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G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism and
the Sense of Wonder
At the heart of G.K. Chesterton’s Christian orthodoxy was a sense of wonder
at God’s Creation which called for the human response of gratitude. But Ches-
terton’s sense of wonder was also directed into the everyday world of human
affairs, providing his work with the distinctive democratic character that set it
apart from so much that was considered progressive in Edwardian England.
Chesterton perceived that the progressive mind was devoid of wonder,
anchored in neither love of God or neighbour but in the self itself. Much of
Chesterton’s own literary energy was devoted to exposing the lunacies that
developed when intellectuals turned away from the strange and unexpected
nature of reality in order to construct their own highly logical, utterly consis-
tent, yet ultimately mad ideologies—in practical terms, Chesterton realised that
such ideologies were likely to bring tyranny in their wake. Chesterton’s sense
of wonder underpinned his religious thought—but it was also a driving force
behind his social critique and his ceaseless challenging of social and political
schemes that threatened the common life in the name of some utopian vision.1
The young Chesterton was propelled into his writing career by his experi-
ence of evil, his struggle with introspection, and his need to face reality—the
pivotal events which occurred while he was a student at the Slade School of
Art in London during the mid-1890s. At that time the Slade was dominated
by the philosophy of Impressionism which, in Chesterton’s understanding,
was a form of skepticism and subjectivism. It was in such a climate that he
came to have doubts about the reality of existence itself. In this atmosphere
“of unreality and sterile isolation,” as he describes it in his Autobiography
(1936), he began to feel “an overpowering impulse to record or draw horrible
ideas and images; plunging deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide.
. . . I dug quite low enough to discover the devil; and even in some dim way
to recognise the devil” (93). Chesterton recoiled from this encounter with evil
and pulled himself out of his morbid state by inventing his own “rudimen-
tary and makeshift mystical theory” based on the gratitude for there being
any existence at all (93-94). Cutting his studies short—he did not obtain a
degree—Chesterton broke through his morbid state of mind and embarked
on a literary rather than an artistic career which was fuelled by a conscious
rebellion against the skeptical and nihilistic fashions of the day. In devel-
oping this “theory of thanks,” he sought to reawaken the sense of wonder at
the miraculous and mysterious fact of existence: “Of one thing I am certain,
that the age needs, first and foremost to be startled; to be taught the nature of
wonder” (Man Who Was Orthodox 160).
By 1905 and the publication of Heretics, a collection of essays which exam-
ined the “negative spirit” underlying the works of various popular intel-


lectuals and novelists, Chesterton had come to understand his “makeshift

mystical theory” to be but a pale copy of orthodox Christianity—a fact he
would elaborate on in his classic Orthodoxy (1908). His wonder at sheer exis-
tence would now entail the unambiguous recognition of God the Creator—
that supreme Being upon whom all being was contingent:

Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that
things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot
admire the light as a single and created thing. As soon as we have
seen that darkness, all light is lightning, sudden, blinding, and
divine. Until we picture nonentity we underrate the victory of
God, and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war. It is
one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until
we know nothing. (Heretics 58-59)

This wonder at the sheer fact that there is something and not nothing
is the red thread which runs through all of Chesterton’s voluminous writ-
ings. It is reflected in the fact that he could write about anything—even the
most trivial of subjects—because against the backdrop of nothing, everything
was interesting. Thus Chesterton believed that in the course of his work as
a public intellectual he should do all he could to undermine the modern
tendency to take things for granted, for that “is taking them without grati-
tude; that is, emphatically as not granted” (Irish Impressions 21).
Chesterton’s aim to rekindle the sense of wonder in the mind of his audi-
ence represented not just the need for a sense of wonder at existence, at the
universe and the earth in and upon which we find ourselves, but of a wonder
at the humanly established world as well. Chesterton directed his sense of
wonder into the realm of human affairs too, hence his countless essays on such
objects as cheese, lamp-posts, or the contents of his pockets, objects which
are easily overlooked, but which, against the background of nothingness, are
themselves miraculous: “To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural
and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both
supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which
God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns
the other, are equally of the gold of fairy-tales” (Heretics 135-36).2
Chesterton regained his child-like sense of wonder, his appreciation of the
actuality and goodness of everyday existence, through his own struggle with
the fin-de-siècle pessimists and, as Margaret Canovan has pointed out, he was
“one of the twice-born, his own innocence and spontaneity something grate-
fully recovered from his youthful crisis” (37). And so, if Chesterton distanced
himself from such pessimists, his own position, which was marked by his
firm belief in the reality of spiritual evil, was equally opposed to the vulgar
optimists of his time who believed this earth and our life on it to be the
G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism 13

best of all possible worlds untouched by sin or human tragedy. Chesterton

thus located his own turn towards reality between the poles of optimism
and pessimism: “The heresies that have attacked human happiness in my
time have all been variations of either presumption or despair; which in the
controversies of modern culture are called optimism and pessimism” (Man
Who Was Orthodox 170). Neither attitude was conducive to defending the
interests of the poor against the designs of the privileged.
Towards the end of his Autobiography, after spelling out his own sense
of gratitude for an undeserved gift of Creation, Chesterton points to this
second core element of his world-view, which was to defend the dignity of
the downtrodden: “It was my instinct to defend liberty in small nations and
poor families; that is, to defend the rights of man as including the rights of
property; especially the property of the poor” (342). Indeed, Chesterton asso-
ciates wonder with the reaction of anger at evil and so he maintains that a
firm grasp of reality is intimately entwined with the power to resist existing
social injustices. For example, Chesterton writes that Dickens “encounters
evil with that beautiful surprise which, as it is the beginning of all real plea-
sure, is also the beginning of all righteous indignation. He enters the work-
house just as Oliver Twist enters it, as a little child” (Appreciations 48). And
for Chesterton, of course, the defining aspect of the child was the capacity for
wonder. Preserving the element of surprise—an intrinsic part of wonder—
seems to have been essential for Chesterton in facing up to and resisting evil:
“From the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise. He must have the
faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment. It is not enough that he should
think injustice distressing; he must think injustice absurd, an anomaly in exis-
tence, a matter less for tears than for shattering laughter” (Charles Dickens
6-7). The capacities for both wonder and horror are present in the balanced
mind which embraces both aspects of truth which are isolated in the minds
of the optimist and pessimist and which thereby lead to mere acquiescence
or despair. Christianity, with its teaching of both the goodness of Creation
and the evil of the Fall embraces both dimensions of reality.
The trouble with both optimists and pessimists in Chesterton’s account is
that they take an aspect of truth and treat it as the whole truth. What is needed,
according to Chesterton, is not a compromise between the two positions but
both attitudes at the same time: “For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolu-
tion, what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise,
but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not
want joy and anger to neutralise each other and produce a surly contentment;
we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent” (Orthodoxy 128).
So for Chesterton the experience of wonder at and gratitude for sheer
existence did not lead to a resigned inactivity, the cultivation of a private
spirituality content with letting things be. The problem with the sensibilities
of optimism and pessimism was that they were not conducive to political

resistance to the present state of affairs: “The optimist will say that reform
is needless. The pessimist will say that reform is hopeless” (Charles Dickens
270). Chesterton’s own view is expressed by way of contrast with outlooks
which would consider the world so good that nothing need be done, or so
bad that nothing can be done. Our initial attitude should not be one of criti-
cism or approval but rather the fundamental sense of loyalty of the “cosmic
patriot”: “The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to
leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag
flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it.
The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the
point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it,
and its sadness a reason for loving it more” (Orthodoxy 119). Any criticism
of the world must be based on its prior affirmation: we need to love a thing
before it can be made loveable—as we shall see, before we ask what is wrong
with the world we need to know what is right with it.
Chesterton’s social criticism was also deeply infused by a sense of the
limited nature of the human condition. As Chesterton recounts in his Autobi-
ography, an awareness of a sense of limits was a fundamental element of his
whole perception of existence: “All my life I have loved frames and limits;
and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a
window” (32). Gratitude for the wondrous fact that things exist implies the
response of self restraint: “we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by
not drinking too much of them” (Orthodoxy 116). If the spirit of wonder was
inscribed in the philosophy of the fairy-tales of childhood—as Chesterton
revealed in Orthodoxy—so too was the principle of limitation. Human happi-
ness depends upon our acceptance of certain limits of the human condition.
Life in Elfland is not marked by lawlessness but by the principle of a sanc-
tion which Chesterton terms the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy.” Happiness
depends on our not doing something which we could at any moment do:
“The note of the fairy utterance always is, ‘You may live in a palace of gold
and sapphire, if you do not say the word “cow”’; or ‘You may live happily
with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always
rests upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon
one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose
depend upon one thing that is forbidden” (97).
Chesterton’s sense of the wonder at reality and his awareness of the
importance of the principle of limitation are reflected in his fondness for the
distinctness of things—a limit, after all, signifies where one thing ends and
another begins. Chesterton was repelled by modern modes of thought which
remove the clear outlines and boundaries which separate and distinguish
one thing’s identity from another. This emphasis on the distinctions between
things often appears in a religious framework through Chesterton’s critique
of a pantheism which would lead to the smoothing away of the distinctions
G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism 15

between nature and God, body and spirit, animal and man—something we
shall consider later. It is also manifest in Chesterton’s stress on the impor-
tance of private property and the limits of boundary fences together with
the distinction between father-mother-child in the family—the fundamental
aspect behind Chesterton’s distributist socio-political perspective with which
he challenged both capitalism and socialism.
Chesterton’s first published novel reflected this sense of limits in its oppo-
sition to the large-scale, centralizing schemes of imperialism and socialism
together with the celebration of the varieties and virtues of the small city-
state. The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) is set eighty years in the future,
but it is a future very similar to the present for the people had lost faith
in the possibility of revolutions due to the lack of any positive enduring
ideals—in essence, it is a world without wonder. It is a dull, bureaucratic
world in which democracy has decayed into a form of random despotism
with a King being selected on the basis of alphabetical rotation. In reaction
to the lack of color and variety around him, Auberon Quin—the newly
selected King—issues a proclamation that reinstates the medieval bound-
aries, heraldries and offices of the various London boroughs. While Quin
himself sees this all as a grand joke, one man takes it all very seriously:
Adam Wayne, the Provost of Notting Hill. When a proposed road devel-
opment threatens to destroy a small Notting Hill street, Wayne raises a
small army to defend Notting Hill against the overwhelming forces of the
surrounding boroughs. While his opponents believe in the power of sheer
numbers, Wayne is driven by a local patriotism which sees the wonder in
the world around him. He perceives the poetry in the commonplace and
declares to King Auberon:

“I was born, like other men, in a spot of the earth which I loved
because I had played boys’ games there, and fallen in love, and
talked with my friends through nights that were nights of the gods.
And I feel the riddle. These little gardens where we told our loves.
These streets where we brought out our dead. Why should they
be commonplace? Why should they be absurd? Why should it be
grotesque to say that a pillar-box is poetic when for a year I could
not see a red pillar-box against the yellow evening in a certain
street without being wracked with something of which God keeps
the secret, but which is stronger than sorrow or joy? Why should
any one be able to raise a laugh by saying ‘the Cause of Notting
Hill’?—Notting Hill where thousands of immortal spirits blaze
with alternate hope and fear.” (62-63)

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was an adventure novel which stemmed from
Chesterton’s youthful sympathies for the Boer farmers who took to rifle

and horse against the might of the British Empire. Six years later he would
provide a sustained account of his political thought. What’s Wrong with the
World (1910) represented Chesterton’s first major work of social analysis and
displays his interest in the importance of limited and widely spread private
property and of the distinct gender and generational roles within the family.
What was fundamentally wrong, Chesterton argued, was that other works of
social analysis failed to begin by asking what was right—what was the ideal
to which we should be striving? For Chesterton, this ideal was represented
by the free family with its independence embodied in its own home: “As
every normal man desires a woman, and children born of a woman, every
normal man desires a house of his own to put them into” (59). This was the
permanent human ideal to be asserted against contemporary society: “the
huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead
of altering human conditions to fit the human soul” (109).
Chesterton identified that one of the worst notions of modern ideologies
was that domesticity was dull. Rather, in a world which consisted of set tasks
and rules, the home was very often the only place of liberty for the poor.
Furthermore, as Chesterton believed that the ability to create against a back-
ground of limits was an essential aspect of human nature then the possession
of property was a fundamental requirement for human fulfillment: “Prop-
erty is merely the art of democracy. It means that every man should have
something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image
of Heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his
self expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and
even small” (47-48).
It is an ideal, Chesterton maintains, which should not be confused with
capitalism, for capitalism, although commonly assumed to be based on the
ownership of private property, is a system based both on the denial of the
means of production to the majority and the principle of limitation. The
true meaning of property is thus lost to the capitalist who has concentrated
the property of others into his own hands: “A man with the true poetry of
possession wishes to see the wall where his garden meets Smith’s garden;
the hedge where his farm touches Brown’s. He cannot see the shape of his
own land unless he sees the edges of his neighbour’s” (48).
In What’s Wrong with the World Chesterton also sought to emphasize the
distinctions between both the sexes and the generations. Men and women
were radically different and Chesterton felt it necessary to counter modern
movements which would seek to obscure this fundamental fact. For Ches-
terton, a woman’s nature suited her to the work within the realm of the
household—and, despite the protests of a minority of feminists, this was the
type of life which most women desired.
Comradeship and love were two distinct and very different things and are
embodied in sexual difference: “women stand for the dignity of love and men
G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism 17

for the dignity of comradeship” (90). Furthermore, while men had a tendency
to be specialists, women were the great universalists: “Women were not kept
at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home
in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of
narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs” (128).
The education of the young exemplified the universalism of the woman, for
a child needs to be introduced into a human culture, not learn the specifics of
a job: “To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets,
labours and holidays; to be Whiteley 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” (132). The woman’s role
was not to be belittled; it represented a monumental task concerned with those
primary things which were of such importance that only a sense of sacred
loyalty was appropriate—a sense inappropriate to the outside economy.
In being in command of a household, the woman is omnipotent in the
small sphere of the private house. Inherent in this role is the ability to prac-
tice thrift: economy, says Chesterton, is more romantic than extravagance
because it is creative. Along with feminine dignity, it was a sense of thrift
which set women apart from men; from the wordiness, wastefulness and
pleasure seeking of male companionship—the rowdiness one might find in
a public house.
While Chesterton could see that the traditional relations between the
sexes were being undermined he also noted that the distinctions between
the generations were being eroded as well. Education is the transmission of
knowledge across the generations and rests on authority: “A teacher who
is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching” (197). However,
Chesterton notes that a fashionable idea has developed which maintains that
teaching is not a form of instruction—and so does not rest on authority—but
a form of ‘drawing out’ the latent tendencies within the child. Unable to
believe in any objective truth themselves, teachers were thus abdicating their
responsibility towards children—in undermining authority they can be seen
to be eroding the very distinction between adult and child itself.
Chesterton’s stress on the importance of limits and distinctions is
also reflected in his emphasis that people be understood as unique indi-
viduals, each with their own destinies—Chesterton had a deep sense of
what Hannah Arendt referred to in The Human Condition (1958) as “the
human condition of plurality, . . . the fact that men, not Man, live on the
earth and inhabit the world” (7). Chesterton’s words on Robert Browning
reveal his own profound awareness of human plurality: “The sense of the
absolute sanctity of human difference was the deepest of all his senses. He
was hungrily interested in all human things, but it would have been quite
impossible to have said of him that he loved humanity. He did not love
humanity but men” (Robert Browning 187).

Such a sense of wonder at the human world is directly linked to Ches-

terton’s defense of the common life against the abstract schemes devised
by intellectuals and other members of the establishment. Indeed, unlike so
many other liberals, socialists, progressives, or conservatives, Chesterton did
have a fundamental faith that the everyday beliefs and opinions of ordinary
people were likely to be more sane than those of their supposed betters. As
Anthony Wright points out, for example, the Fabian socialists distrusted and
had little understanding of the needs of ordinary working people. Indeed,
Beatrice Webb’s diary entry of 1894 reads: “we have little faith in the ‘average
sensual man’, we do not believe that he can do much more than describe his
grievances, we do not think he can prescribe his remedies” (qtd. in Wright
55). Thus “Mrs. Sidney Webb,” says Chesterton, “settles things by the simple
process of ordering about the citizens of a state, as she might the servants in
a kitchen” (Victorian Age 91).
Rooted in his sense of wonder at the world, Chesterton’s radical demo-
cratic outlook embodied his reaction to the fact that workers and the poor
remained invisible as fellow human beings in the eyes of the privileged. As
the character of the Trades Unionist John Braintree declares in Chesterton’s
novel The Return of Don Quixote (1927) after hearing that there were no men
in the aristocratic household at which he was visiting: “There is a man in the
next room, there is a man in the passage; there is a man in the garden; there
is a man at the front door; there is a man in the stables; there is a man in the
kitchen; there is a man in the cellar. What sort of palace of lies have you built
for yourselves when you see all these around you every day and do not even
know that they are men? Why do we strike? Because you forget our very
existence when we do not strike” (qtd. in Clark 11).3
And the philanthropists were no better—to them the poor were to be pitied
as if they were unfortunate animals and administered to for their own good.
Neither the rich man nor the philanthropist would recognize the dignity
of the poor as human beings—such a recognition being for Chesterton the
prerequisite for securing radical and egalitarian social change. Chesterton,
who was one of the most radically democratic English writers of the twen-
tieth century, maintained that not pity but solidarity was the mark of the true
democratic sentiment:

Democracy is not philanthropy; it is not even altruism or social

reform. Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man;
democracy is founded on reverence for the common man, or, if
you will, even on fear of him. It does not champion man because
man is so miserable, but because man is so sublime. It does not
object so much to the ordinary man being a slave as to his not
being a king, for its dream is always the dream of the First Roman
republic, a nation of kings. (Heretics 270)
G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism 19

For Chesterton, a primary role of the artist was to express in a more sublime
manner the everyday truths about the human condition formed amongst
ordinary men and women and maintained in popular tradition rather than
devised in the solitary mind of the intellectual. That is, to portray the ordi-
nary as what it in fact is—extraordinary. It was in this ability, according to
Chesterton, where Charles Dickens displayed one aspect of his greatness:

Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens

when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the
community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was
not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not
write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people
wanted. And with this was connected that other fact which must
never be forgotten, and which I have more than once insisted on,
that Dickens and his school had a hilarious faith in democracy and
thought of the service of it as a sacred priesthood. Hence there was
this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension
in it. . . . Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to
the people. He approached the people like a deity and poured out
his riches and his blood. (Charles Dickens 106)

By contrast, the distance which the progressive intellectual placed between

himself and the common life was an attitude which destroyed any possibility
of real reform:

What cuts this spirit off from Christian common sense is the fact
that the delusion, like most insane delusions, is merely egotistical.
It is simply the pleasure of thinking extravagantly well of oneself,
and unlimited indulgence in that pleasure is far more weakening
than any indulgence in drink or dissipation. But so completely
does it construct an unreal cosmos round the ego, that the criti-
cism of the world cannot be felt even for worldly purposes. (Irish
Impressions 221-22)

If such haughty disdain for the common life paralyses radical reform, the
real danger is that the delusions of the egotistic intellectual may be imposed
on a recalcitrant populace who remain—albeit often unconsciously—loyal
to common sense and the Christian affirmation of existence. Eugenics—
the attempt to improve the genetic makeup of society—is one example
of such disdain for ordinary life and Chesterton devoted an entire book
to its refutation, and we shall take this as an exemplar of Chesterton’s
social criticism—though, of course, it is but one aspect of his quarrel with
modern society.

In Eugenics and Other Evils (1922) Chesterton maintained that the eugenic
movement represented something radically new in history and involved
a revolutionary reversal of conventional morality. Whereas all preceding
morality had maintained that one’s primary duty was to the partner in procre-
ation—that is, to an actually existing person—the moral duty demanded by
eugenic theory was towards a hypothetical person, i.e. the child who has been
conceived only in theory. “To introduce an ethic which makes that fidelity
or infidelity vary with some calculation about heredity is that rarest of all
things, a revolution that has not happened before” (8). Chesterton argued
that the eugenic movement was an example of science trying to tyrannize
through the state; that it marked a transformation in persecution from torture
to vivisection (for the eugenists did not actually know what they were doing);
and that it was a form of intellectual madness which could take root in a
climate of anarchy—that is, an inability to accept limits to liberty together
with a feeling of powerlessness to halt processes once started. Fundamen-
tally, Chesterton views eugenics as a tool of the capitalist class which seeks a
way out of the social malaise it had itself created.
For Chesterton, the founding of a family was of the very essence of
freedom—the eugenic movement represented a direct assault on that freedom
and instead represented the subordination of atomized individuals to the
organs of the State and Big Business. In its practical dimension, eugenics aims
“to control some families at least as if they were families of pagan slaves” (10).
Chesterton maintained that the revolution which will issue in the Eugenic
State had already begun and draws his readers attention to the Mental Defi-
ciency Act which he believes represents the “first Eugenic Law.” The upshot
of this “Feeble-Minded Bill” (as Chesterton names it) is that anyone who is
deemed to be weak-minded is liable to be incarcerated as if they were a homi-
cidal lunatic—and everyone was to be a likely suspect. In such a situation,
declares Chesterton, “nothing remains to us but rebellion” (21).4
The upshot of the industrial-capitalist system was that the poor, having
been excluded from public life, crushed by draconian laws, and ravaged by
the effects of malnutrition had become unemployable. Alarming for the rich
was a growing population superfluous to the process of capital accumula-
tion: “Men who had no human bond with the instructed man, men who
seemed to him monsters and creatures without mind, became an eyesore in
the market-place and a terror on the empty roads. The rich were afraid” (132).
Although it was not too late for the capitalist system to reform, the provision
of better living conditions for the immiserated workers would after all cost
money and granting them a degree of independence might foster rebellious
sensibilities. So much more attractive to the capitalist would be the prospect
of altering the nature of marriage itself, eliminating those deemed unde-
sirable whilst diverting the free reproductive energy of sex to specifically
commercial ends: “He could divert the force of sex from producing vaga-
G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism 21

bonds. And he could harness to his high engines unbought the red unbroken
river of the blood of man in his youth, as he has already harnessed to them
all the wild waste rivers of the world” (135). Human nature, in other words,
was now to be considered as a mere resource just as the industrialist had
already reduced external nature to a mere commodity.
Chesterton considers what possible forces of resistance stand against this
proposed medical domination of the poor. Unfortunately, Chesterton finds
that official Liberalism is no longer concerned with the defense of individual
liberty and asserts his belief that what had prevented so many liberals from
resisting the tide of eugenics was precisely their failure to recognize that
liberty entails limitation. Liberty without limits is liberty undefined; and
liberty without definition is devoid of substance. This non-recognition of
limits Chesterton terms “anarchy” (23) and it was such an atmosphere of
anarchy which allowed eugenics to take a hold in the imaginations of so
many progressive intellectuals. Instead of defending individual liberties,
Liberalism had become obsessed with safeguarding the health of society as
a whole and as a consequence the State had become less concerned with
the public declarations of its citizens than with attempting to manage in the
most intrusive manner the private affairs of the home.
As such, the plutocracy had itself taken over the negative aspect of
socialism—the element of bureaucratic officialdom—and rejected the truly
progressive aspect which was the desire for economic equality: “They have
now added all the bureaucratic tyrannies of a Socialist state to the old pluto-
cratic tyrannies of a Capitalist State” (164). By following the line of least
resistance, socialist bureaucrats could conveniently forget their original
egalitarian ideals and take a place in the state apparatus, concentrating
instead on such things as promoting a propaganda for popular divorce
which would accustom the populace “to a new notion of the shifting and
re-grouping of families” (167). Official Liberalism and Socialism were thus
unlikely forces of resistance to the march of the Eugenic State according to
Chesterton—worse still, individual liberals and socialists were likely to be
found amongst its advocates.
In the penultimate chapter of Eugenics and Other Evils Chesterton explores
the possibility for rebellion by the poor themselves—the populist resistance
which he would have hoped for. The chapter in question (which is entitled
“The End of the Household Gods” and brilliantly illustrates Chesterton’s
assertion that the reformer should counter the absurd nature of injustice
with “shattering laughter”) turns on an interpretation of a verse from an old
music-hall song he had once heard and which he believes represents the real
voice of the English working class:

Father’s got the sack from the water-works

For smoking of his old cherry-briar;

Father’s got the sack from the water-works

’Cos he might set the water-works on fire. (170)

In an amusingly ironic tone, Chesterton first explains the meaning of the

word “Father,” pointing out to his educated readers that the term “is still
in use among the more ignorant and ill-paid of the industrial community;
and is the badge of an old convention or unit called the family” (171). In
the family the person of the father represents a natural authority against
which is now raised a whole host of new artificial authorities: “the official,
the schoolmaster, the policeman, the employer, and so on” (171-72).
Next, Chesterton explains that “got the sack” refers to a more recent
phenomenon, stating that under contemporary economic conditions the
father is no longer a master but a commercial servant who has not even the
security of the slave. If sacking represents the specifically capitalist dimen-
sion of the plutocracy, “From the water-works,” Chesterton explains, refers
to the large scale and impersonal bureaucratic aspect of the system. It makes
no difference to the father whether this be a capitalist or socialist enterprise,
for his freedom could only be preserved by the independence which his own
private property would guarantee. “For smoking,” Chesterton continues,
refers to the minuscule regimentation of everyday life which has been adopted
from the socialists and which now confronts the father: “while employers
still claim the right to sack him like a stranger, they are already beginning
to claim the right to supervise him like a son” (173). However, the phrase
“Of his old Cherry-briar” does at least illustrate that amongst the poor the
old sentiment for private property still exists, albeit now attached merely to
trinkets and toys rather than any actual means of production. Finally, “’Cos
he might set the water-works on fire” is left to speak for itself, revealing the
sheer absurdity from which the whole process had begun.
The system of plutocratic state domination was not yet complete however:
“Property has not quite vanished; slavery has not quite arrived; marriage exists
under difficulties; social regimentation exists under restraints, or rather under
subterfuges. The question which remains is which force is gaining on the other,
and whether the old forces are capable of resisting the new” (175). Chesterton
hoped that the poor would resist the new tyranny but points out that they are at a
very big disadvantage. The desire for free and independent family life exists only
as an instinct and not as an ideal. Christianity is the natural defender of the ideal
but there has been an historic rift between Christianity and the working classes.
Although Chesterton suggests that the ideal can be defended on purely rational
grounds, only a religion could give the ideal the pugnacious and popular char-
acter necessary for it to succeed—as to why this is we shall consider presently.
Chesterton concedes that the possibilities for resisting the march of the
Eugenic State do not appear very hopeful—but Chesterton does not succumb
to despair and thunders out his defiance of the plutocracy all the more. The
G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism 23

unlikely chances of success do not dampen Chesterton’s protest which he

admits may seem as “wild words of despair that are written only upon running
water; unless, indeed, as some so stubbornly and strangely say, they are some-
where cut deep into a rock, in the red granite of the wrath of God” (179).
However, Chesterton does not pursue the religious dimension in Eugenics
and Other Evils—for that we have to look elsewhere. In A Miscellany of Men
(1912) Chesterton’s criticism of Eastern mysticism is specifically directed to
what he saw as a worrying development amongst the English intellectual
classes—alongside an increasingly liberal attitude towards Eastern religions
could be found an increasingly reactionary attitude towards the conditions of
the poor. Just as imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes had rationalized their belief
that the fittest must survive and the weakest go to the wall by oriental ideas
of fatalism (Miscellany 202-07), so too were the intellectuals finding a means to
rationalize injustice to the poor of their own countries. Dean Inge—who was one
of a number of “progressively”-minded clergy who had supported the eugenic
proposals of the Mental Deficiency Bill—is one such example (181-89).
To counter these intellectual movements Chesterton explained why Chris-
tianity and the Eastern mysticism favored by the intelligentsia represented
two very different perspectives on existence:

The Eastern mysticism is an ecstasy of unity; the Christian mysti-

cism is an ecstasy of creation, that is, of separation and mutual
surprise. The latter says, like St. Francis, “My brother fire and my
sister water”; the former says, “Myself fire and myself water.”
Whether you call the Eastern attitude an extension of oneself into
everything or a contraction of oneself into nothing is a matter of
metaphysical definition. The effect is the same, an effect which
lives and throbs throughout all the exquisite arts of the East. This
effect is the thing called rhythm, a pulsation of pattern, or of ritual,
or of colours, or of cosmic theory, but always suggesting the unifi-
cation of the individual with the world. (163)

Thus for Chesterton the Christian affirms existence not in the manner of
the Eastern mystic by projecting the self into nature but in appreciating its
otherness through the sense of wonder. Love requires division and separa-
tion: “The Christian saint is happy because he has verily been cut off from
the world; he is separate from things and is staring at them in astonishment”
(Orthodoxy 245). In order to be able to experience wonder we must be aware
that there is something separate from our selves to wonder at. Edwardian
theosophists and other progressive intellectuals influenced by Eastern mysti-
cism would, according to Chesterton, be devoid of the sense of wonder: “The
pantheist cannot wonder, for he cannot praise God or praise anything as
really distinct from himself” (245).

Chesterton believed that a sense of wonder was intrinsic to adopting a

radical stance towards society and resisting political tyranny. Christianity,
which embodied the wonder at a distinct Creation separate from God, was thus
inherently a fighting faith: “The truth is that the western energy that dethrones
tyrants has been directly due to the western theology that says ‘I am I, thou
art thou’” (Orthodoxy 246). Dissolving the boundaries between the self into
“the All” of the theosophist is inherently conformist: “By insisting specially
on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social
indifference—Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we
get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation—
Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself.
By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself” (248).
In order to respond to the oppressive and anti-democratic trends he could
see developing within society Chesterton hoped to reawaken the sense of
wonder by looking upon the world and its Western/Christian heritage
anew. Thus while Chesterton considered himself to be a radical he also saw
himself as a defender of tradition. Gratitude, which was for Chesterton the
reasonable response to wonder, was something not just directed to God for
the act of Creation but towards humans for their own enduring innovations.
Chesterton thought that we ought to be grateful for having the opportunity
to take part in a tradition of thought and understanding, hence his remarks
on Chaucer: “He was a great poet of gratitude; he was grateful to God; but he
was also grateful to Gower. He was grateful to the everlasting Romance of the
Rose; he was still more grateful to Ovid and grateful to Virgil and grateful to
Petrarch and Boccaccio. He is always eager to show us over his little library
and tell us where all his tales come from. He is prouder of having read the
books than of having written the poems” (Chaucer 30).
There is an important point to grasp here for Chesterton is all too often
considered a mere conservative traditionalist whereas Chesterton’s perspec-
tive would in fact entail a new way of looking upon tradition itself. Over-
turning both progressive modernist and reactionary conservative views,
Chesterton emphasized the radical democratic nature of tradition:

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition

means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ances-
tors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to
the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to
be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified
by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disquali-
fied by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect
a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us
not to neglect a good man’s opinion even if he is our father. I, at
any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradi-
G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism 25

tion; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will
have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones;
these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official,
for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a
cross. (Orthodoxy 83-84)

And by tradition Chesterton meant popular tradition and not the way that the
past has been handed on by economic, political or intellectual elites—these
Chesterton considered to be the enemies of tradition. The progressive intellec-
tuals had no appreciation for the importance of tradition—indeed their whole
outlook, as he pointed out in What’s Wrong with the World, was marked by “a
fear of the past.” Reality poses limits on our imagination and the modern intel-
lectual could not abide limits. History consists of real people and real events
so the progressive turns from the past and sets his sights on the unwritten
future to indulge a fantasy of limitless possibility: “The future is a blank wall
on which every man can write his own name as large as he likes; the past I find
already covered with illegible scribbles, such as Plato, Isaiah, Shakespeare,
Michael Angelo, Napoleon. I can make the future as narrow as myself; the past
is obliged to be as broad and turbulent as humanity” (What’s Wrong 27). The
progressive had no appreciation for people as they actually were. Real people
suffered by comparison to the intellectual’s own ideological constructions—
such as, for example, the eugenic fantasy of a future Nietzschean Superman
who could perceive nothing but the transgression of the limits to the human
condition. This basic denial of an objective reality and the limits which it
entails recalls the atmosphere of skepticism which Chesterton had encoun-
tered at the Slade and as we have already seen greatly disturbed his mental
well-being—the very same anarchism which would surround Gabriel Syme,
the hero of Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). Behind the
anarchistic nightmare in which nothing possesses definition and everything
appears as illusion, Syme is still able to get a glimpse of the real and so appre-
ciate that which is all too often dismissed as commonplace: “He thought of all
the human things in his story—of the Chinese lanterns in Saffron Park, of the
girl’s red hair in the garden, of the honest, beer-swilling sailors down by the
dock, of his loyal companions standing by. Perhaps he had been chosen as a
champion of all these fresh and kindly things to cross swords with the enemy
of all creation” (120-21).
For Chesterton, the mind of the modern intellectual—whom he attacked
for expressing the world-view of the wealthy and not the poor—is essen-
tially devoid of wonder and therefore unable to appreciate the extraordinary
nature of the ordinary. Such a pride reflected a lack of openness to external
reality and truth as disclosed to the senses, as strange and misleading as
those appearances often were: “Pride consists in a man making his person-
ality the only test, instead of making the truth the test” (Common Man 254).

Openness to such a reality was the central lesson which Chesterton hoped
we could learn—a humility centered in the wonder of the world and the
happiness derived from ordinary life:

Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive

power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to
something outside. So long as they have this they have as the great
minds have always declared, a something that is present in child-
hood and which can still preserve and invigorate manhood. The
moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior
to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adven-
tures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring
fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all
the Tartarean emblems of thirst and of despair. (252-53)

Chesterton’s perspective of wonder and gratitude and his embrace of

Christian orthodoxy were therefore intimately connected with his own sense
of the desirability of ordinary existence and the concomitant dislike of prig-
gish intellectuals who would deliberately court the unusual and the exotic,
knowing that they would thus distance themselves from the common lot of
human kind. Chesterton, by contrast, was happy to accept that he was an
ordinary man: “I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term; which means
the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of
gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and
chivalry as laws rightly controlling them, and the rest of the normal tradi-
tions of our race and religion” (The Thing 51).
However, Chesterton saw the coming cultural revolution and perceived
that it would be a revolt against all that was considered both common sense
and commonly decent—a revolt against all the normal traditions, especially
in terms of the human family, of what he had declared as essentially right in
What’s Wrong with the World. In the face of this social transformation Ches-
terton “hoped for a popular revolt against perversions and pedantries of
vice, which have never, in fact, been popular” (Well and the Shallows 92). For
Chesterton still maintained that it was in the ordinary common man who
had yet to embrace supposedly liberated practices that the recognition of
distinction and sexual difference was still to be found—the old morality had
not been entirely extinguished, even if it was largely unconscious. To the
common people, the natural world and other people remain distinct in their
otherness yet are experienced as people and places to which we are ethically
bound through marriage and devotion. Thus we can see that Christian asser-
tion of distinction upon which love is based in Chesterton’s vision in which
the love between man and woman, between humans and the land, and of the
wonder of the child at existence, were all intimately connected:
G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism 27

[T]he varieties themselves; the reflection of man and woman in

each other, as in two distinct mirrors; the wonder of man at nature
as a strange thing at once above and below him; the quaint and
solitary kingdom of childhood; the local affections and the colour
of certain landscapes—these actually are the things that are the
grace and honour of the earth; these are the things which make life
worth living and the whole framework of things well worthy to be
sustained. (The Apostle 167)

Note that Chesterton’s praise for existence in “What is Right with the
World” (1910)—one of his finest essays—connects the Christian notions of
distinctness and plurality to a populist defense of the common man, and
indeed, the common woman, for the division of the sexes was at the root
of his perception of love and is asserted against the pantheism of the self-
elevated intellectuals:

And the best thing remains; that this view, whether conscious
or not, always has been and still is the view of the living and
labouring millions. While a few prigs on platforms are talking
about “oneness” and absorption in “The All”, the folk that dwell
in all the valleys of this ancient earth are renewing the varieties for
ever. With them a woman is loved for being unmanly, and a man
loved for being unwomanly. With them the church and the home
are both beautiful, because they are both different; with them fields
are personal and flags are sacred; they are the virtue of existence,
for they are not mankind but men. (The Apostle 167)

Here is what Chesterton believed was fundamentally right with the world
and which was to be asserted against the dominant forces now raised against
the human personality and the principle of distinction and differentiation:
“The rooted hope of the modern world is that all these dim democracies do
still believe in that romance of life, that variation of man, woman and child
upon which all poetry has hitherto been built. The danger of the modern
world is that these dim democracies are so very dim, and that they are espe-
cially dim where they are right. The danger is that the world may fall under
a new oligarchy—the oligarchy of prigs” (167). The central claim of the new
elite is essentially that of the perversion of non-distinction, “that there is no
difference between the social duties of men and women, the social instruc-
tion of men or of children” (167-68). Chesterton denied that in comparison
to the progressives and in his defense of the traditional family he was some
kind of “reactionary” (167). Rather, this desire to remove all distinctions was
the one really reactionary thing in the world today: it represented the spiri-
tual desire to return to the state of chaos which had existed prior to the act

of Creation. The so-called progressives were less concerned with combating

the specific social conditions which oppressed the families of the poor: they
were in revolt against the limits of the human condition itself.
Chesterton’s distrust of certain materialistic evolutionists stemmed from
his belief that “when once one begins to think of man as a shifting and alter-
able thing, it is always easy for the strong and crafty to twist him into new
shapes for all kinds of unnatural purposes” (What’s Wrong 259). The eugenic
aim of certain evolutionists, says Chesterton in What’s Wrong with the World,
is to reform human society into “The Empire of the Insect” modeled on the
communal life of ants, bees and locusts—a relapse into the unconsciousness
of the “Soul of the Hive.” Latter-day pantheists and eugenists can thus be
seen to share a common aim: the destruction of the family and its principle of
differentiation and its replacement by some all-embracing totality composed
of interchangeable drones.
Such a scheme was diametrically opposed to that sense of distinction and
particularity which accompanied the Christian vision of St. Francis, (who, in
Chesterton’s description, was profoundly gripped by the sense of wonder
and gratitude)—and which represented a counter-perspective to the eugenic-
plutocratic indifference towards the human personality:

To him a man was always a man and did not disappear in a dense
crowd any more than in a desert. He honoured all men; that is, he
not only loved but respected them all. What gave him his extraor-
dinary personal power was this; that from the Pope to the beggar,
from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers
crawling out of the wood, there was never a man who looked into
those brown burning eyes without being sure that Francis Berna-
done was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life
from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and
taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social
policy or the names in some clerical document. (St. Francis 114-15).

Thus the sense of wonder was for Chesterton not just a case of wonder at
Being but at human beings, together with the everyday objects and institu-
tions of the human world. Politically, this translated into a distrust of both
utopian reformers and plutocrats who did not accept the sense of limits
which the experience of wonder and gratitude implies, and as a consequence
could look down upon ordinary existence with contempt. Chesterton under-
stood that we could not escape the limits of the human condition and strive
for a state of perfection. Instead we have to accept both the joys and the tears
that human experience brings. Abolishing the tears in the name of perfection
would also abolish laughter. Hannah Arendt perceived this aspect of Ches-
terton and his acceptance of human limitation which enabled him to attack
G.K. Chesterton: Social Criticism 29

schemes of oppression while asserting his humanity: “Chesterton, having

once and for all accepted the tears, could put real laughter into his most
violent attacks” (“Christianity” 153).5 While Chesterton’s sense of wonder
led him to praise the basic goodness of existence it also made him aware that
the denial of the limits to the human condition and the striving for an illu-
sionary perfection would court disaster—his warnings over the potential for
oppression in utopian schemes which disdain the common life of the human
family are as timely as ever.

Richard Gill

This paper focuses on the element of wonder which underpinned Chesterton’s
social criticism—what might be called his “natural philosophy.” I would not wish
to underplay the importance of the Incarnation to Chesterton’s social thought and
how this was manifest in his articulation of distributism and defense of marriage as
a sacrament rather than a contract. Indeed, I have devoted a separate article to this
very question: “Oikos and Logos: Chesterton’s Vision of Distributism,” Logos: A Journal
of Catholic Thought and Culture (forthcoming).
In directing his philosophical sense of wonder into the realm of human affairs,
Chesterton could be considered a genuine political thinker. See Hannah Arendt,
“Philosophy and Politics,” Social Research Vol. 57 No. 1 (Spring, 1980), 103. Han-
nah Arendt—now recognized as one of the most important political theorists of the
20th century—was clearly dismayed that modern philosophy was based on doubt
rather than the wonder which motivated Plato and Aristotle. However, these classi-
cal philosophers did not transfer their sense of wonder towards the realm of human
affairs. Arendt expressed a hope that a new political philosophy would direct the
sense of wonder into the realm of human affairs—Chesterton was surely a pioneer
in this endeavor.
I am indebted to Professor Clark’s understanding that Chesterton’s comprehen-
sion of Being was transferred into an appreciation of human beings.
Chesterton realizes that eugenics is a form of preventative medicine and un-
derstands the potential for domination in such a supposedly progressive concept:
“Prevention is not only not better than cure prevention is even worse than disease.
Prevention means being an invalid for life, with the extra exasperation of being quite
well” (Eugenics 55). Commenting on this ever popular fallacy that “prevention is
better than cure,” Aurel Kolnai has added: “[T]he utopian negation of sin is not
only not better than penitence and redress but actually worse than sin itself, as the
utopian temptation held out by Lucifer is worse than the blighting fury of Satan….
[F]ew men have understood better than Chesterton—that great lover of freedom and
finiteness of the creature—the meaning of the fact that God chose, not to ‘prevent’
but to ‘cure’ the evil of mankind.” See Aurel Kolnai, “Chesterton and Catholicism:
Excerpts from Aurel Kolnai’s Twentieth-Century Memoirs,” The Chesterton Review Vol.
VIII No. 2 (May, 1982), 155.
This essay was originally published in 1945 in The Nation.

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