February 25, 1909, The New Age
For more than a month I have been too busy to read THE NEW AGE properly; so I missed Bernard Shaw's article, and also that of Mr. Bax. The fun of it is that I missed it because I was writing about Bernard Shaw; I was too intent on his biography to follow his career. Some publisher has told me to write a book on Shaw for a series called "Stars of the Stage." I advise Shaw to start as soon as possible on a life of me, under some similar alliterative title- say "Nightmares of the Newspaper"- and we can call ourselves quits again. Such lives might be issued in twin volumes, and called "The Mutual Biography Series"; and we could have "Wells; a Sketch- by H. Belloc"; and "Belloc; a Dream- by H.G. Wells."
But though my delay was accidental, I cannot regret it. By this time it has made me more comprehensive, considerate, and rational, and I even hope that it may have evoked such qualities in Mr. Belfort Bax. The truth is that like all honest men arguing a real question, we sometimes lost our tempers. In this spirit, perhaps, I applied the abusive word "senseless" to the Zeitgeist, which might be more courteously defined as unmeaning. In this spirit Mr. Bax ends an eloquent article against the use of short words by calling his opponents prigs. In this spirit Bernard Shaw (following the sound Jingo fashion of announcing a victory instead of winning it) cries: "Now, Chesterton, I have thee on the hip!" This, perhaps, may be excused as part of the mere Shakespearian idolatry of an old play-goer. Accident, at any rate, has intervened to make my own attitude more mellow, kindly and conclusive; and in a quite charitable and contented state of mind, I will state the conclusion of the whole matter. Looking back on the whole of this controversy (in which I have enjoyed my opponents' articles as much as my own; and that is saying a good deal) I find one fact emerging quite solid; it is this. I do not think that my allies and I have proved that the Catholic religion has a right to the huge empire it claims over heaven and earth; for that cannot be proved. But I think we have proved that the Catholic religion has a right to its name. It has a right to spell it with a small "c" as well as with a large one. We have proved that (compared with other men) the Catholic is catholic.
I should have often been tempted to join the agnostics, if there had been any to join. I should heartily enjoy a free and frank paganism- if it were there to be enjoyed. But the more you see of things as they are, the more you will come back to the conclusion, that in the twentieth century, as much as in the seventeenth, there are only two things alive- the Church and the sects. Bax is the leader of a sect, a respectable sect. Shaw is the leader of a sect, a mad sect. But the narrow sectarian nature of both is proved, as it was in the Puritan sects, by the number of things which such sects forbid altogether; wine, theology, fighting, or fairy-tales. You may think Christianity merciless; but you cannot deny that it gave a place to mercy. Nietzsche gave no place to mercy; therefore Nietzsche is sectarian and suburban. You may think Christianity cowardly; but you cannot deny that it gave a place to arms and just anger; Tolstoy gives no place to arms or just anger; therefore Tolstoy is sectarian and suburban. Sectarian and suburban in the same way are Messrs. Shaw and Bax. They have the note of the little movements; they leave so much of a man out. Bax is forbidden by his religion to do the most ordinary things; he must not bless or curse, swear by the gods or pray over the dead. And Bernard Shaw, if his last article means anything whatever, is not allowed by his religion to employ his reason.
Bernard Shaw, in his final article in this paper, falls back at last on something much wilder and weaker than mere asceticism. His last article is sheer sentimentalism. If it means anything it simply means that we must believe any miracle if we find it desirable, and disbelieve it if we don't.
"Bax would not believe the miracle of St. Januarius if you piled the evidence for it up to the very heavens. And Bax would not cut my throat, although he would have a multitude of excellent reasons for doing so: as, for instance, to get my money, or save my share of our food, or even stop my talking. Neither would he cut his own throat, as a reasoned pessimism would logically oblige him to do. He, like myself, 'illogically believes and disbelieves, according to his fancy.' "Surely the point is painfully simple. It depends on Bax whether he cuts his throat; it does not depend on Bax whether the Januarian blood is liquefied; it might be liquefied in spite of his daily protests. Of course, logic is not a cause for ultimate action. Of course reason is not a reason. But reason is permitted to a Catholic Christian; it is forbidden to a follower of Shaw. Shaw does not retire into his inner consciousness to find out if blood is shed at Smithfield. Why should he do it to find out if blood is liquefied in Italy? The answer is that he has become a sentimentalist; a man who denies rational truth. He asks why he should not have his fancy as much as God when he made the world. The obvious answer is that when he is a god making a world he can have his fancy; and he jolly well does. He can put anything he likes into his plays; and he puts many things much more incredible than Januarius. But there is, oddly enough, a world Shaw has not made. He is not a god making a cosmos, but a man looking at one. Is he to believe the things he sees, miracles included, or is he not? His own answer seems to be this: That a man should believe any miracle he sees so long as he sees its full value and convenience; in other words, he may believe anything that he finds it jolly to believe. And this is the end of the man who for nearly twenty years told us to face facts, to ignore romantic illusions, to see things as they are. This is his last apology; that he could believe a fairy-tale if it were only fine enough. It is a curious philosophy for Bernard Shaw. But what a good philosophy it would have been for Clement Scott!
Now the Church never demanded from us this utter amputation of reason; this surrender to sentimentalism. Nor does it demand that destruction of all democratic sentiment which is demanded by Mr. Belfort Bax. There are a great many points on which I could profitably quarrel with him also; but they are rather points of detail, for Mr. Bax's article is particularly clear and careful, while in the case of Shaw's- well, if I were not too thoroughly acquainted with his unfortunate habits, I should say he was not sober when he wrote it. There are many Bax points that might be dealt with; for instance, about the Zeitgeist. It is obvious that people are slightly different in different ages; so they are in different houses down a street. But suppose I said: "The vast invisible Number Spirit makes the colonel at No. 17 kinder than the doctor at No. 18," you would probably object and say mildly that the numbers had nothing to do with it. You would not be satisfied if I merely answered, "Do you deny that the colonel and the doctor are different?" You would say that the difference of the people was not a Time Spirit or a Number Spirit, but was a difference of the people.
There are twenty other topics on which I could quarrel with Mr. Bax. I could point out that I never said that Huysman was not a decadent. But he has (in a disastrous hour) said that Bruneiere was a decadent, which is about seven degrees more absurd than saying that Huxley was a decadent. I might point out that, like all those metaphysicians who try to make a modern oligarchy, he employs mere mystery; he summons his strength not to answer my theory, but to dismiss it. But all these facts are secondary to the great primary impression that both he and Shaw are sectarian. They represent not a permanent truth, but perpetual actions and reactions, which, even when they are just, are still small.
Let me take one case from your paper, but far away from this topic. One gentleman wrote in THE NEW AGE that we must not admire Charles Lamb; we must admire Samuel Johnson, because he was more Dionysian or something. We do not allow ourselves to be limited in this way. A Christian opens his eyes very wide and asks, "Why can't I admire both?" Because sturdy self-confidence is good, is dreamy self-analysis necessarily bad? Only to the sects. Not to the church of mankind. To be Sam Johnson is to be a very big thing; but to be a Dionysian is a microscopic, an invisible thing: it will perish and Sam will remain. Johnson did love the Lamb of his time, Goldsmith. I have spoken of Catholic with a big and a small C: if you like it, it is the same with Lamb. THE NEW AGE critic will not allow me Lamb with a big L; Shaw will not allow me Lamb with a small one. Their mark is negation. Remaining a Christian, I am free to enjoy the virtues of Johnson and the verecundia of Lamb. But if I have followed Schopenhauer, I must not enjoy cheerfulness; and if I have followed Shaw, I must not enjoy melancholy. These Shavian optimists forbid reverie or regret, which are two of the joys of man. They are not strong enough to relax; they are only strong enough to stiffen. The Nietzsche men have not enough animal spirits to be melancholy. Having never been young, they cannot regret their youth; having never loved, they cannot remember. But all those million and mingled points of view we can have, as Shakespeare had them; we can be as sweet as Lamb or as strenuous as Johnson; we can be as rational as Bax or as irrational as Bernard Shaw. For we are free: because the Church is not a sect. Because the Church is something wider than the world. It is not a question of "Chesterton Facing Both Ways." It is a question of Chesterton facing all ways; but not through any merit of Chesterton.