A Want of Something to Do: Guest Post by G.K. Chesterton

This post is an excerpt from G.K. Chesterton’s personal notebook, published for the first time in his biography by friend and publisher Masie Ward. According to Ward, he did not yet consider himself a Christian, but noted the disparity between modern Christians chasing a cause (in this case Socialism) and Christianity as Christ preached it. 

Now, for my own part, I cannot in the least agree with those who  see no difference between Christian and modern Socialism, nor do I  for a moment join in some Christian Socialists’ denunciations of  those worthy middle-class people who cannot see the connection. For I  cannot help thinking that in a way these latter people are right. No  reasonable man can read the Sermon on the Mount and think that its  tone is not very different from that of most collectivist speculation  of the present day, and the Philistines feel this, though they cannot  distinctly express it. There is a difference between Christ’s  Socialist program and that of our own time, a difference deep,  genuine and all important, and it is this which I wish to point out.

Let us take two types side by side, or rather the same type in the  two different atmospheres. Let us take the “rich young man” of the  Gospels and place beside him the rich young man of the present day,  on the threshold of Socialism. If we were to follow the difficulties,  theories, doubts, resolves, and conclusions of each of these  characters, we should find two very distinct threads of  self-examination running through the two lives. And the essence of  the difference was this: the modern Socialist is saying, “What will  society do?” while his prototype, as we read, said, “What shall I  do?” Properly considered, this latter sentence contains the whole  essence of the older Communism. The modern Socialist regards his  theory of regeneration as a duty which society owes to him, the early  Christian regarded it as a duty which he owed to society; the modern  Socialist is busy framing schemes for its fulfilment, the early  Christian was busy considering whether he would himself fulfil it  there and then; the ideal of modern Socialism is an elaborate Utopia  to which he hopes the world may be tending, the ideal of the early  Christian was an actual nucleus “living the new life” to whom he  might join himself if he liked. Hence the constant note running  through the whole gospel, of the importance, difficulty and  excitement of the “call,” the individual and practical request made  by Christ to every rich man, “sell all thou hast and give to the  poor.”

To us Socialism comes speculatively as a noble and optimistic  theory of what may [be] the crown of progress, to Peter and James and  John it came practically as a crisis of their own Daily life, a  stirring question of conduct and renunciation.

We do not therefore in the least agree with those who hold that  modern Socialism is an exact counterpart or fulfilment of the  socialism of Christianity. We find the difference important and  profound, despite the common ground of anti-selfish collectivism. The  modern Socialist regards Communism as a distant panacea for society,  the early Christian regarded it as an immediate and difficult  regeneration of himself: the modern Socialist reviles, or at any rate  reproaches, society for not adopting it, the early Christian  concentrated his thoughts on the problem of his own fitness and  unfitness to adopt it: to the modern Socialist it is a theory, to the  early Christian it was a call; modern Socialism says, “Elaborate a  broad, noble and workable system and submit it to the progressive  intellect of society.” Early Christianity said, “Sell all thou hast  and give to the poor.”

This distinction between the social and personal way of regarding  the change has two sides, a spiritual and a practical which we  propose to notice. The spiritual side of it, though of less direct  and revolutionary importance than the practical, has still a very  profound philosophic significance. To us it appears something  extraordinary that this Christian side of Socialism, the side of the  difficulty of the personal sacrifice, and the patience, cheerfulness,  and good temper necessary for the protracted personal surrender is so  constantly overlooked. The literary world is flooded with old men  seeing visions and young men dreaming dreams, with various stages of  anti-competitive enthusiasm, with economic apocalypses, elaborate  Utopias and mushroom destinies of mankind. And, as far as we have  seen, in all this whirlwind of theoretic excitement there is not a  word spoken of the intense practical difficulty of the summons to the  individual, the heavy, unrewarding cross borne by him who gives up  the world.

For it will not surely be denied that not only will Socialism be  impossible without some effort on the part of individuals, but that  Socialism if once established would be rapidly dissolved, or worse  still, diseased, if the individual members of the community did not  make a constant effort to do that which in the present state of human  nature must mean an effort, to live the higher life. Mere state  systems could not bring about and still less sustain a reign of  unselfishness, without a cheerful decision on the part of the members  to forget selfishness even in little things, and for that most  difficult and at the same time most important personal decision  Christ made provision and the modern theorists make no provision at  all. Some modern Socialists do indeed see that something more is  necessary for the golden age than fixed incomes and universal stores  tickets, and that the fountain heads of all real improvement are to  be found in human temper and character. Mr. William Morris, for  instance, in his “News from Nowhere” gives a beautiful picture of a  land ruled by Love, and rightly grounds the give-and-take camaraderie  of his ideal state upon an assumed improvement in human nature. But  he does not tell us how such an improvement is to be effected, and  Christ did. Of Christ’s actual method in this matter I shall speak  afterwards when dealing with the practical aspect, my object just now  is to compare the spiritual and emotional effects of the call of  Christ, as compared to those of the vision of Mr. William Morris.  When we compare the spiritual attitudes of two thinkers, one of whom  is considering whether social history has been sufficiently a course  of improvement to warrant him in believing that it will culminate in  universal altruism, while the other is considering whether he loves  other people enough to walk down tomorrow to the market-place and  distribute everything but his staff and his scrip, it will not be  denied that the latter is likely to undergo certain deep and acute  emotional experiences, which will be quite unknown to the former. And  these emotional experiences are what we understand as the spiritual  aspect of the distinction. For three characteristics at least the  Galilean programme makes more provision; humility, activity,  cheerfulness, the real triad of Christian virtues.

Humility is a grand, a stirring thing, the exalting paradox of  Christianity, and the sad want of it in our own time is, we believe,  what really makes us think life dull, like a cynic, instead of  marvellous, like a child. With this, however, we have at present  nothing to do. What we have to do with is the unfortunate fact that  among no persons is it more wanting than among Socialists, Christian  and other. The isolated or scattered protest for a complete change in  social order, the continual harping on one string, the necessarily  jaundiced contemplation of a system already condemned, and above all,  the haunting pessimistic whisper of a possible hopelessness of  overcoming the giant forces of success, all these impart undeniably  to the modern Socialist a tone excessively imperious and bitter. Nor  can we reasonably blame the average money-getting public for their  impatience with the monotonous virulence of men who are constantly  reviling them for not living communistically, and who after all, are  not doing it themselves. Willingly do we allow that these latter  enthusiasts think it impossible in the present state of society to  practise their ideal, but this fact, while vindicating their  indisputable sincerity, throws an unfortunate vagueness and  inconclusiveness over their denunciations of other people in the same  position. Let us compare with this arrogant and angry tone among the  modern Utopians who can only dream “the life,” the tone of the early  Christian who was busy living it. As far as we know, the early  Christians never regarded it as astonishing that the world as they  found it was competitive and unregenerate; they seem to have felt  that it could not in its pre-Christian ignorance have been anything  else, and their whole interest was bent on their own standard of  conduct and exhortation which was necessary to convert it. They felt  that it was by no merit of theirs that they had been enabled to enter  into the life before the Romans, but simply as a result of the fact  that Christ had appeared in Galilee and not in Rome. Lastly, they  never seem to have entertained a doubt that the message would itself  convert the world with a rapidity and ease which left no room for  severe condemnation of the heathen societies.

With regard to the second merit, that of activity, there can be  little doubt as to where it lies between the planner of the Utopia  and the convert of the brotherhood. The modern Socialist is a  visionary, but in this he is on the same ground as half the great men  of the world, and to some extent of the early Christian himself, who  rushed towards a personal ideal very difficult to sustain. The  visionary who yearns toward an ideal which is practically impossible  is not useless or mischievous, but often the opposite; but the person  who is often useless, and always mischievous, is the visionary who  dreams with the knowledge or the half-knowledge that his ideal is  impossible. The early Christian might be wrong in believing that by  entering the brotherhood men could in a few years become perfect even  as their Father in Heaven was perfect, but he believed it and acted  flatly and fearlessly on the belief: this is the type of the higher  visionary. But all the insidious dangers of the vision; the idleness,  the procrastination, the mere mental aestheticism, come in when the  vision is indulged, as half our Socialistic conceptions are, as a  mere humour or fairy-tale, with a consciousness, half-confessed, that  it is beyond practical politics, and that we need not be troubled  with its immediate fulfilment. The visionary who believes in his own  most frantic vision is always noble and useful. It is the visionary  who does not believe in his vision who is the dreamer, the idler, the  Utopian. This then is the second moral virtue of the older school, an  immense direct sincerity of action, a cleansing away, by the sweats  of hard work, of all those subtle and perilous instincts of mere  ethical castle-building which have been woven like the spells of an  enchantress, round so many of the strong men of our own time.

The third merit, which I have called cheerfulness, is really the  most important of all. We may perhaps put the comparison in this way.  It might strike many persons as strange that in a time on the whole  so optimistic in its intellectual beliefs as this is, in an age when  only a small minority disbelieve in social progress, and a large  majority believe in an ultimate social perfection, there should be  such a tired and blasé feeling among numbers of young men. This, we  think, is due, not to the want of an ultimate ideal, but to that of  any immediate way of making for it: not of something to hope but of  something to do. A human being is not satisfied and never will be  satisfied with being told that it is all right: what he wants is not  a prediction of what other people will be hundreds of years hence, to  make him cheerful, but a new and stirring test and task for himself,  which will assuredly make him cheerful. A knight is not contented  with the statement that his commander has hid his plans so as to  insure victory: what the knight wants is a sword. This demand for a  task is not mere bravado, it is an eternal and natural part of the  higher optimism, as deep-rooted as the foreshadowing of perfection.

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