Once upon a time there were two people who liked to argue with each other. There is nothing wrong with that, except one of them was a socialist and inclined to take any unfair advantage to win an argument. The other (who was not a socialist) didn’t care about winning the argument as long as he persuaded others of the truth or reasonableness of his position. Naturally enough, the two managed to argue for nearly twenty years without the one actually winning the argument, or the other persuading him of anything.
We refer, of course, to George Bernard Shaw and Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the two “metaphysical jesters,” as one biographer termed them. Shaw, known for his espousal of socialism (the abolition of private property), took every opportunity to tilt at the presumed windmill of Chesterton’s distributism (a policy of small distributed property).
What seems to have been the first debate between the two on the subject took place on November 18, 1908. G.K.’s brother Cecil Edward Chesterton was a co-panelist and Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc was in the chair, by coincidence the same place he held in the final debate between the two in 1927. During the debate Chesterton declared,
Socialists do propose, however moderate and however gentle their measures, to abolish any direct ownership of land. But owning land is an idea of exactly the same sort to my mind as the idea of a religious symbol. . . . You cannot find any poem, tradition, legend, or fairy tale that does not assume it as natural that a man should own a piece of land. That particular thing I ask you to assume for the sake of argument — the sense of owning your back garden, of actually owning it. That thing is, it is fairly true to say, general in the literature and in the tradition of mankind.
At this point we should note that we took this from an incomplete record of the debate of November 18, 1908, published in the “Christian socialist” magazine, The New Age of March 18, 1909. It was quoted in Daniel H. Strait, “‘Fighting Friends’: The Chesterton-Shaw Debates,” Shaw, Vol. 23 (2003), 50, where we came across it.
Unfortunately, having stated a specific application (ownership of a back garden) of a principle (the natural right to be an owner), Chesterton was now at the mercy of the sort of tactic at which Shaw excelled, viz., drawing attention away from the fact that he himself had made no reasoned defense of socialism. The best way to do this was to point out any flaws, real or imagined, in the particular application cited by his opponent, and completely ignore the principle behind the application.
Little intelligence and minimal cunning are needed to identify flaws and make the imperfect applications of principles, not the perfect principles behind the imperfect applications, the point of contention. Realizing this, even if only unconsciously, socialists like Shaw carefully avoid discussion of fundamental principles and insist on mistaking applications of principles for the principles themselves.
As a side note (and possibly with Shaw in mind), what Chesterton later characterized as unfair argument involves searching for flaws in some application of a principle espoused by the opponents, however immaterial or irrelevant, and then sneering at it. “[I]t is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Images Books, 1956, 126.)
Nor did Shaw waste any time in doing so. As he more or less cleverly twisted Chesterton’s words,
With reference to Mr. Chesterton’s remarks re [sic] a man not possessing a back garden under Socialism, I contend that if Socialism is established in this country he will have a back garden. I will pledge my honour that in the coming Socialist State Mr. Chesterton shall have his own garden. Personally, I own six back gardens, but prefer to live where there is only an area. (Strait, “Fighting Friends,” op. cit., 51.)
Shaw’s dishonesty is readily apparent. He took Chesterton’s example, viz., owning a “back garden,” and instantly declared it to be the principle with which Chesterton was concerned. Chesterton, however, had clearly framed owning a back garden as a symbol of land ownership, not the principle itself.
|St. Thomas Aquinas|
Shaw’s response avoided the real issue, the natural right to own land (or anything else) and to control it and enjoy the income thereof within the parameters of the common good. Instead, Shaw reassured Chesterton that under socialism he would have the back garden Shaw implied Chesterton had elevated to the status of absolute principle.
Despite the obvious nature of Shaw’s rather shabby debating trick, he had come out the winner in the eyes of the audience. He had redirected a debate on the importance of private property per se, to a condescending reassurance that no one would interfere with Chesterton’s selfish desire to have a back garden. The point that Chesterton had tried to make regarding the personal empowerment that necessarily accompanies direct ownership had been completely nullified.
After being bested (or so popular opinion supposed) by Shaw a couple of times in this way, Chesterton figured out how to deal with the Irascible One. He would state his principle(s) in terms as broad as possible, leaving Shaw with nothing specific to attack except Chesterton himself.
Chesterton being congenitally jovial and refusing to quarrel, this left Shaw with nothing with which to attack, except to complain that Chesterton was avoiding quarreling and was therefore a liar and a coward. Typically, Shaw would make a few more sallies in as insulting a manner as possible, Chesterton would refuse to rise to the bait, and Shaw would become enraged to the point of incoherence.
For example, take the ending to an informal debate that took place in the summer of 1923 soon after Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism (which enraged Shaw, as most everything tended to do. . . .). As recorded by Hesketh Pearson who was by chance present (published in the September 1923 issue of The Adelphi magazine of London (1923-1955), and later in Louis Biancolli, ed., The Book of Great Conversations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948), 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.
Chesterton amiably agreed, treating it as a compliment. As he responded, further infuriating Shaw,
|"Chesterton gives me a headache and he won't fight!"|
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.
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.”
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 (those are fishing metaphors, if you care). 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.)