Lecture 29: The Appetite of Tyranny

In his book on William Blake, Chesterton says, “We all wake up on a battlefield.” In 1915, when he emerged from his coma-like state after his physical collapse several months earlier, Chesterton, in effect, did wake up on a battlefield. England was in the midst of the Great War with Germany. Though the English army had no use for Chesterton as a soldier, his pen was immediately enlisted to help the war effort. His first books after his recovery were three short works that are essentially war pamphlets, but with their combination of history, philosophy, religion, and even literary criticism, they are uniquely Chesterton.

In his Autobiography, Chesterton would look back on the two major wars of his lifetime – The Boer War, which he opposed, and World War I, which he supported – and observe that the only defensible war is a war of defense. In these books, Chesterton sees England’s role in the War as defending European civilization against “the empire of blood and iron.” It meant defending a philosophy as well as a physical territory. “We are fighting to prevent a German future for Europe. We think it would be narrower, nastier, less sane, less capable of liberty and of laughter, than any of the worst parts of the European past.”

Ironically – and interestingly – Chesterton attacks England as a way of attacking Germany. “I have passed the great part of my life in criticising and condemning the existing rulers and institutions of my country: I think it is infinitely the most patriotic thing that a man can do.” Thus, he goes about the task of pointing out the “crimes” of his own country: it has become merely materialistic and merely protestant. It has become paralyzed by indecision: not only lack of decision in terms of action, but lack of decision in terms of thought. In other words, agnosticism. And worst of all, it has become German.

According to Chesterton, the German philosophical advance had already captured part of England, and the physical forces were merely following. The wealthy and the educated classes, with too much money and too little conscience, had caved in to “the over-rated German philosophers,” such as Nietzsche, and had given up the historical Christianity that had built Europe. The intellectual games may have been amusing for the professors within their ivy-covered walls, but the potential reality was nothing less than the destruction of civilization by barbarians. That’s what barbarians do: they destroy civilization. They have no respect for property, for institutions, for morality. They simply take what they want and break what they want. Their only motivation is appetite and amusement. They are unrestrained by anything, especially God, because they have convinced themselves that God is dead. But as Chesterton says, “The Church had learnt, not at the end but at the beginning of her centuries, that the funeral of God is always a premature burial.”

There was something, however, that Chesterton mourned. It was the loss of old England. Something new and not English had replaced it. The old England was small enough to be universal. The new England was over-extended and formless. It was too big to be recognizable. He mourned the loss of the ordinary. He regretted what had come to replace it: the love of money, the love of machines, the love of largeness, the mad philosophies of the rich, the mad philosophies that had come out of Germany, being spread by the worst kind of tyranny – the tyranny of professors.

It was the rich and the elite and the intellectuals who were against the war. But the common people were very much in favor of it. Three million men had enlisted to fight. What had compelled them? Two things. The first was an act of bald aggression as Germany took over Belgium. The second was an act of terrorism that hit closer to home, something akin to the destruction of the World Trade Center. It was the sinking of a passenger ship, the Lusitania, with great loss of innocent lives. The English people were outraged.

When the German army marched into Belgium, there were two recorded events that for Chesterton epitomized the evil of the Prussian Empire. One was the machine-gunning of a tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament. The other was a hacking apart of toys in a child’s nursery. The two incidents demonstrated both the audacity and the meanness of the Germans.

So Chesterton was ready to rally the troops and take on anyone who opposed the war. He questioned the honesty of the so-called pacifists, pointing out that while making a vow of peace is something mystics have always done, “they added to them vows of poverty.” Pacifists are seldom willing to give up anything accept other people’s freedom and privileges.

I have been frequently asked what I think Chesterton would say about the war in Iraq. It depends on whether we make the parallel with the Boer War or World War I. Neither parallel would be perfect. But if we were to argue that Chesterton would take the same position in defending the U.S. involvement in the Iraqi War as he did England’s involvement in World War I, then we’d have to say that he would start by pointing out the crimes of the United States. And that would be a good exercise in any case.

But there is an ironic epilogue to Chesterton’s war propaganda. Although Germany was defeated in two world wars in the last century, the German professors prevailed and are basically still in power. Nietzsche is still alive, and God is still dead on most college campuses. Chesterton might say that we won the wars but lost the peace.

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