Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton
Part 2 out of 3
enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough
to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning,
"Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon.
It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike;
it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired
of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy;
for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be
a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven may ENCORE the bird who laid an egg.
If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead
of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not
be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose.
It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they
admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every
human drama man is called again and again before the curtain.
Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at
any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation
after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last
This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish
emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always vaguely
felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful:
now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they
were WILFUL. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises
of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world
involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.
And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious;
that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose,
there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story:
and if there is a story there is a story-teller.
But modern thought also hit my second human tradition.
It went against the fairy feeling about strict limits and conditions.
The one thing it loved to talk about was expansion and largeness.
Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had
called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable
that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type.
He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar
system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should
a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to
a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God,
then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image;
what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile
to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was
always small compared to the nearest tree. But Herbert Spencer,
in his headlong imperialism, would insist that we had in some
way been conquered and annexed by the astronomical universe.
He spoke about men and their ideals exactly as the most insolent
Unionist talks about the Irish and their ideals. He turned mankind
into a small nationality. And his evil influence can be seen even
in the most spirited and honourable of later scientific authors;
notably in the early romances of Mr. H.G.Wells. Many moralists
have in an exaggerated way represented the earth as wicked.
But Mr. Wells and his school made the heavens wicked.
We should lift up our eyes to the stars from whence would come
But the expansion of which I speak was much more evil than all this.
I have remarked that the materialist, like the madman, is in prison;
in the prison of one thought. These people seemed to think it
singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was very large.
The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief.
The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation
could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance,
such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity
of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it. It was like
telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear
that the gaol now covered half the county. The warder would
have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors
of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human.
So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except
more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns
and empty of all that is divine.
In fairyland there had been a real law; a law that could be broken,
for the definition of a law is something that can be broken.
But the machinery of this cosmic prison was something that could
not be broken; for we ourselves were only a part of its machinery.
We were either unable to do things or we were destined to do them.
The idea of the mystical condition quite disappeared; one can neither
have the firmness of keeping laws nor the fun of breaking them.
The largeness of this universe had nothing of that freshness and
airy outbreak which we have praised in the universe of the poet.
This modern universe is literally an empire; that is, it was vast,
but it is not free. One went into larger and larger windowless rooms,
rooms big with Babylonian perspective; but one never found the smallest
window or a whisper of outer air.
Their infernal parallels seemed to expand with distance;
but for me all good things come to a point, swords for instance.
So finding the boast of the big cosmos so unsatisfactory to my
emotions I began to argue about it a little; and I soon found that
the whole attitude was even shallower than could have been expected.
According to these people the cosmos was one thing since it had
one unbroken rule. Only (they would say) while it is one thing,
it is also the only thing there is. Why, then, should one worry
particularly to call it large? There is nothing to compare it with.
It would be just as sensible to call it small. A man may say,
"I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd
of varied creatures." But if it comes to that why should not a
man say, "I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number
of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see"?
One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.
It is mere sentiment to rejoice that the sun is larger than the earth;
it is quite as sane a sentiment to rejoice that the sun is no larger
than it is. A man chooses to have an emotion about the largeness
of the world; why should he not choose to have an emotion about
It happened that I had that emotion. When one is fond of
anything one addresses it by diminutives, even if it is an elephant
or a life-guardsman. The reason is, that anything, however huge,
that can be conceived of as complete, can be conceived of as small.
If military moustaches did not suggest a sword or tusks a tail,
then the object would be vast because it would be immeasurable. But the
moment you can imagine a guardsman you can imagine a small guardsman.
The moment you really see an elephant you can call it "Tiny."
If you can make a statue of a thing you can make a statuette of it.
These people professed that the universe was one coherent thing;
but they were not fond of the universe. But I was frightfully fond
of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often
did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel
that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling
the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there
was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious
care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life.
They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift.
For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars
were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun
and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and
These subconscious convictions are best hit off by the colour
and tone of certain tales. Thus I have said that stories of magic
alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a
kind of eccentric privilege. I may express this other feeling of
cosmic cosiness by allusion to another book always read in boyhood,
"Robinson Crusoe," which I read about this time, and which owes
its eternal vivacity to the fact that it celebrates the poetry
of limits, nay, even the wild romance of prudence. Crusoe is a man
on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea:
the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from
the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen
tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea.
It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day,
to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think
how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship
on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still
to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape:
everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one
horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been,
as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood
of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say
that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more
solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great
But I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the order
and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe's ship.
That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there
were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should
be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added.
The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck:
and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked
in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as if they were
sapphires (they are called so in Milton's Eden): I hoarded the hills.
For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant
to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is
literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price:
for there cannot be another one.
Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the
unutterable things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life;
the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way I
thought before I could write, and felt before I could think:
that we may proceed more easily afterwards, I will roughly recapitulate
them now. I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not
explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation;
it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation.
But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me,
will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard.
The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic
must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it.
There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art;
whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I thought this
purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects,
such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it
is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God
for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed,
also, an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and strangest,
there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some
way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some
primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods:
he had saved them from a wreck. All this I felt and the age gave me
no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought
of Christian theology.
V THE FLAG OF THE WORLD
When I was a boy there were two curious men running about
who were called the optimist and the pessimist. I constantly used
the words myself, but I cheerfully confess that I never had any
very special idea of what they meant. The only thing which might
be considered evident was that they could not mean what they said;
for the ordinary verbal explanation was that the optimist thought
this world as good as it could be, while the pessimist thought
it as bad as it could be. Both these statements being obviously
raving nonsense, one had to cast about for other explanations.
An optimist could not mean a man who thought everything right and
nothing wrong. For that is meaningless; it is like calling everything
right and nothing left. Upon the whole, I came to the conclusion
that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist,
and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself.
It would be unfair to omit altogether from the list the mysterious
but suggestive definition said to have been given by a little girl,
"An optimist is a man who looks after your eyes, and a pessimist
is a man who looks after your feet." I am not sure that this is not
the best definition of all. There is even a sort of allegorical truth
in it. For there might, perhaps, be a profitable distinction drawn
between that more dreary thinker who thinks merely of our contact
with the earth from moment to moment, and that happier thinker
who considers rather our primary power of vision and of choice
But this is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist
and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticises
this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown
over a new suite of apartments. If a man came to this world from
some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss
whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage
of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance
the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view.
But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before
he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for
the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he
has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter,
he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.
In the last chapter it has been said that the primary feeling
that this world is strange and yet attractive is best expressed
in fairy tales. The reader may, if he likes, put down the next
stage to that bellicose and even jingo literature which commonly
comes next in the history of a boy. We all owe much sound morality
to the penny dreadfuls. Whatever the reason, it seemed and still
seems to me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed
in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism
and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism,
it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty.
The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to
leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family,
with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it
is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world
is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that
when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it,
and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts
about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike
reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism
are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing--
say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall
find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and
the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico:
in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea.
Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico:
for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful.
The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico:
to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason.
If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise
into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself
as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given
to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable.
A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly
without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck.
If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it
is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.
Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this
is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did
grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you
will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some
sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards
gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great.
She was great because they had loved her.
The eighteenth-century theories of the social contract have
been exposed to much clumsy criticism in our time; in so far
as they meant that there is at the back of all historic government
an idea of content and co-operation, they were demonstrably right.
But they really were wrong, in so far as they suggested that men
had ever aimed at order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange
of interests. Morality did not begin by one man saying to another,
"I will not hit you if you do not hit me"; there is no trace
of such a transaction. There IS a trace of both men having said,
"We must not hit each other in the holy place." They gained their
morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage.
They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous.
They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for
the altar, and found that they were clean. The history of the Jews
is the only early document known to most Englishmen, and the facts can
be judged sufficiently from that. The Ten Commandments which have been
found substantially common to mankind were merely military commands;
a code of regimental orders, issued to protect a certain ark across
a certain desert. Anarchy was evil because it endangered the sanctity.
And only when they made a holy day for God did they find they had made
a holiday for men.
If it be granted that this primary devotion to a place or thing
is a source of creative energy, we can pass on to a very peculiar fact.
Let us reiterate for an instant that the only right optimism is a sort
of universal patriotism. What is the matter with the pessimist?
I think it can be stated by saying that he is the cosmic anti-patriot.
And what is the matter with the anti-patriot? I think it can be stated,
without undue bitterness, by saying that he is the candid friend.
And what is the matter with the candid friend? There we strike
the rock of real life and immutable human nature.
I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend
is simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back--
his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has
a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. This is certainly,
I think, what makes a certain sort of anti-patriot irritating to
healthy citizens. I do not speak (of course) of the anti-patriotism
which only irritates feverish stockbrokers and gushing actresses;
that is only patriotism speaking plainly. A man who says that
no patriot should attack the Boer War until it is over is not
worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son
should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.
But there is an anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men,
and the explanation of him is, I think, what I have suggested:
he is the uncandid candid friend; the man who says, "I am sorry
to say we are ruined," and is not sorry at all. And he may be said,
without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge
which was allowed him to strengthen the army, to discourage people
from joining it. Because he is allowed to be pessimistic as a
military adviser he is being pessimistic as a recruiting sergeant.
Just in the same way the pessimist (who is the cosmic anti-patriot)
uses the freedom that life allows to her counsellors to lure away
the people from her flag. Granted that he states only facts, it is
still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive.
It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox;
but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher
who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants
to help the men.
The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods
and men, but that he does not love what he chastises--he has not
this primary and supernatural loyalty to things. What is the evil
of the man commonly called an optimist? Obviously, it is felt
that the optimist, wishing to defend the honour of this world,
will defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe;
he will say, "My cosmos, right or wrong." He will be less inclined
to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench
official answer to all attacks, soothing every one with assurances.
He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world. All this
(which is true of a type of optimist) leads us to the one really
interesting point of psychology, which could not be explained
We say there must be a primal loyalty to life: the only
question is, shall it be a natural or a supernatural loyalty?
If you like to put it so, shall it be a reasonable or an
unreasonable loyalty? Now, the extraordinary thing is that the
bad optimism (the whitewashing, the weak defence of everything)
comes in with the reasonable optimism. Rational optimism leads
to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform.
Let me explain by using once more the parallel of patriotism.
The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly
the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve
the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves
some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself
defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves
Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem.
I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the
mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest
among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism.
The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England.
If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success
with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being
a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even
if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their
patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.
A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose.
But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against
all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman)
by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest.
He may end in utter unreason--because he has a reason. A man who
loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870.
But a man who loves France for being France will improve the army
of 1870. This is exactly what the French have done, and France is
a good instance of the working paradox. Nowhere else is patriotism
more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more
drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental is your patriotism,
the more practical are your politics.
Perhaps the most everyday instance of this point is in the case
of women; and their strange and strong loyalty. Some stupid people
started the idea that because women obviously back up their own
people through everything, therefore women are blind and do not
see anything. They can hardly have known any women. The same women
who are ready to defend their men through thick and thin are (in
their personal intercourse with the man) almost morbidly lucid
about the thinness of his excuses or the thickness of his head.
A man's friend likes him but leaves him as he is: his wife loves him
and is always trying to turn him into somebody else. Women who are
utter mystics in their creed are utter cynics in their criticism.
Thackeray expressed this well when he made Pendennis' mother,
who worshipped her son as a god, yet assume that he would go wrong
as a man. She underrated his virtue, though she overrated his value.
The devotee is entirely free to criticise; the fanatic can safely
be a sceptic. Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is.
Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.
This at least had come to be my position about all that
was called optimism, pessimism, and improvement. Before any
cosmic act of reform we must have a cosmic oath of allegiance.
A man must be interested in life, then he could be disinterested
in his views of it. "My son give me thy heart"; the heart must
be fixed on the right thing: the moment we have a fixed heart we
have a free hand. I must pause to anticipate an obvious criticism.
It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed
of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance.
But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective.
It is, I know, very common in this age; it was perfectly put in those
quiet lines of Matthew Arnold which are more piercingly blasphemous
than the shrieks of Schopenhauer--
"Enough we live:--and if a life, With large results so little rife,
Though bearable, seem hardly worth This pomp of worlds, this pain
I know this feeling fills our epoch, and I think it freezes
our epoch. For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution,
what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise,
but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it.
We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a
surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent.
We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre's castle,
to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return
No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world:
but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength
enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it,
and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look
up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence?
Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair?
Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist,
but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a
pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?
In this combination, I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails,
the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole
universe for the sake of itself.
I put these things not in their mature logical sequence, but as
they came: and this view was cleared and sharpened by an accident
of the time. Under the lengthening shadow of Ibsen, an argument
arose whether it was not a very nice thing to murder one's self.
Grave moderns told us that we must not even say "poor fellow,"
of a man who had blown his brains out, since he was an enviable person,
and had only blown them out because of their exceptional excellence.
Mr. William Archer even suggested that in the golden age there
would be penny-in-the-slot machines, by which a man could kill
himself for a penny. In all this I found myself utterly hostile
to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is
suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil,
the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take
the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man.
The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned
he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered)
than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings:
it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds;
but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed,
even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief
compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them.
But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it.
He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake.
There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death
is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves
might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury:
for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be
pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape,
and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear
ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much
more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads
and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer's suicidal
automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart.
The man's crime is different from other crimes--for it makes even
About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some free thinker:
he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open
fallacy of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide
is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much
for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life.
A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him,
that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something
to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words,
the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world
or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life;
he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live.
The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being:
he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe.
And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads, and the queer
fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide.
For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr.
Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason,
of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate
and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death
with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties
of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers.
All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there
is the stake at the crossroads to show what Christianity thought of
This was the first of the long train of enigmas with which
Christianity entered the discussion. And there went with it a
peculiarity of which I shall have to speak more markedly, as a note
of all Christian notions, but which distinctly began in this one.
The Christian attitude to the martyr and the suicide was not what is
so often affirmed in modern morals. It was not a matter of degree.
It was not that a line must be drawn somewhere, and that the
self-slayer in exaltation fell within the line, the self-slayer
in sadness just beyond it. The Christian feeling evidently
was not merely that the suicide was carrying martyrdom too far.
The Christian feeling was furiously for one and furiously against
the other: these two things that looked so much alike were at
opposite ends of heaven and hell. One man flung away his life;
he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence.
Another man flung away life; he was so bad that his bones would
pollute his brethren's. I am not saying this fierceness was right;
but why was it so fierce?
Here it was that I first found that my wandering feet were
in some beaten track. Christianity had also felt this opposition
of the martyr to the suicide: had it perhaps felt it for the
same reason? Had Christianity felt what I felt, but could not
(and cannot) express--this need for a first loyalty to things,
and then for a ruinous reform of things? Then I remembered
that it was actually the charge against Christianity that it
combined these two things which I was wildly trying to combine.
Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being
too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic
about the world. The coincidence made me suddenly stand still.
An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying
that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot
be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible
in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth.
You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed
on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well
say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three,
but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe
depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.
If a man believes in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe
in any miracle in any age. If a man believes in a will behind law,
he can believe in any miracle in any age. Suppose, for the sake
of argument, we are concerned with a case of thaumaturgic healing.
A materialist of the twelfth century could not believe it any more
than a materialist of the twentieth century. But a Christian
Scientist of the twentieth century can believe it as much as a
Christian of the twelfth century. It is simply a matter of a man's
theory of things. Therefore in dealing with any historical answer,
the point is not whether it was given in our time, but whether it
was given in answer to our question. And the more I thought about
when and how Christianity had come into the world, the more I felt
that it had actually come to answer this question.
It is commonly the loose and latitudinarian Christians who pay
quite indefensible compliments to Christianity. They talk as if
there had never been any piety or pity until Christianity came,
a point on which any mediaeval would have been eager to correct them.
They represent that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it
was the first to preach simplicity or self-restraint, or inwardness
and sincerity. They will think me very narrow (whatever that means)
if I say that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it
was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity was that it
was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar,
but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer
to a riddle, not the last truism uttered after a long talk.
Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper of Puritan tone
this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its armour of dogma
(as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of bones),
turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light.
Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would
be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth.
The last Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people
who did believe in the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness,
their sad external care for others, their incurable internal care
for themselves, were all due to the Inner Light, and existed only
by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists,
as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done
or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make
a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our
own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning;
because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games
of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land.
Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an
unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without
the excuse of passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment
the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible
religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within.
Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows
any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work.
That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately
to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun
or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship
cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not
the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order
to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards,
but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm
a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being
a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light,
but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as
the moon, terrible as an army with banners.
All the same, it will be as well if Jones does not worship the sun
and moon. If he does, there is a tendency for him to imitate them;
to say, that because the sun burns insects alive, he may burn
insects alive. He thinks that because the sun gives people sun-stroke,
he may give his neighbour measles. He thinks that because the moon
is said to drive men mad, he may drive his wife mad. This ugly side
of mere external optimism had also shown itself in the ancient world.
About the time when the Stoic idealism had begun to show the
weaknesses of pessimism, the old nature worship of the ancients had
begun to show the enormous weaknesses of optimism. Nature worship
is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words,
Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan.
But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow
in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he
soon showed the cloven hoof. The only objection to Natural Religion
is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature
in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall,
if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty.
He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics,
yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot
bull's blood, as did Julian the Apostate. The mere pursuit of
health always leads to something unhealthy. Physical nature must
not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed,
not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously.
If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended.
Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties.
Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality.
Mere optimism had reached its insane and appropriate termination.
The theory that everything was good had become an orgy of everything
that was bad.
On the other side our idealist pessimists were represented
by the old remnant of the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius and his friends
had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked
only to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature,
and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not enough
interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionise it.
They did not love the city enough to set fire to it. Thus the
ancient world was exactly in our own desolate dilemma. The only
people who really enjoyed this world were busy breaking it up;
and the virtuous people did not care enough about them to knock
them down. In this dilemma (the same as ours) Christianity suddenly
stepped in and offered a singular answer, which the world eventually
accepted as THE answer. It was the answer then, and I think it is
the answer now.
This answer was like the slash of a sword; it sundered;
it did not in any sense sentimentally unite. Briefly, it divided
God from the cosmos. That transcendence and distinctness of the
deity which some Christians now want to remove from Christianity,
was really the only reason why any one wanted to be a Christian.
It was the whole point of the Christian answer to the unhappy pessimist
and the still more unhappy optimist. As I am here only concerned
with their particular problem, I shall indicate only briefly this
great metaphysical suggestion. All descriptions of the creating
or sustaining principle in things must be metaphorical, because they
must be verbal. Thus the pantheist is forced to speak of God
in all things as if he were in a box. Thus the evolutionist has,
in his very name, the idea of being unrolled like a carpet.
All terms, religious and irreligious, are open to this charge.
The only question is whether all terms are useless, or whether one can,
with such a phrase, cover a distinct IDEA about the origin of things.
I think one can, and so evidently does the evolutionist, or he would
not talk about evolution. And the root phrase for all Christian
theism was this, that God was a creator, as an artist is a creator.
A poet is so separate from his poem that he himself speaks of it
as a little thing he has "thrown off." Even in giving it forth he
has flung it away. This principle that all creation and procreation
is a breaking off is at least as consistent through the cosmos as the
evolutionary principle that all growth is a branching out. A woman
loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation.
Birth is as solemn a parting as death.
It was the prime philosophic principle of Christianity that
this divorce in the divine act of making (such as severs the poet
from the poem or the mother from the new-born child) was the true
description of the act whereby the absolute energy made the world.
According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it.
According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free.
God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he
had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human
actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.
I will discuss the truth of this theorem later. Here I have only
to point out with what a startling smoothness it passed the dilemma
we have discussed in this chapter. In this way at least one could
be both happy and indignant without degrading one's self to be either
a pessimist or an optimist. On this system one could fight all
the forces of existence without deserting the flag of existence.
One could be at peace with the universe and yet be at war with
the world. St. George could still fight the dragon, however big
the monster bulked in the cosmos, though he were bigger than the
mighty cities or bigger than the everlasting hills. If he were as
big as the world he could yet be killed in the name of the world.
St. George had not to consider any obvious odds or proportions in
the scale of things, but only the original secret of their design.
He can shake his sword at the dragon, even if it is everything;
even if the empty heavens over his head are only the huge arch of its
And then followed an experience impossible to describe.
It was as if I had been blundering about since my birth with two
huge and unmanageable machines, of different shapes and without
apparent connection--the world and the Christian tradition.
I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must
somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it;
somehow one must love the world without being worldly. I found this
projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike,
the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world
separate from Himself. The spike of dogma fitted exactly into
the hole in the world--it had evidently been meant to go there--
and then the strange thing began to happen. When once these two
parts of the two machines had come together, one after another,
all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude.
I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling
into its place with a kind of click of relief. Having got one
part right, all the other parts were repeating that rectitude,
as clock after clock strikes noon. Instinct after instinct was
answered by doctrine after doctrine. Or, to vary the metaphor,
I was like one who had advanced into a hostile country to take
one high fortress. And when that fort had fallen the whole country
surrendered and turned solid behind me. The whole land was lit up,
as it were, back to the first fields of my childhood. All those blind
fancies of boyhood which in the fourth chapter I have tried in vain
to trace on the darkness, became suddenly transparent and sane.
I was right when I felt that roses were red by some sort of choice:
it was the divine choice. I was right when I felt that I would
almost rather say that grass was the wrong colour than say it must
by necessity have been that colour: it might verily have been
any other. My sense that happiness hung on the crazy thread of a
condition did mean something when all was said: it meant the whole
doctrine of the Fall. Even those dim and shapeless monsters of
notions which I have not been able to describe, much less defend,
stepped quietly into their places like colossal caryatides
of the creed. The fancy that the cosmos was not vast and void,
but small and cosy, had a fulfilled significance now, for anything
that is a work of art must be small in the sight of the artist;
to God the stars might be only small and dear, like diamonds.
And my haunting instinct that somehow good was not merely a tool to
be used, but a relic to be guarded, like the goods from Crusoe's ship--
even that had been the wild whisper of something originally wise, for,
according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck,
the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of
But the important matter was this, that it entirely reversed
the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it
felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket.
I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident
blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been
false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been
trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian
optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world.
I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal,
like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really
was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been
right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse
and better than all things. The optimist's pleasure was prosaic,
for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian
pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything
in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told
me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still
felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in
the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring.
The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark
house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me
as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick
VI THE PARADOXES OF CHRISTIANITY
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an
unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest
kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite.
Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians.
It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is;
its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden;
its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean.
Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon
up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing
about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the
right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there
was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right
and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side
the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes,
twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain.
At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart
on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other.
And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.
It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is
the uncanny element in everything. It seems a sort of secret
treason in the universe. An apple or an orange is round enough
to get itself called round, and yet is not round after all.
The earth itself is shaped like an orange in order to lure some
simple astronomer into calling it a globe. A blade of grass is
called after the blade of a sword, because it comes to a point;
but it doesn't. Everywhere in things there is this element of the
quiet and incalculable. It escapes the rationalists, but it never
escapes till the last moment. From the grand curve of our earth it
could easily be inferred that every inch of it was thus curved.
It would seem rational that as a man has a brain on both sides,
he should have a heart on both sides. Yet scientific men are still
organizing expeditions to find the North Pole, because they are
so fond of flat country. Scientific men are also still organizing
expeditions to find a man's heart; and when they try to find it,
they generally get on the wrong side of him.
Now, actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether it
guesses these hidden malformations or surprises. If our mathematician
from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce
the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain. But if he
guessed that the man's heart was in the right place, then I should
call him something more than a mathematician. Now, this is exactly
the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity.
Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly
becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth.
It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one
may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits
the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple
about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth.
It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all
the Modernists wail to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts.
It is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show
that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology,
we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.
I have alluded to an unmeaning phrase to the effect that
such and such a creed cannot be believed in our age. Of course,
anything can be believed in any age. But, oddly enough, there really
is a sense in which a creed, if it is believed at all, can be
believed more fixedly in a complex society than in a simple one.
If a man finds Christianity true in Birmingham, he has actually clearer
reasons for faith than if he had found it true in Mercia. For the more
complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be a coincidence.
If snowflakes fell in the shape, say, of the heart of Midlothian,
it might be an accident. But if snowflakes fell in the exact shape
of the maze at Hampton Court, I think one might call it a miracle.
It is exactly as of such a miracle that I have since come to feel
of the philosophy of Christianity. The complication of our modern
world proves the truth of the creed more perfectly than any of
the plain problems of the ages of faith. It was in Notting Hill
and Battersea that I began to see that Christianity was true.
This is why the faith has that elaboration of doctrines and details
which so much distresses those who admire Christianity without
believing in it. When once one believes in a creed, one is proud
of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity
of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right
at all, it is a compliment to say that it's elaborately right.
A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident.
But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock,
you know it is the right key.
But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult
to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth.
It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is
entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only
partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has
found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it.
But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he
finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he
finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he
finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked
suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man,
on the spur of the moment, "Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?"
he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be
able to answer vaguely, "Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the
coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen."
The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex.
It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof
which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.
There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind
of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long
time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises,
oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin.
All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never
get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction
I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing
as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab.
But if I am to be at all careful about making my meaning clear,
it will, I think, be wiser to continue the current arguments
of the last chapter, which was concerned to urge the first of
these mystical coincidences, or rather ratifications. All I had
hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it.
I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the
age of sixteen; and I cannot understand any one passing the age
of seventeen without having asked himself so simple a question.
I did, indeed, retain a cloudy reverence for a cosmic deity
and a great historical interest in the Founder of Christianity.
But I certainly regarded Him as a man; though perhaps I thought that,
even in that point, He had an advantage over some of His modern critics.
I read the scientific and sceptical literature of my time--all of it,
at least, that I could find written in English and lying about;
and I read nothing else; I mean I read nothing else on any other
note of philosophy. The penny dreadfuls which I also read
were indeed in a healthy and heroic tradition of Christianity;
but I did not know this at the time. I never read a line of
Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now.
It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me
back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild
doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said
that Tom Paine and the free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do.
They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question
whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished
Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time)
whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of
Colonel Ingersoll's atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke
across my mind, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." I was
in a desperate way.
This odd effect of the great agnostics in arousing doubts
deeper than their own might be illustrated in many ways.
I take only one. As I read and re-read all the non-Christian
or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh,
a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically
upon my mind--the impression that Christianity must be a most
extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity
the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent
for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other.
It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons.
No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far
to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it
was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died
down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up
again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.
In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give
such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction
in the sceptical attack. I give four or five of them; there are
Thus, for instance, I was much moved by the eloquent attack
on Christianity as a thing of inhuman gloom; for I thought
(and still think) sincere pessimism the unpardonable sin.
Insincere pessimism is a social accomplishment, rather agreeable
than otherwise; and fortunately nearly all pessimism is insincere.
But if Christianity was, as these people said, a thing purely
pessimistic and opposed to life, then I was quite prepared to blow
up St. Paul's Cathedral. But the extraordinary thing is this.
They did prove to me in Chapter I. (to my complete satisfaction)
that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II.,
they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic.
One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men,
by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in the bosom
of Nature. But another accusation was that it comforted men with a
fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery.
One great agnostic asked why Nature was not beautiful enough,
and why it was hard to be free. Another great agnostic objected
that Christian optimism, "the garment of make-believe woven by
pious hands," hid from us the fact that Nature was ugly, and that
it was impossible to be free. One rationalist had hardly done
calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it
a fool's paradise. This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent.
Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world,
and also the white mask on a black world. The state of the Christian
could not be at once so comfortable that he was a coward to cling
to it, and so uncomfortable that he was a fool to stand it.
If it falsified human vision it must falsify it one way or another;
it could not wear both green and rose-coloured spectacles.
I rolled on my tongue with a terrible joy, as did all young men
of that time, the taunts which Swinburne hurled at the dreariness of
"Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilaean, the world has grown
gray with Thy breath."
But when I read the same poet's accounts of paganism (as
in "Atalanta"), I gathered that the world was, if possible,
more gray before the Galilean breathed on it than afterwards.
The poet maintained, indeed, in the abstract, that life itself
was pitch dark. And yet, somehow, Christianity had darkened it.
The very man who denounced Christianity for pessimism was himself
a pessimist. I thought there must be something wrong. And it did
for one wild moment cross my mind that, perhaps, those might not be
the very best judges of the relation of religion to happiness who,
by their own account, had neither one nor the other.
It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the
accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced
that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder
than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices;
but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat
in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape.
At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian
religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.
Here is another case of the same kind. I felt that a strong
case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something
timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called "Christian,"
especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting.
The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile.
Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley, in a reticent way,
were decidedly men. In comparison, it did seem tenable that there
was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels.
The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests
never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation
that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep.
I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different,
I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different.
I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned
up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for
fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed,
was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood.
I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never
was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his
anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history;
because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun.
The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and
non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached
it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the
fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward
the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Leon did.
The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians;
and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic
Christian crimes. What could it all mean? What was this Christianity
which always forbade war and always produced wars? What could
be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it
would not fight, and second because it was always fighting?
In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this
monstrous meekness? The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape
I take a third case; the strangest of all, because it involves
the one real objection to the faith. The one real objection to the
Christian religion is simply that it is one religion. The world is
a big place, full of very different kinds of people. Christianity (it
may reasonably be said) is one thing confined to one kind of people;
it began in Palestine, it has practically stopped with Europe.
I was duly impressed with this argument in my youth, and I was much
drawn towards the doctrine often preached in Ethical Societies--
I mean the doctrine that there is one great unconscious church of
all humanity founded on the omnipresence of the human conscience.
Creeds, it was said, divided men; but at least morals united them.
The soul might seek the strangest and most remote lands and ages
and still find essential ethical common sense. It might find
Confucius under Eastern trees, and he would be writing "Thou
shalt not steal." It might decipher the darkest hieroglyphic on
the most primeval desert, and the meaning when deciphered would
be "Little boys should tell the truth." I believed this doctrine
of the brotherhood of all men in the possession of a moral sense,
and I believe it still--with other things. And I was thoroughly
annoyed with Christianity for suggesting (as I supposed)
that whole ages and empires of men had utterly escaped this light
of justice and reason. But then I found an astonishing thing.
I found that the very people who said that mankind was one church
from Plato to Emerson were the very people who said that morality
had changed altogether, and that what was right in one age was wrong
in another. If I asked, say, for an altar, I was told that we
needed none, for men our brothers gave us clear oracles and one creed
in their universal customs and ideals. But if I mildly pointed
out that one of men's universal customs was to have an altar,
then my agnostic teachers turned clean round and told me that men
had always been in darkness and the superstitions of savages.
I found it was their daily taunt against Christianity that it was
the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark.
But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves
that science and progress were the discovery of one people,
and that all other peoples had died in the dark. Their chief insult
to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves,
and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative
insistence on the two things. When considering some pagan or agnostic,
we were to remember that all men had one religion; when considering
some mystic or spiritualist, we were only to consider what absurd
religions some men had. We could trust the ethics of Epictetus,
because ethics had never changed. We must not trust the ethics
of Bossuet, because ethics had changed. They changed in two
hundred years, but not in two thousand.
This began to be alarming. It looked not so much as if
Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather
as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.
What again could this astonishing thing be like which people
were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind
contradicting themselves? I saw the same thing on every side.
I can give no further space to this discussion of it in detail;
but lest any one supposes that I have unfairly selected three
accidental cases I will run briefly through a few others.
Thus, certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity
had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women to the
loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes
and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced)
said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family
and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their
homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation.
The charge was actually reversed. Or, again, certain phrases in the
Epistles or the marriage service, were said by the anti-Christians
to show contempt for woman's intellect. But I found that the
anti-Christians themselves had a contempt for woman's intellect;
for it was their great sneer at the Church on the Continent that
"only women" went to it. Or again, Christianity was reproached
with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas.
But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp
and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold.
It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured.
Again Christianity had always been accused of restraining sexuality
too much, when Bradlaugh the Malthusian discovered that it restrained
it too little. It is often accused in the same breath of prim
respectability and of religious extravagance. Between the covers
of the same atheistic pamphlet I have found the faith rebuked
for its disunion, "One thinks one thing, and one another,"
and rebuked also for its union, "It is difference of opinion
that prevents the world from going to the dogs." In the same
conversation a free-thinker, a friend of mine, blamed Christianity
for despising Jews, and then despised it himself for being Jewish.
I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now;
and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong.
I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very
wrong indeed. Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing,
but that thing must be very strange and solitary. There are men
who are misers, and also spendthrifts; but they are rare. There are
men sensual and also ascetic; but they are rare. But if this mass
of mad contradictions really existed, quakerish and bloodthirsty,
too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere, yet pandering preposterously
to the lust of the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge,
a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, if this evil existed,
then there was in this evil something quite supreme and unique.
For I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such
exceptional corruption. Christianity (theoretically speaking)
was in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals.
THEY gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness.
Such a paradox of evil rose to the stature of the supernatural.
It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope.
An historic institution, which never went right, is really quite
as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong.
The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was that
Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell. Really, if Jesus
of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist.
And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still
thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation.
Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we
were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some
too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness;
some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as
has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape.
But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.
Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men
might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might
consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing
thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance.
Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man,
while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short)
this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least
the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity
that is sane and all its critics that are mad--in various ways.
I tested this idea by asking myself whether there was about any
of the accusers anything morbid that might explain the accusation.
I was startled to find that this key fitted a lock. For instance,
it was certainly odd that the modern world charged Christianity
at once with bodily austerity and with artistic pomp. But then
it was also odd, very odd, that the modern world itself combined
extreme bodily luxury with an extreme absence of artistic pomp.
The modern man thought Becket's robes too rich and his meals too poor.
But then the modern man was really exceptional in history; no man before
ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes. The modern man
found the church too simple exactly where modern life is too complex;
he found the church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy.
The man who disliked the plain fasts and feasts was mad on entrees.
The man who disliked vestments wore a pair of preposterous trousers.
And surely if there was any insanity involved in the matter at all it
was in the trousers, not in the simply falling robe. If there was any
insanity at all, it was in the extravagant entrees, not in the bread
I went over all the cases, and I found the key fitted so far.
The fact that Swinburne was irritated at the unhappiness of Christians
and yet more irritated at their happiness was easily explained.
It was no longer a complication of diseases in Christianity,
but a complication of diseases in Swinburne. The restraints
of Christians saddened him simply because he was more hedonist
than a healthy man should be. The faith of Christians angered
him because he was more pessimist than a healthy man should be.
In the same way the Malthusians by instinct attacked Christianity;
not because there is anything especially anti-Malthusian about
Christianity, but because there is something a little anti-human
Nevertheless it could not, I felt, be quite true that Christianity
was merely sensible and stood in the middle. There was really
an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified
the secularists in their superficial criticism. It might be wise,
I began more and more to think that it was wise, but it was not
merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and respectable.
Its fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other;
still, the crusaders were very fierce and the saints were very meek,
meek beyond all decency. Now, it was just at this point of the
speculation that I remembered my thoughts about the martyr and
the suicide. In that matter there had been this combination between
two almost insane positions which yet somehow amounted to sanity.
This was just such another contradiction; and this I had already
found to be true. This was exactly one of the paradoxes in which
sceptics found the creed wrong; and in this I had found it right.
Madly as Christians might love the martyr or hate the suicide,
they never felt these passions more madly than I had felt them long
before I dreamed of Christianity. Then the most difficult and
interesting part of the mental process opened, and I began to trace
this idea darkly through all the enormous thoughts of our theology.
The idea was that which I had outlined touching the optimist and
the pessimist; that we want not an amalgam or compromise, but both
things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning.
Here I shall only trace it in relation to ethics. But I need not
remind the reader that the idea of this combination is indeed central
in orthodox theology. For orthodox theology has specially insisted
that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf,
nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both
things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.
Now let me trace this notion as I found it.
All sane men can see that sanity is some kind of equilibrium;
that one may be mad and eat too much, or mad and eat too little.
Some moderns have indeed appeared with vague versions of progress and
evolution which seeks to destroy the MESON or balance of Aristotle.
They seem to suggest that we are meant to starve progressively,
or to go on eating larger and larger breakfasts every morning for ever.
But the great truism of the MESON remains for all thinking men,
and these people have not upset any balance except their own.
But granted that we have all to keep a balance, the real interest
comes in with the question of how that balance can be kept.
That was the problem which Paganism tried to solve: that was
the problem which I think Christianity solved and solved in a very
Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity
declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions
apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent;
but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.
Let us follow for a moment the clue of the martyr and the suicide;
and take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled
the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages.
Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire
to live taking the form of a readiness to die. "He that will lose
his life, the same shall save it," is not a piece of mysticism
for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for
sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide
or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage;
even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by
the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.
He can only get away from death by continually stepping within
an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut
his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a
strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life,
for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely
wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape.
He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it;
he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.
No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle
with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so.
But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it
in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance
between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the
sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European
lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage,
which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a
disdain of life.
And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian
key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation
out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance,
the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and
mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic,
would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently
self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse,
that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them.
In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily
with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position,
but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise
between optimism and pessimism--the "resignation" of Matthew Arnold.
Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things;
neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour.
This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets;
you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand,
this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire
and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and
searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at
the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels;
for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it
loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble.
Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both
It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both.
In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before;
in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before.
In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far
as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had
meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view
of his whole destiny--all that was to go. We were to hear no more
the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over
the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest
of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking
about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes;
man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god.
The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging
to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it.
Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only
be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage.
Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness
of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission,
in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.
When one came to think of ONE'S SELF, there was vista and void enough
for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the
realistic gentleman could let himself go--as long as he let himself go
at himself. There was an open playground for the happy pessimist.
Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original
aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned
fool (though that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools
are not worth saving. He must not say that a man, QUA man,
can be valueless. Here, again in short, Christianity got over the
difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both,
and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points.
One can hardly think too little of one's self. One can hardly think
too much of one's soul.
Take another case: the complicated question of charity,
which some highly uncharitable idealists seem to think quite easy.
Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly,
charity certainly means one of two things--pardoning unpardonable acts,
or loving unlovable people. But if we ask ourselves (as we did
in the case of pride) what a sensible pagan would feel about such
a subject, we shall probably be beginning at the bottom of it.
A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive,
and some one couldn't: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at;
a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed
even after he was killed. In so far as the act was pardonable,
the man was pardonable. That again is rational, and even refreshing;
but it is a dilution. It leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice,
such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it leaves
no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole
fascination of the charitable. Christianity came in here as before.
It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another.
It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive
unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all.
It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger
and partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before,
and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath
and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity,
the more I found that while it had established a rule and order,
the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run
Mental and emotional liberty are not so simple as they look.
Really they require almost as careful a balance of laws and conditions
as do social and political liberty. The ordinary aesthetic anarchist
who sets out to feel everything freely gets knotted at last in a
paradox that prevents him feeling at all. He breaks away from home
limits to follow poetry. But in ceasing to feel home limits he has
ceased to feel the "Odyssey." He is free from national prejudices
and outside patriotism. But being outside patriotism he is outside
"Henry V." Such a literary man is simply outside all literature:
he is more of a prisoner than any bigot. For if there is a wall
between you and the world, it makes little difference whether you
describe yourself as locked in or as locked out. What we want
is not the universality that is outside all normal sentiments;
we want the universality that is inside all normal sentiments.
It is all the difference between being free from them, as a man
is free from a prison, and being free of them as a man is free of
a city. I am free from Windsor Castle (that is, I am not forcibly
detained there), but I am by no means free of that building.
How can man be approximately free of fine emotions, able to swing
them in a clear space without breakage or wrong? THIS was the
achievement of this Christian paradox of the parallel passions.
Granted the primary dogma of the war between divine and diabolic,
the revolt and ruin of the world, their optimism and pessimism,
as pure poetry, could be loosened like cataracts.
St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting
optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil,
could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer. Both passions
were free because both were kept in their place. The optimist could
pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march,
the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle.
But he must not call the fight needless. The pessimist might draw
as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds.
But he must not call the fight hopeless. So it was with all the
other moral problems, with pride, with protest, and with compassion.
By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly
inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them
to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible
only to anarchists. Meekness grew more dramatic than madness.
Historic Christianity rose into a high and strange COUP DE THEATRE
of morality--things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are
to vice. The spirits of indignation and of charity took terrible
and attractive forms, ranging from that monkish fierceness that
scourged like a dog the first and greatest of the Plantagenets,
to the sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles,
kissed the bloody head of the criminal. Poetry could be acted as
well as composed. This heroic and monumental manner in ethics has
entirely vanished with supernatural religion. They, being humble,
could parade themselves: but we are too proud to be prominent.
Our ethical teachers write reasonably for prison reform; but we
are not likely to see Mr. Cadbury, or any eminent philanthropist,
go into Reading Gaol and embrace the strangled corpse before it
is cast into the quicklime. Our ethical teachers write mildly
against the power of millionaires; but we are not likely to see
Mr. Rockefeller, or any modern tyrant, publicly whipped in Westminster
Thus, the double charges of the secularists, though throwing
nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light on
the faith. It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasised
celibacy and emphasised the family; has at once (if one may put it so)
been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children.
It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white,
like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has
always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination
of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers.
It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to
a dirty gray. In fact, the whole theory of the Church on virginity
might be symbolized in the statement that white is a colour:
not merely the absence of a colour. All that I am urging here can
be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these
cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture
like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot
silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.
So it is also, of course, with the contradictory charges
of the anti-Christians about submission and slaughter. It IS true
that the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight;
and it IS true that those who fought were like thunderbolts
and those who did not fight were like statues. All this simply
means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use
its Tolstoyans. There must be SOME good in the life of battle,
for so many good men have enjoyed being soldiers. There must be
SOME good in the idea of non-resistance, for so many good men seem
to enjoy being Quakers. All that the Church did (so far as that goes)
was to prevent either of these good things from ousting the other.
They existed side by side. The Tolstoyans, having all the scruples
of monks, simply became monks. The Quakers became a club instead
of becoming a sect. Monks said all that Tolstoy says; they poured
out lucid lamentations about the cruelty of battles and the vanity
of revenge. But the Tolstoyans are not quite right enough to run
the whole world; and in the ages of faith they were not allowed
to run it. The world did not lose the last charge of Sir James
Douglas or the banner of Joan the Maid. And sometimes this pure
gentleness and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture;
the paradox of all the prophets was fulfilled, and, in the soul
of St. Louis, the lion lay down with the lamb. But remember that
this text is too lightly interpreted. It is constantly assured,
especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies
down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal
annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply
the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb.
The real problem is--Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still
retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted;
THAT is the miracle she achieved.
This is what I have called guessing the hidden eccentricities
of life. This is knowing that a man's heart is to the left and not
in the middle. This is knowing not only that the earth is round,
but knowing exactly where it is flat. Christian doctrine detected
the oddities of life. It not only discovered the law, but it
foresaw the exceptions. Those underrate Christianity who say that
it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact every
one did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe--
THAT was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one
wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one.
Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor
quite happy. But to find out how far one MAY be quite miserable
without making it impossible to be quite happy--that was a discovery
in psychology. Any one might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel";
and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger
and there you can grovel"--that was an emancipation.
This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery
of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble,
upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like
a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its
pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences
exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.
In a Gothic cathedral the columns were all different, but they were
all necessary. Every support seemed an accidental and fantastic support;
every buttress was a flying buttress. So in Christendom apparent
accidents balanced. Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold
and crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination;
for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in
the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold. It is at least
better than the manner of the modern millionaire, who has the black
and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart.
But the balance was not always in one man's body as in Becket's;
the balance was often distributed over the whole body of Christendom.
Because a man prayed and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could
be flung at his festival in the Southern cities; and because fanatics
drank water on the sands of Syria, men could still drink cider in the
orchards of England. This is what makes Christendom at once so much
more perplexing and so much more interesting than the Pagan empire;
just as Amiens Cathedral is not better but more interesting than
the Parthenon. If any one wants a modern proof of all this,
let him consider the curious fact that, under Christianity,
Europe (while remaining a unity) has broken up into individual nations.
Patriotism is a perfect example of this deliberate balancing
of one emphasis against another emphasis. The instinct of the
Pagan empire would have said, "You shall all be Roman citizens,
and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent;
the Frenchmen less experimental and swift." But the instinct
of Christian Europe says, "Let the German remain slow and reverent,
that the Frenchman may the more safely be swift and experimental.
We will make an equipoise out of these excesses. The absurdity
called Germany shall correct the insanity called France."
Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains
what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history
of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points
of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word.
It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you
are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth
on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment
of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful
and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep
the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers,
of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong
enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world.
Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas;
she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit,
of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins,
or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see,
need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.
The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean,
and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst his chain in the forgotten
forests of the north. Of these theological equalisations I have
to speak afterwards. Here it is enough to notice that if some
small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made
in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature
of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe.
A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither
all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had
to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might
enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful,
if only that the world might be careless.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen
into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy,
humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting
as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to
be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses,
seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude
having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.
The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse;
yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along
one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right,
so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand
the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers
to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving
to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly.
The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted
the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would
have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians.
It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century,
to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be
a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let
the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own.
It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.
To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration
which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the
historic path of Christendom--that would indeed have been simple.
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at
which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into
any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed
have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been
one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies
thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate,
the wild truth reeling but erect.
VII THE ETERNAL REVOLUTION
The following propositions have been urged: First, that some
faith in our life is required even to improve it; second, that some
dissatisfaction with things as they are is necessary even in order
to be satisfied; third, that to have this necessary content
and necessary discontent it is not sufficient to have the obvious
equilibrium of the Stoic. For mere resignation has neither the
gigantic levity of pleasure nor the superb intolerance of pain.
There is a vital objection to the advice merely to grin and bear it.
The objection is that if you merely bear it, you do not grin.
Greek heroes do not grin: but gargoyles do--because they are Christian.
And when a Christian is pleased, he is (in the most exact sense)
frightfully pleased; his pleasure is frightful. Christ prophesied
the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and
respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs)
objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem.
He said, "If these were silent, the very stones would cry out."
Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the
facades of the mediaeval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces
and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones
If these things be conceded, though only for argument,
we may take up where we left it the thread of the thought of the
natural man, called by the Scotch (with regrettable familiarity),
"The Old Man." We can ask the next question so obviously in front
of us. Some satisfaction is needed even to make things better.
But what do we mean by making things better? Most modern talk on
this matter is a mere argument in a circle--that circle which we
have already made the symbol of madness and of mere rationalism.
Evolution is only good if it produces good; good is only good if it
helps evolution. The elephant stands on the tortoise, and the tortoise
on the elephant.
Obviously, it will not do to take our ideal from the principle
in nature; for the simple reason that (except for some human
or divine theory), there is no principle in nature. For instance,
the cheap anti-democrat of to-day will tell you solemnly that
there is no equality in nature. He is right, but he does not see
the logical addendum. There is no equality in nature; also there
is no inequality in nature. Inequality, as much as equality,
implies a standard of value. To read aristocracy into the anarchy
of animals is just as sentimental as to read democracy into it.
Both aristocracy and democracy are human ideals: the one saying
that all men are valuable, the other that some men are more valuable.
But nature does not say that cats are more valuable than mice;
nature makes no remark on the subject. She does not even say
that the cat is enviable or the mouse pitiable. We think the cat
superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy
to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse
were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat
had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat by
getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually
inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive.
Just as a microbe might feel proud of spreading a pestilence,
so the pessimistic mouse might exult to think that he was renewing
in the cat the torture of conscious existence. It all depends
on the philosophy of the mouse. You cannot even say that there
is victory or superiority in nature unless you have some doctrine
about what things are superior. You cannot even say that the cat
scores unless there is a system of scoring. You cannot even say
that the cat gets the best of it unless there is some best to
We cannot, then, get the ideal itself from nature,
and as we follow here the first and natural speculation, we will
leave out (for the present) the idea of getting it from God.
We must have our own vision. But the attempts of most moderns
to express it are highly vague.
Some fall back simply on the clock: they talk as if mere
passage through time brought some superiority; so that even a man
of the first mental calibre carelessly uses the phrase that human
morality is never up to date. How can anything be up to date?--
a date has no character. How can one say that Christmas
celebrations are not suitable to the twenty-fifth of a month?
What the writer meant, of course, was that the majority is behind
his favourite minority--or in front of it. Other vague modern
people take refuge in material metaphors; in fact, this is the chief
mark of vague modern people. Not daring to define their doctrine
of what is good, they use physical figures of speech without stint
or shame, and, what is worst of all, seem to think these cheap
analogies are exquisitely spiritual and superior to the old morality.
Thus they think it intellectual to talk about things being "high."
It is at least the reverse of intellectual; it is a mere phrase
from a steeple or a weathercock. "Tommy was a good boy" is a pure
philosophical statement, worthy of Plato or Aquinas. "Tommy lived
the higher life" is a gross metaphor from a ten-foot rule.
This, incidentally, is almost the whole weakness of Nietzsche,
whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker.
No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker;
but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold.
He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words:
as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard,
fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question
by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said,
"beyond good and evil," because he had not the courage to say,
"more good than good and evil," or, "more evil than good and evil."
Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it
was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say,
"the purer man," or "the happier man," or "the sadder man," for all
these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says "the upper man,"
or "over man," a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers.
Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know
in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce.
And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists,
who talk about things being "higher," do not know either.
Then again, some people fall back on sheer submission
and sitting still. Nature is going to do something some day;
nobody knows what, and nobody knows when. We have no reason for acting,
and no reason for not acting. If anything happens it is right:
if anything is prevented it was wrong. Again, some people try
to anticipate nature by doing something, by doing anything.
Because we may possibly grow wings they cut off their legs.
Yet nature may be trying to make them centipedes for all they know.
Lastly, there is a fourth class of people who take whatever
it is that they happen to want, and say that that is the ultimate
aim of evolution. And these are the only sensible people.
This is the only really healthy way with the word evolution,
to work for what you want, and to call THAT evolution. The only
intelligible sense that progress or advance can have among men,
is that we have a definite vision, and that we wish to make
the whole world like that vision. If you like to put it so,
the essence of the doctrine is that what we have around us is the
mere method and preparation for something that we have to create.
This is not a world, but rather the material for a world.
God has given us not so much the colours of a picture as the colours
of a palette. But he has also given us a subject, a model,
a fixed vision. We must be clear about what we want to paint.
This adds a further principle to our previous list of principles.
We have said we must be fond of this world, even in order to change it.
We now add that we must be fond of another world (real or imaginary)
in order to have something to change it to.
We need not debate about the mere words evolution or progress:
personally I prefer to call it reform. For reform implies form.
It implies that we are trying to shape the world in a particular image;
to make it something that we see already in our minds. Evolution is
a metaphor from mere automatic unrolling. Progress is a metaphor from
merely walking along a road--very likely the wrong road. But reform
is a metaphor for reasonable and determined men: it means that we
see a certain thing out of shape and we mean to put it into shape.
And we know what shape.
Now here comes in the whole collapse and huge blunder of our age.
We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things.
Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit
the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing
the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing
justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift
in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page
from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean
that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean
that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not
altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal:
it is easier.
Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted
a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no
cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task;
he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could
work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have
heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger.
He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he
worked hard, that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own
point of view) leave the world better and bluer than he found it.
If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day,
he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour
every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a
fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow,
his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except
a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner.
This is exactly the position of the average modern thinker.
It will be said that this is avowedly a preposterous example.
But it is literally the fact of recent history. The great and grave
changes in our political civilization all belonged to the early
nineteenth century, not to the later. They belonged to the black
and white epoch when men believed fixedly in Toryism, in Protestantism,
in Calvinism, in Reform, and not unfrequently in Revolution.
And whatever each man believed in he hammered at steadily,
without scepticism: and there was a time when the Established
Church might have fallen, and the House of Lords nearly fell.
It was because Radicals were wise enough to be constant and consistent;
it was because Radicals were wise enough to be Conservative.
But in the existing atmosphere there is not enough time and tradition
in Radicalism to pull anything down. There is a great deal of truth
in Lord Hugh Cecil's suggestion (made in a fine speech) that the era
of change is over, and that ours is an era of conservation and repose.
But probably it would pain Lord Hugh Cecil if he realized (what
is certainly the case) that ours is only an age of conservation
because it is an age of complete unbelief. Let beliefs fade fast
and frequently, if you wish institutions to remain the same.
The more the life of the mind is unhinged, the more the machinery
of matter will be left to itself. The net result of all our
political suggestions, Collectivism, Tolstoyanism, Neo-Feudalism,
Communism, Anarchy, Scientific Bureaucracy--the plain fruit of all
of them is that the Monarchy and the House of Lords will remain.
The net result of all the new religions will be that the Church
of England will not (for heaven knows how long) be disestablished.
It was Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Cunninghame Grahame, Bernard Shaw
and Auberon Herbert, who between them, with bowed gigantic backs,
bore up the throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
We may say broadly that free thought is the best of all the
safeguards against freedom. Managed in a modern style the emancipation
of the slave's mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation
of the slave. Teach him to worry about whether he wants to be free,
and he will not free himself. Again, it may be said that this
instance is remote or extreme. But, again, it is exactly true of
the men in the streets around us. It is true that the negro slave,
being a debased barbarian, will probably have either a human affection
of loyalty, or a human affection for liberty. But the man we see
every day--the worker in Mr. Gradgrind's factory, the little clerk
in Mr. Gradgrind's office--he is too mentally worried to believe
in freedom. He is kept quiet with revolutionary literature.
He is calmed and kept in his place by a constant succession of
wild philosophies. He is a Marxian one day, a Nietzscheite the
next day, a Superman (probably) the next day; and a slave every day.
The only thing that remains after all the philosophies is the factory.
The only man who gains by all the philosophies is Gradgrind.
It would be worth his while to keep his commercial helotry supplied
with sceptical literature. And now I come to think of it, of course,
Gradgrind is famous for giving libraries. He shows his sense.
All modern books are on his side. As long as the vision of heaven
is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same.
No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized.
The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will
always change his mind.
This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards
which progress is directed; it must be fixed. Whistler used to make
many rapid studies of a sitter; it did not matter if he tore up
twenty portraits. But it would matter if he looked up twenty times,
and each time saw a new person sitting placidly for his portrait.
So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails
to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful.
But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal;
for then all its old failures are fruitless. The question therefore
becomes this: How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures
while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art?
How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always
satisfied with working? How can we make sure that the portrait
painter will throw the portrait out of window instead of taking
the natural and more human course of throwing the sitter out
A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also necessary
for rebelling. This fixed and familiar ideal is necessary to any
sort of revolution. Man will sometimes act slowly upon new ideas;
but he will only act swiftly upon old ideas. If I am merely
to float or fade or evolve, it may be towards something anarchic;
but if I am to riot, it must be for something respectable. This is
the whole weakness of certain schools of progress and moral evolution.
They suggest that there has been a slow movement towards morality,
with an imperceptible ethical change in every year or at every instant.
There is only one great disadvantage in this theory. It talks of a slow
movement towards justice; but it does not permit a swift movement.
A man is not allowed to leap up and declare a certain state of things
to be intrinsically intolerable. To make the matter clear, it is better
to take a specific example. Certain of the idealistic vegetarians,
such as Mr. Salt, say that the time has now come for eating no meat;
by implication they assume that at one time it was right to eat meat,
and they suggest (in words that could be quoted) that some day
it may be wrong to eat milk and eggs. I do not discuss here the
question of what is justice to animals. I only say that whatever
is justice ought, under given conditions, to be prompt justice.
If an animal is wronged, we ought to be able to rush to his rescue.
But how can we rush if we are, perhaps, in advance of our time? How can
we rush to catch a train which may not arrive for a few centuries?
How can I denounce a man for skinning cats, if he is only now what I
may possibly become in drinking a glass of milk? A splendid and insane
Russian sect ran about taking all the cattle out of all the carts.
How can I pluck up courage to take the horse out of my hansom-cab,
when I do not know whether my evolutionary watch is only a little
fast or the cabman's a little slow? Suppose I say to a sweater,
"Slavery suited one stage of evolution." And suppose he answers,
"And sweating suits this stage of evolution." How can I answer if there
is no eternal test? If sweaters can be behind the current morality,
why should not philanthropists be in front of it? What on earth
is the current morality, except in its literal sense--the morality
that is always running away?
Thus we may say that a permanent ideal is as necessary to the
innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether we wish
the king's orders to be promptly executed or whether we only wish
the king to be promptly executed. The guillotine has many sins,
but to do it justice there is nothing evolutionary about it.
The favourite evolutionary argument finds its best answer in
the axe. The Evolutionist says, "Where do you draw the line?"
the Revolutionist answers, "I draw it HERE: exactly between your
head and body." There must at any given moment be an abstract
right and wrong if any blow is to be struck; there must be something
eternal if there is to be anything sudden. Therefore for all
intelligible human purposes, for altering things or for keeping
things as they are, for founding a system for ever, as in China,
or for altering it every month as in the early French Revolution,
it is equally necessary that the vision should be a fixed vision.
This is our first requirement.
When I had written this down, I felt once again the presence
of something else in the discussion: as a man hears a church bell
above the sound of the street. Something seemed to be saying,
"My ideal at least is fixed; for it was fixed before the foundations
of the world. My vision of perfection assuredly cannot be altered;
for it is called Eden. You may alter the place to which you
are going; but you cannot alter the place from which you have come.
To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution;
for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan.
In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this
world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there
can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.
At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which
no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing
evolution can make the original good any thing but good.
Man may have had concubines as long as cows have had horns:
still they are not a part of him if they are sinful. Men may
have been under oppression ever since fish were under water;
still they ought not to be, if oppression is sinful. The chain may
seem as natural to the slave, or the paint to the harlot, as does
the plume to the bird or the burrow to the fox; still they are not,
if they are sinful. I lift my prehistoric legend to defy all
your history. Your vision is not merely a fixture: it is a fact."
I paused to note the new coincidence of Christianity: but I
I passed on to the next necessity of any ideal of progress.
Some people (as we have said) seem to believe in an automatic
and impersonal progress in the nature of things. But it is clear
that no political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress
is natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active,
but rather a reason for being lazy. If we are bound to improve,
we need not trouble to improve. The pure doctrine of progress
is the best of all reasons for not being a progressive. But it
is to none of these obvious comments that I wish primarily to
The only arresting point is this: that if we suppose
improvement to be natural, it must be fairly simple. The world
might conceivably be working towards one consummation, but hardly
towards any particular arrangement of many qualities. To take
our original simile: Nature by herself may be growing more blue;
that is, a process so simple that it might be impersonal. But Nature
cannot be making a careful picture made of many picked colours,
unless Nature is personal. If the end of the world were mere
darkness or mere light it might come as slowly and inevitably
as dusk or dawn. But if the end of the world is to be a piece
of elaborate and artistic chiaroscuro, then there must be design
in it, either human or divine. The world, through mere time,
might grow black like an old picture, or white like an old coat;
but if it is turned into a particular piece of black and white art--
then there is an artist.
If the distinction be not evident, I give an ordinary instance. We
constantly hear a particularly cosmic creed from the modern humanitarians;
I use the word humanitarian in the ordinary sense, as meaning one
who upholds the claims of all creatures against those of humanity.
They suggest that through the ages we have been growing more and
more humane, that is to say, that one after another, groups or
sections of beings, slaves, children, women, cows, or what not,
have been gradually admitted to mercy or to justice. They say
that we once thought it right to eat men (we didn't); but I am not
here concerned with their history, which is highly unhistorical.
As a fact, anthropophagy is certainly a decadent thing, not a
primitive one. It is much more likely that modern men will eat
human flesh out of affectation than that primitive man ever ate
it out of ignorance. I am here only following the outlines of
their argument, which consists in maintaining that man has been
progressively more lenient, first to citizens, then to slaves,
then to animals, and then (presumably) to plants. I think it wrong
to sit on a man. Soon, I shall think it wrong to sit on a horse.
Eventually (I suppose) I shall think it wrong to sit on a chair.
That is the drive of the argument. And for this argument it can
be said that it is possible to talk of it in terms of evolution or
inevitable progress. A perpetual tendency to touch fewer and fewer
things might--one feels, be a mere brute unconscious tendency,
like that of a species to produce fewer and fewer children.
This drift may be really evolutionary, because it is stupid.
Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities,
but it cannot be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship
and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for
being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy
love of animals. On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane,
or you may be absurdly humane; but you cannot be human. That you
and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger.
Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way
to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate
the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat
a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding
If you want to treat a tiger reasonably, you must go back to
the garden of Eden. For the obstinate reminder continued to recur:
only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence
of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really
in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you
regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The
main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother:
Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have
the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire,
but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure
in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity.
Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele.
Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson.
But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert.
To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister:
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