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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

A Chestertonian Challenge

In the previous posting on this subject, I expressed my disappointment at Dr. Joseph Pearce’s ignoring a question I submitted twice.  The question was germane to the topic — Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s 1925 book, The Everlasting Man — and was, in fact, related to the whole focus of Chesterton’s life and work.  As I asked,

G.K. Chesterton


Chesterton wrote “The Everlasting Man” in response to former Fabian H.G. Wells’s “Outline of History.” Chesterton was opposed to all forms of socialism, including Fabian socialism, equating it with modernism (G.K.’s Weekly, May 10, 1930).  Given Chesterton’s stand on socialism, how do you think he would have viewed today’s socialists, e.g., Keynes’s protégé and Fabian E.F. Schumacher’s Fabian tract or his “New Age Guide to Economics”, “Small is Beautiful”?

The fact that Dr. Pearce evidently dismissed the question as unimportant or not of general interest, therefore raises some concerns.  Why?

It has become increasingly obvious that many people today take a fundamentally different view of society than is accepted in the Just Third Way.  Unfortunately, this view of society has become unquestioned and, worse, unquestionable.  People assume that a particular way of understanding the human person that became prevalent two-hundred years ago is the only possible way of doing so.

Not to get apocalyptic, but this has been a disaster, both for individuals and society as a whole.  Millennia of human progress was effectively wiped out in just a few years as people accepted the assumptions of the new way of looking at things.  Caused by seemingly incomprehensible changes in society, the new way was apparently the only hope to save humanity . . . except that it was exactly the wrong thing to do.

Pope Gregory XVI


The new way of looking at people and society was embodied in what Pope Gregory XVI labeled rerum novarum, “new things.”  They gave birth to what would in our day be called capitalism, socialism, modernism, and the New Age.

Christian social doctrine developed as a response to this theory of society, which was seen by mainstream Christian bodies, both Catholic and Protestant, as an attack on the social order and on traditional forms of Christianity, especially Catholicism.  This is obscured today by the fact that socialism and capitalism are usually assumed to be opposites, when they are actually just different forms of the same thing, e.g., where capitalism restricts property to a private sector élite, socialism restricts property to the State . . . meaning to those who control the State, who often turn out to be capitalists.

The logical outcome is what Hilaire Belloc called “the Servile State,” an amalgam that is neither fully capitalism nor socialism.  It is, rather, a condition of society in which the great mass of people are disposed of everything except consumer goods and their own labor, and are therefore under the control of — servile to — those who control capital.

Robert Owen, Capitalist-Socialist


The first socialists were, in fact, capitalists (Robert Owen and Friedrich Engels), came from the monied aristocracy (de Saint-Simon, de Lamennais), or the bourgeois class (Fourier, Levi).  They were opposing organized religion, especially Catholicism, and the existing political order.  The original name for socialism was, in fact, le démocratie religieuse, “the Democratic Religion,” and was intended (as the socialist solidarist Émile Durkheim put it) to convert religion from a spiritual to a social phenomenon (the group’s worship of itself) and thereby transform society itself into God, a “divinized society.”

Both before and after he became a Christian, this concerned Chesterton greatly.  Once he became a Catholic, he seems to have (in a sense) shifted into high gear, writing his greatest books on the problems caused and represented by the new things that by his day had become known as socialism, modernism and the New Age, with a nod to capitalism (to put it rather mildly).

His books Saint Francis of Assisi, The Everlasting Man, The Catholic Church and Conversion, and Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” are, if read in this light, a tightly focused counterattack not merely on the new things themselves.  They are a response to the fundamental assumption underlying the new things, the view of society that Chesterton believed to be utterly foreign to Christian — or any other — truth: the shift of sovereignty from the human person created by God, to an abstraction created by man.

Dr. Pearce, failed to acknowledge


Dr. Pearce did not acknowledge this.  In his lecture (the second part of which is tonight), Dr. Pearce barely mentioned socialism.  Nor did he (to the best of my recollection) so much as mention modernism or the New Age.  Dr. Pearce’s talk, therefore, seemed to me to avoid the major thrust of Chesterton’s writings in favor of what they mean at a personal, spiritual level.

Admittedly, Dr. Pearce’s analysis was not wrong.  His presentation, however (in my opinion) was almost egregiously incomplete by failing to pay adequate (or any) attention to the new things, even though my question gave him a more than adequate opening.

Nor was I alone in my assessment.  I posted my concerns on this blog and shared them on FaceBook.  Readership of my blog increased by nearly 600%, and the FaceBook link was “liked” and “shared” more than any other recent posting.  What astonished me, given Dr. Pearce’s status as an acknowledged expert on Chesterton and my lack thereof, was the number of people who agreed with me that he really should have answered the question, or at least acknowledged it.

There were, in fact, only three comments that could be taken as negative in any way.  I will deal with them today.

It's not huckstering if it's free. . . .


First, one commentator said that I had made an error in referring to Joseph Pearce as “Doctor.”  The commentator stated that he was not aware that Dr. Pearce is any such thing.

Admittedly, I had simply accepted at face value the claim that Joseph Pearce has a doctorate.  I can now state unequivocally that it is true.  According to the website of TAN Books, Joseph Pearce does indeed have a doctorate in Higher Education.  It was granted honoris causa by Saint Thomas College where he used to teach.

Second, a commentator declared, “This is a verbose and disappointing blog that just dismisses Dr. Pearce and the mainstream of Chesterton scholarship and never gets to explaining the author's disagreement with Dr. Pearce. Instead it ends up being an ad for the writer's own books. Intellectual cancel culture: buy my books instead of his.”

I dealt with this by pointing out that, no, the blog was a comment that Dr. Pearce ignored a question; he was “cancelling” my culture, not I his.  The full explanation as to why I was disappointed with Dr. Pearce would be coming in future posts (like this one).  I also pointed out that I offered a free download of my book to anyone who wants it (scroll down the link to the free e-book offer).  I and my co-author would, of course, be absolutely delighted if massive quantities of the book were purchased, but the book is free for the taking by anyone.  The commentator was gracious enough to accept this explanation and give it a FaceBook “like.”

Arthur Penty


The third comment has, in a way, already been answered, above.  It was the most negative, and demonstrated that the problems Chesterton attempted to address (and that Dr. Pearce failed to acknowledge) run very deep, indeed.  As the commentator said (unedited),

The main objection is Chesterton didn’t Iike “socialism”, but he actively collaborated with and praised Arthur Penty and his Guild Socialism.  He also endorsed Eric Gill’s Catholic Guild movement.  The materialism and anti property aspect of Marx’s socialism was the object of his ire, not communal or social living.

A number of issues are raised in this brief comment.  First, the less said about Eric Gill, the better.

Second, the comments about Chesterton’s attitude toward socialism were completely off-base.  He had constant disagreements with Penty, one of the founders of “guild socialism” (a renaming of syndicalism that spun off from the Fabian Society) and often had to referee fights that Penty started.  The Preface Chesterton wrote to one of Penty’sbooks is one of the most remarkable things that he ever penned.  It is one of the few times, maybe the only time, that Chesterton didn’t actually say anything substantive.  He only commented that Penty's book speaks for itself.”

Pope Pius XI


In the end, Chesterton got so fed up with the Fabian infiltration of the distributist movement that he stopped attending meetings of the Distributist League except for the annual dinner, and even then left as soon as he could.  Chesterton explicitly equated socialism and modernism, the two main “new things” with which the social encyclicals beginning with Mirari Vos in 1832 were concerned.

Finally, it is the “communal or social living” aspect that Chesterton — and the Catholic Church — specifically condemn about socialism.  Chesterton called it “the soul of the hive” (Saint Thomas Aquinas), while Pius XI referred to it as “a theory of society utterly foreign to Christian truth” (Quadragesmo Anno).

The problem is that, as Fulton Sheen pointed out in God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy — with an introduction by Chesterton — socialism’s basic premise shifts sovereignty away from the human person created by God, and vests it in an abstraction created by man.  This “demotes” God as it were, and glorifies man at God’s expense.

As Pius XI made clear in Divini Redemptoris, “Only man, the human person, and not society in any form, is endowed with reason and a morally free will.”  Socialism turns society itself into a god (as Émile Durkheim posited in his twisted version of solidarism), and turns religion into the group’s worship of itself.

Orestes A. Brownson


This is the whole point of “the New Christianity” (an early name for socialism; another was “the Democratic Religion”), and why it was anathema to Chesterton, who noted a number of times that socialism was a new religion resembling Christianity, something he may have picked up from the ex-socialist Orestes Brownson who presaged Chesterton's opinion on that particular subject.

So, yes, in addition to the fact that I am just as entitled to my opinion as anyone else, I am also entitled to the truth.  When Dr. Pearce — or anyone else — asks for questions and then ignores them, or if he (or anyone else) tells an incomplete, partial, or non-truth in an area in which I have some expertise (even if unacknowledged), I reserve the right to give my opinion or state the truth in any manner I see fit, as long as I do not intend harm thereby.

Having explained in this posting my reasons for claiming that Chesterton and other authorities considered the new things of great importance, in the next posting on this subject I will explain why they did and continue to do so.