Chesterton was told, by
those older and wiser, that as he matured, he would lose his ideals and focus
on the practical. It turns out exactly the opposite
occurred. It is not his ideals that have been lost, but his faith in those who pretend to speak
for those ideals:
As much as I ever did, more than I ever
did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I
believed in Liberals.
He was raised a liberal, and has always believed in democracy –
meaning “a self-governing humanity.” This is based on two
principles: first, the things in common to all men are more important than the
things peculiar to each man; second, the political instinct is one of those
things held in common.
This might seem slightly off, but Chesterton will explain: the
political instinct is made manifest in the laws of the state. But
Chesterton does not see this as time bound; tradition plays a fundamental role:
It is obvious that tradition is only
democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human
voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record.
Tradition is nothing more than the extension of the franchise,
taking into account the knowledge and wisdom of those who came before, who
learned lessons in our stead and passed these lessons on to
us. Tradition refuses to submit to the oligarch of the moment:
All democrats object to men being
disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being
disqualified by the accident of death.
A good man’s opinion is
of value, whether he is alive today or in some time past. And in
this journey, Chesterton finds that all that he discovers has been discovered
in the past – it had been discovered by Christianity. But
before coming to this, he begins with his childhood fairytales.
Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country
of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges
earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland
that criticised the earth.
Jack the Giant killer killed giants because they are gigantic –
a mutiny against pride; the lesson of Cinderella he compares to the Magnificat;
Beauty and the Beast teaches that a thing must be loved before it is lovable;
Sleeping Beauty is blessed with all gifts, yet succumbs to death. Yet
it isn’t these details, but “the whole spirit of its law,” a way of looking at
life, that Chesterton finds of value.
In fairyland we avoid the word
"law"; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it.
We understand why liberty is taken from the man who takes
liberties, but we cannot say why an egg turns into a chicken, or a bear turns
into a prince. Which is the more strange? After all, a
bear is closer to a prince than a chicken is to an egg. We must answer
the same way that the fairy godmother answered Cinderella about how mice turned
We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not
a "law," for we do not understand its general formula. …All the terms
used in the science books, "law," "necessity,"
"order," "tendency," and so on, are really unintellectual,
because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words
that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy
books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment."
We enjoy love tales because of our instinct of sex; we enjoy
astonishing tales because of our instinct of astonishment. The
youngest children don’t even need fairy tales to be astonished; mere tales will
A child of seven is excited by being told
that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by
being told that Tommy opened a door.
In his journey, Chesterton discovered that
the strongest emotion came from realizing that life was as precious as it was
puzzling. From this, he came to gratitude, but at the time he did
not know to whom he should be grateful. For two
legs? For, not just a birthday present, but for his birth day? If
Cinderella asks why she must depart the ball by midnight, the fairy godmother
might reply: ask how you are even going at all!
We rebel against that
which we understand all too well; we obey that which we do not understand at all:
In the fairy tale an incomprehensible
happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all
evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love
flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is
eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
While Chesterton’s fairy tales were left on the nursery floor, he
has not found any books as sensible since then. Are we to resist
rules simply because they are mysterious? Coming to us from our
fathers and from our fairy tales, we can understand why these might be
mysterious even if we cannot understand why these might be rules.
Keeping to one woman is a small price for
so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was
like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the
terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility
to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that
he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.
It took Chesterton some
time to understand that the modern world was wrong on many things while his
nurse was quite right. The modern world has stripped us of
convictions found in the fairy tales:
…I found the whole modern world talking
scientific fatalism; saying that everything is as it must always have been,
being unfolded without fault from the beginning.
The materialist is in prison, the prison of this one
thought. While the cosmos might be infinite, there was nothing
interesting to it – not in the way that forgiveness or free will are
In fairyland there had been a real law; a
law that could be broken, for the definition of a law is something that can be
broken. But the machinery of this cosmic prison was something that could not be
broken; for we ourselves were only a part of its machinery.
We are either unable to
do things or we are destined to do them. In such a world, what is
the point of law? As Chesterton wrestled with this, he found the
entire enterprise ever more shallow. And where did he arrive, at
least to this point:
that this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a
supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural
explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy
me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard.
I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone
to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art;
whatever it meant it meant violently.
I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects,
such as dragons.
· Fourth, that the proper form of thanks
to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and
Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also, an obedience to
whatever made us.
· And last, and strangest, there had come
into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a
remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin.
And all this without giving a thought to Christian theology.