from
Avowals and Denials
by
G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

These pages: Avowals and Denials

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Avowals and Denials

Copyright © 1935 by Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc.

Essays reprinted from the Illustrated London News

I

On Monsters and Logic

I need not say that such a Monster, whether or no he is an inhabitant of Loch Ness, is a very popular inhabitant of Fleet Street. He is doubtless a benevolent Monster; and has helped many poor journalists to place paragraphs here and there. In the grand imagery of the Book of Job, he maketh the deep to boil like a pot; and has also been the occasion of a good deal of pot-boiling. [...] But I am very much interested in another monster; a much more monstrous monster; one so fantastic that he might well be a fabulous monster. This monster is called Man; and instead of the humps and horns and writhing tails, with which such creatures are credited, he has an abnormal excrescence called a Head. In this, it has been conjectured, there resides some mysterious principle called a Mind; but really, it has lately become almost as elusive and evasive as the Monster of Loch Ness.

For the way in which most critics, especially sceptical critics, write about a thing like the lake-monster is very like the way in which they wrote about the sea-serpent. That is, it is both mysterious and mystical and irrational. [...] But the largest snake in the sea is no more supernatural than the smallest snake in the sea. How large such creatures can be in the depths of the sea may be a matter of scientific discussion; but it ought to be a matter of purely scientific discussion. There is nothing particularly transcendental about holding that there are bigger fish in the sea than ever came out of it.

Compare to:

Pratchett

Topic:

Journalism

A man may believe one miracle and not another miracle; knowing there are true and false miracles, as there are true and false banknotes. But the Monster is not a miracle. Something like it may occur along with magic in magic tales. But a man might as well say that millers and cats and princesses are fabulous animals, because they appear side by side with goblins and mermaids in the stories of the nursery.

Topic:

Miracles

II

On Christmas that is Coming
For the curious custom of our time has turned Christmas into a vast anticipation; by turning it into a vast advertisement.

I am so daring as darkly to suspect that it would be better if people could enjoy Christmas when it came, instead of being bored with the news that it was coming. [...]

At any rate, the proof of the Christmas pudding is in the eating. And it stands as a symbol of a whole series of things; which too many people nowadays have forgotten how to enjoy in themselves, and for themselves, and at the time when they are actually consumed.

As a fact, the farm landscape has a hundred interesting things in it which the film landscape has not. But the critics cannot bring themselves to believe that a man will ever again have a taste for going back to the originals, as more interesting than the copies. For all the apparent materialism and mass mechanism of our present culture, we far more than any of our fathers live in a world of shadows.
The little boy expects to find sixpences in the pudding; and this is right enough, so long as the sixpences are secondary to the pudding. Now the change from the medieval to the modern world might be very truly described under that image. It is all the difference between putting sixpences in a Christmas pudding and erecting a Christmas pudding round sixpences. There was money in the old days of Christmas and Christendom; there was merchandise; there were merchants. But the moral scheme of all the old order, whatever its other vices and diseases, always assumed that money was secondary to substance; that the merchant was secondary to the maker. [...] And it is true that men came to think too much about prizes, and too little about pudding. This, in connexion with ordinary pudding, is a fallacy; in connexion with Christmas pudding it is a blasphemy.

Topic:

Money

III

On the Man on the Spot
It might almost be better to deduce the probabilities from general principles of human nature than to accept absolutely as infallible the private experiences of human beings. [...] Social experiment differs from chemical experiment, or anything that is really practical in the way of scientific experiment. It differs in this vital respect: that the students of the social science dispute, not only about what will happen, but about what did happen. Two chemists are not left quarrelling about whether there was or was not an explosion with a loud bang.

Topics:

Science

Experiment

Now I like to know the theories of other people, even if they are theories I dislike belonging to people I dislike. When I know what principle they are supposed to be acting on, I can either deduce their activity or convince them of inconsistency. But when a man calls himself practical, because he does something and doesn’t know why, then there is no relation between our minds at all.
IV

On Shaw and his Black Girl
But I do not accept that everlasting evolution, which merely means everlasting chaos. As I only accept the organic and orderly development of a thing according to its own design and nature, there is for me such a thing as a human culture that is reasonably complete. Only the modern, advanced, progressive scientific culture is unreasonably incomplete.

Topic:

Culture

V

On the Atheist Museum
I know that some newspaper proprietors and such national leaders think that it should only make us shudder, and issue periodical summonses to the public, telling us to keep on shuddering. But I do not believe very much in shuddering as a way of fighting; I have never heard of any stupidity that was extinguished by shuddering; and I have heard of several that were extinguished by laughing. Certainly there are aspects of the case that are no laughing matter, as stated by some really responsible writers in their formulation of the case against the Bolshevists. But at least there is nothing but pure, hilarious, happy laughter for some of the Bolshevist methods of formulating the case for the Bolshevists.

Topic:

Humor

VI

On the New Prudery
[...] the following rules must be strictly observed in the teaching, or for that matter, the playtime, of her child. (I) The child must never read fairy-tales or be allowed to hear about fairies. (2) The child must never hear of the very existence of fighting in any form. (3) The child must be strictly guarded from the shameful rumour that there is such a thing as religion or religious beliefs. I will leave the lady confronted with the problem of narrating, under these limitations, the historical story of St. Joan of Arc.

Topic:

Education

The intellectual interest of this bit of bigotry lies in this: that the new philosophies and new religions and new social systems cannot draw up their own plans for emancipating mankind without still further enslaving mankind. They cannot carry out even what they regard as the most ordinary reforms without instantly imposing the most extraordinary restrictions. We are to live under a sort of martial law lest we should hear of anything martial. All our children are to be watched by the grimmest of all governesses lest they should be told, even by accident, of a fairy or a fight with robbers.

VII

On the Return of the Barbarian
The bother with the barbarian is that he is right by accident, and sometimes does not even know why he is right. The case for the civilized man is that he is wrong by his own fault, and knows it is his own fault; and, knowing that he is wrong, may have some reason to put himself right. Never be merely on the side of barbarism, for it always means the destruction of all that men have ever understood, by men who do not understand it.
The Germans, not being realistic, have already forgotten that they were defeated ten years ago; but they still remember vividly that they were victorious fifty years ago. That is the advantage of being a sentimentalist. You only remember what you like to remember. It is also the advantage of being a barbarian.
There are many marks by which anybody of historical imagination can recognize the recurrence: the monstrous and monotonous omnipresence of one symbol, and that a symbol of which nobody knows the meaning; the relish of the tyrant for exaggerating even his own tyranny, and barking so loud that nobody can even suspect that his bark is worse than his bite; the impatient indifference to all the former friends of Germany, among those who are yet making Germany the only test—all these things have a savour of savage and hasty simplification, which may, in many individuals, correspond to an honest indignation or even idealism, but which, when taken altogether, give an uncomfortable impression of wild men who have merely grown weary of the complexity that we call civilization.

Topic:

Tyrants

VIII

On Women Who Vote

Miss Underwood and her friends always talk as if being a wage-slave in the corrupt and decaying capitalistic system were a sort of beatific benefit, first bestowed on men in a spirit of favouritism, and then withheld from women in a spirit of jealousy or repression. Even the happy and radiant condition of trade and commerce today cannot convince me that this view is to be accepted as a first principle.

In other words, there is just one little hitch between us: that what she calls economic independence I call economic dependence. The condition of dependence is involved in the condition of employment; especially under the extreme modern menace of unemployment.

Note (Hal’s):
However, I don’t quite see why being menaced with unemployment is worse than being unemployed. One is surprised that Chesterton does not argue this is equivalent to claiming starvation is better than having food and worrying about what happens when it runs out.

— end note

IX

On the Fallacy of Eugenics

My gratitude is grounded on the grand and impressive fact that it was Mr. H. G. Wells, and not any of us poor slaves of superstition, who long ago pointed out the gaping and ghastly scientific fallacy in almost all that is now being revived, under the labels of Eugenics and Heredity.

The point is this; and it has never been answered. To judge by the way in which politicians and publicists discuss such matters, it has never even been understood. The fact is that it is totally impossible to argue from the fact of physical inheritance to any sort of result other than the very simplest physical features. [...] All the things that are worth having, such as health and beauty and happiness and virtue, are all, without exception, things produced by a particular proportion between different things.

X

On the Classicism of the Terror
But the moral is that revolt seems to produce suddenly an astonishing intellectual intolerance; and that what was at first on fire with politics turns into something quite cold and conservative in art.
XII

On Dialect and Decency

For one of the deepest troubles of the day is this fact; that something is being commended as a new taste; which is simply the condition which finds everything tasteless. It is sometimes offered almost as if it were a new sense; but it is not really even a new sensibility; it is rather a pride in a new insensibility.

For instance, when some old piece of decorum is abolished, rightly or wrongly, it is always supposed to be completely justified if people become just as dull in accepting the indecency as they were in accepting the decency.

Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. There are two meanings of the word “nervous”; and it is not even a physical superiority to be actually without nerves. It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal; and that you are a paralytic.

For what we do at least know, in the most fundamental fashion, is that man is man by the possession of these fastidious fancies; from which the free-thinking haddock is entirely emancipated; and by which the latitudinarian turnip is never troubled. To lose the sense of repugnance from one thing, or regard for another, is exactly so far as it goes to relapse into the vegetarian or to return to the dust. But for about fifty or sixty years, nearly all our culture and controversial trend has been conducted on the assumption that as long as we could get used to any sort of caddishness, we could be perfectly contented in being cads. I do not say that all the results of the process have been wrong. But I do say that the test of the process has been wrong from first to last; for it is not a case against the citizen that a man can grow accustomed to being either a savage or a slave.

XIII

On Man: Heir of all the Ages

If the modern man is indeed the heir of all the ages, he is often the kind of heir who tells the family solicitor to sell the whole damned estate, lock, stock, and barrel, and give him a little ready money to throw away at the races or the night-clubs. He is certainly not the kind of heir who ever visits his estate: and, if he really owns all the historic lands of ancient and modern history, he is a very absentee landlord. He does not really go down the mines on the historic property, whether they are the Caves of the Cave-Men or the Catacombs of the Christians, but is content with a very hasty and often misleading report from a very superficial and sometimes dishonest mining expert. He allows any wild theories, like wild thickets of thorn and briar, to grow all over the garden and even the graveyard. He will always believe modern testimony in a text-book against contemporary testimony on a tombstone. [...] Nevertheless, there are some of us who do hold that the metaphor of inheritance from human history is a true metaphor, and that any man who is cut off from the past, and content with the future, is a man most unjustly disinherited; and all the more unjustly if he is happy in his lot, and is not permitted even to know what he has lost.

Topic:

History

XIV

On the Real Animal

And there is always a misunderstanding between the two types of thinkers, those who live on two planes of thought; the people who think of human beings as humanity; and the people who think of humanity as human beings.

Yet the humanitarians might learn the lesson even from the example of humanity.

Topic:

Two kinds

It is quite true that Christendom existed long before any of the nations. But it is also true that those who cling to the nations, however ignorantly, cling to the leavings, and to the living leavings, of the original life; while those who say they are making new things are not making new things, but only making new names.
XV

On Dogs with Bad Names
[...] when a man has become a public figure famed for certain opinions, any number of critics refuse to criticize anything except those opinions. It is no use for him to have other opinions, or new opinions, even upon new topics.

Topic:

Opinions

text checked (see note) Jun 2006

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Background graphic copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen