All I Survey/Essay I
| All I Survey
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay I: On the Child
THERE was recently reported in the papers the meeting of certain eminent ladies, of a political and philanthropic sort, who discussed the great modern problem of what is to be done with The Child. I need not say that The Child is always discussed as if he were a monster, of immense size, vast complexity, and strange and startling novelty. Nor need I remind the reader that The Child is not a child: any child we comfortable people have ever seen. The Child is not Jack or Joan or Peter; he is not Cousin Ethel's child or one of Uncle William's children. He is a creature entirely solitary and _sui generis;_ and he lives in the slums.
A great many remarks were made, most of them sincere, some of them sensible, and several of them highly comic. I think the passage I like best is one in which a particular female philanthropist said that any poor child would feel happy at the sight of a policeman, so long as he was dressed like a policeman; but that the child might be filled with maniacal terror if he were dressed like an ordinary man. It would seem, that is, that not only are all policemen always kind to all poor people, but that they are the only men who are ever kind to any poor people. I am not The Child, and therefore I was not brought up in the slums. But I know a little more about the slums than that. All these other sayings, however, sink into a second place, in my opinion, compared with one simple remark, which will seem to most people as innocent as it is simple. Nevertheless, in that one artless observation-- I might almost say, in that one unconscious confession--was contained the whole complex of contradictions and falsehoods which have in our time ruined the relation of social classes and destroyed the common morals of the community. A very famous political lady, who certainly believes that what she says represents the most lofty luminous idealism, uttered on this occasion the following words: "We must care for other people's children as if they were our own."
And when I read those words, I smote the table with my hand, like one who has suddenly located and smashed a wasp. I said to myself: "That's it! She's got it! She's got the exactly correct formula for the worst and most poisonous of all the political wrongs that rot out the entrails of the world. That is what has wrecked democracy; wrecked domesticity through the breadth and depth of democracy; wrecked dignity as the only prop and pillar of domesticity and democracy. That is what has taken away from the poor man the pride and honour of the father of a household, so that he can no longer really feel any pride or honour in being a citizen; still less in being merely a voter. The Englishman's house is no longer his castle, nor is he king of the castle; the _charbonnier_ is no longer _maître chez lui;_ his hut is not his hut; his children are not his children; and democracy is dead. She means no harm. She knows not what she does. She does not even understand what she says. She does not comprehend a word of the terrible sentence that she has spoken. But it is spoken." And the sentence that is spoken is this: "We, the rich, can take care of poor people's children as if they were our own. As we have abolished their parents, they are all orphans."
The ideal is sufficiently familiar in fact, of course; and there is nothing very much against it, except that it is utterly and grossly immoral. A man saying that he will treat other people's children as his own is exactly like a man saying that he will treat other people's wives as his own. He may get a certain amount of poetic or sentimental pleasure out of the children, but so he may out of the wives. The question is whether any human rights whatever remain to the other man, who is made legally responsible for his children and his wife. If he ill-treats them, it is perfectly right to put the exceptional legal machinery, which exists for such exceptional evils, in motion against him. But it is not right, by any code of common morals yet recognized among men, to start from the very first with the assumption that his children belong to you as much as they belong to him. If there is an adequate case against him, it must be proved against him; but we are not dealing here with any such case. We are dealing with a profound plutocratic assumption, accidentally revealed by a chance phrase. The poor children are born under the power and protection of a governing class, as wards in Chancery are born under the power and protection of the Lord Chancellor; they inherit that status, whether our own conscience inclines us to call it a status of slavery or of safety. Note that the lady does not say-- though she doubtless would say--"When I hear of a child being beaten with a red-hot poker, the common human bond makes me feel as angry as if it were my own child." She does not deal with hard cases, or even individual cases; she generalizes from the start. She assumes that she will, in fact, manage, she assumes that she will be allowed to manage, any other children as if they were her own. And in practice she is probably right; it is the supreme and final proof that in theory she is entirely wrong. Our society has unconsciously and unresistingly admitted this great heresy against humanity. The notion of making the head of a humble family really independent and responsible, like a citizen, has really vanished from the mind of most of the realists of our real world. It is the less wonder that it has never even entered the head of an idealist.
The trouble is that in our society the ideal is more wrong than the real. Old Tories used to insist on teaching to the poor the principles of respect for private property, lest they should revolt and despoil the rich. As a fact, it is the rich who have to be taught about the existence of private property, and especially about the existence of private life. No ragged mob is likely to storm the nurseries of Mayfair, or steal the perambulators from the French nurses, or the pupils from the German governesses, parading in Kensington Gardens. But philanthropists, under various excuses, do really raid the playgrounds of the poor. They regard such a raid as a reform; and, in truth, it is a revolution. Modern writers are very ready to cover great historic events with sweeping denunciations of crime; to say the Great War was murder on a large scale or that the Russian Revolution was theft on a large scale. They hardly realize how much of educational and philanthropic reform has been kidnapping on a large scale. That is, it has shown an increasing disregard for the privacy of the private citizen, considered as a parent. I have called it a revolution; and at bottom it is really a Bolshevist revolution. For what could be more purely and perfectly Communist than to say that you regard other people's children as if they were your own?
True, as yet the man who treats other people's dogs as if they were his own is called a dog-stealer. The man who is caught, caring for somebody else's horse as if it were his own, is called a horse-thief. But even that is only true if the thieves are poor and too ignorant to plead excuses of humanitarianism. The wealthy Communist who so treats a child is not called a kidnapper. Which only shows that Communism, anyhow _our_ Communism, would not be the rule of the poor, nor even the unruliness of the poor; but only the extension of the existing unruliness of the rich.