On Thoughtless Remarks
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On Thoughtless Remarks

The corrupting effect of casual and conversational scepticism

It is doubtless disrespectful both to the reader, nor indeed does it tend greatly to the aggrandisement or dignity of the writer, to say that my occupation in life is catching flies. And when I recently referred to a certain type of Feminist as a wasp, I received remonstrances from one who doubtless considered her to have all the highest and most royal attributes of a queen bee. Nevertheless, this unfortunate metaphor frequently returns to my mind, and I am conscious of a truth that I could not easily express without it. What I mean is this: that one of the chief nuisances of our time is a swarm of little things, in the form of little thoughts, or little sayings largely divorced from thoughts, which pervade the whole atmosphere in a manner only comparable to that of the most minute insects: insignificant and almost invisible, but innumerable and almost omnipresent. I am not thinking of real thought: even of false or destructive thought. I am not referring to the real bodies of moral and philosophical opinion, based on principles I think wrong, or producing results I think mischievous. The views of this kind, with which I have sometimes dealt on this page, differ very much in their power or promise or capacity for doing harm. I disagree with Communism as I disagree with Calvinism; but nobody would say this is the hour of Calvinism and I admit, in a sense, it is the hour of Communism. There is a very strong intellectual temptation to the Bolshevist implification because of the unquestionable collapse of the old commercial complexity. On the other hand, other theories I have quarreled with in my time are less and less prominent in the modern quarrel. Many men of science have abandoned Darwinism. All men of science have abandoned Materialism. but Materialism and Darwinism were none the less thorough systems supported by thinking men, with arguments to be answered as well as assumptions to be questioned. The kind of thing of which I am speaking now is something at once atmospheric and microscopic, like a cloud of midges, and not like the serious scientific theories and philosophies of the nineteenth century, which may rather be compared, according to taste, to lions, elephants, tigers, cultures, vipers, or scorpions.

The matter in question is the prevalence of a sort of casual and even conversational scepticism, making even the idle thoughts of an idle fellow busy in the interests of doubt and despair. I mean that a man, without thinking at all, will throw off some flippant phrase which is always (by a strange fatality) a sort of feeble revolt against all traditional truth. It may be anything, an aside on the stage or a joke on the political platform; it may be a mere flourish at the start of a magazine story or a mere word dropped into an inconvenient silence; something said for the sake of saying something. The whole point of it is that it is, in this sense, pointless. The philosophy is not expressed when people are talking about philosophy, but when they are talking about anything else. I have just this moment started reading an ordinary modern story, quite well written considered as a story; and it begins by saying that there is not much difference between stupidity and courage, and, in fact, that courage is really only a form of stupidity.

That is exactly typical of the thing I mean. It is merely a casual remark; it is only very casually meant to be a clever remark; it is actually rather a silly remark; but the point is that a fatality of fashion causes a myriad such remarks to be made, always on the side of cowardice and never on the side of courage. In point of fact, of course, it would be easy to demonstrate its falsehood. History is full of examples of intellectual men who have been courageous, even of highly subtle and penetrating intellectuals who have accepted death courageously. It even contains any number of cases of thoughtful men who have thought a great deal about the act of accepting death; who have thought about it for a long time, and with complete composure, and then deliberately accepted it. Socrates is an obvious example. Sir Thomas More is a still more obvious example. Boëthius and many other philosophers; St. Paul and many other saints; all kinds of mystics, missionaries, religious founders and social reformers have proved the point over and over again. But I am interested here, not so much in the point, as in the pointless remark. What is that itch of intellectual irritation which makes a modern man, even in a moment of indolence, say the cynical thing even when it is obviously false; of kick against the heroic thing, even when it is self-evidently true? Why do we find to-day this fast and vague mass of trivialities, which have nothing in common except that they are all in reaction against the very last of human traditions? Why has this cheap and really worthless sort of scepticism got into such universal circulation? In other words, I am not now thinking of the Gold Standard of the highest truth, or the Bimetallism of the higher scepticism, which discusses whether there can be a rivalry in truth; or any of the more or less precious metals which may bear the image and superscription of this or that moral authority. I am puzzled by the circulation of tall these millions of brass farthings, hardly more valuable than bad pennies; I am wondering where they all come from, and why the can be produced in such handfuls; and whether there is not something wrong with the mint of the mind. I am wondering what has debased the currency of current thought and speech, and why every normal ideal of man is now pelted with handfuls of such valueless pebbles, and assailed everywhere, not by free thought, but by frank thoughtlessness.

There seems to be no normal motive for a human being feeling a hostility to the human virtue of courage. He may disapprove of this or that excuse or reason for calling it forth, but surely not of the thing itself. If the writer had said that the bravery of brave men is used by the stupidity of stupid men, he would have said something perfectly tenable, and, indeed, frequently true. When he says that a brave man must be a stupid man, he wantonly says something that can instantly be disproved and dismissed as impudent and idiotic. Why does he say it, except to relieve his feelings; and in that case what are his feelings? We only know that they have never yet been the normal feelings of men, yet they seem just now to be the almost involuntary feelings of a vast number of men. That is the problem that I find practically pestering us on every side to-day, and that is what I mean by comparing the buzz of dull flippancy to the screaming of gnats or flies. It is all concerned with the same paradox, with what may be called the omnipresence of the insignificant. A fly is a small thing, but flies can be a very big thing. In some tropical countries, I am told, they can appear like great clouds on the remote horizon or vast thunderstorms filling the whole sky. The plague of locusts which afflicts many lands is something much more destructive than the passage of a pack of wolves or the ruin wrought by a stampede of wild bulls or wild elephants. So the seemingly insignificant individual irritation produced by these insignificant individual perversities may be, in its cumulative effect, more corrupting to a whole culture than the great heresies that have been hardened and hammered into a certain intellectual solidity. The spirit of anarchy does not work only by monsters. Even the sages and visionaries of the East have seen a spiritual significance in the fact that even almost invisible insects can be a plague or carry a pestilence; and the ancient name of Beelzebub has the meaning of the Lord of the Flies.

From The Illustrated London News, October 22, 1932. Reprinted in All I Survey (out of print). To learn more about this book, read the Chesterton University lecture.