Chesterton for Today
(Chesterton Review 30th Anniversary Address)
By Stratford Caldecott

 

For thirty years The Chesterton Review (alongside the Chesterton Society) has been demonstrating that G.K. Chesterton, though he died in 1936, has something to say to our own time. We wanted to mark this anniversary, and to emphasize that the continuation of this conversation with Chesterton is, if anything, of growing importance.

In England today the casualty departments are regularly full of teenage girls (called "ladettes") who have drunkenly smashed bottles in each othersí faces. Education too often fails to educate and the health service fails to heal. The countryside is in decline and the cities are increasingly vicious, ugly and unsafe. The decadence of the media and our loss of trust in politicians reveals a pervasive cynicism. The list of symptoms could be extended by each of us, but what is the underlying disease? Chesterton wrote in 1930 that "people are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves". In other words, they have become dependent slaves of the Machine. It is the rise of Mass man, the victory of the bourgeois spirit. Chesterton was by no means the only one to see it coming, and unfortunately we will probably not be the ones to see it going.

The great historian of ideas, Etienne Gilson, described Chesterton as one of the deepest thinkers who had ever existed, and said that every scrap of Chestertonís writing should be preserved, because of the weight of insight it contained. One example might be an essay of Chestertonís from 1926 [reprinted in the August 2000 issue], which appears at first sight to be concerned with a trivial matter of etiquette. It argues that modern communications are corrupting good manners. It is only after a few moments that the reader wakes up to the fact that what Chesterton means by modern communications is what we now term "globalization", and by manners, nothing less than the human experience of "liberty with dignity".

Once this has dawned on us, we will be less surprised by the conclusions he draws from a brief consideration of hats and scarves. Those conclusions are radical indeed. "Unless local liberty and experience and instinct and invention can again be given a chance, the whole life of the world will be withered. It is not only a question of superior things being defeated by inferior things. It is a question of a hundred superior things being defeated by one that is inferior." In other places and articles he has already identified the danger in Bolshevism. Once asked the difference between Bolshevism, Communism and Socialism, he replied [see the Spring/Summer 2004 issue of the Review] that the first two existed and were actually the same, whereas Socialism was much nicer and did not exist. In the article I am referring to he was attacking a different enemy, namely the "spirit of commercial communication, which everywhere destroys what it is too ignorant to understand."

This "enemy of beauty, of dignity and of decency" is now in serious danger of governing the whole world, and, he says, "it is especially conservatives who should rise to resist it; or they will soon have nothing to conserve." He describes Capitalism not as an economic system but a "spirit", the "spirit that is proud of having sold a hundred hats to Spanish peasants without thinking of what it is doing or what it is displacing," adding that the real danger comes less from demagogues (politicians?) than from advertisers. It is Catholics in particular, he goes on, "who should recognize this Capitalism as their one actual and active antagonist."

The note of prophecy in his words becomes even louder when he says that this "practical evil of monopolist materialism will last much longer and do much more damage than the brief interlude of Bolshevist anarchy." "Bolshevism is already dead", he writes (in 1926). And then comes the coup de grace. "For the next heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality. And it is coming, not from a few Socialists surviving from the Fabian Society, but from the living exultant energy of the rich resolved to enjoy themselves at last, with neither Popery nor Puritanism nor Socialism to hold them backÖ The madness of to-morrow is not in Moscow, but much more in Manhattan Ė but most of what was in Broadway is already in Piccadilly."

Chestertonís social philosophy of "Distributism" is in many ways the ancestor of todayís radical movements in defence of life, ecology, the family, agriculture, small shops and small communities. It opposed corruption in business, the media and politics Ė and it stood against Imperialism. It was rooted in the vital insight that human freedom and responsibility depend on a supernatural origin. If we are not in fact made in the image of God, we can never amount to anything but clever biological machines. Without the dignity that comes from our relationship with the Transcendent, there can be no ultimate basis for human equality, for human rights, for democracy, for justice. All that is left is power and desire.

Chestertonís insights have been echoed and developed by a long list of other writers from H.J. Massingham and E.F. Schumacher to Wendell Berry, John Seymour, Mary Midgley, Bryan Appleyard, Richard Douthwaite, the New Economics Foundation, the Greens, and the most high-profile Distributist of today, Prince Charles (whose ideas are discussed in the latest issue of the Review). Anyone who questions the basis for Chestertonís denunciations of the "big shops" or regards them as outdated need only pick up a copy of Joanna Blythmanís recent book Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets. Defenders of life from the womb to the tomb and opponents of human cloning should read Chestertonís Eugenics and Other Evils, published in 1922. Behind all these ideas is the fundamental intuition that people are more than animals, statistics, machines, or blobs of cells. Though we are likely to disagree on exactly how the principles of human dignity may be translated into political action, Chesterton would argue that it must involve at the very least the recognition of human life as sacred, and the defence of the family in which such life is best nurtured and formed. But the implications of these beliefs are radical indeed. If we are to preserve the family it will be necessary to revolutionize the nation.

Political parties are desperate for clear ideas and policies that will appeal to the electorate. Those ideas exist, and sooner or later they will begin to find their way back on to political platforms. Yet even if this happens, we need to be more radical still. No mere political philosophy or even a popular political movement can turn things around. The reason is very simple. We live in a world that is fallen, where even if people knew what ought to be done they could not do it. The only thing that has the strength to stand truly against the current, to reverse the flow, to produce a culture in which human beings remember what it is to be human, is religion. An atheist civilization, in which faith is privatized to such a degree that it cannot any longer shape legislation and public discourse, can only lead to a brief but distinctly unpleasant period of Chaos or Fascism, before some new and more religious civilization arises.

That is perhaps another and greater reason for remembering Chesterton, not in order merely to revere his writing, but in order to follow in his footsteps. For he was one of the greatest evangelizers the modern world has known. The great Newman scholar, Ian Ker judges in his recent book on the Catholic literary revival that Chesterton was "a successor to the great Victorian Ďsagesí or Ďprophetsí, being rightly compared to Dr Johnson in his own lifetime; one who can be mentioned without exaggeration in the same breath as Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, and, especially, of course, Newman." Chestertonís book Orthodoxy and his other apologetic works are so effective because in them we see a powerful intelligence married to a powerful imagination. It is through our imaginations, especially today, that people are moved and captivated. That is partly the reason our summer conference in Oxford was devoted to fantasy writing and films, and why we are planning a summer school in 2005 called "Mythos and Logos". The view we have of reality is the way we imagine the world to be, and The Chesterton Review is concerned with that as much as with the way we think and feel.

The Chesterton Review has stood for thirty years against a toxic culture that degrades humanity, and it has tried to promote a benign revolution, a return to religion and a recovery of the sacred. It has done so to what appears to be a shrinking audience. The reason for this is not any lack of interest in Chesterton, but a lack of interest in reading. Very few of our contemporaries have the time or mental focus to spend an hour or two per day actually reading, except perhaps a bit of light fiction for relaxation. Books are hard enough, but journals are more difficult, except when people are forced to read them for professional reasons to keep up with their field.

We should all be reading the Review. We should buy a subscription for our children on their 18th birthday. We should ask our local bookshop to stock it and our friends to buy it there. We should organize a reading group around particular articles. We should leave money to the Review in our wills. We should write angry, inflamed letters to the Editor. We should do anything, but not nothing. As we face what sometimes appears to be the death of the intelligent word on paper, it is essential to keep oneís mind alive by reading, and especially reading against the zeitgeist. The Chesterton Review is a feast for both imagination and intellect. It uses Chesterton not as an Authority to impose a single view on every reader, but as a point of reference in the swirling waters of modern culture, and as a foil against which to test and reflect any idea, any attitude. It does not fit into any neat category, such as journalism, or religion, or literature. But that is precisely why it is important. The human mind is designed to range broadly, liberally, not to be confined in a narrow box.

I am not saying that The Chesterton Review can save our civilization. But I am saying that only intelligent debate of the kind sponsored by the Review can save our civilization. And I am saying that a typical English apathy and indifference will kill our civilization.

Stratford Caldecott