Friday, February 4, 2011

"What Is Right With The World" - narration from G.K. Chesterton

I did not make up that excellent title. The editor of this paper suggested it to me, and I agreed to write it, because it gave me the opportunity of telling a story about such titles.

People say that publishers crush and obscure the author, but in my experience they do just the opposite. I will not say that so far from making too little of the author, they make too much of him; this phrase is capable of a dark financial interpretation I do not mean to imply. But prominent authors are very largely the creations of their publishers. Once I wrote a sort of essay, divided into sections, on a certain point of political error. It seemed to me the real mistake in most modern sociological works. It was that “things that have been tried have been found wanting”. I intended to point out that this is untrue, and an old expedient may be the best thing for a new situation. Therefore, I claimed, we should look for the best method, whether it is in the future or the past. I imagined the book as a little dust-colored treatise without chapters, called “What Is Wrong” – meaning, of course, where the mistake is in the logic. But I had highly capable and sympathetic publishers, whose only weakness was that they thought my little essay much more important than I did. By some confusion of ecstasy (which I ought to have checked and didn’t) the title was changed into the apocalyptic trumpet-blast “What’s Wrong With The World”. It was shattered into three short fierce chapters like proclamations in a French riot. Outside there was an enormous portrait of myself looking like a depressed hairdresser, and the whole publication had ended up with the violence and urgency of a bombshell. Let it be understood that I do not blame the publishers in the least for this. I could have stopped it if I had minded my own affairs. I mention it only as an example of the error about publishers. They are always represented as cold and scornful merchants, whereas in reality their enthusiasm has oftener left me mourning.

I rather like this method of the publisher or editor writing the title and the author writing the remarks about it. Any man with a large mind ought to be able to write to order. Some of the greatest books in the world were written to fulfill a publisher’s sketch. But I only brought together these two examples of titles because they show the necessity of some restatement. The titles are both too complex and too simple. I could not make some discovery of my own of what is wrong with the world. What is wrong with the world is the devil, and what is right with it is God; the human race will travel for a few more million years in muddle and reform and when it perishes it will still be within the limits of that very simple definition. But our age has confused itself with terms like “optimist” and “pessimist”. Of course, “optimist” is used mainly about the future, as if the house of man were something more like a traveling caravan. It is criticized not by where it is but by where it is going.

One very consistent thing about the future is that the prophecies are usually wrong. The people who are wrong are the people who were certain they were right. And it is because most of the people who influence the future are the ordinary ones who do not make or even hear of scientific predictions. They must be excused from not following the forecast, because they did not know it. They had no idea that they were avoiding what was really unavoidable. They are not uneducated – to say that is like saying of a Red Indian that he has not taken his degree. They have learned a great many things, and learned them well, outside of a school.

So the primary truth is that what is right with the world has nothing to do with future changes, but is rooted in original realities. If people are unexpectedly independent or creative or fierce or self-sacrificing, these inexplicable outbursts can be attributed to the nature of men. Ancient traditions are the ones that lead to innovation, and nothing nowadays is as conservative as a revolution. And we ask if any of this matters at all?

What is right with the world is the world. In fact, nearly everything else is wrong with it. The beginning of things is good: life and energy and living things are good, on their own. You can have evil livers, but not evil lives. Manhood and womanhood are good, though men and women are often a nuisance. You can use poppies to drug people or you can worship a stone, but poppies and stones are strictly beautiful and good before you have done anything. We admire the project of a world, as if we had been called to council in the primal darkness and seen the first blueprints of the skies. We are, actually, more sure that our life is a magnificent and amazing enterprise than we are sure that it will succeed. Meliorists, who are are evolutionary optimists (and a patient and poor-spirited lot they are) talk as if we were certain of the end but not of the beginning. In other words – they don’t know what life is aiming at, but they are quite sure it will eventually get there. Why anybody who has avowedly forgotten where he came from should be quite certain of where he is going to I have never been able to make out; but that is the way the Meliorists are. They are ready to talk of existence itself as the product of evil. They never mention animals except as eating each other, but a month in the country would cure all that. They are afraid, giddily horrified like a man on a cliff, of stars and seas, clay and fungus and very young animals, which reveals the fundamental pessimist. Life itself is horrible to them. They are like the lady who objected that the milk came to her from a dirty cow, rather than a nice clean shop – but they are sure how everything will end.

I am in precisely the opposite position. I am far more sure that everything is good at first than that it will be good in the end. I am more certain than I can say that everything originally created is good. But as for what will happen to them – that would be to take a step into dogma and prophecy. Of course, I am speaking only of my personal feelings, not my religion or even my reasoned creed. I am an agnostic, like most people with a positive theology. But I do affirm that everything was good in the beginning. Trees and flowers and stars and people are primarily, not merely ultimately, good. In the Beginning God created heaven and earth and saw that they were good.

All this unavoidable theory (for theory is always unavoidable) may be summarized thus. We are to regard existence as a raid or some great adventure: it is to be judged not by its calamities but by the flag it follows and the towns it assaults. The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive. Anyone who shrinks from this is a pessimist who thinks (rightly) that he would rather be dead. Spiritually speaking, we should be justified in punishing him with death. Only, out of polite deference to his own philosophy, we punish him with life.

Some people say that unity itself is a good thing: all rivers should run into one river, all vegetables go into one pot. They say that is the best fulfillment of being. Boys are to be “at one” with girls, all religions are to be “at one” in the New Age, beasts and men and God are “at one” with each other. But union itself is not a noble thing. Love is noble, but love is not union. Love is a vivid sense of identity and distinctness. The best love-poetry talks of people in love being distant from each other, and the greatest saints have felt their lowness, not their highness, in their moment of ecstasy. And what is true for such great matters is true for small things too. Variety is essential to praise; that and division are what is right with the world. There is nothing right about mere contact and coalescence.

Unity is what we had before the world was made. Everything was one then – one undivided mass of chaos and nothingness. While a few prigs on platforms are preaching unity, the varieties of men, women and children are continually renewed among the valleys of our world – places where women are loved for being unmanly, and men for being unwomanly, where the church and the home are beautiful and flags are sacred. They are not mankind, but men.

The only hope for the modern world is that all these dim democracies still believes in the romance of life and the variation of man, woman, and child upon which all poetry has been built. The danger of the modern world is that these dim democracies are so very dim, especially when they are right. The danger is that the world may be ruled by an oligarchy of prigs. (And if you ask me to define a prig, I should have to say that a prig is an oligarch who does not even know he is an oligarch.) A circle of pedants pass unanimously (in a meeting of none) that there is no difference between men and women and children, and below them boils the sea of millions that think differently, have always thought differently, will always think differently. Even though the numbers are so much in our favor, I am in serious doubt as to who will win. Men have been thrown upon their instincts lately, and their instincts, like animals’, are right; but like animals’, they can be cowed. Between the agile scholars and the stagnant mom I am really doubtful about which will be triumphant. I have no doubt at all about which ought to be.

Europe is trying to solve the problem by politics. But Religion is returning from her exile as well; it is more likely that the future will be crazily and corruptly superstitious than merely rational. Of course, something will issue from our attempts to solve our problems; whether or not it solves or worsens them is anyone’s guess. But we all tend to make one mistake: we make politics too important. We forget how huge a part of life is the same under any government. Daybreak is a never-ending glory, getting out of bed is a never-ending nuisance, food and friends will be welcomed, work and strangers accepted and endured, birds will go bedwards and children won’t, to the end of the last evening. And the worst danger is that in our revolt against huge and important problems we may have unsettled the things that make daily life tolerable. It will be sad if, when we have worked for a holiday, we find that we have unlearnt everything but work. The typical modern man is the insane millionare who has drudged to get money and then finds he cannot enjoy it. There is danger that the social reformer may develop some attributes of the mad millionaire whom he denounces. He may find that he knows how to build playgrounds and not how to play, may agitate for peace and quiet and only propagate his own mental agitation. In his long fight to get a slave a half-holiday he may angrily deny those ancient and natural things, the zest of being, the divinity of man, the sacredness of simple things, the humor of the earth, which alone make a half-holiday half a holiday, or a slave even half a man.

There is danger in the phrase “divine discontent.” There is truth too, of course, but it is only truth of a special, secondary kind. Much of the quarrel between Christianity and the world has been caused by this: there are generally two truths at any given moment of revolt or reaction, and then also the ancient truism which is nevertheless true all the time. It is sometimes worthwhile to point out that black is not quite pitch-black, but it is still black and not white. So it is with content and discontent. It is true that sometimes, in acute and painful crises of oppression, discontent is a duty and shame could call us like a trumpet. But it is not true that man should be discontented every moment of every ordinary day. It is not true that in his relation to everything, pain, friendship, death, weather, man ought to make discontent his ideal. That is lunacy. Half his hopes of happiness depend on his thinking a small house nice, a plain wife charming, a lame foot not unbearable, and bad cards not so bad. The voice of the special rebels and prophets recommending discontent should, as I have said, sound now and then, suddenly, like a trumpet. But the voices of the saints and sages, recommending contentment, should sound unceasingly, like the sea.

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