In the previous posting on this subject we saw how early in their relationship, George Bernard Shaw had used unfair debating tricks (are there fair debating tricks?) to “win” an argument against Chesterton by deliberately changing the real point under discussion.
Nor was this an isolated instance of Shaw’s use of this tactic. In November 1909, a year after the early debate with Chesterton, he published a pamphlet, Socialism and Superior Brains: A Reply to Mr. Mallock. (London: The Fabian Society, November 1909.)
Earlier that year the English novelist and economics writer William Hurrell Mallock (1849-1923) had published letters relating to his theory of capitalism. According to Mallock, the rich are entitled to be rich because they have exhibited superior abilities, intelligence, and virtue.
Mallock’s argument in favor of capitalism (basically “thing-ism”) was not merely vapid and asinine, it was patently absurd. Shaw had absolutely no trouble shredding it and presenting Mallock’s head to the public on a platter.
What Shaw carefully avoided, of course, was any mention of, one, Mallock’s critique of socialism or, two, his analysis of the condition of religious doctrine and the natural law in the Church of England. Henry George (1839-1897), the agrarian socialist, had described the former, presented in Property and Progress (1884) and The Quarterly Review, as “the only reply to himself which was worth being considered seriously.” (W.H. Mallock, Memoirs of Life and Literature. London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1920, 136.) This was particularly devastating, because George’s theories presented in Progress and Poverty (1879) abolishing private property in land were the inspiration for forming the Fabian Society. (Edward R. Pease, A History of the Fabian Society. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1916, 20-21, 28.)
The latter, contained in Doctrine and Doctrinal Disruption (1900) (W.H. Mallock, Doctrine and Doctrinal Disruption: Being an Examination of the Intellectual Position of the Church of England. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900), was a theological and philosophical earthquake that shook the Anglican Communion to its foundations. By exposing the doctrinal bankruptcy of the Church of England — a few years later the Pan-Anglican Congress of 1908 voted overwhelmingly in favor of a socialist interpretation of Christian teaching (Roger Lloyd, The Church of England, 1900-1965. London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1966, 191-200.) — it led or at least contributed to some very high-profile conversions to Catholicism.
This no doubt further irritated Shaw. In the course of the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries he had seen the English national church taking up a position securely within the Fabian camp. Only the Catholic Church continued to hold the line against socialism.
Those influenced by Mallock’s religious analysis included Chesterton’s friend, Monsignor Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888-1957). Knox greatly admired Mallock’s first novel, The New Republic (1877). He may have introduced Fulton John Sheen (1895-1979) to Mallock’s work during their time together at Saint Edmund’s College, Ware, particularly Mallock’s response to positivism, Is Life Worth Living? (1880). (William Hurrell Mallock, Is Life Worth Living? New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1880.) That life is indeed worth living was a constant theme in Sheen’s own ministry.
Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) credited Mallock’s writing with removing his last reservations and clinching his decision to convert to Catholicism. As he wrote in a letter to Father G. Walgrave Hart on May 19, 1903,
But I have just been reading to-day an irresistible book — Mallock’s Doctrine and Doctrinal Disruption. My word! It is a masterpiece. Really, honestly, I have practically no further doubts. (Rev. C.C. Martindale, S.J., The Life of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1916, I.230.)
It comes as no surprise that Lord of the World (1907), Benson’s apocalyptic satire on Edwardian England, is based on the reductio ad absurdum of a civilization formed in the image and likeness of the Fabian vision. Benson took all that the socialists, modernists, and New Agers considered essential to create a Heaven on Earth and showed how it would lead only to a Hell. As Fulton Sheen, “the American Chesterton,” noted a few decades later of the socialist goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth,
|Fulton J. Sheen|
It is simply impossible to have millions of men in the world living according to their pagan principles, and not produce the modern chaotic world in which we live. This idea of a “Heaven here below” is the surest way to make a hell upon earth. The universe thus becomes a multiplicity of self-centered little deities; the coat of arms of each is a big letter “I,” and when they talk their “I”’s are always getting closer together.
In the light of the foregoing explanation of man the choice before the world is this: Will we build a New Order on the totalitarian assumption that man is a tool of the State? Or will we retain the Old Order of the secularist culture of the last two hundred years, that man is only an economic animal? Or will we build a New Order on the Christian assumption, that man is a creature made to the image and likeness of God and therefore one for whom economics, politics, and society exist as a means to an eternal destiny beyond the historical perspective of planets, space, and time? (Fulton J. Sheen, Philosophies at War. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943, 94-95.)
Even so, because Mallock’s theory of capitalism made the man such an easy target against whom he could direct his numerous barbs and bombast and demonstrate his cleverness, Shaw viewed Mallock with amused contempt. At the same time, because Chesterton refused to give him any opening at all once Chesterton learned the trick of handling him, Shaw regarded Chesterton with enraged respect, even liking.
Consequently, Shaw had to limit his show of superiority to castigating Chesterton for his lack of business acumen and his gullibility in becoming a Catholic. It is not completely out of the realm of possibility that Chesterton’s reticence about the process of his conversion might have been motivated in part by the desire to annoy Shaw by refusing to give him anything specific to attack.
That does not mean, however, that Shaw did not keep trying to trip up Chesterton. As the informal evening debate in the summer of 1923 continued, Shaw accused Chesterton of contradicting himself, of trying to be two halves of a whole at one and the same time —
You are just like Don Quixote; and though your lunacy on some occasions makes his seem pale by comparison, you yet contrive in some mysterious manner to be your own Sancho Panza. (Biancolli, Great Conversations, op. cit., 504.)
Chesterton amiably agreed, treating it as a compliment. As he responded, further infuriating Shaw,
Exactly; and anybody but you could see that the combination of these two extremes forms the Catholic standpoint. You might almost have been quoting me when you said that the Catholic standpoint is that there is no standpoint. . . . The Catholic is not so pragmatical as the atheist or the Puritan. His Faith is built on Belief, not on Knowledge — falsely so-called. He is consequently able to appreciate and sympathize with every form of human activity. He takes the whole world to his heart. (Biancolli, Great Conversations, op. cit., 504.)
Chesterton did not, of course, dissent from the primacy of reason defined in the First Vatican Council, but rejected the modernist belief that matters of faith must be proved by scientific means or explained away by applying the latest scientific theories (cf. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, op. cit., 93-94). Having brought Shaw very nicely to the boil, Chesterton emphasized that unlike socialists and other fantastic creatures, “We Catholics do not pretend to a knowledge we have not got. . . . [Y]ou can hardly expect us to accept your verdict . . . that man was not made to enjoy himself but to read Fabian tracts and listen to University Extension lectures.” (Biancolli, Great Conversations, op. cit., 505.)
Shaw, however, refused to see the point, or at least pretended he did not — although the latter is unlikely. Having Shaw hooked and landed, Chesterton triumphantly proceeded to gaff him. He agreed with Shaw that he was not making sense, knowing full well he was making perfect sense if Shaw could only have dropped his prejudices and looked beyond his limited, materialistic worldview.
Having been tried past endurance, Shaw accused Chesterton of wanting to have his cake and eat it, too, attacking an opponent and running away from him at the same time. As he fulminated, “I see. Heads you win, tails he loses, all the way.”
Shaw: Thank you. I am wasting my time. Good evening.
(Rapid exit of Shaw.) (Ibid., 506.)