First published in the Catholic Herald
In conversation with Peter Hitchens for Merely Catholic, the Catholic Herald podcast, I found he was underwhelmed by Giorgia Meloni quoting G.K. Chesterton in her public political campaigning.
I, on the other hand, had taken some encouragement at hearing Christian values and rhetoric being articulated in the public square by someone who had won political office.
He, by contrast, saw two problems. No politician could be trusted to make any serious changes to the left-gripped status quo; and Chesterton himself was suspect for some distasteful views. Was this a case of no smoke without fire? The first of these reservations seemed perfectly sensible. The second one was more complex.
It would be naïve to fight for the virtue and heroism of politicians, and if it’s not too ‘racist’ to say so, Italian politicians in particular. Their coalition governments only last a few months on average. But the potential success of a particular Italian coalition government wasn’t the point. The point was the unusual articulation of Christian values in the public square which has been uniformly devoid of them.
The second problem was Chesterton himself. For some very good reasons there has been a dedicated and energetic movement to beatify him within the Catholic church. But it was the evidence of his anti-Semitism, presented by Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton in 2019, that brought a halt to it.
So, the question to be asked is, was Chesterton anti-Semitic, and if he was, why, and in what way? And further, how much does it matter? Do we lose the whole man, or is there a way of dealing with such a serious flaw?
In the book ‘The sins of G. K. Chesterton’, the author Richard Ingrams examines the charge of anti-Semitism. Ingrams examines how his deep affection and passionate loyalty to his younger brother Cecil influenced him to such an extent that he found himself taking up the anti-Semitic world view of Hilaire Belloc, (to whom Cecil was devoted). For Belloc, Jews were un-British parasites, mainly bankers and businessmen, determined to take over the world.
As Ingrams comments:
“In awe of Belloc’s powerful personality, both Chesterton brothers were to adopt the Bellocian manifesto almost without qualification or any awareness of the flimsy factual basis on which much of it was based. The results were disastrous for both men.”
Their interdependence stretched to Cecil becoming his mouthpiece, his subordinate, the editor of his journal, The Eye-Witness, who promulgated his views. Chesterton’s views on the re-settlement of Jews, for example requiring them to dress as Arabs so that they could be distinguished from Westerners, are alarming and rather shocking.
But he would not be the first man to allow his closest emotional allegiances to distort his value system and ethics. Love, even familial, or perhaps especially familial, has an irrationally powerful effect on us. And it may be that that’s what we are witnessing; the triumph of one kind of love ‘storge’ over another kind of love, ‘agape’. Storge he owed to his brother; agape he owed to the Jews. Tragically, but not uniquely, one aspect of Love cancelled the other out. Love in all its complexity is perfectly capable of being abused, one aspect against another, for each of us, as much as for Chesterton.
One of the more interesting aspects of re-examining Chesterton in the light of Meloni quoting him, is to see how commentators have resorted to the old trick of pulling odd quotes of his about fascism out of context and relishing that he once supported Mussolini in his Abyssinian excursions.
It’s the usual story. A few quotes taken out of context and no reference to the rich subtlety of his world view. In fact, Chesterton wrote often about fascism in his many and voluminous essays. He carefully distinguished German, Italian and Spanish fascism. He wrote sardonically about the strengths and weaknesses of secular optimistic Liberalism and Communism as well as fascism. Most of his observations combine wit, pathos, extravagantly documented antithesis and poignant paradoxes.
But time after time he returns to the futility of modernity and its facile political optimisms across the whole political spectrum in comparison with the grandeur of Catholicism:
“In the heart of Christendom, in the head of the Church, in the centre of the civilisation called Catholic, there and in no movement and in no future, is found that crystallisation of commonsense and true traditions and rational reforms, for which the modern man mistakenly looked to the whole trend of the modern age. From this will come the reminders that mercy is being neglected or memory cast away, and not from the men who happen to make the next batch of rulers on this restless and distracted earth.”
This is not a paean to fascism.
The passage that Georgia Meloni quoted did not originally serve as a repudiation of the anti-rationality of postmodernism. How could Chesterton have foreseen that? It was originally an exploration of the way in which any thesis causes an equal and opposite antithesis, leading not to the Hegelian synthesis, but to the repudiation of irrational rationality by Faith.
“Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them….
The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.”
But in fact, like much Biblical prophecy, it works at a number of different levels at the same time and very aptly describes our present conflict. If Chesterton was tragically and foolishly anti-Semitic does he get cancelled? Duncan Wu in a piece in the Spectator (August 21.2021) argued he should be:
“But views as deplorable as Chesterton’s must and should affect our judgment of him as a man and, by extension, his writings.. An artist’s inability to perceive the venality of fascism is a serious flaw in his or her moral and political judgments.”
But this is the world-view of wokery. One flaw, one sin, one lacuna, and all virtue is extirpated. Christianity takes a different view; it’s more of a nano/personalist wheat and tares thing. Our virtues and vices grow alongside one another, and at the end, Christ purges us of one and amplifies the other.
The truth, clarity and integrity we find in Chesterton are not cancelled by his flaws. The light they shed on the human condition remains as true and as illuminative precisely because they derive from the source of all Truth and Light. Our sin does not diminish God; it is the opposite. His love cancels our sin.
Let’s leave the last word to Chesterton as we contemplate whether or not an Italian democrat has the right to the declamation of Christian virtue in a culturally conflicted post-modern world. Truth, like beauty, depends on the clarity of the eye of the beholder.
“It is ludicrous to suppose that the more sceptical we are the more we see good in everything. It is clear that the more we are certain what good is, the more we shall see good in everything.”