Chesterton on chronological snobbery


A short line from Chesterton that I hadn’t run across before, as quoted in this piece from the Imaginative Conservative by GKC biographer Joseph Pearce:

[M]an should be a prince looking from the pinnacle of a tower built by his fathers, and not a contemptuous cad, perpetually kicking down the ladders by which he climbed.

Chesterton is writing in praise of the historian Christopher Dawson, whose work “has given the first tolerably clear and convincing account of the real stages of what his less lucid predecessors loved to call the Evolution of Religion.” This was a topic of especial concern for Chesterton, and meditations on that topic form a large early part of his own book The Everlasting Man.

But his primary concern in this line is with a problem that CS Lewis and Owen Barfield, both drawing from Chesterton, would later term “chronological snobbery.” Lewis: chronological snobbery is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

This is the air we breathe, now. It’s the water we swim in without even knowing it. In his essay, Pearce imagines a scenario in which a resurrected Plato is first treated as a curiosity, then as a nuisance, and finally as a subject of scorn. I don’t have to imagine this—I’ve seen it. I have to take great pains to teach my Western Civ students anything of value about—to follow this example—the Greek philosophers. Virtually all their textbooks offer about Plato and Aristotle is that they were sexists who made excuses for slavery. Inadequate.

Chesterton’s solution to chronological snobbery was tradition. From Orthodoxy: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Key to embracing and maintaining is tradition is a certain pietas or respect for the past. This is the minimum buy-in. Without respect—a respect that should blossom into a filial love—the tradition breaks down and you are left with nothing but yourself. A paltry and limited thing and, to kick this back to Lewis one more time, a prison:

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough.

That’s from An Experiment in Criticism, which Lewis published in 1961. Chesterton’s earlier essay argues almost exactly the same thing, expanding the scope from wide reading to a wide and deep understanding of the past and, especially, our debts to it. To expand the line I quoted earlier with a bit more of its full context, Chesterton is summarizing Dawson’s scheme of “four stages in the spiritual story of humanity.” He concludes the summary—and the essay—by saying that

I will not complete the four phases here, because the last deals with the more controversial question of the Christian system. I merely use them as a convenient classification to illustrate a neglected truth: that a complete human being ought to have all these things stratified in him, so long as they are in the right order of importance, and that man should be a prince looking from the pinnacle of a tower built by his fathers, and not a contemptuous cad, perpetually kicking down the ladders by which he climbed.

Don’t be a snob. Have a suitable respect for the past and you will inevitably learn from it and enrich yourself.

Pearce’s entire essay is worthwhile—you can read it here. You can read the entirety of Chesterton’s essay, collected in Avowals and Denials in 1934, here. And I’ve previously written about pietas, which I’m more and more convinced is the most important of our neglected virtues, here.