Saturday, August 28, 2010

Scruton vs. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton, who was far more likely to describe himself as a liberal than a conservative, has grown more and more important to conservative thinkers over the decades. And yet many of his writings show a commitment to rationalism, radicalism and abstract theory that seem counter to the spirit of conservatism. Take these famous lines from Saint Thomas Aquinas:

The fact that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense is itself a matter of common sense. Yet it wants a word of explanation, because we have so long taken such matters in a very uncommon sense. For good or evil, Europe since the Reformation, and most especially England since the Reformation, has been in a peculiar sense the home of paradox. I mean in the very peculiar sense that paradox was at home, and that men were at home with it. The most familiar example is the English boasting that they are practical because they are not logical. To an ancient Greek or a Chinaman this would seem exactly like saying that London clerks excel in adding up their ledgers, because they are not accurate in their arithmetic. But the point is not that it is a paradox; it is that paradoxy has become orthodoxy; that men repose in a paradox as placidly as in a platitude. It is not that the practical man stands on his head, which may sometimes be a stimulating if startling gymnastic; it is that he rests on his head; and even sleeps on his head. This is an important point, because the use of paradox is to awaken the mind. Take a good paradox, like that of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense with the necessities." It is amusing and therefore arresting; it has a fine air of defiance; it contains a real if romantic truth. It is all part of the fun that it is stated almost in the form of a contradiction in terms. But most people would agree that there would be considerable danger in basing the whole social system on the notion that necessaries are not necessary; as some have based the whole British Constitution on the notion that nonsense will always work out as common sense. Yet even here, it might be said that the invidious example has spread, and that the modern industrial system does really say, 'Give us luxuries like coal-tar soap, and we will dispense with necessities like corn".

Or take this quotation from What's Wrong with the World:

This definite ideal is a far more urgent and practical matter in our existing English trouble than any immediate plans or proposals. For the present chaos is due to a sort of general oblivion of all that men were originally aiming at. No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller. Now this sort of pliability does not merely prevent any heroic consistency, it also prevents any really practical compromise. [...] If our statesmen were visionaries something practical might be done. If we ask for something in the abstract we might get something in the concrete. As it is, it is not only impossible to get what one wants, but it is impossible to get any part of it, because nobody can mark it out plainly like a map. That clear and even hard quality that there was in the old bargaining has wholly vanished. We forget that the word "compromise" contains, among other things, the rigid and ringing word "promise." Moderation is not vague; it is as definite as perfection. The middle point is as fixed as the extreme point.

Compare this with the words of Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism:

But it must be remembered that argument is not the favourite pursuit of conservatives. Like all political beings, conservatives are for certain things: they are for them, not because they have arguments in their favour, but because they know them, live with them, and find their identity threatened (often they know not how) by the attempt to interfere with their operation. Their characteristic and most dangerous opponent is not the radical, who stands squarely against them, armed with myths and prejudices that match their own, but rather the reformer, who, acting always in a spirit of improvement, finds reason to change whatever he cannot find better reason to retain. It is from this spirit of improvement, the legacy of Victorian liberalism and social Darwinism, that modern socialists and modern liberals continue to derive their moral inspiration.

Personally, I incline towards Scruton here, and I have to admit that What's Wrong with the World is one of my least favourite of Chesterton's books. The whole work seems pregnant with the radicalism and abstract theorising that wreaked so much havoc on Europe in the twentieth century, and fuels the ongoing (and destructive) cultural revolution of our own time.

Chesterton brilliantly insisted that the human mind must choose between two things: a dogma and a prejudice. Perhaps we should add that we must choose between them in each instance. Dogma is indispensable; and the reactionary and partisan who forgets dogma in the heat of a controversy, such as those who support torture against terrorists or allow the free market to trample on the dignity of the individual, have surely lost their way.

But man cannot live on dogma alone. There are a thousand thousand decisions and instances where dogma does not dictate; and surely conservatives like Scruton are correct, and vindicated by experience, in insisting that (in those instances) tradition is usually a better guide than reason, that the actual and time-honoured should trump the abstract and utopian. And this is not only for the practical reason that our best-laid plans so often turn out to be disastrous, but also for the sake of tradition itself; to preserve the warp and weft of a way of life. The million cobwebs of customs that we sweep away when we "mark out plainly like a map" the society we desire, are often irreplaceable. "An extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis aller", often turns out to embody the best of all worlds; as Burke put it, the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.


  1. This is so funny--I just opened a conversation over at the GK Chesterton Forum about this very topic:

    It's funny---can you explain where you see this most at odds with Scruton? I see that in general the two men are some what at odds--since Chesterton would rather predictably tell Scruton that his inclination to leave the Conservative man's values alone and therefore in tact is absolutely wrong; in order to protect them from a torrent of change he must not do that but the opposite.

    However, here, and maybe I'm misreading, I'll admit I'm a bit tired today, isn't Chesterton here saying exactly what you are vis a vis Scruton? That the reformer is the man who asks not for what men desire but what he thinks they can get? Which is always doomed to be that riot of second bests?

    Where he and Scruton would differ, I think, is in this: Scruton thinks that things as they are/were are already an ideal to which we should aspire, where Chesterton would say that things as they are the first flower of things that had not yet reached it's full fruit.

    Are we disagreeing? I'm not even sure, but it seems that you are putting Scruton and Chesterton against each other, which I think is fair because Chesterton was not truly Conservative. But in these particular passages they seem to be in accord.

  2. Thanks for that, blog nerd.

    I was actually going to say in my post that all three of those quotations could be seen as compatible, though I think there's an enormous and significant difference in tone. And to me this is the most significant Scruton quote: "

    "Like all political beings, conservatives are for certain things: they are for them, not because they have arguments in their favour, but because they know them, live with them, and find their identity threatened (often they know not how) by the attempt to interfere with their operation."

    Now this, to me, is a legitimate role for prejudice-- as long as it does not conflict with dogma (and though I am thinking of Catholic dogma, I think it will be agreed that any coherent philosophy must have dogmas of some sort). I'm troubled by Chesterton's rationalism, the whole tone of his reformism which seems to be; what kind of ideal society do we desire? And how can we go about building it? Chesterton wanted to bring about a human way of life, but I sometimes feel he overlooked one very human attribute, which is a positive love for institutions and ways of life as they are and as they have developed-- for their own sake. I feel the rationalistic and a priori tone of his social writings just doesn't take account of what Scruton is celebrating here-- that inchoate, dumb, stubborn love of a current way of life, and of the social values and memories that have grown around it, with all its imperfections.

  3. "Chesterton wanted to bring about a human way of life, but I sometimes feel he overlooked one very human attribute, which is a positive love for institutions and ways of life as they are and as they have developed-- for their own sake"

    Is that really true, though? He says in one spot in Orthodoxy: "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

    He goes on in the chapter "Ethics of Elfland" to say that he thinks democracy and tradition are of one spirit.

    His spirit of reform he contrasts with development in (I think it is the piece on Eugenics)--and that gibes here with what Scruton says about social Darwinism.

    Development is the progressive attitude, reform is the liberal one--and it's radical only in so far as it's root, radix (radish) means getting to the root of.

    To Reform is to look back as much as it is to lean forward. What he advocates is a reaching back and a reaching forward, or a growing down as well as a growing up.

    In isolation he can seem to be progressive or liberal, conservative, or medievalist--it's the entirety of the viewpoint that emerges as something wholly other and why I think he is so wise.

    Though not always incorrect.

    Can you give me an example of where you think that he is too "reformist" or too "radical"? I know you cite What's Wrong With the World often as your prime example but can you be more specific?

  4. I love that quotation from Orthodoxy-- and I do sometimes feel he departs from its spirit remarkably, at other times.

    I will have to look through What's Wrong with the World when I have time for good examples-- but in general, examples of Chesterton's radicalism that disturb me are his lack of respect for the British monarchy (the great symbol and repository of his own nation's traditions), his occasional romanticization of mobs, his admiration for the French revolution and the French republican tradition, his ridiculing of English gradualism and meliorism ("freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent"), his praise for Rousseau, and an antagonism towards the wealthy that sometimes seemed close to a vision of class warfare.

  5. Dear Friends,

    I think the reason you do not feel comfortable with Chesterton's apparent idealistic reformism is that you are thinking conservatism in exactly the same way that in Orthodoxy is depicted as the wrong way. The only reason for not being conservative (GKC says in Orthodoxy) is that things decay, social institutions included. That is why the "eternal revolution" is needed. Following this stream of thought, conservatism is wrong when it means satisfaction, laziness. It is right if it means fighting for keeping institutions as shiny as they where the day of their birth. GKC's idealism is keeping desperately attached to a dream, not of the future, but of a glorious past. The bad radical makes is new habits law. The good radical makes his good customs law. And again quoting GKC, habits are nearly always selfish, customs are nearly always unselfish.
    It is very hard to understand GKC if you do not slice your stream of thought in its finer components. He forces you to make a lot of distinctions, get rid of easy-to-use ideas, and enrich your imagination with new hues.

  6. Thank you for your comment Borghi.

    I appreciate Chesterton's comparison with whitewashing the fence to keep it white, and eternally renewing the White Horse. But I actually question if it is true. It seems to me that benign neglect might well be the best policy towards many things. That is, the dust and ivy and cobwebs that grow over our institutions can be as precious as the institutions themselves.

    Of course, this isn't true of the Catholic Church, which has renewed itself perpetually with great bursts of energy, as in the Counter-Reformation.

    I'm not sure it's easy to distinguish between habit and custom.

    I will give an example; poetry. For many centuries it was simply assumed that poetry should rhyme and scan and obey conventions of beauty and appropriateness. Now that we've got rid of that assumption, which was almost unthinking (and could be thought lazy) it's almost impossible to get it back again.

  7. As for the difference between habit and custom, I think that in Chesterton's view it was the reason WHY one is doing that and the purpose of the habituary action. The triggering reason for a habit to start is personal contingency, and its purpose is covering or enriching oneself's personality. Custom is more linked with society and tradition, starts for cultural and collective reasons, and has education among its purposes. In fact I guess that one may eventually choose Chesterton's point as a way to distinguish between habit and custom.

    About your remark about poetry, I perfectly agree with you if you say that it is very difficult to go back. But I am persuaded that it is difficult because of laziness. Moreover, I am even convinced that using rhyme again would not really mean going back, but improving, in the way of being able to master BOTH unrhymed and rhymed poetry ... think of Folk songs.. using rhyme to sing poems while playing a guitar is not too different than what the Greeks did with the harp.

    The work of the eternal revolutionary is "shaping", and fighting against the decay of shape. But watch out! Because even the wrinkles of your face are and have a shape, which was defined by the patient work of your muscles inspired by your feelings. So, for Chesterton, an old guitar is welcome, together with its vintage-looking yellowish wood... as far as it is not out of tune.