Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Miscellany of Men

by Dale Ahlquist



A Miscellany of Men seems at first to be as random a gathering as the title suggests. In it you will find rapturous, poetic descriptions of fire and rain, of spring, of Gothic architecture, of soldiers praying in a church. You will find the Chesterton wit and charm and gentle satire. But you will also find hard-hitting controversy. And you will also find a distinct thread that ties it all together.

The book was first published in 1912, and the essays, which first appeared in the Daily News, often refer to current events and personalities from the early 20th century: coal strikes and railway strikes, game laws, women’s suffrage, and British Imperialism. In most cases, the essays are simply perfect, with little or no explanation needed of the historical references; in some cases it might be helpful to know who Cecil Rhodes is or what the Licensing Bill is; and sometimes the subsequent essay further explains what comes before it. But in every case the larger point being made is very clear and is not tied to a time and place - unless it is our time and place. Chesterton’s mere observations of an event, whether in a headline or outside his window could be expounded upon into huge timely treatises. It is because truth has ramifications. And because it is true. That is why we can still read these pieces with edification. And also with a kind of thrill. Seldom can newspaper essays survive reprinting in a book. More seldom still can they survive multiple re-printings. Especially after almost a century. (This book will be back in print again this year, from IHS Press.)

The old controversies are still relevant. But each question points to a larger question. How do we assure the dignity and basic rights of the laborer? For whom does he labor: himself or some remote rich man? Does voting make any difference when our choices are so limited, when the choices themselves are not our choices but someone else’s? What is the nature of real democracy? And underneath it all, what is the religious truth that informs these political questions? Can we ever separate religion from politics? Can we separate religion from anything?

Since the answer to the last question is, “No,” then we have to start asking about political and economic justice in light of our religious beliefs. The irony is that the very people who want to keep religion out of politics are the ones who claim to be so concerned about rights and liberties. But as Chesterton points out, rights and liberties can only be justified by religious doctrine. It is a higher authority that makes us free. “Authority is necessary for nothing so much as for the granting of liberties.” And as for the tired objection about “tolerance,” Chesterton answers, “A nation with a root religion will be tolerant. A nation with no religion will be bigoted.”

Chesterton is a great believer in democracy. He is against the rule by the few, whether it be the official few, the rich few, the intellectual few, or the artistic few. And he puts each of those few in their place: from officials who deprive the common man of his liberty but provide none of his needs, to artistic and intellectual snobs who sneer at the common man for not appreciating or understanding bizarre ideas and empty art.

But if Chesterton is such a great believer in democracy, how is it then, that he can argue against women having the vote?

Because voting is not democracy.

Self-government, he argues, is not “the notion that the ordinary citizen is to be consulted as one consults an Encyclopaedia.” It is not that each man is there “to be asked a lot of fancy questions, to see how he answers them.” It is that the common man is to be the master of his own life. And, as if to predict political correctness, he says,

And in case the word "man" be misunderstood, I may remark that in this moral atmosphere, this original soul of self-government, the women always have quite as much influence as the men.

The problem is that in today’s political atmosphere, “neither the men nor the women have any influence at all.” Even though we doubt the state’s legitimate authority, we continue to hand greater powers to it all the time. The state gives birth to fantastic and foolish laws, and we have lost our power even to be astonished at them. Chesterton warns, prophetically, “ whenever we see things done wildly, but taken tamely, then the State is growing insane.” We are letting officials and experts “immure any one’s body, damn any one’s soul, and dispose of unborn generations.” (This is one of several eerie and accurate visions of abortion in this book.)

Though he believes in democracy, Chesterton also understands that there is something about Christendom that even goes beyond democracy, something almost “too deep to be defined” because it involves “the special defence of a minority or an individual. It will often leave the ninety-and-nine in the wilderness and go after that which is lost.” It is historic and living Christianity, going against the fashions and trends, that still represents the best hope for mankind. The enemies to freedom are many, but one of the most dangerous is the New Theologian who wants to do away with doctrine, who is liberal in his theology but in nothing else, whose real idea of religious tolerance really consists of all believers “respecting each others’ unbelief.”

“Christendom” says Chesterton, “will continue to suffer all the disadvantages of being Christian,” and the New Theologians, rather than trying to alter Christianity, must themselves be altered. With their present attitude, “they will never find rest.” And if they refuse to change and refuse to acknowledge that they cannot change Christianity, Chesterton offers them one other surprisingly succinct choice: “chuck it.”

The old controversies are still controversial.

Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society.

American Chesterton Society

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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