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G.K. Chesterton on the decay of Western Christianity
In his book The Well and the Shallows G.K. Chesterton has a chapter entitled "Sex and Property". In it he writes: "But even the stink of decaying heathenism has not been so bad as the stink of decaying Christianity. The corruption of the best ...".
He was referring to public sexual immorality as it manifested itself in the ancient world and as it was in his time beginning to manifest itself in the modern world. Gross and obscene as the pagan practices may have been, Chesterton sees reason to compare them favorably with the modern. Thus he observes: "In one way all this ancient sin was infinitely superior, immeasurably superior, to the modern sin."
What is this way in which, despite its decadence, the ancient was superior to the modern worship of sexual pleasure? The answer follows on immediately: "The ancient sexual perversity, as all historians agree, was connected to the cult of Fruitfulness …". Hence, according to Chesterton, "It was at least on the side of Nature. It was at least on the side of Life."
The modern "sexual revolution", however, has completely severed the natural connection of sexual pleasure with life. It has been left to the last Christians, or rather to the first Christians fully committed to blaspheming and denying Christianity, to invent a new kind of worship of sex, which is not even a worship of life. It has been left to the very latest modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility.
Chesterton adds: "... this unnatural separation, between sex and fruitfulness … even the Pagans would have thought a perversion." Today, this perversion even to the dissolute pagans has become so widely accepted and practised that it is claimed to be as 'natural' as sexual intercourse which is apt, barring natural impediments, to produce offspring, and any moral denunciation of it is beginning to be treated as perverse, even by legislators. One can only contemplate with dismay how this socially 'moral' turnaround must end.
Chesterton noticed this unnatural separation that characterised the modern attitude to sex in the early part of the twentieth century. The subsequent years between then and now have seen the gradual re-education of society's attitude to sex so that its divorce from any natural connection with the continuation of human life is made as complete as possible. The introduction of the contraceptive pill played a decisive part in this disconnection process.
The educators in de-perversion having done their job, in relatively recent times social sexual practices have followed suit till we have reached the stage where "sex" between consenting adults, of whatever degree of depravity, is not only looked upon as "normal", but is also given social respectability and legal recognition.
This, however, is not an isolated phenomenon. As the title of his article indicates, Chesterton sees that something analogous has happened in relation to our attitude to property or wealth. Put shortly, it is that our desire for wealth too has been separated from its natural end. In moral terms this means that, just as the propagandists for the new sexual morality have exalted pure lust as the rationale for engaging in sexual relations, so have the proponents of the new economic morality elevated pure greed or avarice to be the primary motive for engaging in wealth-getting.
How can this occur? Obviously, at root there is moral fault. But there is no moral fault or sin without a corresponding mental error. This latter is what we are mainly concerned to analyse here. Chesterton thus says: "In both departments [sex and property] there is precisely the same fallacy which it is quite possible to state precisely. The reason why our contemporary countrymen do not understand what we mean by Property is that they only think of it in the sense of Money ... in the sense of something which is immediately consumed, enjoyed and expended something which gives momentary pleasure and disappears."
That is to say we have ignored the proper purpose of wealth, to satisfy our natural needs and rational wants, and gone for the pleasure that accompanies the possession of property, as if this could satisfy by itself. Now there is nothing wrong in enjoying one's God-given wealth, provided it is being used for what it is created for, namely, to satisfy our desires for material goods within reason, or in accordance with nature.
This pleasure in possession of wealth is epitomised in the possession of money, as it can stand for all wealth. But what happens is that money, being a pure means, disconnects us even further from the natural end of wealth. So we can be deceived into seeking to have money for its own sake, or simply for the pleasure attached to having much wealth.
Chesterton thus continues the analogy: "Pleasure, as Aristotle noted, is not something bad but good. But it does not and cannot stand alone unless it complements some naturally good act. It is not, therefore, properly an end in itself. If we try to possess it without respecting the natural end of the act to which it belongs it vanishes as something without substance, without any support. To pursue pleasure for its own sake is to pursue a delusion, and to achieve not pleasure but misery, which accompanies the unnatural disorder put in the place of the natural order of things. The sweet smell of natural goodness turns quickly into the stink of decadence, though for a time the person concerned may "enjoy" the sickly odour of decay.
What the pleasure of possession thrives and survives in is the achievement of the natural and creative ends of wealth and production. They do not understand that we mean by property something that includes that pleasure incidentally but begins and ends with something far more grand and worthy and creative.
Chesterton then makes an interesting observation about communism and capitalism. The modern mistake regarding sex and property is not peculiar to the capitalist West. For, it is an attitude that has its roots in the decline of Christian civilisation and the rise of the modern secularised world.
The same basic attitude towards enjoying money was noted by Chesterton to be just as much present in the communist society as in the capitalist. From the first, it is admitted, that the whole system was directed towards encouraging or driving the worker to spend his wages; to have nothing left on the next pay day; to enjoy everything and consume everything and efface everything. That is to say consumerism was a matter of deliberate policy.
Indeed, many would think that Chesterton goes too far in saying that communism ironically took to its logical extreme, and implemented by force, what is inherent in the psychology of capitalism about the pursuit of pleasure and money, but is there left, at least in theory, to the initiative of individuals to realise. "The two sinister things [the mistaken modern beliefs about sex and property] can be seen side by side in the system of Bolshevist Russia for Communism is the only complete and logical working model of Capitalism. The sins are there [as] a system which are everywhere else a sort of repeated blunder."
But perhaps Chesterton was more perceptive than most. Certainly, capitalism in the West, hardly able to resist the temptation to regard the sudden and unexpected demise of communism as confirmation of the truth of its liberal ideology, seems to be drifting more and more towards the same sort of totalitarianism, as if driven by an inexorable internal logic.
The psychology of sex, despite the apparent difference in its political "management", is also noted by Chesterton to be something common to both the modern West and East. But it will be noted that exactly the same spirit and tone pervade the manner of dealing with the other matter. Sex also is to come to the slave merely as a pleasure that it may never be a power. He is to know as little as possible, or at least to think as little as possible, of the pleasure as anything else except a pleasure; to think or know nothing of where it comes from or where it will go to, when once the soiled object has passed through his own hands. He is not to trouble about its origin in the purposes of God or its sequel in the posterity of man. In every department he is not a possessor, but only a consumer.
There is no difficulty in recognising this as also a description of the self-made slave of sex in the Western world. Chesterton thus sums up with a hint of what all this has led to – the culture of death instead of life: "There is an exact parallel between the two modern moral, or immoral, ideas of social reform. The world has forgotten simultaneously that the making of a Farm is something much larger than the making of a profit, or even a product, in the sense of liking the taste of beetroot sugar and that the founding of a Family is something much larger than sex in the limited sense of current literature which was anticipated in one bleak and blinding flash in a single line of George Meredith, 'And eat our pot of honey on the grave'."
Dr Donald Boland teaches Ethical Economics and Natural Law at the Centre for Thomistic Studies in Sydney (www.cts.org.au).
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 25 No 9 (October 2012), p. 13
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