Lecture 115: Anticipation – Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
The Apostolate of Common Sense

Lecture 115: Anticipation

Essays from The Daily News, July 1906 - December 1907

Daily News, Volume 4, July 1906 – December 1907

 

Reading this beautiful and bountiful volume of G.K. Chesterton’s Daily News essays gives one a sort of reverse sense of déjà vu. There are passages here that we are certain we have seen before, but it turns out that the more familiar versions of them came later. Chesterton is here developing his arguments that will appear in book form in another year or two or three or twenty. He is anticipating himself. 

You will recall the beginning of Orthodoxy, where he describes the romance of the yachtsman who sets off to discover a foreign land, but gets turned around and lands back in England thinking it is a place he has never been before, that glorious experience of wonder and welcome, of strangeness and familiarity. A year before that book was written, Chesterton says in his Daily News column, “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign lands; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” 

So, too, here is a passage that will sound the same but different to anyone who has read Orthodoxy: 

Tradition is simply the principle of democracy extended through time. Democracy means that the view of a great mass of men is not necessarily exact, but is necessarily important. Tradition means that the opinion of the very greatest mass of men is not necessarily exact, but is necessarily important; I mean the innumerable, the unthinkable mass of men that have lived and died upon this globe. Democracy means that you should not altogether neglect the opinion of a good man even if he is your chimney sweep. Tradition means that you should not altogether neglect the opinion of a good man even if he is your father. Briefly, what tradition means can be summed up in one short but democratic phrase. Tradition means that dead men should have votes. Tradition, the larger and more emancipated democracy, will not be content with that narrow, artificial, and essentially aristocratic franchise which confines the vote to those accidentally privileged persons who happen to be alive. When we who believe in tradition vote upon anything a roar from all the graves gives courage; the waving grass and shrubs in the cemeteries seem like the lifted hands of a unanimous populace. This is what is meant by the Christian creed when it speaks of that most enormous and most varied, and perhaps most violent of all democracies: the thing called the Communion of Saints, which includes the living and the dead. The old Greeks allowed men to vote by stones. We allow them to vote by tombstones. We take their monuments and epitaphs like so many voting papers; it is a wild fancy that like voting papers they are often marked with a cross. 

This is from a 1906 essay called “Vox Populi,” which even ends with the phrase “the democracy of the dead.” That phrase, of course, appears in “The Ethics of Elfland,” which is Chesterton’s great defense of fairy tales as the popular vehicles that convey timeless truths. He combines these two ideas of tradition and fairy tales in back-to-back Daily News essays. Fairy tales represent “the great, healthy, permanent human tradition.” 

The essence of fairyland is this; that it is a country of which we do not know the laws. This is also a peculiarity of the universe in which we live. We do not know anything about the laws of nature; we do not even know whether they are laws. All that we can do is to take first by faith (from our parents, aunts, and nurses), and afterwards by very meagre experiment (during the miserably insufficient period of three score years and ten), the general proposition that there is some sort of strange connection, often repeated but still unexplained, between lighted gunpowder and a loud bang. And it is here that we may see the deep and sound philosophy of the fairy tale. The chemist says: “Mix these three substances, and the bang will follow.” The good wizard in the fairy tale says: “Eat these three apples and the giant’s head will fall off.” But the chemist talks in a particular tone and style, which suggests that there is in abstract philosophy some sort of inevitable connection between the three substances and the bang. Sometimes he calls it a law, which means a thing that can be broken. But he always means that the mind sees a connection between the two things—as the mind sees a connection between four and eight—and the mind does nothing of the sort. The fairy tale method is far more philosophical. The wizard says: “Do this one extraordinary thing and that other totally different extraordinary thing does continually follow. I don’t know why it does; I don’t even know that it will always do it. But it is a tip worth knowing when you want to kill a giant.” We do not know that these natural repetitions all round us are laws; we do not know that they are necessities. What we do know about them is that they are magic spells—that is, conditions which exist, but the nature of which is mystical altogether. Water is bewitched, so that it always goes downhill. Birds are bewitched, so that they fly. The sun is bewitched, so that it shines. 

In a 1907 essay, Chesterton anticipates a famous passage from What’s Wrong with the World that was still three years away: 

That figure of speech seems to me unlucky to the point of being idiotic. There is a very simple answer to the fatalists who tell you that you “cannot put back the clock.” You can. Anybody can put back a clock with one finger. Nor is this a mere accidental error in the physical symbol; it is highly relevant to the philosophical question. Why is it that anybody can put back a clock? It is because a clock, however complex it may be, and however inevitable it may be, is still a construction of human ingenuity; and what man has done man can undo. In the same way human society however complex it may be, and however inevitable it may be, is still a construction of human ingenuity; and what man has done man can undo. We can put the social clock back if we like. Doubtless it would be a great nuisance; and to smash it altogether doubtless would be a horrible sacrifice; doubtless it would be a task that staggers the imagination but all this does not mean that we cannot do it if we like; all this is only a way of saying that we don’t like. There is nothing physical or inevitable to prevent men from going back to any previous condition whatever. 

And, in a subtle way, he anticipates what he would become some fifteen years later, when he says, “The Catholic Church is attacked because it is Catholic, and defended because it is Catholic.” 

This essay first appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Gilbert! magazine.