Saturday, March 10, 2007

On Mr. Wells and Mr. Belloc

by G.K. Chesterton

"Moses may be a man and Mr. Wells may be a man; and it may, therefore, be interesting to hear Mr. Wells on Moses; perhaps more interesting to hear Moses on Mr. Wells" - Chesterton

Being forced to cut down this paper, we are forced unfortunately to cut out reviews and things not relevant to our special cause. This must by my apology to many, including those who have suggested that we ought at least to review Mr. Belloc's critique of Mr. Wells, touching both the two large books and the two smaller pamphlets. Another difficulty is, of course, that I cannot review it impartially -whatever that may mean. And by this I do not imply that I always agree with all Mr. Belloc says, by that when I do I should always say it as he says it. Friends, thank God, are not so much alike as that; and fellow-Catholics can include the widest contrasts in the world. On a point of detail, for instance; Mr. Belloc is learned in the matter and I am not; but I should doubt whether he is right in speaking quite so contemptuously of the idea that Arianism was a simplification. That Arian theologians stated it in a hair-splitting style I can well believe, for all the early Trinitarian controversy was like that; but it might still be a subconscious relapse towards a facila simplification; as was Islam afterwards. And, more generally, I should not so fiercely accuse Mr. Wells of ignorance, for the simple reason that he is really ignorant. It is clear from the "Eden" correspondence in this paper that he really does not know any Catholic philosophy; and, therefore, ought to be given the chance of liking a thing so entirely new to him.

But, allowing for differences in detail and method, what is the sense of a reviewer pretending not to see the truth when he sees it? The main truth about The Outline of History seems to be this. Every man has an interesting part of his mind, which comes from God and himself, and an uninteresting part, which comes from accident and convention. If I talk about machinery, say about motoring, I can only utter platitudes; as that inventions are wonderful or that motoring too fast is missing the scenery. But Mr. Wells can take that matter of machinery and project out of it, by combining technicalities and imagination, a vision like The War of the Worlds. Mr. Wells writing fictions about the future is Mr. Wells; a person and a poet. Mr. Wells writing facts about the past is not Mr. Wells, but the leavings of all Mr. Wells' most worthless teachers and taskmasters, far away back in the worst period of English elementary teaching. This is what Mr. Belloc substantially says; and this is what he quite clearly proves. The particular case of Darwinian Natural Selection only stands out as a very startling example of stubbornness in such a dowdy and dusty Victorian loyalty. As Mr. Belloc points out, if Mr. Wells simply said, "The Darwinian hypothesis still convinces me, in spite of all that has been said against it," he would be talking sense on one particular side, on which doubtless there are still sensible scientific people. But that he should pretend that nothing particular has been said against it, that no sensible scientific people are now writing against it, is simply astounding and stupefying; and I cannot understand it. I am no biologist; but biologists to whom I have talked have made no disguise about the revolt against Darwin. It is just as if I (in defending private property against Mr. Well's Collectivism) were to shout louder and louder, in furious obstinacy, that there had never been any Socialist movement or Fabian Society, or any sort of reaction against the pure individualism of Herbert Spencer. Darwin and Spencer are of the same date - and equally dated.

But, as I say, that is only a stubborn outstanding example, it is the same stale stuff all through. The man who wrote the medieval Church founded schools not to educate the people, but only to impose her dogmas, is not the Herbert George Wells who used to think. Not even he who used to think about thinkingl; as in a delicate piece of destruction like "Doubts of the Instruments." It is simply cant and slaptrap sixty years old; and it means nothing. I might equally well say that he writes history; not to educate people, but to impose his theories about peace and progress. What the devil should a man impose, except what he thinks is the truth; and how can he be expected to regard anything else as education? I disagreed with his old "relative" scepticism, but I did not despise it. Despising this latter sort of thing is not despising Mr. Wells, but only some cheap atheist in a billycock hat whom he had the bad luck to meet when he was a boy.

If I were reviewing the books in detail, I should remark that Mr. Wells says little in defence of what seems to some of us the most indefensible assertions; e.g., those about the psychology of early man. The two most astonishing statements in his book, I think, were, first, that there seemed "no room" in the lives of the Cro-Magnan artists and hunters for speculation and philosophy; and second, and still more staggering, the suggestion that men buried a rotting corpse with careful rites regarding weapons and other provision, because they did not know that the corpse was dead! Touching the first, we can only recall the man who said he had no time, and was told he had all there is. A man intelligent enough to draw and paint, wandering alone between earth and sky, may or may not have enough room for philosophical speculation; but he has all there is. Touching the second, it is almost impossible to know what to say. In a world without undertakers, without clothes, without coffins, how long did it take humanity to discover that a dead body decays? Of course, as Mr. Belloc remarks, those who say such crazy things can always cover them by saying that men were not men, that there are no such things as men, but only mutable transition types. But those who say this seldom seem to see what it involves. Among other things it involves throwing The Outline of History into the fire even faster than in the course of nature. For it renders all history intrinsically and totally impossible. Moses may be a man and Mr. Wells may be a man; and it may, therefore, be interesting to hear Mr. Wells on Moses; perhaps more interesting to hear Moses on Mr. Wells. But if Mr. Wells can impute anything whatever to Moses, because he was not a man and nobody knows what he was, it is obvious that nobody can make any remark of the smallest interest about him. Anybody is free to suggest anything; and we have no test of the truth of anything. If I choose to say that men walked about on their hands because they liked to think they were walking on the sky, I have as much authority for saying it as anybody has for saying anything else. Under these conditions the School of History does not flourish.

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