Volume 6, July 1909 – September 1910
As G.K. Chesterton continued his career with the Daily News, we see how his writing about art, literature, and the moral universe gets increasingly salted and peppered by the political. This volume starts right off with “The Ultimate Lie,” an essay of such force that it was reprinted all by itself as a small book. In it he takes on the Tory conservatives, saying that if they would state their own philosophy clearly and honestly—that they believe in a stratified society—they could be answered honestly. But they lie. They say that the rich are rich because they deserve it, and the poor are poor because they deserve it, a sentiment that flies in the face of Christian teaching “from the boils of Job to the leprosy of Father Damien.”
But in the very next essay he shifts to a playful mood, with his famous essay on cheese:
My forthcoming work in five volumes, The Neglect of Cheese in European Literature, is a work of such unprecedented and laborious detail that it is doubtful if I shall live to finish it. Some overflowings from such a fountain of information may therefore be permitted to sprinkle this page. I cannot yet wholly explain the neglect to which I refer. Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
But the rich get only a short reprieve. He continues a theme against them that can only be described as…Biblical. The rich you will always have with you. The great curse of modern reform, he says, is that we “spread the habits of wealth, and call them the necessities of civilization.” And no one dares object. The notion, for instance, that divorce should be accepted as the natural cure “for the normal sorrows of sex” comes chiefly from the rich, especially, “the millionaire class in America; the coarsest, the most trivial, the most thin-souled, and the most brazenly cruel class that has existed for many centuries.”
This is denunciation on a grand scale. Chesterton says denunciation should not be vulgar, but he admits that he has low tastes himself, “derived from long association with cabmen.” But he sees no reason why denunciation should not be violent. “If truth is a good thing, I suppose error is a bad one; and if large numbers of nice people are held captive by error that is all the more reason for destroying the error and setting them free. The hero of a fairy tale would not hesitate to deliver a hundred princesses from an enchanter merely because they were very thoroughly enchanted.” Chesterton is always trying to deliver people from error. The alternative to straightforward denunciation is irony. “Irony points as straight as denunciation: it only points backwards.”
Chesterton knows how to jab with either end of the stick. He needs to. Error attacks from both ends of the political spectrum. Though politics are about the ephemeral questions, ephemeral questions do not go away in this life. Thus, politics are eternal, even if politicians are not.
On the one hand he has to deal with stiff, Puritanical officials who know nothing but boundaries, and on the other hand with artistic rebels and heathen professors who recognize no boundaries whatsoever. Neither strand has any common sense or apparently any common experience.
In a precursor to the argument that concludes What’s Wrong with the World, he unleashes his wrath against the public regulator who for hygienic reasons would cut the hair of young girls in the slums. “If our social conditions curtail manhood and womanhood, we must alter the social conditions. We must not go on quietly in a corner making men unmanly and women unwomanly, that they may fit into their filthy and slavish civilization. If one cannot have hair in the slums, we must abolish the slums, not the hair.”
He points out the distinction between immorality and indecency—the first being an argument on the mind to do evil, the second being an assault against the instincts. “The ordinary argument that sex can be treated calmly and freely like anything else is the most loathsome cant in this canting epoch.”
But in dealing with the ephemeral questions, he is not afraid to deal with the eternal questions, while the world does everything it can to dismiss them. There is not only an ultimate lie, there is an ultimate truth. And it is reasonable to argue that one religion is better than all the others.
No fallacy has led modern people a madder dance than that transparent fallacy that because a certain superlative is applied everywhere it cannot rightly be applied anywhere. Because each school-boy says that his father is the richest man in the town it does not follow that there is no richest man in the town. Because six women claim the biggest baby it does not prove that there is no biggest baby. Because six religions claim to have the real truth it does not prove that there is no real truth, though millions of mild sceptics seem really to think that it does.
As with any collection of Chesterton essays, there is something for everybody, though not everything is for everybody. But one indisputable and universal life lesson is gleaned from his gazing at the curving furrows of a plowed field: “Try to grow straight and life will bend you.”