All I Survey/Essay XIII

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Essay XII All I Survey
Essay XIII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XIV

Essay XIII: On Negative Morality

IT was said of Miss Arabella Allen, that pioneer of Feminism, that she didn't know what she did like, but did know what she didn't like. Many very recent pioneers resemble her, which is odd. A little while ago, all liberal and cultured persons were expected to agree that negative morality was nothing as compared with positive morality. Enlightened clergymen took a pride in removing the Ten Commandments from their altars and their sermons, and substituting those two great mystical commands concerning the positive duties of the love of God and Man. Famous and fashionable writers, like Stevenson, spoke for their generation in saying: "Christ would not hear of negative morality; 'Thou shalt' was ever his word." Some enthusiasts carried the distinction to rather fantastic lengths, elaborately framing sentences from which negatives were excluded. When Tommy twisted the cat's tail, they twisted the English tongue to invent a dissuasion that should not be in the form of a negative. Instead of saying, "Do not twist the cat's tail," they said, "Do, do show a positive benevolence to animals," or words to that effect. Rushing into the nursery, just in time to prevent the new toy chisel from the little tool-card being driven into the little sister's eye, they yet had time hastily to rearrange their words and sentences, to avoid saying, "Don't do that," and say instead, "Occupy yourself in some other fashion," or "Employ your tools in the delightful craft of carpentry."

But, though the theory had its extremists, like other theories, it was no doubt a healthy reaction at the time it occurred. It was a reaction from Puritanism, and especially from dead Puritanism, which had dried up into a few negative commands and nothing else. Even when it was at its best, I confess I had some doubts about it. Indeed, I sometimes feared that it might mask the return of a positive Puritanism more terrible than negative Puritanism. At least if the authority only said, "Do not burn down the house," we may lawfully infer that we are allowed to do anything else with it; as, for instance, to paint it sky-blue with yellow stripes; or turn it into a public house or a castle defended by cannon. If no other veto is laid upon us except "Do not wake the baby," it follows that any silent and stealthy occupation, such as directing a smooth and soundless flow of treacle into the works of the piano, or cutting off all the hair of all the little girls next door and turning it into artificial beards for private theatricals-- it follows, I say, that all these mute but active forms of energy were tacitly permitted.

I am not sure that the very fact that negative morality has a narrower scope does not sometimes mean that it leaves a wider liberty. If there are only Ten Commandments, it means that there are only ten things forbidden; and that means that there are ten million things that are not forbidden. Let us do justice to our ancestors, if they found it easier and shorter to describe what they forbade than what they permitted. Nevertheless, with all these correctives and criticisms, the idea was fundamentally sound; it was, as I have said, the very right instinct that a religion is dead when it has ceased to dwell on the positive and happy side of its visions, and thinks only of the stern or punitive side. Anyhow, right or wrong, it was prevalent through the whole of what may be called the progressive period. It was almost the mark of an emancipated and hopeful person that he insisted that we must think first of positive good, rather than of negative evil.

And that is what makes the present position so very queer. In the very latest phase of literature, especially in the literature of satire or social criticism, we find exactly the contrary. We find the most modern writers have lost exactly what progress promised to give them, and have kept exactly what progress threatened to destroy. What I mean, for instance, is something roughly like this. Charles Dickens was not a philosopher; he most certainly was not a theologian, not even a moral theologian; only, it may be said, in a casual and popular sense a moralist. But suppose we took in detail all the destructive fun and farce of Dickens, all his devastating portraits of oily philanthropists and bumptious social bullies; all the prigs and privileged bigwigs and blustering obstructive officials whom he pilloried in a hundred places. Suppose in any such time and place we had stopped him and said, "But what do you want? What is your ideal? What would you substitute for all this? Under whom would you put Oliver Twist, if not under Bumble? Where would you send Smike except to Squeers? What ought Mrs. Jellyby to consider, if not Africa? To whom ought Mrs. Welter to listen, if not to Mr. Stiggins? What politics are right, if Dedlock's are wrong? What morals are right, if Gradgrind's are wrong?" I think it practically certain that Dickens would answer, and even answer promptly. Some of his remarks would strike some of his hearers as having the limits or illusions of his time; as, for instance, he might believe more in the Radical reforms and education which were then beginning than some of us do who have seen them in their ending. Other remarks might shock other hearers, by their still more shocking and disgusting devotion to barbarous idolatries and superstitions; as, for instance, to the idea of the Family or even the institution of Marriage. For I fear it is only too probable that Dickens would advance the grotesque plea that Mrs. Jellyby ought to think about Mr. Jellyby, and that even Mrs. Weller might occasionally listen to Mr. Weller. But whether his replies were revoltingly reactionary in this way, or merely a little too contented with the jog-trot reforms of his own day, I say that Dickens would reply, and would find no difficulty in replying.

Now, if we take a satirist of the modern moment, even a man of genius or genuine intellectual activity, like Mr. Aldous Huxley or Mr. Percy Wyndham Lewis, I am not so certain that they could reply. Some of them see with extraordinary vividness the humbug or imprudence or intellectual cruelty of this or that social type, in this or that social situation. But suppose we answered them by saying, "This moralist is a humbug, but what morality should a man preach, in order not to be a humbug? This positive claim is impudent, but can you be positive without being impudent? Many situations are cruel to many people; state briefly how you would be kind to these people." I have a very strong suspicion that our modern moral satirists would be entirely stumped. Things are very complex, and everybody is doing the wrong thing; but I suspect they really think that things are too complex for anybody to do the right thing. Therefore there is a hollow in the heart of their whirlwind of destructive criticism, as there is a hollow in the heart of the whirlpool. I do not mean it metaphorically, as suggesting that they are hollow in the sense of false. I mean it almost actually; that they are hollow and know they are hollow, and even admit they are hollow, as a hungry man would admit he was hollow. They have not enough solid sustenance; not enough food for the mind, as distinct from acrobatic exercise for the mind. I do not, as some do, denounce all these modern moralists as immoral. I only say that the most modern moralists are now at one with the most antiquated moralists. Like their Puritan great-grandfathers, they have nothing but negative morality.