The Long View 2003-07-17: More on Chesterton & Harry Potter

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

It is a fun thought experiment to imagine what G. K. Chesterton would have said about the Iraq War of 2003. John was right to note that Chesterton was no kind of pacifist. After all, he wrote a poem commemorating the Battle of Lepanto. However, he also had a fierce love of the small and local, and a great distaste for the grandiose and puffed up. Thus, he loved England, and wasn't overly fond of the British Empire.

Chesterton was a supporter of the Great War, even though his younger brother Cecil was among its casualties. At this remote distance, that war seems like it was a really, really bad idea. On the other hand, he was also a fierce critic of the Boer War, which was a nasty little imperial war that richly deserved skewering. Ultimately, I'm not sure I know what Chesterton might have thought.

I do think that Chesterton would have shared John's horror of chaos and anarchy. And like John, I think Mad Max is becoming the future we are more likely to face than 1984.

More on Chesterton & Harry Potter

Continuing in my reading of G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography for insight into the Anti-Terror Wars, I find that it would be misleading to equate his "anti-imperialism" with that of the critics of US policy today. His ideas on the subject would not at all please the folks at Antiwar. He was, in fact, far more belligerent than Samuel Huntington, who merely described the "clash of civilizations" without actually advocating it. Consider this passage:

[H. G. Wells] defends the only sort of war I thoroughly despise, the bullying of small states for their oil or gold; and he despises the only sort of war that I really defend, a war of civilizations and religions, to determine the moral destiny of mankind.

If Chesterton were alive today, he would have opposed the war in Iraq if he thought that it was primarily about oil. That was much the reason he opposed the Boer War, which really was chiefly about gaining complete control of southern Africa's gold and diamonds. If he were convinced that the Iraq campaign were part of a larger war against Islamicism, he would certainly have supported it. He would also have relished the way the war outraged the world's progressives. In his view, there "is only a thin sheet of paper between" internationalists and imperialists.

Does this mean that he could have been a happy contributor to The Weekly Standard, or even The Daily Telegraph? Possibly not. Certainly he was leery of the principle of preemption in foreign policy. He tells a parable about a householder who shoots a burglar, whom the householder discovered in his garden. Chesterton finds this use of force commendable, but he distinguishes the case from preemption:

If [the householder] had gone out to purify the world by shooting all possible burglars, it would not have been a defensive war. And it would not have been a defensible one.

There is no satisfaction in arguing with the dead: the silliest title in my library is A Challenge to C.S. Lewis, written more than a decade after Lewis died. Still, I might say to Chesterton's shade that he was right, but his example is beside the point. For the most part, the burglars in other people's gardens are no concern of the private householder. On the other hand, when you pay taxes to support a police force, you are in effect waging war against all possible burglars. Also, some societies have legal systems that rely on the self-organization of citizens. Ancient Iceland worked like that; so does the international system today. It is possible to be responsible for other people's burglars. The question is: who is the legitimate authority?

Chesterton was not pleased at the prospect of such an authority on a global scale, unless perhaps it were the Vatican. Ever the anti-pacifist, he was a keen supporter of the First World War from the beginning. He never wavered from that position, even after most of his friends had decided the war was a mistake or a crime. However, for him the war was about the defense of small nations, and the need to humble the pride of Prussia. He resisted rationales that were more, well, global:

But I am far from certain that a War to End War would have been just. I am far from certain that, even if anybody could prevent all protest or defiance under arms, offered by anybody anywhere under any provocation, it would not be an exceedingly wicked thing to do.

Anyone who has read H. G. Wells's Things to Come (1933) knows exactly the wickedness that Chesterton had in mind. That book is essentially a retelling of The War of the Worlds, except that the conquerors are armed Fabians, and their victory is complete, permanent, and, in Wells's view, the best possible outcome. The problem with Chesterton's objection is that it is not an objection to world government, but to government.

Possibly because of the period in which I grew up, anarchy has to me to be the greater danger. When I was a small child, too young to read 1984, the H. G. Wells world of totalitarian regimentation no doubt seemed a pressing danger. By the time the year 1984 arrived, however, the real danger seemed to be the world of Mad Max. It still does.

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A final note about Chesterton: For someone who did not purport to be a systematic thinker, GKC actually did a pretty good job of not contradicting himself. Nonetheless, he rarely expressed his basic insights in sustained argument. He would have been outraged at the comparison, no doubt, but his style was really not so different from Nietzsche's: heavy on the aphorisms and paradoxes, short on theory. Nietzsche favored aphorisms because he was skeptical about the thought itself. Chesterton, in contrast, was a sort of Thomist: he was ideologically committed to the principle that abstract formulas can embody reality. His reluctance to make sustained theoretical argument seems to have grown out of his attachment to the particular, the local, the personal. One of the advantages to Thomism is that it provides assurance that the finite can indeed reflect the infinite.

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Perhaps there has already been enough discussion of the deep significance of Harry Potter, but I could not resist following a link to this title: Harry Potter and the Future of Europe. The article, by Jeff Fountain, argues on the basis of personal experience that the Potter books really are a sign of the times:

Unlike these Christian fantasies, Harry Potter is a post-Christian creation set within an occult cosmology. And his phenomenal popularity among young and old signals where our western culture seems to be headed.

This is very similar to the point about the the resilience of the "Perennial Philosophy" that I raised some years ago in a review of Robertson Davies' book, The Cunning Man. In fact, back in 1986, Owen Thomas suggested in Christianity Today that the real competitor for Christianity in the West was never Marxism or materialism, but a sort of neoplatonism.

Was Quidditch all it took to get Plotinus to the best-seller slot on Amazon?

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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  The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton By G. K. Chesterton