E. Belfort Bax December 1908
Source: New Age, 10 December 1908, p. 130-131;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
“Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras. “I (G.K.C.) am the measure of all things,” says my esteemed opponent in last week’s NEW AGE. He says it, not indeed precisely in those words, but by suitable circumlocutions. Mr. Chesterton, in fact, seems to be an incarnation of Goethe’s “Student “ in the second part of Faust. This youthful and childlike arrogance would be only too delightful if one could persuade oneself to regard it as really naive, and not as part of the stage-business of the calling of smart-paradoxy. Mr. Chesterton “had no idea how utterly and finally dead is the whole nineteenth century attack on Christianity.” I think I have read the same, or similar, statements before from the same pen. I suppose the idea is that if you only repeat an assertion often enough you will make it true, just as the Christian Scientists think that if you keep on repeating you haven’t the toothache when you have you will sooner or later cure the toothache. And yet Mr. Chesterton is very severe on categorical propositions (excuse the long words, Mr. C.!), styled by him “assertions,” when they come from some benighted Rationalist. I could reply to Mr. C. with perfect truth that I had hardly realised how “utterly and finally dead” Christianity was until I had witnessed Mr. Chesterton’s attempts at galvanising its corpse – or shall I say, mummy? But I don’t know that these personal avowals on either side help the issue very much.
Let us now take Mr. Chesterton’s main point. In the ebullience, real or assumed, of youth, Mr. Chesterton is continually girding at all points of view that in his opinion don’t represent the present season’s “novelty” in ideas. The mention of anything “Early Victorian” being true makes him fairly dance with contempt and indignation. The red rag to the bull is nothing to it. It is especially the Rationalism of the nineteenth century that is his “bogey.” This it is which he is continually assuring the world is obsolete, belated, dead. As I pointed out in my original criticism, those personal assurances on the part of Mr. Chesterton, even though they amount to affidavits, are not precisely convincing. But granting for the sake of argument, in Mr. C.’s statements a certain plausibility, what at most do they amount to? I may premise that, in spite of Mr. C.’s assumption that my criticism of his book was a special defence of what he calls the “nineteenth century attack on Christianity” being unfounded (since I hardly touched the subject from this point of view), I am prepared to take him on this his own ground.
The nineteenth century Rationalism, then, largely took the form of an assault on Christian dogma. In conjunction with other forces, it, as most persons not specially committed to Christian dogma admit, killed Christian dogma as a central living faith seriously entertained by men. Dogmatic Christianity is now in its Catholic form confined to an ever-decreasing area of peasant populations, and in its Protestant form mainly to a decreasing section of the commercial middle-class. The inutility of flogging a dead or moribund horse might account for any deadness in the attack upon it, if such there were. But nineteenth century Rationalism, even as represented by the much-despised Secularist lecturer, the “Hall of Science,” the Broad Church parson, or any of the Early or Middle Victorian worthies which are Mr. C.’s special aversion, is in principle (as opposed to temporary and local adjuncts) in no sense dead, even though we may hear less of it than formerly. The explanation, which is obvious, never seems to have occurred to my dear, though grievously mistaken, critic. When a child is learning to walk certain elementary laws of balance have to be kept prominently before his mind. Afterwards they become part and parcel of his mental constitution. The same, mutatis mutandi, with bicycle riding, pianoforte playing, etc. In learning a language certain rules of grammar have to be ever present in the memory. When we are familiar with the language they pass into the background of the unconscious or the subconscious as belonging no longer to the surface of the mental life. And so with other things. But this does not mean that the rules in question are dead, exploded, or obsolete fallacies. On the contrary, they would assert themselves as very much alive indeed if they were ignored as though no longer of any account. So it is with the truths of nineteenth century Materialism or Rationalism. They are as much truths to-day as ever they were, only they have for most of us become platitudes -i.e., their truth has in its principle become hypertruth truism, and therefore banal and no longer interesting to us. Truth, in order to interest us, must be new and not absurdly and exaggeratedly true. Now the truth of “early Victorian” Rationalism has become part of the mental constitution of the present age, which no serious person (Mr. C., of course, excepted) thinks of disputing save by way of joke. Mr. Chesterton complains in effect that Shaw, when he denies miracles, talks plain sense, and does not “sparkle with epigrammatic sagacity” – in other words, he does not talk smart-paradox, but is, I suppose, “early victorian.” (The law of gravitation, by the way, I have the impression, is “early georgian,” the circulation of the blood “early charlesian, while a few trifles like the principles of mechanics, not to mention others, are still “earlier"!) Chesterton forgets that Shaw is older than he is and knows perhaps the limits of his métier better. One does not spoof the first law of motion, or smart-paradox the multiplication table, because it would be silly, but if called upon one states their formulae in plain English.
No, Mr. Chesterton! The mere reactionism which goes behind established positions leads nowhither! I grant you that you may build infinite degrees of further truth upon these established commonplaces, but this presupposes your acceptance of them in principle, and will never be the outcome of any futile tilting at them. Stale thought that has become commonplace may be taken up into a higher thought-unity, but does not therefore die. On the contrary, it thereby puts on the vesture of immortality. The truth of the nineteenth century Materialism remains, penetrating modern thought although some of the formulae used to express it in the “early Victorian” period when it was heretical, bright, and fresh, may be for us now no longer adequate.
I have dealt somewhat at length with this point as Mr. Chesterton, like certain other of the younger generation of smart writers, is continually identifying the eccentric workings of his own individual mind with those of the “Zeitgeist.” As before said, whether this is genuine self-illusion or mere bluff intended to impose on the crowd, I don’t know. Certain it is that, rightly or wrongly, saving the pose of a limited number of decadent young men, the modern mind shows not the slightest symptom of reacting to any form of dogmatic supernatural belief, Catholic or other. If Mr. Chesterton chooses to bury his head in the sand of his own imaginings, of course no one can help him.
I now come to the accusation of using “polysyllable words.” As regards this I have only to say that I object to all forms of literary affectation, but I contend there lives as much cant in the “simple language” talk of the present day as in all the long words of all the pedants put together. In this matter I am prepared to accept words of one syllable, if that be desired, where such can express the thought intended, and words of five syllables when such can do this better. Mr. Chesterton seems to think there is a magic in short words. I can only say I find no magic in them any more than in long ones. While fully prepared to admit that there may be affectation and pedantry in the use of long words, I contend that the danger to-day lies rather in the opposite direction. There are certain abstract and also complex concepts and relations which cannot be adequately expressed in the language of the infant school or the street, and in attempting to force them into this language a writer only produces misconception and confusion. If a man is too lazy to master the requisite terminology it were best he left highly abstract subjects (e.g., metaphysic) alone. By all means let Mr. Chesterton pursue his cult of short words and sentences wherever humanly possible, in practical matters, etc., though even here the danger of the opposite course is not so great as be makes out. To take his own illustration, given in “Orthodoxy,” of Mr. Gladstone’s Bill with its “indeterminate sentence.” The bamboozlement of the man-in-the-street in the paragraph coined by G.K.C. is not due to any long words it may contain, but to the fact that the average person is unfamiliar with the phrase “indeterminate sentence,” which may mean almost anything, but in the language of the Bill before Parliament has a very precise and very objectionable significance. The good English colloquial phrase “stretchable quod is a good thing” would probably bamboozle the unsophisticated quite as much as the highly academic form of words invented in scorn by Mr. Chesterton. If a man is once familiar with words it matters not intrinsically whether they be long or short.
Mr. Chesterton has evidently not given his attention to Metaphysic, his utterances on the subject clearly bearing witness to the fact. I should have thought, however, that even a non-philosopher (in the technical sense) would have seen that the definition of truth Mr. C. finds “shallow” is the deepest and most ultimate that anyone can formulate, and would hardly have discovered any humour in opposing to it what any reasonable man, one would think, must have seen, was a piece of childish tautology.
There are more points I should like to have dealt with in Mr. Chesterton’s article, but I fear I have already over-run the constable in the matter of space, so must reserve them for a future occasion. One word of criticism in conclusion as to Mr. Chesterton’s title. Why should long words be solemner than short ones? I hardly see, moreover, how a man can be precisely a “solemn spoofer.” He may be a solemn humbug if you like; but a “solemn spoofer” rather suggests iced cream served hot, does it not?