Today we begin our study of the text of What's Wrong With the World by reading GKC's dedication, which through the occult power of AMBER will bring us to a very surprising essay, bearing most powerfully upon the text we are about to explore.
To C. F. G. MASTERMAN, M. P.
My Dear Charles,
I originally called this book "What is Wrong," and it would have satisfied your sardonic temper to note the number of social misunderstandings that arose from the use of the title. Many a mild lady visitor opened her eyes when I remarked casually, "I have been doing 'What is Wrong' all this morning." And one minister of religion moved quite sharply in his chair when I told him (as he understood it) that I had to run upstairs and do what was wrong, but should be down again in a minute. Exactly of what occult vice they silently accused me I cannot conjecture, but I know of what I accuse myself, and that is, of having written a very shapeless and inadequate book, and one quite unworthy to be dedicated to you. As far as literature goes, this book is what is wrong, and no mistake.
It may seem a refinement of insolence to present so wild a composition to one who has recorded two or three of the really impressive visions of the moving millions of England. You are the only man alive who can make the map of England crawl with life; a most creepy and enviable accomplishment. Why then should I trouble you with a book which, even if it achieves its object (which is monstrously unlikely) can only be a thundering gallop of theory?
Well, I do it partly because I think you politicians are none the worse for a few inconvenient ideals; but more because you will recognise the many arguments we have had; those arguments which the most wonderful ladies in the world can never endure for very long. And, perhaps, you will agree with me that the thread of comradeship and conversation must be protected because it is so frivolous. It must be held sacred, it must not be snapped, because it is not worth tying together again. It is exactly because argument is idle that men (I mean males) must take it seriously; for when (we feel), until the crack of doom, shall we have so delightful a difference again? But most of all I offer it to you because there exists not only comradeship, but a very different thing, called friendship; an agreement under all the arguments and a thread which, please God, will never break.
G. K. Chesterton.
A footnote in the IP edition tells us:
Charles P. G. Masterman (1873-1927), politician, author, Liberal Member of Parliament, 1906-1911.But you may wish to know a little more, as I did. So I turned to a trustworthy source for more information.
Charles Masterman ... was a very remarkable man. He was also a very subtle and curious character; and many of my own best friends entirely misunderstood and underrated him. It is true that as he rose higher in politics, the veil of the politician began to descend a little on him also; but he became a politician from the noblest bitterness on behalf of the poor; and what was blamed in him was the fault of much more ignoble men. What was blamable, as distinct from what was blamed, in him was due to two things; he was a pessimistic official. He had had a dark Puritan upbringing and retained a sort of feeling of the perversity of the gods; he said to me, "I am the sort of man who goes under a hedge to eat an apple." But he was also an organiser and liked governing; only his pessimism made him think that government had always been bad, and was now no worse than usual. Therefore, to men on fire for reform, he came to seem an obstacle and an official apologist; but the last thing he really wanted was to apologise for anything. He had a startling insight into character, and a way of suddenly expressing it, so that it braced rather than hurt. As Oldershaw once said to me, "His candour is beautiful." But his melancholy made him contented, where happier men were discontented. His pessimism did the worst work of optimism. In person he was long, loose and lounging; and nearly as untidy as I was.There is also this remarkable review-of-a-review, which I shall give in full, because it is a Chestertonian reprise of his entire thesis, both of Orthodoxy and of our own work - the thesis (much debated in the long-running discussion of some of our friends) that a thing ought to be itself.
[GKC Autobiography CW16:122-3]
I see that somebody or other, in reviewing Mr. C. F. G. Masterman's striking and searching study called "England After the War," has said that nobody could expect Mr. Masterman to understand Mr. Chesterton. Now, I have every reason to believe that Mr. Masterman and I are exactly the sort of people who do understand each other; though he was always labelled a pessimist when I was labelled an optimist. We understood each other because we agreed in not judging things by labels. And it is precisely because I think he does understand that I wish to explain; for it is no good explaining such personal things to people who do not understand. I wish to give him the true explanation of something. He says about me, in effect, that I used to be an optimist trying to awake wonder at common things, but have become too much of a war controversialist. "He has seen the world fall to pieces in the extremity of misery and pain; and the proclamation of the greatness of the thistledown or the pillarbox has passed into controversy more brilliant, indeed, but almost as tedious as that of most of his competitors, on whether Germany was responsible for the war, and how much we should eat of her now we have won."
Now, I think I could make Mr. Masterman see, much quicker than most people, that there really is a very direct connection between my early fairy-tales about the thistledown and the pillarbox and our controversial case in the late war. Of course, a man cannot fill his life with fairy-tales; it is his business to take serious things seriously, to defend justice and do his best for his country. In such a war a romancer ought to be proud to become a controversialist, as a hair-dresser is proud to become a soldier. But in this case there is no inconsistency, but a very close connection. When I was called an optimist for saying we should wonder at the thistledown or thank God for the pillar-box, I was saying something that I should still say, and especially as to the real moral of the Great War. It is a moral that seems to be entirely missed; and I think it is hugely important.
The disappointment after the war, including the disappointment of Mr. Masterman, seems to me to have been due to the very fact that the world went into it with a false notion of progress. We thought a man could fight to improve things; and especially to improve his own position. We forgot that a man may fight not to improve things, but to rescue them. He may fight, not to improve his position, but to save his life. It is not fantastically quixotic to say that he may sometimes even fight to save somebody else's life. To save things implies that they are worth saving; and the point is that their very peril makes us feel that they are worth saving. But it is unreasonable to expect them to be intrinsically improved only by being nearly destroyed. Perseus delivers Andromeda from the monster; and everybody naturally rejoices, not excluding Andromeda. But it would be unreasonable to expect Andromeda to be actually improved in health by being exposed to the sea-breezes, on the analogy of sea-bathing. It would be too exacting to demand that she should not only live happily ever after, but actually grow younger every day. What may reasonably be expected is that her family, which had got used to her good looks, may realise that such beauty is something to be loved, when it has been nearly lost. St. George kills the dragon and saves the princess; and we are glad, unless we are among those imperial or international evolutionists who always desire the smaller organism to be absorbed into the larger. But it would be irrational to expect the princess to turn into a goddess merely by being tied to a tree. It is nonsense to say that St. George ought to have worked a miracle, and turned the princess into three princesses with a touch of his magic spear. The change might be appropriate to the polygamous regions of the Sultan, her papa; but the most we can hope for is not to present the Sultan with three daughters, but to teach him to appreciate one. Now, the whole of this notion of appreciating what we have got was entirely ignored by the pessimists of the period when Mr. Masterman and I were young. That indifference to the intrinsic beauty of things, apart from the improvement of things, was the thing against which I urged the claims of the thistledown and the pillar-box. I was quite certain that, if people had not imagination enough to enjoy things in themselves, they would not enjoy them in any infinite or ideal extension. I was sure that if people saw no significance at all in the present function of the present pillar-box, they would see none in a row of pillar-boxes as regular as lamp-posts, or as continuous as railings, erected all the way down the street by the beatific bureaucracy of the Fabian State. I was sure that if people did not realise that a chance tuft of thistledown drifting in the air was a dazzling and divine mystery, they would see quite as little in rows on rows of carefully cultivated thistles, the appropriate vegetarian diet of the professors of scientific sociology.
Now, the war did point that moral of the intrinsic preciousness of threatened things. I did really look at the pillar-box at the street corner, when it seemed to glow red under black skies where the birds of death were abroad and all the lights extinguished. It was all the more bursting with symbolism because it might at any moment literally burst under a bomb out of the sky. I should really have looked at the thistledown, or at the thistle itself, in its bristling halo of defiance, with more of the militant mysticism with which a Scotsman would regard it: "Nemo me impune lacessit." Ordinary things did seem to be extraordinary - not because they were being improved, but because they were being defended and delivered. And that was the true triumph of the Great War, which is hidden from those who cannot imagine anything except their own progressive prejudice, their monomania of meliorism. They cannot bring themselves to believe that a mother wishes to rescue a baby, not an improved baby, from a burning house; that a man wishes to reprieve his friend, not his more fully developed friend, from the gallows. The war was not a scheme elaborately constructed to make things better. It was the successful beating off of besieging barbarians who wanted to make things worse. It did not make things better than they were, but better than they would have been.
Nor is this a barren retrospect, unless the whole study of history is a barren retrospect. It is very important to insist on whatever is the main moral of history; and I hold that history has for its main moral this defensive war against the destroyers of civilization. Sometimes the civilization itself becomes very corrupt or oppressive, and has to be cleansed by democratic reforms and revolutions; and Mr. Masterman knows that I have been mostly on the side of those revolutions. But it is only quite recently that the only historic test has been this notion of innovation and improvement. Most of the heroes of legend and history have been great because they saved society. The Great War was great because it saved society. It could not have been waged by pessimists who did not think Society worth saving. In other words, it could not have been waged by men who did not think pillar-boxes and other common objects worth saving. That is what I mean by saying that there is a direct connection between the mysticism of wonder and the morality of war. But it is also true that we cannot say we saved them without deciding from whom they were saved. This theory of the defence of human culture implies that there are enemies of human culture, people who are liable to attack human culture; and I think there are. And it is not in the least irrelevant to discuss whether they did it, if only because they are quite likely to do it again.
On the particular point of responsibility for the war, and whether retrospective debate on it is barren, I am content to wait till Mr. Masterman or anybody else has answered a perfectly plain question I have often repeated without getting a reply. If we merely forget and forgive in the matter of who began the war, are we not plainly telling the next aggressor to begin a war and all will be forgotten and forgiven? If we merely distribute the blame for the sin on all parties, are we not obviously encouraging the next man to commit the sin in the hope of distributing the blame? I have never been able to see the answer to that argument, and I have never heard Mr. Masterman or any of his school attempt to give one. They are always asking for an international tribunal. But a tribunal is not a thing that forgets and forgives; it is a thing that investigates and vindicates. If there were such a tribunal, it would have to decide who began the last war, in order to prevent the next one. But I am not dealing here with these large political matters, but only with one small and rather personal point about consistency in moral sentiment. I know Mr. Masterman is not the servile sort of pacifist or the inhuman sort of pessimist; and, so far from misunderstanding me, I am sure he will understand me very well if I take pleasure in renewing here, after such varied times and troubles, the debates of our youth.
[GKC ILN May 5, 1923 CW33:91-5]
The IP edition notes that the Latin Nemo me impune lacessit means "No one provokes me with impunity". I've explored my own references of heraldry and found that this is the motto on the arms of Scotland; I should also note that the heraldic "badge" of Scotland is a thistle, which is of course hinted at by GKC's mention of "thistledown" which (if you were paying attention earlier this year) is mentioned in Orthodoxy CW1:261. (My Latin consultant reminds me that this phrase appears with this translation in Poe's The Cask of Amontillado. Yes, for the love of God.)
Two notes added as I go to press:
(1) "meliorism" comes from the Latin melior ("better") the comparative of bonus ("good"); thus meaning one who works for or desires "the better".
(2) a "pillarbox" is called a mailbox in America: the old small kind of box mounted on a pole or pillar. We hear about pillarboxes (sometimes in their hyphenated form) in other GKC places like NNH and this:
The word "pillar-box" is unpoetical. But the thing pillar-box is not unpoetical; it is the place to which friends and lovers commit their messages, conscious that when they have done so they are sacred, and not to be touched, not only by others, but even (religious touch!) by themselves. That red turret is one of the last of the temples. Posting a letter and getting married are among the few things left that are entirely romantic; for to be entirely romantic a thing must be irrevocable. We think a pillar-box prosaic, because there is no rhyme to it. We think a pillar-box unpoetical, because we have never seen it in a poem. But the bold fact is entirely on the side of poetry.
[GKC Heretics CW1:55-6]