E. Belfort Bax November 1908

Spiritual Spoof[1]

Source: New Age, 5 November 1908, p. 31-32;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Mr. Chesterton’s much-reviewed latest book is typical of a prevailing fashion in thought and trick of argumentative writing. His protagonist, I suppose, must be held to be Nietzsche, but for this country the most popular representative of the method, whose discovery of it was probably independent of Nietzsche, is undoubtedly, G.B. Shaw. It may be termed the method of smart-paradox. It proceeds, in a word, by showing that whatever is isn’t and that whatever isn’t is. It may be characterised as an intellectual three-card trick. The aim of the material three-card trickster of the English racecourse is to bamboozle his dupe into thinking the picture-card is lying in a different position from where it really is; and his effect in inducing the onlooker to stake his money on the conviction that the card in question is lying on the right when it is actually on the left or in the middle, is the measure of his success as a three-card trickster. So it is with the intellectual attitude and method of which G.B.S. is the pioneer in this country and Mr. Chesterton the clever and highly successful epigonon. For there is a difference between Shaw and Chesterton in the playing-out of paradoxes. Shaw plays them as the notes of a flute are played by the flute player – Chesterton grinds them out like a barrel organ, or, to employ a well-known industrial metaphor, Shaw’s paradoxical quips leave you with the impression that they are hand-made, while Chesterton’s, at least as presented in the book under consideration, from their similarity and endlessness, suggest the products of machine industry. The effect of this is shown in the reading. Before one has got half through Mr. Chesterton’s book, one is already cloyed with the apparently limitless output of smart paradox. It is often said that G.B.S. is simply a gay deceiver and hardened joker. And this may be the case. Shaw sometimes, we know, comes to “believe in Jesus” and regards the middle-classes as bulwarks of Socialism. But still, on other occasions, we do discern in Shaw the strain of serious intention. With Mr. Chesterton, on the other hand, the interminable reeling off of paradox seems to have no end beyond itself. Mr. Chesterton never appears in any other light than as the spirit that spoofs and that does nothing else but spoof. In Mr. Chesterton’s book, it is true, we find the pose of Catholicism, affected by a certain type of intellectually gifted and intellectually blasé young men of the present day. It is, in fact, an attempt to defend this position by the method of smart-paradox. But we can only venture the assertion after a perusal of it that he would have been equally successful in a similar smart-paradoxical rehabilitation of Buddhism, or Mahomedanism, Hinduism, the Henotheistic synchretistic paganism of the Roman-Imperial period, as of the Christian system. Even the fairy tale of the nursery rhyme – as Mr. Chesterton hints may be shown to contain eighteen carat wisdom when treated on this method. If I mistake not, some precursor of Mr. Chesterton has attempted to do this with the “House that Jack Built.” It is certainly a more profitable and kudos-bringing occupation to take service in the cause of conventional morality or conventional religion with a new weapon in your hand, rather than to use the same weapon in leading the charge in an attack, direct or indirect, on traditional authority and vested privilege.

Let us consider for a moment what this latest fashionable method of criticism by smart-paradox, when at its best and strongest, is really based on. What is the secret of its plausibility? Ordinary man, though he may not be bamboozled into any positive results by the conjuring of the smart-paradoxist, nevertheless has a feeling of perplexity. He is half-conscious that he is being had, but he does not know how, yet the secret is not so very difficult to discover by anyone versed in metaphysic. It consists in the fact that reality in general, and every special content of reality, enshrines a latent contradiction or antinomy. The whole movement of reality involves the positing and resolution of contradictory elements. This is the principle of the Hegelian method, the so-called Trichotomy. As I am not writing a treatise on metaphysic I will not attempt to expound this principle in detail now. Those desiring further discussion on the subject I may refer to my Roots of Reality. The point here I wish to emphasise is that a dexterous thinker or exponent may seize hold of a given truth, or aspect of reality, or a given “value,” and by cleverly manipulating it, by presenting it at an angle, so to speak, which shows the imminent contradiction in an unresolved form, may give it the appearance of absurdity. The trick demands practice to be effective but the practice once acquired, brilliant and seemingly unanswerable paradox may be reeled off ad infinitum. Now, Mr. Chesterton, it must be admitted, is a past-master in the knack of thus “thimble-rigging,” the values of things. He can show you that nothing is itself and that everything is something else.

But it must not be supposed that Mr. Chesterton always attempts this by a strict adhesion to the practice aforesaid. He only too often lapses into the easier method of verbal quibble. His paradoxes are commonly no more than plays upon words or are based on premises which are mere arbitrary assertions of his own compounded of definitions of words invented by himself and peculiar to himself alone. For instance, his tricks with the words “democratic” and “dogmatic” are a bit too thin and obvious. When Mr. Chesterton tells us that to disbelieve a rustic’s ghost story or an old apple woman’s “testimony to a miracle” is “undemocratic,” the answer is simple. Mr. Chesterton’s definition of the word “democratic” is not mine, but if it be correct, then I am “undemocratic” in a Chestertonian sense – et voilà tout! Again, if my refusal to accept uncritical and rotten evidence in favour of the supernatural constitutes me a “dogmatist,” according to the Chestertonian “particular” definition of the word, well, then, I am one. The attempt to fix a label or to prove a circulus by inventing one’s own definitions is a game anyone can play at. Once more, continual reiteration throughout 297 pages that the dogmas of Catholic orthodoxy are the quintessence of sweet reasonableness and the whole of modern science and modern thought everything that is perverse and contrary thereto, is not only not convincing but tedious. The tedium is hardly relieved by (e.g.) the assurance that Christianity “was an emancipation” in that it taught men “here you can swagger and there you can growl,” as against Paganism, which taught him neither to swagger nor to growl. Personally, I am depraved enough to prefer Pagan precept in this connection. Mr. Chesterton complains of modern science taking away his freedom to believe in fairy tales or, I suppose, in Catholic dogmas. But common sense takes away his freedom to believe that London is bathed in sunshine in the midst of a winter fog.

Sometimes, too, Mr. Chesterton says things that are silly, judged even from the métier of the smart paradoxist, To take one instance of this. Among the many beneficent effects of Christianity (p. 181) as against Paganism, he alleges that it has brought greater variety in human life, adducing “the separation of Europe into the modern nationalities while remaining a unity” (?) as proof of this. Now, in the first place, the questionable boon of the modern European National State-System is demonstrably traceable to economic development and other material causes, and not in any respect whatever to Christianity. Catholicism, in fact, was a hindrance to its realisation. Hence the disruption of the unity of the Christian Church at the Reformation. That Christianity produced the modern system of National States is as contrary to historical fact as it is contrary to historical fact that this system gives us a greater variety of type than was afforded by Pagan antiquity. Under Paganism, even during the decadent Roman period, every city and every district enjoyed its own religion to a large extent, its own legends and customs – in short, its own local type of colour. It was just Christianity that put the coping stone on one side at least, to the work begun by the Roman-Imperial system on another and did its best to destroy this variety by forcing all the poetry of life into the debased mould of hard and arid dogma. But for the rich luxuriance of the life of classical Paganism it is necessary to go behind the Roman-Imperial period to that of Greek Paganism in its prime. It is there you find an intensive variety of life the like of which the world has never since seen. However, such things as these – would-be smart-paradoxes based on bald assertions conspicuously at variance with fact – meet one only too frequently in Mr. Chesterton’s pages. Mr. Chesterton’s smart special pleadings generally issue in – spoof. To such base usage has “Orthodoxy” returned as to serve for the whipped-cream to Mr. Chesterton’s literary meringues. I would be by no means understood, however, as denying the brilliancy and the cleverness of many of Mr. Chesterton’s mots. Smart-paradox is often the most effective way of bringing home a truth encrusted in convention to the mind, and Mr. Chesterton sometimes hits truths in this way very happily. There are not wanting grains of wheat amid all the chaff (metaphorical and literal). But the smart-paradox has its limitations and an exclusive diet of smart-paradox is apt to produce a mental nausea.

And what does it all come to? Truth is the intellectual expression of the self-consistency of consciousness as a whole. But the content of consciousness changes, and with it the relation of any part of that content to that whole, i.e., the unity of experience. Hence the attempt to pour new wine into old bottles, to force the new matter of human thought into old forms, can never be effective in the long run. To apply this to the case in hand. The enormous bulk of thinking persons have practically, if not nominally, left the ideal symbolic systems called religions which have been handed down by tradition, completely, and for ever far behind them. The attempt to resurrect these corpses has never yet amounted to anything more than the ghastly and fatuous pastime of trying to produce the semblance of life out of the twitchings effected by a galvanic battery. Mr. Chesterton’s galvanic battery, powerful though it may be for other purposes, hardly succeeds in doing even as much as this.

If there be a lesson to be drawn from the affected and pedantic Catholic pose, in general, and Mr. Chesterton’s book in particular, it can only be this. Mankind, at present, stands in need of an intellectual and moral synthesis. The old religions which did duty as such are gone past galvanisation. Where shall we look for our new synthesis? For the present writer the answer is clear-in Socialism. Not in a Socialism, may be, that “has nothing to do with” religion or the family or other leading spheres of human interest, outside the narrowly and immediate economic, but in a Socialism to which, while standing firmly on its economic basis, nothing human is alien. But this is a wide subject, too wide to discuss at the end of a review article.

1. Orthodoxy. By G.K. Chesterton. (Lane. 6s.)