Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chesterton on the Current Election

H/T: Peter F. Thanks.

ILN October 27, 1928
"The Innocent Conservatism of Youth"]

One of the old sayings repeated eternally by everybody, and rather especially by those who pride themselves on novelty and originality, is the statement that old people tend to be conservative, and that it is only the young who can really believe in change.

And yet this saying seems to me to be rather less than a half-truth - so much less as to be very nearly two-thirds of a lie. My own experience is this: that I was really much more conservative when I was a boy, though I admit that I was too conservative to be even conscious of how conservative I was. Click here for the rest.

I mean that I was conservative in this sense - that I did not really believe that the fashion of this world could pass away. I had certain ideals of reforming it, and to a great extent I have the same ideals still. In so far as they have changed, it is not in the direction of being any more content with the corruption and oppression of the world.

I was once what I called a Socialist; I am now what I call a Distributist. But the ideal of simplicity and small property is rather more unlike the existing condition than the ideal of Communism. It would change the world more to turn it into what I want than to turn it into what Mr. Philip Snowden [Philip Snowden (1864-1937) was an
English socialist statesman and advocate of free trade.] wants. There is less difference than many suppose between the ideal Socialist system, in which the big businesses are run by the State, and the present Capitalist system, in which the State is run by the big businesses.

They are much nearer to each other than either is to my own ideal - of breaking up the big businesses into a multitude of small businesses. That would be really a change; but I am still ready for that change, and I see no reason to doubt that, when I am tottering on crutches at the age of ninety, I shall still be ready for that change.

What I was not ready for, in my youth, was something quite real and entirely different. I did not know that the world itself changes, long before we can change it.

Take a commonplace example for convenience. I sympathised then, and I sympathise still, with various claims of Labour which arose especially in connection with the coal-mines and with the railways. I do not think I have weakened in this: if anything, I think I was more doubtful and groping when I was young. But there was one thing that
I never really doubted when I was young. And that was that coal would continue to support England and enrich the capitalists of England.

I thought of this unique wealth as one of the conditions of the case, which might be attacked in various ways, moderate, greedy, revolutionary, and so on. But I vaguely assumed that the coal would be there, as I assumed that the sea would be there. Yet these things also can change; and even the sea is not quite so significantly and
satisfactorily there since the alteration of the relations of ships and aeroplanes.

I was accustomed to the two sides of the old argument about whether coal-owners were too rich; I never really looked forward to the new argument that coal-owners are too poor. I was accustomed to the talk of heaping up riches or dividing riches or justly distributing riches; but I had forgotten the old Scriptural figure that the riches themselves take to themselves wings and fly.

In a word, I could not imagine change, the real fundamental changes of this earthly life, because I was too conservative, being a boy.

In the same way, I knew all about the grumbling of railway passengers against railway porters, and in the same way about the grumbling of railway porters against railway directors. I sympathised more with the latter than with the former, and I do still.

But when I was a boy, which was just before the motorcar burst upon the world, I never dreamed of doubting that the railway-train dominated the whole future of the world. It was the latest great locomotive that man had invented. And that conservative spirit of childhood always makes the child think of the latest as the last.

To talk, as some people are now talking, of whether railways will become obsolete, of whether steam can be superseded, of whether railway stock will always be as safe as it was - all this would have been to me a prophecy as unintelligible as some of those Old Testament visions that seem a
medley of wheels and wings and clouds. Railways had been firmly established before I was born; I never dreamed of doubting that they would remain exactly the same after I died.

They seemed to me simply the iron framework of England, and almost of existence: as if
the embankments were built before the everlasting hills or the trains of "Bradshaw" followed their appointed circuit like the stars.

If there is any old gentleman still alive who remembers the time when there were no railways, he probably feels quite differently: he feels as I feel about motoring. I do not feel in this cosmic and conservative way about motoring, but I think it probable that the young who are younger than motoring really do. If you talk to them of a future without motoring, of a coming time when petrol will be scarcer than coal and men will walk about on their feet for want of wheels to carry them, it will seem like an unthinkable nightmare of negation. It will
seem what the amputation of all legs would seem to a population of pedestrians. But they also will learn in due course what they cannot conceive now, just as I have learnt in due course what I could not have conceived then: that it is the world that alters, even more than we who alter it.

Of course, it is a comparatively slow alteration, which to some muddle-headed evolutionists seems to make it more consoling, but in fact makes it much more dangerous. It may or may not be true that petrol will replace coal or cars replace railways. But nobody supposes that Waterloo Station fell in a heap of ruins when the first taxicab went across Waterloo Bridge, or that bats and owls nested in Clapham
Junction when the first petrol-pump was set up on the road to Clapham Common.

The point is not whether the changes are as rapid and revolutionary as the young are supposed generally to expect. The point is that they are not the changes they were
expecting. Above all, the point is that they are changes in the very material they propose to treat - not changes in the manner of treating it.

It is not a question of a younger generation wishing to carve the Phrygian cap or the Tree of Liberty [In Roman times, a Phrygian cap of red felt was given to a slave who had been freed; during the French Revolution, it became a powerful symbol for the revolutionaries. The Tree of Liberty was a similar symbol for the Americans.] on a stone that has been marked out for decoration with the Crown or the Cross.

It is a question of the stone crumbling away before it can be carved with anything, because they have forgotten the air they breathe, and the sky and the weather of the world.

We are always being told nowadays to allow for the natural impulses and instincts of youth. Let us be careful to allow for this most profound instinct of youth, its innocent conservatism. Let us always remember that to the very young the world they see really seems to be eternal; and that, however much they may talk a current cant about novelty and mutability, they do not really expect the externals of their world to be profoundly altered by time.

Notice, for instance, what is the very phrase used in defence of any novelty. Observe what is really said in praise of the electric toothpick or the petrol pea-shooter. We are always assured that the discovery "has come to stay." We, who have lived long enough to understand the real value of life, know perfectly well that nothing of that sort has ever come to stay. It may do all sorts of other things; but there is one thing that it cannot do, and that is to stay. We shall show no irritation, please God, on being repeatedly introduced to the Hat of the Future and the Umbrella of the New Age and the Goloshes of the Good Time Coming.

But the only thing we really have learnt from life is that the good time will be going as well as coming, and that, in the book of fashions, the Hat of the Future will be recorded as the Hat of the Past. It is now the custom to condemn youth as too frivolous. But youth is always too serious; and just now it is too serious about frivolity. The conservatism of youth is a good thing; and it is not even necessary to conserve it.

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