Wednesday, November 04, 2009

GKC: on Love and Liberty

I will not be able to write a posting for tomorrow, so I am rudely intruding into the rest of the week and posting a very interesting and relevant excerpt today, with the hope that it will provoke some discussion - or at least some thought.
--Dr. Thursday

... one very simple thing was true both of Love and Liberty; the gods of the Romantics and the Republicans. They were both simply fragments of Christian mysticism, and even of Christian theology, torn out of their proper place, flung loosely about and finally hurled forward into an age of hard materialism which instantly destroyed them. They were not really rational ideas, still less rationalistic ideas. At least, they were never rational ideas after they had left off being religious ideas. One of them was a hazy human exaggeration of the sacramental idea of marriage. The other was a hazy human exaggeration of the brotherhood of men in God. When the Romantic laid his hand on his Red Waistcoat and swore to George Sand or some other lady that their souls were two affinities wedded before the world was made, he was drawing on the Christian capital of the old ideas of immortality and sanctity. When he explained to his mistress in his garret the delicacy and dignity of cutting her throat and his own, and called it "the world well lost for love," he was really appealing to the old tradition of the martyr and the ascetic, who lost the world to save his soul. He was not, in any very exact sense of the word, talking sense. He was not uttering purely rational remarks; certainly not remarks that our more rationalistic generation would call rational. Often, when he had done himself particularly well with champagne and old brandy, he would let the cat out of the bag rather badly by calling the blanchisseuse or the artist's model "his bride in the sight of God."

Anyhow, he could not make the sort of appeals to deific faith or demonic jealousy, which constituted the vigorous love poetry of the age of Hugo and Alfred du Musset, without implying an immortal significance in passion, which the modern realists refuse to see in mere appetite. He could not so praise love without also praising loyalty. He might not admit that there was a sacred bond between Guinevere and Arthur; but he could not write at all without assuming that there was a sacred bond between Guinevere and Lancelot. The later sex writers would refuse to admit that there is any sacred bond between anybody and anybody else. The truth is that this mystical feeling about the love of man and woman was treated so clumsily that it fell between two stools. When it was really mediaeval, it could be preserved for ever in a story like that of Dante and Beatrice. When it was really modern, it simply fell to pieces, into little decaying scraps rather like wriggling worms, the hundred little loves and lusts of the modern sex novel. But the Romantics of the nineteenth century held it up in a sort of indeterminate pre-eminence; a dizzy and toppling idolatry; trying to make it at once as sacred as they thought good and as free as they found convenient. They wanted to eat their wedding-cake and have it. They wanted to make their wild wedding sacred without making it secure. They did put woman upon a pedestal; but they did not look to see if it was a solid pedestal.

Now, oddly enough, it was the same with Liberty as with Love. It was the same with the democratic ideal of political freedom for all. And Democracy is being criticised just now for exactly the same reason that Romance is being criticised just now. It is that all the sense there ever was in either of them rested on a religious idea. The nineteenth century took away the religious idea and left a sense that rapidly turned into nonsense. All men are equal because God loves all equally; and nothing can compare with that equality. But in what other way are men equal? The vague Liberals of the nineteenth century cut away the Divine ground from under Democracy, and Democracy was left to stand by itself. In other words, it is left to fall by itself. Jefferson said that men were given equal rights by their Creator. Ingersoll said that they had no Creator, but had received equal rights from nowhere. Even in the democratic atmosphere of America, it began to dawn on a great many people that it is very difficult to prove that men ever received the equal rights at all. In short, the Republican theory will turn out to be another form of Romance; and will be classed with the illusion of the too idealistic lover unless it can be reconnected with the positive beliefs from which it was originally borrowed. The Red Cap will follow the Red Waistcoat into the old clothes' shop unless it can be made something more than a fashion, or dipped in that enduring dye that coloured the red roses of St. Dorothy or the red cross of St. George.

[GKC ILN Aug 27 1932, also reprinted in All I Survey. Special thanks to Frank Petta and to my mother.]


  1. These ideas have become commonplace enough today, now that we can see the undergirding of Christian assumptions beginning to give way in our society. But Chesterton was drawing attention to this long before it became manifest.

    Speaking of liberty, I have been wondering if other Chesterton fans sometimes find Chesterton too, well, left-wing? Every time he praises the French Revolution, or speaks lightly of monarchy, or attacks aristocracy, I find myself wondering "Would you still hold those opinions today, Gilbert, if you could see where the forces that swept the various ancien regimes away have taken us...if you could see the liberalism that grew from Gladstonian liberalism, and seems to have been embyronically contained in it?".

  2. I sympathize with you, Maolsheachlann--though in an ironic way. As a token loonie-liberal-leftist-socialist-communist*-fascist*-Obamaite around here, I often find Chesterton too right-wing. But I guess part of his genius is his ability to confound both the left and the right, and to make us wonder about whether the Anarchists are Detectives or the Detectives are Anarchists.

    I think that Chesterton saw both liberation and totalitarianism in the air and understood that these two opposite tendencies were and would be paradoxically difficult to disentangle. I don't agree with him that religion provides the only rational frame for thinking about human equality and liberty, but I do think that some kind of rational frame, or at least some kind of pragmatism, is needed to restrain successful liberation or egaliatarian movements from turning into Terrors.

    *Disclaimer: Self-deprecating humor intended. Commenter not actually a card-carrying member of a communist and /or facist party.

  3. Personally I don't think about liberty at all, and I can't help bristling whenever anybody talks about it. In my mind, four-letter-words on televison, not doffing your cap to the squire, and Sunday trading (and Chesterton was no Sabbatarian) were the first steps on the road to drive-by-shootings and the drugs culture. Silly, perhaps, but there you go. I think of liberty as a spiritual state; "angels alone, that soar above", etc.. Of course, I have the luxury of despising political and economic freedom because better men and women than me fought and died so I could enjoy them. My reaction is a visceral one.

    Maybe you're a Shavian, Brian...? It's hard to see how equality can have a non-religious basis, but I guess it could be seen as an ideal that needn't have any kind of absolute reality outside our minds. It's nice to know GKC has fans on the left, too.

  4. Thanks, Maolsheachlann. I always appreciate that Chestertonians accept a leftist among them.

    I wouldn't say I'm a Shavian (and I especially wouldn't say it around here!), but I do think that Shaw was right when he said that whatever common ground emerged from his debate with GKC would probably represent the spirit of the age (and maybe even the truth). And I think one of the things that both of them believed (at times, at least) was that political dichotmies like "left vs. right" are deceptively simplistic. To me, both Shaw's Major Barbara and GKC's The Man Who Was Thursday suggest that ideological extremes have a tendency to curve around and blend into each other, and that each side has a fragment of truth.

  5. I sometimes wonder whether future generations will think Chesterton and Shaw were actually the same person, conducting a public disagreement as a prank. Their prose styles are so similar, it's often startling.

  6. M.,

    I think you and I should rock this blog by revealing that we, like Shaw and Chesterton or Sunday and the man in the dark room, are actually the same person.

  7. two do both have Irish names...

    Brian: thanks for the smile this morning ;-)

  8. I'm glad I made Nancy smile, but I hope I didn't distract from the substance of Dr. T's post, or from Maolsheachlann's question. I was curious how others would respond to his question: Do you ever find Chesterton "too, well, left wing"?

  9. Another similarity is that Maolsheachlann and Brian (Boru, that is!) were rivals to the High Kingship of Ireland, both married to the same woman (at different times) and fought side by side at the Battle of Clontarf! History, however, doesn't record whether Brian was a leftie and Maolsheachlann a reactionary...


Join our FaceBook fan page today!