In part 5 we covered the basic outline of Chesterton’s social philosophy. A few other things are prominent enough in his thinking to be worth mentioning separately. Chesterton loved humanity, as any good Christian should. Nowadays some readers cast aspersions on this and suggest that he was racist. It’s true that if you search his works thoroughly enough, you can find a few instances of the dreaded n-word and a couple other turns of phrase that wouldn’t fit in well with present-day attempts to walk on eggshells regarding race issues. However, as a whole the charges of racism are ironic given that in his day, progressive do-gooders often accused Chesterton of liking blacks, Native Americans, and other “primitive” peoples too much. In fact, Chesterton first jumped to national prominence for his ferocious opposition to the Boer War at the turn of the century. He upheld the position that Britain had no right to grab imperial possessions in Africa and that all peoples had the right to self-government–not a popular position at the time.
But while Chesterton was a humanitarian, he did not believe in knocking down all boundaries that separated people. Indeed he knew that humanity was separated into various units for a reason. He summed up the apparent contradiction in a famous quatrain.
Oh, how I love Humanity,
With love so pure and pringlish!
And how I hate the horrid French,
Who never will be English!
(This is part of a longer poem, which you can read here.)
Chesterton, following Aristotle and Aquinas, believed that it was natural and right for humanity to separate into nations, communities, and families. Only within these divisions could people maintain their unique traditions and allow individuality to flourish. By contrast, John Lennon’s idea of “no countries, no religion, no property” might sound attractive but was really a path to crushing uniformity and dictatorship.
(Perhaps you’re wondering how Chesterton could respond to Lennon when the former died before the later was born. Chesterton was really responding to the same bad ideas as espoused by leaders of his own day. However, he often had an uncanny ability to write in ways that exactly address future situations.)
Chesterton believed in patriotism, that everyone should love and support their country. That did not mean blind support, though, but rather a keen awareness of both what was right and what was wrong with that country.
A man who says that no patriot should attack the management of a war until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.
He also drew fine distinctions between the right and wrong reasons for loving one’s country. It was wrong to believing in racial superiority, or ideological superiority, or that a country had specific destiny or a mission to spread capitalism or whatever. Rather, country should be loved with an emotional and almost mystical tie, and so should community and family. As he put it:
Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform. Let me explain by using once more the parallel of patriotism. The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem. I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason—because he has a reason.
So that was the basis for politics in Chesterton’s mind. It’s worth noting that the ties between large-scale units like England and small-scale ones like a town or a neighborhood were not arbitrary. In Chesterton’s thinking the same logic applied all the way up and down the scale of size. Most particularly, it applied to the family. In the union of a husband and wife, Chesterton saw something sacred , something that was the only possible basic unit for a happy society but which could not be reduced to a practical business relationship. Instead, a successful marriage had to be based on the creative tension between two individuals.
Marriage is a duel to the death, which no man of honor should decline.
(This comes from his book Manalive, and should be read in its proper context.)
On the topic of family life, Chesterton would once again have trouble fitting in with the most avant garde thinkers of his time or ours, not because he believed anything negative about women (or men, for that matter), but because he had a common sense approach.
As a matter of fact, it will be generally found that the popular joke is not true to the letter, but it is true to the spirit. … The same is true of the perpetual jokes in comic papers about shrewish wives and henpecked husbands. It is all a frantic exaggeration, but it is an exaggeration of a truth; whereas all the modern mouthings about oppressed women are the exaggerations of a falsehood. If you read even the best of the intellectuals of to-day you will find them saying that in the mass of the democracy the woman is the chattel of her lord, like his bath or his bed. But if you read the comic literature of the democracy you will find that the lord hides under the bed to escape the wrath of his chattel. This is not the fact, but it is much nearer the truth.
Broadly speaking, Chesterton supported women who did not work outside the home, but not as a strict rule. He had plentiful respect for many working women, but wanted to ensure that women who chose not to would find it socially and economically possible. Moreover, he pointed out the absurdity in automatically assuming that working outside the home meant freedom while staying inside it meant oppression.
But the advocates seem to want some of them to escape from it into capitalism. They seem to express a sympathy with those who prefer “the right to earn outside the home” or (in other words) the right to be a wage-slave and work under the orders of a total stranger because he happens to be a richer man. By what conceivable contortions of twisted thought this ever came to be considered a freer condition than that of companionship with the man she has herself freely accepted, I never could for the life of me make out. The only sense I can make of it is that the proletarian work, though obviously more senile and subordinate than the parental, is so far safer and more irresponsible because it is not parental. I can easily believe that there are some people who do prefer working in a factory to working in a family; for there are always some people who prefer slavery to freedom, and who especially prefer being governed to governing someone else.
(Yet another quote from a longer essay that’s well worth reading.)
Foremost among Chesterton’s concerns about the family was for the conditions under which children were raised. He saw immediately the dangers in public schooling that many people are just starting to become aware of today: focus on menial tasks, biased lesson plans with political motivations, and gradually dehumanizing control from the top down.
So that is a rough sketch of how Chesterton viewed society and the proper organization thereof. In reading Chesterton one will find him referring to certain topics over and over again. He had bugaboos which he hammered on with great frequency. One was eugenics, the idea of the state determining who should and shouldn’t be born. Needless to say, he strongly opposed it, and in fact wrote the only book against the British Eugenics program published while it was taking place: Eugenics and Other Evils. He also disliked prohibition and mocked Americans for it at great length. He took pot shots and do-gooder bureaucrats who were trying to meddle in people’s private lives. While it may seem at times that he drags these issues into pieces of writing where they don’t belong, it was actually part of a strong and lively philosophy. Chesterton had a clearly-defined view of where authority should reside and where it shouldn’t. He wanted freedom for ordinary people and a society organized from the bottom up, with as much power for families as possible. He saw a great many schemes by which politicians and industrialists were trying to strip away that freedom, and he hit back hard against those schemes.