Issues & G.K.'s Answers
Much of what G.K. Chesterton wrote was timeless.
"He is not of our time, but of all times," wrote A.G. Gardiner, editor of the London Daily News. More than 100 years after Chesterton first started writing for the Daily News, readers continue to find his words fresh and timely, in some ways written more for our day than his own. Consider:
"Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it."
"Defending any of the cardinal virtues now has all the exhilaration of a vice."
"Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable."
"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."
Such writing doesn't need a lot of explanation. But Chesterton also wrote about many events in his lifetime with which modern readers may not be familiar.
Unlike many journalists, though, he was not a reactionary. His ideas were not formed in response to what happened in the world while he lived. Rather, he was an expansive thinker with a fully formed philosophy who was able to comprehend what was happening and warn against what could and would happen.
His response to the Boer War shows his layered thinking. Chesterton was a patriot, not a pacifist, but he felt compelled to criticize his country's role in this particular conflict.
The Boer War began in 1899 when Britain attempted to take over the small but gold- and diamond-rich South African country of Transvaal. The Boers, descendents of the Dutch and Germans who had settled there several generations earlier, were mostly farmers, but they were also experts in guerilla warfare. They successfully held off the superior forces of the British for over two years before surrendering.
Chesterton, like many others, disparaged such British tactics as herding Boer women and children into concentration camps, where more than 26,000 non-combatants died. But Chesterton disagreed with the war's intent as well as its methods.
A "Little Englander," Chesterton felt a natural sympathy toward his own land. He could equally sympathize with the patriotism of those who lived in other countries.
Still, Chesterton's respect for the autonomy of other countries had limits. He fully supported England's role in the Great War, which we now call World War I, even though the conflict took his brother's life.
Chesterton hated aggression on the part of any empire, including the British Empire, but he especially disliked the aggressive growth of the Prussian (German) Empire. He feared Prussia both as a military regime and as the home of a philosophy that disdained God and threatened to destroy Christian civilization.
He traced those ideas back to the meeting between King Frederick the Great, "the Protestant prince who was not even a Christian," and Voltaire, his "soulless soul-mate." The combination of Voltaire's skepticism and Frederick's pride gave birth to all the "long-winded German theories" (relativism, materialism, communism, and Nazism) that were the enemies of Christian thought.
Chesterton predicted that the inconclusive end to World War I would lead to a far greater war, "the worst the world would ever see." Chesterton only lived long enough to see the beginning of that war (he died as Hitler was rising to power), but the prediction certainly came true.
Chesterton carried on a war of his own with the feminists of his era, who would "chain themselves to a tree and then complain they were not free." He criticized feminists for simply imitating men while neglecting such high and exclusively feminine callings as motherhood.
This partly explains why he opposed woman's suffrage. For him, politics was at best a game that men ran off and played. At worst, it was something dirty and corrupt. In the latter case, he did not want women sullied by it. In the former, though men claimed that politics were important, women knew better. (Actually, most women didn't even want the vote, a fact that did not sit well with the suffragists.)
Chesterton had a theory that corrupt politicians were only interested in preserving their own power, and they figured the best way to do it was to give women the vote—without giving them anything else. Indeed, upon getting the vote, the suffragists rewarded those politicians who helped them get it by keeping them in office.
Chesterton opposed women working outside the home as well. He thought that women seeking jobs were merely duped by big business interests who supported the idea of "the right to work" and the "liberation" of women, not because these industrialist-capitalists were idealists, but because they saw women as a source of cheap labor.
"Ten thousand women," Chesterton wrote, "marched through the streets shouting, 'We will not be dictated to,' and went off and became stenographers."
The main problem that Chesterton saw with women having the vote was that it would shift the power of society from the home to the state. He was not afraid of women having more power, but of the state having more power.
He argued that women could not possibly be more powerful than they are in the home, where the most important decisions are made, where children are born and raised, and where people eat and drink and live and die.
The basic unit of society must be the family. If the family is atomized into smaller units, "individual rights" take precedence over the needs of the family. But those individuals will regroup into other interest groups, according to race or class or sex, and the rights of those groups tend to undermine the family.
No one today suggests that women should not vote, and few suggest that they should not work. But families have broken up and government has grown, just as Chesterton said.
Chesterton opposed American Prohibition, which was passed in 1920. He blamed it on Puritanism-"righteous indignation about the wrong things."
He defended the right of the working class to drink beer together in a local pub, as they had done for centuries. It was a tradition he honored, as he generally honored tradition against fads. He argued that drunkenness is a sin but beer is not, just as gluttony is a sin but bread is not.
We "wreck the tribunal of truth" when we pronounce the innocent guilty just as much as when we pronounce the guilty innocent, he wrote. We destroy all innocence when we teach people to detest an innocent practice. When we turn morals upside down, it always ends badly.
He predicted that Prohibition would eventually lead to "the worst and wildest license." Bootleggers and bathtub gin proved him right.
The Marconi Scandal
While largely forgotten compared to these other events, the Marconi Scandal was very important to Chesterton. Today it would be known as a case of insider trading.
In 1913, the British government was about to award a huge contract to Marconi Wireless. Certain members of the government bought shares before the information was made public, then enriched themselves by selling the shares at a handsome profit.
Those officials included David Lloyd George, who would become prime minister a few years later, and Sir Rufus Isaacs, who was to be secretary of state. Rufus's brother, Godfrey, orchestrated the deal.
Chesterton's brother, Cecil, excoriated the Isaacs brothers in his newspaper, the New Witness. Godfrey Isaacs hired the most prestigious attorneys in England to bring a libel action against Cecil.
Cecil, who refused to accept counsel, lost in court, though the judge, who could have sent him to prison, let him off with a small fine.
The whole affair confirmed G.K. Chesterton's worst fears about politics, the press, the courts, and the business world, particularly international finance. The fact that the Isaacs brothers were Jewish and that Chesterton accused Jewish financiers of undue influence throughout Europe caused critics to accuse him of anti-Semitism.
In Chesterton's defense, however, though he warned of the dangers of international finance to local governments and economies, he never accused all Jews of being international financiers nor all international financiers of being Jewish.
He also pointed out that rich Jews often profiteered from the poor Jews in the European ghettoes. Because of this small, exclusive class of Jews, Chesterton could see that people would think ill of all Jews, and he predicted there would be a horrible outbreak of violence against them. He was right.
Those who accuse G.K. Chesterton of anti-Semitism ignore the fact that he was among the first to speak out against Hitler's treatment of the Jews, and that in 1935 he wrote that he would die defending the last Jew in Europe. He also he supported the concept of a Jewish homeland. Prominent American rabbi Stephen Wise hailed Chesterton as a defender of the Jews.
G.K. Chesterton was a lucid reporter of his age and gives us a living perspective of it, which helps us better see our own age. He reminds us of universal truths, enabling us to see history from the inside, where "every man knows the inmost core of every other man."
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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