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Chapter Four


Oikos and Logos:

 Chesterton’s Vision of Distributism



Like Arendt, Chesterton was appalled by the devastating effects of industrial capitalism. He also believed that socialism was not the solution to this economic malaise—indeed he shares with Arendt the view that socialism is the logical conclusion to capitalism and not its antithesis. Socialism represented a continuation and not a curtailment of the process of property expropriation which could only be challenged by promoting the widespread ownership of limited private property. Chesterton was much more explicit in these matters than was Arendt and identified himself with a distinct socio-political movement known as ‘distributism’, the aim of which—according to the motto of the Distributist League—was ‘the restoration of liberty through the redistribution of property.’ In this chapter I suggest that Chesterton’s own answer to what he believed was the malaise of a secular, industrial, capitalist modernity was, in a sense, a form of political ecology. I show that in Chesterton’s Christian-Aristotelian vision of distributism limits are placed on the life processes of nature—the two natural dimensions of the household concerned with individual and species survival—as both natural aspects of economy (the acquisition of goods and human sexuality) are transfigured in accordance with the will of the Creator and the needs for sustaining a human community. The institutions Chesterton offers to this end of transcending the market relations of self-interest in these spheres are Christian marriage and a modern form of Guild regulation of industry to preserve independent household economies. Chesterton thus provides a very interesting twist to what Arendt would term the ‘unnatural growth of the natural’ by considering such perversion in both its sexual and economic dimensions.



The Thing


It has recently been suggested that the ecological problems faced by modern industrial society do not demand the finding of a ‘new’ environmental ethic. Rather, the tradition of Western society possesses the resources by which it might heal itself.[1] To this Chesterton would agree, but to the extent that such approaches remain within the framework of ‘secular humanism’ he would object that this form of ‘immanent critique’ was simply not radical enough for it would not reach to the roots of the matter. In the literal meaning of the word (radix = root), Chesterton was a truly radical thinker.[2] Thus he was also an original thinker in the sense that being original is not to be equated with severing oneself from the past but in connecting oneself with the origins of things.[3] 


Leaving London in 1919 on a journey to the Holy Land, Chesterton remarked on the political confusion which he believed was the hallmark of the industrial West: “The employers talk about ‘private enterprise,’ as if there was anything private about modern enterprise. Its combines are as big as many commonwealths; and things advertised in large letters on the sky cannot plead the shy privileges of privacy. Meanwhile the Labour men talk about the need to ‘nationalise’ the mines or the land, as if it were not the great difficulty in a plutocracy to nationalise the government, or even to nationalise the nation.”[4] Chesterton’s own sympathies lay on the side of Labour, but he believed that the proposed Statist solution—together with its rejection by the plutocracy—was an absurdity: “The mob howls before the palace gates, ‘Hateful tyrant, we demand that you assume more despotic powers’; and the tyrant thunders from the balcony, ‘Vile rebels, do you dare to suggest that my powers should be extended?’ There seems to be a little misunderstanding somewhere.”[5]


To fathom out this misunderstanding, says Chesterton, we need to get to the root of the problem faced by modern Western civilization: “We must begin at the beginning; we must return to our first origins in history, as we must return to our first principles in philosophy. We must consider how we came to be doing what we do, and even saying what we say.”[6] What is the ideal which modern Western societies are supposed to be achieving? According to Chesterton, it is democracy: “It is this which prophets promise to achieve, and politicians pretend to achieve, and poets sometimes desire to achieve, and sometimes only desire to desire. In a word, an equal citizenship is quite the reverse of the modern world; but it is still the ideal of the modern world.”[7]


Chesterton maintains that the source of this classical republican ideal was Rome.  Yet the Republic of ancient Rome was built upon slavery, and here is the crux of the dilemma of labor and liberty in the modern world:


The Labour problem is the attempt to have the democracy of Paris without the slavery of Rome.  Between the Roman Republic and the French Republic something had happened. Whatever else it was, it was the abandonment of the ancient and fundamental habit of slavery; the numbering of men for necessary labour as the normal foundation of society, even a society in which citizens were free and equal. When the idea of equal citizenship returned to the world, it found the world changed by a more mysterious version of equality. . . . We have now to assume not only that all citizens are equal, but that all men are citizens.[8]


The ‘something’ which had happened, which had transformed the desire for an equality of citizens into the equality of men, was Christendom. Recalling that his destination was Jerusalem, Chesterton declared: “I know the name of the magic which had made all those peasants out of pagan slaves, and has presented to the modern world a new problem of labour and liberty.”[9] Thus for Chesterton, the roots of the dilemma can be traced to the Incarnation and the riddle of the gospels. And so in contrast to Arendt, Chesterton’s concept of a free society is not res publica—the reality of the ‘Public Thing’—but the universal freedom and reality of ‘The Thing’: the restoration of Christendom.


That Chesterton’s social critique of industrial capitalism was rooted in certain ideals which found their partial embodiment in Christian Europe of the Middle Ages has gained him the reputation of being a Romantic Medievalist who wished to turn Modern England back to its feudal past. To Chesterton himself, this accusation was nothing short of ludicrous: “I never said I was a medievalist; and I have only the vaguest idea of what it would mean. But I have a very vivid and definite idea of what I mean. . . . The simple truth, which some people seem to find it difficult to understand or to believe, is that what a reasonable man believes in is not this or that period, with all its ideas, good or bad, but in certain ideas that may happen to have been present in one period and relatively absent from another period.”[10]


Chesterton constantly rejected the view that he was attempting to reinstate some medieval Golden Age—“after Eden I know of no golden age in the past.”[11] He looked to the undeveloped potentials of the Christian medieval past and saw that “the glory of this great culture is not so much in what it did as in what it might have done.”[12] Chesterton’s medieval point of reference for social criticism was thus neither irrational nor romantic: he wanted not to return to the past but to pick up the thread lost with the triumph of industrial capitalism and reassert the project to institutionalize the universal freedom which had been partially achieved in the past by the Guild System of the towns and not the feudal framework of agriculture.


Indeed, it was a lack of originality, of returning to ultimate sources, which undermined the ‘medieval’ utopia established within the pages of Chesterton’s novel The Return of Don Quixote (1927). In that novel the deficit of a vision severed from its ultimate roots, of a medievalism trapped in the incidentals of time and place, is expressed through the character of Olive Ashley: “Why have all our toppling fancies about kings and knights come down with a crash; why is all our Round Table Ruined? Because we never began at the beginning. Because we never went back to the Thing itself. The Thing that produced everything else; the love of the Thing where it really lives.”[13] The whole point of the novel is to issue a warning against the possibility for a descent into fascism when a shallow medievalism is hijacked by the forces of the plutocracy. The genuine expression of the democratic ideal of ‘The Thing’—Christendom—was not to be found in the medievalist dilettantism of the aristocrats  but in the radical trade unionism of the syndicalist character John Braintree: “If [the trades unionist Braintree] states that the Craft should be controlled by those who completely and competently practise it, I have no hesitation in saying that he states the ancient mediaeval ideal and states it correctly.”[14]


As Richard Tawney says of medieval Christendom in his classic study Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: “Stripped of its eccentricities of period and place, its philosophy had at its centre a determination to assert the superiority of moral principles over economic appetites, which have their place, and an important place, in the human scheme, but which, like other natural appetites, when flattened and pampered and overfed, bring ruin to the soul and confusion to society.”[15] Chesterton had no wish to revive the ‘eccentricities of period and place’, which would include feudalism, but hoped that the ideal of subordinating economic and other natural drives to an ethical framework of limits might take root once again in modern England. Defending a Christian concept of the household was central to this aim.


Like Arendt, Chesterton recognized that the Romans of antiquity had brought about a qualitative transformation in the life of the private realm of household. He had a great sympathy for the Roman belief in the penates and lares or household gods—this was, he noted, a homely religion. As opposed to the Greek gods which seemed to multiply outwards to the skies, the gods of Rome multiplied inwards, taking root in the everyday life of domesticity: “It has been suggested that all mythology was a sort of fairy-tale; but this was a particular sort of fairy-tale which may be truly be called a fireside tale, or a nursery tale; because it was a tale of the interior of the home; like those which make chairs and tables talk like elves.”[16]


For Chesterton, the Roman household gods symbolize a potential transfiguration of the natural household that would reach its climax in the Christian religion and provide the firm foundation for the building of a human home on earth. Chesterton considered the Roman domestic religion as being more oriented to the establishment of such a home than the Greek religion: “[If the Greek] mythology personified the forces of nature, this [Roman] mythology personified nature as transformed by the forces of man. It was the god of the corn and not of the grass, of the cattle and not of the wild things of the forest; in short the cult was literally a culture; as when we speak of it as agriculture.”[17]


Chesterton favorably contrasts the pagan cult of household gods with the bourgeois fiction of domestic bliss and equates the rise of industrial capitalism with ‘the end of the household gods’—the de-spiritualization and narrowing of the home. He vigorously rejects the idea that the Victorian Age represented any kind of high point in family unity or domestic respectability; it was in fact a period in which household life had reached an ignoble state, “the Victorians were people who had lost the sense of the sacredness of the home,” they did not “understand the meaning and possibilities of domesticity.”[18] There was no sense of the old pagan sacredness of the household in the Manchester utilitarians or any other Victorian school of thought:


Nineteenth-century England had destroyed the last legends of the fireside, long before twentieth-century England had a chance of feeling the full poetry of the legend. The philistines were the image-breakers; they shattered the household gods and the patron saints. Puritanism combined with Industrialism threw away the Lares and Penates like the disused dolls of a dead infancy and went on to what was counted the Manhood of the Manchester School; with what results we see today.[19] 


And that result was a radically subjective consumerism which devoured the life of the household and could only conceive of property as the endless accumulation of money, and of love as the endless pursuit of the subjective pleasures of sex.[20]


Chesterton thus rejected both the traditional defense of the bourgeois family and the Radical assault upon it: “The generation in revolt fled from a cold hearth and a godless shrine. That is the historical fact that is really hidden by both sides of this controversy.”[21] For Chesterton, however, the revolt against the bleak Victorian household merely took to an extreme the very individualism that had destroyed the household gods in the first place. In the face of the progressive attack on the conventional family, Chesterton had no wish to return to any domestic situation of the past (invariably the first thing which occurs to contemporary ‘liberal’ critics) but to strive for the unfulfilled potentials which he believed were latent in the Christian ideal—free, independent and productive households centered around the mutual love and care of family life yet open through an enriched hospitality to a life of neighborly feeling.


For Chesterton, political radicalism stemmed from the awareness of the sacred dimension of the household, obscured by conservatives and liberals alike. Combined with the old pagan religion of the household “went what seems to many the very opposite spirit: the spirit of revolt.”[22] The recognition of the sacred dimension to the home is directly linked with political radicalism: “There is a real relation between this religion in private and this revolution in public life. . . .  The truth is that only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard or a status to criticise the state. They alone can appeal to something more holy than the gods of the city: the gods of the hearth.”[23] ‘Conservative’ households, in this view, were more likely centers of resistance to state tyranny: “It is precisely those who have been conservative about the family who have been revolutionary about the state.”[24]   Chesterton also understood that to mount a serious defense of the family was to go against the whole trend of the time and would be tantamount to a declaration of war on the entire political establishment of industrial servility (both Left and Right): “If we are to preserve the family we must revolutionise the nation.”[25]


The culmination of the spiritual enrichment of the household for Chesterton comes with Christianity and the Incarnation of the ‘Household God.’[26] Henceforth for Chesterton the human household—upheld by the Guild system and through marriage—takes on a new significance. The centrality of the Incarnation to Chesterton’s thought meant that the labor of the body could no longer be viewed as beneath human dignity as it had been for the ancients, and that such labor would become part of a fully human life. The institution of slavery and not the need to labor for one’s living was what, in this perspective, would be considered shameful. Pursuit of the fully human life, for Chesterton, is not consigned to a specifically public realm as it was for pagan philosophers, it is intimately connected with the life of the household, for the realm of ‘mere life’—of nature and the body—becomes part of the everlasting in the light of the Incarnation—of the Word made flesh—as the eternal intersects with the temporal:


There really was a new reason for regarding the senses, and the sensations of the body, and the experiences of the common man, with a reverence at which great Aristotle would have stared, and no man could have begun to understand. The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a gibbet.  It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs for something more than man. Plato might despise the flesh; but God had not despised it. . . . After the Incarnation had become the idea that is central to our civilisation, it was inevitable that there should be a return to materialism; in the sense of the serious value of matter and the making of the body. When once Christ has risen, it was inevitable that Aristotle should rise again.[27]


The classical republican ideal of a free citizenry, which in the light of Christianity was transfigured so that not just all citizens but all men were free, and with their liberty anchored in marriage and property—that was Chesterton’s vision of ‘distributism’.  Chesterton’s answer to what he believed was the malaise of modernity was, in a sense, a form of ecology. Oikos and Logos—the very term is almost a literal translation of Chesterton’s characterization in The Everlasting Man of the Incarnation as the arrival of the ‘Household God.’ It is a vision informed by a deep sense of the need to ascribe limits to economic processes: “For our very word for God means economy: is not improvidence the opposite of Providence?”[28] While Chesterton did not originate or develop the details of distributism, it was in his numerous books and essays that the ‘outline of sanity’, as he called it, reaches one of its most sublime expressions.



The Outline of Sanity


Distributism was an influential, though never widely accepted, social and political vision of the early decades of the twentieth century, principally associated with Chesterton and his friend and fellow poet-novelist-essayist Hilaire Belloc.[29] According to the distributists, industrial society—whether capitalist or socialist—had deprived the mass of the population of the ownership of property which was now concentrated in the hands of a minority who sought maximum financial gain for themselves. Such a development had thwarted the creation of an independent peasantry and instead brought into being a dependent proletariat—a society of laborers who owned nothing but their own bodies (and as we shall see in Chapter Six, even these were coming to be eyed with eugenic interest by the elites). The aim of distributism was to regain liberty for the mass of the population by introducing widely distributed family-owned private property, establishing a significant class of independent small-scale producers in agriculture and industry.[30] Chesterton therefore rejected socialism because it did not get to the root of the problem, the loss of privately owned property, but instead only offered to make the situation worse. Thus Chesterton remarked in The Outline of Sanity (1926):


A socialist Government is one in which its nature does not tolerate any true and real opposition. For there the government provides everything; and it is absurd to ask a Government to provide an opposition. . . . Opposition and rebellion depend on property and liberty. . . . The critic of the State can only exist where a religious sense of right protects his claims to his own bow and spear; or at least, to his own pen or his own printing-press. It is absurd to suppose that he could borrow the royal pen to advocate regicide or use the Government printing-presses to expose the corruption of the Government. Yet it is the whole point of Socialism, the whole case for Socialism, that unless all printing-presses are Government printing-presses, printers may be oppressed.[31]


It is interesting to note that Chesterton used the same example—the press—to illustrate his preference for privately owned property that, as we saw in the previous chapter, Arendt had used in her 1972 interview. Chesterton also seemed to share Arendt’s sense of frustration with the inability of mainstream political scientists to consider that private property and capitalism are not synonymous or to dispense with the conventional alternative of ‘capitalism or socialism’: “There is apparently something elvish and fantastic about saying that when capital has come to be too much in the hands of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hands of the many.”[32]


At this point it should be remembered that Chesterton was not voicing a right-wing attack on socialism. Chesterton had been a socialist in his own youth and he continued to sympathize with their critiques of capitalism though he could no longer endorse their proposed solutions: “My own sympathies are with the Socialists; in so far as there is something to be said for Socialism, and nothing to be said for Capitalism.”[33] Chesterton rejected socialism because he believed it was an offshoot of capitalism and because socialists uncritically accepted the ideology of industrial ‘progress’, rejected not because it threatened privileged interests for the sake of the masses but quite the contrary—it undermined the freedoms of ordinary people. “I do not object to socialism because it will revolutionise our commerce,” writes Chesterton, “but because it will leave it so horribly the same.”[34] Anticipating Arendt’s assertion that Marx had only taken capitalism to its property-destroying conclusion, Chesterton claimed that “Communism is the only complete and logical working model of Capitalism.”[35] Chesterton, as Arendt herself realized, should not be viewed as a romantic Tory bewailing the spread of democracy and the ‘revolt of the masses’. In fact his critique of society has much more in common with contemporary attacks on the ‘revolt of the elites’.[36] And in stark contrast to many of today’s ‘radicals’, Chesterton’s critique was overwhelmingly directed at the injustices of the powerful and not at the powerless for possessing allegedly ‘outmoded’ and ‘incorrect’ beliefs, practices, or forms of speech.[37]


The philosophical roots of Chesterton’s social vision, I believe, lie in Aristotle’s distinction in The Politics between housekeeping and moneymaking, and the critique of Plato’s call in The Republic for the abandonment of private property and the particular ties of family in the name of a communal ownership of property, wives and children. Chestertonian distributism offered an alternative to either capitalism or socialism based on the defense by Aristotle, later taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas, of private property for common use. That is, the view that private property does not carry unrestricted rights to its use; property is to be privately managed in such a way that it benefits the common good of the community. In this regard Aristotle makes some important distinctions between the proper management of the household for use and the improper management in order to gain unrestricted accumulation of money through the exchange market.


Aristotle distinguishes between the household (oikos) and the city-state (polis) in Book I of The Politics. The household is the “association of persons, established according to nature for the satisfaction of daily needs.”[38] For the satisfaction of more than daily needs, a number of households form into a village. The association of several villages forms the polis. The polis, which is self sufficient, though originally formed to secure life, continues in existence to maintain “the good life.”[39]


Now, a concern of household management, according to Aristotle, is the acquisition of property, for neither life itself nor the good life is possible without a minimum of necessities. However, there are both ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ forms of acquisition. Aristotle’s distinction between proper housekeeping and moneymaking has had, according to John O’Neill, an important and deserved influence on ecological economics.[40] I would add that it also had a major influence on the social thought of Chesterton and the distributists.


Following Aristotle, there is a natural form of property acquisition which belongs to household management (oikonomia). This is the acquisition of goods solely for use; “wealth in the true sense consists of property such as this.” According to Aristotle, “the amount of property of this kind which would give self-sufficiency for a good life is not limitless.”[41] In contrast to this household or ‘economic’ form is the ‘chrematistic’ form of unnatural acquisition. Chematistike occurs through exchange and is concerned with the acquisition of money (not satisfaction of need) which then becomes its own end and hence pursued without limits. By contrast, the accumulation of goods for housekeeping in its proper sense is concerned with the satisfaction of necessity and its end is something external: the pursuit of the good life within the polis.


Aristotle is not against that form of exchange which arises from the situation in which someone holds an excess of certain goods and a deficit in others. This form of exchange is not unnatural and it does not constitute moneymaking. Trade which does however go beyond the needs of self-sufficiency is an unnatural form of exchange and it is a form of acquisition which knows no limits to wealth. Household acquisition is for use, hence limited, but acquisition through exchange seeks to increase riches without limit. Particularly objectionable to Aristotle (as it would be for the medieval Christians) was usury: “Currency was intended to be a means of exchange, whereas interest represents an increase in the currency itself. Hence its name, for each animal produces its like, and interest is currency born of currency. And so of all types of business this is the most contrary to nature.”[42] An economy centered on limitless accumulation is not therefore concerned with the mere satisfaction of need but with the unnatural phenomena of money begetting money as if it were a living reproducing creature. This position was indeed held by Chesterton and the distributists, thus the distributist theorist Arthur J. Penty states that the proper “use of money is as a common measure of value” while the trouble sets in when people “want to use it for the purpose of making more money.”[43] Thus we can see that money used to accumulate money is in the form of begetting, as a natural creature would beget its young. With the human artifice of money taking on the natural mode of endless begetting we have, as Arendt says, ‘the unnatural growth of the natural.’ 


For Chesterton, the replacement of the concept of use by that of exchange is at the root of the contemporary confusion. The whole thrust of modernity had involved the eclipse of an economy centered on use by an economy of exchange: “The truth . . . might be stated in many ways; perhaps the shortest statement of it is in the fable of the man who sold razors, and afterwards explained to an indignant customer, with simple dignity, that he had never said the razors would shave. When asked if razors were not made to shave, he replied that they were made to sell. That is A Short History of Trade and Industry During the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.”[44] This was also the root of the fundamental mistake of “treating a farm not as a farm to feed people, but as a shop from which to sell food.”[45] Thus Chesterton realized that what modern day economists were concerned with was not so much oikonomia as chrematistike: “Ruskin . . . would have told him [Dickens] that the worst thing about the economists was that they were not economists: that they missed many essential things even in economics.”[46] Thus it could be said that the modern capitalist ‘economy’ in Chesterton’s eyes was not a form of house-making but of house-breaking and the marketization of its contents.


The mistaken belief that household acquisition knows no limits stems from a confusion of mere life with eudaimonia, the humanly distinct good which, says Aristotle, consists in virtuous activity of the soul. This confusion of ends and means leads to the accumulation of the ‘goods’ presiding over the pursuit of the ‘Good’.[47] Indeed, the modern business world, according to Chesterton, has confused ends with means. Today’s economy, Chesterton says, no longer refers to anything outside of itself which could serve as a limit; it literally knows no end. Thus the unnatural—chrematistic—means of ministering to the natural life-process becomes elevated as the end of social life: “Trade is all very well in its way, but Trade has been put in the place of Truth. Trade, which is in its nature a secondary or dependent thing, has been treated as a primary and independent thing; as an absolute. The moderns, mad upon mere multiplication, have even made a plural out of what is eternally singular, in the sense of single. They have taken what all ancient philosophers called the Good, and translated it as the Goods.”[48]


In Chesterton’s Christian perspective, what the ancients called ‘the good’ becomes acting in accordance to the will of God, of accepting the contingent condition of creaturehood and hence the responsibilities and limits of being made in the image of God. The elevation of trade to the center of everyday life in a capitalist society has however obscured the possibility of appreciating the intrinsic and inexchangeable good in God’s Creation. Both the land and human labor are reduced to mere commodities which can only be conceptualized in instrumental terms of furthering the process of capital accumulation:


When God looked on created things and saw that they were good, it meant that they were good in themselves and as they stood; but by the modern mercantile idea, God would only have looked at them and seen that they were The Goods. In other words, there would be a label tied to the tree or the hill, as to the hat of the Mad Hatter, with ‘This Style, 10/6.’ All the flowers and birds would be ticketed with their reduced prices; all the creatures would be for sale or all the creatures seeking employment; with all the morning stars making sky-signs together and all the Sons of God shouting for jobs. In other words, these people are incapable of imagining any good except that which comes from bartering something for something else. The idea of a man enjoying a thing in itself, for himself, is inconceivable to them.[49]


Chesterton admits that trade has its place in a human society but it should occupy a subordinate position as it had throughout history prior to the triumph of industrial capitalism.[50] As such, production and consumption are part of the same process and subject to limits. The elevation of the principle of exchange has however severed the connection between production and consumption and initiated a limitless commercial process: “There is a limit to the number of apples a man can eat. But there is no limit to the number of apples he may possibly sell; and he soon becomes a pushing, dexterous and successful Salesman and turns the whole world upside-down.”[51] The commercial society to which this leads is the antithesis of one built on private property for “the actual direct and isolated enjoyment of private property, as distinct from the excitement of exchanging it, is rather rarer than in many simple communities that seem almost communal in their simplicity.”[52]


Alongside his defense of limited housekeeping, Aristotle believes that property should be owned privately but that its use should be made common. This is indeed the position adopted by Chesterton and the distributists and asserted against both individualism and collectivism. Thus in the words of the distributist theorist Penty:


[C]ommon sense suggests the desirability of reviving the Mediaeval attitude towards property, which steers a safe middle course between the impracticable and the undesirable. The Mediaeval economists, who appear to have debated the question of property very thoroughly, finally threw over Plato’s idea of common property and private use in favour of Aristotle’s idea of private property and common use, which they considered more suitable to this workaday world.[53]


Owning property can itself become part of the apparatus for freedom. If managed correctly, property would allow for the exercise of the specifically human characteristic: that we are not merely created beings but ourselves creators. But property needs to be hedged in by a framework of limits; property should not be used in such a way that it infringes upon the property of others with whom we live in common. Chesterton captures this notion of freedom with the recognition of limits in a passage from What’s Wrong with the World (1910) which is worthy of lengthy quotation. We need to recognize that our own creativity is always limited; we ought to aspire to act in the image of God, not to try to be God:


God is that which can make something out of nothing. Man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything. In other words, while the joy of God must be unlimited creation, the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits. Man’s pleasure, therefore, is to possess conditions, but also to be partly possessed by them; to be half-controlled by the flute he plays or by the field he digs. . . . This fruitful strife with limitations, when it concerns some airy entertainment of an educated class, goes by the name of Art. . . . For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed in an idea unpopular in present discussions—the idea of property. . . . Property is merely the art of democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of Heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.[54]


Chesterton also saw the need to preserve the physical boundaries between people in order to maintain their distinctive personalities: “A man with the true poetry of possession wishes to see the wall where his garden meets Smith’s garden; the hedge where his farm touches Brown’s.  He cannot see the shape of his own land unless he sees the edges of his neighbour’s.”[55] Thus the recognition of limits, of the presence of others, is the pre-requisite for the development of an individual’s own personality. Large-scale landowners and capitalists were commonly assumed to epitomize the principle of private property, but this is not so according to Chesterton: “It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.”[56] Indeed, as we shall see later, Chesterton felt that both marriage and privately owned property were being undermined by a process of capitalist commodification which would reduce enduring love and stable property into an inhuman and limitless pursuit of sterile sex and wealth.


Central to the distributist vision of a society marked by widespread ownership of small-scale and well-defined private property was a concern to reassert the economic principles of the mediaeval Guild system in order to impose limits on the use of property such that its use was directed to the common good and not to amassing a personal fortune. In the ideal of the mediaeval Guild, Chesterton found the principle which could provide “a human alternative to the individualistic muddle of Manchester and the insane centralisation of Moscow.”[57] The historical reality of the Guild showed that economic life could be organized around principles very different to those which had come to dominate in the world of industrial capitalism. The Guilds were attractive to Chesterton because, having emerged spontaneously from the people themselves rather than being imposed from above, they represented the democratic ideal of Christendom: “They rose in the streets like a silent rebellion; like a still and statuesque riot. In modern constitutional countries there are practically no political institutions thus given by the people; all are received by the people. There is only one thing that stands in our midst, attenuated and threatened, but enthroned in some power like a ghost of the Middle Ages: The Trades Unions.”[58]


The Guilds regulated commercial competition in order to ensure the survival of its members as equal and independent producers, set just prices for the consumer and maintained high standards of craftsmanship. Productive property was hedged in by a framework of limits to ensure it served the common good. Remarking on the figures of the Dyer and the Doctor in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Chesterton noted that the latter still exists for us as a recognizable character whereas the Dyer does not. The reason for this, says Chesterton, is that Doctors but not Dyers are still organized on the idea of the Guild:


In the modern doctor we can see and study the medieval idea. We shall not, even if we are medievalists, think it an infallible or impeccable idea. The Guild is capable of pedantry; it is sometimes capable of tyranny. The British Medical Council, which is the council of a Guild, sometimes condemns men harshly for very pardonable breaches of professional law; it sometimes excludes outsiders from membership who might well have been members. But it does what a Guild was supposed to do. It keeps the doctors going; it keeps the doctors alive; and it does prevent one popular quack from eating all of his brethren out of house and home. It sets limits to competition; it prevents the growth of monopoly. It does not allow a fashionable physician in Harley Street to destroy the livelihood of four general practitioners in Hoxton.[59]


The Dyer, by contrast, has not had his independence—and thus his distinct personality—preserved by the Guild idea but has become a mere functionary in an abstract system of commercial enterprise: “The Dyer has totally disappeared; his hand is not subdued to what it works in, but his whole body and soul dissolved in his own dye-vat. He has become a liquid; a flowing stream of tendency; an impersonal element in the economics of the dye-works. He is not a Master-Dyer; he is at most a Master of Dyes.  But in plain truth, he is not really a master, but only a paymaster.”[60]



The Unreal World of Business


With the intrusion of the logic of market exchange into almost every aspect of social life it has become a commonplace today to speak of business activity as the ‘real world’.[61] Furthermore, those who do not take part in this universal process of capital accumulation are eyed with suspicion—they do not, as the saying goes, ‘live in the real world’. For Chesterton, however, the society dominated by capitalist economics had a fictitious and unreal quality; whatever it was, it was certainly not the ‘real world’—‘The Thing’. 


As we saw in Chapter Two, Chesterton believed that accepting a framework of limits was a key to perceiving the objectivity of reality. Now, a commercial society which had turned away from limited production for use and had instead instituted unlimited accumulation through exchange was not going to be one which was marked by a firm sense of reality. Chesterton believed that the modern mind had a tendency for “inhabiting an imaginary world almost without knowing it; of moving in a sort of dream amid the assumptions of a land of unreason.”[62] 


As was mentioned earlier, Chesterton believed that the Incarnation of Christ had given a new significance to material things. In contrast to many modern ecological writers who often decry ‘materialism,’ Chesterton believed that the problem with modern society was not so much materialism as the abstraction from material life which represented the antithesis of the Incarnation: “Man subduing matter is rightly regarded as a man asserting himself as a man. But man dealing in modern commerce is not man subduing matter. He is, on the contrary, a man more analogous to a mathematician or an astronomer, in that he is dealing with things that are generally abstract and almost invariably remote.”[63]


Indeed for Chesterton the commercial world is one marked by “the ghastly abstractions and wild unrealities of speculation and finance.”[64] In the perspective of the commercial elites, the world becomes a mere reflection of their own phantasies and desires: “The business men live in a world of notions; they live in a world of fictions; they live in a world of dreams.”[65] The life rooted in the enduring ties of family and the solidity of property, by contrast, is one that is rooted in the distinction between reality and phantasy. The stock-broker is a nominalist but the farmer is a realist who knows that his own subjective feelings do not create the world: “Distributism is not a dream. It is a project, which may or may not be found practicable by particular people at a particular time. But when it is established, its fundamental facts, like the land or the family, are not affected by what other people say about them. They do not vanish as the result of a rumour or roll away like clouds because somebody releases the rigid strain of being optimistic about them.”[66]


Thus Chesterton praised William Cobbett for grasping the unreal and abstract nature of modern commerce in which money is no longer a mere means of exchange which refers to real, tangible objects:


He would have been as ready as any merchant or trader to face the fact that man, as God has made him, must make money. But he had a vivid sense that the money must be as solid and honest as the corn and fruit for which it stood, that it must be closely in touch with the realities it represented; and he waged a furious war on all those indirect and sometimes imaginary processes of debt and shares and promises and percentages which make the world of wealth today at the worst unreal and at the best unseen.[67]


Cobbett is a distributist folk-hero for Chesterton because, whilst his contemporaries were prepared to believe in the wildest of ideologies and disbelieve in what was actually visible to their sight, he trusted in what his senses revealed to him. For Chesterton, such a grasp of phenomenal reality was rare in an age which seemed to have lifted a veil between reality and human eyes. What Cobbett had seen represented Chesterton’s own perception of England in the early decades of the twentieth century:


What he saw was the perishing of the whole English power of self-support, the growth of cities that drain and dry up the countryside, the growth of dense dependent populations incapable of finding their own food, the toppling triumph of machines over men, the sprawling omnipotence of financiers over patriots, the herding of humanity in nomadic masses whose very homes are homeless, the terrible necessity of peace and the terrible probability of war, all the loading up of our little island like a sinking ship; the wealth that may mean famine and the culture that may mean despair; the bread of Midas and the sword of Damocles. In a word, he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there. And some cannot see it—even when it is there.[68]


Thus we can see that Chesterton’s distributist vision, concerned as it was with imposing limits to economic processes, is intimately linked with the recovery of wonder and the perception of the existence of a reality independent of our own subjective moods. By contrast, a society dominated by the principle of exchange was not one conducive to the experience of wonder and the perception of reality. Thus Michael Moon exclaims to Rosamund Hunt in Chesterton’s novel Manalive (1912): “Leave off buying and selling, and start looking ! Open your eyes, and you’ll wake up in the New Jerusalem.”[69] Waking up to the reality of Europe in the 1930s was, however, more likely to produce horror and not wonder. In one of his last Christmas articles for G. K.’s Weekly Chesterton sees that Christendom is in a very real crisis; Hitler who is consolidating his power and threatening war represents the forces of a barbaric reaction which threatens to turn the world back “to the old formlessness.”[70] We need to cut through the abstract jargon of social scientists and other ‘mystagogues’, says Chesterton and speak plainly of what this and the other horrors represent if we are to rise against them:


If we really wish to make vivid the horrors of destruction and mere disciplined murder, we must see them more simply as attacks on the hearth and the human family; and feel about Hitler as men felt about Herod. If we want to talk about poverty, we must talk about it as the hunger of a human being, a pain as positive as toothache; and not as the fall in wages or the failure in imports, or even the lowering of the economic standard of living. We must say first of the beggar, not that there is insufficient housing accommodation, but that he has nowhere to lay his head. We must say first of the human family, not that there are no jobs for them in the factory, but that there is no room for them at the inn. That is, we must talk of the human family in language as plain and practical and positive as that in which mystics used to talk of the Holy Family. We must learn again to use the naked words that describe a natural thing; and dispense for a moment with all those sociological polysyllables, with which an artificial society has learned to talk of it as an artificial thing. Then we shall draw on the driving force of many thousand years; and call up a real humanitarianism out of the depths of humanity.[71]


Note that plain-speaking draws on the Christian heritage of the West as it would have been known to countless generations. Chesterton understood religion to be a popular and corporate entity, an objective thing which people could share in common and not a subjective collection of moods and feelings. Catholic Christianity was an “objective religion” which held together the various types of pilgrim in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to a common purpose. Medieval Christendom for Chesterton was, to borrow Arendt’s phrase, a ‘common world’ which united a plurality of people. Modernity, however, tended towards a herding together of solitary and indistinguishable individuals:


There are many modern forces, commercial or scientific, tending to make men look or talk the same. But the Clerk and the Miller did not look and talk the same. They had nothing in common but their purpose; but they had a purpose. It is very puzzling to look at the real society around us at this moment, and consider whether it has a purpose. For the present at least, there is no Canterbury in sight for the Canterbury Pilgrims. The coloured cavalcade is halted somewhere in the suburbs, and suffering the bewilderment dating from that day, when sectarians and journalists and jerry-builders between them decided that every man should live in the same villa and everyman in a different universe.[72]


Chesterton vision of distributism also embodied an emphasis on difference. Thus the cure for the modern world “lies in distribution and even in differentiation; and not in mixing up everything together in one great mess.”[73] Chesterton hoped that his social vision would avoid the monomania inscribed into both present day society and the alternatives offered by the ‘progressives’: “In my modern state there would be some things nationalised, some machines owned corporately, some guilds sharing common profits . . . as well as many absolute individual owners, where such individual owners are most possible.”[74]



Unnatural Economy


Tracing the roots of Chesterton’s critique of society to Aristotle illustrates that with the rise of capitalism economic activity adopts the form which Aristotle had called unnatural, that is, concerned with the unlimited accumulation of wealth. We have lost housekeeping in the proper sense of the concern with the production of that which is necessary or useful as the dominant ethos of economic life. Chesterton hoped that those privately owned forms of oikonomia which had survived could be preserved and that this sector of the economy could be expanded so as to exert a conservative influence on the State which had turned its back on the past and embarked on a path of unreflective and constant transformation. As Chesterton well knew, there was nothing conservative about conservatives who wished to preserve a status quo of permanent revolution in everyday life.      


Chesterton believed that a society built around the accumulation of wealth through exchange rather than the management of stable property would be inherently unstable and lacking in durability: “since Price is a crazy and incalculable thing, while Value is an intrinsic and indestructible thing, they have swept us into a society which is no longer solid but fluid, as unfathomable as a sea and as treacherous as a quicksand.”[75] For Chesterton, transforming the principle of exchange from the exception to the rule has had the disastrous consequence of unleashing a drive for unlimited accumulation of wealth and which created a fatalistic condition in which humanity became “chained eternally to enlargement without liberty and progress without hope.”[76] This point is often made by Chesterton in relation to ‘eastern’ notions of fate and of never rebelling against nature, such that he will talk of “the principle of the Crescent: the principle of perpetual growth towards an implied and infinite perfection.”[77] Like Arendt, Chesterton views the expanding capitalist economy modeled on exchange as an unnatural growth denying any limits and devouring the stable human world. Chesterton emphasizes the importance of boundary walls as an expression of limits but can see that modernity has eroded these artifices. Hence Chesterton’s reflections on the West as he approached Jerusalem for the first time:


[T]he suburbs which grow round our great industrial towns . . . grow, as it were, unconsciously and blindly, like grass that covers up a boundary line traced on the earth. This indefinite expansion is controlled neither by the soul of the city from within, nor by the resistance of the lands from round about. It destroys at once the dignity of a town and the freedom of a countryside; yet they never learn what there is to be learnt from the ancient traditions of agriculture. The first sight of the sharp outline of Jerusalem is like a memory of the older types of limitation and liberty. Happy is the city that has a wall; and happier still if it is a precipice.[78]


Indefinite industrial-commercial expansion against limitation erodes both the human home of the city and its boundaries together with the natural environment  against which it stands, while destroying the agriculture which mediates between the two. Like Arendt, the trouble with the modern city according to Chesterton is not that it is artificial but all too ‘natural’: “The modern city is ugly not because it is a city, but because it is not enough of a city, because it is a jungle, because it is confused and anarchic, and surging with selfish and materialistic energies.  In short, the modern town is offensive because it is a great deal too like nature; a great deal too like the country.”[79]


But, says Chesterton, it is not natural for humans to be natural, we can only be natural by being artificial.[80] And in the condition of the modern secular world, “Nature herself has become unnatural.”[81] Thus the state of modernity in Chesterton’s eyes is very much captured through Arendt’s phrase referring to the ‘unnatural growth of the natural’. To Chesterton, to preserve the natural we must rebel against nature and impose limits and boundaries. Remove those and what is left is not natural but unnatural—the perversion of economic and sexual drives into modes of limitless subjectivism. For “take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.”[82]


Chesterton believes that the condition of the modern world is comparable to the end of the pagan civilization in which humanity had become “unnatural by worshipping nature.”[83] For nature worship degenerates into eroticism and perversion and this Chesterton associates with the post-Renaissance world in which both dimensions of the natural life process are pursued without limit: “After the Renaissance, the Pagans went in for unlimited lust and the Puritans for unlimited avarice; on the excuse that at least neither of them was being guilty of sloth.”[84] In Chapter Six we shall see that for Chesterton the awakening out of the present dream-world will require a lengthy purification of the perversions which humans have projected into nature.


What is interesting about Chesterton is that he considers both the economic and sexual dimensions of the life process in terms of this unnatural growth—or perversion—of natural existence. Chesterton regards the transformation of love into the limitless pursuit of sexual fulfillment as as much of a perversion as the transformation of property into the making of money. That is, outside of any teleological framework, both sides of the life process would be liberated from the limits of the household and that while natural existence would indeed become the exaggerated focus of modernity it would be natural existence in an unnatural or perverse form. Chesterton intimated that the break-up of the household inaugurated by the capitalist transformation of stable property into fluid wealth would be consummated by a sexual revolution. Thus he declared on the pages of G. K.’s Weekly in 1926, “the next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality. . . . I say the man who cannot see this cannot see the signs of the times.”[85]


Inherent to Chesterton’s defense of limited property was a defense of the family and the institution of marriage.  Chesterton believed he knew exactly why modern day theorists failed to come to the defense of the family:


Everywhere, all over the world, the farm goes with the family and the family with the farm. Unless the whole domestic group hold together with a sort of loyalty or local patriotism, unless the inheritance of property is logical and legitimate, unless the family quarrels are kept out of the courts of officialism, the tradition of family ownership cannot be handed on unimpaired. On the other hand, the Servile State, which is the opposite of the distributive state, has always been rather embarrassed by the institution of marriage.[86]


And if any one should think this link between servility and the erosion of marriage is mere speculation, Chesterton asks his readers to recall that one of the chief criticisms of American slavery was that it destroyed slave families. Modern day opponents of freedom, according to Chesterton, know exactly what they are doing; the granting of sexual license is the strongest form of bribery to ease into being the total loss of independence and a new form of slavery.[87]


The family, for Chesterton, is a non-political institution which should possess a fundamental independence from public interference, but that does not mean that it has no political effect. The non-political family is the champion of the ideal of liberty for it is an institution “that is at once necessary and voluntary.”[88] Chesterton views Christian marriage as the transfiguration of sexual life and the achievement of freedom through self-limitation. For Chesterton, marriage is the means by which men and women come to terms with one another and is emphatically not a contract. Contract is based on self-interest and is thus easily terminated for the sake of the same self-interest: “Force can abolish what force can establish; self-interest can terminate a contract when self-interest has dictated the contract. But the love of man and women is not an institution that can be abolished, or a contract that can be terminated. It is something older than all institutions or contracts, and certain to outlast them all.”[89] Chesterton believed that marriage was not to be entered into for reasons of self-interest and neither could it be easily dissolved like a contract for marriage is a sacrament which overcame the subjectivity and self-interest of short-term gain.


The Christian understanding of marriage, however, has been under ideological attack and there has been a deliberate attempt to break up families into their component individuals in order to better serve the economic interests of a commercial system. Christendom was broken up by the spread of cynicism and self-interest which followed “the era of contract.”[90] “Marriage not only became less of a sacrament but less of a sanctity. It threatened to become not only a contract, but a contract that could not be kept.”[91] As the era of contract had destroyed the Guild it was now threatening the future of marriage. The vow is the antithesis of servility, little wonder then, says Chesterton, that the “captains of industry” are attempting to undermine it in the context of marriage: 


Marriage makes a small state within the state, which resists all such regimentation. That bond breaks all other bonds; that law is found stronger than all later and lesser laws. They desire the democracy to be sexually fluid, because the making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations. Like small nations, they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope. In short, what they fear, in the most literal sense, is home rule.[92]


And Chesterton makes it absolutely clear what he believes has undermined the private family realm:


[W]hat has broken up households, and encouraged divorces, and treated the old domestic virtues with more and more open contempt, is the epoch and power of Capitalism. It is Capitalism that has forced a moral feud and a commercial competition between the sexes; that has destroyed the influence of the parent in favour of the influence of the employer; that has driven men from their homes to look for jobs; that has forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families; and, above all, that has encouraged, for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers.[93]


Chesterton realized that the supposedly ‘radical’ sexual libertarians were in fact proposing little more than the mirror image of the business contract in the realm of the family. If the capitalists were busy breaking up families, the socialists appeared all too eager to provide ideological legitimation for this process. Chesterton illustrated his belief that both the Left and Right are two sides of a mistaken attitude towards the family through his characters of Hudge and Gudge:


Gudge, the plutocrat, wants an anarchic industrialism; Hudge, the idealist, provides him with lyric praises of anarchy. Gudge wants women-workers because they are cheaper; Hudge calls the woman’s work ‘freedom to live her own life.’ . . . Above all, Gudge rules by a course and cruel system of sacking and sweating and bi-sexual toil which is totally inconsistent with the free family and which is bound to destroy it; therefore Hudge, stretching out his arms to the universe with a prophetic smile, tells us that the family is something that we shall soon gloriously outgrow.[94]


The collectivization of property which is the culmination of unlimited exchange also has a parallel in sexual life. Chesterton even speculates that just as free-market individualism led to a propertyless proletariat and the concentration of property into fewer and fewer hands so too may sexual individualism lead to a nation of bachelors and the concentration of wives into the harems of a minority of handsome and rich men![95] Admittedly, this is a reductio ad absurdum used to illustrate the madness of unimpeded exchange. The harem is symbolic of what Chesterton sees as the ‘eastern’ engulfment of individual personality into the collective soul and brings to mind fatalistic concepts of eternal recurrence in nature. We may not actually embrace polygamy in the form of the harem, but we are well on the way to the polygamy of what is now called ‘serial monogamy’, what Chesterton would have recognized as ‘Companionate Marriage’ “so called,” he says, “because the people involved are not married and will very rapidly cease to be companions.”[96] What was most important in Chesterton’s mind was that this flight from the forming of enduring bonds of love represented a retreat into indifference. It represented a flight from the living out of a distinctly human life which could be understood in terms of a story into the formless patterns of behavior.


We noted in the previous chapter that Arendt believed that modern life was becoming more typified by predictable patterns of behavior—measurable by social scientists—rather than retrospective narratives of human lives. The rite of Marriage, in Chesterton’s account, can be seen to be in the mode of action rather than behavior; it involves the leaving of the household into which one was born and the setting in motion of a story of one’s own, the unpredictability of which is kept in check by the power of promise and forgiveness expressed in the Christian marriage vow. The wedding ceremony is a public action which takes us out of mere repetition for it represents a definite choice of spouse and the assertion that one way is better than another. Thus for Chesterton all action is a self-limitation, the choice of one marriage partner is the giving up of all others. By contrast, the mood of our time is driven by “bottomless ambition and . . . unnatural hunger.”[97] The replacement of marriage by easily revocable contracts of self-interest, in Chesterton’s account, thus corresponds more to predictable patterns of behavior, endlessly repeatable, with neither promise of endurance nor consequence. Their orientation is now the society of market-contract centered on exchange and indifference and not the world transfigured in the light of the eternal and thus embodying the promise of permanence. The endless process of exchange represents the failure to make a choice and to stand by that decision. 


For Chesterton, ‘liberated’ sexuality avoids the act of a definite choice and represents the intrusion of modes of ‘behavior’ into private life concomitant to the rise of a society organized around contract. To find ourselves within limits is for Chesterton the essence of a dramatic view of life and “[o]f all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important.”[98] The family, being based on definable limits is therefore the location for the taking place of a story. Christian marriage, according to Chesterton, is essential for this story because of its vow of endurance. Chesterton saw that marriage could not be based on subjective whim or caprice:


[Y]ou cannot make any enduring literature out of love conscious that it will not endure.  Even if this mutability were workable as morality, it would still be unworkable as art. . . . If ever monogamy is abandoned in practice, it will linger in legend and in literature. When society is haunted by the butterfly flitting from flower to flower, poetry will still be describing the desire of the moth for the star. Literature must always revolve around loyalties; for a rudimentary psychological reason, which is simply the nature of narrative. You cannot tell a story without the idea of pursuing a purpose and sticking to a point. You cannot tell a story without the idea of the Quest, the idea of the Vow; even if it be only the idea of the wager.[99]


Progressive advocates of “free love”, by contrast, are seen by Chesterton as expressing “the special psychology of leisure and luxury that falsifies life.” No longer is sexual life integrated into a coherent story stretching across time, it becomes instead a disconnected “string of episodes.”[100] Polygamy—as serial monogamy—is inherently dull for it offers no ground for a story:


When a man looks forward to a number of wives as he does to a number of cigarettes, you can no more make a book out of them than out of the bills from his tobacconist. Anything having the character of a Turkish harem has also something of the character of a Turkey carpet. It is not a portrait, or even a picture, but a pattern. We may at the moment be looking at one highly coloured and flamboyant figure in the carpet; but we know that on every side, in front as well as behind, the image is repeated without purpose and without finality.[101]


The ultimate value of marriage, according to Chesterton, is the survival of the human race; it is the appropriate site for procreation. The enduring tie of marriage makes this task distinctively human: “The more human, that is the less bestial, is the child, the more lawful and lasting are the ties. So far from any progress in culture or the sciences tending to loosen the bond, any such progress must logically tend to tighten it.”[102] Sexuality liberated from procreation was also a sign of the eclipse of the sense of newness brought into the world by the birth of a child—of what Arendt had termed ‘natality’:


[A] child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. . . . People who prefer the mechanical pleasures, to such a miracle, are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the very dregs of life to the first fountains of life. They are preferring the last, crooked, indirect, borrowed, repeated and exhausted things of our dying Capitalist civilisation, to the reality which is the only rejuvenation of all civilisation. It is they who are hugging the chains of their old slavery; it is the child who is ready for the new world.[103]


Chesterton believed that sexuality was also coming to be celebrated as an end in itself and no longer took its point of orientation from something external. Marriage, Chesterton felt, which had previously been concerned primarily with the begetting of children, and thus concerned with the passing on of human culture, was becoming re-modeled on the basis of satisfying purely subjective pleasures. Chesterton saw clearly that the fate of money, now viewed not as a mere means of exchange but as an end in itself, had its parallel in sexual life:


[The] unnatural separation, between sex and fruitfulness, which even the Pagans would have thought a perversion, has been accompanied with a similar separation and perversion about the nature of the love of the land. In both departments there is precisely the same fallacy; which it is quite possible to state precisely. The reason why our contemporary countrymen do not understand what we mean by Property is that they only think of it in the sense of Money; in the sense of salary; in the sense of something which is immediately consumed, enjoyed and expended; something which gives momentary pleasure and disappears. They do not understand that we mean by Property something that includes that pleasure incidentally; but begins and ends with something far more grand and worthy and creative.[104]


Thus Chesterton saw that the root of the modern problem was an extreme solipsism which could only perceive happiness in terms of the subjective pleasures of consumerism and not as a concomitant to the enactment of the gratitude for the gift of life. Consumerist subjectivism was the antithesis of true freedom: “The notion of narrowing property merely to enjoying money is exactly like the notion of narrowing love to merely enjoying sex. In both cases an incidental, isolated, servile and even secretive pleasure is substituted for participation in a great creative process; even in the everlasting Creation of the world.”[105] In Aristotelian terms, this has mistaken a secondary good—pleasure—as the primary and distinctly human good.


This centering of sex upon the self through the isolated pursuit of pleasure was for Chesterton a hallmark of capitalism’s tendency towards the re-institution of slavery. Under the sign of the free market, sexuality and property lose their power for forming and maintaining productive households and become mere modes of servility. The citizen was now being reduced to the level of a solitary consumer with no relation to God or neighbor. Marriage as a sacrament embodying the “hope of permanence,” as it was “mixed with immortality,”[106] was giving way to the flight from constancy and the direct pursuit of fleeting sexual encounters which held no promise of permanence:


Sex is also to come to the slave merely as a pleasure; that it may never be a power. He is to know as little as possible, or at least to think as little as possible, of the pleasure as anything else except a pleasure; to think or know nothing of where it comes from or where it will go to, when once the soiled object has passed through his hand. He is not to trouble about its origin in the purposes of God or its sequel in the posterity of man.[107]


Thus the commercial world centered on exchange had turned away from the vision of the Incarnation. In relation to both sex and property the citizen has become a mere consumer: “he is to have no notion of the sort of Burning Bush that burns and is not consumed. For that bush only grows on the real soil, on the real land where human beings can behold it; and the spot on which they stand is holy ground.”[108] Chesterton believed that the liberation of the life process from its limits in the household was the antithesis of the Incarnation. It was not a breathing of life into things but their sentence of death: “The world has forgotten simultaneously that the making of a Farm is something much larger than the making of a profit . . . and that the founding of a Family is something much larger than sex in the limited sense of current literature; which was anticipated in one bleak and blinding flash in a single line of George Meredith; ‘And eat our pot of honey on the grave.’”[109]


It has been the purpose of this chapter to outline Chesterton’s ‘distributist’ vision in which privately owned productive property and the traditional family offer the best foundation for a humanly dignified society. The family, rooted in its own productive property, was for Chesterton the best and only realistic institutional framework for the inculcation of the moral sense of limits necessary to counter the temptations to pride and hubris manifest in the grandiose phantasies of the elites of industrial capitalist society. I hope to have shown that for Chesterton the household had previously provided the context which—however imperfectly it may have been in practice—gave the two elements of the life process their worldly character, by which I mean that they are informed by a sense of permanence. As housekeeping and marriage, mere biological existence becomes transfigured to serve the durability of the world.


With the collapse of the household however, property and sexuality have lost these worldly dimensions and spiraled off as unlimited desire for personal wealth and sexual fulfillment. The removal of the economic life from Guild regulation as been complemented in our own age by the removal of the sexual instinct from the sacramental context of marriage. As Chesterton so prophetically saw, free-market economy has now been combined with free-market sexuality.[110] Short term contract culture now reverberates through all aspects of life. Such a transformation represents the potential culmination of the ‘liberation of the life process’ which Arendt so powerfully criticized in terms of one of its dimensions. Natural processes are indeed the focus of today’s society, but without a framework of limits they become unnatural, perverted, and destructive of long-term commitment. And just as Arendt’s liberation of the economic life process leads to a focus on ‘behavior’ rather than freely initiated actions, so to for Chesterton with the liberation of the sexual life process from the bonds of marriage, the beginning of something new, kept in check by the power of promise and forgiveness, is eclipsed by a string of meaningless encounters.


Chesterton’s own hope was that through the widespread practice of small-scale agriculture, the small workshop, or family-owned business, people would regain the productive household together with the experience of joy in life and the power to resist tyranny. At the root of the endurance needed for such an adventure would be the liberating power of the marriage vow—for just as in the Incarnation “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,”[111] so too can humans act in the image of God through the giving of their own word. Against the short-term contracts of self-interest promoted by the Right in terms of property, and by the Left in terms of family, Chesterton hoped that in the light of the Incarnation the intersection of the eternal and the temporal would find reflection in the forming of enduring bonds of mutual care and recognition through Christian marriage and neighborliness.  



[1] See John Barry, Rethinking Green Politics: Nature, Virtue and Progress (London/Thousand Oaks/New Delhi: Sage, 1999).

[2] See G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Man who Thinks Backwards,’ A Miscellany of Men (London: Methuen and Co., 1930 [1912]), p.21: “He is wise . . . who remembers the roots of things.”

[3] See for example G. K. Chesterton, Robert Browning (London: Macmillan and Co., 1911 [1903]), p. 99.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920), pp. 5-6.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] Ibid., p. 8. On the conflict between the ideal of democracy and the inhumanity of industrial capitalism see G. K. Chesterton, ‘On Industrialism,’ All I Survey: A Book of Essays (London: Methuen and Co., 1934 [1933]), pp. 115-9.

[8] Chesterton, New Jerusalem, p. 11.

[9] Ibid., p. 13.

[10] G. K. Chesterton, ‘On the Bad Word for Guild,’ All Is Grist: A Book of Essays (London: Methuen and Co., 1931), pp. 186-7. For a shrewd understanding of how accusations of romanticizing the ‘good old days’ serves as means of avoiding criticism of today’s society see G. K. Chesterton, ‘On Journalistic Philosophy,’ All I Survey, pp. 110-4.

[11] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Why Protestants Prohibit,’ The Well and the Shallows (London: Sheed and Ward, 1937 [1935]), p. 265.

[12] Chesterton, New Jerusalem, p. 205.

[13] As quoted in Stephen R. L. Clark, ‘How Chesterton Read History,’ Inquiry Vol. 39 Nos. 3/4 (December, 1996), p. 350.

[14] Ibid.

[15] R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972 [1926]), p. 279.

[16] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947 [1925]), p. 166.

[17] Ibid., p. 166. Compare Hannah Arendt, ‘The Crisis in Culture [1960],’ Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1993 [1968]), pp. 212-3.

[18] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The True Victorian Hypocrisy,’ Sidelights on New London and Newer York (London: Sheed and Ward, 1932), p. 69. Chesterton’s personal experience of the Victorian household was quite different from this description. See G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1937 [1936]), pp. 9-30.

[19] Ibid., p. 72.

[20] See G. K. Chesterton, ‘Sex and Property,’ The Well and the Shallows, pp. 232-6.

[21] Chesterton, ‘The True Victorian Hypocrisy,’ p. 72.

[22] Chesterton, Everlasting Man, p. 166.

[23] Ibid., p. 167.

[24] G. K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (London: Chatto and Windus, 1920), p. 39.

[25] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (London: Cassell and Co., 1912 [1910]), p.275.

[26] Chesterton, Everlasting Man, p. 203.

[27] G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1933), p. 138-9.

[28] G. K. Chesterton, ‘A Sermon on Cheapness [1902],’ The Apostle and The Wild Ducks and other essays, edited by Dorothy Collins (London: Paul Elek, 1975), p. 4.

[29] An historical treatment of the distributist movement can be found in Jay P. Corrin, G. K. Chesterton & Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981). In general accounts of twentieth century British political thought distributism is almost always ignored. For an exception to this rule see Rodney Barker, Political Ideas in Modern Britain (London: Methuen and Co., 1978), pp. 84-91. In America distributism was propounded by the Catholic Worker Movement centered around Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin who were themselves greatly influenced by Chesterton and Belloc.  See Geoffrey Gneuhs, ‘A Message to the New Right: Peter Maurin and the Distributists,’ The Chesterton Review Vol. IX No. 4 (November, 1983), pp. 339-47.

[30] This is outlined in Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State  (London: Constable, 1927 [1912]) and G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity (London: Methuen and Co., 1926). On Chesterton’s political views in general, see Margaret Canovan, G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).

[31] Chesterton, Outline of Sanity, pp. 15-16.

[32] Ibid., p. 11

[33] Chesterton, New Jerusalem, p. 6.

[34] Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, p. 293.

[35] Chesterton, ‘Sex and Property,’ pp. 234-5.

[36] I borrow these phrases from Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995).

[37] Chesterton was engaged in a constant battle against the affluent and educated advocates of what is now termed ‘political correctness.’ See for example his ‘On The New Prudery,’ and ‘On The Touchy Realist,’ both in G. K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen and Co., 1934), pp. 31-6; pp.170-5.

[38] Aristotle, The Politics (London: Penguin, 1992), Book I, Ch. ii  (125a34), p. 58.

[39] Ibid., (1252b27), p. 59.

[40] John O’Neill, Ecology, Policy and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 189-69. My account of Aristotle’s economics in this section is greatly indebted to O’Neill’s book, especially chapter 10, ‘Market, Household and Politics,’ pp. 168-81.

[41] Aristotle, Politics, Book I Ch. viii (1256b26), p. 79.

[42] Ibid., Book I Ch. x (1258a19), p.87.

[43] Arthur J. Penty, Post-Industrialism (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1922), pp. 75; 74.

[44] Chesterton, ‘Reflections On A Rotten Apple,’ The Well and The Shallows, p. 223.

[45] Chesterton, Sidelights on New London, p. 113.

[46] G. K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1913 [1912]), p. 84.

[47] See Aristotle, Politics, Book I Ch. ix (1257b40), p. 85.

[48] Chesterton, ‘Reflections On A Rotten Apple,’ p. 225

[49] Ibid., pp. 225-6.

[50] See the discussion of this issue in Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).

[51] Chesterton, ‘Reflections On A Rotten Apple,’ p. 229.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Arthur J. Penty, Old Worlds for New: A Study of the Post-Industrial State (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1917), p. 171. See also Eric Gill, Work & Property  (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1937), p. 109:  “We demand private ownership of the means of production for the sake of the public use of things made.  The private ownership is not demanded on the selfish ground of private enjoyment, but for the sake of the good things to be made and in order that the public use which morality demands may be a use of good things.”

[54] Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, pp. 46-8

[55] Ibid., p. 48.

[56] Ibid.

[57] G. K. Chesterton, The Resurrection of Rome (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930), p. 119.

[58] G. K. Chesterton, A Short History of England (London: Chatto and Windus, 1917), p.

[59] G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (London: Faber and Faber, 1934 [1932], p. 73.

[60] Ibid., p. 72.

[61] As Arendt says, every activity which is not centered on gaining a living is considered a mere playful ‘hobby’. See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989 [1959]), pp. 126-8.

[62] Chesterton, Sidelights on New London, p. 144.

[63] Ibid., p. 116.

[64] Ibid., p. 117

[65] Ibid., p. 121.

[66] Ibid., p. 123. For a very similar assessment of today’s elite and its abstraction from the material side of life see Lasch, The Revolt of The Elites, p. 20.

[67] G. K. Chesterton, William Cobbett (London: Hodder and Stoughton, n.d. [1925]), p. 33.

[68] Ibid., p. 14?

[69] G. K. Chesterton, Manalive (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1947 [1912]), p. 44.

[70] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The History of Christmas [1935/6],’ The Chesterton Review Vol. IX No. 4 (November, 1983), p. 301.

[71] Ibid.,  pp. 301-2.

[72] Chesterton, Chaucer, pp. 183-4.

[73] Chesterton, Sidelights on New London, p. 28.

[74] Chesterton, Outline of Sanity, p. 108.

[75] Chesterton, ‘Reflections On A Rotten Apple,’ p. 230.

[76] Chesterton, Outline of Sanity, p. 19.

[77] G. K. Chesterton, The Flying Inn (London: Methuen and Co., 1927 [1914]), p. 113.

[78] Chesterton, New Jerusalem, pp. 47-8.

[79] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Way to the Stars [1905],’ Lunacy and Letters, edited by Dorothy Collins (London & New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958), p. 78.

[80] Chesterton, Everlasting Man, p. 40; Sidelights on New London; p. 39.

[81] Chesterton, New Jerusalem, p. 34.

[82] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Christmas and the Æsthetes,’ Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1928 [1905]), p. 94.

[83] Chesterton, Everlasting Man, p. 180.

[84] Chesterton, Chaucer, p. 223. One of Chesterton’s earliest and most powerful essays was directed against the sins of the Renaissance, and by implication, against modern society as a society of pleasure-seeking which had grown sick of pleasure. See G. K. Chesterton, ‘Savonarola,’ Twelve Types (London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1902), pp. 167-178.

[85] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Sky Signs [1926],’ The Man Who was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. Chesterton, arranged and introduced by A. L. Maycock (London: Dennis Dobson, 1963), p. 123.

[86] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Sentimentalism of Divorce,’ Fancies Versus Fads (London: Methuen and Co., 1930 [1923]), pp. 127-8.

[87] Ibid., pp. 128-9.

[88] Chesterton, Superstition of Divorce, p. 67,

[89] Ibid.,  pp. 58-9.

[90] Ibid., p. 97.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Ibid., p. 100.

[93]  Ibid., pp. 148-9.

[94] Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, pp. 276-7.

[95] Chesterton, Outline of Sanity, p. 26.

[96] G. K. Chesterton, ‘On Evil Euphemisms [1930],’ Chesterton’s Stories Essays and Poems, with an introduction by Maisie Ward (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1957 [1935]), pp. 208-11.

[97] Chesterton, Superstition of Divorce, p. 151.

[98] G. K. Chesterton, ‘On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family,’ Heretics, p. 194.

[99] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Boredom of Butterflies,’ Fancies Versus Fads, p. 99.

[100] Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, p. 55.

[101] Chesterton, ‘Boredom of Butterflies,’ pp. 103-4.

[102] Chesterton, Superstition of Divorce, p. 60.

[103] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Babies and Distributism,’ The Well and the Shallows, pp. 145-6. Arendt and Chesterton’s shared sense of ‘natality’ is also pointed out by James V. Schall, S. J., ‘The Rarest of All Revolutions: G. K. Chesterton on the Relation of Human Life to Christian Doctrine,’ The American Benedictine Review Vol. 32 No. 4 (December, 1981), pp. 321-2.

[104] Chesterton, ‘Sex and Property,’ pp. 233-4. For an interesting and much extended critique of modern society along very similar lines to Chesterton’s ‘Sex and Property’ essay see Wendell Berry’s chapter on ‘The Body and the Earth,’ in The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977), pp. 97- 140.

[105] Ibid., p. 234.

[106] Chesterton, A Short History of England, p. 114.

[107] Chesterton, ‘Sex and Property,’ p. 235.

[108] Ibid., pp. 235-6.

[109] Ibid., p. 236.

[110] For a critique of modern society along these terms see Wendell Berry, ‘Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,’ Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon, 1993), pp. 117-77.

[111] John 1: 14




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