As I Was Saying/Essay VII

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Essay VI As I Was Saying
Essay VII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay VIII



Essay VII: About Puritanism

IN dealing with such things as Prohibition, I have sometimes had occasion to mention Puritanism. Disputes have arisen about this word, and about how far it is fair to associate it at least with a mild shade of pessimism. Sporadic attempts are made to modify this strong popular impression; and I saw an article the other day which largely turned upon a statement that Calvin was allowed to play with darts. As I have not the least desire to be unfair to Puritans, I think I should like to sum up what seems to me the substantial historical truth of the matter, and the real point of the whole story. So far as I am concerned, the point is not so much against Calvin as against Calvinism; and not so much even against Calvinism as against that much less logical Modernism which has taught everybody in our time that religious error does not matter. It matters very much in two ways; and Puritanism is a striking historical example of both. First: something that might well seem to sensible people to be only a fine shade of thought, merely theoretical and theological, does, in fact, change the mind. It produces a mood which does darken the world, or some particular part of the world. About the degree of the darkness or the density of the cloud, we may well differ; but it is a matter of common sense to see where the cloud did or does rest. Nobody will dare to maintain that the Scottish Sabbath has not in fact been more strict than the English Sunday, let alone the Continental Sunday. Every one knows that it was the Puritans who objected to Archbishop Laud's famous publication on the subject; every one knows that they objected to his Book of Sports because it was a book of sports; every one knows that they thought the sports too sportive. Attempts to explain away solid outstanding historical facts of this kind are altogether fanciful. But it does not follow that every founder of every sect involved attached supreme importance to this particular point; some of them did; some of them did not. The whole movement grew gradually from various roots, but this is what it grew to be. A man alive in the middle of the Renaissance, speculating about a system of Presbyters which he had not yet begun to found, amid a thousand others speculating about a thousand other things, would not, of course, become instantly identical with a Presbyterian minister of modern times. He would not begin on the spot to grow the black top-hat and bushy whiskers of a Scottish elder or precentor in one of Sir James Barrie's plays or stories. _Nemo repente fit turpissimus._ Which it would doubtless be very unfair to translate as "No one suddenly becomes a precentor."

But there is another historical process involved. It is much more curious, and it has been much more curiously neglected. One special form of the harm done by the extreme sects in the seventeenth century was this: that they really died young, and that what has infected our culture since has not been their life, or even their death, but rather their decay. In most cases the Puritans lost their religion and retained their morality; a deplorable state of things for anybody. If the special narrow theologies had not perished as rapidly as they did, the atmospheric moral mood would not have lingered on exactly in the way it did. But, above all, it permitted of a process which seems to me one of the strangest and most interesting in human history, but does not seem as yet to have been noticed by historians. It is rather like the geological process of the formation of a fossil. Every one knows that a fossil fish is not a fish; nor a fossil bird a bird. I do not mean merely in the obvious sense; that we should be surprised--nay, annoyed--in a restaurant, if we asked for a fish and they gave us a stone. I mean that a fossil is a form in which remains no actual fragment of a fish. It in a hollow mould or image of a fish, which is very gradually filled up by the infiltration of something else, after the actual fish has decayed. Thus we find the general outline of these stony and very literal faiths filled up by something else when the old fanaticism has decayed. There are two great modern examples of that creepy and uncanny historical transmutation. One is what we call Prohibition, and the other is what we call Prussianism.

The point is perhaps clearest in the case of Prohibition. The old original Puritans were not Prohibitionists. Oliver Cromwell was a brewer; but he was not inspired or intoxicated by beer, nor (like the teetotallers) inspired and intoxicated by the absence of beer. Whatever his faults, he did most certainly have a real religion, in the sense of a creed. But it was a sombre creed, one which had been made intentionally, more stern and ruthless than the other creeds; and this created a new mood and moral atmosphere which ultimately spread all over the great plains of Puritan America. Now, the point is this: that as the creed crumbled slowly as a creed, its place was taken by something vaguer but of the same general spirit. The sombre theological system was replaced by a sombre social theory. You can put it another way if you like, and say that America tolerated Prohibition; not because America was Puritan, but because America had been Puritan. The idea of morality that came to prevail till lately at least was in every sense a survival of Puritanism, even if it was also in a sense a substitute for Puritanism. That is the essential history of that curious episode; the teetotal ethic of modern times. Prohibition was not a part of the origin of Puritanism; none the less, Prohibition was a thing of Puritan origin.

The same is true of the religious fanaticism that filled Germany in the Thirty Years War; as compared with the national or tribal fanaticism that now fills Germany after the Great War. The old fanatics who followed Gustavus Adolphus and William of Orange were not ethnologists or evolutionists. They did not imagine that they belonged to a Nordic Race; they most certainly did not imagine that they or theirs had ever been bothered with a Swastika. They saluted the cross or they smashed the cross; but it had not occurred to them to tap the four ends of it so as to turn it into a fragment of Chinese or Red Indian decoration. They were thinking about their own strictly religious scruples and schisms. They were really fighting fiercely and savagely for points of doctrine; and I should be the last to blame them for it. But those doctrines did not last; they were the very doctrines that have now long been dissolving in the acids of German scepticism, in the laboratories of the Prussian professors. And the more they evaporated and left a void, the more the void was filled up with new and boiling elements; with tribalism, with militarism, with imperialism, and (in short) with that very narrow type of patriotism that we call Prussianism.

Most of us would agree that this kind of patriotism is a considerable peril to every other kind of patriotism. That is the whole evil of the ethnological type of loyalty. Settled States can respect themselves and also respect each other, because they can claim the right to defend their own frontiers and yet not deny their duty to recognize other people's frontiers. But the racial spirit is a restless spirit; it does not go by frontiers but by the wandering of the blood. It is not so much as if France were at war with Spain, but rather as if the Gipsies were more or less at war with everybody. You can have a League of Nations, but you could hardly have a League of Tribes. When the Tribe is on the march, it is apt to forget leagues-- not to mention frontiers. But my immediate interest in this flood of tribalism is that it has since poured into the empty hollows left by the slow drying-up of the great Deluge of the Thirty Years War; and that all this new and naked nationalism has come to many modern men as a substitute for their dead religion.