Chesterton wrote a small book (pdf) on William Cobbett, a late-eighteenth century farmer, medievalist, and contrarian blessed with unparalleled a talent for the polemic. Cobbett grounded his fierce slashing rhetoric on a firm foundation of Christian realism. This is his greatness. He shares with Chesterton an opinion on Capitalism (not very high), and a grand reverence for private property; but he possessed none of Chesterton’s infectious generosity in his writing. He thought the Reformation in England was but an usurpation designed to beggar the rural civilization flourishing there and plunder its wealth. The book is worth reading, though I would not count it among Chesterton’s classics.
As with virtually anything Chesterton has written, there are in this book flashes of jocular genius, of that playful intuition of being which was the great man’s great gift, that almost make you laugh out loud. Here are two examples, one from early in the book, and one from near the end.
In the first, we meet Chesterton attempting to demonstrate the curious fact that Cobbett, his head filled with ideals from the past, what yet the only critic who saw what was coming.
Cobbett was not merely a wrong-headed fellow with a knack of saying the right word about the wrong thing. Cobbett was not merely an angry and antiquated old farmer who thought the country must be going to the dogs because the whole world was not given up to the cows. Cobbett was not merely a man with a lot of nonsensical notions that could be exploded by political economy; a man looking to turn England into an Eden that should grow nothing but Cobbett's Corn. What he saw was not an Eden that cannot exist but rather an Inferno that can exist, and even that does exist. What he saw was the perishing of the whole English power of self-support, the growth of cities that drain and dry up the countryside, the growth of dense dependent populations incapable of finding their own food, the toppling triumph of machines over men, the sprawling omnipotence of financiers over patriots, the herding of humanity in nomadic masses whose very homes are homeless, the terrible necessity of peace and the terrible probability of war, all the loading up of our little island like a sinking ship; the wealth that may mean famine and the culture that may mean despair; the bread of Midas and the sword of Damocles. In a word, he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there. And some cannot see it — even when it is there.
It is the paradox of his life that he loved the past, and he alone really lived in the future. That is, he alone lived in the real future. The future was a fog, as it always is; and in some ways his largely instinctive intelligence was foggy enough about it. But he and he alone had some notion of the sort of London fog that it was going to be. He was in France during the French Revolution; amid all that world of carnage and classical quotations, of Greek names and very Latin riots. He must have looked, as he stood there with his big heavy figure and black beaver hat, as solemn and solid a specimen as ever was seen of the Englishman abroad-the sort of Englishman who is very much abroad. He went to America just after the American Revolution; and played the part of the old Tory farmer, waving the beaver hat and calling on those astonished republicans for three cheers for King George. Everywhere, amid all that dance of humanitarian hopes, he seemed like a survival and a relic of times gone by. And he alone was in any living touch with the times that were to come.
All those reformers and revolutionists around him, talking hopefully of the future, were without exception living in the past. The very future they happily prophesied was the future as it would have been in the past. Some were dreaming of a remote and some of a recent past; some of a true and some of a false past; some of a heroic past and others of a past more dubious. But they all meant by their ideal democracy what democracy would have been in a simpler age than their own. The French republicans were living in the lost republics of the Mediterranean; in the cold volcanoes of Athens and Thebes. Theirs was a great ideal; but no modern state is small enough to achieve anything so great. We might say that some of those eighteenth century progressives had even got so far as the reign of Pepin or Dagobert, and discovered the existence of the French Monarchy. For things so genuine and primarily so popular as the French Monarchy are generally not really discovered until they have existed for some time; and when they are discovered they are generally destroyed. The English and to some extent the American liberals were living in one sense even more in the past; for they were not destroying what had recently been discovered. They were destroying what had recently been destroyed. The Americans were defying George the Third, under the extraordinary idea that George the Third ruled England. When they set up their republic, the simple colonists probably really did think that England was a monarchy. The same illusion filled the English Whigs; but it was only because England had once been a monarchy. The Whigs were engaged permanently in expelling the Stuarts, an enjoyable occupation that could be indefinitely repeated.
That is a feast for the mind.
The next example is a deeper point, a flash of intuition about the nature of things. Chesterton grants us one of his luminous analogies — and what it illustrates is something vital. It concerns an old and often abused distinction between the abstract and the concrete. Cobbett’s withering pen gave him a special capacity to cross between the two and show us what they are.
Of course, if Cobbett had treated any abstract science it would have become a concrete science. If he had merely undertaken to set out the multiplication table it would have run: “Twice one useless regiment is two useless regiments; twice two venal Ministers is four venal Ministers; twice three pluralistic parsonages is six pluralistic parsonages like those possessed by the Reverend Mr. Hugg of Netherwallop,” and so on. If he had set out a system of astronomy, and had merely to give the names of the stars, he would have been unable to mention Mars without saying something caustic about Lord Wellington; or Mercury, without a few contemporary illustrations of the connection between commerce and theft. No icy abstractions could freeze out that ferocious familiarity. It is said that the discoverer of the North Pole would see a Scotsman's cap on it; certainly the sight of that cap would fill Cobbett with sentiments sufficient to keep him warm. On that side the grammatical experiment illustrates only his obvious pugnacity; his tendency to personify everything in order to pelt it with personalities. But it illustrates something else as well. And it is exactly that something else that seems in a sense contrary, and yet is the completion of the character, without which it cannot be understood.
There was something cool about Cobbett, for all his fire; and that was his educational instinct, his love of alphabetical and objective teaching. He was a furious debater; but he was a mild and patient schoolmaster. His dogmatism left off where most dogmatism begins. He would always bully an equal; but he would never have bullied a pupil. Put a child before him to be taught arithmetic or the use of the globes, and he became in the most profound and even touching sense a different man. There came about him like a cold air out of the clean heavens, cooling his hot head, something that counted with him more than it does with most men; something about which we hear perhaps too much now as too little then; something that only too easily provides perorations for politicians or themes for ethical societies; but something which does exist in some men and did emphatically exist in this one. The pure passion of education went through him like a purging wind; he thirsted to tell young people about things-not about theories or parties or political allegations, but about things. Whether they were grammatical roots or vegetable roots or cube roots, he wanted to dig them up; to show them and to share them. He had the schoolmaster's enthusiasm for being followed, for being understood; his inmost ideal was a sort of white-hot lucidity. He above all men made the appeal: He that hath ears to hear, let him hear; though he was too prone to decorate with very long ears the rivals who would certainly refuse to hear. But the dunces were the dons. There was no dunce in the class he taught; for the whole fury of his genius was poured into simplifying his lesson to suit it to the village idiot.
I will leave you to untangle all that manic brilliance. (If someone can explain to me the reference to the North Pole and the Scotsman’s hat, I would appreciate it.) I will add only this: having read that passage, having given it a couple moments’ study, I now possess a better understanding of the difference between abstract and concrete.