Thursday, August 21, 2008

GKC's Memorial to St. Pius X

We present G. K. Chesterton's column from The Illustrated London News, which he wrote as a memorial to Pope Pius X, who died August 20, 1914, and whose feast day is celebrated today.
Among the many true and touching expressions of respect for the tragedy of the Vatican, most have commented on the fact that the late Pope was by birth a peasant. Yet few or none, I think, traced that truth to its most interesting and even tremendous conclusion. For the truth is that the old Papacy is practically the only authority in modern Europe in which it could have happened. It is the oldest, immeasurably the oldest, throne in Europe; and it is the only one that a peasant could climb. In semi-Asiatic States there are doubtless raids and usurpations. But these are of brigands rather than peasants: I speak of the pure peasant advanced for pure merit. This is the only real elective monarchy left in the world; and any peasant can still be elected to it.

There is something awful and uncanny about the brilliant blindness of the enlightened. Telescopes have they and they see not: telephones have they and they hear not: some secret paralysis in the mind or the knot of the nerves prevents them from being conscious of anything that is palpable and present. I was told in a debating club that wars were now practically impossible and out of date, while the newsboys were crying the ultimatum of Austria to Servia. I dare say they are saying so still - in that debating club. And if I were to tell them that the modern scientific age has been, beyond and above all other ages, the Age of Militarism, they would call that plain fact a paradox. And as it has been with the old institution of arms, so it is to-day with the old institution of power in pedigree. It is much stronger today than it has ever been before. It is infinitely stronger than it ought to be. Modern heredity is ancient hereditary right. There used to be many elected despots in the world: to-day there are very few. Wherever the power is personal it is accidental. The modern world believes in the poetic and sporting chance of primogeniture. To prove this we need do no more than allude to the earthly or unearthly circumstances in which we stand at this moment. Whoever may be right or wrong, it is quite certain that the two central Empires now at war are made of many variegated bloods and histories. And it is quite certain that what holds each confederation together is not a public constitution, but simply a private family. The Austrian Emperor is trying to avenge his heir; and the German Emperor is trying to revive his grandfather. The feeling in both cases at least is not a constitutional sentiment: it is rather the sentiment that blood is thicker than ink. I think myself that the Hapsburgs have been wiser than the Hohenzollerns; understanding more of human nature and of the roots of such domestic despotism. For the House of Prussia points to its good luck; and if it once lost the luck, might lose all the loyalty. But the House of Austria rather points to its bad luck; and appeals, as did Maria Theresa, to men of many and alien races to rally round something simple, a babe, a woman, or an old man. I should not wonder if the calamities of the Austrian Empire have alone kept it together. In any case, we have a proof of the intense modernity of mere hereditary right. The tribes and clans that could not be kept together by any State are kept together by a surname. The family is larger than the nation.

But as compared with the case of the late Pope, the case of republican and "representative" rulers is just as strong. I do not remember that a real peasant has lately been President in France. I am quite positive that a real workman has not been Prime Minister in England. It must be confessed, I fear, that the longest and slowest of all such ladders of advance is the electioneering ladder. There is, of course, the very respectable and highly conservative person called a Labour Member. But how far he has travelled from the average workman! And how far he still is from the average Front Bench Man! In America, I suppose (at least I was told so in my youth) there was such a thing as "From Log Cabin to White House." As a boy I thought the change of residence a deplorable deterioration in the sense of the picturesque. But, for good or ill, is there any British record "From Cabinet-Maker to Cabinet Minister"? Does any modern politician, however republican, think it natural to imitate Cincinnatus? Does he, at any casual moment, cast aside the paludamentum and go back to the plough? Has he through life the speech and manhood and unmistakable make-up of the class from which he came? Even in high and heroic republics, like those of France and of Switzerland, can one say that the ruler is really the plain man in power?

Now all the evidence, from foes as much as friends, attests that this was really true of the great priest who lately gave back to God the most tremendous power in the world. Those who admired him most, admired the simplicity and sanity of a peasant. Those who murmured against him most, complained of the obstinacy and reluctance of a peasant. But for that very reason it was clear that the oldest representative institution of Europe is working: when all the new ones have broken down. It is still possible to get the strong, patient, humorous type that keeps cheerfulness and charity alive among millions, alive and supreme in an official institution. But I think it would puzzle the Parliamentarians, and the Suffragists, and the Proportional Representationists, and all the other correctors of our complex machine, to tell me where else it has been possible: except in that place now empty.

As has been pointed out, with subtle power and all proper delicacy, in numberless liberal and large-minded journals, the great and good priest now dead had all the prejudices of a peasant. He had a prejudice to the effect that the mystical word "Yes" should be distinguished from the equally unfathomable expression "No." Many travellers wandering in peasant countries have found traces of this belief. Mr. W. Yeats, in his most beautiful poem, exactly answers the peasant's instinct for exactitude: for the green arithmetic of ordered fields. "Nine bean rows will I have there." Many of the merely aristocratic poets, Shelley or Goethe, might have said nineteen bean-rows, or ninety: and Byron, when his blood was up, would have said nine hundred. But Mr. Yeats comes from a land of peasants: and he knows how many beans make nine. This obstinate belief that twice two is four, and three times three is nine, undoubtedly possessed the great peasant's intelligence when he argued with all the Intelligentsia of Europe. They were the finest intellects of the age. They said so; and they ought to know. The Pope never pretended to have an extraordinary intellect; but he professed to be right: and he was. All honest Atheists, all honest Calvinists, all honest men who mean anything, or believe or deny anything, will have reason to thank their stars (a heathen habit) for the peasant in that high place. He killed the huge heresy that two heads are better than one; when they grow on the same neck. He killed the Pragmatist idea of eating a cake and having it. He left people to agree with his creed or disagree with it; but not free to misrepresent it. It was exactly what any peasant taken from any of our hills and plains would have said. But there was something more in him that would not have been in the ordinary peasant. For all this time he had wept for our tears; and he broke his heart for our bloodshed.

[GKC ILN August 29, 1914 CW30:150-154]

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