Lecture 132: First Hand Accounts – Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
The Apostolate of Common Sense

Lecture 132: First Hand Accounts

Essays from The Eye-Witness

The Eye-Witness
1911-1912

 

The Eye-Witness only existed for one year. It was a weekly paper created and edited by Hilaire Belloc. It paved the way to the New Witness, which followed it, and G.K.’s Weekly, which followed that. The original purpose was to expose political corruption. As an outgoing member of Parliament, Belloc had seen enough of it firsthand to fill many papers. But with Belloc as editor, the paper was not only filled with mud; it was also a literary paper, featuring book reviews, poetry, and creative satire.  

G.K. Chesterton did not contribute much to it at all. But what he did contribute was sublime. Most of it was poetry, and most of the poems were ballades, including his famous “Ballade of Suicide” that includes the refrain “I think I will not hang myself today.” But let’s not forget “A Ballade of Reasonable Inquiry” (“I think an explanation is required.”), “A Ballade of a Stoic” (“My aunt is murdered—and I do not mind.”), “A Ballade of a Book-Reviewer” (“And feed my brain with better things.”), and “Ballade to a Philanthropist”: 

Prince, I will not be knighted!  No! 

Put up your sword and stow your tricks! 

Offering the Garter is no go— 

BUT WILL YOU LEND ME TWO-AND-SIX? 

Philanthropists are a favorite target of Chesterton’s, and goes after them not only in a poem, but in one of the few book reviews and few essays that he contributes to the paper. So what’s wrong with philanthropists? They have an unfair advantage in screwing up the world. And how do they go about it? By funding the latest educational fads and then molding the most malleable of minds. Chesterton says it is a form of kidnapping. The philanthropist captures children because he cannot capture adults. There is no debate, no battle, no resistance. “The philanthropic educationist is using two solely accidental advantages; first, the advantage of the wealthy man over the working classes; and secondly, the advantage of the grown-up person over the child…To sap the soul of an ancient people by infant schools is to make unmanly war.” This is why most national educational systems become anti-national, and why strange ideals are taught to a new generation that are “contrary to the very blood, habits and literature of the people.”  

Speaking of being fair, one of the things Chesterton is able to do in the Eye-Witness is something that he regrets he cannot do in the Illustrated London News: invite readers to write to him. He always felt it was “unsportsmanlike” to express certain opinions in the larger mainstream paper because it provided no forum for those critical of his articles. But Belloc gave readers lots of space to vent. Chesterton once said that if an editor can make his readers angry enough, they will write half his paper for free. (That strategy has never worked for Gilbert! We’ve only managed to get readers to cancel their subscriptions.)  

One reader, in objecting to GKC’s criticism of philanthropists, says that he makes the mistake of assuming that all philanthropists are socialists and that all socialists are wealthy. Chesterton responds that he does not think all socialists are wealthy.  But “I think (or rather know) that their fundamental philosophy came from the wealthy. Very roughly, it is the sentiment that we are responsible for the poor as we are for dogs and cats; never the idea that we are responsible to the poor as we are to friends and enemies.”     

One letter-writer says he’s damned if understands what Chesterton is saying. Chesterton responds that the gentleman is damned if he doesn’t.  

And to the standard criticism with which Chesterton is dismissed, he responds: “I am not a master of paradox, nor (which is much the same thing) a slave of it.” 

Philanthropy is part of the English Revolution, which is rather the opposite of the more well-known French Revolution. In England the Revolution is the rich against the poor. Chesterton bemoans the lost revolution in England. However, he says that just because a revolt has not conquered, it does not mean it never occurred. “No one writes or speaks, for instance, about the insurrections all over England against the ecclesiastical policy of Henry VIII.; and that priceless ass who writes the Protestant novels said the other day that the Reformation ‘relied on the simple power of the Gospel.’” Just as the thwarted attempts to overthrow the Protestant Reformation in England, so the attempts of the working classes to overthrow their overlords go unstudied when the classrooms are controlled by the conquerors.  

In the Eye-Witness, Chesterton wrote less about the political control than the cultural control exercised by the rich, but there is one veiled reference to the Marconi Scandal which is starting to boil and about to explode. While it is still in the officially-being-hushed-up stage, Chesterton writes a witty dialogue between Fortinbras and Horatio in the wake of all that unpleasantness at Elsinore, where Horatio is trying to get the truth out, but Fortinbras is stonewalling by avoiding asking the right questions. 

We should mention one other poem he wrote for the Eye-Witness. The fact that he wrote it for this paper may explain why it reads in like a first-hand account. The event it depicts, however, is not a contemporary one but a historic one. It is perhaps Chesterton’s greatest poem: Lepanto. 

This essay was originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of Gilbert! magazine.

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