THE POETIC QUALITY IN LIBERALISM
-The Independent Review, Volume 5, February-April. 1905
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a man were turned into a mackerel. His sentiments touching the change may not be a matter for urgent, but they cannot fail to be a matter for clarifying consideration. There are many things that he would lose by passing into the fishy state; such as the pleasure of being in the neighbourhood of a Free Library, the pleasure of climbing the Alps, the pleasure of taking snuff, the pleasure of joining a heroic political minority, and also, I suppose and hope, the pleasure of having mackerel for breakfast. But there is one pleasure which the man made mackerel would, I think, lose more completely and finally than any of these pleasures: I allude to the pleasure of sea-bathing. To dip his head in cold water would not be something sacred and startling; it would not be to have all stars in his eyes and all song in his ears. For the sea creature knows nothing of the sea, just as the earth-creature knows nothing of the earth. This forgetfulness of what we have is the real Fall of Man and the Fall of All Things. The evil which infects the immense goodness of existence does not embody itself in the fact that men are weary of woes and oppressions. It embodies itself in the shameful fact that they are often weary of joys and weary of generosities. Poetry, the highest form of literature, has here its immortal function; it is engaged continually in a desperate and divine battle against things being taken for granted. A fierce sense of the value of things lies at the heart, not merely of optimistic literature, but of much of the best literature which is called pessimistic. Assuredly it lies at the heart of tragedy; for if lives were not valuable tragedies would not be tragic. If life begins by taking things for granted, poetry answers by taking things away. It may be that this is indeed the whole meaning of death; that heaven, knowing how we tire of our toys, forces us to hold this life on a frail and romantic tenure.
If a man were to say that science stands for barbarism and religion for civilisation, he would in these days be accused of a mere trick of topsy-turveydom. Yet there is one sense, at least, in which this is unquestionably true. The generalisations which science makes true or false are of necessity limitations of human hope. The laws which science deduces, fairly or unfairly, are necessarily, like all laws, a restraint of liberty. The nearer a man is to an ordered and classified being, the nearer he is to an automaton. The nearer he is to an automaton, the nearer he is to a beast. The lowest part of man is that which he does in accordance with law, such as eating, drinking, growing a beard, or falling over a precipice. The highest part of him is that which is most lawless: spiritual movements, passionate attachment, art. Had science found laws for all the human processes, the end would not be lucidity and melodious order. Neither would it be anarchy and blasphemy. It would be mere drifting dulness, like that of a cow slouching through a meadow, or a hog half asleep in the sun. Man's life would be a life of blank receptiveness and unchanging custom; that is to say, it would be the life of a savage. Government would succeed Government mechanically, as man pulls on his boots. Nation would conquer nation unconsciously, as a man digests his dinner. All functions, being defined, would be systematised; being systematised, they would be forgotten. The records would be written by imbeciles; the streets would be full of somnambulists. Against this nightmare of perfect knowledge it is the everlasting business of literature to protest.
While the worship of law and generalisation would make everything continuous and calm, literature would make everything separate and startling. While order would make the Cabinet Minister appear as automatic as the cow, literature would, on the other hand, make the cow appear as disturbing and incredible as the Cabinet Minister. The man of science would consider the absorption of a small nationality as a thing as silent, as necessary, and as mechanical, as the digestion of his breakfast. The poet, on the other hand, would ask him to regard the digestion of his breakfast as in itself something as thrilling or romantic as the battle of Colenso, as something which had in it the two eternal elements of the epic—beauty and danger. For the whole meaning of the strange thing called Art is merely this, that by copying a thing, by making it over again, and above all by making it over again with a slight difference, we can see something of the primary wonder of it, a spasm, as it were, of the enduring astonishment of God. Anyone, for instance, who has ever looked with certain feelings at a child's dolls'-house, knows the thing of which I speak. The very fact that the dolls'-house is small, makes us realise with surprise that houses can be so large. The very fact that it is not real makes us remember, with a sort of shock, that houses are real. We see the thing at second hand; and then only we realise it at first hand. In this the dolls'-house is the symbol and seed of the whole of art. Art, as I have said, has exactly the opposite aim to the aim of science. Science connects a thing with everything, that it may be natural and expected. Art isolates a thing from everything, that it may be unexpected, that it may be supernatural.
There may be some so wedded to the superstitious word "law," that they will doubt if this making of an object solitary and surprising be so wise or so philosophical as the scientific method. But they will not be poets; and I do not think they will be the best kind of philosophers. For, when we isolate a thing, we make it a perfect symbol of the universe. For the universe is of necessity the perfectly lonely thing. You may state the eternal problem in the form of saying: "Why is there a Cosmos?" But you can state it just as well by saying: "Why is there-an omnibus?" You can say: "Why is there everything?" You can say instead: "Why is there anything?" For that law and sequence and harmony and inevitability on which science so proudly insists are in their nature only true of the relations of the parts to each other. The whole, the nature of things itself, is not legal, is not consecutive, is not harmonious, and not inevitable. It is wild, like a poem; arbitrary, like a poem; unique, like a poem. The existence of the law itself is a solitary phenomenon, an incomparable phenomenon, and, in that sense, therefore, a lawless phenomenon. We and all the stars and winds may be riding in rigid ranks under the orders of the captain; but he is leading us on we know not how wild a raid. For our captain is a despot; and a despot is of necessity an anarchist.
It is the function, then, of literature to liberate a subject, or a spirit, or an incident, or a personality, from those irrelevancies which prevent it, first from being itself, and, secondly, from becoming perfectly allegorical of the essence of things. Everything about the cow in our daily experience of it which accidentally prevents us from realising its deeper magic, such, for instance, as our happening to be an old lady and afraid of cows, or our being an impecunious farmer and obliged to sell the cow, or even (though this is less likely) an ox and obliged to regard the cow with more specialised and perhaps more passionate sentiment—anything, I say, in the brute details of life, which hampers the particular sentiment we wish to regard her with, must in literature be eliminated. We must, if necessary, put the cow in greener fields of fairy land, and under a sun that is strange to men. We must set her dark against an impossible sunset, like the end of the gods—or breast deep amid flowers of Paradise; if only so we can make her seem more utterly cowish, and therefore more utterly mysterious. We must put her in Eden; we must put her in Elysium; we must put her in Topsyturveydom. To sum it all up in a word, we must put her in a book, in a book where her rounded cowishness will be safe from impertinences and side issues, from bulls who regard her as a female, and farmers who regard her as a property—and old ladies who regard her as the devil. Similar methods, I need hardly say, are needed to preserve the rounded humanity of the Cabinet Minister.
Literature at its best, then, is essentially a liberation of types, persons, and things; a permission to them to be themselves in safety and to the glory of God. It offers a fuller consideration of a man's case than the world can give him; it offers, to all, noble possibilities of fuller growth than is practicable upon earth; it offers to the meanest soul whom it studies the divine emptiness of an uncreated world. It gives a man what he often longs for more than houses or gardens—deserts. For from the highest and most spiritual standpoint it is worth while to go many days in the desert, if by that desolation one may win the god-like pleasure of being surprised at a man. It is in this setting of a thing in freedom, and ringing it with sanctity, it is in this snatching it out of the tedium of law and the inevitable, that literature is nearest to faith and divine things. It is in this freeing it from larger coercions that literature is most antagonistic to modern science; and it is in this that it comes nearest, again and again in human history, it is in this indeed that it is at great moments supremely wedded, to the spirit which we call Liberalism.
Liberalism is a vague word, because it is a good word; but recent and unfortunate events have made it a much vaguer word than it need in any case have been. In current and recent English politics, indeed, the word Liberalism is not so much vague as definitely self-contradictory. It would be useless for me to attempt even to indicate the kinship of which I wish to speak between the spirit of literature and the spirit of Liberalism without making some such attempt towards saying what I mean by Liberalism, similar to the attempt I have just made towards saying what I mean by literature. And here we are brought face to face with a difficulty, which has by most people perhaps been only dimly felt, but which I think most politicians have felt so keenly that they spent all their time in passionately denying its existence. It seems to me totally futile and absurd to deny any longer that Liberalism in our time means, not only two different things, but two mutually exclusive and directly antagonistic things. An enlightened Liberal Imperialist, with a theory of Empire, is not a weaker Liberal than I; nor am I a weaker Liberal than he. I am not a paler shade of his blue; he is not a pinker tone of my red. He means one thing by Liberalism; and, in the light of that, legitimately considers me no Liberal at all. I mean another thing by Liberalism, and, in the light of that, legitimately think him no Liberal at all. The difference is not a difference of opinion upon some temporary war or some twopenny tariff. It is a difference of opinion upon the whole meaning of a word; I might say upon the whole meaning of a world. Like all practical things, it goes down into the chasms of metaphysics. Like all urgent things, it demands, first of all, a discussion on Hegel and Plato and the Nature of Being. We may or may not find it possible to effect a political alliance between the two sides; but the alliance would be as purely political as that between Irish Catholics and English Nonconformists. Even if the Imperialist Liberal and the Nationalist Liberal were of the same Party, they must always be of different religions.
I trust I may be pardoned if, in setting forth a somewhat confused matter, I approach my meaning a little circuitously, or from another side. Those who tell us, with a scientific or pseudoscientific confidence, that the age of great Empires is come, that the time of small peoples is past, that world-politics have hold of us with the grip of necessity, that Liberal sentiment is superannuated, that this or that, or the other tendency in war or economics is "inevitable"— all these people, armed with all these sayings, singularly forget one thing. They forget that just so prophesied the prophets that were before them. If ever people were in this world certain of their star, it was these very old-fashioned Radicals whose star, men say, is set. Cobden and Mill had quite as much certainty as Cecil Rhodes or Mr. Wyndham, and much more science. They also thought that they saw the future before them like a large and lucid map. They also saw their enemies broken and hopeless before the whole movement of mankind; but their enemies rule us now. They also saw the institutions of old England already classed with tournaments and numbered with the dead; but those institutions rule us still. They knew that it was inevitable that a Republic should come: it was inevitable, but it never came. They knew that nothing could save the Established Church: nothing could save it, but it was saved. Never were any men more logically justified than they in judging the way the world was going; never were men more practically condemned. Never did men with good reason look forward to a longer reign; never did men experience a shorter one. The story of English democracy in the nineteenth century ought to have enlightened all sane Englishmen finally and for ever about the value of the word "inevitable."
But the truth is much more curious than this. It is not merely true that the old Liberalism was beaten, although it thought itself victorious. It is also true that it was beaten because it thought itself victorious. This sense of placid and serene success was the first finger of decay which was laid upon its force and maturity. If we look, chronologically and historically, at the actual facts of the case, we shall find that this boastful and final tone was taken by Liberals most definitely and most generally in the very years when their ruin was brewing, when all the dark and vague forces which are the enemies of the brotherhood of man—pomp, jealousy, sophistry, cosmopolitan money-making, military impatience, philosophical panic, literary egomania—were gathering in their armies by night for that great battle where Liberalism was overthrown.
The French Revolution, the fountain of European Liberalism, was, in its nature, a religious thing. I do not mean merely that it was religious in the sense of being spiritual and ecstatic. I mean that it was religious in the sense of being doctrinal, of being definite, of being defiant in its generalisations. It declared not only a creed but an unchangeable creed. It was religious in the literal or derivative sense; it was a bond; it tied and committed men to something. And that something, again, was religious in its nature; it was a declaration about the fundamental and enduring position of all mankind in the universe. It stated that all men were free and equal; that all men were brothers; that all men had certain rights, that might be taken away by a tyrant, but could not be denied by another free man. It said that, by the nature of things, the people was sovereign, that the State consisted of its citizens, that governing or helping to govern was a function of the normal man. Men in this kind of position do not concern themselves with the current trend of the times. They do not profess that their triumph is inevitable, but only that their truth is unalterable. They said simply that no conceivable load of living tyranny on earth could alter the philosophic fact that all men were brothers; just as a Christian would say that the conversion of the whole world to Shintoism would make no difference to the fact that Christ was in Heaven with God. They did not insist on the fact that their Revolution was assured. In one sense they did not even insist on the fact that it was opportune. Using the word in that meaning, indeed, a Revolution is not, and never can be, opportune. If it were opportune, it would be an evolution. Revolution is in its nature a revolt from circumstances to ideals; it is an appeal from Time to Eternity.
Now the dark and extraordinary thing in the matter is this: that, so long as the French Revolution and the French Revolutionists demanded things in the name of this wild abstraction, they got them. They asked for Republics in the name of Rousseau and pure Reason; and they got them. They asked for victories in the cause of abstract ideality and the nature of things; and they got them. As long as they raged over Europe, denouncing things merely because they were wrong, demanding things merely because they were right, so long they bore the sword of God into battle, and no army on earth could look them in the face. So long as they despised success, they were successful. So long as they thought of other things than triumph, they were triumphant. So long as they had for ruler or leader, even for bad ruler or for foolish leader, the Man of Justice, or the Man of Equality, or the Man of Patriotism, their hope and stir were abounding, and they filled the world with their awful hilarity. When they had the Man of Destiny, he was broken to pieces.
The same fate which pursued them has pursued all their children, the Liberal Parties of Europe. So long as Liberalism demanded concessions to justice, as it did during the earlier nineteenth century, it wrung those concessions out of the grimmest armies and proudest oligarchies of the world. When it began to demand concessions to its own power, the armies and the oligarchies laughed in its face. We can trace throughout the later decades of the nineteenth century in England, through the later battles of Gladstone and Bright more especially, the steady growth of a certain habit of speaking of Toryism as played out and antiquated, of speaking of Liberalism as invincible and secure, of appealing to the certainty of the coming years. That in forty years there would be no more despots, that in sixty years there would be no more aristocracies, that in ninety years there would be no more armies, that in a hundred years there would be no more churches: this kind of contemptuous prevision was commonly uttered. It was the sin of Liberalism, and its fall. The sin was shared, as was fitling, by the great man who was otherwise almost sinless in public action. "The flowing tide is with us," said Gladstone, with colossal confidence. And, even as he spoke, the tide turned.
The result of all this is very interesting, though natural enough. When Liberalism met its great debacle, there were, necessarily, two kinds of critics left in the defeated army, with two different plans of campaign, indeed, with two different conceptions of the nature of war. The first formed the coherent and philosophical Liberal Imperialist Party, now consisting entirely of Mr. Saxon Mills; the other formed the Party of which I am a humble member. The first said: "The French Revolution succeeded, because it was progressive, because it was the fresh and forward thing at that moment." The second said: "The French Revolution succeeded because it was religious, because it gave a key or principle which cannot grow old." The first said: "The old Liberals won, because they were men of their time." The second said: "They won because they were men of all time; or rather, because the ideas they dealt with are outside time altogether." The first said: "Old Liberal ideas conquered because they were new: but they are new no longer." The second said: "Not so. Old Liberal ideas conquered because they were true. And they are true still."
The first of these two Liberal doctrines, roughly to be identified with the Liberal Imperialists, is one which easily fortifies itself with arguments drawn, rightly or wrongly, from science. It concerns itself with evolution, with the modifications which fugitive forces make upon a fugitive substance. So far from denying change or denouncing change, it makes it its avowed particular duty to study change. Just as a biologist might rejoice in and relish the strange stages of gradation by which a marmoset might become something like a man, so a politician of this school relishes the subtle shades by which a friend of Cecil Rhodes might become something like a Liberal. And the politicians of this school are perpetually appealing to the example and authority of material science. They are always reckoning up the strength of Empires like the strength of batteries, or prophesying the fall of nations like the fall of leaves. The attitude of the opposite Party is naturally the very reverse. The other kind of Liberalism is in its nature allied, not to science but to art, to literature, and to religion. And it is allied to them for the reason that I have suggested in the opening of this article, that it tends, like literature and like religion, to take some one thing or other out of the stress of time, from under the tyranny of circumstance, and give it that liberty which is only another name for sanctity. For liberty is altogether a mystical thing. All attempts to justify it rationally have always failed. Ruskin tried to attack it by pointing out that the stars had it not and the universe had it not. So good a mystic ought to have known that it is just because man has it and the universe has it not, that man is called the Image of God and the universe merely His masterpiece.
The kind of Liberalism which supported the South African War had for its duty the duty of destroying sanctities. The kind of Liberalism which opposed that war had for its duty that of creating sanctities and preserving sanctities. The Imperialist said: "Because it is evident that Time is the enemy of all his children, because it is plain that Saturn is always eating his own, because little lives and little peoples have a slender chance to be themselves for long in the mutability of life, therefore we must not stake too much on them. We must be on the look out for their disappearance, we must be ready to rally to new things." The other Liberals, with whom I am in accord, answered: "Because Time is the enemv of all his children, because Saturn eats his own, because little lives and little peoples have a slender chance of survival, therefore we will ring them with a ring of swords, and write for them an inviolable charter; because they are weak we will make them immortal, that they may be themselves, that so they may give the world what nothing else can give it. For, like all other things which are human and therefore divine, they must have the sense of everlasting life in order to live at all."
It must be fairly obvious that all the claims of the democratic philosophy are of this kind— unscientific and (if you like to put it so) unnatural. Science, properly speaking, knows nothing, for instance, of " the Rights of Man" ideal. Pure science does not admit the existence of the Rights of Man. Pure science, indeed, does not admit the existence of Man at all. "Man " is only the gross name we give to a certain patch in the tapestry of evolution, which shades away into other things by nameless gradations. Man is only the ape in the process of becoming the Superman. But democracy has for its whole meaning the flat refusal to regard Man from the standpoint of evolution. It takes the thing Man out of the order, and makes it sacred and separate. It says that a man, any man, has rights which no ape can claim, and rights which no Superman can question. It says that a man must not be a despot, however much he may happen to look like the Superman. It says that a man must not be a slave, however much he may happen to look like an ape. That which it claimed for man it claimed also for a nation: it declared that to kill a nation was murder. That which it claimed for man it claimed also for individual men: it declared that every man had round him a transcendental circle of omnipotence, which it called "liberty." That which it claimed for men it claimed even for words: it disliked the notion of a sincere utterance being stopped; it was sorry for the death of an idea. If this Liberalism, in which I believe, succeeds in surviving, it will go onward along a very different course from that marked out for it by sceptics and iconoclasts. It will go on making more and more things sacred, not more and more things desecrate; it will increase in its power of belief, not in its power of query. If it lives, it will increase the religious life of mankind. If it dies, it will be the last of the religions.
G. K. Chesterton