Avowals and Denials
G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

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Avowals and Denials

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

Essays reprinted from the Illustrated London News


On the Deceptibility of Youth
We might bring back a better state of things out of the past, but no sensible person thinks there was a perfect state of things in the past; though many are strictly and very strangely taught to suppose that there must be one in the future. That is the real difference between the man who knows he is restoring an old thing and the man who thinks he knows that he is inventing a new thing.

Many great revolts or reforms, or other social outbreaks, can best be explained by noting the date at which some old experience was no longer even dated, but had gone really and truly out of date. It had become so old that it could easily become new. Thus such revolutions happen, not at the moment when men have found something, but rather at the moment when they have forgotten something. Something has gone out of sight just long enough for people to see it as quite different, if it appears again. Not enough note has been taken in history of these dates of oblivion; as distinct from dates of recognition; for, indeed, they are dates of lack of recognition.

By the time that Europe, especially Northern Europe, threw itself so enthusiastically into national politics, and a complete division of the provinces of Christendom from each other, it had had time to forget what an infernal nuisance it had once been found to live in an anarchy of tribes and towns, all with different gods and incompatible ambitions; as it had been before the Order of the Roman Empire; before politics had been unified by Caesar or religion by Constantine. When men had got far enough away from barbarism and blind wars to forget what they were like, they instantly plunged into them again. The moment, of all moments, in which we should be most careful to recall the real dangers and difficulties of any idea, is the moment when it comes back revived, and perhaps rightly revived, after long periods of neglect, and refreshed by the sleep of centuries. I do not say that we should not welcome its revival, or accept its return to triumph; but I do say that it is at exactly that moment that we should remember its demerits, while trying to restore its merits.


On Dreams
The whole modern movement, from Hume to Huxley, was supposed to have awakened men out of every sort of dream, and even classed their spiritual visions and revelations with their dreams. I know not what the men of that movement would have thought if they had found a more modern generation actually believing in visions and revelations merely because they had been communicated in dreams.




On the Fossil of a Fanatic
One special form of the harm done by the extreme sects in the seventeenth century was this: that they really died young, and that what has infected our culture since has not been their life, or even their death, but rather their decay. In most cases the Puritans lost their religion and retained their morality; a deplorable state of things for anybody. If the special narrow theologies had not perished rapidly as they did, the atmospheric moral mood would not have lingered on exactly in the way it did. [...] It is rather like the geological process of the formation of a fossil. Everyone knows that a fossil fish is not a fish; nor a fossil bird a bird. I do not mean merely in the obvious sense: that we should be surprised, nay annoyed, in a restaurant, if we asked for a fish and they gave us a stone. I mean that a fossil is a form, in which remains no actual fragment of a fish. It is a hollow mould or image of a fish, which is very gradually filled up by the infiltration of something else, after the actual fish has decayed. Thus we find the general outline of these stony and very literal faiths filled up by something else when the old fanaticism has decayed.




On Blake and his Critics
For I am one of those who think that the poet stands separate and supreme among men, in that simple fact that the poet can say exactly what he means, and that most men cannot. I think, in other words, that the other name of Poet is Pontifex; or the Builder of the Bridge. And if there is not a real bridge between his brain and ours, it is useless to argue about whether it has broken down at our end or at his. He has not got the communication.

On the Instability of the State
For them, The Family was a stuffy thing somewhere in the suburbs which only existed to be the subject of Problem Plays and Problem Novels. The only question about it was whether its gloom should be brightened up by suicide; or its selfishness exalted by self-indulgence. But the whole of this view, though it is a view very nearly universal in the big modern towns, only exists because the big modern town is an entirely artificial society.

On the One-Party System

There are certain notions for which I have long argued, incompetently but industriously, in many places and for many years, seeking to make them prevail. Now nearly all of them are enjoying a triumph; and I do not like their triumph. This does not mean, the refined reader will be grieved to hear, that I have changed my mind about them; or that I feel even the faintest doubt that they are true. It only means that I fear that the world will see more of the triumph than of the truth. While they were hardly ever expressed, it was easier for them to be explained; when it is assumed that everybody understands them, it often only means that there are a great many more people to misunderstand them. It also means, I cannot but grieve to discover what many grey-bearded patriarchs must have discovered before me, that there are many more people than I had imagined who can only understand one idea at a time.

Anyhow, we pointed out that it was an outrage to call a thing free government, when the voters are driven by their labels, into one of two narrow lobbies, by the activity (of all degrading images in the world) of Whips.



When I was young, it was very generally assumed that any man was a fool who was in possession of a faith. It was the fashion to assume that reason is the same as rationalism, and that rationalism is the same as scepticism; though it has since become obvious that the first real act of scepticism is to be doubtful about reason. [...] A great body of living and logical apologetics has restored theology to its place in the scheme of thought. But I cannot deny that there has also been a reaction against rationalism, which seems to me to be simply a reaction towards irrationalism. [...] I never wanted a revival of religion that abolished reason; any more than I ever wanted a reform of government that abolished liberty. I opposed what was called rationalism, because I did not admit that it was rational; just as I criticized what was called democracy, because I did not believe that it was democratic. There seems to me some danger that the reaction may endanger the just ends as well as the unjust methods of reform; and lose the very ideals which the world had only touched to desecrate and parody. Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue; but it is a rather dangerous form of homage, if it makes people hate the virtue because it has been aped by the vice.

On the Science of Sociology

The great Science of Finger-Prints, discovered by a brilliant French criminologist, has produced its principal or ultimate effect on the world, which is this: that whereas a gentleman was expected to put on gloves to dance with a lady, he may now be expected to put on gloves in order to strangle her. These changes in etiquette, or fine shades of fashion, may or may not correspond with an improvement in dancing or a decrease in strangling. The great Science of Criminology itself [...] has produced no such simple and practical result. It was conducted proudly and somewhat pompously on the following principles: that very poor men, and especially poor men more or less in the hands of the police, can safely have their ears pulled, their skulls measured, their teeth counted, tested, or pulled out, so as to establish by scientific methods a sort of composite photograph of all criminals, which was really a composite photograph of all very poor men. Whereas, if the scientific expert pays a call on an American millionaire, and says to him cheerily, “I have come to measure your ears,” or “Permit me to take a cast of your very simian facial angle,” there is generally quite a scene before the scientific expert, in American language, pays for his excessive interest in the ears of others by being thrown out on his ear. There was therefore a serious gap in the galleries of criminal types which used to be published in the magazines of popular science; the defect being the entire absence of any types of anti-social activity who had ever had more than £200 a year.




Can we hope, perhaps, that all of us will begin to see what some of us can claim to have seen from the beginning: three great truths or dogmas on which all history hangs? (I) That humanity is far too complex to have such calculations made about it. (2) That humanity is afflicted with original sin. (3) That the will of man is free. Granted these three facts, it is obvious that nobody can predict that nobody will start this or that idea, will start it even if it has been unsuccessful, will start it even if it may fail again, will start it even if it is wicked, and its success therefore more wicked than its failure. There are too many men, each with too many moods, each with too many influences on them varying from instant to instant, to predict how the man will jump; for he is much more capricious than that lazy animal the cat.




On the Touchy Realist
This is not the first time in history that the excess of Paganism has led to mere Pessimism, and its name now, like its name two thousand years ago, is, or ought to be, Manicheanism. It appears at that point when men can no longer distinguish between the leprosy that is devouring the life and the life which it devours; when their rage against the weeds that choke the flowers passes into a wild feeling that all flowers are weeds; when the tares and the wheat seem so hopelessly entangled that the demented farmer is more angry with the wheat than with the tares.




On Wordsworth

There is something that is always discovered by men if they live long enough; and Wordsworth lived very long; quite long enough to discover it, though he did not say very much about it. It is something quite distinct from his reaction against revolution in early middle age; indeed, it is not merely a reaction against revolution; it is quite as much a reaction against reaction. It might be called the fact that the world goes round; as distinct from the fact that the world goes on. [...] When there really is anything like the building of a new civilization, it means that there has been a great deal of quarrying in the ruins of the old civilization. When there is only a false start, a half-built farmhouse, a half-baked culture and bankruptcy, it means that the reformers have tried to simplify life too much; they have left behind them all that they wanted most.


On Eric Gill

My own general thesis was somewhat to this effect: that Artists have worried the world by being wantonly, needlessly, and gratuitously progressive. Politicians have to be progressive; that is, they have to live in the future, because they know that they have done nothing but evil in the past. But Artists, who have been right from the beginning of the world, who were, perhaps, the only people who were right even in the beginning of the world, decorating pottery or designing rude frescoes on the rock when other people were fighting or offering human sacrifice, they have no right to despise their own past. Their fickleness and mutability is wanton; and all legal systems roughly agree that extra blame attaches to a crime that is wanton.




On the Great Relapse
Disgust is more violent than disapproval, but it is much less strong than disapproval. And nothing is more essentially unstable than the sort of disgust that merely follows upon excess. In short, the peace mood just after the war was the well-known mood of the Morning After the Night Before. It was the headache of the drunkard whose excesses in drink have gone to his head. As the mere blind bibulous wine-drinker may be weary of wine, so the mere journalistic Jingo was weary of war. [...] The mere nausea which comes through having seen the same thing for five years will weaken in people who have not seen it for twelve years.
Nobody has done the one really difficult and indispensable thing; the only thing that might possibly avert a war in the earlier stages of a quarrel. Nobody has tried to look at the side opposite to his own side. [...] They were not trying to compose the quarrel; they were only trying to prove that they were right in the quarrel. If they really wanted to avert war in Europe, they should have started from the very beginning with full statements of the case for each of the quarrelling States of Europe. They should have been careful especially to state the case for those whom they liked least.




On the Next Hundred Years
Mr. Wells takes his fixed point in the future; and from that finds it easy to show that all our modern politics and economics are unfixed—which, God knows, is very true. But there is always something a little irritating about a man writing as a Utopian; not in the sense of one who desires Utopia, but in the sense of one who already inhabits Utopia.

Note (Hal’s):
This essay was occasioned by a Sunday-paper series, a “History of the Next Hundred Years” by H. G. Wells.

— end note

Mr. Wells’s imaginary author, writing at an unknown date in an undiscovered country, does really talk as if the very idea of such base revolts or betrayals of the social order was to him unthinkable. What I deny is that there will ever be a social order in which they are unthinkable. There might be a very vigorous social order, in which for some time they were very nearly impracticable. But in the long run, I fancy, the healthiest social order would come back to being pretty thankful if it could say they were rare. And I do not believe that this result could be achieved, or even approached, by anything like a mere improvement in social machinery, or the establishment of Bureaus for Everything. I think it happens only when there is a strong sense of duty and dignity implanted in people, not by any government or even any school, but by something which they recognize as making a secret call upon a solitary soul. I do not believe in Men Like Gods; but I do believe in Men With Gods; or, preferably (such is my fastidious taste in such matters), a God. That is another and much bigger question, though it involves no more credulity than a complete belief in Utopia. My only point, here, is that it is at least as arbitrary for the great novelist to write his letters from Utopia, as it would be for me to date my criticism from Paradise.

text checked (see note) Jun 2006

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Background graphic copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen