All I Survey/Essay VI

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Essay V All I Survey
Essay VI
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay VII



Essay VI: On Old Men Who Make Wars

A STALE and stupid but still poisonous phrase has been buzzing about for the last ten years, as difficult to catch as a wasp in the warm weather. It is already very old, but is always said as if it were something new; everybody has heard it said, and hardly anybody has stopped to ask what it meant. It has many forms, but the commonest form of it is something like this: "Of course the young were embittered when they realized how their elders had brought the world into a horrible catastrophe and a hideous mess." I, for one, am tired of hearing it, and therefore I propose to be the first person who ever thought about it.

First, I happen to remember that exactly the same argument, if you can call it an argument, was used more than twenty years ago, when the fashion was not so much the Appeal to Youth as the Appeal to Woman. Then, also, we were always told that Woman (who had apparently only been born yesterday) looked around her and saw a world of sin and sorrow. This, she promptly declared, was a Man-Made World. Her supporters were not content to say that she was unjustly treated, as in many ways she was; they were not content to say that she had as much claim as man to this or that legal or social privilege: which was very arguable, and about which, in any case, I am not now going to argue. They did definitely declare that the wickedness and misery of the world were clearly due to the fact that it had been managed by males. If the wasp came in at the window and stung somebody, this was due to the fact that it was a Man-Made window, if not actually a Man-Made wasp. If Woman had been in control of the world, there would have been no wasps; or all the wasps would have been trained in such tact and social discipline that they never stung anybody. If the poor were underpaid or overworked, it was solely because men and not women had the paying of them, though some of us had known women who were hard on their subordinates, almost in the manner of men. If nations went to war, it was because women had not votes to stop them, though some of us knew women who waved flags and shouted war-songs and were far more passionately patriotic than the males whom they sent to war. Whatever evil there was on the earth, it was due to the fact that humanity, for reasons best known to itself, had given all power to the sex that always supported evil, and no power at all to the sex which invariably, and in every situation, supported the highest possible good. I remember all that sort of talk, that started nearly thirty years ago, and attributed all misfortunes to Men. I still hear the other sort of talk, that started nearly twenty years ago, and attributes all misfortunes to Old Men.

Since then, the first batch of Young Men have themselves almost become Old Men; but they are still saying it. They are still saying it without seriously thinking about it. Anyone who will examine the statement will see that it really rests on three assumptions which, as is usual in these cases, are not only accepted, but accepted unconsciously. The speakers not only assume them without proving them, but assume them without knowing they are assuming them. The first is this: That terrible and desolating tragedy is so abnormal in human life, and so utterly out of the nature of things, that it can only be attributed to the staggering and scandalous stupidity of some special individual or individuals. Without going off into an argument about human life, we may note that there is at least an element which is here ignored for the first time in history; for that tragic character of living was a commonplace to all the sages and the poets. To put it shortly, if it is terrible that two million men should die together in a campaign, it is also terrible that all men without exception must die separately somewhere. It is not self-evident that the tragic phase of life only follows on exceptional folly, and the fallacy was noted some time ago by the Tower of Siloam and the Ash-heap of Job.

The second assumption is this: That a tragedy like the Great War must have been not only a blunder, but a blunder made by everybody at the same moment. It must have been a blind collision in the dark, and therefore can only have been due to mere negligence in all those in control. Now you may or may not agree that there was an aggressor in the quarrel, but it is nonsense to assume it as self-evident that there was not, or talk as if there could not be. If there was, the affair would not be a result of negligence, but emphatically a result of vigilance. We may say it was a wicked vigilance on the part of the aggressor; but, by the same stroke, we are forced to admit that it was therefore a just and honourable vigilance on the part of the defenders. Anyhow, the whole nightmare of mere negligence has disappeared as a necessity of logic; it has disappeared because it was not a necessity but a mere assumption.

Thirdly (though this point is less easy to limit and define properly): It is an assumption to suppose that statesmen or national leaders _are_ necessarily wrong even when they do risk great catastrophes, for the sake of creating or preserving some cultural system associated with all that makes life worth living. A man might admit that his efforts to avert catastrophe might fail, that the catastrophe might follow, and still maintain his course, being resolved at least to avoid the worst catastrophe of the loss of the main hope of humanity. Certainly every reform or reconstruction in human history has been followed by calamities, if wars are the chief calamities. The democratic ideal of Athens involved it in a welter of wars; the universal civilization of Rome was spread by a long routine of wars; every national culture owes something to the national wars. If you accept the French Revolution, it covered Europe with the Napoleonic Wars. If you accept the Protestant Reformation, it devastated the Germanies with the longest and weariest of all wars. If you accept the Russian Revolution, it has already produced endless internal wars, one external war, and the end is not yet. I am not expressing admiration for war, nor, for that matter, for the Russian Revolution or the Reformation. I am only saying that nobody has a right to assume at the start that no statesman has any right to risk war, for the sake of ideals that change or preserve civilization. In short, there was nothing grotesquely doddering and decadent about the Old Men who, twenty years ago, tried to rule the troubled and troublesome race of men. Some were right and some were wrong; but most were vigilant, and all were bound in any case to take a risk.

I think this worth mentioning now, for a simple reason. We are already drifting horribly near to a New War, which will probably start on the Polish Border. The Young Men have had nineteen years in which to learn how to avoid it. I wonder whether they do know much more about how to avoid it than the despised and drivelling Old Men of 1914. How many of the Young Men, for instance, have made the smallest attempt to understand Poland? How many would have anything to say to Hitler, to dissuade him from setting all Christendom aflame by a raid on Poland? Or have the Young Men been thinking of _nothing_ since 1914 except the senile depravity of the Old Men of that date?