All I Survey/Essay XX

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Essay XIX All I Survey
Essay XX
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXI



Essay XX: On Fate and a Communist

IT often happens that by-products are bigger than big production, and that side-issues are larger than the main issue. Much of the political muddle and squabble comes from people trying to reach what they call a practical agreement. It is a very unpractical thing to trust to practical agreement. Two people may agree to keep a cat; but if they only agree because one is a lover of animals, and the other has a fiendish pleasure in watching cruelty to birds, it is probable that the practical agreement will not last very long. Other occasions will arise, in which it will be found to suffer from the absence of a theoretical agreement. There is at this moment many a parley between two politicians, seeking to find a practical agreement about a Tax on Tobacco or the dumping of Danish bacon, who are, in fact, forbidden for ever to come to any kind of real agreement, for the simple reason that they live in two different worlds; as, for instance, one in the globe that is picked out in red patches of the British Empire, and the other in the great grey _orbis terrarum_ in which all lands are alike. These men would really have to settle the big question before they settled the small question. But, in what we call practical politics, it is the small question that is called the big question. And the big question would only be permitted as a small parenthesis in the middle of the small question.

I happened lately to have a small debate with a very distinguished modern writer, Mr. Middleton Murry, on a book that he has written about Communism. I only mention it here because I soon discovered that I was not arguing against Communism but against Fatalism. I will not discuss the social and economic thesis, because, in truth, Mr. Middleton Murry's sort of Communism is rather a curious sort of Communism, which he alone would have the spirit and originality to explain. I do not agree with Communism; but I do not disagree with it because it would break up the existing system of commercialism. That, I think, is breaking itself up without any assistance from anybody. I disagree with Communism because I think it involves the sacrifice of Liberty. And the curious thing is that Mr. Middleton Murry does distinctly admit, in so many words, that it would involve the sacrifice of Liberty. So that he and I are so far in a state of blissful agreement; not practical agreement, but real or theoretical agreement. It is true that he adds to this a mystical paradox about losing freedom in order to be free, but he would have to explain that for himself. Where I found myself in much more fundamental disagreement with him was in this very ancient business about Fate; or, as he prefers to call it, Necessity. God forbid that we should go once more into the trampled labyrinth of Fate and Freewill. It is enough for me that the second is at least as fundamental an idea as the first; and really a more fundamental idea than the first. It is quite certain that I _feel_ as if I could leave off writing this essay whenever I like. Nobody can prove that feeling to be an illusion, except by a universal scepticism which might equally hold fate to be an illusion, or even law to be an illusion. The Determinists of my youth used to boast that Science supported them, because some scientists talked about the Determinism of Matter. I do not know what they are saying now, when several scientists are actually talking about the Indeterminism of Matter. But, anyhow, the idea of choice is an absolute, and nobody can get behind it.

What interests me here especially is this. It seems that many, who do probably feel they have freedom of action in the present or in the future, are ready to talk in a fatalistic way about the past. Mr. Middleton Murry, though fatalistic in a general way, is especially fatalistic about the past. He repeats again and again that whatever did happen was "necessary." He seems to think it proved its necessity merely by happening. Now, I do not feel this about the past, any more than about the future. I admit necessity, in the sense of logical necessity. I admit that if I am heavier than Mr. Middleton Murry, it is necessary that Mr. Middleton Murry is lighter than I am. I admit that if three feet make a yard, it is necessary that six feet make two yards. In that sense I must concede that if (physically) six Murrys make one Chesterton and even (spiritually) six Chestertons make one Murry, any further calculations about the multiplication of these persons must be founded on the principles of the multiplication table. But I do not feel in the least as if it had been inevitable that I should have turned from an art student to a journalist; or inevitable that Mr. Murry should have turned to Bolshevism; or inevitable that Bolshevism should have ever turned up at all. In every historical event I feel the thrill of uncertainty and the suspense of the human choice, and I cannot understand why my feeling is not as reasonable as his feeling; which seems also to be a feeling and no more.

For what I really complain of in this brilliant and ingenious writer is that, whenever he does try to give ultimate reasons for his fixed fatalism and materialism, and consequent denial of miracle, he lets me down. I well remember how I came down with a crash, in the middle of the most exalted speculations, when he actually said he could not believe in something as a man "of the twentieth century." I know there are people who talk like that, but I had not classed him among them. I thought I was high up in the air arguing with Aristotle and Abelard, with Buddha and Spinoza, with Pythagoras or Confucius; and I came to earth with a bump, opposite a man who wanted to be known by a number. Can anybody imagine Spinoza presenting his cosmos as specially fitted to the eighteenth century? Would Abelard base his argument on the twelfth century, as the other on the twentieth century? Would even Confucius say that truth and wisdom must be reconciled with the requirements of his own particular date previous to the Han Dynasty? So far from saying this in disparagement of the writer's work as a whole, I remark on it as an incongruous interruption in his work as a whole. It seems to me that a number of these twentieth-century writers rebel not too much, but not half enough, against the nineteenth-century conventions. One of the Victorian conventions was that all was for the best, or at any rate that all was as it had to be. The Victorians were all convinced that William the Conqueror was bound to conquer; that Wellington was bound to beat Napoleon; that Canada was bound to cleave to England; that America was bound to cut herself off from England. And it seems to me that the mechanical optimism of Marx, and the necessitarian notion of history in moderns like Mr. Murry, is but a continuation in that optimistic groove. To me all the past is alive with alternatives, and nobody can show, nobody has really attempted to show, that they were not real alternatives. I think it quite possible that if Harold's northern campaign had been a week earlier, William the Norman's southern campaign might have been launched too late; that if Napoleon had decided, after his hesitation, to throw in the Old Guard at Borodino, there would have been no Moscow and no Waterloo; that there was a time when a few wise words might have saved the American Colonies or a few foolish words lost Canada; and so on. In short, I believe that, again and again, man was at the cross-roads and might have taken another road. Nobody can prove or disprove it metaphysically; but I am the more content with a philosophy which permits of occasional miracles, because the alternative philosophy does not even permit of alternatives. It forbids a man even to dream of anything so natural as the Ifs of History.