Although he was appalled by the social consequences of industrial capitalism, the English Catholic novelist, poet, and journalist G. K. Chesterton (1875–1936) rejected the idea that socialism was the solution to such an economic malaise. In fact, he believed that socialism represented a continuation and not a curtailment of the process of property expropriation inaugurated by the advent of a capitalist economy, which could only be challenged by promoting the widespread ownership of limited private property. In Chesterton’s Christian-Aristotelian vision of distributism, limits are placed on the life processes of nature—the acquisition of goods and human sexuality—as both aspects of economy are transfigured in accordance with the will of the Creator and the needs for sustaining a human community. The institutions Chesterton offers to this end of transcending the market relations of self-interest in these spheres are Christian marriage and a modern form of medieval guild regulation of industry to preserve independent household economies.
Leaving London in 1919 on a journey to the Holy Land, Chesterton remarked on the political confusion that he believed was the hallmark of the industrial West:
The employers talk about “private enterprise,” as if there was anything private about modern enterprise. Its combines are as big as many commonwealths; and things advertised in large letters on the sky cannot plead the shy privileges of privacy. Meanwhile the Labour men talk about the need to “nationalise” the mines or the land, as if it were not the great difficulty in a plutocracy to nationalise the government, or even to nationalise the nation.1
Chesterton’s own sympathies lay on the side of Labour, but he believed that the proposed statist solution—together with its rejection by the plutocracy—was an absurdity: “The mob howls before the palace gates, ‘Hateful tyrant, we demand that you assume more despotic powers’; and the tyrant thunders from the balcony, ‘Vile rebels, do you dare to suggest that my powers should be extended?’ There seems to be a little misunderstanding somewhere.”2
To fathom out this misunderstanding, says Chesterton, we need to get to the root of the problem faced by modern Western civilization: “We must begin at the beginning; we must return to our first origins in history, as we must return to our first principles in philosophy. We must consider how we came to be doing what we do, and even saying what we say.”3 What is the ideal that modern Western societies are supposed to be achieving? According to Chesterton, it is democracy: “It is this which prophets promise to achieve, and politicians pretend to achieve, and poets sometimes desire to achieve, and sometimes only desire to desire. In a word, an equal citizenship is quite the reverse of the modern world; but it is still the ideal of the modern world.”4
Chesterton maintains that the source of this classical republican ideal was Rome. Yet the Republic of ancient Rome was built upon slavery, and here is the crux of the dilemma of labor and liberty in the modern world:
The Labour problem is the attempt to have the democracy of Paris without the slavery of Rome. Between the Roman Republic and the French Republic something had happened. Whatever else it was, it was the abandonment of the ancient and fundamental habit of slavery; the numbering of men for necessary labour as the normal foundation of society, even a society in which citizens were free and equal. When the idea of equal citizenship returned to the world, it found the world changed by a more mysterious version of equality. . . . We have now to assume not only that all citizens are equal, but that all men are citizens.5
The “something” that had happened—which had transformed the desire for an equality of citizens into the equality of men—was Christendom. Recalling that his destination was Jerusalem, Chesterton declared, “I know the name of the magic which had made all those peasants out of pagan slaves, and has presented to the modern world a new problem of labour and liberty.”6 Thus for Chesterton the roots of the dilemma can be traced to the Incarnation and the riddle of the Gospels. Chesterton’s concept of a free society is not respublica—the reality of the “Public Thing”—but the universal freedom and reality of “The Thing”: the restoration of Christendom.
Chesterton rejected the view that he was attempting to reinstate some medieval Golden Age: “After Eden I know of no golden age in the past.”7 He looked to the undeveloped potentials of the Christian medieval past and saw that “the glory of this great culture is not so much in what it did as in what it might have done.”8 Chesterton’s medieval point of reference for social criticism was thus neither irrational nor romantic; he wanted not to return to the past but to pick up the thread lost with the triumph of industrial capitalism and reassert the project to institutionalize the universal freedom that had been partially achieved in the past by the guild system of the towns and not the feudal framework of agriculture.
As Richard Tawney says of medieval Christendom in his classic study Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, “Stripped of its eccentricities of period and place, its philosophy had at its centre a determination to assert the superiority of moral principles over economic appetites, which have their place, and an important place, in the human scheme, but which, like other natural appetites, when flattened and pampered and overfed, bring ruin to the soul and confusion to society.”9 Chesterton had no wish to revive the “eccentricities of period and place,” which would include feudalism, but hoped that the ideal of subordinating economic and other natural drives to an ethical framework of limits might take root once again in modern England. Defending a Christian concept of the household was central to this aim.
Chesterton recognized that the Romans of antiquity had brought about a qualitative transformation in the life of the private realm of household. He had a great sympathy for the Roman belief in the penates and lares or household gods—this was, he noted, a homely religion. As opposed to the ancient Greek gods who seemed to multiply outwards to the skies, the gods of Rome multiplied inwards, taking root in the everyday life of domesticity. For Chesterton, the Roman household gods symbolize a potential transfiguration of the natural household that would reach its climax in the Christian religion and provide the firm foundation for the building of a human home on earth. Chesterton considered the Roman domestic religion as being more oriented to the establishment of such a home than the Greek religion: “[If the Greek] mythology personified the forces of nature, this [Roman] mythology personified nature as transformed by the forces of man. It was the god of the corn and not of the grass, of the cattle and not of the wild things of the forest; in short the cult was literally a culture; as when we speak of it as agriculture.”10
Chesterton favorably contrasts the pagan cult of household gods with the bourgeois fiction of domestic bliss and equates the rise of industrial capitalism with “the end of the household gods”—the despiritualization and narrowing of the home. He vigorously rejects the idea that the Victorian Age represented any kind of high point in family unity or domestic respectability; it was in fact a period in which household life had reached an ignoble state: “the Victorians were people who had lost the sense of the sacredness of the home,”they did not “understand the meaning and possibilities of domesticity.”11 There was no sense of the old pagan sacredness of the household in the Manchester utilitarians or any other Victorian school of thought:
Nineteenth-century England had destroyed the last legends of the fireside, long before twentieth-century England had a chance of feeling the full poetry of the legend. The philistines were the image-breakers; they shattered the household gods and the patron saints. Puritanism combined with Industrialism threw away the Lares and Penates like the disused dolls of a dead infancy and went on to what was counted the Manhood of the Manchester School; with what results we see today.12
And that result was a radically subjective consumerism that devoured the life of the household and could only conceive of property as the endless accumulation of money, and of love as the endless pursuit of the subjective pleasures of sex.13
Chesterton thus rejected both the traditional defense of the bourgeois family and the radical assault upon it: “The generation in revolt fled from a cold hearth and a godless shrine. That is the historical fact that is really hidden by both sides of this controversy.”14 For Chesterton, however, the revolt against the Victorian household merely took to an extreme the very individualism that had destroyed the household gods in the first place. In the face of the progressive attack on the conventional family, Chesterton had no wish to return to any domestic situation of the past but to strive for the unfulfilled potentials that he believed were latent in the Christian ideal—free, independent, and productive households centered around the mutual love and care of family life yet open through an enriched hospitality to a life of neighborly feeling.
The culmination of the spiritual enrichment of the household for Chesterton comes with Christianity and the Incarnation of the “Household God.”15 Henceforth for Chesterton the human household— upheld by the guild system and through marriage—takes on a new significance. The centrality of the Incarnation to Chesterton’s thought meant that the labor of the body could no longer be viewed as beneath human dignity as it had been for the ancients, and that such labor would become part of a fully human life. The institution of slavery and not the need to labor for one’s living was what, in this perspective, would be considered shameful. Pursuit of the fully human life, for Chesterton, is not consigned to a specifically public realm as it was for pagan philosophers; it is intimately connected with the life of the household, for the realm of “mere life,” of nature and the body, becomes part of the everlasting in the light of the Incarnation— of the Word made flesh—as the eternal intersects with the temporal:
There really was a new reason for regarding the senses, and the sensations of the body, and the experiences of the common man, with a reverence at which great Aristotle would have stared, and no man could have begun to understand. The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a gibbet. It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs for something more than man. Plato might despise the flesh; but God had not despised it. . . . After the Incarnation had become the idea that is central to our civilisation, it was inevitable that there should be a return to materialism; in the sense of the serious value of matter and the making of the body. When once Christ has risen, it was inevitable that Aristotle should rise again.16
The classical republican ideal of a free citizenry, which in the light of Christianity was transfigured so that not just all citizens but all men were free, and with their liberty anchored in marriage and property—that was Chesterton’s vision of “distributism.” Chesterton’s answer to what he believed was the malaise of modernity was, in a sense, a form of ecology. Oikos and Logos—the very term is almost a literal translation of Chesterton’s characterization in The Everlasting Man of the Incarnation as the arrival of the Household God. It is a vision informed by a deep sense of the need to ascribe limits to economic processes: “For our very word for God means economy: is not improvidence the opposite of Providence?”17
According to Chesterton and other distributists, industrial society—whether capitalist or socialist—had deprived the mass of the population of the ownership of property, which was now concentrated in the hands of a minority who sought maximum financial gain for themselves. Such a development had thwarted the creation of an independent peasantry and instead brought into being a dependent proletariat—a society of laborers who owned nothing but their own bodies (and even these were coming to be eyed with eugenic interest by the elites). The aim of distributism was to regain liberty for the mass of the population by introducing widely distributed family-owned private property, establishing a significant class of independent small-scale producers in agriculture and industry. Chesterton therefore rejected socialism because it did not get to the root of the problem—the loss of privately owned property— but instead only offered to make the situation worse. Thus Chesterton remarked in The Outline of Sanity:
A socialist Government is one in which its nature does not tolerate any true and real opposition. For there the government provides everything; and it is absurd to ask a Government to provide an opposition. . . . Opposition and rebellion depend on property and liberty. . . . The critic of the State can only exist where a religious sense of right protects his claims to his own bow and spear; or at least, to his own pen or his own printing-press. It is absurd to suppose that he could borrow the royal pen to advocate regicide or use the Government printing-presses to expose the corruption of the Government. Yet it is the whole point of Socialism, the whole case for Socialism, that unless all printing-presses are Government printing-presses, printers may be oppressed.18
It ought to be recognized that Chesterton was not voicing a right-wing attack on socialism. Chesterton had been a socialist in his own youth, and he continued to sympathize with their critiques of capitalism though he could no longer endorse their proposed solutions: “My own sympathies are with the Socialists; in so far as there is something to be said for Socialism, and nothing to be said for Capitalism.”19 Chesterton rejected socialism because he believed it was an offshoot of capitalism and because socialists uncritically accepted the ideology of industrial “progress,” rejected not because it threatened privileged interests for the sake of the masses but quite the contrary—it undermined the freedoms of ordinary people. “I do not object to socialism because it will revolutionise our commerce,” writes Chesterton, “but because it will leave it so horribly the same.”20 By taking the laissez-faire economy to its property destroying conclusion, Chesterton claimed that “Communism is the only complete and logical working model of Capitalism.”21
The philosophical roots of Chesterton’s social vision, I believe, lie in Aristotle’s distinction in The Politics between housekeeping and moneymaking, and the critique of Plato’s call in The Republic for the abandonment of private property and the particular ties of family in the name of a communal ownership of property, wives, and children.22 Chestertonian distributism offered an alternative to either capitalism or socialism based on the defense by Aristotle, later taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas, of private property for common use. That is, the view that private property does not carry unrestricted rights to its use; property is to be privately managed in such a way that it benefits the common good of the community. In this regard Aristotle makes some important distinctions between the proper management of the household for use and the improper management in order to gain unrestricted accumulation of money through the exchange market.
The concern of household management, according to Aristotle, is the acquisition of property for neither life itself nor the good life is possible without a minimum of necessities. Following Aristotle, there is a natural and desirable form of property acquisition that belongs to household management (oikonomia). This is the acquisition of goods solely for use; “wealth in the true sense consists of property such as this.” According to Aristotle, “the amount of property of this kind which would give self-sufficiency for a good life is not limitless.”23 In contrast to this household or “economic” form is the “chrematistic” form of unnatural acquisition. Chrematistike occurs through exchange and is concerned with the acquisition of money (not satisfaction of need), which then becomes its own end and hence pursued without limits.
For Chesterton, the replacement of the concept of use by that of exchange is at the root of the contemporary confusion. The whole thrust of modernity had involved the eclipse of an economy centered on use by an economy of exchange:
The truth . . . might be stated in many ways; perhaps the shortest statement of it is in the fable of the man who sold razors, and afterwards explained to an indignant customer, with simple dignity, that he had never said the razors would shave. When asked if razors were not made to shave, he replied that they were made to sell. That is A Short History of Trade and Industry During the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.24
This was also the root of the fundamental mistake of “treating a farm not as a farm to feed people, but as a shop from which to sell food.”25 Thus Chesterton realized that what modern-day economists were concerned with was not so much oikonomia as chrematistike: “Ruskin . . . would have told him [Dickens] that the worst thing about the economists was that they were not economists: that they missed many essential things even in economics.”26 Thus it could be said that the modern capitalist “economy” from a distributist perspective was not a form of house making but of house breaking together with the marketization of its contents.
The mistaken belief that household acquisition knows no limits stems from a confusion of mere life with eudaimonia, the humanly distinct good that, says Aristotle, consists in virtuous activity of the soul. This confusion of ends and means leads to the accumulation of the “goods” presiding over the pursuit of the “good.”27 Indeed, the modern business world, according to Chesterton, has confused ends with means. Today’s economy, Chesterton says, no longer refers to anything outside of itself that could serve as a limit; it literally knows no end. Thus the unnatural—chrematistic—means of ministering to the natural life-process becomes elevated as the end of social life:
Trade is all very well in its way, but Trade has been put in the place of Truth. Trade, which is in its nature a secondary or dependent thing, has been treated as a primary and independent thing; as an absolute. The moderns, mad upon mere multiplication, have even made a plural out of what is eternally singular, in the sense of single. They have taken what all ancient philosophers called the Good, and translated it as the Goods.28
In Chesterton’s Christian perspective, what the ancients called the good becomes acting in accordance to the will of God, of accepting the contingent condition of creaturehood and hence the responsibilities and limits of being made in the image of God. The elevation of trade to the center of everyday life in a capitalist society has however obscured the possibility of appreciating the intrinsic and inexchangeable good in God’s creation. Both the land and human labor are reduced to mere commodities that can only be conceptualized in instrumental terms of furthering the process of capital accumulation:
When God looked on created things and saw that they were good, it meant that they were good in themselves and as they stood; but by the modern mercantile idea, God would only have looked at them and seen that they were The Goods. In other words, there would be a label tied to the tree or the hill, as to the hat of the Mad Hatter, with “This Style, 10/6.” All the flowers and birds would be ticketed with their reduced prices; all the creatures would be for sale or all the creatures seeking employment; with all the morning stars making skysigns together and all the Sons of God shouting for jobs. In other words, these people are incapable of imagining any good except that which comes from bartering something for something else. The idea of a man enjoying a thing in itself, for himself, is inconceivable to them.29
Chesterton admits that trade has its place in a human society but it should occupy a subordinate position as it had throughout history prior to the triumph of industrial capitalism. As such, production and consumption are part of the same process and subject to limits. The elevation of the principle of exchange has, however, severed the connection between production and consumption and initiated a limitless commercial process: “There is a limit to the number of apples a man can eat. But there is no limit to the number of apples he may possibly sell; and he soon becomes a pushing, dextrous and successful Salesman and turns the whole world upside-down.” 30 The commercial society to which this leads is the antithesis of one built on private property: “the actual direct and isolated enjoyment of private property, as distinct from the excitement of exchanging it, is rather rarer than in many simple communities that seem almost communal in their simplicity.”31
Chesterton understood that property needs to be hedged in by a framework of limits; property should not be used in such a way that it infringes upon the property of others with whom we live in common. We need to recognize that our own creativity is always limited; we ought to aspire to act in the image of God, not to try to be God:
God is that which can make something out of nothing. Man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything. In other words, while the joy of God must be unlimited creation, the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits. Man’s pleasure, therefore, is to possess conditions, but also to be partly possessed by them; to be half-controlled by the flute he plays or by the field he digs. . . .32
Chesterton also saw the need to preserve the physical boundaries between people in order to maintain their distinctive personalities: “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.”33 Large-scale landowners and capitalists were commonly assumed to epitomize the principle of private property, but this is not so according to Chesterton: “It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.”34 Indeed, as we shall see later, Chesterton felt that both marriage and privately owned property were being undermined by a process of capitalist commodification that would reduce enduring love and stable property into an inhuman and limitless pursuit of sterile sex and wealth.
Central to the distributist vision of a society marked by widespread ownership of small-scale and well-defined private property was a concern to reassert the economic principles of the medieval guild system in order to impose limits on the use of property such that its use was directed to the common good and not to amassing a personal fortune. In the ideal of the medieval guild, Chesterton found the principle that could provide “a human alternative to the individualistic muddle of Manchester and the insane centralisation of Moscow.”35 The historical reality of the guild showed that economic life could be organized around principles very different from those that had come to dominate in the world of industrial capitalism. The guilds were attractive to Chesterton because—having emerged spontaneously from the people themselves rather than being imposed from above—they represented the democratic ideal of Christendom: “They rose in the streets like a silent rebellion; like a still and statuesque riot. In modern constitutional countries there are practically no political institutions thus given by the people; all are received by the people. There is only one thing that stands in our midst, attenuated and threatened, but enthroned in some power like a ghost of the Middle Ages: The Trades Unions.”36
The guilds regulated commercial competition in order to ensure the survival of their members as equal and independent producers, set just prices for the consumer, and maintain high standards of craftsmanship. Productive property was thereby hedged in by a framework of limits to ensure it served the common good. Remarking on the figures of the Dyer and the Doctor in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Chesterton noted that the latter still exists for us as a recognizable character whereas the Dyer does not. The reason for this, says Chesterton, is that doctors but not dyers are still organized on the idea of the guild:
In the modern doctor we can see and study the medieval idea. We shall not, even if we are medievalists, think it an infallible or impeccable idea. The Guild is capable of pedantry; it is sometimes capable of tyranny. The British Medical Council, which is the council of a Guild, sometimes condemns men harshly for very pardonable breaches of professional law; it sometimes excludes outsiders from membership who might well have been members. But it does what a Guild was supposed to do. It keeps the doctors going; it keeps the doctors alive; and it does prevent one popular quack from eating all of his brethren out of house and home. It sets limits to competition; it prevents the growth of monopoly.37
The dyer, by contrast, has not had his independence—and thus his distinct personality—preserved by the guild idea but has become a mere functionary in an abstract system of commercial enterprise: “The Dyer has totally disappeared; his hand is not subdued to what it works in, but his whole body and soul dissolved in his own dye-vat. He has become a liquid; a flowing stream of tendency; an impersonal element in the economics of the dye-works. He is not a Master-Dyer; he is at most a Master of Dyes. But in plain truth, he is not really a master, but only a paymaster.”38
Chesterton believed that a society built around the accumulation of wealth through exchange rather than the management of stable property would be inherently unstable and lacking in durability: “Since Price is a crazy and incalculable thing, while Value is an intrinsic and indestructible thing, they have swept us into a society which is no longer solid but fluid, as unfathomable as a sea and as treacherous as a quicksand.”39 For Chesterton, transforming the principle of exchange from the exception to the rule has had the disastrous consequence of unleashing a drive for unlimited accumulation of wealth and that created a fatalistic condition in which humanity became “chained eternally to enlargement without liberty and progress without hope.”40
Chesterton believed that the transformation of love into the limitless pursuit of sexual fulfillment was as much of a perversion of the household economy as the transformation of property into the making of money. That is, outside of any teleological framework, both dimensions of the economic process would be liberated from the limits of the household, and that while natural existence would indeed become the exaggerated focus of modernity, it would be natural existence in an unnatural or perverse form. Chesterton intimated that the breakup of the household inaugurated by the capitalist transformation of stable property into fluid wealth would be consummated by a sexual revolution. Thus he declared on the pages of G. K.’s Weekly in 1926, “the next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality. . . . I say the man who cannot see this cannot see the signs of the times.”41
Inherent to Chesterton’s defense of limited property was therefore a defense of the family and the institution of marriage. Chesterton believed he knew exactly why modern-day theorists failed to come to the defense of the family:
Everywhere, all over the world, the farm goes with the family and the family with the farm. Unless the whole domestic group hold together with a sort of loyalty or local patriotism, unless the inheritance of property is logical and legitimate, unless the family quarrels are kept out of the courts of officialism, the tradition of family ownership cannot be handed on unimpaired. On the other hand, the Servile State, which is the opposite of the distributive state, has always been rather embarrassed by the institution of marriage.42
And if any one should think this link between servility and the erosion of marriage is mere speculation, Chesterton asks his readers to recall that one of the chief criticisms of American slavery was that it destroyed slave families. Modern-day opponents of freedom, according to Chesterton, know exactly what they are doing; the granting of sexual license is the strongest form of bribery to ease into being the total loss of independence and a new form of slavery in the industrial “servile state.”43
The family, for Chesterton, is a nonpolitical institution that should possess a fundamental independence from public interference—but that does not mean that it has no political effect. The nonpolitical family is the champion of the ideal of liberty for it is an institution “that is at once necessary and voluntary.”44 Chesterton views Christian marriage as the transfiguration of sexual life and the achievement of freedom through self-limitation. For Chesterton, marriage is the means by which men and women come to terms with one another and is emphatically not a contract. A contract is based on self-interest and is thus easily terminated for the sake of the same self-interest: “Force can abolish what force can establish; self-interest can terminate a contract when self-interest has dictated the contract. But the love of man and women is not an institution that can be abolished, or a contract that can be terminated. It is something older than all institutions or contracts, and certain to outlast them all.”45 Chesterton believed that marriage was not to be entered into for reasons of self-interest and neither could it be easily dissolved like a contract, for marriage is a sacrament that overcame the subjectivity and self-interest of short-term gain.
The Christian understanding of marriage, Chesterton maintains, has been under ideological attack, and there has been a deliberate attempt to break up families into their component individuals in order to better serve the economic interests of a commercial system. Christendom was broken up by the spread of cynicism and self-interest that followed “the era of contract.” “Marriage not only became less of a sacrament but less of a sanctity. It threatened to become not only a contract, but a contract that could not be kept.”46 As the era of contract had destroyed the guild it was now threatening the future of marriage. The vow is the antithesis of servility, little wonder then, says Chesterton, that the “captains of industry” are attempting to undermine it in the context of marriage:
Marriage makes a small state within the state, which resists all such regimentation. That bond breaks all other bonds; that law is found stronger than all later and lesser laws. They desire the democracy to be sexually fluid, because the making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations. Like small nations, they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope. In short, what they fear, in the most literal sense, is home rule.47
And Chesterton makes it absolutely clear what he believes has undermined the private family realm:
What has broken up households, and encouraged divorces, and treated the old domestic virtues with more and more open contempt, is the epoch and power of Capitalism. It is Capitalism that has forced a moral feud and a commercial competition between the sexes; that has destroyed the influence of the parent in favour of the influence of the employer; that has driven men from their homes to look for jobs; that has forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families; and, above all, that has encouraged, for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers.48
Chesterton realized that the supposedly “radical” sexual libertarians were in fact proposing little more than the mirror image of the business contract in the realm of the family. If the capitalists were busy breaking up families, the socialists appeared all too eager to provide ideological legitimation for this process. Chesterton illustrated his belief that both the Left and Right are two sides of a mistaken attitude toward the family through his characters of Hudge and Gudge:
Gudge, the plutocrat, wants an anarchic industrialism; Hudge, the idealist, provides him with lyric praises of anarchy. Gudge wants women-workers because they are cheaper; Hudge calls the woman’s work “freedom to live her own life.” . . . Above all, Gudge rules by a course and cruel system of sacking and sweating and bi-sexual toil which is totally inconsistent with the free family and which is bound to destroy it; therefore Hudge, stretching out his arms to the universe with a prophetic smile, tells us that the family is something that we shall soon gloriously outgrow.49
The collectivization of property that is the culmination of unlimited exchange also has a parallel in sexual life. Chesterton even speculates that just as free-market individualism led to a propertyless proletariat and the concentration of property into fewer and fewer hands so too may sexual individualism lead to a nation of bachelors and the concentration of wives into the harems of a minority of handsome and rich men! 50 Admittedly, this is a reductio ad absurdum used to illustrate the madness of unimpeded exchange. The harem is symbolic of what Chesterton sees as the “Eastern” engulfment of individual personality into the collective soul. We may not actually embrace polygamy in the form of the harem, but we are well on the way to the polygamy of what is now called “serial monogamy,” what Chesterton would have recognized as Companionate Marriage, “so called,” he says, “because the people involved are not married and will very rapidly cease to be companions.”51 What was most important in Chesterton’s mind was that this flight from the forming of enduring bonds of love represented a retreat into indifference. It represented a flight from the living out of a distinctly human life, which could be understood in terms of a story—reflecting the human capacity for free will—into the formless patterns of behavior endemic to collective life.
The wedding ceremony is a public action that takes us out of mere repetition for it represents a definite choice of spouse and the assertion that one way is better than another. Thus for Chesterton all action is a self-limitation, the choice of one marriage partner is the giving up of all others. The replacement of marriage by easily revocable contracts of self-interest, in Chesterton’s account, thus corresponds more to predictable patterns of behavior, endlessly repeatable, with neither promise of endurance nor consequence. Their orientation is now the society of market/contract centered on exchange and indifference—not the world transfigured in the light of the eternal and thus embodying the promise of permanence. The endless process of exchange represents the failure to make a choice and to stand by that decision.
To find ourselves within limits is for Chesterton the essence of a dramatic view of life that acknowledges human free will and “of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important.” 52 Christian marriage, according to Chesterton, is essential for this story because of its vow of endurance. Chesterton saw that marriage could not be based on subjective whim or caprice:
You cannot make any enduring literature out of love conscious that it will not endure. Even if this mutability were workable as morality, it would still be unworkable as art. . . . If ever monogamy is abandoned in practice, it will linger in legend and in literature. When society is haunted by the butterfly flitting from flower to flower, poetry will still be describing the desire of the moth for the star. Literature must always revolve around loyalties; for a rudimentary psychological reason, which is simply the nature of narrative. You cannot tell a story without the idea of pursuing a purpose and sticking to a point. You cannot tell a story without the idea of the Quest, the idea of the Vow; even if it be only the idea of the wager.53
Progressive advocates of “free love,” by contrast, are seen by Chesterton as expressing “the special psychology of leisure and luxury that falsifies life.” No longer is sexual life integrated into a coherent story stretching across time, it becomes instead a disconnected “string of episodes.”54 Polygamy—as serial monogamy—is inherently dull for it offers no ground for a story:
When a man looks forward to a number of wives as he does to a number of cigarettes, you can no more make a book out of them than out of the bills from his tobacconist. Anything having the character of a Turkish harem has also something of the character of a Turkey carpet. It is not a portrait, or even a picture, but a pattern. We may at the moment be looking at one highly coloured and flamboyant figure in the carpet; but we know that on every side, in front as well as behind, the image is repeated without purpose and without finality.55
The ultimate value of marriage, according to Chesterton, is the survival of the human race; it is the appropriate site for procreation. The enduring tie of marriage makes this task distinctively human: “The more human, that is the less bestial, is the child, the more lawful and lasting are the ties. So far from any progress in culture or the sciences tending to loosen the bond, any such progress must logically tend to tighten it”56 Sexuality liberated from procreation was also a sign of the eclipse of the sense of newness brought into the world by the birth of a child and the antithesis of true freedom:
A child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. . . . People who prefer the mechanical pleasures, to such a miracle, are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the very dregs of life to the first fountains of life. They are preferring the last, crooked, indirect, borrowed, repeated and exhausted things of our dying Capitalist civilisation, to the reality which is the only rejuvenation of all civilisation. It is they who are hugging the chains of their old slavery; it is the child who is ready for the new world.57
Chesterton believed that sexuality—like the general economy—was coming to be celebrated as an end in itself and no longer took its point of orientation from something external and thereby subject to moral limits. Marriage, which had previously been concerned primarily with the begetting of children and thus concerned with the passing on of human culture, was becoming remodeled on the basis of satisfying purely subjective pleasures. Chesterton saw clearly that the fate of money, now viewed not as a mere means of exchange but as an unnatural end in itself, had its parallel perversion in sexual life:
The unnatural separation, between sex and fruitfulness, which even the Pagans would have thought a perversion, has been accompanied with a similar separation and perversion about the nature of the love of the land. In both departments there is precisely the same fallacy; which it is quite possible to state precisely. The reason why our contemporary countrymen do not understand what we mean by Property is that they only think of it in the sense of Money; in the sense of salary; in the sense of something which is immediately consumed, enjoyed and expended; something which gives momentary pleasure and disappears. They do not understand that we mean by Property something that includes that pleasure incidentally; but begins and ends with something far more grand and worthy and creative.58
Thus Chesterton saw that the root of the modern problem was an extreme solipsism that could only perceive happiness in terms of the subjective pleasures of consumerism and not as a concomitant to the enactment of the gratitude for the gift of life. Consumerist subjectivism was the antithesis of true freedom: “The notion of narrowing property merely to enjoying money is exactly like the notion of narrowing love to merely enjoying sex. In both cases an incidental, isolated, servile and even secretive pleasure is substituted for participation in a great creative process; even in the everlasting Creation of the world.”59 In Aristotelian terms, this has mistaken a secondary good—pleasure—as the primary and distinctly human good.
This centering of sex upon the self through the isolated pursuit of pleasure was for Chesterton a hallmark of capitalism’s tendency toward the reinstitution of slavery. Under the sign of the free market, sexuality and property lost their power for forming and maintaining productive households and became mere modes of servility. The citizen was now being reduced to the level of a solitary consumer with no relation to God or neighbor. Marriage as a sacrament embodying the “hope of permanence” as it was “mixed with immortality” was giving way to the flight from constancy and the direct pursuit of fleeting sexual encounters that held no promise of permanence.60
The commercial world centered on exchange had turned away from the vision of the Incarnation. In relation to both sex and property the citizen has become a mere consumer: “he is to have no notion of the sort of Burning Bush that burns and is not consumed. For that bush only grows on the real soil, on the real land where human beings can behold it; and the spot on which they stand is holy ground.”61 Chesterton believed that the liberation of the economic and sexual processes from the limits of the household was a sentence of death: “The world has forgotten simultaneously that the making of a Farm is something much larger than the making of a profit . . . and that the founding of a Family is something much larger than sex in the limited sense of current literature; which was anticipated in one bleak and blinding flash in a single line of George Meredith; ‘And eat our pot of honey on the grave.’”62
For Chesterton, the household had previously provided the context that—however imperfectly it may have been in practice—gave the two elements of the economic process their distinctly human character, by which I mean that they are informed by a sense of permanence inspired by an awareness of the divine. As housekeeping and marriage, mere biological existence becomes transfigured to serve the durability of a Christian-humanist culture.
With the collapse of the household, however, property and sexuality have lost these Christian-humanist dimensions and spiraled off as unlimited desire for personal wealth and sexual fulfillment. The removal of the economic life from guild regulation has been complemented in our own age by the removal of the sexual instinct from the sacramental context of marriage. As Chesterton so prophetically saw, free-market economy has now been combined with free-market sexuality.
Chesterton was deeply alarmed by the reduction of marriage to a contractual relationship of self-interest—which could easily be dissolved when self-interest decreed—and which entailed the move away from the spiritual transfiguration of human sexuality toward the fleeting and purely subjective demand for “fulfillment.” By contrast, what Chesterton wanted was not to free men and women from the home but to free the home from the pressures and distortions of industrial capitalism as a prerequisite to fostering a culture of economic independence and increased hospitality rooted in a sustainable form of agriculture. He knew that this, and not the proposals of the sexual libertarians, was a fundamentally revolutionary demand within the modern world. Freeing people from the bonds of marriage and family life would, for Chesterton, be merely freeing people from the conditions of being human and wreck the possibilities for a decentralized and sustainable agriculture centered around the long-term commitment embodied in small-scale, family-owned farms.
Today such themes are eloquently explored by the Kentuckian farmer, poet, essayist, and novelist Wendell Berry. Berry sees “an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth.”63 The estrangement of the sexes from one another resembles the estrangement of humanity from the land through “social mobility.” These two forms of estrangement are historically parallel, both “caused by the disintegration of the household, which was the formal bond between marriage and the earth, between human sexuality and its sources in the sexuality of Creation.”64 Without the household and its practical content, marriage becomes an abstraction: “Work is the health of love. To last, love must enflesh itself in the materiality of the world—produce food, shelter, warmth or shade, surround itself with careful acts, well made things.”65 For Berry, marriage and the care of the earth are deeply connected though increasingly under threat in modern society: “As the household has become increasingly generalized as a function of the economy and, as a consequence, has become increasingly ‘mobile’ and temporary, these vital connections have been weakened and finally broken. And whatever has been thus disconnected has become a ground for some breed of salesman, specialist, or expert.”66
Chesterton’s emphasis on the loyalty of the vow also connects well with Erazim Kohák’s stress on the importance for the moral understanding of the nature of the bond of mutual belonging to other persons and to place that stems from lived experience—as opposed to the notion of possession and domination that arises out of abstract, contractual, or legalistic thinking:
The bond of belonging that grows up over the years, love and labor is the most basic truth of being human in a world. Here the claims about the “sacredness of private property,” trite and blasphemous when used to justify abstract possession become meaningful. They reflect not possession but the utterly basic relationship of belonging between a human and his world. It may well be within the prerogatives of the society which established those conventions to modify or disestablish them as it sees fit for the common good. To sever the bond of belonging that love, life, and labor shared have forged between two humans or between a human and the segment of the natural world in which he is incarnate is always a crime and a sacrilege, no less heinous than depriving a person of his body. That is a bond no human imposed and no human can cut asunder. As the land and I came to belong together, I ceased to possess it: I could no longer “alienate” it as if it were a possession, sell it or carve it into subdivisions.67
In Kohák, Chesterton, and Berry, it is possible to detect something of the ancient hope of Isaiah (62: 4–5) of a people wedded to the land: “Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord Delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.”68
Chesterton’s own hope was that through the widespread practice of small-scale agriculture, the small workshop, or family-owned business, people would regain the “productive” and reject the “consumptive” household (to borrow Berry’s terms) thus allowing them to regain the experience of joy in life and the power to resist tyranny. At the root of the endurance needed for such an adventure would be the liberating power of the marriage vow—for just as in the Incarnation “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” so too can humans act in the image of God through the giving of their own word. Against the short-term contracts of self-interest promoted by the Right in terms of property, and by the Left in terms of sexuality, Chesterton hoped that in the light of the Incarnation the intersection of the eternal and the temporal would find reflection in the forming of enduring bonds of mutual care and recognition through Christian marriage and neighborliness.
1. G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920), 5–6.
2. Ibid., 6.
3. Ibid., 13.
4. Ibid., 8.
6. Ibid., 13.
7. G. K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows (London: Sheed and Ward, 1937), 265.
8. Chesterton, New Jerusalem, 205.
9. R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 279.
10. G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947), 166.
11. G. K. Chesterton, Sidelights on New London and Newer York (London: Sheed and Ward, 1932), 69.
12. Ibid., 72.
13. See Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows, 232–36.
14. Chesterton, Sidelights on New London, 72.
15. Chesterton, Everlasting Man, 203.
16. G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1933), 138–39.
17. G. K. Chesterton, The Apostle and The Wild Ducks and Other Essays, ed. Dorothy E. Collins (London: Paul Elek, 1975), 4.
18. G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity (London: Methuen, 1926), 15–16.
19. Chesterton, New Jerusalem, 6.
20. G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (London: Cassell, 1912), 293.
21. Chesterton, Well and the Shallows, 234–35.
22. Plato, The Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), (416d), 121; (457d),
23. Aristotle, The Politics (London: Penguin, 1992), book I, chap. viii (1256b26), 79.
24. Chesterton, Well and the Shallows, 223.
25. Chesterton, Sidelights on New London, 113.
26. G. K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature (London: Thornton Butterworth,
27. See Aristotle, Politics, book I, chap. ix (1257b40), 85.
28. Chesterton, Well and the Shallows, 225.
29. Ibid., 225–26.
30. Ibid. 229.
32. Chesterton, What’s Wrong, 46.
33. Ibid., 48.
35. G. K. Chesterton, The Resurrection of Rome (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930),
36. G. K. Chesterton, A Short History of England (London: Chatto and Windus, 1964),
37. G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (London: Faber & Faber, 1934), 73.
38. Ibid., 72.
39. Chesterton, Well and the Shallows, 230.
40. Chesterton, Outline of Sanity, 19.
41. G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. Chesterton, arranged and introduced by A. L. Maycock (London: Dennis Dobson, 1963), 123.
42. G. K. Chesterton, Fancies Versus Fads (London: Methuen, 1930), 127–28,
43. Ibid., 128–29.
44. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce, (London: Chatto and Windus 1920), 67.
45. Ibid., 58–59.
46. Ibid., 97.
47. Ibid., 100.
48. Ibid., 148–49.
49. Chesterton, What’s Wrong, 276–77.
50. Chesterton, Outline of Sanity, 26.
51. G. K. Chesterton, “On Evil Euphemisms,” Chesterton’s Stories Essays and Poems, ed. Maisie Ward (London: J. M. Dent, 1957), 208.
52. G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1928), 194.
53. Chesterton, Fancies Versus Fads, 99.
54. Chesterton, What’s Wrong, 55.
55. Chesterton, Fancies Versus Fads, 103–4.
56. Chesterton, Superstition of Divorce, 60.
57. Chesterton, Well and the Shallows, 145–46.
58. Ibid., 233–34.
59. Ibid., 234.
60. Chesterton, Short History of England, 114.
61. Chesterton, Well and the Shallows, 235–36.
62. Ibid., 236.
63. Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977), 124.
65. Ibid., 132.
67. Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 107.
68. See Stephen R. L. Clark, How to Think About the Earth: Philosophical and Theological Models for Ecology (London: Mowbray, 1993), 110–12.
Originally published in LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer 2007): 64-90. COPYRIGHT 2007 Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.