Friday, January 11, 2008

The Plea of Petrol

by G.K. Chesterton

I said something last week in connection with a very amiable apologist of the more moderate capitalism; who pleaded that at least under existing conditions petrol has become cheaper. There are some other aspects of that idea that deserve considerations; and the most important of them may be very shortly expressed by anybody who has seen how it works at the moment in the highways and the lanes of England. We shall soon be in a position, if the process reaches its ideal logical end, to see exactly what it amounts to. We shall be in a country in which everybody is able to motor and nobody is able to walk.

I do not mean a country in which everybody neglects walking; I mean a country in which everybody is forbidden to walk. It would be a bad thing even if it led only to the neglect of the use of the human legs; through laziness or enjoyment of a new luxury. But I do not mean that people do not now seem to want to go for a walk; I mean that they cannot do it if they do want. Going for a walk, as it was understood by the normal Englishman in the natural scenery of England, was a thing that had its own quite instinctive balance of behaviour and circle of almost unconscious pleasures. Walking covered every enjoyment; including the enjoyment of not walking. It included every shade of pace or delay; every kind of interruption from climbing a tree to sleeping under a haystack; and even (I regret to say) sometimes collapsing and slumbering in a ditch. It included thoughts that went soaring up into the sky like a kite and thoughtlessness that played about in the road like a kitten. It is now highly inadvisable to play about in the road and unwise even to gaze directly upwards into the sky, except as a preparation for reception into the celestial abodes. Instead of unconsciously swinging all his limbs in a unified and balanced rhythm, the pedestrian is rather disposed to count all his limbs every five minutes, to see that they are still there. He is not like a sane man walking along a road; he is like a repentant suicide trying to crawl off a railway-line. He has to flatten himself against hedges or walk all the way home in the ditch, which is almost worse than having to go to bed there. Anyhow, he can no more take a country walk in the country than he can do it across a battlefield swept by artillery. And the reason he cannot do it is that petrol is cheap and that most people are encouraged in every way to go motoring; a very excellent amusement in its way. Unfortunately, it is rather in his way; and it regards him as being in its way; a mere obstacle and interruption. That is the question now propounded to us; and to say the least of it, there are two sides to it.

First of all, there are certain primacy tests to which we, in our antiquated fashion, are in the habit of putting such questions. They are concerned with all sorts of metaphysical and moral dogmas, about what is fundamental and what is superficial; what is ephemeral and what eternal. Now we should not approve of all pedestrians combining to forbid motors. But it would still be more essentially reasonable than all motorists combining to forbid pedestrians. For a man owning his body (with its quaint bifurcated appendage called legs) is a more basic idea than the idea of a man owning more or less of every varying sorts of machinery. A cosmos in which a man has not a leg to stand on is more unbalanced than one in which he cannot for the moment afford to buy a Rolls Royce. It is more of a dislocation if there is not room in the open road. I will not say to swing a cat (for that might embroil with the N.S.P.C.A.), but even to swing a man; for a modest and harmonious human being to swing himself. By any sane standard, that is a more serious matter than whether there is a right and reasonable space in which to turn a car. Even a Communist will agree that a man possesses a sort of vague personal interest in his own legs; that some indirect relation, almost like the shadow of the quaint old notion of private property, connects him with his ten toes. But the sort of private property which even Communism would defend is the sort which Capitalism is destroying.

But this will appear theoretical to the practical motorist; who is too stupid to understand that even a motor-car is made of theories. Let him be satisfied; the case is almost as clear if we turn from the theoretical to the practical; from the mind to the body; or rather from the idea of the body to the body itself. If there is one thing which the modern materialists insist on, if possibly even more than the science of motoring, it is the science of hygiene; but in this case they hardily seem to be doing their duty. There can hardly be any question, as a matter of commonsense, that the general discouragement of walking is a very bad thing for the health of the community. Having been cut off from everything else; the tramp is now almost cut off from tramping.

Finally, there is a third element that may be called the cultural or aesthetic.

Now the motor-car undoubtedly permits some people to see more places; but I gravely doubt whether it really permits most people to see more things. What it popularises in practice is not sight, or even sights and sight-seeing, but merely speed. The ordinary moderately intelligent man, not trained in any special study, not directed by his education to any particular theme, can go from Brixton to Bristol and have his attention chiefly held by the measurement of the distance and the mechanical excellence of the car. When he was obliged to walk, he was to some extent obliged to think. Things went by him so slowly that his attention was really arrested by those small problems and minor oddities that do start trains of thought in the mind. He saw new things in old places; whereas even the motorists who are intelligent enough to be sight-seers, generally see the old things in the new places. When I say all this, many will suppose that I am merely attacking the practice of motoring and proposing to re-establish everything as it was before the coming of petrol. They will be entirely wrong. What I am doing is answering a boast; a boast that is also a sophistry; and which claims not merely that motoring has improved, but that mankind has improved. Motoring may well have its reasonable place in a reasonable society. But when the upholders of an unreasonable society tell us that the society works well because it encourages more and more motoring, I point out that even in that respect it may do at least as much harm as good. Motoring is not indefensible: but it is not a defence of indefensible things.

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On Cooperative Ownership

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