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Chapter Six


Evolution or Revolution? 

Chesterton on the Evil of Eugenics

and the Restoration of Creation



This final chapter begins with Chesterton’s depiction of the demonic aspect of modernity which he particularly associated with evolutionary concepts of process in which individual identity would melt away into some larger totality. Chesterton finds evolutionary theory as providing the terms in which human identity is no longer fixed but fluid and on the basis of which the commercial and political elites will seek to remodel the populace into semi-human functionaries biologically remolded to their subordinate station in life. Eugenics, for Chesterton, is something radically new in history and represents a reversal of conventional morality. Seen in its reality it is an evil to which he responds with the horror which (as we have already seen in previous chapters) is the counterpart of wonder. I go on to outline Chesterton’s main points against eugenics: e.g. that it is science trying to tyrannize through the state; that it marks a transformation in persecution from torture to vivisection; and that it is a madness which takes root in a climate of anarchy—an inability to accept limits to liberty together with a feeling of powerlessness to halt processes once started. Fundamentally, Chesterton views eugenics as a tool of the capitalist class which seeks a way out of the social malaise it has itself created. Rather than provide improved social conditions more suitable to human flourishing, it proposes to biologically re-adapt the poor to conditions of virtual slavery. Chesterton, as a political radical, considers what resistance might be expected from progressive forces advocating liberty and equality but finds official Liberalism and Socialism more likely to lend a hand to the march of the Eugenic State rather than to halt it. The poor, on the other hand, are hampered in being severed from Christianity—for only a religious zeal, according to Chesterton, could halt the overwhelming might of the plutocracy. Meanwhile, intellectuals were flirting with Eastern pantheistic forms of religion and this too would aid the advent of eugenics in pronouncing individual identity an illusion to be dissolved away into ‘the All’. The final part of this chapter is concerned with Chesterton’s concept of a spiritual revolution which he asserts against evolution, and considers the suggestion put forward in St. Francis of Assisi (1923) that a rebirth of wonder at and praise for Creation—together with a joy in the natural pleasures of life—will have to follow a lengthy purification within the imagination of the human perversions which have been projected into nature. 



Lucifer’s Ship


All the major religions of the West, Daniel Bell reminds us, have been religions of restraint and limitation motivated by a fear of the demonic—of the unchecked indulgence of human nature and the transgression of the boundaries of sin. With the final break-up of religious authority in the mid-nineteenth century, however, the culture of modernism had assumed the mantle of this relation towards the demonic and endeavored not to restrain it but rather to embrace and revel in it as the source of creativity itself: “In the cry for the autonomy of the aesthetic, there arose the idea that experience in and of itself was the supreme value, that everything was to be explored, anything was to be permitted—at least to the imagination, if not acted out in life.”[1]


Chesterton grasped for himself this association of modernism with the demonic—the refusal to recognize the limits of the human condition—whilst a student at the Slade School of Art at the end of the nineteenth century. As we saw in Chapter Two, he associated the philosophy of Impressionism with a skepticism which “lends itself to the metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all,”[2] and fell into dark pessimistic moods, doubting the reality of existence itself. Together with this philosophical skepticism goes the rejection of moral limits. While Chesterton himself experienced the demonic purely in the realm of his imagination, he seems to have encountered at least one of his contemporaries at the Slade—as illustrated by his description of ‘The Diabolist’—who rejected all moral restrictions on actions in the limitless search for experience.[3]


At the beginning of his novel The Ball and the Cross (1910) Chesterton illustrates how the demonic can become manifest in technology through his description of the fantastic flying ship of Professor Lucifer. The flying ship itself and almost everything in it had been made by Lucifer—everything, that is, except Lucifer himself who was of course originally made by God. The ship is the embodiment of the non-recognition of limits and the concomitant attack on the identity of things in themselves, the very phenomenon which Chesterton also associated with the theosophical pursuit of Nirvana which was popular amongst Edwardian intellectuals: “Every sort of tool or apparatus had, in consequence, to the full, that fantastic and distorted look which belongs to the miracles of science. For the world of science and evolution is far more nameless and elusive and like a dream than the world of poetry or religion; since in the latter images and ideas remain themselves eternally, while it is the whole idea of evolution that identities melt into each other as they do in a nightmare.”[4]


And so of the flying ship’s apparatus what appears to be a key is in fact a revolver, while the key itself has the appearance of two entangled corkscrews. In this context then, technology is not contributing something to the artifice of the world but represents the triumph of formlessness over form, the return to chaos, and immersion in the processes of nature. In contrast to Professor Lucifer’s flying machine which embodies non-distinction and the erosion of identity we can place Chesterton’s earlier description of the Scott Monument at Edinburgh in his essay from 1905, ‘The Way to the Stars.’ While both the Scott Monument and the mountains in the distance appear to embody distinct outlines this is in fact illusory. On closer inspection the mountains of Arthur’s Seat would reveal “vague curves of clay, vague masses of grass; everything which my contemporaries call evolutionary and I call without form and void.”[5] By contrast, a close view of the Scott Monument would reveal that it embodied the distinctive traits of humanity, that of the creative assertion of definition; of “certainty, or conviction, or dogma.”[6] To retreat from definite belief through skepticism is to fall back into the undifferentiated state of natural process and to cease to be human:


For it is the whole business of humanity in this world to deny evolution, to make absolute distinctions, to take a pen and draw round certain actions a line that nature does not recognise; to take a pencil and draw round the human face a black line that is not there. I repeat it is the divine human reason to deny that evolutionary appearance whereby all species melt into each other. This is probably what was meant by Adam naming the animals.[7]


In the ascription of the names to the animals their identities are affirmed. Here again, we encounter the philosophy of wonder and the perception of the distinctness of Creation. The demonic thrust of modernity, by contrast, in its non-recognition of limits seeks to remove the distinctions between things. Given this point, it is highly likely that Chesterton (who as we shall see was opposed to vivisection) would object strongly to current experiments in the genetic engineering of animals. The idea of Adam naming and thus defining the identity of each specific creature is radically at odds with the perspective of genetic engineering which reduces the creatures to their genes which are then interchangeable across species boundaries. Such a technology, like Lucifer’s flying ship, would embody the miracle working whereby all creatures melt into one another. In the case of contemporary genetic engineering, it could be suggested, identity is dissolved into a trans-species gene pool, the modern equivalent of the trouble-brewing witches’ hell-broth in Macbeth in which eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, and blind worm’s sting, amongst other exotic ingredients, all intermingle in the bubbling and swirling cauldron.[8]


Interestingly, Chesterton makes a distinction between, on the one hand, the miracles performed by saints and good men and, on the other hand, the black magic of witchcraft. The miracles of saints and heroes are always forms of wonder-working which restore the victim of enchantment to his own normality, they do not embody the promise of the gift of super-normal powers. In the tales of popular mythology however, the sorcery of black magic denies the original identity of a thing and obscures its true form such that, for example, a child is turned into a dog, men become frozen into statues, or are bound to the land as trees: “St. Nicholas brings three children alive out of a pot when they have already been boiled down into soup; which may be said to mark the extreme assertion of form against formlessness. But Medea, being a witch, puts an old man into a pot and promises to bring out a young man; that is, another man. Also, Medea, being a witch does not keep her word.”[9]


For Chesterton, this “denial of identity is the very signature of Satan.”[10] Note also how this magic based on the distortion of identity is linked by Chesterton to both tyranny and to his own concept of perversion or an unnatural naturalism:


The Magician is the Man when he seeks to become a God, and being a usurper, can hardly fail to be a tyrant. Not being the maker, but only the distorter, he twists all things out of their intended shape, and imprisons natural things in unnatural forms. But the Mass is exactly the opposite of a Man seeking to be God. It is a God seeking to be Man; it is giving his creative life to mankind as such, and restoring the original pattern of their manhood; making not gods, nor beasts, nor angels; but by the original blast and miracle that makes all things new, turning men into men.[11]


In What’s Wrong with the World (1910) Chesterton claimed that it was the perception of the possibility for such a tyrannical outcome that lay behind the popular feeling against evolutionism not any grotesque suggestion that one’s ancestors were apes—for humanity, he claims, has always had a taste for the grotesque. The popular instinct embodied an older morality: “It was this: that when one begins to think of man as a shifting and alterable thing, it is always easy for the strong and crafty to twist him into new shapes for all kinds of unnatural purposes.”[12] The popular feeling had correctly detected that the breeding of humans would be done by the rich and powerful class and purely in terms of their own interests, mutating the populace into half-human beings fitted to their subordinate station in life: “That is the nightmare with which the mere notion of adaptation threatens us.  That is the nightmare that is not so very far from reality.”[13]  The aim of certain evolutionists, says Chesterton employing suitably demonic symbolism, is to reform human society into ‘The Empire of the Insect’ modeled on the communal life of ants, bees and locusts—a relapse into the unconsciousness of the ‘Soul of the Hive.’ Chesterton links this ‘insectolatry’ of the evolutionists with the fashionable thirst for all things ‘Eastern’, exotic philosophies of determinism and eternal recurrence: “Now for the first time we worship as well as fear; and trace with adoration that enormous form advancing vast and vague out of Asia, faintly discernible amid the mystic clouds of winged creatures hung over the wasted lands, thronging the skies like thunder and discolouring the skies like rain; Beelzebub, the Lord of Flies.”[14] Chesterton does not of course mean that Lucifer is literally flying over on his ship from Asia. He is however, very much aware that Western intellectuals embrace selective elements of Eastern religions to fit their own purposes—later in this chapter we shall why Chesterton believes that embracing ‘eastern’ mysticism will not stop the march of the Eugenic State.


A fundamental mistake made by materialistic and evolutionist intellectuals was the reduction of humans to purely natural beings. To view humans as natural beings was to fail to see what made them specifically human: “Just as, in America, the new Humanists have pointed out to the old Humanitarians that their humanitarianism has been largely concentrated on things that are not specifically human, such as physical conditions, appetites, economic needs, environment and so on—so in practice those who are called Anthropologists have to narrow their minds to the materialistic things that are not noticeably anthropic.”[15] Thus it was not just biological materialism which Chesterton objected to but also the historical materialism of the Marxists: “The materialist theory of history, that all politics and ethics are the expression of economics, is a very simple fallacy indeed. It consists simply of confusing the necessary conditions with the normal pre-occupations of life, that are quite a different thing. It is like saying that because a man can only walk about on two legs, therefore he never walks about except to buy shoes and stockings.”[16] A life in which the aims were purely economic, according to Chesterton, would not be conducive to being understood in the mode of a story. Chesterton regards man as a political animal in possession of the free will for action which transcends mere necessity. The natural animal, however, lives in terms of sheer necessity and cannot be said to be defined by a distinct life-story: “so far from the movements that make up the story of man being economic, we may say that the story only begins where the motive of the cows leaves off. . . . The outline of history is made up of . . . decisive curves and angles determined by the will of man. Economic history would not be history.”[17]


Naturalistic materialism is incapable of understanding what is distinctive about humanity. Chesterton points out that evolutionary theory cannot answer the question how something comes out of nothing. The origin of the universe, the beginning of life, and the emergence of man are all surrounded by mystery. Evolutionists, if they wish to remain scientific, need to accept this—if they over-step these limits then they ought to accept that they are indulging in mythology and not science. Chesterton was not a fundamentalist and so he was not bothered as to whether Darwinian theory contradicted a literal reading of Genesis. What did concern him greatly, however, was that it reduced human beings to purely natural creatures.


In The Everlasting Man (1925) Chesterton suggests that the distinction between man and the animals is illustrated by the then recent discovery of ancient cave drawings. Reflecting on the discovery of these pre-historic cave paintings, Chesterton declares that humanity represents a radical new beginning in history. Cave drawings are a sign of man’s radical difference from the animal kingdom; he is an unnatural being. Such drawing “exists nowhere in nature except in man; and we cannot even talk about it without treating man as separate from nature.”[18] Humanity differs from the animals in qualitative rather than quantitative terms: “Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution.”[19] Man differs in kind from the animals in being “a creator as well as a creature.”[20] Whether or not man’s body evolved from other creatures, this capacity for art, of representing nature in picture, is a new thing which pertains to the supernatural and not merely natural, it represents a clear break from the other creatures: “Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.”[21] Man is a strange creature according to Chesterton because he is also a creator:


The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need for averting his thoughts from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of the shame. Whether we praise the things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique.[22]


Man’s unnatural other-worldly being thus requires that he surpasses his merely biological drives and constructs an artificial home on earth. It is this ability to build a home against the wilderness of nature which is man’s distinctive trait—hence all of Chesterton’s attacks on the progressive demands that humans should live a more ‘natural’ existence, refusing, for example, clothes or drinking water rather than wine.[23]



The Evil of Eugenics


One practical manifestation of biological reductionism was eugenics—the pseudo-scientific attempt to enhance the genetic heritage of a given human community. In the context of the preceding reflections on evolutionism, when Chesterton comes to publish his book on eugenics we can see that he really means what he says when it is described as an ‘evil’.[24] Eugenics is an extreme expression of the demonic aspect of modernism which seeks to dissolve distinct identities into one overall process in which each separate thing emerges into everything else: humans are seen to be as interchangeable as the ants of a hive. Chesterton had suggested in What’s Wrong with the World that the advance of the eugenic hive brings with it the eclipse of one of the most distinctly human forms—the family centered on that primary recognition of differentiation between father-mother-child: “In the cloud and confusion of the flies and bees is growing fainter and fainter, as if finally disappearing, the idea of the human family.”[25]  


Apart from displaying his powerful sense of justice and class-defying human fellow-feeling, Chesterton’s response to a potential tyranny through science in Eugenics and Other Evils (1922) is testament to his capacity for wonder, philosophical realism and opposition to what he referred to as modern philosophies of the ‘twilight’ in which there was no enduring objective reality and in which all things blend into one another. Eugenics, says Chesterton, may mean different things to different people but it is in itself a definable thing. It exists, it is evil, and it should be destroyed: “Eugenics itself does exist for those who have sense enough to see that ideas exist; and Eugenics itself, in large quantities or small, coming quickly or coming slowly, urged for good reasons or bad, applied to a thousand people or applied to three, Eugenics itself is a thing no more to be bargained with than poisoning.”[26] To paraphrase Arendt, who as we have seen also perceived the connection between wonder at being and horror at evil, the idea of a Eugenic State is a reality which we must both face up to and resist.


The first half of Eugenics and Other Evils is concerned with exposing the fallacies of eugenic theory. Chesterton’s first point concerns the revolution in morality that eugenics entails: “Now the eugenic moral basis is this; that the baby for whom we are primarily and directly responsible is the babe unborn.”[27] Whereas all preceding morality had maintained that one’s primary duty was to the partner in procreation—that is, to an actually existing person—the moral duty demanded by eugenic theory was towards a hypothetical person, i.e. the child who has been conceived only in theory. The practical outcome of this would be that the heroic deeds of the past actually become crimes in the minds of the eugenist. Non-eugenic marriage is tantamount to sin, thus marrying someone who was disabled would be considered by the eugenist as a form of child abuse: “The Eugenist really sets up as saints the very men who hundreds of families have called sneaks. To be consistent, they ought to put up statues to the men who deserted their loves because of bodily misfortune; with inscriptions celebrating the good Eugenist who, on hearing of his fiancée falling off a bicycle, nobly refused to marry her; or to the young hero who, hearing of an uncle with erysipelas, magnanimously broke his word.”[28] Chesterton emphasizes that what the eugenists are attempting to do is something radically new in history: “To introduce an ethic which makes that fidelity or infidelity vary with some calculation about heredity is the rarest of all things, a revolution that has not happened before.”[29]


For Chesterton, the founding of a family was of the very essence of freedom.  Eugenics represented a direct assault on that freedom.  In its practical dimension, eugenics aims “to control some families at least as if they were families of pagan slaves.”[30] Chesterton maintains that the revolution which will issue in the Eugenic State has already begun and draws his readers attention to the Mental Deficiency Act which he believes represents the “first Eugenic Law”. The upshot of this “Feeble-Minded Bill” (as Chesterton names it) is that anyone who is deemed to be weak-minded is liable to be incarcerated as if they were a homicidal lunatic—and everyone was to be a likely suspect: “It is not openly said, it is eagerly urged, that the aim of the measure is to prevent any person whom these propagandists do not happen to think intelligent from having any wife or children. Every tramp who is sulky, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can quite easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs.”[31] In such a situation, declares Chesterton, “nothing remains to us but rebellion.”[32]


The ‘atmosphere’ in which eugenic theories can take root, says Chesterton, is that of silent anarchy.  Anarchy need neither be violent nor issue from a subordinate section of society; this silent anarchy is an anarchy of the government. It is anarchy and not rebellion—which as we have just seen Chesterton specifically calls for in order to overthrow the Eugenic State—because rebellion has a definite end in sight with comprehensible laws and authority. Anarchy, by contrast, represents the inability to accept any limits, it “is that condition of mind or methods by which you cannot stop yourself.”[33] This is indeed the case with the State and eugenics: “The State has suddenly and quietly gone mad.  It is talking nonsense; and it can’t stop.”[34] While the State has set itself on a course of action it feels powerless to bring to a halt, there is, as we shall see below, in fact a motive behind the initiation of a seemingly limitless process.


Linked to this atmosphere of anarchy is the impersonal style of science and social science writing which Chesterton terms the ‘the atheist literary style’. Such writing is suffused with the perspective of materialism, no reference to the possession of a soul or any hint of volition is permitted. Thus the atheist stylist would never write that men wage war he would always write in the passive mood such that war broke out. What all this euphemism helps to achieve for the eugenist is the avoidance of the question which asks on what authority their medical regulation is to be based. Unlike madness, which can be objectively defined, the notion of feeble-mindedness is merely a question of opinion and Chesterton suspects that there is no authority for eugenics, the selection of those deemed ‘unfit’ is purely arbitrary, they are merely those whom the eugenist chooses to dislike. For example, Chesterton says that were he a eugenist he wouldn’t bother locking up the feeble-minded at all, in his opinion it is the strong-minded who are more likely to be the source of trouble: “I have known hardly any cases of mere mental weakness making a family a failure; I have known eight or nine cases of violent and exaggerated force of character making a family hell.”[35]


Chesterton maintains that heredity undoubtedly exists but that it is an enormously complex thing which combines to produce something which cannot be reduced to its individual components. In H. G. Wells’ Mankind in the Making, Chesterton finds a challenge which the eugenicists have been unable to answer. Although Wells had thought that eugenics would be a good thing he nevertheless raised a doubt about its practicality and Chesterton believes that in ignoring that doubt the eugenicists have dodged a real problem to their undertaking. Wells pointed out that knowledge concerning the heredity of health cannot be precise because health is not a characteristic in the same way in which we can speak of the darkness of hair or the length of limbs. Health is not a specific quality but a balance, a particular relationship between different things. Health, beauty, or some other desirable virtue are the result of achieving a certain harmony between different things and which we happen to find admirable. Thus two characteristics which were in themselves desirable might combine in a discordant manner. The knowledge upon which eugenics aims to act is therefore completely uncertain; the eugenist has to determine “not the result of fixing one steady thing to a second steady thing; but what will happen when one toppling and dizzy equilibrium crashes into another.”[36] It was on such shaky grounds that the eugenist was demanding that we renounce the universal morality of humanity.


Chesterton believed that it was usually those who pride themselves on being most progressive and up-to-date who are actually way behind the times. Similarly, those with a reputation for courageously challenging ‘outmoded’ institutions and beliefs are quite often the most timid of thinkers.[37] In What’s Wrong with the World Chesterton made this point with great effect: “There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first morning.”[38] Likewise, in Eugenics and Other Evils he declares that it is pointless for nonconformists to object to the established Church of England exercising its power through the secular arm of the state. Chesterton asserts that the Church is simply not enforcing its teachings through the state apparatus; but Science most definitely is:


The thing that really is trying to tyrannise through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policeman—that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began in Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church for the government will really help it to persecute its heretics.[39]


And Chesterton insists that this radically new form of persecution is far worse than that of the old Inquisition. The nature of the difference lies in the distinction between torture and vivisection:


The old Inquisitors tortured to put their own opinions into somebody. But the new Inquisitors torture to get their own opinions out of him. They do not know what their own opinions are, until the victim of vivisection tells them. The division of thought is a complete chasm for anyone who cares about thinking. The old persecutor was trying to teach the citizen, with fire and sword. The new persecutor is trying to learn from the citizen, with scalpel and germ-injector. The master was meeker than the pupil will be.[40]


The scientists do not really know what it is they are doing and the citizen is now merely an experimental subject with which to find out: “[The Eugenic doctors] do not know what they want, except that they want your soul and body and mine in order to find out. They are quite seriously, as they themselves might say, the first religion to be experimental rather than doctrinal. All other established Churches have been based on somebody having found the truth. This is the first Church that was based on not having found it.”[41] What the eugenists are proposing is a new State established Church—one based not on Faith but on Doubt.


It is not often realized that Chesterton was also opposed to the vivisection of animals. It represents, he says, the insane cruelty which is the partner to the insane humanitarianism of the vegetarian. Both are attempts to make the exception the rule—a central trait of modernity which he believes is the age of the ‘uncommon man’: “[B]oth involve the upsetting of existing relationships and the shocking of normal good feelings for the sake of something that is intellectual, fanciful, and remote.”[42] An exceptional act, such as an act of cruelty to an animal, Chesterton maintains, must only take place in an exceptional situation which is a real and not hypothetical situation—such as a dangerous animal posing a threat to life. Vivisection, however, is an actual cruelty carried out on the slim possibility of helping future hypothetical people: “That is too cold and distant to rob an act of its immediate horror. That is like training the child to tell lies for the sake of some great dilemma that may never come to him. You are doing a cruel thing, but not with enough passion to make it a kindly one.”[43] With vivisection then, definite things are unsettled for the sake of the indefinite. Cruelties can be performed here and now, irrespective of past practices, purely for the sake of the future. Chesterton disliked animal vivisection and eugenics represented its extension into the human realm, with both rationalized on the basis of duties to theoretical people at the expense of those persons and creatures who are in our presence.


All together, the theory of eugenics is thus a rather confused affair according to Chesterton. Eugenists are not in possession of a sound body of knowledge but are seeking permission to vivisect the populace in order to find out what a science of eugenics might possibly look like. Why, asks Chesterton, is such a fanciful body of thought of such interest to the sober-minded political elite? The second part of Chesterton’s book proposes to answer that question by analyzing ‘the real aim’ of eugenics. In this regard, Chesterton says that the eugenist is in fact the employer—the true aim of eugenics is to preserve the industrial capitalist system against the degradation and squalor it had itself brought into being.


Chesterton provides a brief history of the English poor from the serfdom at the beginning of the medieval period up to the present day. At the dawn of the Middle Ages the poor man was a serf and his situation was quite distinct from that of being a slave in pagan times. The poor man had a certain degree of security, though it was he who was owned by the land and not vice versa. This at least meant that there was some moral duty due to him on behalf of the landlord—the serf could not be evicted and he did have access to the land. The relationship between serf and lord was thus one of inequality combined with security. What has happened since then, says Chesterton, is that we have destroyed the partial security and kept the inequality.[44] The tramp is still recognizably at the bottom of the social scale but he has been turned off the land: “The rich man has entered into absolute ownership of farms and fields; and (in the modern industrial phase) he has locked out the English people. They can only find an acre to dig or a house to sleep in by accepting such competitive and cruel terms as he chooses to impose.”[45]


The only recourse for the poor man was to become a tramp and to sleep out in the open, but he could not scratch a living for himself out of the bare earth without threat of arrest. Chesterton makes clear that he is not claiming that the situation of the tramp is worse than the condition of unfortunates in previous times; what he does claim is that their situation is different from that of any preceding age in its sheer absurdity. The unfortunates of previous times were tortured or killed for doing other than what they were ordered to do. The tramp of today however is prevented from doing anything: he is to be punished for not sleeping in the very shed which he doesn’t possess! This absurd policy, says Chesterton, is a sign of the anarchy or madness which dwells in the governing mind.


The policy was mad but it was also mean, for the tramp was being punished for possessing the very same adventurous and vagabond spirit that the educated classes extolled in their own literature. Tramping through the hills and feeding on wild berries was acceptable so long as you were rich enough not to have to do it: “But when a poorer but braver man with less than twopence in his pocket does the very thing we are always praising, makes the blue heavens his house, we send him to a house built for infamy and flogging. We take poverty and only permit it with a property qualification; we only allow a man to be poor if he is rich.”[46] Furthermore, mendicancy laws forbade him to ask for charity from his fellow men. Thus, cut off from both access to the land and unable to make any demand on man, the only power left to him was something much harder to take away—his power of procreation: “As Jupiter could be hidden from all-devouring Time, as the Christ Child could be hidden from Herod—so the child unborn is still hidden from the omniscient oppressor. He who lives not yet, he and he alone is left; and they seek his life to take it away.”[47]


The capitalist had found that having a certain number of men out of work was good for his system; the combination of insecurity and inequality made for cheap labor. But the upshot of the industrial system was that the poor, having been excluded from public life, crushed by draconian laws, ravaged by the effects of malnutrition had become unemployable. Alarming for the rich was a growing population superfluous to the process of capital accumulation: “Men who had no human bond with the instructed men, men who seemed to him monsters and creatures without mind, became an eye-sore in the market-place and a terror on the open roads. The rich were afraid.”[48]  Although it was not too late for the capitalist system to reform, the provision of better living conditions for the immiserated workers would after all cost money and granting them a degree of independence might foster rebellious sensibilities. So much more attractive to the capitalist would be the prospect of altering the nature of marriage itself, eliminating those deemed undesirable whilst diverting the free reproductive energy of sex to his own ends: “He could divert the force of sex from producing vagabonds. And he could harness to his high engines unbought the red unbroken river of the blood of man in his youth, as he had already harnessed to them all the wild waste rivers of the world.”[49] Human nature, in other words, was now to be considered as a mere resource just as the industrialist had already considered external nature.[50]


In almost all contemporary discussions of social problems, Chesterton believes, the maintenance of the industrial capitalist system is beyond question. It represents those “modern conditions” to which everything else is forced to adapt itself. Correspondingly, there is a “universal, unconscious assumption that life and sex must live by the laws of ‘business’ or industrialism.”[51] Far more complex mixes of hereditary make-up could be found amongst the cosmopolitan rich, but this does not interest the eugenist for he “half-consciously knows it is no part of his job; what he is really wanted for is to get the grip of the governing classes on to the unmanageable output of poor people.”[52] Eugenics is simply a brutal tool of the plutocracy deployed in order to save itself from the consequences of its own injustices. What really struck Chesterton was the sheer meanness of this eugenic project to manipulate human beings to fit their industrial environment:


Wealth and the social science supported by wealth, had tried an inhuman experiment. They sought to make wealth accumulate—and they made men decay. Then, instead of confessing the error, and trying to restore the wealth, or attempting to repair the decay, they are trying to cover their first cruel experiment with a more cruel experiment. They put a poisoned plaster on a poisoned wound. Vilest of all, they actually quote the bewilderment produced among the poor by their first blunder as a reason for allowing them to blunder again. They are apparently ready to arrest all the opponents of their system as mad, merely because the system was maddening.[53]


In the final chapters of Eugenics and Other Evils, Chesterton considers what possible forces of resistance stand against this proposed medical domination of the poor and examines in turn the defense of individual liberty which has traditionally been associated with Liberalism; the egalitarian thrust of Socialism; and the possibilities for popular resistance by the poor themselves. Unfortunately, Chesterton finds that official Liberalism is no longer concerned with the defense of individual liberty and asserts his belief that what had prevented so many liberals from resisting the tide of eugenics was precisely the failure in the recognition that liberty entails limitation. Liberty without limits is liberty undefined; and liberty without definition is devoid of substance. This non-recognition of limits Chesterton terms ‘anarchy’ and it was such an atmosphere of anarchy which allowed eugenics to take a hold in the imaginations of so many ‘progressive’ intellectuals. Instead of defending individual liberties, Liberalism had become obsessed with safeguarding the health of society as a whole and as a consequence the State had become less concerned with the public declarations of its citizens as with attempting to manage in the most intrusive manner the private affairs of the home. Thus not freedom, but health (i.e. nature) was considered the aim of liberalism whereas Chesterton himself considered that health was merely a means towards the achievement of more distinctively human ends.


As such, the plutocracy had itself taken over the negative aspect of socialism—the element of bureaucratic officialdom—and rejected the truly progressive aspect which was the desire for economic equality: “They have now added all the bureaucratic tyrannies of a Socialist state to the old plutocratic tyrannies of a Capitalist State.”[54] The plutocracy had turned the bureaucratic officialdom of socialism away from the noble able of promoting equality and adapted it for its own aim of intensifying the erosion of individual liberties. By following the line of least resistance, socialist bureaucrats could conveniently forget their original egalitarian ideals and take a place in the state apparatus, concentrating instead on such things as promoting a propaganda for popular divorce which would accustom the populace “to a new notion of the shifting and re-grouping of families.”[55] Chesterton concedes that the institution of marriage and family life had been seriously weakened by the domination of industrial capitalism and that it was therefore understandable that many would want to seek relief through divorce—but, he maintains, we should be confronting the social arrangements which are debasing family life and not seeking to rid society of marriage. The progressive reformers had however come to take it for granted that the industrial capitalist system was here to stay and so creating a social framework more amenable to family life was to them unthinkable. To Chesterton’s horror it was the institution of marriage which the reformers believed would have to go:


Through all this modern muddle there runs the curious principle of sacrificing the ancient uses of things because they do not fit in with the modern abuses. When the tares are found in the wheat, the greatest promptitude and practicality is always shown in burning the wheat and gathering the tares into the barn. And since the serpent coiled about the chalice had dropped his poison in the wine of Cana, analysts were instantly active in the effort to preserve the poison and pour away the wine.[56]


Official Liberalism and Socialism were thus unlikely forces of resistance to the march of the Eugenic State according to Chesterton—worse still, individual liberals and socialists were likely to be found amongst its advocates. In the penultimate chapter of Eugenics entitled ‘The End of the Household Gods’ Chesterton explored the possibility for rebellion by the poor themselves—the populist resistance which he would have hoped for himself. The chapter in question (for which Chesterton summons up his best literary style) turns on an interpretation of a verse from an old music-hall song he had once heard and which he believes represents the real voice of the English working class:


‘Father’s got the sack from the water works

     For smoking of his old cherry-briar;

Father’s got the sack from the water-works

     ’Cos he might set the water-works on fire.’[57] 


Here Chesterton finds an almost perfect depiction of the social problem faced by industrial countries. In an amusingly ironic tone, Chesterton first explains the meaning of the word Father, pointing out to his educated readers that the term “is still in use among the more ignorant and ill-paid of the industrial community; and is the badge of an old convention or unit called the family.”[58] In the family the person of the father represents a natural authority against which is now raised a whole host of new artificial authorities: “the official, the schoolmaster, the policeman, the employer, and so on.”[59]


Next, Chesterton explains that got the sack refers to a more recent phenomena, stating  that under contemporary economic conditions the father is no longer a master but a commercial servant who has not even the security of the slave. If sacking represents the specifically capitalist dimension of the plutocracy, From the water-works, Chesterton explains, refers to the large scale and impersonal bureaucratic aspect of the system. It makes no difference to the father whether this be a capitalist or socialist enterprise for his freedom could only be preserved by the independence which his own private property would guarantee. For smoking, Chesterton continues, refers to the minuscule regimentation of everyday life which has been adopted from the socialists and which now confronts the father: “while employers still claim the right to sack him like a stranger, they are already beginning to claim the right to supervise him like a son.”[60] However, the phrase Of his old Cherry-briar does at least illustrate that amongst the poor the old sentiment for private property still exists, albeit now attached merely to trinkets and toys rather than any actual means of production. Finally, ’Cos he might set the water-works on fire is left to speak for itself, revealing the sheer absurdity from which the whole process had begun.


The system of plutocratic state domination is not yet complete however: “Property has not quite vanished; slavery has not quite arrived; marriage exists under difficulties; social regimentation exists under restraints, or rather subterfuges. The question which remains is which force is gaining on the other, and whether the old forces are capable of resisting the new.”[61] Chesterton hopes that the workers and the poor can resist the new tyranny but points out that they are at a very big disadvantage. The desire for free and independent family life exists only as an instinct and not as an ideal. Christianity is the natural defender of the ideal but there has been an historic rift between Christianity and the working classes. Although Chesterton suggests that the ideal can be defended on purely rational grounds, only a religion could give the ideal the pugnacious and popular character necessary for it to succeed.


Having begun in the comedy of the music-hall, ‘The End of the Household Gods’ turns to tragedy as Chesterton concedes that the possibilities for resisting the march of the Eugenic State do not appear very hopeful—but Chesterton does not succumb to despair and thunders out his defiance of the plutocracy all the more. The unlikely chances of success do not dampen Chesterton’s protest which he admits may seem as “wild words of despair that are written only upon running water; unless, indeed, as some so stubbornly and strangely say, they are somewhere cut deep into the rock, in the red granite of the wrath of God.”[62] Chesterton concludes Eugenics as he had started with the suggestion that the natural breeding ground for such state-organized scientific tyranny was Prussia. If his portrait of World War I as a struggle between the forces of good against the forces of eugenic evil are a little overblown to say the least, his decision to publish his book (most of which had been written before the war) in 1922, based on the intimation that eugenic policies were about to raise once again from their Germanic grave, was indeed prophetic. Here it is also appropriate to point out that in The New Jerusalem (1920) Chesterton had portrayed Germany in World War I as representing maniacally accelerated natural processes threatening to overrun publicly established boundaries and distinctions of Christendom:


Whatever else the war was, it was like the resistance of something as solid as land against something as unstable as water, as weak as water; but also as strong as water, as strong as water is in a cataract or a flood. It was the resistance of form to formlessness. . . .  It was the defence of that same ancient enclosure in which stood the broken columns of the Roman forum and the column in the Paris square, and of all other such enclosures. . . . All had the same design, the marking out of a square for the experiment of liberty; of the old civic liberty or the later universal liberty.[63]


The accuracy of Chesterton’s assessment of World War I is not here our concern, but what is remarkable is how this passage anticipates Arendt’s understanding of totalitarianism as involving the sacrifice of a humanly established world of stability to seemingly irresistible and accelerated pseudo-natural processes. In contrast to Christianity, which Chesterton believed to be the defender of distinct identity and individual personality we shall next consider what he identified as the dangers of a worship of, and obedience to, natural forces together with submersion of individual identity into some all-embracing totality.


Christianity or Pantheism?


 As we have already noted, in What’s Wrong with the World Chesterton had associated some connection between eugenics and an oriental mysticism which sought to deny individual identity, absorbing it instead into some all-embracing totality—‘the All’. Chesterton’s criticism of Eastern mysticism is specifically directed to what he saw as a worrying development amongst the English intellectual classes—alongside an increasingly ‘liberal’ attitude towards oriental religions could be found an increasingly reactionary attitude towards the conditions of the poor. Just as imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes had rationalized their belief that the fittest must survive and the weakest go to the wall by oriental ideas of fatalism,[64] so too were the intellectuals finding a means to rationalize injustice to the poor of their own countries. Dean Inge—who was one of a number or ‘progressively’ minded clergy who had supported the eugenic proposals of the Mental Deficiency Bill[65]—is one such example.[66]


Chesterton rejected the notion put forward by progressively minded intellectuals that all the various world religions differed in form only, that they all carried an underlying message which was essentially the same. In fact, says Chesterton, the real situation is almost the exact opposite of this. Nearly all the major religions tend to use the same means of instruction—scriptures, priests, altars, special feasts etc.—where they do differ is precisely in what is being taught. Thus the then fashionable assertions of the spiritual kinship between Christianity and Buddhism were of a highly superficial nature according to Chesterton.  An admittedly exaggerated illustration of the real difference between the two religions can be found in the way that their respective saints are depicted: “[T]he Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediæval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive.”[67] The fundamental difference is that the Buddhist looks inwards while the Christian stares outwards—both with an unusual intensity. Here was the fundamental difference between Christian creationist and Buddhist pantheist mysticism:


The Eastern mysticism is an ecstasy of unity; the Christian mysticism is an ecstasy of creation, that is, of separation and mutual surprise. The latter says, like St. Francis, ‘My brother fire and my sister water;’ the former says, ‘Myself fire and myself water.’ Whether you call the Eastern attitude an extension of oneself into everything or a contraction of oneself into nothing is a matter of metaphysical definition. The effect is the same, an effect which lives and throbs throughout all the exquisite arts of the East. This effect is the thing called rhythm, a pulsation of pattern, or of ritual, or of colours, or of cosmic theory, but always suggesting the unification of the individual with the world.[68]  


Now for Chesterton, the modern mystic looks upon things not in their objective existence outside the self, “but inside, in the mirror of his mind.”[69] It is a narcissistic perspective which can never truly encounter anything different from the self; an introspective approach which is constantly rejected by Chesterton: “I was never interested in mirrors; that is, I was never primarily interested in my own reflection—or reflections. . . . All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures.”[70] Thus we can appreciate nature not in the manner of the pantheistic mystics by projecting the self into nature but in appreciating its otherness—its intrinsic value independent of human feelings. It is nature’s very indifference to our desires which is its source of value for Chesterton: “Demeter withered up the cornfields: I like the cornfields because they grow in spite of me. Ajax defied the lightning; but I like the lightning because it defies me. I enjoy stars and the sun or trees and the sea, because they exist in spite of me; and I believe the sentiment to be at the root of all that real kind of romance which makes life not a delusion of the night, but an adventure of the morning.”[71]  In this perspective, nature has value precisely because of its lack of human meaning—it is not a mere reflection of our own phantasies; it is not our own creation. As we are about to see, this is precisely the position which Chesterton asserted against Annie Besant’s ‘Theosophical’ doctrine of a “universal self” which sought to obliterate all distinctions. Here also we see that the supreme example of love based on difference as opposed to unity is that of the sexes and Chesterton always opposes the progressive notion that men should be ‘at one’ with women.  Thus Annie Besant’s theosophical doctrine proposes


that we are really all one person; that there are no real walls of individuality between man and man.  If I may put it so, she does not tell us to love our neighbours; she tells us to be our neighbours.  That is Mrs. Besant’s thoughtful and suggestive description of the religion in which all men must find themselves in agreement.  And I never heard of any suggestion in my life with which I more violently disagree.  I want to love my neighbour not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I.  I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different.  If souls are separate love is possible.  If souls are united love is obviously impossible.  A man may be said loosely to love himself, but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must be a monotonous courtship.  If the world is full of real selves, they can be really unselfish selves.  But upon Mrs. Besant’s principle the whole cosmos is only one enormously selfish person.[72]


Love requires division and separation: “The Christian saint is happy because he has verily been cut off from the world; he is separate from things and is staring at them in astonishment.”[73] In order to be able to experience wonder we must be aware that there is something separate from our selves to wonder at. Edwardian theosophists would be devoid of the sense of wonder: “The pantheist cannot wonder, for he cannot praise God or praise anything as distinct from himself.”[74] As we saw in Chapter Two, Chesterton believed that a sense of wonder was intrinsic to adopting a radical stance towards society. Thus Chesterton also rejected pantheistic forms of religion because they were hopeless for a revolutionary for in the process of unification all distinctions between things has been lost: “There is no real possibility of getting out of pantheism any special impulse to moral action. For pantheism implies in its nature that one thing is as good as another; whereas action implies in its nature that one thing is greatly preferable to another.”[75]


By contrast, Christianity which embodies the wonder at a distinct Creation separate from God, and the response of gratitude directed to a transcendent Creator, is inherently a fighting faith: “The truth is that the western energy that dethrones tyrants has been directly due to the western theology that says ‘I am I, thou art thou.’”[76] Dissolving the boundaries between the self into ‘the All’ is inherently conformist: “By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference—Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation—Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.”[77]


Pantheist nature-worship may well begin innocently enough but it soon lends itself to the imitation of nature and thence to cruelty:


Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously. If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended.  Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties. Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality. Mere optimism had reached its insane and appropriate termination. The theory that everything was good had become the orgy of everything that was bad.[78]

The great achievement of Christianity by contrast was its distinction between God and the cosmos. God was the creator, in creating a separate world he had set it free: “God had written not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.”[79] The teachings of God’s transcendence and of original sin meant that Christianity answered the question which had so puzzled Chesterton: “one must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly.”[80]


This ideal cannot be derived from nature, for Chesterton denies that there are any such principles in nature.  And thus in the modern context we cannot look to the theory of evolution:


Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities, but it cannot be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals. . . . That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.[81]


The Christian who can wonder at the Creation and thus feel gratitude towards the Creator can also love nature. The love of the creature as distinct from its worship according to Chesterton, is based on the absurdity of the creature—nature needs to be laughed at. Wonder, for Chesterton, is intimately connected with humor:


The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele.  Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to St. Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.[82]


Thus the Christian can care for nature but not at the expense of humanity. As in popular Christian mythology, St Francis sits with the wolf who had been terrorizing a village and draws up the legal bargain to which the wolf nods its assent to each clause: 


The Christian common sense of St. Francis, even in this wild fable, seized on the vital fact; that men must be saved from wolves as well as wolves from hunger, or even more so, and that this could only be done by some sort of definite arrangement. And it does put its finger upon the difficulty; in the absence of communication and therefore of contract between man and beasts. It realises that a moral obligation must be a mutual obligation.[83]


To the modern mind it is St. Francis who appears as the fanatic, even a madman. Yet Francis does not deny the existence of nature or elevate its needs above humanity. As Chesterton says, however wild a form the expression of Francis’s sense of mercy took, that sense was in itself mild, embodying “a comprehension of the common needs of common people, and a humanitarianism that did not exclude humanity.  In that sense, it is the modern age that is the age of fanatics.”[84] In fact, the figure of St. Francis emerges as a core element of Chesterton’s populist vision and his opposition to the march of the Eugenic State together with the intellectual embrace of pantheistic spirituality.



St. Francis and the Restoration of Creation


In St. Francis of Assisi (1923) Chesterton pointed out that with its poetry and arts, enduring political ideals, and systems of logic and language, the ancient pagan world had been a very high civilization. It had discovered many things, but most important of all it had learnt its own mistake and this is what had primed the pagan world for its final conversion to Christianity. The mistake of the pagans, says Chesterton, was in taking nature itself as the object of their worship—they aimed at the natural but only succeeded in being unnatural: “The wisest men in the world set out to be natural; and the most unnatural thing in the world was the very first thing they did. The immediate effect of saluting the sun and the sunny sanity of nature was a perversion spreading like a pestilence.”[85] What the pagans had learnt was that man’s nature is biased, that when he attempts to go straight he goes astray. With its teaching of original sin and its claim to correct that bias in nature, Christianity had its appeal to the mind of the pagan.


Although the Romans had more respect for domestic decency than the Greeks, they too ultimately succumbed to this corruption of nature into a condition of unnatural perversity: “What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent and natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex.”[86] In such a situation it was no use urging people to be more natural when nature had itself become riddled with the imagery of perversion:


Nothing could purge this obsession  but a religion that was literally unearthly. It was no good telling such people to have a natural religion full of stars and flowers; there was not a flower or even star that had not been stained. They had to go into the desert where they could find no flowers or even into the cavern where they could see no stars. Into that desert and cavern the highest human intellect entered for some four centuries; and it was the very wisest thing it could do.[87]


Without understanding the predicament of the pagan world and the Christian cure, says Chesterton, we will not understand St. Francis of Assisi. The Christian religion had entered the world to cure it through penance and purgation of the perversions which an unnatural worship of nature and an unbridled indulgence of sexual impulse had let loose. The dawn of the thirteenth century signaled the closing stages of this expiation and the cleansing of the perversions which had been projected into nature. Only at the end of the Dark Ages could Christianity allow a return to nature:


For water itself has been washed. Fire itself had been purified as by fire. Water is no longer that water into which slaves were flung to feed the fishes. Fire is no longer that fire through which children were passed to Moloch. Flowers smell no more of the forgotten garlands of Priapus; stars stand no more as signs of the far frigidity of gods as cold as those cold fires. They are all like things newly made and awaiting new names, from one who shall come to name them. Neither the universe nor the earth have now any longer the old sinister significance of the world. They await a new reconciliation with man, but they are already capable of being reconciled. Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature-worship, and can return to nature.[88]


Thus was the stage set for the appearance of Francesco Bernardone. We cannot concern ourselves here with the details of the life of St. Francis as recounted by Chesterton but we can point to the transformation he underwent. Chesterton compares the spiritual revolution undergone by Francis—following the episode of the stolen cloth and his humiliated retreat into the cave—to the image of a man boring a hole through the center of the earth and through which he crawls. A certain point is reached by the man when he ceases to go down any further but in fact starts on an upward path. According to Chesterton, the turning point for St. Francis was reached when he thought of himself as an utterly lowly creature and when he realized “that God has hanged the world upon nothing.”[89] Every aspect of the world is now viewed in terms of its precarious state; in terms of the “new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence.[90]


It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero, from the dark nothingness of his own deserts, that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them; and they are in themselves the best working example of the idea. For there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset. But there is more than this involved, and more indeed than is easily to be expressed in words. It is not only true that the less a man thinks of himself, the more he thinks of his good luck and of all the gifts of God.  It is also true that he sees more of the things themselves when he sees more of their origin; for their origin is a part of them and indeed the most important part of them. Thus they become more extraordinary by being explained. He has more wonder at them but less fear of them; for a thing is really wonderful when it is significant and not when it is insignificant. . . .[91]


Thus St. Francis, in the knowledge of the divine origins of things, “calls them his Brother Fire and his Sister Water.”[92] Gratitude arises out of the awareness of creation out of nothing:

So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism. When we say that a poet praises the whole creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his archaic and mysterious name. The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything is made.[93]


The sense of gratitude for an existence dependent on the grace of God constitutes the very basis of reality itself: the truth of “the whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God.”[94] Prompted by a remark of Rosseti, Chesterton believes that “the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.”[95] Thus thinking is blended with thanking: “All goods look better when they look like gifts.”[96] Everything takes second place in relation to the “simple fact of dependence on the divine reality.” [97] The wise man knows he holds an unrecoverable and infinite debt of gratitude: “the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it.”[98] Chesterton links the openness to and gratitude for reality to the capacity for action: from the cave of St. Francis, “a furnace of glowing gratitude and humility, there came forth one of the strongest and strangest and most original personalities that human history has known. He was, among other things, emphatically what we call a character; almost as we speak of a character in a good novel or play.”[99]


As Chesterton describes it, we can see that St. Francis’ spiritual revolution was a revolution as the restoration of original form. Central to such a vision is the sense of the distinctness and separateness of things: “He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death.”[100] St. Francis was aware of the particularity of each individual creature “assigned by their Creator to particular places; not mere expressions of the evolutionary energy of things.”[101] St Francis the mystic “was the mortal enemy of all those mystics who melt away the edges of things and dissolve an entity into its environment. He was a mystic of the daylight and the darkness; but not a mystic of the twilight.”[102] For all his particularism, St Francis was a realist and of the same spirit which had recently triumphed over nominalism: “The Franciscan birds and beasts were really rather like heraldic birds and beasts; not in the sense of being fabulous animals but in the sense of being treated as if they were facts, clear and positive and unaffected by the illusions of atmosphere and perspective.”[103] Thus the birds and all the other creatures are pulled out of the formlessness of mere process and appear as distinct facts. We become distinctly human in exercising our privilege of singing the praise of Creation, as Chesterton had remarked in one of his earliest essays on another ascetic reformer: “To let no bird fly past unnoticed, to spell patiently the stones and weeds, to have the mind a storehouse of sunset, requires a discipline in pleasure, and an education in gratitude.”[104] Thus according to Chesterton, the essence of St Francis’s greatness was his spirit of thanksgiving: “He understood down to its very depths the theory of thanks; and its depths are a bottomless abyss. He knew that the praise of God stands on its strongest ground when it stands on nothing. He knew that we can best measure the towering miracle of the mere fact of existence if we realise that but for some strange mercy we should not even exist.”[105] Ultimately, the life of St. Francis shows that Christianity represents not the denial of nature but its restoration: “the idea of a supernatural light on natural things . . . meant the ultimate recovery not the ultimate refusal of natural things.”[106]


It is clear that Chesterton believed that modern society was in a comparable state to the late pagan world—riddled by perversion and in need of the purgation that the Dark Ages had previously supplied. As Chesterton wrote in the pages of the New Witness:


[T]he Church has the same task as it had at the beginning of the Dark Ages; to save all the light and liberty that can be saved, to resist the downward drag of the world, and to wait for better days. So much a real Church would certainly do; but a real Church might be able to do more. It might make its Dark Ages something more than a seed-time; it might make them the very reverse of the dark. It might present a more human ideal in such abrupt and attractive a contrast to the inhuman trend of the time to inspire men suddenly for one of the moral revolutions of history; so that men now living shall not taste of death until they have seen justice return.[107]


In an essay for G. K.’s Weekly, Chesterton announced that industrial progress has rendered nature into an unnatural state and thus our inspiration can only be of a supernatural kind: “Nature cannot help us now, even as a symbol; for industrialism has destroyed the natural, but it cannot destroy the supernatural.”[108] Furthermore, Chesterton warns against falling into pantheist fallacies for we are approaching “the days in which nature-worshippers become devil-worshippers.”[109] Finally, Chesterton declares that the whole resistance to the present state of affairs must first of all be of a spiritual kind: “For we are trying to bring back a Spring that as yet only exists in the spirit; to create grass and green things which must exist in a dream before they can exist in a landscape; the growth of which will be a miracle in the sense of something turning back the whole trend and movement of the earth. A Revolution is a mild thing compared with a Resurrection; and nothing less can raise us from the dead.”[110]


On the other hand, what Chesterton greatly feared was the resurgence of capitalism. In 1935 Chesterton wrote to the Christian socialist Maurice Reckitt: “the mortal danger, to me, is the rehabilitation of Capitalism, . . . this is the mountainous peril that towers in my own mind.”[111] To pick up once again a theme of Chapter Four, when Chesterton claims that there is an “exact parallel” between the perversion of property into money and of marriage into the mere sexuality of ‘free-love’[112] then he is making a very strong point for that exact parallel in such perversion is the principle of exchange. For Chesterton, just as oikonomia had given way to chrematistike, so was marriage becoming threatened by what we might term sexual chrematistike. We should hardly be surprised at Chesterton’s horror at the free-market in commodities and sexual partners for both expressly deny that wonder and recognition of reality which was so central to his thought—under the sign of the market both things and people are not appreciated for being what they are but as only something to be exchanged for something else. 


Thus Chesterton “hoped for a popular revolt against perversions and pedantries of vice, which have never, in fact, been popular.”[113] For Chesterton still maintained that it was in the ordinary ‘common man’ who had yet to embrace the ‘liberated’ practices that the recognition of difference was still to be found. For all its technological advances, modern civilization seems cut off from the simple wonder at existence and thus it cannot enjoy it in its otherness, which perhaps, is now the preserve of those who have yet to ‘move with the times’.[114] To the common folk, the natural world and other people remain distinct in their otherness yet are experienced as people and places to which we are ethically bound through marriage and devotion. Thus we can see once again that Christian assertion of distinction upon which love is based in Chesterton’s vision in which the love between man and woman, between humans and the land, and of the wonder of the child at existence, were all intimately connected:


[T]he varieties themselves; the reflection of man and woman in each other, as in two distinct mirrors; the wonder of man at nature as a strange thing at once above and below him; the quaint and solitary kingdom of childhood; the local affections and the colour of certain landscapes—these actually are the things that are the grace and honour of the earth; these are the things which make life worth living and the whole framework of things well worthy to be sustained.[115]


Note that Chesterton’s call for ‘the need for roots’ connects the Christian notions of distinctness and plurality to a populist defense of the ‘common man’, and indeed ‘common woman’ for the division of the sexes was at the root of his perception of love and is asserted against the pantheism of the self-elevated intellectuals:


And the best thing remains; that this view, whether conscious or not, always has been and still is the view of the living and labouring millions. While a few prigs on platforms are talking about ‘oneness’ and absorption in ‘The All’, the folk that dwell in all the valleys of this ancient earth are renewing the varieties for ever. With them a woman is loved for being unmanly, and a man loved for being unwomanly. With them the church and the home are both beautiful, because they are both different; with them fields are personal and flags are sacred; they are the virtue of existence, for they are not mankind but men.[116]


Here is what Chesterton believed was fundamentally right with the world and which was to be asserted against the dominant forces now raised against the human personality and the principle of distinction and differentiation: “The rooted hope of the modern world is that all these dim democracies do still believe in that romance of life, that variation of man, woman and child upon which all poetry had hitherto been built. The danger of the modern world is that these dim democracies are so very dim, and they are especially dim where they are right. The danger is that the world may fall under a new oligarchy—the oligarchy of prigs.”[117] The central claim of the new elite is essentially that of the perversion of non-distinction, “that there is no difference between the social duties of men and women, the social instruction of men or of children.”[118] With this astonishing prediction of the ‘culture wars’ that have so marked the transition to the third millennium, and for which the issue of the family has been so central, I shall bring this chapter to its conclusion.


From our reading of Chesterton we have seen that the culture of modernity has broken from Christian orthodoxy, refused the recognition of limits, and cut itself off from the appreciation of Being. Consequently it has become suffused with evolutionary concepts of flux in which the distinctness of each separate creature—including man himself—is eclipsed as form gives way to formlessness and each individual being merges into an endless process of becoming something else. The culmination of such demonic trends, if not resisted by a revolution to restore the individual identity of creatures and people will be the Eugenic State, in which man will have become bred into slaves, biologically transformed into mere tools to satisfy the imperatives of a capitalist economy, resembling the interchangeable drones of an insect hive. I have situated my reading of Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils within the context of his religious thought—specifically in terms of his distinction between Christianity and pantheism in order to illustrate the depth of Chesterton’s vision. As a consequence, a book which would at first glance seem apparently unrelated to Chesterton’s specifically political concerns—his study of St. Francis—becomes in fact highly significant. It is not, I suggest, a mere coincidence that St. Francis of Assisi was published in 1923, one year after the publication of Eugenics and Other Evils (which had in fact been written a decade earlier). As we have seen, Chesterton did not believe that secular progressive forces could halt the Eugenic State, but the Christianity which could save it was alienated from the populace. Chesterton had embraced Catholicism as a fighting faith, and his first work as a Catholic was on the most popular of its saints. St. Francis of Assisi delivered the antidote to the malaise of a modernity riddled with the perversion of non-distinction. The notion of ‘brother fire and sister water’ captures very well the recovery of the Created world Chesterton hoped for, the vision of wonder at the distinctness and otherness of nature and of wonder at the distinctness of male and female, which would find its highest happiness in praise of the Creator.



[1] Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, second edition (London: Heinemann, 1979 [1976]), p. 19.

[2] G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1937 [1936]), pp. 91-2.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Diabolist,’ Tremendous Trifles (London: Methuen and Co., 1927 [1909]), pp. 225-31.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and The Cross (London: Cox and Wyman, 1963 [1910]), p. 7. Here, and for the rest of this section, I am much in debt to the analysis of Chesterton’s understanding of evolutionism in Stanley L. Jaki, Chesterton, A Seer of Science (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), pp. 55-85.

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

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 78-9.

[8] I shall consider some possible Arendtian-Chestertonian objections to the new bio-technologies in the conclusion to this thesis.

[9] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Magic and Fantasy in Fiction,’ Sidelights on New London and Newer York (London: Sheed and Ward, 1932), p. 230

[10] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Wishes,’ The Uses of Diversity (London: Library Press n.d. [1920]), p. 78.

[11] Chesterton, ‘Magic and Fantasy in Fiction,’ p. 235.

[12] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (London: Cassell and Co., 1912 [1910]), p. 259.

[13] Ibid., p, 260.

[14] Ibid., p. 264.

[15] G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1933), p. 190..

[16] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947 [1925]), p. 159.

[17] Ibid., pp. 159-60. Note that like Arendt, Chesterton sees that Marx’s historical materialism has ultimately a biological basis.

[18] Ibid., p. 38

[19] Ibid., p. 27.

[20] Ibid., p. 38.

[21] Ibid., pp. 36-7.

[22] Ibid., pp. 39-40

[23] This is a recurring theme in Chesterton’s work and there are simply too many references to begin to list them here. Representative is G. K. Chesterton, ‘On Sandals and Simplicity,’ Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1928 [1905]), pp. 131-8.

[24] G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils (London: Cassell and Co., 1922). In this book, Chesterton does not draw the parallel between eugenics and the ‘soul of the hive’ which he had made in What’s Wrong with the World but it is undoubtedly still one of his central convictions.

[25] Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, p. 265.

[26] Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, p. 4.

[27] Ibid., p. 5.

[28] Ibid., p. 7

[29] Ibid., p. 8.

[30] Ibid., p. 10.

[31] Ibid., p. 21.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., p. 23.

[34] Ibid., p. 25.

[35] Ibid., p. 51.

[36] Ibid., p. 71. Chesterton must have been particularly taken by this point as it forms the basis of a short article he published for the Illustrated London News when not only Hitler in Germany but ‘progressive’ minded intellectuals in England were showing a renewed interest in eugenics. See G. K. Chesterton, ‘On the Fallacy of Eugenics,’ Avowals and Denials: A Book of Essays (London: Methuen and Co., 1934), pp. 49-54.

[37] See for example, G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Mildness of the Yellow Press,’ Heretics, pp. 108-23.

[38] Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, p. 33.

[39] Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, pp. 76-7.

[40] Ibid., p. 79.

[41] Ibid., p. 80.

[42] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Christmas,’ All Things Considered (London: Methuen and Co., 1908), p. 291. Some commentary on Chesterton’s position can be found in Stephen R. L. Clark, ‘Decent Conduct Toward Animals: A Traditional Approach,’ (accessed 10/4/01).

[43] Ibid., p. 294.

[44] See Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, pp.101-113; ‘The Sun Worshipper,’ A Miscellany of Men (London: Methuen and Co.), pp. 66-69. The whole point of Chestertonian distributism was not to return to serfdom but to achieve an egalitarian society in which workers had the independence of privately owned property guaranteed by the security of a modern form of guild regulation.

[45] Chesterton, ‘The Sun Worshipper,’ p. 67.

[46] Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, p. 109-10.

[47] Ibid., p. 113.

[48] Ibid., p. 132

[49] Ibid., p. 135.

[50] On the commercialization of nature from a ‘good’ into ‘the goods’ the reader is referred back to Chapter Four.

[51] Ibid., p. 137

[52] Ibid., p. 141.

[53] Ibid., p. 146.

[54] Ibid., p. 164.

[55] Ibid., p. 167.

[56] Ibid., p. 168.

[57] Ibid., p. 170.

[58] Ibid., p. 171.

[59] Ibid., pp. 171-2.

[60] Ibid., p. 173.

[61] Ibid., p. 175.

[62] Ibid., p. 179.

[63] G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920), p. 14.

[64] See G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Sultan,’ A Miscellany of Men (London: Methuen and Co., 1930 [1912]), pp. 202-7.

[65] See Margaret Canovan, ‘Chesterton’s Attack on the Proto-Nazis: New Light on the Black Legend,’ The Chesterton Review Vol. III No. 2 (Spring-Summer, 1977), p. 252.

[66] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The New Theologian,’ Miscellany of Men, pp. 181-9. For a discussion of this and other related issues see John Coates, ‘The Philosophy and Religious Background of The Flying Inn,’ The Chesterton Review Vol. XII No. 3 (August, 1986), pp. 303-28.

[67] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: The Bodley Head, 1927 [1908]), p. 241.

[68] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Separatist and Sacred Things,’ A Miscellany of Men, pp. 107-8

[69] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Wonder and the Wooden Post,’ The Coloured Lands (London: Sheed and Ward, 1938), p. 160.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Chesterton, ‘Wishes,’ p. 76.

[72] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 242-3.

[73] Ibid., p. 245.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid., pp. 245-6.

[76] Ibid., p. 246.

[77] Ibid., p. 248

[78] Ibid., p. 138.

[79] Ibid., p. 141.

[80] Ibid., p. 142.

[81] Ibid., pp. 204-5. Compare Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1979 [1951]), p. 178.

[82] Ibid., p. 205.

[83] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Giotto and St. Francis,’ The Common Man (London: Sheed and Ward, 1950), p. 97.

[84] Ibid., p. 98.

[85] G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1944 [1923]), p. 31.

[86] Ibid., p. 32.

[87] Ibid., pp. 34-5.

[88] Ibid., p. 41.

[89] Ibid., p. 87

[90] Ibid., p. 88

[91] Ibid., p. 89.

[92] Ibid., p. 91.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid., p. 92.

[95] Ibid.

[96] Ibid., pp. 92-3.

[97] Ibid., p. 93.

[98] Ibid., p. 94.

[99] Ibid., p. 98.

[100] Ibid., pp. 102-3.

[101] Ibid., p. 104.

[102] Ibid.,

[103] Ibid., p. 105

[104] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Savonarola,’ Twelve Types (London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1902), p.171.

[105] Chesterton, St. Francis, p. 187.

[106] Ibid., pp. 66-7.

[107] As quoted in Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945 [1944]), p. 398.

[108] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Spring in the Soul [1932],’ 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. 188.

[109] Ibid.

[110] Ibid.

[111] As quoted in Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, p. 550.

[112] See. G. K. Chesterton, ‘Sex and Property,’ The Well and the Shallows (London: Sheed and Ward, 1937 [1935]), pp. 232-6.  See Chapter Four of the present thesis..

[113] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Reaction Of The Intellectuals,’ The Well and the Shallows, p. 92.

[114] See G. K. Chesterton, ‘On Mr. Rudyard Kipling,’ Heretics, p. 46.

[115] G. K. Chesterton, ‘What is Right with the World [1910],’ The Apostle and the Wild Ducks and other essays, edited by Dorothy E. Collins (London: Paul Elek, 1975), p. 167.

[116] Ibid.

[117] Ibid..

[118] Ibid., pp. 167-8.




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