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“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”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.

Chesterton on the Iliad

Achilles mourns Patroclus, from a second century a.d. greek sarcophagus

Achilles mourns Patroclus, from a second century a.d. greek sarcophagus

From The Everlasting Man’s Chapter III: The Antiquity of Civilisation, in which Chesterton describes Homer and the Iliad and their place both in their own time, in Western civilization (hence “our first poem”), and in the hopes and despairs of all mankind:

[The Iliad] might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.
— GK Chesterton

Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as a blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew of nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact. It is said that the poem came at the end of the period; that the primitive culture brought it forth in its decay; in which case one would like to have seen that culture in its prime. But anyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.

I’ve returned to and chewed on this passage again and again in the decade since I read The Everlasting Man in grad school. There are two things I like about it:

First is Chesterton’s observation that Homer produced one of the great foundation stones of world literature despite humble origins and limited ambitions. Looked at another way, Homer didn’t try too hard. The stereotypical novelist who sets out to write The Great American Novel always fails—indeed, the stereotype would be incomplete without his frustration.

It’s those who tell intensely focused and intimately small stories that tend to reveal the most about the whole world. The parallel I always think of in this regard is Jane Austen. Few writers are as local and parochial in their plots, characters, and settings—her genre almost demands it—but few have said as much about the human condition and especially our flaws than Austen, or said it as well.

Give up ambition. Narrow your gaze. This is a reminder for myself more than anything.

Second is Chesterton’s praise of the Iliad as the sum total of human wisdom, the extremity it can reach unaided. Ancient man was not stupid and saw the world in a harsher and sharper light than shelter modern man does. Homer sees all and rightly assesses it, and the picture the Iliad leaves us with is unremittingly bleak. Even before faint point of hope on which the poem concludes—Hektor’s funeral—his father and his killer fall into each other’s arms and weep, one for the sons he has lost, one for his comrades and, not least of all, for himself. The end is coming as it does for everyone.

It’s true, Chesterton is saying, but it’s not the whole picture. If Achilles and Priam can hope for anything beyond the grisly deaths that await them just after the Iliad’s ending, they cannot know about it. That knowledge has to be supplied from outside, with sight keener than “merely mortal vision.” The mourning Greek heroes yearn for that without knowing it, and also not knowing that they are creating the world into which that outside vision will come and the desires that it will fulfill.

It’s a powerful passage and neatly encompasses the theme and achievement not only of the Iliad but of Chesterton’s own book. Check it out if you ever get the chance.

Chesterton on the spiritual benefit of heatwaves

Current staTus

Current staTus

I ran across the following Chesterton quotation today and found it apropos for two reasons. First, today is the anniversary of Chesterton’s death at the age of 62 in 1936. Second, while the weather here in upstate South Carolina has been mild—even occasionally pleasant—for about two weeks now, the three weeks or so before that were an increasingly miserable foretaste of late July or August heat. No cloud, no wind, just sizzling on the griddle of the piedmont.

From a June 11, 1910 column in The Illustrated London News:

The chief gift of hot weather to me is the somewhat unpopular benefit called a conviction of sin. All the rest of the year I am untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. But in hot weather I feel untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile.
— GK Chesterton

I resemble that remark. You can read a longer chunk here.

Leave it to Chesterton to find some kind of spiritual benefit in what would otherwise just be inconveniently hot weather. Of course what he’s cheekily describing here is the self-knowledge and humility that should come through all hardship, something he is by no means the first to comment on.

A good reminder for the next time I’m doubling up on anti-perspirant.

Oh—my “Mount Writemore” t-shirt arrived in the mail yesterday. It depicts Chesterton, CS Lewis, George MacDonald, and JRR Tolkien on a much more interesting version of Mt. Rushmore. It’s available in a variety of sizes and colors (mine is “asphalt”) from the Babylon Bee. It’s also available as a poster. It’s deeply silly and I’m very excited about it—a very Chestertonian response I think.

Weaver, Chesterton, and the inside of history


I’ve been revisiting a few passages from past reading that have meant and continue to mean a lot to me, bridging as they do the two things to which I’ve devoted my life: history and writing fiction.

From GK Chesterton’s 1925 book The Everlasting Man, a passage I’m almost certain I’ve shared here before:

No wise man will wish to bring more long words into the world. But it may be allowable to say that we need a new thing; which may be called psychological history. I mean the consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man; as distinct from what is defined or deduced merely from official forms or political pronouncements. I have already touched on it in such a case as the totem or indeed any other popular myth. It is not enough to be told that a tom-cat was called a totem; especially when it was not called a totem. We want to know what it felt like. . . . That is the sort of thing we need touching the nature of political and social relations. We want to know the real sentiment that was the social bond of many common men, as sane and as selfish as we are. What did soldiers feel when they saw splendid in the sky that strange totem that we call the Golden Eagle of the Legions? What did vassals feel about those other totems, the lions or the leopards upon the shield of their lord? So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art. So long as the historian cannot do that, fiction will be truer than fact. There will be more reality in a novel; yes, even in a historical novel.

That parting shot is there to keep us historical novelists humble. It’s also hilarious.

From Richard Weaver’s essay “Up from Liberalism,” published in Modern Age in 1958:

In the meantime, I had started to study the cobwebs in my own corner, and I began to realize that the type of education which enables one to see into the life of things had been almost entirely omitted from my program. More specifically, I had been reading extensively in the history of the American Civil War, preferring first-hand accounts by those who had actually borne the brunt of it as soldiers and civilians; and I had become especially interested in those who had reached some level of reflectiveness and had tried to offer explanations of what they did or the manner in which they did it. Allen Tate has in one of his poems the line “There is more in killing than commentary.” The wisdom of this will be seen also by those who study the killings in which whole nations are the killers and the killed, namely, wars. To put this in a prose statement: The mere commentary of a historian will never get you inside the feeling of a war or any great revolutionary process. For that, one has to read the testimonials of those who participated in it on both sides and in all connections; and often the best insight will appear in the casual remark of an obscure warrior or field nurse or in the effort of some ill-educated person to articulate a feeling.

Weaver isn’t directly concerned with fiction here, but his sentiments broadly parallel those of Chesterton above. I’m reminded as well of the late great Sir John Keegan’s introduction to The Face of Battle, his seminal examination of that “more in killing,” a heavy influence on my own grad work at Clemson:

Historians, traditionally and rightly, are expected to ride their feelings on a tighter rein than the man of letters can allow himself. One school of historians at least, the compilers of the British Official History of the First World War, have achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world’s greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all.

Per Weaver and Keegan, you can get a bone-deep understanding from a memoir like Sledge’s With the Old Breed, Fraser’s Quartered Safe out Here, or Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier that you can’t from top-down histories of the campaigns those authors lived through. They are less concerned with how these things happened but are blistering hot answers to the central question: What was it like?

From Cass Sunstein’s 2015 Atlantic essay “Finding Humanity in Gone With the Wind”:

Nonetheless, Gone With the Wind should not be mistaken for a defense of slavery or even the Confederacy. Mitchell is interested in individuals rather than ideologies or apologetics. She parodies the idea of “the Cause,” and she has no interest in “States’ Rights.” She is elegiac not about politics, but about innocence, youth, memory, love (of all kinds), death, and loss (which helps make the book transcend the era it depicts). . . .

Gone With the Wind is a novel, not a work of history, and what it offers is only a slice of what actually happened. But as Americans remember the war and their own history, they have an acute need for novels, which refuse to reduce individual lives to competing sets of political convictions. That is an important virtue, even if one set of convictions is clearly right and another clearly wrong. In fact that very refusal can be seen as a political act, and it ranks among the least dispensable ones.

To tie these disparate commentators loosely together, Keegan—a great military historian who, because of a childhood illness and resulting disability, never personally saw combat—writes in The Face of Battle that “the central question” of the military historian is “What is it like to be in a battle?” A corollary question is “its subjective supplementary, ‘How would I behave in a battle?’” This question moves the discussion immediately from facts to imagination. While both the rigorous histories—Chesterton’s “official forms and political pronouncements,” Weaver’s “mere commentary of a historian,” Sunstein’s “ideologies [and] apologetics”—and the “psychological” ones built “to get you inside the feeling” of a time and place are both concerned with conveying truth through narrative, one is better at outlining events from on high and the other will convey Keegan’s “central question”: What was it like?

This tension runs right through both academic historical work, especially narrative history, and the creation of fictional or based-on-a-true-story narratives set in the past. Compare what I’ve written here before about the perspective war movies take.

The crucial thing all four of these writers drive at is understanding. They want us to get into—in Chesterton’s wonderful phrase—“the inside of history.” Good fiction performs that role heroically, enlivening the imagination and bringing the reader into a lost world the way nonfiction rarely can.

Note that I’ve chosen to describe this as understanding and not the milquetoast modern virtue of empathy, with its hints of uncritical acceptance, tolerance, and fundamental relativism. This is a fine distinction, but an important one, one that could carry the weight of quite a long essay. Perhaps someday. Understanding is critical; understanding is discriminating; and understanding is compassionate. It can be all of these things because it turns willingly toward what it looks at and receives it as knowledge. It is not the apathetic blind eye of empathy. Look no further than Sunstein’s essay on Gone With the Wind, in which he critiques the novel and its author at length while still holding it up as a window into understanding a different time and place—two different times and places, in fact, viewing the novel as an artifact of Margaret Mitchell’s time.

To understand all may not be to forgive all, but it is to touch brains and to see a shared humanity—common weaknesses, foibles, and, just occasionally, virtues—with people who are deeply unlike us, people we are tempted to dismiss. That applies to both the living and the dead. And if, as I’ve written earlier this semester, bigotry is ultimately a failure of imagination, we need all the good historical fiction we can get.

What's wrong, Chesterton?

February, a whole month of recurrent sickness—for me and my kids—heavy work projects, and terrible weather, has also accidentally turned into GK Chesterton month on my blog. I’ve posted on his attitude toward argument and controversy and the lack of any real controversy in his world—and ours—and I also looked at his enviable ability to laugh at himself. I’ll end the month with a tiny bit of Chesterton detective work.

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

Yesterday, a colleague pointed me toward this post on the most frequently misquoted Christian writers. Chesterton was on there for a number of quotes, misquotes, and apocryphal sayings, perhaps the most famous of which was this:

In answer to a newspaper’s question, “What is Wrong With the World?”  G. K. Chesterton wrote in with a simple answer: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

I’ve seen a couple different versions of this story with slight variations—sometimes Chesterton’s answer comes in response to a survey of journalists or something similar, sometimes it’s slightly wordier—but the gist is always the same, and it’s easy to see why it sticks around. It’s been quoted by present day evangelical writers as prominent as Tim Keller. It’s cheeky and succinct, worthy of a man who enjoyed his bon mots as much as his beer. But also not quite true.

If you want to confirm a quotation’s authenticity—and you should—it’s relatively easy, and this was easy to disprove, as there are plenty of places logging it as doubtful or inauthentic. Wikiquote includes it in its “misattributed” section on Chesterton’s page. The American Chesterton Society had a rather noncommittal post on the quotation a few years ago, as did a Chesterton enthusiast’s blog.

But as it happens, the latter blog post included a couple of important tidbits. First, it clarified the actual, correct wording of Chesterton’s reply:

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.

This, helpfully, provides a lot more context and explanation about what exactly Chesterton meant. It’s also a handy passage to plug into Google. But alas, nothing.

Second, the blogger’s post indicated that Chesterton’s letter came in response to another letter not from the Times, but from the Daily News—a newspaper founded by Charles Dickens, one of Chesterton’s literary heroes—and from a specific issue: August 16, 1905. I don’t know where the blogger dug this info up, but it was enough to go on. It turned out to be correct.

Having turned up nothing via Google, and beginning to suspect that this was either elaborately fabricated or a previously totally unavailable Chesterton essay, I searched for the Daily News itself. The paper merged with another in the 1910s and no longer exists, but a free trial of the British Newspaper Archive allowed me to look at digital scans of its entire archives and the specific issue of the paper noted in the blogger’s post.

And behold:

The  Daily News , August 16, 1905

The Daily News, August 16, 1905

Chesterton’s complete letter to the editor in response to “A Heretic,” and the germ of the oft-repeated misquotation, right there.

As I mentioned, I was flummoxed that this bit of Chesterton lore was unavailable anywhere online, especially since the misquoted version has proved so persistent and vexing. So I’ve transcribed the entire text of the letter and included it below so that the whole thing is available somewhere. I hope having the full text available will prove a good resource for anyone, like me, hunting for the source of that famous story. I’ve included a handful of hyperlinks to things that might clarify some of Chesterton’s allusions or asides.

Like all of Chesterton’s work, it’s amusing and thought-provoking. And despite coming early in his career—three years before his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, five before the book What’s Wrong with the World—and from a lost world—nine years before the First World War!—in many ways as alien to us now as the antebellum South, medieval Britain, or republican Rome, much of his concern is eerily prescient, particularly in an age of religious flabbiness, unease with the status quo, political strife, the squandering of inherited blessings, and increasingly insistent reliance on the State.

This was by no means a difficult bit of detective work—I’m no Father Brown—but I enjoyed the hunt, and I enjoyed reading a new bit of recovered GKC. I hope y’all enjoy and benefit from it as well.

* * * * *

From the Daily News, August 16, 1905

Sir,—I must warmly protest against people mistaking the uneasiness of “A Heretic” for a sort of pessimism. If he were a pessimist he would be sitting in an armchair with a cigar. It is only we optimists who can be angry.

Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would.

One thing, of course, must be said to clear the ground. Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would. Now, I know there is a feeling that Government can do anything. But if Government could do anything, nothing would exist except Government. Men have found the need of other forces. Religion, for instance, existed in order to do what law cannot do—to track crime to its primary sin, and the man to his back bedroom. The Church endeavoured to institute a machinery of pardon; the State has only a machinery of punishment. The State can only free society from the criminal; the Church sought to free the criminal from the crime. Abolish religion if you like. Throw everything on secular government if you like. But do not be surprised if a machinery that was never meant to do anything but secure external decency and order fails to secure internal honesty and peace. If you have some philosophic objection to brooms and brushes, throw them away. But do not be surprised if the use of the County Council water-cart is an awkward way of dusting the drawing-room.

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby. But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion. Is there something, as “Heretic” suggests, which belongs to this age specially, and is the business of reform? It is a dark matter, but I will make a suggestion.

Every religion, every philosophy as fierce and popular as a religion, can be regarded either as a thing that binds or a thing that loosens. A convert to Islam (say) can regard himself as one who must no longer drink wine; or he can regard himself as one who need no longer sacrifice to expensive idols. A man passing from the early Hebrew atmosphere to the Christian would find himself suddenly free to marry a foreign wife, but also suddenly and startlingly restricted in the number of foreign wives. It is self-evident, that is, that there is no deliverance which does not bring new duties. It is, I suppose, also pretty evident that a religion which boasted only of its liberties would go to pieces. Christianity, for instance, would hardly have eclipsed Judaism if Christians had only sat in the middle of the road ostentatiously eating pork.

Yet this is exactly what we are all doing now. The last great challenge and inspiration of our Europe was the great democratic movement, the Revolution. Everything popular and modern, from the American President to the gymnasium in Battersea Park, comes out of that. And this Democratic creed, like all others, had its two sides, the emancipation and the new bonds. Men were freed from the dogma of the divine right of Kings, but tied to the new dogma of the divine right of the community. The citizen was not bound to give titles to others, but was bound to refuse titles for himself. The new creed had its saints, like Washington and Hoche; it had its martyrs, it had even its asceticism.

Now to me, the devastating weakness of our time, the sin of the 19th century, was primarily this: That we chose to interpret the Revolution as a mere emancipation. Instead of taking the Revolution as meaning that democracy is the true doctrine, we have taken it as meaning that any doctrine is the true doctrine. Instead of the right-mindedness of the Republican stoics, we have the “broad-mindedness” of Liberal Imperialists. We have taken Liberty, because it is fun; we have left Equality and Fraternity, because they are duties and a nuisance. We have Liberty to be unequal. We have Liberty to be unfraternal. At the last we have Liberty to admire slavery. For this was the just and natural end of our mere “free-thinking”—the Tory Revival. Liberalism was supposed to mean liberty to believe in anything; it soon meant liberty to believe in Toryism. Democracy in losing the austerity of youth and its dogmas has lost all; it tends to be a mere debauch of mental self-indulgence, since by a corrupt and loathsome change, Liberalism has become liberality.—Yours, etc.,

G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton's enormous chivalry

I ran across this anecdote, headlined “A ‘Bus Story,” some years ago and unfortunately don’t have the original source written down. It sounds enough like Chesterton to count as what one of my college professors defined as an apocryphal story—“A story that probably isn’t true… but should be.”

GKC vanity fair.jpg

It is always said that no one enjoys a joke more than Chesterton, and, even when the jokes tells against himself, he never fails to be heard laughing above the whole company. It is related that a certain man told of an act of politeness he had witnessed. He had seen a man give up his seat in a tram-car to a lady. “That’s nothing,” said one of the company. “What about old Chesterton here? I saw him get up and give his seat to three ladies.” The company roared, but louder than the others was heard the jovial laughter of Chesterton. It is in more respects than one that Chesterton lays claims to “greatness.”

As evidenced by the many, many stories of Chesterton poking fun at his own size, he had an enviable ability to laugh at himself and see his own absurdity. Indeed, not thinking too much of oneself, being able to see one’s own absurdity, and to enjoy it, is a recurring theme through all of his work. From Orthodoxy:

Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

And, from the same passage: “a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

It’s telling that the theme of the joke in the above anecdote was chivalry; I don’t think, given Chesterton’s emphasis on not minding a joke at one’s own expense, that that is accidental. Chivalry, after all, is a code of deference, which means thinking of oneself less, cultivating an instinct to think of others first. Which is something I think all of us could stand a little more of. Because, as he noted in 1907, “there is no limit to the lunacy of men when they think themselves superior both to humility and laughter.” Which I think has been abundantly illustrated by now.

Food for thought. I know I struggle not to take myself so seriously and to put others ahead of myself. Both would be good habits to cultivate, and if it means I get to enjoy a good laugh—even at myself—more often, all the better.

Chesterton on controversy

…or the lack thereof. Alan Jacobs, in a post called “insincere controversialists” at his blog Snakes and Ladders, brought this passage from What’s Wrong With the World back to my attention this morning:

GKC 1904.jpg

Genuine controversy, fair cut and thrust before a common audience, has become in our special epoch very rare. For the sincere controversialist is above all things a good listener. The really burning enthusiast never interrupts; he listens to the enemy’s arguments as eagerly as a spy would listen to the enemy’s arrangements. But if you attempt an actual argument with a modern paper of opposite politics, you will find that no medium is admitted between violence and evasion. You will have no answer except slanging or silence. A modern editor must not have that eager ear that goes with the honest tongue. He may be deaf and silent; and that is called dignity. Or he may be deaf and noisy; and that is called slashing journalism. In neither case is there any controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

I’ve quoted a selection from this passage here before, in “Chesterton on arguing,” about his more charitable approach to arguing, back last summer. Chesterton published What’s Wrong With the World in 1910—four years before the First World War, in a different world entirely—but the situation has only deteriorated in the eleven intervening decades.

Without being too topical, and trying not to pick on any one person or group (for there is none righteous), I intentionally ignored the State of the Union Address last night. I had more important and meaningful things to do—children to feed and take care of, an old friend to meet up with, a wife to talk to, books to read. But I couldn’t help noticing that, all afternoon, the News app on my phone desperately wanted me to read some selections from Stacey Abrams’s forthcoming rebuttal to the forthcoming State of the Union. With assertions and responses already thus prearranged, with the “party combatants” thus arrayed for battle, would anyone actually be listening to the speech? Or to the other side at all?

I don’t think I have to provide an answer. Don’t bother listening to your opponents—which would actually be engaging with them—but valiantly attack into the safe space of your ideological bubble and give bold speeches about your side’s bravery and the enemy’s duplicity. I can’t improve on Chesterton’s wonderful phrase above:

there [is no] controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

Despite everything you see on the news—and, God help us, social media—we don’t actually have much controversy any more, but it’s not for lack of noise and strife. Our politics and combat are noisy because we’ve lost the ability to listen.

Chesterton on bigotry as failure of imagination

Bigot has become one of our culture’s favorite devil terms—a “potent but vague” word that carries overwhelmingly negative baggage. The power of the devil term is such that if you can throw it at someone and make it stick even a little bit, they can be ruined. Often, the mere accusation is enough. I shouldn’t need to supply recent examples.

Unfortunately, the very vagueness of devil terms and the inevitable process of escalation in political rhetoric almost always lead to their promiscuous use and abuse. While bigot may be a rhetorical sidearm—second choice after the blunt-edged claymore of racist—these two and the even vaguer prejudice are frequently used as if they mean the same thing. They don’t.

Prejudice is a bit of a bugaboo, of course—we all have prejudices, our reason’s experience-based shorthand, so they need not be negative—and I don’t intend to peer into the dumpster fire that is the definition of racism. But bigot bridges the latter two in being, like racist, definitively bad and undesirable, and, like prejudice, so vague that it is often used to mean something else.

Here’s GK Chesterton, in a 1910 essay called “The Bigot,” on what bigotry actually means:

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

And, from later in the same essay:

It is admitted, even in dictionaries, that an example assists a definition. I take an instance of the error of bigotry out of my own biography, so to speak. Nothing is more marked in this strange epoch of ours than the combination of an exquisite tact and sympathy in things of taste and artistic style, with an almost brutal stupidity in the things of abstract thought. A principal critic on the "New Age" made a remark about me a little while ago which amused me very much. After saying many things much too complimentary but marvelously sympathetic, and offering many criticisms which were really delicate and exact, he ended up (as far as I can remember) with these astounding words: "But I can never really feel a man to be my intellectual equal who believes in any dogma." It was like seeing a fine Alpine climber fall five hundred feet into the mud.

Bigotry [is] the failure of the mind to imagine any other mind.

For this last sentence is the old, innocent, and stale thing called Bigotry; it is the failure of the mind to imagine any other mind. My unhappy critic is among the poorest of the children of men; he has only one universe. Everyone, of course, must see one cosmos as the true cosmos; but "he" cannot see any other cosmos, even as a hypothesis.

Chesterton—who, as I’ve noted here before, didn’t mind a good argument—elaborates on this theme quite a lot in his work. There’s his famous line about open minds: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” There’s this passage from “The Bigotry of the Rationalists,” published the same year as “The Bigot”: “There is no person so narrow as the person who is sure that he is broad; indeed, being quite sure that one is broad is itself a form of narrowness.”

From “The Bigot” again:

True liberality, in short, consists of being able to imagine the enemy.

Bigotry, in Chesterton’s view, is first and foremost self-deceit through pride. The bigot cheats himself out of the whole picture, out of the truth. Forget empathy—a favorite god term nowadays—bigotry is a failure of imagination. But mere “openmindedness,” tolerance’s lazy schoolmaster, is not the solution:

The free man is not he who thinks all opinions equally true or false; that is not freedom, but feeble-mindedness. The free man is he who sees the errors as clearly as he sees the truth.

A self-regarding insistence on one’s own broadmindedness is in fact as exclusive and narrow as an insistence that all members of X group behave in Y way, or that all adherents of X religion will themselves think Y about Z. The bigoted exist in Edwin A. Abbott’s Pointland: alone, dimensionless, with “no cognizance even of the number Two,” and content “to be vile and ignorant.”

But perhaps the most pervasive form of bigotry today is even worse for its dim awareness of other points of view: imagining the vast bigotry of our opponents and congratulating ourselves on our empathy and perspicacity, unaware, in our self-satisfaction, that we’re locked in an intellectual prison—one whose doors lock from the inside.

A warning for conservatives

Abtei im Eichwald , by Caspar David Friedrich

Abtei im Eichwald, by Caspar David Friedrich

While visiting home in Georgia this weekend, my wife and I went to my parents’ church. The sermon came from the Book of Exodus, but an aside from Ecclesiastes caught us both off guard and gave us a lot to think about:

Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
— Ecclesiastes 7:10

For my wife, this brought to mind changes at work, a difficult new generation of students, and a longing for years past, before present troubles. I thought immediately of conservatism—not the political position, but the attitude or temperament that is prior to any particular political idea: a disposition rather than an ideology, according to Michael Oakeshott; a state of mind, an instinct to preserve and maintain, to adhere to tradition and custom, to guarantee continuity, according to Russell Kirk; an understanding that good things are hard to create and easy to destroy, according to Roger Scruton. We could go on much further.

So while I am a conservative, both by temperament and because I agree with the above, I’m not talking about political conservatism, which is in bad shape in the United States anyway. I mean the general disposition, to which even self-described progressives are susceptible, and what I see as its besetting danger.

That danger is what is commonly called nostalgia now: a sentimentalized reverence for a past that—probably—never existed.

This shouldn’t be news—conservatives are accused of nostalgia all the time—but I do wrestle with a longing for a time without our present troubles. There were good things about the past, things it is good to preserve or recover, and there are serious problems at present, problems to which the past may—and I think often does—hold the solutions. But I have to remind myself that while the people of the past may not have had our problems, they had plenty of their own, and there were even then people like me who cast longing backward glances at their own simpler, more peaceful, less troubled pasts. It’s simpler times all the way down.

And there stand the words of the preacher. In the magisterial archaism of the KJV: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.”

This is not, of course, a resounding endorsement of nostalgia’s opposite error, progressivism—“a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” And it is good to remember that Ecclesiastes is hardly a straightforward collection of proverbial wisdom. But this passage is a good reminder of the unwisdom of two related mistakes: assuming the past was necessarily better than the present, and using that assumption as an excuse to neglect the present.

Mea culpa. This is a tall order for someone who is both a conservative and an historian, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.

Food for thought at an obsessively nostalgic time of year. To conclude with a warning against focusing obsessively on the future—a New Year’s warning, perhaps—here’s the Gospel of Matthew:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
— Matthew 6:34

Chesterton on backbone and bravado

All Saints’ Day seems like an appropriate time to think about courage, which is—for a few other coincidental reasons—what I’ve been doing for most of the morning. From “The Prehistoric Railway Station,” an essay in Tremendous Trifles:

Brave men are vertebrates; they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle. But these modern cowards are all crustaceans; their hardness is all on the cover and their softness is inside.

Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” which he explained as “exercising intelligent forethought and . . . decisive action . . . far in advance of any likely crisis,” comes to mind, as do the courteous medieval knight, who could compose romantic lays at court and ride his opponents down on the battlefield, and the refined antebellum gentleman, who could observe proper etiquette in all situations and fight duels.

Real bravery is built from the inside out, which takes firmness of purpose and discipline and results in the kind of rigidity that carries both individuals and groups through crises. It’s a lifestyle—in the same sense that the renunciations and carefully structured life of a Benedictine friar were a lifestyle. Compare this passage from Lord Moran’s Anatomy of Courage:

Courage is a moral quality; it is not a chance gift of nature like an aptitude for games. It is a cold choice between two alternatives, the fixed resolve not to quit; an act of renunciation which must be made not once but many times by the power of the will. Courage is willpower.

I’ve just returned to my office from showing a class the end of The Alamo, and the backbone—the softness of honor and courtesy on the outside with the toughness of honor and bravery in the middle—of those men still beggars belief. William Barret Travis could conclude a letter with “Victory or death!” and mean it. It wasn’t just a slogan.

What we have today, especially in our increasingly shrill political debates, is a lot of bravado and tough-talking. Witness the “bravery” of screaming protesters, vandals of inanimate objects, or, at its very worst, resentful loners trying to kill—sometimes successfully—the people they blame for society’s ills. It’s no coincidence that actors—people paid millions to play pretend for a living—can be called “brave” for the roles they take. “Bravery” is simply another posture now, a shape people put on, not a fundamental character quality. A society that makes bravery an attitude, a rhetorical mode, a system of virtue signalling, is a society of Chesterton’s crustaceans. When the crisis comes, they’ll crunch.

But respect for the vertebrate is still alive. One of the most uplifting, hopeful moments of a given day for me comes when—most frequently by accident now—I run across the story of some ordinary person showing this kind of courage. The fact that such stories can still evoke our awe and admiration tells me that hope is not lost.

To take this back to Chesterton, here’s another line from this essay that I appreciated, on respect for and value of tradition among ordinary people and the elite:

If you wish to find the past preserved, follow the million feet of the crowd. At the worst the uneducated only wear down old things by sheer walking. But the educated kick them down out of sheer culture.

Less talk, less crust. More backbone. We all know this; we just have to recover it and practice it.