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Excerpts from Chesterton

{See Augustine’s Introduction}


MUCH has been said, and said truly, of the monkish morbidity, of the

hysteria which as often gone with the visions of hermits or nuns. But let us

never forget that this visionary religion is, in one sense, necessarily more

wholesome than our modern and reasonable morality. It is more wholesome

for this reason, that it can contemplate the idea of success or triumph in the

hopeless fight towards the ethical ideal, in what Stevenson called, with his

usual startling felicity, “the lost fight of virtue.”

A modern morality, on the

other hand, can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that

follow breaches of law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill. It can only

point to imperfection. It has no perfection to point to. But the monk

meditating upon Christ or Buddha has in his mind an image of perfect

health, a thing of clear colors and clean air. He may contemplate this ideal

wholeness and happiness far more than he ought; he may contemplate it to

the neglect of exclusion of essential THINGS he may contemplate it until he

has become a dreamer or a driveler; but still it is wholeness and happiness

that he is contemplating. He may even go mad; but he is going mad for the

love of sanity. But the modern student of ethics, even if he remains sane,

remains sane from an insane dread of insanity.

The anchorite rolling on the stones in a frenzy of submission is a healthier

person fundamentally than many a sober man in a silk hat who is walking

down Cheapside. For many such are good only through a withering

knowledge of evil. I am not at this moment claiming for the devotee

anything more than this primary advantage, that though he may be making

himself personally weak and miserable, he is still fixing his thoughts largely

on gigantic strength and happiness, on a strength that has no limits, and a

happiness that has no end. Doubtless there are other objections which can

be urged without unreason against the influence of gods and visions in

morality, whether in the cell or street.

But this advantage the mystic morality

must always have — it is always jollier. A young man may keep himself

from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it

also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question

about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the

more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more


I remember a pamphlet by that able and sincere secularist, Mr. G. W.

Foote, which contained a phrase sharply symbolizing and dividing these

two methods. The pamphlet was called BEER AND BIBLE, those two very

noble things, all the nobler for a conjunction which Mr. Foote, in his stern

old Puritan way, seemed to think sardonic, but which I confess to thinking

appropriate and charming. I have not the work by me, but I remember that

Mr. Foote dismissed very contemptuously any attempts to deal with the

problem of strong drink by religious offices or intercessions, and said that a

picture of a drunkard’s liver would be more efficacious in the matter of

temperance than any prayer or praise.

In that picturesque expression, it

seems to me, is perfectly embodied the incurable morbidity of modern

ethics. In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn

anthems are uplifted. But that upon the altar to which all men kneel is no

longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance of the perfect man; it is still

flesh, but it is diseased. It is the drunkard’s liver of the New Testament that

is marred for us, which we take in remembrance of him.

Now, it is this great gap in modern ethics, the absence of vivid pictures of

purity and spiritual triumph, which lies at the back of the real objection felt

by so many sane men to the realistic literature of the nineteenth century.


any ordinary man ever said that he was horrified by the subjects discussed

in Ibsen or Maupassant, or by the plain language in which they are spoken

of, that ordinary man was lying. The average conversation of average men

throughout the whole of modern civilization in every class or trade is such

as Zola would never dream of printing. Nor is the habit of writing thus of

these things a new habit. On the contrary, it is the Victorian prudery and

silence which is new still, though it is already dying.

The tradition of calling

a spade a spade starts very early in our literature and comes down very late.

But the truth is that the ordinary honest man, whatever vague account he

may have given of his feelings, was not either disgusted or even annoyed at

the candor of the moderns. What disgusted him, and very justly, was not

the presence of a clear realism, but the absence of a clear idealism. Strong

and genuine religious sentiment has never had any objection to realism; on

the contrary, religion was the realistic thing, the brutal thing, the thing that

called names. This is the great difference between some recent

developments of Nonconformity and the great Puritanism of the seventeenth


It was the whole point of the Puritans that they cared nothing for

decency. Modern Nonconformist newspapers distinguish themselves by

suppressing precisely those nouns and adjectives which the founders of

Nonconformity distinguished themselves by flinging at kings and queens.

But if it was a chief claim of religion that it spoke plainly about evil, it was

the chief claim of all that it spoke plainly about good. The thing which is

resented, and, as I think, rightly resented, in that great modern literature of

which Ibsen is typical, is that while the eye that can perceive what are the

wrong things increases in an uncanny and devouring clarity, the eye which

sees what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment, till

it goes almost blind with doubt. If we compare, let us say, the morality of

the DIVINE COMEDY with the morality of Ibsen’s GHOSTS, we shall see all that

modern ethics have really done. No one, I imagine, will accuse the author

of the INFERNO of an Early Victorian prudishness or a Podsnapian optimism.

But Dante describes three moral instruments — Heaven, Purgatory, and

Hell, the vision of perfection, the vision of improvement, and the vision of

failure. Ibsen has only one — Hell. It is often said, and with perfect truth,

that no one could read a play like GHOSTS and remain indifferent to the

necessity of an ethical self-command. That is quite true, and the same is to

be said of the most monstrous and material descriptions of the eternal fire. It

is quite certain the realists like Zola do in one sense promote morality —

they promote it in the sense in which the hangman promotes it, in the sense

in which the devil promotes it. But they only affect that small minority

which will accept any virtue of courage. Most healthy people dismiss these

moral dangers as they dismiss the possibility of bombs or microbes.

Modern realists are indeed Terrorists, like the dynamiters; and they fail just

as much in their effort to create a thrill. Both realists and dynamiters are

well-meaning people engaged in the task, so obviously ultimately hopeless,

of using science to promote morality.

I do not wish the reader to confuse me for a moment with those vague

persons who imagine that Ibsen is what they call a pessimist. There are

plenty of wholesome people in Ibsen, plenty of good people, plenty of

happy people, plenty of examples of men acting wisely and things ending


That is not my meaning. My meaning is that Ibsen has throughout,

and does not disguise, a certain vagueness and a changing attitude as well as

a doubting attitude towards what is really wisdom and virtue in this life — a

vagueness which contrasts very remarkably with the decisiveness with

which he pounces on something which he perceives to be a root of evil,

some convention, some deception, some ignorance. We know that the hero

of GHOSTS is mad, and we know why he is mad. We do also know that Dr.

Stockman is sane; but we do not know why he is sane. Ibsen does not

profess to know how virtue and happiness are brought about, in the sense

that he professes to know how our modern sexual tragedies are brought

about. Falsehood works ruin in THE PILLARS OF SOCIETY, but truth works

equal ruin in THE WILD DUCK. There are no cardinal virtues of Ibsenism.

There is no ideal man of Ibsen. All this is not only admitted, but vaunted in

the most valuable and thoughtful of all the eulogies upon Ibsen, Mr.

Bernard Shaw’s QUINTESSENCE OF IBSENISM. Mr. Shaw sums up Ibsen’s

teaching in the phrase, “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” In

his eyes this absence of an enduring and positive ideal, this absence of a

permanent key to virtue, is the one great Ibsen merit. I am not discussing

now with any fullness whether this is so or not. All I venture to point out,

with an increased firmness, is that this omission, good or bad, does leave

us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very

definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good. To us light must

be henceforward the dark thing — the thing of which we cannot speak. To

us, as to Milton’s devils in Pandemonium, it is darkness that is visible. The

human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained

knowledge of good and of evil. Now we have fallen a second time, and

only the knowledge of evil remains to us.

A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our

time fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and

been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was

really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond

question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the

most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious

danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or

ignoring the mere existence of their neighbors. Ibsen is the first to return

from the baffled hunt to bring us the tidings of great failure.

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to

shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”;

that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are

fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is

good. We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid

discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these

arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us

not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He

says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This,

logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle

whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor

morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This,

clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it

to our children.”

Mr. H.G. Wells, that exceedingly clear-sighted man, has pointed out in a

recent work that this has happened in connection with economic questions.

The old economists, he says, made generalizations, and they were (in Mr.

Wells’s view) mostly wrong. But the new economists, he says, seem to

have lost the power of making any generalizations at all. And they cover this

incapacity with a general claim to be, in specific cases, regarded as

“experts”, a claim “proper enough in a hairdresser or a fashionable

physician, but indecent in a philosopher or a man of science.” But in spite

of the refreshing rationality with which Mr. Wells has indicated this, it must

also be said that he himself has fallen into the same enormous modern error.

In the opening pages of that excellent book MANKIND IN THE MAKING, he

dismisses the ideals of art, religion, abstract morality, and the rest, and says

that he is going to consider men in their chief function, the function of

parenthood. He is going to discuss life as a “tissue of births.” He is not

going to ask what will produce satisfactory saints or satisfactory heroes, but

what will produce satisfactory fathers and mothers. The whole is set

forward so sensibly that it is a few moments at least before the reader

realizes that it is another example of unconscious shirking. What is the good

of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man?

You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself. It

is as if a man were asked, “What is the use of a hammer?” and answered,

“To make hammers”; and when asked, “And of those hammers, what is the

use?” answered, “To make hammers again”. Just as such a man would be

perpetually putting off the question of the ultimate use of carpentry, so Mr.

Wells and all the rest of us are by these phrases successfully putting off the

question of the ultimate value of the human life.

The case of the general talk of “progress” is, indeed, an extreme one. As

enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not

settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty,

or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress — that is to say, we

meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an

alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what.

Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate

meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous.

So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against

that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any

business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a

cast-iron code of morals.

Nobody can be progressive without being

doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being

infallible — at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress

by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least

doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about

the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been

an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we.

In the

Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction

may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less

about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they

did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of

progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether

the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less

liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up;

whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin

intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love

everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche; — these are the

things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that

the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age.


is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are

the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have

never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The

particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four

winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore,

say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without

the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to

groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an

illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a

sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers

and in the ages of faith.


THE phrases of the street are not only forcible but subtle: for a figure of

speech can often get into a crack too small for a definition. Phrases like

“put out” or “off color” might have been coined by Mr. Henry James in an

agony of verbal precision. And there is no more subtle truth than that of

the everyday phrase about a man having “his heart in the right place.” It

involves the idea of normal proportion; not only does a certain function

exist, but it is rightly related to other functions. Indeed, the negation of

this phrase would describe with peculiar accuracy the somewhat morbid

mercy and perverse tenderness of the most representative moderns. If, for

instance, I had to describe with fairness the character of Mr. Bernard

Shaw, I could not express myself more exactly than by saying that he has

a heroically large and generous heart; but not a heart in the right place. And

this is so of the typical society of our time.

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too

good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is

shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not

merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and

they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the

virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The

modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues

have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are

wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is

pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am

sorry to say) is often untruthful.

For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one

Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of

charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by

saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early

Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been

eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his

mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human

race — because he is so human. As the other extreme, we may take the

acrid realist, who has deliberately killed in himself all human pleasure in

happy tales or in the healing of the heart.

Torquemada tortured people physically for the sake of moral truth. Zola

tortured people morally for the sake of physical truth. But in

Torquemada’s time there was at least a system that could to some extent

make righteousness and peace kiss each other. Now they do not even bow.

But a much stronger case than these two of truth and pity can be found in

the remarkable case of the dislocation of humility.

It is only with one aspect of humility that we are here concerned.

Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity

of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his

own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half

his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief

pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his

world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty

visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of

humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of

humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the

creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them;

and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this

gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures

of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to

enjoy anything — even pride.

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty

has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the

organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to

be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been

exactly reversed.

Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he

ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought

not to doubt — the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to

learn from Nature. But the new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he

can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there

is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility

typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more

poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old

humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his

boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man

doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the

new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him

stop working altogether.

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and

blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes

across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right

one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are

on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in

the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who

doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old

time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be

convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern skeptics are too

meek even to claim their inheritance. It is exactly this intellectual

helplessness which is our second problem.

The last chapter has been concerned only with a fact of observation: that

what peril of morbidity there is for man comes rather from his reason than

his imagination. It was not meant to attack the authority of reason; rather

it is the ultimate purpose to defend it. For it needs defense. The whole

modern world is at war with reason; and the tower already reels.

The sages, it is often said, can see no answer to the riddle of religion. But

the trouble with our sages is not that they cannot see the answer; it is that

they cannot even see the riddle. They are like children so stupid as to

notice nothing paradoxical in the playful assertion that a door is not a

door. The modern latitudinarians speak, for instance, about authority in

religion not only as if there were no reason in it, but as if there had never

been any reason for it. Apart from seeing its philosophical basis, they

cannot even see its historical cause. Religious authority has often,

doubtless, been oppressive or unreasonable; just as every legal system

(and especially our present one) has been callous and full of a cruel


It is rational to attack the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modern critics

of religious authority are like men who should attack the police without

ever having heard of burglars. For there is a great and possible peril to the

human mind: a peril as practical as burglary. Against it religious authority

was reared, rightly or wrongly, as a barrier. And against it something

certainly must be reared as a barrier, if our race is to avoid ruin.

That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one

generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all

entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in

some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that

there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the

alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act

of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you

are merely a skeptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question,

“Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why

should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both

movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young skeptic says, “I

have a right to think for myself.” But the old skeptic, the complete

skeptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think

at all.”

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought

to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious

authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of decadent ages like our

own: and already Mr. H. G. Wells has raised its ruinous banner; he has

written a delicate piece of skepticism called “Doubts of the Instrument.”

In this he questions the brain itself, and endeavors to remove all reality

from all his own assertions, past, present, and to come. But it was against

this remote ruin that all the military systems in religion were originally

ranked and ruled. The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the

horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the

suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defense of

reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly

questioned, reason could be questioned first.

The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the

authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark defenses

erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more

supernatural than all — the authority of a man to think. We know now

that this is so; we have no excuse for not knowing it. For we can hear

skepticism crashing through the old ring of authorities, and at the same

moment we can see reason swaying upon her throne. In so far as religion is

gone, reason is going. For they are both of the same primary and

authoritative kind. They are both methods of proof which cannot

themselves be proved. And in the act of destroying the idea of Divine

authority we have largely destroyed the idea of that human authority by

which we do a long-division sum. With a long and sustained tug we have

attempted to pull the miter off pontifical man; and his head has come off

with it.

Lest this should be called loose assertion, it is perhaps desirable, though

dull, to run rapidly through the chief modern fashions of thought which

have this effect of stopping thought itself. Materialism and the view of

everything as a personal illusion have some such effect; for if the mind is

mechanical, thought cannot be very exciting, and if the cosmos is unreal,

there is nothing to think about. But in these cases the effect is indirect and

doubtful. In some cases it is direct and clear; notably in the case of what is

generally called evolution.

Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which, if it

destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either an innocent

scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is

anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution

destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution

simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a

positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a

personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if,

like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything

more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such

thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing

as a thing.

At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and

anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you

cannot think if there are no things to think about. You cannot think if you

are not separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said, “I think;

therefore I am.” The philosophic evolutionist reverses and negatives the

epigram. He says, “I am not; therefore I cannot think.”

Then there is the opposite attack on thought: that urged by Mr. H. G.

Wells when he insists that every separate thing is “unique,” and there are

no categories at all. This also is merely destructive. Thinking means

connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected. It need hardly be

said that this skepticism forbidding thought necessarily forbids speech; a

man cannot open his mouth without contradicting it. Thus when Mr.

Wells says (as he did somewhere), “All chairs are quite different,” he

utters not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs

were quite different, you could not call them “all chairs.”

Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains that we alter

the test instead of trying to pass the test. We often hear it said, for

instance, “What is right in one age is wrong in another.” This is quite

reasonable, if it means that there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods

attain at certain times and not at other times.

If women, say, desire to be elegant, it may be that they are improved at

one time by growing fatter and at another time by growing thinner. But

you cannot say that they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant

and beginning to wish to be oblong. If the standard changes, how can there

be improvement, which implies a standard? Nietzsche started a

nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil;

if it were so, we could not talk of surpassing or even falling short of them.

How can you overtake Jones if you walk in the other direction? You

cannot discuss whether one people has succeeded more in being miserable

than another succeeded in being happy. It would be like discussing

whether Milton was more puritanical than a pig is fat.

It is true that a man (a silly man) might make change itself his object or

ideal. But as an ideal, change itself becomes unchangeable. If the

change-worshipper wishes to estimate his own progress, he must be

sternly loyal to the ideal of change; he must not begin to flirt gaily with the

ideal of monotony. Progress itself cannot progress. It is worth remark, in

passing, that when Tennyson, in a wild and rather weak manner,

welcomed the idea of infinite alteration in society, he instinctively took a

metaphor which suggests an imprisoned tedium. He wrote —

“Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.”

He thought of change itself as an unchangeable groove; and so it is. Change

is about the narrowest and hardest groove that a man can get into.

The main point here, however, is that this idea of a fundamental alteration

in the standard is one of the things that make thought about the past or

future simply impossible. The theory of a complete change of standards in

human history does not merely deprive us of the pleasure of honoring our

fathers; it deprives us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of

despising them.

This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our time would not

be complete without some reference to pragmatism; for though I have here

used and should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a

preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which

involves the absence of all truth whatever.

My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree with the pragmatists that

apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there is an

authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human

mind. But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in

objective truth. The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think

and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must

think is the Absolute.

This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is a

matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be

something more than a pragmatist. Extreme pragmatism is just as inhuman

as the determinism it so powerfully attacks. The determinist (who, to do

him justice, does not pretend to be a human being) makes nonsense of the

human sense of actual choice. The pragmatist, who professes to be

specially human, makes nonsense of the human sense of actual fact.

To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most characteristic

current philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of

suicidal mania. The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits

of human thought; and cracked it. This is what makes so futile the

warnings of the orthodox and the boasts of the advanced about the

dangerous boyhood of free thought. What we are looking at is not the

boyhood of free thought; it is the old age and ultimate dissolution of free


It is vain for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things

will happen if wild skepticism runs its course. It has run its course. It is

vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if

once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more

questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder

vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.

You cannot fancy a more skeptical world than that in which men doubt if

there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more

quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application

of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretense that modern

England is Christian. But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow.

Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are

an old minority than because they are a new one.

Free thought has exhausted its own freedom. It is weary of its own

success. If any eager freethinker now hails philosophic freedom as the

dawn, he is only like the man in Mark Twain who came out wrapped in

blankets to see the sun rise and was just in time to see it set. If any

frightened curate still says that it will be awful if the darkness of free

thought should spread, we can only answer him in the high and powerful

words of Mr. Belloc, “Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the

increase of forces already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of

the night: it is already morning.” We have no more questions left to ask.

We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest

peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we

gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.

But one more word must be added. At the beginning of this preliminary

negative sketch I said that our mental ruin has been wrought by wild

reason, not by wild imagination. A man does not go mad because he makes

a statue a mile high, but he may go mad by thinking it out in square inches.

Now, one school of thinkers has seen this and jumped at it as a way of

renewing the pagan health of the world. They see that reason destroys; but

Will, they say, creates. The ultimate authority, they say, is in will, not in


The supreme point is not why a man demands a thing, but the fact that he

does demand it. I have no space to trace or expound this philosophy of

Will. It came, I suppose, through Nietzsche, who preached something that

is called egoism. That, indeed, was simpleminded enough; for Nietzsche

denied egoism simply by preaching it. To preach anything is to give it

away. First, the egoist calls life a war without mercy, and then he takes the

greatest possible trouble to drill his enemies in war. To preach egoism is to

practice altruism. But however it began, the view is common enough in

current literature. The main defense of these thinkers is that they are not

thinkers; they are makers. They say that choice is itself the divine thing.

Thus Mr. Bernard Shaw has attacked the old idea that men’s acts are to be

judged by the standard of the desire of happiness. He says that a man does

not act for his happiness, but from his will. He does not say, “Jam will

make me happy,” but “I want jam.” And in all this others follow him with

yet greater enthusiasm. Mr. John Davidson, a remarkable poet, is so

passionately excited about it that he is obliged to write prose. He

publishes a short play with several long prefaces. This is natural enough in

Mr. Shaw, for all his plays are prefaces: Mr. Shaw is (I suspect) the only

man on earth who has never written any poetry. But that Mr. Davidson

(who can write excellent poetry) should write instead laborious

metaphysics in defense of this doctrine of will, does show that the

doctrine of will has taken hold of men.

Even Mr. H. G. Wells has half spoken in its language; saying that one

should test acts not like a thinker, but like an artist, saying, “I feel this

curve is right,” or “that line shall go thus.” They are all excited; and well

they may be. For by this doctrine of the divine authority of will, they

think they can break out of the doomed fortress of rationalism. They think

they can escape.

But they cannot escape. This pure praise of volition ends in the same

break up and blank as the mere pursuit of logic. Exactly as complete free

thought involves the doubting of thought itself, so the acceptation of mere

“willing” really paralyzes the will.

Mr. Bernard Shaw has not perceived the real difference between the old

utilitarian test of pleasure (clumsy, of course, and easily misstated) and

that which he propounds. The real difference between the test of

happiness and the test of will is simply that the test of happiness is a test

and the other isn’t. You can discuss whether a man’s act in jumping over a

cliff was directed towards happiness; you cannot discuss whether it was

derived from will. Of course it was. You can praise an action by saying

that it is calculated to bring pleasure or pain to discover truth or to save

the soul. But you cannot praise an action because it shows will; for to say

that is merely to say that it is an action. By this praise of will you cannot

really choose one course as better than another. And yet choosing one

course as better than another is the very definition of the will you are


The worship of will is the negation of will. To admire mere choice is to

refuse to choose. If Mr. Bernard Shaw comes up to me and says, “Will

something,” that is tantamount to saying, “I do not mind what you will,”

and that is tantamount to saying, “I have no will in the matter.” You

cannot admire will in general, because the essence of will is that it is

particular. A brilliant anarchist like Mr. John Davidson feels an irritation

against ordinary morality, and therefore he invokes will — will to

anything. He only wants humanity to want something. But humanity does

want something. It wants ordinary morality. He rebels against the law and

tells us to will something or anything. But we have willed something. We

have willed the law against which he rebels.

All the will-worshippers, from Nietzsche to Mr. Davidson, are really

quite empty of volition. They cannot will, they can hardly wish. And if

any one wants a proof of this, it can be found quite easily. It can be found

in this fact: that they always talk of will as something that expands and

breaks out. But it is quite the opposite. Every act of will is an act of

self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every

act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject

everything else. That objection, which men of this school used to make to

the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act. Every act is an

irrevocable selection exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you

give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up

all the other courses. If you become King of England, you give up the post

of Beadle in Brompton. If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive

life in Wimbledon.

It is the existence of this negative or limiting side of will that makes most

of the talk of the anarchic will-worshippers little better than nonsense. For

instance, Mr. John Davidson tells us to have nothing to do with “Thou

shalt not”; but it is surely obvious that “Thou shalt not” is only one of the

necessary corollaries of “I will.” “I will go to the Lord Mayor’s Show, and

thou shalt not stop me.” Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists,

and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not

care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is

the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in

your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a

short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The

moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.

You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of

their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do

not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his

hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a

demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three

sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a

lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the

Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved,

they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all

artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure

will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing.

The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay

is colorless.

In case the point is not clear, an historic example may illustrate it. The

French Revolution was really an heroic and decisive thing, because the

Jacobins willed something definite and limited. They desired the freedoms

of democracy, but also all the vetoes of democracy. They wished to have

votes and not to have titles. Republicanism had an ascetic side in Franklin

or Robespierre as well as an expansive side in Danton or Wilkes. Therefore

they have created something with a solid substance and shape, the square

social equality and peasant wealth of France. But since then the

revolutionary or speculative mind of Europe has been weakened by

shrinking from any proposal because of the limits of that proposal.

Liberalism has been degraded into liberality. Men have tried to turn

“revolutionise” from a transitive to an intransitive verb. The Jacobin could

tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more

important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would

trust. But the new rebel is a Skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything.

He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the

fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to

denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some

kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he

denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it.

Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the

purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem)

in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls

lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As

a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a

philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will

denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest

philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A

man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic

profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames

the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.

The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he

complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his

hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that

they practically are beasts.

In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always

engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks

men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality

for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become

practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against

everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.

It may be added that the same blank and bankruptcy can be observed in all

fierce and terrible types of literature, especially in satire. Satire may be

mad and anarchic, but it presupposes an admitted superiority in certain

things over others; it presupposes a standard. When little boys in the

street laugh at the fatness of some distinguished journalist, they are

unconsciously assuming a standard of Greek sculpture. They are appealing

to the marble Apollo. And the curious disappearance of satire from our

literature is an instance of the fierce things fading for want of any principle

to be fierce about. Nietzsche had some natural talent for sarcasm: he could

sneer, though he could not laugh; but there is always something bodiless

and without weight in his satire, simply because it has not any mass of

common morality behind it.

He is himself more preposterous than anything he denounces. But, indeed,

Nietzsche will stand very well as the type of the whole of this failure of

abstract violence. The softening of the brain which ultimately overtook

him was not a physical accident. If Nietzsche had not ended in imbecility,

Nietzscheism would end in imbecility. Thinking in isolation and with pride

ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have softening of the heart

must at last have softening of the brain.

This last attempt to evade intellectualism ends in intellectualism, and

therefore in death. The sortie has failed. The wild worship of lawlessness

and the materialist worship of law end in the same void. Nietzsche scales

staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately in Tibet. He sits down

beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing and Nirvana. They are both helpless

— one because he must not grasp anything, and the other because he must

not let go of anything. The Tolstoyan’s will is frozen by a Buddhist

instinct that all special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite’s will is quite

equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all

special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand at the

crossroads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads.

The result is — well, some things are not hard to calculate. They stand at

the cross-roads.

Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business of this book — the

rough review of recent thought. After this I begin to sketch a view of life

which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interests me. In

front of me, as I close this page, is a pile of modern books that I have been

turning over for the purpose — a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility. By

the accident of my present detachment, I can see the inevitable smash of

the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Shaw, as

clearly as an inevitable raftway smash could be seen from a balloon. They

are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum. For madness may be

defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness; and

they have nearly reached it. He who thinks he is made of glass, thinks to

the destruction of thought; for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject

nothing, wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice of

something, but the rejection of almost everything.

And as I turn and tumble over the clever, wonderful, tiresome, and useless

modern books, the tide of one of them rivets my eye. It is called “Jeanne

d’Arc,” by Anatole France. I have only glanced at it, but a glance was

enough to remind me of Renan’s “Vie de Jesus.” It has the same strange

method of the reverent skeptic. It discredits supernatural stories that have

some foundation, simply by telling natural stories that have no foundation.

Because we cannot believe in what a saint did, we are to pretend that we

know exactly what he felt. But I do not mention either book in order to

criticize it, but because the accidental combination of the names called up

two startling images of Sanity which blasted all the books before me. Joan

of Are was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths

like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path,

and went down it like a thunderbolt.

Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in

Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I

thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things,

especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the

poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Are had all that and with this

great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas

Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I

thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche,

and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of

his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of

great horses, his cry to arms.

Well, Joan of Are had all that, and again with this difference, that she did

not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an

army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only

praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the

warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic

ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet

she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are

wild speculators who do nothing. It was impossible that the thought

should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret

of moral unity and utility that has been lost. And with that thought came a

larger one, and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the

theater of my thoughts.

The same modern difficulty which darkened the subject-matter of Anatole

France also darkened that of Ernest Renan. Renan also divided his hero’s

pity from his hero’s pugnacity. Renan even represented the righteous

anger at Jerusalem as a mere nervous breakdown after the idyllic

expectations of Galilee.

As if there were any inconsistency between having

a love for humanity and having a hatred for inhumanity! Altruists, with

thin, weak voices, denounce Christ as an egoist. Egoists (with even thinner

and weaker voices) denounce Him as an altruist. In our present

atmosphere such cavils are comprehensible enough. The love of a hero is

more terrible than the hatred of a tyrant. The hatred of a hero is more

generous than the love of a philanthropist.

There is a huge and heroic

sanity of which moderns can only collect the fragments. There is a giant of

whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have

torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labeled egoism and altruism, and

they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane

meekness. They have parted His garments among them, and for His

vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from

the top throughout.