A Slender Thread
As some of you may know, I've been reading a lot of GK Chesterton lately. I haven't been reading his more well-known mysteries, essays, and apologetics. Instead, I've been reading a few of his less well-known pieces of fiction. The Return of Don Quixote is a full-length novel. There's a reason it was his last: it's forced, at times lazy, and he never really found his classic voice in it. Don't get me wrong, it's got some powerful, fun, and touching passages; in fact it contains what has become my favorite Chesterton quotation ever. But there's a reason it's not as well known as Father Brown, The Man Who Was Thursday, or any other of his fiction. On the other hand, Tales of the Long Bow is a collection of disjointed short stories that tie together a handful of characters, each of whom have a triumphal moment in his particular story. It's romantic (the arch-conservative follows the comedic template and they all manage to get hitched), hilarious (each in his own way absurdly disproves a popular figure of speech), and yet full of a modern pathos (the villains are a cabal of politico-industrial bureaucrats). I highly recommend this particular work.
But there's one thing they do have in common: Both stories hinge around great conservative counter-revolutions. In the former, a fad of recreating medieval England in culture and politics sweeps the nation. In the latter, the band of heroes defend and expand private property rights against a socializing land reform scheme. Indeed, the revolutions portrayed in these stories are surprisingly broad and sweeping; they would put the wildest dreams of the 1960s cultural revolutionaries to shame. Clearly, Chesterton was a man of his era, and these stories are stories of their era. The man wrote during a revolutionary time; within a decade of the Bolshevik Revolution, at a time when fascism, communism, and industrial capitalism were sweeping post-WWI Europe like a storm. It's only natural for a radical conservative such as Chesterton to imagine a truly conservative England, and enjoy throwing a few social scientists in the mad house in the process.
All this got me thinking about the state of modern-day America in a new light. Signs of a social breakdown are everywhere, from the faltering economy to the divisive political culture. The fault lines are indeed as geographic as they are economic and social. It's hard not to wonder a little about the future of American Civilization. I mentioned a while back to someone that if the roots of these elements of great political change are the expansion of social-science and government bureaucracies evident at the turn of the 20th century, the antidote to them certainly is Chesterton. That antidote is no less potent against the concern for an impending revolution.
As I stated earlier, Chesterton lived in a time very ripe for revolution. Indeed, it was arguably moreso than today. Yet if we look at his England and the rest of Western Civilization in the time that followed, while a handful of countries did succumb to revolution, many, indeed most, did not. The thread of civilization is a slender one, but it's as strong as spider silk. While there are many things to remain concerned about, truly revolutionary moments in history are more rare than our prideful sense of the present is wont to admit. Indeed, to have truly revolutionary moments, one must have truly revolutionary ideas. The concepts of ordering society by social science and of the proletariat owning the means of production were truly revolutionary ideas. But at least in America, we were fortunate enough that they were overpowered and outlasted by even more powerful revolutionary ideas. Let us look upon them today, and commit ourselves to continuing to make that so:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
Have a great Independence Day, everyone! For those who are so inclined, hoist a Sam Adams for me!