modern idea of progress is anything but progressive. We are supposed to believe that there is an ‘omega point’ to which we are headed - perhaps the ‘end of history’ falsely trumpeted by the shallow liberal apologist Fukuyama (who talks about him anymore?), in which all needs are met and we live in the peace of the marketplace. Or the classless utopia (and who believes that anymore?). The truth, however, is that liberalism can feed us only a steady diet of fleeting perspectives and theories, often mutually contradictory. This is called, in another code word, ‘pluralism’. What does Chesterton have to say about that? “The more the life of the mind is unhinged, the more the machinery of matter will be left to itself...the man we see every day - the worker in Mr Gradgrind’s factory, the little clerk in Mr Gradgrind’s office - he is too mentally worried to believe in freedom. He is kept quiet with revolutionary literature. He is calmed and kept in his place by a constant succession of wild philosophies. He is a Marxian one day, a Nietzschean (GKC says ‘Nietzscheite’) the next day, a Superman (probably) the next day; and a slave every day.”

Chesterton converted to Catholicism in 1922, though a glance at his earlier writings shows that he was virtually a Catholic in all but name long before. (See in particular Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1908).) It was in traditional Christianity that he saw the truth about man, the philosophy of life which put man together and kept him together against the wild extremes and exaggerations of this or that new ‘theory’ (i.e. purported ‘heresy’, in the broad sense). For Catholicism, as Chesterton believed, was but a continuation of the ancient religion of mankind, the sacrificial monotheism (Mosaic in the Old Law) which taught that man is put on this earth, as the Penny Catechism says, to “know, love and serve God in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next”. Hence the title of Chesterton’s first major post-conversion work, and one of his greatest: The Everlasting Man. Christianity as antidote to liberalism and modernity is the theme of Chesterton’s writings about the nature and place of man in the world. A hallmark of modernity is mankind and its alienation: from nature, from his own productivity, from his psyche, from the universe entire. Ruled over as we now are by the fake high priests of scientific rationalism, we are taught to subdue nature, even ourselves as part of nature - to control it and exploit it. As we know all too well, the exploitation of nature with materialism as its motive leads to nature’s denudation and spoliation. Hence the rise of the ecological movement, many of whose aims are admirable. But without spiritual understanding and perspective, ecology descends into nature-worship, the sort of pantheism that values the life of a tree over that of an unborn child. This, for Chesterton, is utter madness, just another wild heresy against the sane truth: “Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan. But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the God Pan that he soon showed the cloven hoof. The only objection to Natural Religion is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. ... Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. ... The theory that everything was good had become an orgy of everything that was bad.”

It is in the Christian doctrine of Original Sin that Christianity shows its recognition of fallen nature, that the universe, whilst a perfect creation at the hands of its Maker, has a flaw running through it from top to bottom due to mankind’s own sinful disobedience. To recognise this is to be inoculated against nature-worship in all its forms. At the same time, however, seeing the world for what it is, namely something not a product of man’s own ingenuity, one is able to maintain a healthy balance in one’s attitude towards it. It is not mankind’s plaything, it is given to us as stewards, to use and exploit for our own legitimate needs, but not to be stripped and wrecked like a child’s toy. It is to be revered, says Chesterton, as the creation of God, but not to be treated as the source of all happiness or as the source of all misery: “On this system one could fight all the forces of existence without deserting the flag of existence. One could be at peace with the universe and yet be at war with the world.” Taken in a specific sense slightly different from Rousseau’s, Chesterton subscribed to the formula that “man is free, but everywhere in chains”. The ‘freedom’ he is given, as explained above, is no true liberty but a contentless scepticism and relativism which refuses to countenance a positive ideal of the social order in which man can be made as happy as possible within the limits of his imperfect nature. Modern liberalism, then, is value-free, or better, value-neutral. Let any idea - officially, at least - be put forward. But do not let any idea gain too much attention, because the natives might get restless. Let a man build castles in his mind, let him construct grandiose theories about how society should be modelled, but his conceptual edifices must remain just that - conceptual. For liberalism, anything which even smacks of dogma must be corralled, tamed, kept under control. In the private world of men’s minds, ideas are harmless, even the most extreme, whether ‘reactionary’ or revolutionary. Let them creep into the public sphere, let people even try to suggest that liberalism is wrong at its core and a recipe for unhappiness, and they will feel the dead hand of unofficial censorship, manufactured outrage, chattering class opprobrium. In this sense, liberalism is anything but liberal - it is an iron fist inside a velvet glove. It despises all dogmas but one: ‘There are no dogmas’.

We see, as a consequence, how religion has become a wholly private affair, an intellectual curiosity, nice to chat about once in a while, but never to be taken seriously as a prescriptive social model. Needless to say, Chesterton would have no part in the privatisation of religion. For him, as for Belloc, it was essentially a public matter, possessing the material both for the reassembly of fragmented man and, by necessary implication, for that of society itself. Chesterton, like Belloc, was an apostle of Distributism, the economic theory which if implemented would involve a radical redistribution of land ownership, the virtual abolition of monopolies and monopolistic practices, the revival in modern form of the medieval guild system with its high professional standards and mutually protective mechanisms, and the placing of the extended family (the ‘nuclear’ family is a liberal propaganda creation) at the very core of all economic and social planning. Private property, seen as an essential tool for man’s material self-fulfilment, would be given the protection it deserves (land redistribution would not be accomplished by theft). The current socio-economic model would be reversed. Now, the family serves industry, and industry serves finance (banking and credit). Under Distributism, finance would serve industry, and industry would serve the family. Agro-industrialism would be replaced by traditional family smallholding. Workers would receive a just wage and have reasons actually to care about the products of their labour.

A medieval fantasy? A retrograde recipe for serfdom? Chesterton despised nothing more than the tyranny of the idea of ‘progress’: “The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be... There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, ‘You can’t put the clock back’. The simple and obvious answer is ‘You can’. A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.”

Would G.K. Chesterton speak as optimistically now as he did in 1910? Indefatigably cheerful and ingenuous as he was, somehow I doubt it. Perhaps he should have paid more attention to eschatology; he lacked that tinge of darkness lingering beneath the surface of Belloc. And yet how can one be a Christian like Chesterton and not be an optimist? To lose one’s optimism, for the traditionalist, is to sin against hope. Chesterton, that giant of a man in both body and soul, believed that things may well get better. The pessimist believes that things will get worse. A large dose of reality reveals to us the truth - that things will get much worse before they get better.


The interested reader should consult Chesterton’s writings, of course; but also his Autobiography (1937), the standard biography, Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Maisie Ward (Sheed and Ward, 1944), and the excellent recent life, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton by Joseph Pearce (Hodder and Stoughton, 1996). The best summary of Chesterton’s thought, of which I have made much use in preparing this article, is Chesterton by Ian Crowther (1991), in the series Thinkers of our Time published by the Claridge Press of Professor Roger Scruton.

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