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Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter VII
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|Chapter VI|| Autobiography |
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter VII: The Crime of Orthodoxy
I used to say that my autobiography ought to consist of a series of short stories like those about Sherlock Holmes; only that his were astonishing examples of observation, and mine astonishing examples of lack of observation. In short, they were to be "Adventures" concerned with my absence of mind, instead of his presence of mind. One, I remember was called "The Adventure of the Pro-Boer's Corkscrew", and commemorated the fact that I once borrowed a corkscrew from Hammond and found myself trying to open my front-door with it, with my latch-key in the other hand. Few will believe my statement, but it is none the less true that the incident came before and not after the more appropriate use of the corkscrew. I was perfectly sober; probably I should have been more vigilant if I had been drunk. Another anecdote, expanded into "The Adventure of the Astonished Clerk", accused me of having asked for a cup of coffee instead of a ticket at the booking-office of a railway station, and doubtless I went on to ask the waitress politely for a third single to Battersea. I am not particularly proud of this characteristic, for I think that presence of mind is far more really poetical than absence of mind. But I only mention it, at this stage, because it introduces a character who played a considerable part in the fortunes of my friends and myself; and who, in the absorbing narrative of "The Adventure of the Curate's Trousers", was cast for the important part of the curate.
I cannot remember exactly where my brother or I first met the Rev. Conrad Noel. I rather fancy it was at some strange club where somebody was lecturing on Nietzsche; and where the debaters (by typical transition) passed from the gratifying thought that Nietzsche attacked Christianity to the natural inference that he was a True Christian. And I admired the common sense of a curate, with dark curly hair and a striking face, who got up and pointed out that Nietzsche would be even more opposed to True Christianity than to False Christianity, supposing there were any True Christianity to oppose. I learned that the curate's name was Noel, but in many ways his intervention was symbolic of my experience of that strange world. That Intelligentsia of the artistic and vaguely anarchic clubs was indeed a very strange world. And the strangest thing about it, I fancy, was that, while it thought a great deal about thinking, it did not think. Everything seemed to come at second or third hand; from Nietzsche or Tolstoy or Ibsen or Shaw; and there was a pleasant atmosphere of discussing all these things, without any particular sense of responsibility for coming to any conclusion on them. The company often included really clever people, like Mr. Edgar Jepson, who always seemed as if he had strayed out of Society to smile mysteriously in Bohemia. Here and there it would include a man who had not only cleverness but strong traditional beliefs, which he kept largely to himself; like my old friend Louis McQuilland, who was long content to appear as a modern of the club called the Moderns, dealing in detached epigrams of the Wilde and Whistler fashion; and guarding within him all the time a flame of pure Catholic faith and burning Irish Nationalism, which never appeared save when those sacred things were challenged. But I think it profoundly significant, as a matter of intellectual instincts, that he preferred the almost avowed nonsense of the Decadents to the more high-minded and heretical earnestness of the Fabians. He once said in his wrath, on the occasion of the hundredth eulogy on Candida or Arms and the Man, something which ran (if I remember right) in a Scriptural form, "Stay me with Hitchens, comfort me with Beerbohm; for I am sick of Shaw."
But a large section of the Intelligentsia seemed wholly devoid of Intelligence. As was perhaps natural, those who pontificated most pompously were often the most windy and hollow. I remember a man with a long beard and a deep booming voice who proclaimed at intervals, "What we need is Love," or, "All we require is Love," like the detonations of a heavy gun. I remember another radiant little man who spread out his fingers and said, "Heaven is here! It is now!" which seemed a disturbing thought under the circumstances. There was an aged, aged man who seemed to live at one of these literary clubs; and who would hold up a large hand at intervals and preface some fairly ordinary observation by saying, "A Thought." One day Jepson, I think, goaded beyond endurance, is said to have exploded with the words, "But, good God, man, you don't call that a thought, do you?" But that was what was the matter with not a few of these thinkers. A sort of Theosophist said to me, "Good and evil, truth and falsehood, folly and wisdom are only aspects of the same upward movement of the universe." Even at that stage it occurred to me to ask, "Supposing there is no difference between good and bad, or between false and true, what is the difference between up and down?"
Now there was one thing that I began to note, as I noted on that minor occasion of the debate on Nietzsche. All that clique, in praising the Ibsenite and Shavian drama, was of course very contemptuous of the old Victorian drama. It sneered steadily at the stock types of old farces; at the drawling guardmen and grotesque grocers of Caste or Our Boys. But there was one old farcical type that had become far more false; and that was the comic curate of The Private Secretary: the simpleton who "did not like London" and asked for a glass of milk and a Bath-Bun. And many of the sceptics in that highly scientific world had not, by any means, outgrown the Victorian joke about the curate. Having myself been trained, first on the farce about the curate, and then on the scepticism about the priest, I was quite ready to believe that a dying superstition was represented by such feeble persons. As a fact, I found that they were very often by far the ablest and most forcible persons. In debate after debate I noticed the same thing happen that I have already noted in the debate on Nietzsche. It was the farcical curate, it was the feebleminded clergyman, who got up and applied to the wandering discussion at least some sort of test of some sort of truth; who showed all the advantages of having been tolerably trained in some sort of system of thinking. Dreadful seeds of doubt began to be sown in my mind. I was almost tempted to question the accuracy of the anticlerical legend; nay, even the accuracy of the farce of The Private Secretary. It seemed to me that the despised curates were rather more intelligent than anybody else; that they, alone in that world of intellectualism, were trying to use their intellects. For that reason I begin such adventures with the Adventure of the Curate's Trousers. For that reason I mention first Mr. Conrad Noel. He had no Bath-Bun. He did not confine himself to a glass of milk. Nobody, with the smallest knowledge of him, could truthfully say that he did not like London.
Conrad Noel, the son of a poet and the grandson of a peer, had all the incalculable elements of the eccentric aristocrat; the sort of eccentric aristocrat who so often figures as a particularly destructive democrat. That great gentleman, Cunninghame Graham, whom I knew more slightly but always respected profoundly, was the same sort of uncompromising rebel; but he had a sort of Scottish seriousness similar to Spanish seriousness; while Noel's humour was half English and half Irish but always mainly humorous. He delighted, of course, in shocking people and taking a rise out of them. I remember how he used to say, shaking his head with an air of brooding concentration: "Ah, how little people know about the work of a clergyman's life; such demands on him! Such distracting and different duties! All the afternoon behind the scenes at the Butterfly Theatre, talking to Poppy Pimpernel; all the evening doing a pub-crawl with Jack Bootle; back to the club after dinner, etc." As a matter of fact, he occupied much of his time with things perhaps equally fantastic but more intellectual. He had a love of nosing out the headquarters of incredible or insane sects; and wrote an amusing record of them called Byways of Belief. He had a special affection for an old gentleman with long grey whiskers, living in the suburbs; whose name, it appeared, was King Solomon David Jesus. This prophet was not afraid to protest, as a prophet should, against what he considered the pomps and vanities of this world. He began the interview by coldly rebuking Conrad Noel for having sent in a visiting-card inscribed, "Rev. Conrad Noel"; since all such official titles were abolished in the New Dispensation. Conrad delicately insinuated, in self-defence, that there seemed to be something about calling oneself Solomon David Jesus, which might raise rather grave problems of identity and a somewhat formidable historical comparison. And anyhow, an old gentleman who called himself King could hardly insist on such severe republican simplicity. However, the monarch explained that his title had been given him by an actual voice speaking out of the sky; and the Rev. Conrad admitted that he could not claim that his visiting-card had been thus written at dictation.
Sometimes, instead of his visiting the New Religions, the New Religions visited him, which was rather more alarming. He and his wife, a very charming little lady whose demureness was perhaps a little deceptive, had gone out to a matinee and came back to find ten Doukhobors eating their tea. Doukhobors, it may be explained to those who have had no such happy visitations, are a sect of Russian Pacifists and practical Communists, who believe in living by mutual hospitality. It is a curious and mystifying circumstance, by the way, that while the Doukhobors lived in Russia and had differences with a foreign authority, they invariably behaved themselves like a band of saints and according to the highest pattern of primitive Christians; but when they crossed to Canada, and came under a British authority, they were strangely demoralised, and degenerated into dangerous fanatics who used to go about stealing horses out of carts and cows out of sheds; because they disapproved of the captivity of animals. Anyhow, Conrad Noel, who certainly would not have thought the worse of them for defying either the Russian or the British Empire, had met a member of this sect somewhere; and I suppose in some hazy and hearty fashion invited him to pay a call some day. He was there with nine others like unto himself, stowing away the muffins and macaroons; and explaining that they would be delighted to pay for so ample and sumptuous a meal; but unfortunately, they did not approve of money. "If, however," explained the Primitive Christian, "there is any small form of service"--any domestic assistance they could offer in return, they would be delighted thus to discharge the debt. Then was a light of battle to be seen in the eye of Mrs. Conrad Noel, who proceeded in quiet tones to tell them all the things she would undoubtedly like done; there were a great many of them, more than I can recall; but I have a general impression that carrying the grand piano up five floors onto the roof, or carting the billiard-table to the other end of the garden, were typical of the class of tasks to which the tottering and staggering Doukhobors were directed, by that gentle but vindictive lady. It is to be feared that none of them came to the house of that hospitable Christian Socialist again; except indeed one isolated Doukhobor, who struck out a line for himself; for the simple domestic toil with which he paid for his meal consisted in going into Noel's study and altering Noel's sermon; blacking out whole passages of it and inserting sentiments of a more unimpeachably Doukhobor tendency. In his case, I suspect that Mr. Noel, as well as Mrs. Noel, began to have doubts about the Doukhobor ideal.
But Mr. Noel certainly never lost his belief in what may be called the Russian Communist ideal; though he would have been as astonished as anybody else if he had been told then of the fortunes that lay before Russian Communism. Here, however, I am chiefly concerned with him as an example of my preliminary prevailing impression of how stupid the anti-clericals were and how much more relatively intelligent the clerics were. From this time also, dates the first faint beginnings of my own divergence from the merely Communist to what is called the Distributist ideal. It was, after all, only the further sub-division of my Notting Hill romance from the street to the house; but it was solidified by Belloc, my Irish friends and my French holidays. But I fancy the first spark flew when a Theosophist, at a drawing-room meeting, was droning on about the immorality of Christians who believed in the Forgiveness of Sins; since there was only Karma, by which we reap what we sow. "If that window is broken," he said mournfully, "our host [Sir Richard Stapley] might pardon it; but the window will still be broken." Whereupon a spectacled baldish little curate, quite unknown to me, jumped up and said, "But it isn't wrong to break a window. It's only wrong because it's Stapley's window; and if he doesn't mind, why should anybody else?"
Anyhow, it was when I was staying with Conrad Noel, afterwards famous as the parson who flew the Red Flag from his church at Thaxted in Essex, that I happened to be dressing for dinner and made the (it seems to me) very excusable error of mistaking his black clerical trousers for my evening ones. I trust I violated no grave ecclesiastical law, relative to the unlawful assumption of priestly vestments; but Conrad Noel himself was always fairly casual in the matter of costume. The world thought him a very Bohemian sort of clergyman, as it now thinks him a very Bolshevist sort of clergyman. The world would be wiser if it realised that, in spite of this, he was and is a very unworldly sort of clergyman; and much too unworldly to be judged rightly by the world. I did not always agree with his attitude, and I do not now altogether agree with his politics; but I have always known that he glowed with conviction and the simplicity of the fighting spirit. But in those days his external eccentricity was more provocative than is a red rag to a bull or a red flag to a bully. He delighted in making the quaintest combinations of costume made up of the clerical, the artistic and the proletarian. He took great pleasure in appearing in correct clerical clothes, surmounted with a sort of hairy or furry cap, making him look like an aesthetic rat-catcher. I had the pleasure of walking with him, thus attired, right across the vast stretch of South London, starting from Blackfriars Bridge and going on till we saw the green hills beyond Croydon; a very interesting expedition too rarely undertaken by those from the richer side of the river. I also remember one occasion when I was walking away from some meeting with him and with Dr. Percy Dearmer, then chiefly famous as an authority on the history of ritual and of vestments. Dr. Dearmer was in the habit of walking about in a cassock and biretta which he had carefully reconstructed as being of exactly the right pattern for an Anglican or Anglo-Catholic priest; and he was humorously grieved when its strictly traditional and national character was misunderstood by the little boys in the street. Somebody would call out, "No Popery," or "To hell with the Pope," or some other sentiment of larger and more liberal religion. And Percy Dearmer would sternly stop them and say, "Are you aware that this is the precise costume in which Latimer went to the stake?"
Meanwhile my own costume, however calamitous, was the result rather of accident than design; but this was sometime later and my wife had already disguised me as far as possible in the large hat and cloak familiar to caricaturists. But it was also at a sufficiently early date in English history for frock-coats to be worn on formal occasions. I had taken off the cloak and retained the frock-coat and the wide hat; and I must have borne a more or less formless resemblance to a Boer missionary. Thus I walked innocently down the street, with the hairy cap of the aesthetic rat-catcher on one side and the ceremonial biretta and cassock of Bishop Latimer on the other. And Charles Masterman, who always wore conventional clothes in an unconventional manner, a top-hat on the back of his head and an umbrella flourished with derisive gestures, walked behind and pointed at the three of us as we unconsciously filled the pavement and cried aloud, "Could you see three backs like that anywhere in God's creation?"
I mention this fringe of eccentricity, even of eccentricity in dress, upon the border of the Anglo-Catholic party in the Anglican Church, because it really had a great deal to do with the beginning of the process by which Bohemian journalists, like my brother and myself, were drawn towards the serious consideration of the theory of a Church. I was considerably influenced by Conrad Noel; and my brother, I think, even more so.
I have said very little of my brother so far, in spite of the great part he played in my boyhood and youth; and the omission has been due to anything in the world except oblivion. My brother was much too remarkable a person not to have a chapter to himself. And I have decided, not without thought, that he will be best presented at full length when the time comes to deal with his very vital effect on modern history, and the whole story of the campaign against political corruption. But it is relevant here to remark that he differed from me at the very beginning; and not least in beginning his questions at the beginning. I always retained a sort of lingering loyalty or vague sympathy with the traditions of the past; so that, even during the period when I practically believed in nothing, I believed in what some have called "the wish to believe." But my brother at the beginning did not even wish to believe; or at least did not wish to admit that he wished to believe. He adopted the extreme attitude of antagonism, and almost of anarchism; largely, no doubt, out of a reaction and as a result of our interminable arguments, or rather argument. For we really devoted all our boyhood to one long argument, unfortunately interrupted by meal-times, by school-times, by work hours and many such irritating and irrelevant frivolities. But though he was ready at first to take up the cudgels for anarchism or atheism or anything, he had the sort of mind in which anarchism or atheism could survive anything except the society of anarchists and atheists. He had far too lucid and lively a mind not to be bored with materialism as maintained by materialists. This negative reaction against negation, however, might not have carried him far, if the positive end of the magnet had not begun to attract him; in the person of personalities like Conrad Noel. It was certainly through that eccentric cleric that my brother began to cease to be anything so barren as a mere anti-clerical. I remember that, when conventional people complained of Noel's wild ways, or attributed to him worse things of which he certainly was not guilty, my brother Cecil answered them by quoting the words of the man healed of blindness in the Gospel: "Whether the man be a sinner or no, I know not; but this I know; that whereas I was blind, now I see."
The old High Church or Anglo-Catholic group, of which Conrad Noel represented the most revolutionary extreme and Percy Dearmer (at least at that time) the most historical and liturgical, was in fact a very fine body of men, to which I for one shall always feel a gratitude like that of my brother and the blind man in Scripture. Its leader, in so far as it had a leader among the higher branches of the Anglican system, was that most fascinating and memorable man, Henry Scott Holland, who moved among younger men like one much younger than they; unforgettable with his humorous frog's face and great stature and voice of bull-like bellowing; as if he were the frog that had conquered the fable and really turned into a bull. In an abstract intellectual sense, of course, their leader was rather Dr. Gore; but anyone who knew his peculiar merits would expect him to seem a thinner and more shadowy figure in the background. Sometimes all of them assembled on one platform, especially on the platforms of the Christian Social Union, which I joined at a later date; and I hope that all who survive of those old friends, from whom I have been sundered in thought but never in sympathy, will forgive me if I recall here any of the follies that enlivened our friendship. I remember when about five or six of us addressed the astonished town of Nottingham, on what we considered to be its Christian duty towards the modern problem of industrial poverty. I remember the faces of the citizens of that great city while I spoke; and I regret to say that I recorded my impressions in some verses, supposed to represent the impressions of a Nottingham tradesman; they became something of a jest in our little circle and I quote them for the pleasure of recalling those old exhilarating days.
The Christian Social Union here
Was very much annoyed;
It seems there is some duty
Which we never should avoid,
And so they sing a lot of hymns
To help the Unemployed.
Upon a platform at the end
The speakers were displayed
And Bishop Hoskins stood in front
And hit a bell and said
That Mr. Carter was to pray,
And Mr. Carter prayed.
Then Bishop Gore of Birmingham
He stood upon one leg
And said he would be happier
If beggars didn't beg,
And that if they pinched his palace
It would take him down a peg.
He said that Unemployment
Was a horror and a blight,
He said that charities produced
Servility and spite,
And stood upon the other leg
And said it wasn't right.
And then a man named Chesterton
Got up and played with water,
He seemed to say that principles
Were nice and led to slaughter
And how we always compromised
And how we didn't orter.
Then Canon Holland fired ahead
Like fifty cannons firing,
We tried to find out what he meant
With infinite enquiring,
But the way he made the windows jump
We couldn't help admiring.
He said the human soul should be
Ashamed of every sham,
He said a man should constantly
Ejaculate "I am"
...when he had done, I went outside
And got into a tram.
I rather prided myself on these lines, merely because they are, in the main, a very accurate report of the speeches; or of what the speeches probably appeared to be to the audience. And I also disinter them from their dust-bin because they remind me of a characteristic expression of Scott Holland, which I have since found to be a characteristic problem of human life. There was one verse of my doggerel verses which I have omitted, because it would certainly be misunderstood, as Scott Holland himself was misunderstood. He was a man of great clearness and great fairness of mind, and what he said always meant something and was a result of the unpopular sport of thinking. But he was also a man with a natural surge of laughter within him, so that his broad strong mouth seemed always to be shut down on it in a grimace of restraint. I remember that on this occasion he was urging what is probably the best argument for State intervention, tending in the general direction of State Socialism, which was common in the Christian Social Union and pronounced in the definite and defiant Christian Socialists, like Conrad Noel. He said that the Commonwealth, the social authority, was worthy of being regarded in a positive and not merely in a negative light; that we ought to be able to trust the things it did, and not to think only of the things it punished us for doing. The politician should be more than the policeman; he should produce and construct and not merely punish. At this point his immense internal enjoyment of a joke bubbled to the surface and he said, waving his hand to the rigid and respectable Nottingham audience, "Punishment is an exceptional instrument. After all, it is only occasionally that you and I feel that tap on the shoulder, and that gruff recommendation to 'come along quietly.' It is not every day of our lives that we are put in the dock and sentenced to some term of imprisonment. Most of our relations to Government are peaceable and friendly. Why, I suppose that even in this room there are quite half a dozen people who have never been in jail at all." A ghastly stare was fixed on all the faces of the audience; and I have ever since seen it in my own dreams; for it has constituted a considerable part of my own problem.
I have never understood, from that day to this, any more than he did, why a solid argument is any less solid because you make the illustrations as entertaining as you can. What Holland was saying was perfectly sensible and philosophical. It was that the State exists to provide lamp-posts and schools, as well as gibbets and jails. But I strongly suspect that many, who were sufficiently intelligent not to imagine that he was mad, did imagine that he was flippant. And I myself have made in the course of a less useful life the same curious discovery. If you say that two sheep added to two sheep make four sheep, your audience will accept it patiently--like sheep. But if you say it of two monkeys, or two kangaroos, or two sea-green griffins, people will refuse to believe that two and two make four. They seem to imagine that you must have made up the arithmetic, just as you have made up the illustration of the arithmetic. And though they would actually know that what you say is sense, if they thought about it sensibly, they cannot believe that anything decorated by an incidental joke can be sensible. Perhaps it explains why so many successful men are so dull--or why so many dull men are successful.
But I have also dwelt for a moment on such a meeting and such a group, because I am only too glad, in the light of after events, to testify to the pleasure with which I recall it. When people of many different parties talked of all High Churchmen as high and dry, when they used to talk of the dehumanised detachment of Charles Gore or the despairing depression of Charles Masterman, I had every motive to remember much better and brighter things; and to leave some little record here of how uproariously encouraging was the pessimism of Masterman, how subtly sympathetic the detachment of Dr. Gore. Good friends and very gay companions. ... 0 anima humana naturaliter Christiana, whither were you marching so gallantly that you could not find the natural way?
But I have been carried far ahead of my narrative by these memories of the Anglo-Catholic group, and all the names that naturally follow the mention of the first name of Noel. When Noel first appeared on the horizon of my brother and myself, my brother was frankly anti-religious and I had no religion except the very haziest religiosity. And it is necessary in this chapter to say something of the tendencies by which I shifted nearer and nearer to the orthodox side; and eventually found myself, as I have described, in the very heart of a clerical group of canons and curates. My first introduction, in Sydney Smith's phrase, came through very wild curates. Conrad Noel might have been the incarnate fulfilment of Sydney Smith's vision or fancy; and indeed it so happened that, in his case, while the wild curate was in every sense singular, the wild curates were also in the plural. My old friend the Rev. A. L. Lilley now a Canon of Hereford, was then the vicar of a parish in Paddington Green; and his large and genial sympathies expressed themselves in the marked eccentricity of his assistant clergy. For he was one of the two or three Broad Churchmen I have known who were actually broad. His curates were a group which we irreverently referred to at one time as a menagerie; one, I remember, was of gigantic stature with fierce grey hair, eyebrows and moustaches very like Mark Twain. Another was a Syrian and actually, I believe, a runaway monk from some monastery in the desert. The third was Conrad Noel. I have sometimes thought it must have been rather amusing to be a faithful parishioner of Paddington Green.
But the question here is of the intellectual approach, even to so eccentric a borderland of orthodoxy. And the reader must once more reconcile himself, with a groan, to some brief references to real beliefs, and the thing which some call theory, and I call thought. In the purely religious sense, I was brought up among people who were Unitarians and Universalists, but who were well aware that a great many people around them were becoming agnostics or even atheists. Indeed there were two tendencies in what was called the emancipation of faith from the creeds and dogmas of the past. The two tendencies were in flatly contrary directions; and it is thoroughly typical of that world that they were both called by the same name. Both were supposed to be liberal theology or the religion of all sensible men. But, in fact, one half of the sensible men were more and more arguing that, because God was in His heaven, all must be right with the world; with this world or with the next. The other half of them were specially bent on showing that it was very doubtful if there was any God in any heaven, and that it was so certain to the scientific eye that all is not right with the world, that it would be nearer the truth to say that all is wrong with the world. One of these movements of progress led into the glorious fairyland of George Macdonald, the other led into the stark and hollowed hills of Thomas Hardy. The one school was specially insisting that God must be supremely perfect if He exists; the other that, if He exists, He must be grossly imperfect. And by the time I passed from boyhood to manhood, the pessimistic doubt had considerably clouded the optimistic dogma.
Now I think the first thing that struck me as startling was exactly this; that these two schools, which were logically in contradiction, were practically in combination. The idealistic theists and the realistic atheists were allies--against what? It has taken me about two-thirds of my life to find out the answer to that question. But when I first noticed it, the question seemed quite unanswerable; and, what was queerer still, to the people themselves it did not seem even questionable. I myself had sat at the feet of that large-hearted and poetic orator, Stopford Brooke, and I long accepted the sort of optimistic theism that he taught; it was substantially the same as that which I had learnt since childhood under the glamorous mysticism of George Macdonald. It was full and substantial faith in the Fatherhood of God, and little could be said against it, even in theological theory, except that it rather ignored the free-will of man. Its Universalism was a sort of optimistic Calvinism. But, anyhow, that was my first faith, before anything that could really be called my first doubt. But what struck me as extraordinary, even at first, was that these optimists seemed to be in the same camp as the pessimists. To my simple mind, it seemed that there could be no connection except contradiction, between the man whose whole faith was in the Fatherhood of God, and the man who said there was no God or the man who said that God was no Father. I pointed out something of the sort, long afterwards, when liberal literary critics were supposed to class together the philosophies of Meredith and Hardy. It seemed to me obvious that Meredith maintains on the whole that Nature is to be trusted, and Hardy that Nature is not to be trusted. To my innocent mind, these two ideas seemed a little inconsistent. I had not yet discovered the higher synthesis which connects them. For the higher synthesis which connects them consists in wearing liberty ties and curiously shaped beards and hats and meeting in cultured clubs where they drink coffee, or (in darker and more disreputable dens) cocoa. That is the only connection there is between the ideas; but it took me a long time to find it out. These sceptical doctrinaires do not recognise each other by the doctrines. They recognise each other by the beard or the clothes, as the lower animals know each other by the fur or the smell.
I suppose I have got a dogmatic mind. Anyhow, even when I did not believe in any of the things called dogmas, I assumed that people were sorted out into solid groups by the dogmas they believed or disbelieved. I supposed that the Theosophists all sat in the same hall because they all believed in Theosophy. I supposed the Theistic Church believed in Theism. I supposed that the atheists all combined because they disbelieved in Theism. I imagined that the Ethical Societies consisted entirely of people who believed in Ethics but not in theology or even religion. I have come to the conclusion that I was largely mistaken in this idea. I believe now that the congregations of these semi-secular chapels consist largely of one vast and vague sea of wandering doubters, with their wandering doubts, who may be found one Sunday seeking a solution from the Theists and another Sunday from the Theosophists. They may be scattered among many such chapels; they are only connected by the convention of unconventionality, which is connoted by "not going to church." I will give two incidents as examples of what I mean; though they are separated by a long interval of years. In the very early days of which I am now speaking, before I ever dreamed of being myself attached to any formal system of faith, I used to wander about to many assemblies giving lectures, or what were politely called lectures. I may remark that my suspicion was confirmed, by the fact that I very often saw the same people in quite different congregations; especially a worried looking man with dark anxious eyes, and a very aged Jew with a long white beard and a smile carved immutably, like that of an Egyptian image.
On one occasion I had been lecturing to an Ethical Society, when I happened to see on the wall a portrait of Priestley, the great Unitarian of a hundred years ago. I remarked that it was a very fine engraving; and one of the faithful, to whom I was speaking, replied that it had probably been hung there because the place was quite recently a Unitarian chapel; I think he said only a few years before. I was considerably intrigued, knowing that the old Unitarians were as dogmatic as Moslems on the one point of the One God, and that the ethical group were as undogmatic as any agnostics upon that particular dogma. "That is very interesting," I said. "May I ask whether the whole of your society abandoned Theism all at once and in a body?"
"Well, no," he replied rather hazily, "I don't fancy it was exactly like that. I rather think the fact was that our leaders wanted very much to have Dr. Stanton Coit as a preacher, and he wouldn't come unless the thing was simply an Ethical Society."
Of course I cannot answer for the accuracy of what the gentleman said, as I did not know him from Adam; but in any case my point here concerns the cloudy condition of the mind of the ordinary audiences, and not of the actual lecturers or leaders. Dr. Stanton Coit himself, for instance, had a perfectly clear idea of an ethic unsupported by theology. But, taking this typical member of the movement, there is something rather extraordinary about what had actually happened, or what he seriously supposed had actually happened. By this theory, God Almighty had been dropped out of the whole business, as a concession to Dr. Stanton Coit. It was generally felt, apparently, that it would be really rather churlish not to meet him on a little thing like that. Now it happened that, years afterwards, a friend of mine enquired after the fortunes of this particular Ethical Society, and was informed that its congregation was somewhat diminished. The reason given was that the distinguished ethical lecturer could hardly be expected to be so active as he had been in earlier days; and that in consequence a number of his followers had now "gone off to listen to Maude Royden." Now Miss Maude Royden, whatever may be counted controversial in her position, certainly professes to be enough of an orthodox Christian to play the part of a loyal Anglican, and even of an Anglican parson. So that the truly astonishing history of this school of thought, if we regard it as a school of thought, was more or less as follows. They began by believing in the Creation but not the Incarnation. For the sake of Dr. Coit they ceased to believe in the Creation. And for the sake of Miss Royden they agreed to believe in the Creation and the Incarnation as well. The truth of the matter is, I imagine, that these particular people never did believe or disbelieve in anything. They liked to go and hear stimulating lecturers; and they had a vague preference, almost impossible to reduce to any definable thesis, for those lecturers who were supposed to be in some way heterodox and unconventional. And having since had longer and larger opportunities of watching the general drift of such people, and having seen the dark-eyed doubter and the patriarchal Jew in more and more motley and incongruous assemblies, I have come to the conclusion that there never were any large schools of thought, so separate and so static as I innocently imagined in my youth. I have been granted, as it were, a sort of general view or vision of all that field of negation and groping and curiosity. And I saw pretty much what it all really meant. There was no Theistic Church; there was no Theosophical Brotherhood; there were no Ethical Societies; there were no New Religions. But I saw Israel scattered on the hills as sheep that have not a shepherd; and I saw a large number of the sheep run about bleating eagerly in whatever neighbourhood it was supposed that a shepherd might be found.
Amid all this scattered thinking, sometimes not unfairly to be called scatter-brained thinking, I began to piece together the fragments of the old religious scheme; mainly by the various gaps that denoted its disappearance. And the more I saw of real human nature, the more I came to suspect that it was really rather bad for all these people that it had disappeared. Many of them held, and still hold, very noble and necessary truths in the social and secular area. But even these it seemed to me they held less firmly than they might have done, if there had been anything like a fundamental principle of morals and metaphysics to support them. Men who believed ardently in altruism were yet troubled by the necessity of believing with even more religious reverence in Darwinism, and even in the deductions from Darwinism about a ruthless struggle as the rule of life. Men who naturally accepted the moral equality of mankind yet did so, in a manner, shrinkingly, under the gigantic shadow of the Superman of Nietzsche and Shaw. Their hearts were in the right place; but their heads were emphatically in the wrong place, being generally poked or plunged into vast volumes of materialism and scepticism, crabbed, barren, servile and without any light of liberty or of hope.
I began to examine more exactly the general Christian theology which many execrated and few examined. I soon found that it did in fact correspond to many of these experiences of life; that even its paradoxes corresponded to the paradoxes of life. Long afterwards Father Waggett (to mention another very able man of the old Anglo-Catholic group), once said to me, as we stood on the Mount of Olives in view of Gethsemane and Aceldama, "Well, anyhow, it must be obvious to anybody that the doctrine of the Fall is the only cheerful view of human life." It is indeed obvious to me; but the thought passed over me at the moment, that a very large proportion of that old world of sceptical sects and cliques, to which I had once belonged, would find it a much more puzzling paradox than the paradoxes of Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw. I will not develop the argument here, which I have so often developed elsewhere; I merely mention it to suggest my general sense, even at this stage, that the old theological theory seemed more or less to fit into experience, while the new and negative theories did not fit into anything, least of all into each other. It was about this time that I had published some studies on contemporary writers, such as Kipling and Shaw and Wells; and feeling that each of them erred through an ultimate or religious error, I gave the book the title of Heretics. It was reviewed by Mr. G. S. Street, the very delightful essayist, who casually used the expression that he was not going to bother about his theology until I had really stated mine. With all the solemnity of youth, I accepted this as a challenge; and wrote an outline of my own reasons for believing that the Christian theory, as summarised in the Apostles' Creed, would be found to be a better criticism of life than any of those that I had criticised. I called it Orthodoxy, but even at the time I was very much dissatisfied with the title. It sounded a thinnish sort of thing to be defending through thick and thin. Even then I fancy I had a dim foreshadowing that I should have to find some better name for it before I died. As it was, the only interesting effect of the title, or the book, that I ever heard of, occurred on the frontiers of Russia. There I believe the Censor, under the old Russian regime, destroyed the book without reading it. From its being called Orthodoxy, he naturally inferred that it must be a book on the Greek Church. And from its being a book on the Greek Church, he naturally inferred that it must be an attack on it.
But there did remain one rather vague virtue about the title, from my point of view; that it was provocative. And it is an exact test of that extraordinary modern society that it really was provocative. I had begun to discover that, in all that welter of inconsistent and incompatible heresies, the one and only really unpardonable heresy was orthodoxy. A serious defence of orthodoxy was far more startling to the English critic than a serious attack on orthodoxy was to the Russian censor. And through this experience I learned two very interesting things, which serve to divide all this part of my life into two distinct periods. Very nearly everybody, in the ordinary literary and journalistic world, began by taking it for granted that my faith in the Christian creed was a pose or a paradox. The more cynical supposed that it was only a stunt. The more generous and loyal warmly maintained that it was only a joke. It was not until long afterwards that the full horror of the truth burst upon them; the disgraceful truth that I really thought the thing was true. And I have found, as I say, that this represents a real transition or border-line in the life of the apologists. Critics were almost entirely complimentary to what they were pleased to call my brilliant paradoxes; until they discovered that I really meant what I said. Since then they have been more combative; and I do not blame them.
I first made this discovery at a dinner-party, in connection with another controversy, which must be mentioned because it is relevant here. I think it was a dinner given by the staff of the Clarion, the important and popular Socialist paper of the period, then edited by Mr. Robert Blatchford; a veteran whom I pause to salute across the ages, hoping he will not count me less friendly if I recall these battles of the distant past. As I shall explain in a moment, I had just had a very pugnacious public argument with Mr. Blatchford, which, as I was then a comparatively young though relatively rising journalist, was naturally a landmark in my life. But I remember that there was, sitting next to me at this dinner, one of those very refined and rather academic gentlemen from Cambridge who seemed to form so considerable a section of the rugged stalwarts of Labour. There was a cloud on his brow, as if he were beginning to be puzzled about something; and he said suddenly, with abrupt civility, "Excuse my asking, Mr. Chesterton, of course I shall quite understand if you prefer not to answer, and I shan't think any the worse of it, you know, even if it's true. But I suppose I'm right in thinking you don't really believe in those things you're defending against Blatchford?" I informed him with adamantine gravity that I did most definitely believe in those things I was defending against Blatchford. His cold and refined face did not move a visible muscle; and yet I knew in some fashion it had completely altered. "Oh, you do," he said, "I beg your pardon. Thank you. That's all I wanted to know." And he went on eating his (probably vegetarian) meal. But I was sure that for the rest of the evening, despite his calm, he felt as if he were sitting next to a fabulous griffin.
That this stage may be understood, it must be realised what the things I was defending against Blatchford were. It was not a question of some abstract theological thesis, like the definition of the Trinity or the dogmas of Election or Effectual Grace. I was not yet so far gone in orthodoxy as to be so theological as all that. What I was defending seemed to me a plain matter of ordinary human morals. Indeed it seemed to me to raise the question of the very possibility of any morals. It was the question of Responsibility, sometimes called the question of Free Will, which Mr. Blatchford had attacked in a series of vigorous and even violent proclamations of Determinism; all apparently founded on having read a little book or pamphlet by Professor Haeckel. The question had a great many amusing or arresting aspects; but the point of it in this place is what I have already suggested. It was not that I began by believing in supernormal things. It was that the unbelievers began by disbelieving even in normal things. It was the secularists who drove me to theological ethics, by themselves destroying any sane or rational possibility of secular ethics. I might myself have been a secularist, so long as it meant that I could be merely responsible to secular society. It was the Determinist who told me, at the top of his voice, that I could not be responsible at all. And as I rather like being treated as a responsible being, and not as a lunatic let out for the day, I began to look around for some spiritual asylum that was not merely a lunatic asylum.
On that day, in short, I escaped from an error, which still entangles many better men than myself. There is still a notion that the agnostic can remain secure of this world, so long as he does not wish to be what is called "other-worldly." He can be content with common sense about men and women, so long as he is not curious of mysteries about angels and archangels. It is not true. The questions of the sceptic strike direct at the heart of this our human life; they disturb this world, quite apart from the other world; and it is exactly common sense that they disturb most. There could not be a better example than this queer appearance, in my youth, of the determinist as a demagogue; shouting to a mob of millions that no man ought to be blamed for anything he did, because it was all heredity and environment. Logically, it would stop a man in the act of saying "Thank you" to somebody for passing the mustard. For how could he be praised for passing the mustard, if he could not be blamed for not passing the mustard? I know it can be maintained that fatalism makes no difference to the facts of our life. Some say that fatalists can still go on punishing or blaming. Some say (professing, with no little humour, to be humanitarian) that they can leave off blaming but still go on punishing. But if determinism made no difference, why should Blatchford thunder furiously from a pulpit about the difference it made? The explanation was to be found in Blatchford himself. He was a very normal man to have come by so abnormal a heresy; an old soldier with brown Italian eyes and a walrus moustache and full of the very sentiments that soldiers have and Socialists generally have not. He was a firm patriot and not a little of a Tory; certainly very much of a Protectionist. But this Determinism appealed to him through another very normal sentiment; the sentiment of undiluted compassion. He called his book of Determinist pamphlets a plea "for the Underdog." And it was obvious that he thought throughout of the sort of poor and disreputable and often oppressed person who can really be called the underdog. To him, and to many other men of healthy but vague modern sentiment, the notion of a sinner really connected itself entirely with the notion of a drunkard or a thieving tramp or some sort of scallywag at war with society. In the grossly unjust social system we suffer, it is probable enough that many of these really are punished unjustly; that some ought not to be punished at all; that some, perhaps, are really not responsible at all. And Blatchford, seeing them driven to prison in droves, felt neither more nor less than a pity for the weak and the unfortunate; which was, at the worst, a slightly lopsided exaggeration of Christian charity. He was so anxious to forgive that he denied the need of forgiveness.
And I awaken from all these dreams of the past suddenly, and with something like a shout of laughter. For the next episode in my life was one of helping certain friends and reformers to fix the terrible truth called Responsibility, not on tramps or drunkards, but on the rulers of the State and the richest men in the Empire. I was trying to put a chain and collar of Responsibility, not on the Underdog, but on the Top-dog. And the next thing that I was to hear about Blatchford was that he also, bursting with indignation, was demanding justice, punishment, vengeance almost without pardon, upon other strong tyrants who had trampled on the weak; and was fiercely nailing the arrogant princes of Prussia with Responsibility for the invasion of Belgium. So do paper sophistries go up in a great fire.