All I Survey/Essay XXXVII

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Essay XXXVI All I Survey
Essay XXXVII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXXVIII



Essay XXXVII: On Sweepstakes and Gambling

The debate about legalizing Sweepstakes dies slowly away, like the galloping echoes of the Derby; and even where it continues, it is rather typical of the time and country that it is more concerned with law than with logic. It is clear that in practice the nation has largely abandoned the Puritan sentiment that was behind some of its older laws; but it has been rather a change of sentiment than a change of statement. Few people really remember what was the actual ethical theory that gave to all betting the bad name of gambling. But fewer still, I fancy, could state their own new ethical theory in favour of betting, or distinguish it from the gambling that is really bad. Even when we were Puritans we were not really precisians. In other words, England, even when it was strict in discipline, was not really strict in doctrine. Certainly, at least, it was not really strict in definition. Consequently, I do not really know what the moral theory of the anti-betting men was; and I do not believe they knew themselves. My own morality, which is not my own, but that of the ancient moral culture of Christendom, is of course simple enough. I have a right to bet what I have a right to lose. If I choose to sit on the wild seashore and occupy my whole holiday in throwing stones into the sea, I am also entitled, if I choose, to vary the monotony by throwing into the sea the large moon-stone tie-pin which is the ornament of my neckties and the admiration of my neighbours, or to hurl into the same sea-waves the heavy cairn-gorm brooch bequeathed by my Aunt Jemima; always supposing I can do the latter without unjustly lacerating Aunt Jemima's feelings, here or in heaven. I have as much right to throw the more expensive stones into the sea as to throw the cheaper ones; so long as it is only at my own expense and not something beyond my lawful expenditure; which would probably turn out to be at somebody else's expense. So far as that goes, I am perfectly justified in throwing away my celebrated tie-pin or my aunt's brooch for the mere momentary pleasure of one sublime gesture; for the satisfaction of feeling like Polycrates or the great Doge of Venice wedding the sea. It is a mere luxury to chuck them, as it is a mere luxury to cherish them; I only keep them for a lark, and I only lose them for a lark. If a man is justified in throwing a pearl like a pebble into the sea at Margate, knowing it will not return, he is justified in throwing it on the table at Monte Carlo or putting it on a horse at Ascot: with a chance that it may return. But he is not justified, for instance, in throwing the baby into the sea, though many at Margate have felt tempted to do so. Nor is he justified in risking the baby's milk or the money for the baby's clothes at Ascot or Monte Carlo; and nobody will deny that many have done this, and that much evil has come of it. But the principle is at least clear, and presents no problem to those who hold it.

I have sometimes thought that the philosophy of betting bears some resemblance to something else, which may be called the philosophy of guessing. There is in the literary or intellectual world an operation which is somewhat similar to that of honest betting in the sporting world. It occurs especially in the case of English literature; because in England it so often happens that the author is the amateur. It often happens, also, that the amateur can give valuable hints to the professional. But those hints ought always to be given in a certain light and sporting spirit, not unlike the guesses of the better sort of gambler. The outsider ought not to give the whole weight of his word or reputation to suggestions he could not substantiate in all their details. If he does, he tends to become the crank or even the quack, the awful and appalling sort of amateur who sits down to prove to you that Mary Queen of Scots wrote Shakspere or that the name of Lord Kitchener is inscribed in the measurements of the Great Pyramid. But I have often thought there might be a place for intelligent guesswork which admits that it is guesswork. There might even be a place for a fanciful theory, if it was avowedly fanciful. I confess I have suffered many things from the sort of man who has a theory that Bacon wrote Shakspere, when he does really believe it. But I had great fun in working out a theory that Shakspere wrote Bacon, because I did not in the least believe it. In the course of turning it into a sketch, which was no more than a skit, I found myself discovering much more than I had known before of the real truth about the Elizabethan and Jacobean epoch. In the same way, many a man has really put hard cash in his pocket at Newmarket, or the Grand National from a bet that he made merely as a joke; and my contention is that he deserved his luck, so long as he really made it as a joke. In the case of history and similar sciences, it might be possible to draw up a rich and flattering analogy to the Turf. The dons of Oxford and Cambridge, the professors and professional historians, who are often, indeed, bookmakers, may be compared to bookies. The dream or fancy thrown out by the mere literary amateur may be compared to the dark horse in the very loose box of his light and irresponsible brain. But the dark horse always gives him a good run for his money. And it is justified, so long as it does not run away with the whole of his money; that is, with the whole of his serious reputation and peace of mind. I think there ought to be a special class of spirited and fanciful guesses; potshots at the possibilities of history; suggestions that should only suggest, but might be really suggestive. They would form a third type of literature, between the solemn stolidity of the academies and the solemn lunacy of cranks.

For instance, I once had a notion of writing an essay, making a suggestion about King Arthur. Now I am not in the least qualified to maintain an entirely serious and solid thesis about King Arthur. A man would really have to be an exceptional scholar and specialist, in about five different departments, before he could deal in that fashion with King Arthur. He would have to know all about Celtic legend and literature, Welsh and Cornish and all the rest; he would have to have a thorough grasp of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, its military maps and methods; he would have to be steeped in French chivalry and romance to separate the mediæval from the older elements; he would have to understand the real Christian and Catholic origins, and date and distinguish between the Glaston Thorn and the Grail; he would have to be a nailer at strategy and a whale at place-names. I am none of these things, and yet I had quite a nice little notion about King Arthur. It would afford a pleasant evening's amusement for a party of dons, pulling it to pieces. And, for all I know, something might come out of it; even out of its refutation. I will not describe the theory here beyond saying that it began with the curious fact, that the first three or four chroniclers who mention King Arthur do not even call him King Arthur. But I will reserve it for some dull and rainy afternoon, in some quiet isolated country house, where there are dons who want something to play with.