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Chesterton on origins

Over the years, a number of friends and correspondents have pressed me on the somewhat arcane subject of political anthropology. The very origins of political man. The disputes can be bewilderingly subtle, and not a few times I have managed to argue myself into a real mess. But the gist of it concerns the question of the political development of man — how government or the state first enters the world and how it develops as an institution.

Now the modern philosophers have tended to rest a great deal upon what seem to me fairly hasty and unsupported speculations about the historical facts of political development; and many of these speculations have tended to uphold of view of the political life of man which may be described Progressive. Man has progressed in his political arrangements, at times haltingly, but still with an observable trend which associates the passage of time with advancement or perfection.

Thus, according to the moderns, we may say as a general statement that man has progressed up from tyranny and backwardness to liberty and enlightenment.

My answer is that I would sooner trust Chesterton’s arguments about the origins of man and state, than any of these reckless rationalists of modern political philosophy. I would not, mind you, insist that anyone embrace Chesterton’s own often fanciful speculations; I would only say that Chesterton’s speculations are no less trustworthy than Hobbes’ or Locke’s, that the truth is probably closer to the younger Englishman, and that, therefore, much of the foundation of modern political philosophy is quite unreliable.

In short, far from laying down a Chestertonian dogma, I only say that his insights are sufficient to show the fundamental inadequacies of the modern dogmas of politike episteme.

An excerpt from Chapter Three of The Everlasting Man:

According to the real records available, barbarism and civilisation were not successive states in the progress of the world. They were conditions that existed side by side, as they still exist side by side. There were civilisations [in ancient times] as there are civilisations now; there are savages now as there were savages then. It is suggested that all men passed through a nomadic stage; but it is certain that there are some who have never passed out of it, and it seems not unlikely that there were some who never passed into it. It is probable that from very primitive times the static tiller of the soil and the wandering shepherd were two distinct types of men; and the chronological rearrangement of them is but a mark of that mania for progressive stages that has largely falsified history. It is suggested that there was a communist stage, in which private property was everywhere unknown, a whole humanity living on the negation of property; but the evidences of this negation are themselves rather negative. Redistributions of property, jubilees, and agrarian laws, occur at various intervals and in various forms; but that humanity inevitably passed through a communist stage seems as doubtful as the parallel proposition that humanity will inevitably return to it. It is chiefly interesting as evidence that the boldest plans for the future invoke the authority of the past; and that even a revolutionary seeks to satisfy himself that he is also a reactionary.

[. . .]

Anyhow all these ideas are little better than guesses; . . . they are not history in the sense of record; and we may repeat that when it comes to record, the broad truth is that barbarism and civilisation have always dwelt side by side in the world, the civilisation sometimes spreading to absorb the barbarians, sometimes decaying into relative barbarism, and in almost all cases possessing in a more finished form certain ideas and institutions which the barbarians possess in a ruder form; such as government or social authority, the arts and especially the decorative arts, mysteries and taboos of various kinds especially surrounding the matter of sex, and some form of that fundamental thing which is the chief concern of this enquiry; the thing that we call religion.

Now Egypt and Babylon, those two primeval monsters, might in this matter have been specially provided as models. They might almost be called working models to show how these modern theories do not work. . . . The story of Egypt might have been invented to point the moral that man does not necessarily begin with despotism because he is barbarous, but very often finds his way to despotism because he is civilised. He finds it because he is experienced; or, what is often much the same thing, because he is exhausted. And the story of Babylon might have been invented to point the moral that man need not be a nomad or a communist before he becomes a peasant or a citizen, and that such cultures are not always in successive stages but often in contemporary states.

[. . .]

It is not necessarily an indefensible thing that the state grew more despotic as it grew more civilised; it is arguable that it had to grow more despotic in order to grow more civilised. That is the argument for [despotism] in every age; and . . . it is emphatically not true that [the Egyptian society] was most despotic in the earliest age and grew more liberal in a later age; the practical process of history is exactly the reverse. It is not true that the tribe began in the extreme of terror of the Old Man and his seat and spear; it is probable, at least in Egypt, that the Old Man was rather a New Man armed to attack new conditions. His spear grew longer and longer and his throne rose higher and higher, as Egypt rose into a complex and complete civilisation. . . . We do not know what was the very first condition of the more or less feudal amalgam of land owners, peasants and slaves in the little commonwealths beside the Nile. . . . What we do know is that it was by experience and education that little commonwealths lose their liberty; that absolute sovereignty is something not merely ancient but rather relatively modern; and it is at the end of the path called progress that men return to the king.

Now Chesterton’s genius was of course precisely suited for this sort of discursive unfolding of insight. As my edition of The Everlasting Man puts it, each page could be the subject of an extended review. Few writers have ever been so effective at just piling up elegant insights. His best work hits like a kind of cataract of fruitful intuitions; the reader is bowled over and left to linger for long minutes over single paragraphs or passages, marveling.

But all this bewildering insight makes his writing singularly resistant to summary. You will find in his works countless epigrams and quotable imagery; his quips and paradoxes proliferate; but when you come to trying to broadly summarize his thinking, you find that in the end all you can do is quote at length, and hope that some readers will be inspired to read the whole thing.

In the case at hand, I find several of these arguments concerning political anthropology persuasive enough to induce me to set aside the conjectures of the moderns.

First there is the incisive point about civilization and barbarism, extant as parallel conditions, not successive ones in a story of directional progress.

And there is the related point that it is far from obvious that barbarism is tantamount to despotism.

Which then leads into the point that civilization sometimes requires despotism to be accomplished. Another way Chesterton puts it is that “there always went with communication a certain element of coercion.” In America, to take a nearby example, the massive project of Interstate Highways profoundly advanced our internal communication while at the same time augmenting our subjection to the authority of the Federal State.

I can fairly easily drive from Atlanta to Denver to visit family, an extraordinary feat of internal communication which collapses a distance that in other ages would be almost insurmountable, but which also abridges the independence of Georgia and Colorado as sovereignties and invests substantial new power in the Federal Government. There was a trade-off here, and progressives on any stripe ought to recognize that this dilutes the effect of any hermeneutic or narrative of progress. We progressed toward communication and interdependence, and away from independence and liberty; and it is a matter of interpretation as to the final success of this trade-off.

Earlier the same chapter of The Everlasting Man, “The Antiquity of Civilization,” Chesterton takes the point even a step farther:

It is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy. To this day the comparatively simple agricultural communities are by far the purest democracies. Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation. Anyone who likes may state it by saying that democracy is the foe of civilisation. But he must remember that some of us really prefer democracy to civilisation, in the sense of preferring democracy to complexity. Anyhow, peasants tilling patches of their own land in a rough equality, and meeting to vote directly under a village tree, are the most truly self-governing of men.

Here again I’ll note that I am not insisting that the reader embrace these Chestertonian fancies. His liberty-under-the-village-tree fancy appeals to my way of thinking, but the point is not that all must accept its appeal. The point is rather that this fancy is no more fanciful than Locke’s myth of the first property owner as the first free man, or Rousseau’s myth of the first owner as the first thief.

And the point is, furthermore, that Chesterton understood it to be a fancy, while the modern philosophers are much more inclined to present it as a dogma. Half of the burden of Chesterton’s argument is to keep in mind that the origins of these things are still shrouded in shadow and mystery. We really cannot reconstruct the very first townhall meeting under the village tree in order to decide whether it was democracy or tyranny. We cannot say with final confidence whether government appeared in one place as a development or evolution, or whether it sprung up naturally, though with great variety, wherever men gathered in any numbers.

Finally, there is something pregnant in those arguments about the opposition between self-government and social complexity — especially in light of the financial crisis through which we are now passing. For it is (in part) precisely the staggering complexity of high finance, its labyrinthine counterparties and web of hedges, its shadowy abstractions and bewildering welter of unintended consequences, that has pulverized our self-government. “It is probable,” Chesterton tells us, that despotism entered the world as a piece of progress; it was government recently “armed to attack new conditions.” It was the exigencies of civilization itself that required despotism. It was like Hank Paulson, newly armed after the near crack of doom last autumn with a Sacred Tarp of Healing, who ordered all the executives of the banks to subject themselves to the Executive in Washington, and at a stroke transformed, perhaps forever, the character of American free enterprise.

“It is at the end of the path called progress that men return to the king.”

Comments (19)

In support (in a sense) of the general thesis here I would point to the known and recorded history of the Middle Ages, specifically, the 12th and 13th centuries. Consider the anarchy under Stephen (immortalized in Ellis Peters's Cadfael books). I've often said to myself that a medieval anarchy is rather (in its broad outlines) like an extreme libertarian's dream. That is, if we leave aside serfdom! But at the level of the knights, each knight goes riding about pledging his fealty to an immediate overlord. Something similar is true of the man who has a manor. They may change their coats at different times, and if their side wins, they get away with it. The king can punish them for treachery only if he is strong enough, and throughout those two centuries (think of John's being forced to sign Magna Carta) the kings had continual problems with their barons. They were often _not_ strong enough to punish people for setting up little semi-princedoms on their own. I once heard of some anarchists talking to Ayn Rand and trying to get her on their side. They advocated "competing armies." She said, "As in "civil war"?" And of course, that's exactly what it was like in many periods of history. Competing armies, competing for the loyalty of smaller land-owners with a small following and even for the fealty of individual knights.

And I might add that it was a mess. As Peters's (Pargeter's) novels on the brothers of Gwynnedd show, the sort of hyper-feudalism of very small rulers over small portions of land, giving and taking back their loyalty hither and thither, is what eventually brought about the conquest of Wales by the more centrally governed, stable, and wealthy England, ending once and for all Welsh cultural and political freedom.

When one reads of such times one begins to see that centralization at some level can be a kind of dream of its own: of freedom from continual petty (but highly destructive) wars and raids, of safe roads, of the ability to tend one's fields rather than having to go to war every spring leaving the women and young boys to raise the crops.

Mind you, I'm not saying, "Centralization is wonderful." I'm just pointing out the other face of decentralization and localism. I suppose one could say that there is value to moderation even in localism.

Despotism has certainly gotten worse as society has "progressed." The forms of despotism that came into being in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were well beyond what existed even 1000-2000 years ago. They reduced human beings to a social status that was directly comparable to being a cog in a giant machine.

Yet there is one constant: the collective has almost always resorted to coercion to make the individual do its will. Collectivism, as it normally manifests itself, is sinful because it diminishes the value of the individual, and should not be confused with community.

I think there are all sorts of little paradoxes that arise in this area. For example, one can have small, local despots even in a highly chaotic situation with no centralized government. In fact, nothing is more probable. What chance would a not-very-important prisoner have had of being rescued by English law from the dungeon of one of the marcher lords in, say, 1215, even if he had been detained technically unlawfully? So one can certainly have an absence of anything remotely like "democracy" on the very local level and for individuals precisely _because_ one has too much equality as between local powers and no sufficiently strong higher government to restrain them. On the other hand, it is in some ways easier to vote with your feet (if you get the chance to run away) when the regional authority changes frequently and drastically as you travel across the country.

I think myself that what all of this supports is the amazing wisdom of the founding fathers of the United States in the ways that they balanced state and federal power. For example, the states cannot raise armies, which makes civil war less likely (though of course we did have one civil war nonetheless). But at least one doesn't have that sort of ruinous and constant internecine warfare that one gets with fifty little duchies each with its own army. On the other hand, had the structure of the Constitution actually been retained, the powers of the federal government would have been _far_ more circumscribed than they are, and the states would be free to govern themselves within wide latitudes, leading to much more opportunity at the individual level both for impact on one's own government (democracy) and for "voting with your feet" in a highly significant way by moving to a different state with, perhaps, very strikingly different laws.

So the true progress is neither from despotism to pure democracy nor from pure democracy to despotism but rather to a carefully crafted system of checks and balances that has a reasonable chance of avoiding the worst excesses of either of the other two.

"but which also abridges the independence of Georgia and Colorado as sovereignties and invests substantial new power in the Federal Government. There was a trade-off here, and progressives on any stripe ought to recognize that this dilutes the effect of any hermeneutic or narrative of progress. We progressed toward communication and interdependence, and away from independence and liberty;"

It might have been useful to actually enumerate the "losses" from the interstate highway system. Miners in Ludlow and descendants of slaves in Cobb County might differ as to the losses of independence and liberty represented by the Wagner Act and the Voting Rights Act. Are individuals more free or less free if the Fourteenth Amendment imposes the Second Amendment on the several states?

Agriculture was likely the inflection point and Enlightenment insights gave us the Declaration and the Constitution.

I'm glad to see that Paul Cella and others are finally catching on to this, although I'm sorry it took so long. I have been crying out in the wilderness about this very theme for almost a decade. The key word is exigency: a modern society like ours is far too dependent on a tottering tower of value-added goods and services to be very reliable. The uses of social capital are too intensive, the logistics trains too long, and the tensions too high to be maintained. The end result of a highly complexified society is an epistemological and spiritual crisis that shakes the meaning of all things; it is the other side of the "simulacra" problem.

I, too, have found Chesterton almost impossible to summarize, and the source I would quote in connection with the above statement equally defies convenient presentation. He is Oswald Spengler. I think all parties agreeable to Cella's thesis will find his short book Man and Technics a most enlightening read.

Agriculture was likely the inflection point...

Yep, the origins of civilization and technology have very simple roots. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0Q5AUJT_zk

It might have been useful to actually enumerate the "losses" from the interstate highway system.

For starters; the healthy distance that allows particular communities to retain their distinct ways and local customs was a huge loss. Endless suburban tracts and strip malls reek of a dull, unimaginative homogeneity that do not make a genuine community but do create a suicidal dependence on Middle Eastern oil states. The Placeless Place winds up fighting wars to support its rootless, conformist and hyper-mobile lifestyle. Lost too were the urban neighborhoods based on strong familial and social ties that in turn made for safe, vibrant cities essential to a civilization. Other than those minor quibbles, the interstate highway system was an unalloyed good that only a madman not properly grateful for political, economic and "cultural" centralization could question.

At a simpler level, those of us who aren't exactly thrilled with the notion of eminent domain have to wince when we think of all the exercises of that prerogative required to build all those miles of highway, even though we're glad to have the highway now that it's here.

Why is my comment sitting around in moderation for half an hour?

Too many links.

Lydia: amen on the genius of careful balance in the structure of the American state. Our political science is blessed beyond measure by the remarkable wisdom of the Framers.

But let me note that the argument against anarchy, which you mention vis-a-vis the tumult of the Middle Ages, is precisely the one that Zippy and I have cited in dispute with you over, say, the TARP. In my judgment it would be supremely unwise to allow the experiment of Capitalism without an industry to store Capital (i. e., banking), just like in your judgment, it was quite unwise to encourage such a wild proliferation of localist attachments.

Well, yes, but I'm talking about actual armies running about killing people. The argument against anarchy isn't an all-purpose tool.

Moreover, I wasn't saying anything about the mechanism for change from anarchy to non-anarchy, as it were. A gradual mechanism is a good deal better than a sudden power-grab. For example, in the 1100's, Henry II is lauded by Winston Churchill in his history for convincing the people to bring their cases to the king's justice by providing circuit-riding judges to hear their cases. The idea was, quite literally, to compete with the judgments of local lords and to centralize gradually and osmotically by the gradual development of a system of courts to which people were encouraged to bring their cases.

Llewelyn the Great of Wales in the early to mid 1200's tried to unify Wales in part by showing that he was the strongest defender of the Welsh against the English. That the unity of Wales was an artifact of his personal charm and strength became apparent when it all fell apart the moment he died. In other words, he didn't unify Wales by some sort of radical change of government.

Finally, it would be false to say that our situation prior to the takeover of GM and the other things which you yourself, Paul, seem to lament in the main post, was one of _anarchy_ in the economic realm. While I know that some people would like to liken it to that, the analogy would be pretty spurious considering the number of regulations the financial sector did in fact already operate under. It certainly is false that our only alternatives are anarchy or government ownership of the means of production! If that were true, we would be in big trouble. And indeed, that false dichotomy is precisely what the socialists and Marxists wish to push on us.

The prospect of Capitalism without banking is anarchy, I submit.

I referred to what we had before last September. Which was not capitalism without banking.

The thing is, Paul, in the main post it sounds like you aren't very pleased about ordering all the banks to submit to the executive in Washington. In fact, in the post you seem to be regretting (at least to some extent) what was lost by, of all things, the construction of the Interstate Highway System!

So I, responding to Chesterton's "village democracy under a tree," make a few comments about anarchy and local despotism from history, supporting the notion that progress can legitimately be associated with *some measure* of centralization, and meaning this to apply to the _literal_ anarchy of feudalism I'm describing. And in response suddenly you're back implying that the only alternative to the government's owning the banking system is horrific anarchy. I'm getting whiplash.

I was too facile. My bad, Lydia.

I was just re-emphasizing my point in the last paragraph of the OP, which is that it was precisely because of the demands of civilization, in the sense of complexity, that the bailouts began. I do indeed lament that we came to this pass. I do indeed lament that we came to the point where so much hinged on emergency life-support for the shadow banking system. I do indeed lament the cavalcade of bad choices and accidents that led that day when Treasury had to ask Congress for virtually unlimited power to rescue the financial system of the West.*

I lament these things but I do regard them as true statements. Paulson, Geithner and Bernanke had an obligation to inform the President of their decided opinion that absent the massive intervention of the Fed and Treasury (along with other central banks) the financial system of the world was in danger of catastrophic failure.

Now, I still think the point about complexity stands even if (as you have argued in the past) these things I point to as facts are not facts but rather exaggerations.

In the part of Everlasting Man I have quoted here, Chesterton is discussing how the gargantuan institution of the Pharaoh entered the world. He conjectures that it was in part because of the need to establish communications among the various towns of the Nile. Independence is the trade-off for integration and prosperity.

I see the same trade-off in both Interstate Highways and shadow banking.

* One of the galling accidents of the situation is that so much this ruin of failed hedges and bad bets and bizarre insurance debacles took place among non-bank institutions like AIG, which means that the Fed and Treasury did lack the statutory authority to fully address the crisis. It was when they got a look at what was inside AIG that they realized they had to go to Congress.

Relations between Congress and Treasury were not well handled by anyone. The famed Paulson one-page "give me all-power over the financial system" request; the bone-headed congressional counterproposals; the unrelenting monomania of Bush-hatred; the worn-out catchphrases and cant and above all the ignorance. But the devil of it is that, not knowing the true nature of the crisis, and not having statutory authority over non-bank banks, federal regulators were obliged to ask for what amounts to blanket authority -- they had to be “armed to attack new conditions.”

Paulson was of course a Wall Street man. His interactions with Congress suggest a classic culture clash. How he must have seethed silently at the posturing of the politicians -- for he must also have known that he was handing over Wall Street to Washington.


That does it, this post convinced me that I need to quickly finish what I'm reading at the moment* and pick up my copy of "The Everlasting Man", which I had already bought thanks to one or more of your previous wise posts quoting Chesterton! You have done a great service to your readers by exposing us all to Chesterton's widsom. I should also mention, as it is tangentially related to this great man, that Alan Jacobs' book "Original Sin" is a delightful cultural history (mostly Western history, but he does look at some non-Western cultures as well) of the concept of original sin, which was famously described by Chesterson as the "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved" (from "Orthodoxy", Chapter 2). I submit that Jacobs, in his relatively short book, does a wonderful job of showing the importance of this difficult but ultimately indispensable concept to Western civilization.

*One potential answer to Chesterson's speculations is the effort by anthropologists and other historians to attempt to answer the question of how mankind developed politically by drawing lessons from the evidence we do have. This is obviously difficult before civilizations started writing stuff down, but it is also not impossible. The book I'm reading now, Gregory Clark's "A Farewell to Alms" attempts to explain the economic history and development of mankind using the limited data we do have. His task becomes much easier post 1200, when the English started keeping really good records on all sorts of economic matters, but you'd be surprised how much he can figure out before then just by studying modern-day hunter-gatherer societies and the limited archeological and written information we do have about the ancient past.


You are like a paleo caricature -- if your writing was any more over the top I'd speculate that you are really Pat Buchanan writing under a pseudonym. Paul writes a thoughtful post on the inherent complexity of the modern condition and the trade-offs we all face living in 21st Century America and you respond with a description of America as "[e]ndless suburban tracts and strip malls [which] reek of a dull, unimaginative homogeneity". Really? That is all America has become thanks to the interstate highway system? People living in those suburban tracts aren't raising families? Enjoying homes with all sorts of modern conveniences that allow for more time with family and friends? Going to church and forming Boy Scout troops, book clubs, and bridge games? I don't deny that there are trade-off to living our modern lifestyle, but it would be nice for paleos to acknowledge some of the GOOD that comes from modernity, as well as the bad.

Paul -- You've nicely summed up my thoughts on Chesterton's Everlasting Man. It's at once a tour de force and also a history that you must take with a grain of salt. But I lean more toward the former in my judgement and here's why: First, there is the point you mentioned that Chesterton is very aware of the lacunae of real information about the distant past. Moreso than his presumed interlocutors like H.G. Wells. Secondly, though, is that Chesterton's is what I would call an "imaginative history." I'm sure he would not shrink from that description or see "imaginative" as a deprecation. All of Chesterton's ouvre testifies to the power of his imagination as a mechanism guided by and aiming for TRUTH. We have a screwy understanding of imagination these days--as screwy as our understanding of freedom, as both have been carelessly divorced from truth. Does Chesterton get everything right? Probably not. But his imaginative reconstruction of the shadowy past is informed by (in my opinion) a very robust comprehension of human nature, and his conclusions are chained to this truth. Which, unlike Mr. Wells' version of history, keeps them from being succeptible to pure ideology, whether progressive or reactionary.

One can almost imagine the horror that would rise in him if Chesterton heard that someone thought he might have gotten everything right.

I recommend for any Chesterton fans what is the best thing ever written about the gregarious genius: Hugh Kenner's Paradox in Chesterton. It is not easy to find but quite a remarkable book.

Kenner explains how Chesterton's great gift is his "metaphysical intuition of being." It is a perfect phrase. No doubt Chesterton can on occasion be too clever for his own good, but by and large his fancies and paradoxes and stunning comparisons (Belloc has a great line about how the phrase "it would be as if" is a cue in Chesterton for a coming stroke of inspired literary power) are simply bold and true.

Mixed in with this wild wisdom is, of course, Chesterton's warmth, generosity (hardly a mention of the named subject of his critique, H. G. Wells, fails to include a rousing compliment as well), humility and humor.

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