As I Was Saying/Essay XX

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Essay XIX As I Was Saying
Essay XX
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXI



Essay XX: About Impermanence

ONE of the queer puzzles of modern politics might be stated in this way. That when power was permanent, it was always reminded that it was passing; but when power was really supposed to be passing, it was actually treated as if it were permanent. In the days when kings could really cut off anybody's head, they were incessantly informed by seers and sages that they themselves would soon be cut off. When they were real despots with the power of life and death, there were real prophets or satirists who told them that death would be the end of their own life. But nobody ever said this, since democratic and liberal ideas were supposed to prevail in the State. Nobody told the really temporary ruler that he was temporary, or even that he was temporal. From the beginning of historic things, and almost of prehistoric things, there has been this warning against worldly power. The Egyptian rulers feasted with the skeleton at the feast. The Roman conqueror, in his triumph, had a slave towering behind his chariot and whispering "Remember that you are mortal." The mediaeval Norman king of Sicily, as described in the story, was reminded by the religious service that God had put down the mighty from their seat. The later mediaeval princes were familiar with the habit of feasting under frescoes and mosaics of the Dance of Death, which showed a squalid skeleton carrying away kings in a bag. Through the whole of the four thousand years of our recorded history in Europe, Pagan and Christian, has sounded that sublime and subversive dirge--

 The glories of our blood and state
 Are shadows, not substantial things.

The very Court chaplains of the great French monarchy preached before the _Roi Soleil,_ telling him that even his own sun would set. And then, by some quite unaccountable change, there came with the nineteenth century the notion of men talking as if they alone could live in an everlasting sunrise.

Nobody ever did these things to modern politicians. Nobody insisted on a skeleton sitting at Table A, on the right hand of the Lord Mayor introducing the Prime Minister. Nobody insisted on the large and terrific Toast-Master, after he had, in a voice of thunder, craved silence for the Right Honourable the Lord Bundlebury, K.G., K.C.M.G., leaning forward and in a low and vibrant voice hissing in the ear of that statesman: "Remember that you are mortal." Even in the days of constitutional monarchy, pulpit orations before the king do not remind us so much of funeral orations over the king. But in the case of politicians, as distinct from kings, the whole tradition of this truth has totally disappeared. No artist covers walls and ledges with decorative designs of Death carrying away Cabinet Ministers in a bag. No poet writes a mournful ode about newspaper proprietors, even when they wear coronets, with the ancient burden--

 The glories of our scoop and stunt
 Are shadows, not substantial things.

With the nineteenth century there came in a new and unnatural optimism about the duration of earthly fashions, political and even philosophical. Shakespeare, living under the Tudors, who could (and did) kill anybody they wanted to kill, could write in a detached way about man who, "dressed in a little brief authority, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep." The modern elected politician is in theory dressed in even more brief authority. And, heaven knows, he plays fantastic tricks enough; not only to make the angels weep, but even possibly to make the angels laugh. And yet no poets or dramatists of the last hundred years ever wrote in that fashion about him. Nobody ever told the popular Prime Minister that he also would pass away, not even six months before he did pass away. Nobody ever told politicians that they would be food for worms, even when the worms were almost indistinguishable from the politicians. That long, literary lamentation and protest against the powers of this world, which has gone on through the ages, and includes a thousand things from the _Magnificat_ to _Gulliver's Travels,_ did in some strange way stop with the epoch of parliamentary rule, which was supposed to be popular rule. Of all the questions asked by hecklers at a political meeting to support a parliamentary candidate, I gravely and grievously doubt whether any man ever rose from the back benches, a sad and saturnine figure, to say: "Mr. Chairman, I should like to ask our candidate whether it has ever occurred to him that he will one day die."

All this, I fear, will sound very fantastic in modern ears; and even especially in parliamentary ears, which are often rather long ears. But I do sincerely believe that it contains the essential point about the essential evil that has ruined parliamentary institutions, considered as popular institutions. That sort of optimism is alone enough to cut men off from common human happiness. All the old rulers of mankind, in one way or another, were steeped in this grand and tragic tradition. The king was constantly reminded that he would die; the priest existed to remind him that he would die; the soldier was, by hypothesis, a man permanently ready to die. But this sense of the mortal brotherhood of mortals in some way disappeared when the modern world began to teach brotherhood. Since that time every General Election has been regarded as a Last Judgment. Since then, every democratic experiment has been a New Deal. People were taught to look only to the future, or at least every part of it except their own future. They were taught never to look at the past, because the past had borne unbroken testimony to this element of time and change. And that is the real reason why the world has been, as they say just now, disappointed with democracy. There is no necessary depression or despair about democracy. What is depressing is optimism. There is nothing false in the idea of the equality of man; but there is something utterly false in denying the thing in which men are most obviously equal, which is death.

If the modern democratic experiment had been a mediaeval democratic experiment--if it had been, for that matter, a Moslem democratic experiment--it would not have made this mistake or got into this mess. The nuisance of the nineteenth century was that it tried to combine the common sense of the fellowship that men have in common, which is all perfectly sound and true, with an artificial expectation of Utopia; an entirely new notion that everything that was bad yesterday, and worse to-day, will inevitably be right to-morrow. That large and ludicrous illusion has nothing to do with the idea of men feeling their fellow-men as fellows--or even as good fellows. It was an illusion of the intellectuals, who happened to be prigs and dictated the Victorian idea of progress. There is nothing wrong with democracy; there is nothing wrong with the people ruling, except what is wrong with anybody out of the people ruling; what is wrong is forgetting that people are only people. They will make mistakes, as you and I make mistakes; and as all our superiors, the supermen, the dictators, the makers of modern systems, will also make them. There was only one supreme modern mistake, which was that men forgot for a hundred years that they are liable to make mistakes.