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.”