Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton
Part 1 out of 3
GILBERT K. CHESTERTON
This book is meant to be a companion to "Heretics," and to
put the positive side in addition to the negative. Many critics
complained of the book called "Heretics" because it merely criticised
current philosophies without offering any alternative philosophy.
This book is an attempt to answer the challenge. It is unavoidably
affirmative and therefore unavoidably autobiographical. The writer has
been driven back upon somewhat the same difficulty as that which beset
Newman in writing his Apologia; he has been forced to be egotistical
only in order to be sincere. While everything else may be different
the motive in both cases is the same. It is the purpose of the writer
to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can
be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.
The book is therefore arranged upon the positive principle of a riddle
and its answer. It deals first with all the writer's own solitary
and sincere speculations and then with all the startling style in
which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology.
The writer regards it as amounting to a convincing creed. But if
it is not that it is at least a repeated and surprising coincidence.
Gilbert K. Chesterton.
I. Introduction in Defence of Everything Else
II. The Maniac
III. The Suicide of Thought
IV. The Ethics of Elfland
V. The Flag of the World
VI. The Paradoxes of Christianity
VII. The Eternal Revolution
VIII. The Romance of Orthodoxy
IX. Authority and the Adventurer
I INTRODUCTION IN DEFENCE OF EVERYTHING ELSE
THE only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer
to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel.
When some time ago I published a series of hasty but sincere papers,
under the name of "Heretics," several critics for whose intellect
I have a warm respect (I may mention specially Mr. G.S.Street)
said that it was all very well for me to tell everybody to affirm
his cosmic theory, but that I had carefully avoided supporting my
precepts with example. "I will begin to worry about my philosophy,"
said Mr. Street, "when Mr. Chesterton has given us his."
It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person
only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.
But after all, though Mr. Street has inspired and created this book,
he need not read it. If he does read it, he will find that in
its pages I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set
of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state
the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it
my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it;
and it made me.
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English
yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England
under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.
I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to
write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes
of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general
impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking
by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which
turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool.
I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you
imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly
was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied
with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero
of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake;
and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could
be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the
fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane
security of coming home again? What could be better than to have
all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting
necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to
brace one's self up to discover New South Wales and then realize,
with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales.
This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is
in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive
to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?
How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens,
with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us
at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour
of being our own town?
To show that a faith or a philosophy is true from every
standpoint would be too big an undertaking even for a much bigger
book than this; it is necessary to follow one path of argument;
and this is the path that I here propose to follow. I wish to set
forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need,
the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar
which Christendom has rightly named romance. For the very word
"romance" has in it the mystery and ancient meaning of Rome.
Any one setting out to dispute anything ought always to begin by
saying what he does not dispute. Beyond stating what he proposes
to prove he should always state what he does not propose to prove.
The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take
as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this
desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full
of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always
seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better
than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure,
then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking.
If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly all
people I have ever met in this western society in which I live
would agree to the general proposition that we need this life
of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange
with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to
combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be
happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.
It is THIS achievement of my creed that I shall chiefly pursue in
But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in
a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht.
I discovered England. I do not see how this book can avoid
being egotistical; and I do not quite see (to tell the truth)
how it can avoid being dull. Dulness will, however, free me from
the charge which I most lament; the charge of being flippant.
Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of
all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing
of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible
as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible.
If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived
upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire;
for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every
six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying.
The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the
fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth.
I find myself under the same intolerable bondage. I never in my life
said anything merely because I thought it funny; though of course,
I have had ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny
because I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview
with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist.
It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist
and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn't.
One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively
the more extraordinary truths. And I offer this book with the
heartiest sentiments to all the jolly people who hate what I write,
and regard it (very justly, for all I know), as a piece of poor
clowning or a single tiresome joke.
For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me.
I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been
discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows,
the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I
was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last.
It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.
No one can think my case more ludicrous than I think it myself;
no reader can accuse me here of trying to make a fool of him:
I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from
my throne. I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end
of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys,
try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten
minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen
hundred years behind it. I did strain my voice with a painfully
juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths. And I was punished
in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths:
but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that
they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really
in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom.
It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original;
but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy
of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from
the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was
the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own;
and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it
It may be that somebody will be entertained by the account
of this happy fiasco. It might amuse a friend or an enemy to
read how I gradually learnt from the truth of some stray legend
or from the falsehood of some dominant philosophy, things that I
might have learnt from my catechism--if I had ever learnt it.
There may or may not be some entertainment in reading how I
found at last in an anarchist club or a Babylonian temple what I
might have found in the nearest parish church. If any one is
entertained by learning how the flowers of the field or the
phrases in an omnibus, the accidents of politics or the pains
of youth came together in a certain order to produce a certain
conviction of Christian orthodoxy, he may possibly read this book.
But there is in everything a reasonable division of labour.
I have written the book, and nothing on earth would induce me to read it.
I add one purely pedantic note which comes, as a note
naturally should, at the beginning of the book. These essays are
concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian
theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the
best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended
to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question
of what is the present seat of authority for the proclamation
of that creed. When the word "orthodoxy" is used here it means
the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself
Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic
conduct of those who held such a creed. I have been forced by
mere space to confine myself to what I have got from this creed;
I do not touch the matter much disputed among modern Christians,
of where we ourselves got it. This is not an ecclesiastical treatise
but a sort of slovenly autobiography. But if any one wants my
opinions about the actual nature of the authority, Mr. G.S.Street
has only to throw me another challenge, and I will write him another book.
II THE MANIAC
Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world;
they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true.
Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made
a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a
motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often,
and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher
said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes in himself."
And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught
an omnibus on which was written "Hanwell." I said to him,
"Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves?
For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more
colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed
star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of
the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in
lunatic asylums." He said mildly that there were a good many men after
all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums.
"Yes, there are," I retorted, "and you of all men ought to know them.
That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy,
he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from
whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself.
If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly
individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself
is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can't
act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay. It would
be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he
believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin;
complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one's
self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in
Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has `Hanwell' written on his
face as plain as it is written on that omnibus." And to all this
my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply,
"Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?"
After a long pause I replied, "I will go home and write a book in answer
to that question." This is the book that I have written in answer
But I think this book may well start where our argument started--
in the neighbourhood of the mad-house. Modern masters of science are
much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact.
The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with
that necessity. They began with the fact of sin--a fact as practical
as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous
waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.
But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists,
have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water,
but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute
original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can
really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in
their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness,
which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially
deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest
saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the
starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is)
that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat,
then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions.
He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he
must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do.
The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution
to deny the cat.
In this remarkable situation it is plainly not now possible
(with any hope of a universal appeal) to start, as our fathers did,
with the fact of sin. This very fact which was to them (and is to me)
as plain as a pikestaff, is the very fact that has been specially
diluted or denied. But though moderns deny the existence of sin,
I do not think that they have yet denied the existence of a
lunatic asylum. We all agree still that there is a collapse of
the intellect as unmistakable as a falling house. Men deny hell,
but not, as yet, Hanwell. For the purpose of our primary argument
the one may very well stand where the other stood. I mean that as
all thoughts and theories were once judged by whether they tended
to make a man lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern
thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make
a man lose his wits.
It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity
as in itself attractive. But a moment's thought will show that if
disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else's disease.
A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see
the picture. And similarly even the wildest poetry of insanity can
only be enjoyed by the sane. To the insane man his insanity is
quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who thinks himself
a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken. A man who thinks
he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a bit of glass.
It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes him dull, and which
makes him mad. It is only because we see the irony of his idea
that we think him even amusing; it is only because he does not see
the irony of his idea that he is put in Hanwell at all. In short,
oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike
odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time;
while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life.
This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old
fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero
a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling;
they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern
psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central.
Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately,
and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero
among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy
tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober
realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will
do in a dull world.
Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic
inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are
to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the
matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion
adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination,
is dangerous to man's mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as
psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association
between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it.
Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very
great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like;
and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much
the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity.
Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad;
but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers;
but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen,
in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does
lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as
wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark
that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had
some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance,
really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he
was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him;
he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles,
like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts,
because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram.
Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English
poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic,
by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not
the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health.
He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his
hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and
the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin;
he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men
do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets.
Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him
into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only
some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else.
And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in
his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.
The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats
easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea,
and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion,
like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything
is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only
desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in.
The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician
who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head
It is a small matter, but not irrelevant, that this striking
mistake is commonly supported by a striking misquotation. We have
all heard people cite the celebrated line of Dryden as "Great genius
is to madness near allied." But Dryden did not say that great genius
was to madness near allied. Dryden was a great genius himself,
and knew better. It would have been hard to find a man more romantic
than he, or more sensible. What Dryden said was this, "Great wits
are oft to madness near allied"; and that is true. It is the pure
promptitude of the intellect that is in peril of a breakdown.
Also people might remember of what sort of man Dryden was talking.
He was not talking of any unworldly visionary like Vaughan or
George Herbert. He was talking of a cynical man of the world,
a sceptic, a diplomatist, a great practical politician. Such men
are indeed to madness near allied. Their incessant calculation
of their own brains and other people's brains is a dangerous trade.
It is always perilous to the mind to reckon up the mind. A flippant
person has asked why we say, "As mad as a hatter." A more flippant
person might answer that a hatter is mad because he has to measure
the human head.
And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally true
that maniacs are commonly great reasoners. When I was engaged
in a controversy with the CLARION on the matter of free will,
that able writer Mr. R.B.Suthers said that free will was lunacy,
because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic
would be causeless. I do not dwell here upon the disastrous lapse
in determinist logic. Obviously if any actions, even a lunatic's,
can be causeless, determinism is done for. If the chain of
causation can be broken for a madman, it can be broken for a man.
But my purpose is to point out something more practical.
It was natural, perhaps, that a modern Marxian Socialist should not
know anything about free will. But it was certainly remarkable that
a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about lunatics.
Mr. Suthers evidently did not know anything about lunatics.
The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions
are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless,
they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks;
slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing
his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things;
the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such
careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand;
for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause
in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance
into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping
of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think
that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice.
If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would
become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people
in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their
most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting
of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze.
If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will
get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker
for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment.
He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb
certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain
sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this
respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost
his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except
The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often
in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly,
the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable;
this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds
of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy
against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men
deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators
would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.
Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no
complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad;
for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the
existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ,
it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity;
for the world denied Christ's.
Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error
in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.
Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this:
that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle
is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite
as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation
is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.
A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world.
There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such
a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many
modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically,
we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable MARK of madness
is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual
contraction. The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things,
but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you
or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be
chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air,
to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside
the suffocation of a single argument. Suppose, for instance,
it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were
the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him.
If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal
against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this:
"Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart,
and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit
that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it
leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours;
and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details;
perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was
only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it
was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would
be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you!
How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller
in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity
and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their
sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin
to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you.
You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your
own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself
under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers."
Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who
claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, "All right!
Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care?
Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and look
down on all the kings of the earth." Or it might be the third case,
of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt,
we should say, "So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world:
but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit,
with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God;
and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love
more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful
pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be,
how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God
could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles,
and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well
And it must be remembered that the most purely practical science
does take this view of mental evil; it does not seek to argue with it
like a heresy but simply to snap it like a spell. Neither modern
science nor ancient religion believes in complete free thought.
Theology rebukes certain thoughts by calling them blasphemous.
Science rebukes certain thoughts by calling them morbid. For example,
some religious societies discouraged men more or less from thinking
about sex. The new scientific society definitely discourages men from
thinking about death; it is a fact, but it is considered a morbid fact.
And in dealing with those whose morbidity has a touch of mania,
modern science cares far less for pure logic than a dancing Dervish.
In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should desire truth;
he must desire health. Nothing can save him but a blind hunger
for normality, like that of a beast. A man cannot think himself
out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has
become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can
only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves,
it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his
logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner
Circle will go round and round the Inner Circle unless he performs
the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street.
Decision is the whole business here; a door must be shut for ever.
Every remedy is a desperate remedy. Every cure is a miraculous cure.
Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting
out a devil. And however quietly doctors and psychologists may go
to work in the matter, their attitude is profoundly intolerant--
as intolerant as Bloody Mary. Their attitude is really this:
that the man must stop thinking, if he is to go on living.
Their counsel is one of intellectual amputation. If thy HEAD
offend thee, cut it off; for it is better, not merely to enter
the Kingdom of Heaven as a child, but to enter it as an imbecile,
rather than with your whole intellect to be cast into hell--
or into Hanwell.
Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner,
frequently a successful reasoner. Doubtless he could be vanquished
in mere reason, and the case against him put logically. But it can
be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms.
He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is
sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation
and healthy complexity. Now, as I explain in the introduction,
I have determined in these early chapters to give not so much
a diagram of a doctrine as some pictures of a point of view. And I
have described at length my vision of the maniac for this reason:
that just as I am affected by the maniac, so I am affected by most
modern thinkers. That unmistakable mood or note that I hear
from Hanwell, I hear also from half the chairs of science and seats
of learning to-day; and most of the mad doctors are mad doctors
in more senses than one. They all have exactly that combination we
have noted: the combination of an expansive and exhaustive reason
with a contracted common sense. They are universal only in the
sense that they take one thin explanation and carry it very far.
But a pattern can stretch for ever and still be a small pattern.
They see a chess-board white on black, and if the universe is paved
with it, it is still white on black. Like the lunatic, they cannot
alter their standpoint; they cannot make a mental effort and suddenly
see it black on white.
Take first the more obvious case of materialism. As an explanation
of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has
just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense
of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.
Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance,
Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation.
He understands everything, and everything does not seem
worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet
and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.
Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious
of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth;
it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting
peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea.
The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small.
The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.
It must be understood that I am not now discussing the relation
of these creeds to truth; but, for the present, solely their relation
to health. Later in the argument I hope to attack the question of
objective verity; here I speak only of a phenomenon of psychology.
I do not for the present attempt to prove to Haeckel that materialism
is untrue, any more than I attempted to prove to the man who thought
he was Christ that he was labouring under an error. I merely remark
here on the fact that both cases have the same kind of completeness
and the same kind of incompleteness. You can explain a man's
detention at Hanwell by an indifferent public by saying that it
is the crucifixion of a god of whom the world is not worthy.
The explanation does explain. Similarly you may explain the order
in the universe by saying that all things, even the souls of men,
are leaves inevitably unfolding on an utterly unconscious tree--
the blind destiny of matter. The explanation does explain,
though not, of course, so completely as the madman's. But the point
here is that the normal human mind not only objects to both,
but feels to both the same objection. Its approximate statement
is that if the man in Hanwell is the real God, he is not much
of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the
real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk.
The deity is less divine than many men; and (according to Haeckel)
the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial
than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than
For we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether
true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion.
In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow.
They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only
restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted.
He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian;
and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be
an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense
in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism.
Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe
in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not
allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we
shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine.
The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable
amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe.
But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine
the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe
is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be
hiding in a pimpernel. The Christian admits that the universe is
manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he
is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast,
a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen.
Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman.
But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as
the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure
that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation,
just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that
he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never
Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do
materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think
about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it.
In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like;
in the second the road is shut. But the case is even stronger,
and the parallel with madness is yet more strange. For it was our
case against the exhaustive and logical theory of the lunatic that,
right or wrong, it gradually destroyed his humanity. Now it is the charge
against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong,
they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness,
I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human.
For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it
generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense
a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially
advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will.
The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call
their law the "chain" of causation. It is the worst chain that ever
fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty,
if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this
is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when
applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like,
that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is
surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg
he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette.
Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist
speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will.
But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not
free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish,
to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions,
to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say "thank you"
for the mustard.
In passing from this subject I may note that there is a queer
fallacy to the effect that materialistic fatalism is in some way
favourable to mercy, to the abolition of cruel punishments or
punishments of any kind. This is startlingly the reverse of the truth.
It is quite tenable that the doctrine of necessity makes no difference
at all; that it leaves the flogger flogging and the kind friend
exhorting as before. But obviously if it stops either of them it
stops the kind exhortation. That the sins are inevitable does not
prevent punishment; if it prevents anything it prevents persuasion.
Determinism is quite as likely to lead to cruelty as it is certain
to lead to cowardice. Determinism is not inconsistent with the
cruel treatment of criminals. What it is (perhaps) inconsistent
with is the generous treatment of criminals; with any appeal to
their better feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle.
The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does
believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner,
"Go and sin no more," because the sinner cannot help it. But he
can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.
Considered as a figure, therefore, the materialist has the fantastic
outline of the figure of the madman. Both take up a position
at once unanswerable and intolerable.
Of course it is not only of the materialist that all this is true.
The same would apply to the other extreme of speculative logic.
There is a sceptic far more terrible than he who believes that
everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the sceptic
who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the
existence of angels or devils, but the existence of men and cows.
For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself.
He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible
fancy has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat
mystical egoism of our day. That publisher who thought that men
would get on if they believed in themselves, those seekers after
the Superman who are always looking for him in the looking-glass,
those writers who talk about impressing their personalities instead
of creating life for the world, all these people have really only
an inch between them and this awful emptiness. Then when this
kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie;
when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail;
then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone
in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall
be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots
in the blackness of his own brain; his mother's face will be only
a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell.
But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, "He believes
All that concerns us here, however, is to note that this
panegoistic extreme of thought exhibits the same paradox as the
other extreme of materialism. It is equally complete in theory
and equally crippling in practice. For the sake of simplicity,
it is easier to state the notion by saying that a man can believe
that he is always in a dream. Now, obviously there can be no positive
proof given to him that he is not in a dream, for the simple reason
that no proof can be offered that might not be offered in a dream.
But if the man began to burn down London and say that his housekeeper
would soon call him to breakfast, we should take him and put him
with other logicians in a place which has often been alluded to in
the course of this chapter. The man who cannot believe his senses,
and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane,
but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument,
but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both
locked themselves up in two boxes, painted inside with the sun
and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the
health and happiness of heaven, the other even into the health
and happiness of the earth. Their position is quite reasonable;
nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable, just as a threepenny
bit is infinitely circular. But there is such a thing as a mean
infinity, a base and slavish eternity. It is amusing to notice
that many of the moderns, whether sceptics or mystics, have taken
as their sign a certain eastern symbol, which is the very symbol
of this ultimate nullity. When they wish to represent eternity,
they represent it by a serpent with his tail in his mouth. There is
a startling sarcasm in the image of that very unsatisfactory meal.
The eternity of the material fatalists, the eternity of the
eastern pessimists, the eternity of the supercilious theosophists
and higher scientists of to-day is, indeed, very well presented
by a serpent eating his tail, a degraded animal who destroys even himself.
This chapter is purely practical and is concerned with what
actually is the chief mark and element of insanity; we may say
in summary that it is reason used without root, reason in the void.
The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad;
he begins to think at the wrong end. And for the rest of these pages
we have to try and discover what is the right end. But we may ask
in conclusion, if this be what drives men mad, what is it that keeps
them sane? By the end of this book I hope to give a definite,
some will think a far too definite, answer. But for the moment it
is possible in the same solely practical manner to give a general
answer touching what in actual human history keeps men sane.
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health;
when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has
always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.
He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth
and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt
his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe
in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency.
If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other,
he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.
His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight:
he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better
for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing
as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed
that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless
ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth
because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly
this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole
buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this:
that man can understand everything by the help of what he does
not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid,
and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows
one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear,
and then finds that he cannot say "if you please" to the housemaid.
The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery; but because
of this his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and
crystal clearness. He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness;
but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health.
As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness,
we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and
of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal:
it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature;
but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger
or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision
and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without
altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can
grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound.
The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free
Symbols alone are of even a cloudy value in speaking of this
deep matter; and another symbol from physical nature will express
sufficiently well the real place of mysticism before mankind.
The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in
the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday,
mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own
victorious invisibility. Detached intellectualism is (in the
exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light
without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world.
But the Greeks were right when they made Apollo the god both of
imagination and of sanity; for he was both the patron of poetry
and the patron of healing. Of necessary dogmas and a special creed
I shall speak later. But that transcendentalism by which all men
live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky.
We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion;
it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and
a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable,
as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard.
For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother
of lunatics and has given to them all her name.
III THE SUICIDE OF THOUGHT
The phrases of the street are not only forcible but subtle:
for a figure of speech can often get into a crack too small for
a definition. Phrases like "put out" or "off colour" might have
been coined by Mr. Henry James in an agony of verbal precision.
And there is no more subtle truth than that of the everyday phrase
about a man having "his heart in the right place." It involves the
idea of normal proportion; not only does a certain function exist,
but it is rightly related to other functions. Indeed, the negation
of this phrase would describe with peculiar accuracy the somewhat morbid
mercy and perverse tenderness of the most representative moderns.
If, for instance, I had to describe with fairness the character
of Mr. Bernard Shaw, I could not express myself more exactly
than by saying that he has a heroically large and generous heart;
but not a heart in the right place. And this is so of the typical
society of our time.
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern
world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues.
When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered
at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose.
The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage.
But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander
more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern
world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues
have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other
and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth;
and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care
for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad
on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational
virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it
easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive.
Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only
early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions.
For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy
would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race--
because he is so human. As the other extreme, we may take
the acrid realist, who has deliberately killed in himself all
human pleasure in happy tales or in the healing of the heart.
Torquemada tortured people physically for the sake of moral truth.
Zola tortured people morally for the sake of physical truth.
But in Torquemada's time there was at least a system that could
to some extent make righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Now they do not even bow. But a much stronger case than these two of
truth and pity can be found in the remarkable case of the dislocation
It is only with one aspect of humility that we are here concerned.
Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance
and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping
his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power
of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure,
he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise.
Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large,
he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions,
the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations
of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are
the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above
the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers
are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants
unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination,
which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom
entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything--
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place.
Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled
upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.
A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about
the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part
of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not
to assert--himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he
ought not to doubt--the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility
content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble
that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we
had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time.
The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time;
but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility
than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was
a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot
that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man
doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder.
But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make
him stop working altogether.
At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic
and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one
comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not
be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one,
or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race
of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.
We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity
as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too
proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.
The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek
even to claim their inheritance. It is exactly this intellectual
helplessness which is our second problem.
The last chapter has been concerned only with a fact of observation:
that what peril of morbidity there is for man comes rather from
his reason than his imagination. It was not meant to attack the
authority of reason; rather it is the ultimate purpose to defend it.
For it needs defence. The whole modern world is at war with reason;
and the tower already reels.
The sages, it is often said, can see no answer to the riddle
of religion. But the trouble with our sages is not that they
cannot see the answer; it is that they cannot even see the riddle.
They are like children so stupid as to notice nothing paradoxical
in the playful assertion that a door is not a door. The modern
latitudinarians speak, for instance, about authority in religion
not only as if there were no reason in it, but as if there had never
been any reason for it. Apart from seeing its philosophical basis,
they cannot even see its historical cause. Religious authority
has often, doubtless, been oppressive or unreasonable; just as
every legal system (and especially our present one) has been
callous and full of a cruel apathy. It is rational to attack
the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modern critics of religious
authority are like men who should attack the police without ever
having heard of burglars. For there is a great and possible peril
to the human mind: a peril as practical as burglary. Against it
religious authority was reared, rightly or wrongly, as a barrier.
And against it something certainly must be reared as a barrier,
if our race is to avoid ruin.
That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself.
Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next
generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one
set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching
the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.
It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith.
Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert
that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are
merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question,
"Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction?
Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic?
They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?"
The young sceptic says, "I have a right to think for myself."
But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, "I have no right
to think for myself. I have no right to think at all."
There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought
that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which
all religious authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of
decadent ages like our own: and already Mr. H.G.Wells has raised its
ruinous banner; he has written a delicate piece of scepticism called
"Doubts of the Instrument." In this he questions the brain itself,
and endeavours to remove all reality from all his own assertions,
past, present, and to come. But it was against this remote ruin
that all the military systems in religion were originally ranked
and ruled. The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the
horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said,
for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult
defence of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once
things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first.
The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define
the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark
defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable,
more supernatural than all--the authority of a man to think.
We know now that this is so; we have no excuse for not knowing it.
For we can hear scepticism crashing through the old ring of authorities,
and at the same moment we can see reason swaying upon her throne.
In so far as religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both
of the same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods
of proof which cannot themselves be proved. And in the act of
destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed
the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum.
With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre
off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it.
Lest this should be called loose assertion, it is perhaps desirable,
though dull, to run rapidly through the chief modern fashions
of thought which have this effect of stopping thought itself.
Materialism and the view of everything as a personal illusion
have some such effect; for if the mind is mechanical,
thought cannot be very exciting, and if the cosmos is unreal,
there is nothing to think about. But in these cases the effect
is indirect and doubtful. In some cases it is direct and clear;
notably in the case of what is generally called evolution.
Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which,
if it destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either
an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things
came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack
upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not
destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that
a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive
thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox;
for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly,
especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.
But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such
thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him
to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing.
At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything
and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon
the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about.
You cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought.
Descartes said, "I think; therefore I am." The philosophic evolutionist
reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, "I am not; therefore I
Then there is the opposite attack on thought: that urged by
Mr. H.G.Wells when he insists that every separate thing is "unique,"
and there are no categories at all. This also is merely destructive.
Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected.
It need hardly be said that this scepticism forbidding thought
necessarily forbids speech; a man cannot open his mouth without
contradicting it. Thus when Mr. Wells says (as he did somewhere),
"All chairs are quite different," he utters not merely a misstatement,
but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs were quite different,
you could not call them "all chairs."
Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains
that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test.
We often hear it said, for instance, "What is right in one age
is wrong in another." This is quite reasonable, if it means that
there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain
times and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant,
it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and
at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they
are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish
to be oblong. If the standard changes, how can there be improvement,
which implies a standard? Nietzsche started a nonsensical idea that
men had once sought as good what we now call evil; if it were so,
we could not talk of surpassing or even falling short of them.
How can you overtake Jones if you walk in the other direction?
You cannot discuss whether one people has succeeded more in being
miserable than another succeeded in being happy. It would be
like discussing whether Milton was more puritanical than a pig
It is true that a man (a silly man) might make change itself his
object or ideal. But as an ideal, change itself becomes unchangeable.
If the change-worshipper wishes to estimate his own progress, he must
be sternly loyal to the ideal of change; he must not begin to flirt
gaily with the ideal of monotony. Progress itself cannot progress.
It is worth remark, in passing, that when Tennyson, in a wild and rather
weak manner, welcomed the idea of infinite alteration in society,
he instinctively took a metaphor which suggests an imprisoned tedium.
"Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves
He thought of change itself as an unchangeable groove; and so it is.
Change is about the narrowest and hardest groove that a man can
The main point here, however, is that this idea of a fundamental
alteration in the standard is one of the things that make thought
about the past or future simply impossible. The theory of a
complete change of standards in human history does not merely
deprive us of the pleasure of honouring our fathers; it deprives
us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of despising them.
This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our
time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism;
for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the
pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme
application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever.
My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree with the pragmatists
that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there
is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary
to the human mind. But I say that one of those necessities
precisely is a belief in objective truth. The pragmatist tells
a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute.
But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute.
This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is
a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs
is to be something more than a pragmatist. Extreme pragmatism
is just as inhuman as the determinism it so powerfully attacks.
The determinist (who, to do him justice, does not pretend to be
a human being) makes nonsense of the human sense of actual choice.
The pragmatist, who professes to be specially human, makes nonsense
of the human sense of actual fact.
To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most
characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania,
but a touch of suicidal mania. The mere questioner has knocked
his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it.
This is what makes so futile the warnings of the orthodox and the
boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought.
What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is
the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought. It is vain
for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will
happen if wild scepticism runs its course. It has run its course.
It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that
will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen
it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself.
You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men
ask themselves if they have any selves. You cannot fancy a more
sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world.
It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly
and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application
of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence
that modern England is Christian. But it would have reached the
bankruptcy anyhow. Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted;
but rather because they are an old minority than because they
are a new one. Free thought has exhausted its own freedom.
It is weary of its own success. If any eager freethinker now hails
philosophic freedom as the dawn, he is only like the man in Mark
Twain who came out wrapped in blankets to see the sun rise and was
just in time to see it set. If any frightened curate still says
that it will be awful if the darkness of free thought should spread,
we can only answer him in the high and powerful words of Mr. Belloc,
"Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces
already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night:
it is already morning." We have no more questions left to ask.
We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the
wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found.
It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking
But one more word must be added. At the beginning of this
preliminary negative sketch I said that our mental ruin has
been wrought by wild reason, not by wild imagination. A man
does not go mad because he makes a statue a mile high, but he
may go mad by thinking it out in square inches. Now, one school
of thinkers has seen this and jumped at it as a way of renewing
the pagan health of the world. They see that reason destroys;
but Will, they say, creates. The ultimate authority, they say,
is in will, not in reason. The supreme point is not why
a man demands a thing, but the fact that he does demand it.
I have no space to trace or expound this philosophy of Will.
It came, I suppose, through Nietzsche, who preached something
that is called egoism. That, indeed, was simpleminded enough;
for Nietzsche denied egoism simply by preaching it. To preach
anything is to give it away. First, the egoist calls life a war
without mercy, and then he takes the greatest possible trouble to
drill his enemies in war. To preach egoism is to practise altruism.
But however it began, the view is common enough in current literature.
The main defence of these thinkers is that they are not thinkers;
they are makers. They say that choice is itself the divine thing.
Thus Mr. Bernard Shaw has attacked the old idea that men's acts
are to be judged by the standard of the desire of happiness.
He says that a man does not act for his happiness, but from his will.
He does not say, "Jam will make me happy," but "I want jam."
And in all this others follow him with yet greater enthusiasm.
Mr. John Davidson, a remarkable poet, is so passionately excited
about it that he is obliged to write prose. He publishes a short
play with several long prefaces. This is natural enough in Mr. Shaw,
for all his plays are prefaces: Mr. Shaw is (I suspect) the only man
on earth who has never written any poetry. But that Mr. Davidson (who
can write excellent poetry) should write instead laborious metaphysics
in defence of this doctrine of will, does show that the doctrine
of will has taken hold of men. Even Mr. H.G.Wells has half spoken
in its language; saying that one should test acts not like a thinker,
but like an artist, saying, "I FEEL this curve is right," or "that
line SHALL go thus." They are all excited; and well they may be.
For by this doctrine of the divine authority of will, they think they
can break out of the doomed fortress of rationalism. They think they
But they cannot escape. This pure praise of volition ends
in the same break up and blank as the mere pursuit of logic.
Exactly as complete free thought involves the doubting of thought itself,
so the acceptation of mere "willing" really paralyzes the will.
Mr. Bernard Shaw has not perceived the real difference between the old
utilitarian test of pleasure (clumsy, of course, and easily misstated)
and that which he propounds. The real difference between the test
of happiness and the test of will is simply that the test of
happiness is a test and the other isn't. You can discuss whether
a man's act in jumping over a cliff was directed towards happiness;
you cannot discuss whether it was derived from will. Of course
it was. You can praise an action by saying that it is calculated
to bring pleasure or pain to discover truth or to save the soul.
But you cannot praise an action because it shows will; for to say
that is merely to say that it is an action. By this praise of will
you cannot really choose one course as better than another. And yet
choosing one course as better than another is the very definition
of the will you are praising.
The worship of will is the negation of will. To admire mere
choice is to refuse to choose. If Mr. Bernard Shaw comes up
to me and says, "Will something," that is tantamount to saying,
"I do not mind what you will," and that is tantamount to saying,
"I have no will in the matter." You cannot admire will in general,
because the essence of will is that it is particular.
A brilliant anarchist like Mr. John Davidson feels an irritation
against ordinary morality, and therefore he invokes will--
will to anything. He only wants humanity to want something.
But humanity does want something. It wants ordinary morality.
He rebels against the law and tells us to will something or anything.
But we have willed something. We have willed the law against which
All the will-worshippers, from Nietzsche to Mr. Davidson,
are really quite empty of volition. They cannot will, they can
hardly wish. And if any one wants a proof of this, it can be found
quite easily. It can be found in this fact: that they always talk
of will as something that expands and breaks out. But it is quite
the opposite. Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To
desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act
is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject
everything else. That objection, which men of this school used
to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act.
Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when
you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take
one course of action you give up all the other courses. If you
become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton.
If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon.
It is the existence of this negative or limiting side of will that
makes most of the talk of the anarchic will-worshippers little
better than nonsense. For instance, Mr. John Davidson tells us
to have nothing to do with "Thou shalt not"; but it is surely obvious
that "Thou shalt not" is only one of the necessary corollaries
of "I will." "I will go to the Lord Mayor's Show, and thou shalt
not stop me." Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists,
and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be
an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation;
the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe,
you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way,
you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck,
you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.
The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world
of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws,
but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like,
free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes.
Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him
from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles
to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle
breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end.
Somebody wrote a work called "The Loves of the Triangles";
I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved,
they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case
with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most
decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations:
they constitute the THING he is doing. The painter is glad
that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay
In case the point is not clear, an historic example may illustrate
it. The French Revolution was really an heroic and decisive thing,
because the Jacobins willed something definite and limited.
They desired the freedoms of democracy, but also all the vetoes
of democracy. They wished to have votes and NOT to have titles.
Republicanism had an ascetic side in Franklin or Robespierre
as well as an expansive side in Danton or Wilkes. Therefore they
have created something with a solid substance and shape, the square
social equality and peasant wealth of France. But since then the
revolutionary or speculative mind of Europe has been weakened by
shrinking from any proposal because of the limits of that proposal.
Liberalism has been degraded into liberality. Men have tried
to turn "revolutionise" from a transitive to an intransitive verb.
The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against,
but (what was more important) the system he would NOT rebel against,
the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a Sceptic,
and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he
can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts
everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything.
For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the
modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces,
but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book
complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women,
and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he
insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose
their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it.
As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life,
and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time.
A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant,
and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the
peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage
as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating
it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the
oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.
The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he
complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he
takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting,
where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short,
the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always
engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he
attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he
attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man
in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt.
By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel
It may be added that the same blank and bankruptcy can be observed
in all fierce and terrible types of literature, especially in satire.
Satire may be mad and anarchic, but it presupposes an admitted
superiority in certain things over others; it presupposes a standard.
When little boys in the street laugh at the fatness of some
distinguished journalist, they are unconsciously assuming a standard
of Greek sculpture. They are appealing to the marble Apollo.
And the curious disappearance of satire from our literature is
an instance of the fierce things fading for want of any principle
to be fierce about. Nietzsche had some natural talent for sarcasm:
he could sneer, though he could not laugh; but there is always something
bodiless and without weight in his satire, simply because it has not
any mass of common morality behind it. He is himself more preposterous
than anything he denounces. But, indeed, Nietzsche will stand very
well as the type of the whole of this failure of abstract violence.
The softening of the brain which ultimately overtook him was not
a physical accident. If Nietzsche had not ended in imbecility,
Nietzscheism would end in imbecility. Thinking in isolation
and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will
not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.
This last attempt to evade intellectualism ends in intellectualism,
and therefore in death. The sortie has failed. The wild worship of
lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void.
Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately
in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing
and Nirvana. They are both helpless--one because he must not
grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything.
The Tolstoyan's will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all
special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite's will is quite
equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good;
for if all special actions are good, none of them are special.
They stand at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and
the other likes all the roads. The result is--well, some things
are not hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads.
Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business
of this book--the rough review of recent thought. After this I
begin to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader,
but which, at any rate, interests me. In front of me, as I close
this page, is a pile of modern books that I have been turning
over for the purpose--a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility.
By the accident of my present detachment, I can see the inevitable smash
of the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Shaw,
as clearly as an inevitable railway smash could be seen from
a balloon. They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum.
For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach
mental helplessness; and they have nearly reached it. He who
thinks he is made of glass, thinks to the destruction of thought;
for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject nothing,
wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice
of something, but the rejection of almost everything. And as I
turn and tumble over the clever, wonderful, tiresome, and useless
modern books, the title of one of them rivets my eye. It is called
"Jeanne d'Arc," by Anatole France. I have only glanced at it,
but a glance was enough to remind me of Renan's "Vie de Jesus."
It has the same strange method of the reverent sceptic. It discredits
supernatural stories that have some foundation, simply by telling
natural stories that have no foundation. Because we cannot believe
in what a saint did, we are to pretend that we know exactly what
he felt. But I do not mention either book in order to criticise it,
but because the accidental combination of the names called up two
startling images of Sanity which blasted all the books before me.
Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting
all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche.
She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan,
when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in
Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them.
I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain
things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth,
the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back.
Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she
endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a
typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought
of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche,
and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time.
I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger
for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc
had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not
praise fighting, but fought. We KNOW that she was not afraid
of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.
Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only
praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at
their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one,
more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person
who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing.
It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she
and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility
that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one,
and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre
of my thoughts. The same modern difficulty which darkened the
subject-matter of Anatole France also darkened that of Ernest Renan.
Renan also divided his hero's pity from his hero's pugnacity.
Renan even represented the righteous anger at Jerusalem as a mere
nervous breakdown after the idyllic expectations of Galilee.
As if there were any inconsistency between having a love for
humanity and having a hatred for inhumanity! Altruists, with thin,
weak voices, denounce Christ as an egoist. Egoists (with
even thinner and weaker voices) denounce Him as an altruist.
In our present atmosphere such cavils are comprehensible enough.
The love of a hero is more terrible than the hatred of a tyrant.
The hatred of a hero is more generous than the love of a philanthropist.
There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only collect
the fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped
arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ
into silly strips, labelled egoism and altruism, and they are
equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness.
They have parted His garments among them, and for His vesture they
have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top
IV THE ETHICS OF ELFLAND
When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it
is commonly in some such speech as this: "Ah, yes, when one is young,
one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air;
but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down
to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has
and getting on with the world as it is." Thus, at least, venerable and
philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me
when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered
that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really
happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen.
They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the
methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals
in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was.
What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.
I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon;
but I am not so much concerned about the General Election.
As a babe I leapt up on my mother's knee at the mere mention
of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision
is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud.
As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism.
But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.
I take this instance of one of the enduring faiths because,
having now to trace the roots of my personal speculation,
this may be counted, I think, as the only positive bias.
I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy,
in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity.
If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause
for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I
mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this:
that the things common to all men are more important than the
things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable
than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary.
Man is something more awful than men; something more strange.
The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid
to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization.
The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more
heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.
Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose
is more comic even than having a Norman nose.
This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential
things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things
they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this:
that the political instinct or desire is one of these things
which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than
dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government
(helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love,
and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something
analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum,
discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop,
being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish
a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary,
a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing
one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself,
even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any
of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have
their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking,
for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely
say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions,
and that democracy classes government among them. In short,
the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things
must be left to ordinary men themselves--the mating of the sexes,
the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy;
and in this I have always believed.
But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been
able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people
got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition.
It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time.
It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to
some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German
historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance,
is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the
superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob.
It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated,
more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally
made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane.
The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.
Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant
may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement
that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us.
If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great
unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason
why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable.
Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise.
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes,
our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses
to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely
happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being
disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their
being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us
not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom;
tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is
our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy
and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.
We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted
by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular
and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked
with a cross.
I have first to say, therefore, that if I have had a bias, it was
always a bias in favour of democracy, and therefore of tradition.
Before we come to any theoretic or logical beginnings I am content
to allow for that personal equation; I have always been more
inclined to believe the ruck of hard-working people than to believe
that special and troublesome literary class to which I belong.
I prefer even the fancies and prejudices of the people who see
life from the inside to the clearest demonstrations of the people
who see life from the outside. I would always trust the old wives'
fables against the old maids' facts. As long as wit is mother wit it
can be as wild as it pleases.
Now, I have to put together a general position, and I pretend
to no training in such things. I propose to do it, therefore,
by writing down one after another the three or four fundamental
ideas which I have found for myself, pretty much in the way
that I found them. Then I shall roughly synthesise them,
summing up my personal philosophy or natural religion; then I
shall describe my startling discovery that the whole thing had
been discovered before. It had been discovered by Christianity.
But of these profound persuasions which I have to recount in order,
the earliest was concerned with this element of popular tradition.
And without the foregoing explanation touching tradition and
democracy I could hardly make my mental experience clear. As it is,
I do not know whether I can make it clear, but I now propose to try.
My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with
unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it
from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess
at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then,
the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.
They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are
not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic.
Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal,
though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong.
Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.
It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth;
so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland,
but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk
before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I
was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition.
Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook;
but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists,
and talked about the gods of brook and bush. That is what the moderns
mean when they say that the ancients did not "appreciate Nature,"
because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not
tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance
on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for
But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being
fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could
note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them.
There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer"; that giants
should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny
against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms,
and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the
lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat--
EXALTAVIT HUMILES. There is the great lesson of "Beauty and the Beast";
that a thing must be loved BEFORE it is loveable. There is the
terrible allegory of the "Sleeping Beauty," which tells how the human
creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death;
and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep. But I am
not concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfland, but with
the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak,
and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain
way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales,
but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.
It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences
or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are,
in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true
sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely
logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable
of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity.
For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella,
it is (in an iron and awful sense) NECESSARY that Cinderella is
younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it.
Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases:
it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is
the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne:
and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses,
there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true
rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over
the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world,
I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men
in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened--
dawn and death and so on--as if THEY were rational and inevitable.
They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY
as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not.
There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is
the test of the imagination. You cannot IMAGINE two and one not
making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit;
you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging
on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man
named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law.
But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law,
a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit
Newton's nose, Newton's nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity:
because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other.
But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose;
we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose,
of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy
tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations,
in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts,
in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe
in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe
that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all
confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans
Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the
nursery tales. The man of science says, "Cut the stalk, and the apple
will fall"; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up
to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, "Blow the horn,
and the ogre's castle will fall"; but she does not say it as if it
were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause.
Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many
castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason.
She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental
connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific
men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental
connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching
the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only
a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts.
They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically
connected them philosophically. They feel that because one
incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible
thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.
Two black riddles make a white answer.
In fairyland we avoid the word "law"; but in the land of science
they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting
conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet,
Grimm's Law. But Grimm's Law is far less intellectual than
Grimm's Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales;
while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature
of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed
some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go
to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection
between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets.
And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty
from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can
turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn
into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further
off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in
itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.
Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential
that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales,
not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the "Laws of Nature."
When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn,
we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer
if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes
fell from her at twelve o'clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC.
It is not a "law," for we do not understand its general formula.
It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening
practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen.
It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we
count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it;
we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we
do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet.
We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore
an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore
an exception. All the terms used in the science books, "law,"
"necessity," "order," "tendency," and so on, are really unintellectual,
because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess.
The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the
terms used in the fairy books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment."
They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.
A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill
because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.
I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical.
We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language
about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way
I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one
thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical
connection between flying and laying eggs. It is the man who
talks about "a law" that he has never seen who is the mystic.
Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist.
He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked
and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds
fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy,
tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none.
A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love;
so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide.
In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen
them together. A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell
of apple-blossom, because, by a dark association of his own,
it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though
he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark
association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the
cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract,
the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in
This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived
from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy
tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because
there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because
they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.
This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children
we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is
interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that
Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited
by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales;
but babies like realistic tales--because they find them romantic.
In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom
a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.
This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal
leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were
golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they
were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember,
for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this
is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point
I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance.
We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances,
the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks
about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he
cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story.
Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos,
but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself.
We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten
our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we
call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism
only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget
that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and
ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that
But though (like the man without memory in the novel) we walk the
streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration.
It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin.
The wonder has a positive element of praise. This is the next
milestone to be definitely marked on our road through fairyland.
I shall speak in the next chapter about optimists and pessimists
in their intellectual aspect, so far as they have one. Here I am only
trying to describe the enormous emotions which cannot be described.
And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it
was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure;
it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness
of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be
more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale.
The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful,
though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa
Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I
not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift
of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents
of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present
There were, then, these two first feelings, indefensible and
indisputable. The world was a shock, but it was not merely shocking;
existence was a surprise, but it was a pleasant surprise. In fact,
all my first views were exactly uttered in a riddle that stuck
in my brain from boyhood. The question was, "What did the first
frog say?" And the answer was, "Lord, how you made me jump!"
That says succinctly all that I am saying. God made the frog jump;
but the frog prefers jumping. But when these things are settled
there enters the second great principle of the fairy philosophy.
Any one can see it who will simply read "Grimm's Fairy Tales"
or the fine collections of Mr. Andrew Lang. For the pleasure
of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy.
Touchstone talked of much virtue in an "if"; according to elfin ethics
all virtue is in an "if." The note of the fairy utterance always is,
"You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say
the word `cow'"; or "You may live happily with the King's daughter,
if you do not show her an onion." The vision always hangs upon a veto.
All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small
thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let
loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden. Mr. W.B.Yeats,
in his exquisite and piercing elfin poetry, describes the elves
as lawless; they plunge in innocent anarchy on the unbridled horses
of the air--
"Ride on the crest of the dishevelled tide, And dance
upon the mountains like a flame."
It is a dreadful thing to say that Mr. W.B.Yeats does not
understand fairyland. But I do say it. He is an ironical Irishman,
full of intellectual reactions. He is not stupid enough to
understand fairyland. Fairies prefer people of the yokel type
like myself; people who gape and grin and do as they are told.
Mr. Yeats reads into elfland all the righteous insurrection of his
own race. But the lawlessness of Ireland is a Christian lawlessness,
founded on reason and justice. The Fenian is rebelling against
something he understands only too well; but the true citizen of
fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all.
In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an
incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out.
A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love
flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited.
An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not
lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny
may think it liberty by comparison. People out of Portland
Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove
that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty.
Fairy godmothers seem at least as strict as other godmothers.
Cinderella received a coach out of Wonderland and a coachman out
of nowhere, but she received a command--which might have come out
of Brixton--that she should be back by twelve. Also, she had a
glass slipper; and it cannot be a coincidence that glass is so common
a substance in folk-lore. This princess lives in a glass castle,
that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror;
they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones.
For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact
that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most
easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this fairy-tale sentiment
also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world.
I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond,
but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were
compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder.
I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.
Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to
be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant;
simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.
Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth;
the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at any
moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should
not do. Now, the point here is that to ME this did not seem unjust.
If the miller's third son said to the fairy, "Explain why I
must not stand on my head in the fairy palace," the other might
fairly reply, "Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace."
If Cinderella says, "How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?"
her godmother might answer, "How is it that you are going there
till twelve?" If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants
and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions
partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look
a winged horse in the mouth. And it seemed to me that existence
was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain
of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did
not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger
than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision;
it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters,
as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.
For this reason (we may call it the fairy godmother philosophy)
I never could join the young men of my time in feeling what they
called the general sentiment of REVOLT. I should have resisted,
let us hope, any rules that were evil, and with these and their
definition I shall deal in another chapter. But I did not feel
disposed to resist any rule merely because it was mysterious.
Estates are sometimes held by foolish forms, the breaking of a stick
or the payment of a peppercorn: I was willing to hold the huge
estate of earth and heaven by any such feudal fantasy. It could not
well be wilder than the fact that I was allowed to hold it at all.
At this stage I give only one ethical instance to show my meaning.
I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation
against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and
unexpected as sex itself. To be allowed, like Endymion, to make
love to the moon and then to complain that Jupiter kept his own
moons in a harem seemed to me (bred on fairy tales like Endymion's)
a vulgar anti-climax. Keeping to one woman is a small price for
so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be
married once was like complaining that I had only been born once.
It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one
was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex,
but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains
that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. Polygamy is a lack
of the realization of sex; it is like a man plucking five pears
in mere absence of mind. The aesthetes touched the last insane
limits of language in their eulogy on lovely things. The thistledown
made them weep; a burnished beetle brought them to their knees.
Yet their emotion never impressed me for an instant, for this reason,
that it never occurred to them to pay for their pleasure in any
sort of symbolic sacrifice. Men (I felt) might fast forty days
for the sake of hearing a blackbird sing. Men might go through fire
to find a cowslip. Yet these lovers of beauty could not even keep
sober for the blackbird. They would not go through common Christian
marriage by way of recompense to the cowslip. Surely one might
pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals. Oscar Wilde said
that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets.
But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them
by not being Oscar Wilde.
Well, I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery,
and I have not found any books so sensible since. I left the
nurse guardian of tradition and democracy, and I have not found
any modern type so sanely radical or so sanely conservative.
But the matter for important comment was here: that when I
first went out into the mental atmosphere of the modern world,
I found that the modern world was positively opposed on two points
to my nurse and to the nursery tales. It has taken me a long time
to find out that the modern world is wrong and my nurse was right.
The really curious thing was this: that modern thought contradicted
this basic creed of my boyhood on its two most essential doctrines.
I have explained that the fairy tales founded in me two convictions;
first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might
have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second,
that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and
submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness. But I
found the whole modern world running like a high tide against both
my tendernesses; and the shock of that collision created two sudden
and spontaneous sentiments, which I have had ever since and which,
crude as they were, have since hardened into convictions.
First, I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism;
saying that everything is as it must always have been, being unfolded
without fault from the beginning. The leaf on the tree is green
because it could never have been anything else. Now, the fairy-tale
philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it
might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an
instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white
on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black.
Every colour has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden
roses is not only decisive but dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood.
He feels that something has been DONE. But the great determinists
of the nineteenth century were strongly against this native
feeling that something had happened an instant before. In fact,
according to them, nothing ever really had happened since the beginning
of the world. Nothing ever had happened since existence had happened;
and even about the date of that they were not very sure.
The modern world as I found it was solid for modern Calvinism,
for the necessity of things being as they are. But when I came
to ask them I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable
repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated.
Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird
than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped
nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then
seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have
fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society.
So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having
trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of an emotion,
and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle. But the repetition
in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of
an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again.
The grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers at once;
the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would
make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the
universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began
to see an idea.
All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind
rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is
supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead;
a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal
it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a
fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human
affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death;
by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire.
A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure
or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking;
or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life
and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington,
he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness.
The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness
of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning;
but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction.
Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that
the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising.
His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush
of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children,
when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child
kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit
fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.
They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it
again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong
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