Saturday, October 18, 2008

If Matter Matters

by G.K. Chesterton


Capitalism is as unsafe as the Bank, as the proverb says. Or rather, that is what the proverb ought to say, and probably would say, if proverbs were still the old popular proverbs; which referred to realities. A bank may be a useful thing to a merchant, just as a ship was always regarded as a useful thing to a merchant. But nobody was such a fool as to think that the merchant’s wealth was actually safer in a ship tossing on a distant sea than in a bag of gold put away in a cupboard; let alone those much more safe and solid forms of wealth, that can also be put in a cupboard, in the form of wine or bread or honey or hams hanging from hooks. Nothing is safe unless it is dead, and a house can catch fire as a ship can sink or a bank go bankrupt; but there are degrees in these things, and the advantage that can really be pleaded for banks and ships is not primarily an advantage of safety. Both the ship and the bank may make it possible to do much more with the wealth, and both, in various ways, can carry it to the ends of the earth. But if we are speaking specially of wealth being safe, then certainly it is most safe when it is most solid, when it is most near and available and tangible. Therefore all the old tales and traditions of the normal life of mankind, always regard the merchant as less safe than the farmer. The farm suffers from bad weather, like the ship, but it is not very likely that the farm will be entirely swallowed by an earthquake, as the ship may be entirely swallowed by the sea. Similarly, it is not very likely that even a bad harvest will make every single ear of corn useless, as a certain sort of financial crisis can make every single cheque or bond valueless. The old common sense of human communities felt this fact, and therefore never allowed, as we have allowed, even the idea of merchandise to entirely outweigh and overwhelm the idea of agriculture. The merchant had his place, but it was not the supreme place, and it was not so near the very heart of the society as the place of the ploughman. The merchant might be congratulated on his courage rather than on his safety, but it was not allowed to usurp the place of the courage of the soldier. So one of the most famous merchants, called The Merchant of Venice, is encouraged to talk hopefully of his happiness when his ships come home; but he knows that ships sometimes do not come home. Since then we have further transferred the wealth of Antonio to things in some ways even less solid than ships; things often under influences more alien, remote and inhuman than the strangest storms on the most uncharted sea. And then, because we have taken the things out of the cupboard and put them in the coffers of foreign financiers, we calmly talk about something being ‘as safe as the bank.’ We are perfectly satisfied now, and have none of the hesitation of Shakespeare; because the wealth in the wandering ships has been transferred from Antonio to Shylock.

This is a primary and preliminary fact of the problem, and has nothing to do with doubting any particular bank or denying that banks are useful; still less with merely destroying banks as useless. It merely gets the order and relation of the things stated right, in a world where they are always stated wildly wrong. And it is a great part of the difficulty of our task that it does deal so much more with axioms than with conclusions. When, in the admirable phrase of Father Vincent McNabb, we have induced people ‘to put first things first,’ we may then consider reasonably enough whether the transference or reform or abolition of things like the banking system should come last. As it is, the world has got the first and last things turned all topsy-turvy, and thinks of debts and promises and ciphers and bits of paper as the real thing, and of land and living and positive possessions as unreal things; a romance of The Merry Peasant invented by Distributist minor poets. Then things begin to happen, as they have lately been happening in Germany and even in America, and men feel as if they were in a nightmare, in which rocks should melt and trees vanish like smoke and all material objects fade into a mist, in which nothing seems to remain except spectres and spirits; the ghosts of all the things they have been taught are dead, and the visions of all the things they have been told are impossible. But these older or simpler things remain for the very opposite reason; that property is not dead and that peasantry is not impossible.

There is a strange similarity between the two forms of Materialism, as they respectively affected physics and economics. I mean that the moral materialism, which was expressed in capitalism and commercialism, has had the same fate as the philosophical materialism which was expressed in monism and atheism. About both there was at the beginning a kind of ugly swagger, which in the one case was more inhuman than any incidental inhumanities, and in the other was much more blasphemous than mere blasphemy. The Manchester Man bragged openly of being hard-headed, but he was really bragging of being hard-hearted. The Prussian Professor took an open pleasure in insulting God, but he took a secret pleasure in insulting Man. The economists professed to care only for hard facts, and the physicists delighted in proving that the atoms of which the world is made are very hard facts indeed. The one hard fact was called hard cash; the second was called the indestructible atom.

Both these forms of pride have been punished in the same way; by being turned into their opposites. In both the professors of the concrete are suddenly overwhelmed by the abstract. The atom has become an algebraical formula; the hard cash has become a financial fiction. On the one hand, Nemesis has said to the capitalist: ‘If you will try to rule the world by gold, you shall find it is paper. If you call a ledger solid, you shall go on adding up noughts and find that they come to Nought.’ And, in the case of the materialistic scientist, who stood on matter, and stamped on matter, proving its solidity till it suddenly gave way under him and let him into an abyss of abstractions, to him a Voice out of those upward abysses that he most denied spoke with that authority that is beyond thunder: ‘If you will hit and prod yourself to find out what you are made of, and prove it dead and solid, you shall find out the truth, and it will not be what you seek. I alone have known what you were made of, but in some measure and for a moment, you shall know. You are made of Nothing, and there is nothing for you to discover, except that making which you have denied.’

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