As I Was Saying/Essay XXXIV

Free texts and images.
Jump to: navigation, search
Essay XXXIII As I Was Saying
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXXV

Essay XXXIV: About Beggars and Soldiers

IT amuses me to think that, amid all the invocations of Christmas and invocations to Christmas charity, I am probably in a minority in uttering any particular and positive eulogy of Christmas waits. It is common enough to celebrate the jovial season by making jokes about Christmas waits, but they are generally in the same vein as the jokes about Christmas bills. It is constantly said in the newspapers (and therefore it must be true) that we have everywhere increased in social sympathies and sentiments of human brotherhood, and it is sometimes even said that all classes are drawing together in mutual understanding. I am sure I hope it may be so; and indeed I think that in certain special social aspects it is so. But I notice that, in many houses where a previous generation accepted waits and carol-singers, even if they grumbled at them in secret, with all the external courtesy and resignation of Duke Theseus listening to the play of Pyramus and Thisbe in _A Midsummer Night's Dream,_ many of a later generation have grown less patient and less polite. I also notice that, over vast districts of the modern urban civilization, whole streets are plastered with placards forbidding hawkers and street cries; lest the ancient institution of the pedlar or the last of the old music of London should disturb those within who are intently occupied, let us hope, in studying books on evolutionary ethics by Cambridge economists, which demonstrate so radiantly the need of social contacts and the removal of all barriers between class and class. Having read a vast number of books of that sort in my time, I am still not entirely satisfied that, in every respect, they are invariably more human and amusing than the talk of Autolycus or the tune of "Cherry-Ripe."

But there is a special case for carol-singers, because they come at a time when our whole tradition has always told us to be charitable to strangers, even to beggars. Of course, carol-singers are not in any sense whatever beggars. They are people offering something in return for money; we may not happen to think it is worth the money, and I happen to think exactly the same of about three-quarters of the things that are most boomed and pushed in the modern business market. But in so far as many of us do pay for the entertainment, even when we do not particularly want the entertainment, and do it from motives of charity, the waits or carol-singers can in that sense be put into the same class as beggars, and sink instantly to the abject and degraded condition of Homer or St. Francis of Assisi. And it is about this problem of beggars, or of those who in one aspect are in the position of beggars, that I am disposed to raise a very general question and remark on a general comparison.

I happen myself to represent, more or less, a general moral philosophy which until very lately was the general moral philosophy of most nations and even most confessions in Europe. And in nothing was that general tradition of our fathers more criticized by our contemporaries than in its alleged contentment with casual and sporadic charity; or, in other words, the habit of giving money to beggars. Now, there is a rather interesting parallel here, between the nineteenth-century attitude towards the problem of the beggar and the twentieth-century attitude towards the problem of the soldier. Only too often, and to the deep disgrace of governments, they were the same individuals. There was a beggars' rhyme in my boyhood that ran: "Here comes a poor soldier from Botany Bay; What have you got to give him to-day?" In the eyes of many modern scientific humanitarians and philanthropists (who certainly would have nothing to give him), he would be blasted with a sort of series and crescendo of crimes; horrible because he was a beggar; horrible because he was a convict, from Botany Bay or any other convict settlement; and most horrible of all because he was a soldier. But both in his character of a beggar and his character of a soldier he offers an opportunity for explaining a certain old-fashioned point of view, which I fancy the majority of modern people do not understand at all.

Those modern people who, much more than any ancient people, have refused and repulsed beggars as such were not merely brutal or stingy. The thing was perhaps at its worst in the blackest time of industrial individualism, when even the theories were brutal and stingy; we might almost say, in some cases, that the ideals were brutal and stingy. But this would be unjust to a very large number of the theorists and idealists who really did believe in plausible theories and ideals. The first theory that held the field was something like this: that it was uneconomic and therefore unethical to patch up the position of people who were in the wrong position and even in the wrong place. The theory was that such a person could eventually find his place when the whole economic community could find its level, and each person was achieving the cheapest production at the proper profit or price. The ideal, however vague, was that of a community in which everybody was living productively and profitably, and nobody was living unproductively and unprofitably. Given that ideal, or any real belief in that ideal, it is not difficult to see that the beggar appears an anomaly that ought to disappear. Unfortunately, the ideal has disappeared and the beggar has remained. Nobody now believes that mere individualism and competition will ever, of themselves, work out to that economic paradise of give and take. The death of that delusion was hastened by the Socialists. And whatever be wrong with Socialism, it was entirely right about what is wrong with Individualism. But the Socialist, quite as much as the Individualist, necessarily and naturally regarded the beggar as an anomaly to be abolished. His way of abolishing him was to plan out a series of Utopias in which the State would find everybody the best work and pay everybody the best wages. I am not criticizing those Utopias just now, or rather I am only criticizing them on one small point. So far as this argument goes there is nothing against them, except that they have not happened. Even among the Bolshevists, where something happened, it was not the abolition of beggary, whether this was the fault of the Bolshevists or no. A rich man in the Ukraine famine would be faced with just the same problem of beggars as a rich man in the Irish famine. Now, when one theory after another thus rises and falls, and one Utopian promise after another is made and broken, is it not comprehensible that some of us think it well to save even a solitary man from starvation, while the world is making up its mind how many centuries it will take for starvation to disappear?

As I have hinted, there is something of the same notion in tolerating the soldier as in tolerating the beggar. Nobody wants anybody to beg or anybody to fight. But when promise after promise of universal peace is broken, and conference after conference abandons the task of establishing international justice, is it so very odd that some people should still want something to defend national justice, in the sense of justice to their own nation? And if the beggar and the soldier seem to remain, _since_ they seem to remain--then I do most strongly feel that it is better that they should not be regarded merely as blots or pests, but rather in the light of the traditional virtues associated with the tragedy; the one in the light of charity and the other of chivalry. I do not expect every one, or possibly even any one, to agree entirely with this view, but I hope that somebody will at least accept the compromise in the case of Carol-Singers or Waits.