Lecture 118: Tyranny - Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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Lecture 118: Tyranny

Essays from The Daily News, October, 1910 – December, 1911 

Daily News
Volume 7 October, 1910 – December, 1911


After reading a decade’s worth of his essays for the Daily News, where G.K. Chesterton has reviewed both classic and contemporary literature, writing on art and angels, on poetry and pessimists, on Christianity and common sense, we notice that he starts shifting his emphasis from grand, general ideas to more pointed and particular ones, as he identifies some monstrous modern evils. Or perhaps we should say it is one evil with many adjectives. It is something that no one else seems to see. It is more obvious now than it was a hundred years ago, but we still manage to ignore it. It is tyranny. Academic and political and economic tyranny: “Nobody sees the largest danger of our age: it is too simple. It is simply that the rich are slowly enslaving the poor, partly by industrial despotism, partly by scientific benevolence, partly by State officialism.” 

We often give up our freedom because freedom means doing things for yourself, which is a great bother. We stop working for ourselves and work for someone else who will take care of us. We stop ruling ourselves because it is easier and even safer to have someone else rule us. We stop thinking for ourselves because we find it simpler to have someone else think for us. 

Then we wake up one morning and find that we are slaves to institutions that are far out of our control. 

In the academic world, the timeless truths are no longer taught. Instead, we are subject to the insanity of faddish philosophies, deconstruction, relativism, and political correctness. “Our professors (as their name implies) merely profess profligate nonsense.” They cannot ask plain questions, because in their skepticism and agnosticism, they cannot accept plain answers. It comes from a loss of common sense, a loss of tradition, which often amount to the same thing. 

We keep a tradition, says Chesterton, not because it is old, but because it is nice. It is only because it has been kept, generation after generation, that it manages to get old. We can treat it as an old thing, but not as a dead thing. It is a living thing as long as we keep it. But more and more, we are killing our traditions. 

Common-sense, the oldest thing in history, has put all children under the authority of their parents. It does this for two unanswerable reasons. First, that to let a child alone is to murder it. Second, that Nature has inspired two unpaid persons with a fantastic taste for taking care of it. But common-sense also says that there are exceptions; and that when the two persons are blood-drinkers or devil-worshippers, or have a taste in torture, the children should be taken away and the child-torturers very severely punished. I do not wonder they were severely punished; I can imagine them savagely punished. I not only understand that cruel parents may be imprisoned; I can, with a stretch of historic imagination, conceive their being burned at the stake. Such hatred of one’s own flesh has in it something mysterious and unfathomably shameful; and starts alive that same nerve of loathing that leaped back from witchcraft or that cries aloud at sexual perversion. Nothing, one would think, could be simpler or saner than that the tribe should make an example of such demoniac abusers of the family. Democracy is right when it stands for the normal; not when it stands for the average. 

In the political world, Chesterton, a great defender of democracy, admits that the danger of democracy is that it might create too many politicians. But the despotism creates too many policemen. We have managed to create too many of both without ever achieving democracy.  

Chesterton says, “Our present scheme of society is a top heavy and tottering affair; still, it might conceivably survive the attacks made upon it. But I cannot conceive how it can possibly survive the defences made for it.” 

You read that right. We do such a bad job of defending the things we want to maintain, that we bring about their downfall. Chesterton muses, for instance, that when he reads books against Socialism it will hasten Socialism upon us. “Every anti-Socialist book (I should imagine) must make a hundred new Socialists.” 

If you say a thing is not worth finding, people may take no trouble to find it. But if you say it cannot be found, it will be found. Europeans left to themselves will not sit naked for seven years and stare at their toes. But if I dare Europeans to do it, it will be done. . . Such is the starry and immortal audacity of mankind, that it will always undertake to do anything, if only it is supposed to be worth doing. Whatever is called desirable may or may not be probable; and whatever is undesirable may be counted improbable as far as human effort goes. But whatever is impossible is inevitable. 

There was a time when the very idea of public schools handing out contraception, or the legalization of abortion (much less the marketing of baby parts), or the mandated acceptance of perversity were unimaginable. Then, when they entered the imagination, they were dismissed as impossible. And now we have them. The result? A police state where anyone who defends common sense is punished. But for the most part, people just try to keep their heads down and do what they are told. Like any good slave. 

Chesterton warns: “We are now nearer pagan slavery than we have ever been since the Church undermined it in the early Middle Ages.” A century later, we are even closer. 

This essay first appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Gilbert! magazine.