All I Survey/Essay X

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Essay IX All I Survey
Essay X
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XI

Essay X: On the Teutonic Theory

EVERYBODY knows, or ought to know, that making a universal theory about human society is the easiest thing in the world. The reason is not always so apparent, but I think there is a reason which can be stated rationally. The logical weakness in this sort of superficial social theory is this: that the social values are not fixed like mathematical values, and can themselves be moulded to fit the theory. If I say that red-haired men are always the tallest men in the world, I can probably be very rapidly refuted; because measuring men with a six-foot rule is a matter of mathematical fact. But if I say that red-haired men are always the men who sway the destinies of the world, I can always make out a case, by taking all the red-haired men who were important and making them out more important than they were. I can invent an ingenious theory that it was William Rufus rather than William the Conqueror who really confirmed the Norman monarchy which became the English nation. I shall have an easier task in showing that Henry the Second, the first Plantagenet, really was a great man who in some sense ruled a great empire. I can argue that General James Wolfe, who (I believe) had red hair, was the greatest of England's heroes, by arguing that Canada is really the greatest of England's possessions. I can say that the only man who really influenced the intellectual life of our time was Bernard Shaw. I might make out quite a good case; but my motive is merely in the fact that Mr. Shaw had a red beard not so very long ago; though presumably he has grown less wise as he has grown more white. But the point is that I must maintain the general proposition of his wisdom; and I may find myself committed to defending a large number of rather extraordinary propositions, normally remote from my own mental habits; not through a disinterested conviction that Mr. Shaw is wise as well as witty, but because I am committed to a general dogma that the red-haired man is always right.

It will be well illustrated in the case of Queen Elizabeth, a topic almost as controversial as Bernard Shaw. For the sake of my theory, I must cling desperately to the old-fashioned view that I was taught at school; the theory that the red-haired Queen Bess was a sort of tawny lioness of royal magnanimity and heroic religious convictions, shaking the earth with her roarings on behalf of the Reformation. I must not listen to the later and more realistic historians, who tell us that Elizabeth was personally an invalid and politically very much of a tool; that her real religious attachments are very doubtful, and her external political actions mostly forced on her by Cecil and his gang. In the ordinary way, I might be quite indifferent, and therefore quite impartial. But I must fight to the death for the old theory of the Froude and Freeman period; not so much for the cause of the lady as for the colour of her hair. I need her for my general plan of painting the map red; or, rather, of tying it up in red hair instead of red tape. This is how it happens that perverse and pedantic fancies so often harden into fanaticism among professors and professional historians. They will maintain any paradox rather than lose any point that supports their pet generalization, even if they do not personally care very much about the point itself. There was a mediæval tradition that Judas had red hair; and this sort of don would not shrink from saying that Judas and not Jesus was the real founder of Christianity.

I may seem to dwell on an arbitrary and absurd example. But it is not so. I myself grew up under the gigantic shadow of the Teutonic Theory. It was essentially a theory that everything valuable had been done by fair-haired men, which is quite as ludicrous as the same assertion about red-haired men. But I am not now interested in attacking that theory, or any other theory. I only remark that such theories, whether true or false, do affect the truthfulness of historians, and more often in the direction of falsehood than of truth. When we find professors quibbling and quarrelling about the number of men living on a farm mentioned in Doomsday Book, or the terms of a dispatch sent to a French marshal before the Battle of Arcola, we may be pretty certain that, though these are the things about which they are quibbling, they are not the things about which they are quarrelling. There lies behind some much larger quarrel about some much larger theory; probably some theory about the religion of the Middle Ages or the motives of the French Revolution. History and sociology can never be "scientific" in the sense of subject to exact measurement, because there is always the mystery and doubt inherent in moral evidence affecting one half of the equation, and generally both. In the thesis that red-haired men are great men, there are shades of difference even in red hair, and infinite shades of difference in greatness or the pretence of greatness. And not a few modern theorists seem to me to be strangely lacking in the instinct of what is really great.

It is amusing to notice how these theories pursue each other, and how the last almost always devours and destroys the last but one. Generally, in fact, the last is the flat contradiction of the last but one. Generally they are equally extreme, equally exaggerated, and, so far, equally untrue. For instance, the general theory implied in a book like _The Outline of History_ is that the outline is a continuous and ascending line, a single upward curve with very few breaks in it. I do not mean that the author denies decay and reaction, but that the main moral he would like to draw is that the host of humanity has advanced, with a few halts, along the high road of history. Above all, he implies a human unity, and the idea that the host that has halted is the same as the host that has advanced. I think myself that he greatly exaggerates this continuity; leans too heavily on the alleged links, and especially misses the missing links. He makes the amoeba and the anthropoid much nearer to us than they really are. At the same time, he makes the ancient Greek or the mediæval Christian much more inferior to us than they really are. He makes the progress too recent, too rapid, and too clear. For instance, he assumes that the mediæval idea of education was inferior to ours, simply because it involved the teaching of a positive philosophy. But there is something to be said for the idea of teaching everything to somebody, as compared with the modern notion of teaching nothing, and the same sort of nothing, to everybody. For what we force on all families, by the power of the police, is not a philosophy but the art of reading and writing un-philosophically. I am not, however, contesting the world-theory of Mr. Wells at this moment. I am only contrasting the world-theory of Mr. Wells with the world-theory which instantly followed it across the world.

For the next thing we heard was that all Europe and America were full of a new fuss made about the general theory of a German writer, whose whole point was that human history was _not_ continuous, and _not_ progressive, and _not_ a thing presenting points of comparison between one stage and another. According to this new theory, there is only a series of closed cycles of different cultures, so separate that they can hardly be compared. We may say that there is no progress, but only progresses. We might almost say that there is no history, but only histories. When the Greek and Roman culture commonly called Antiquity had ended, it broke off without any bridge connecting it with the mediæval or the modern. It is the fossil of a lost world, and no more of a lesson to us than a pterodactyl to a bird-fancier or Eohippus to a horse-breeder. Now, this also is certainly a gross exaggeration. There is a great deal more continuity, and in that sense a great deal more progress, than is allowed for in that historical theory. For instance, nobody understands the Middle Ages without realizing that the mind of Aristotle was still labouring in its midst like a mighty mill; and it is absurd to say that Augustine and Aquinas were not parts of the same continuous communion. But what interests me is not the truth or falsehood of the first or second theory. It is that they so flatly contradict each other, and that they so rapidly followed each other. And I fall back on my first reflection: that theories of that sort must be rather easy to make up-- if you leave out more than half the facts.