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Sunday, May 18, 2008
Non Angeli sed Angli

It is likely no secret that most people, having completed their high school history requirement, resolve never again to touch the subject. And why should they want to? The accumulation of names and dates, states and battlefields was made as dull as possible by books that were as “scientific” as possible, that is, by books with the story taken out and only a dull hiss left over. But history is a narrative, and without understanding this narrative, this adventure, one might say, or even this romance, one cannot understand even oneself, much less one's time in history and one's place in the story. Even the humane sciences these days aspire to become more “scientific” by becoming less historical. No where is this more true than in economics, where the study of history was dropped from the University of Chicago graduate program in 1972, with all the other major universities following suit soon after. I mention economics because it demonstrates just how silly is the notion of having a humane science apart from a human history. No science is more dependent on history than is economics, where all the data is historical, and all the ideas formed in the cauldron of history.

These reflections came to me while reading a very remarkable history, G. K. Chesterton's A Short History of England. Perhaps it should not be called a “history” at all, since in its brief 87 pages, there is little space for the recitation of names and dates, but it certainly is a story. It is the story of a people that Pope Gregory the Great took for angels. Walking in the marketplace, he saw some slaves for sale whose beauty impressed him, and asked who they were. “Angli,” (English) came the reply. “Non Angli sed angeli” said Gregory, “Not English but angels.” Well, the English are not angels, but they might be something that is actually more interesting; they might be Englishmen. They might be a race with a story to tell and a struggle to finish. The end of the angels' struggle we already know; our own story, and that of the English, is yet to be known. We are always in the middle of a story but we can never know whether it is a tragedy or a comedy; we can only know that it is a struggle, and try to come to grips with our part in the story. We always find ourselves, as we do when reading Homer, in media res in our own epic.

If Chesterton's Short History is not a history in the conventional sense, it is certainly a story in the epic sense. He conveys to the reader a sense of the narrative line of English history, and without a narrative it is impossible to understand history. Our “science” of history has deprived it of meaning. Or rather, such a science is really is really dishonest; it attempts to place its own narrative beyond critique by calling it “scientific.” Chesterton offers us a narrative interpretation of history, and an interpretation is always subject to critique; the historical scientist also offers a particular narrative, he calls that interpretation “science,” and who would dare criticize science?

Chesterton has a particular target in this extended essay. Or rather two. The first concerns the use of history itself, because Chesterton already knows what the post-modernists have only recently discovered, namely that history is used to justify a particular state of affairs. Our author makes this concern explicit:

I have a very simple motive and excuse for telling the little I know of this true tale. I have met in my wanderings a man brought up in the lower quarters of a great house, fed mainly on its leavings and burdened mostly with its labours. I know that his complaints are stilled, and his status justified, by a story that is told to him. It is about how his grandfather was a chimpanzee and his father a wild man of the woods, caught by hunters and tamed into something like intelligence. In the light of this, he may well be thankful for the almost human life that he enjoys; and may be content of leaving behind him a yet more evolved animal. Strangely enough, the calling of this story by the sacred name of Progress ceased to satisfy me when I began to suspect (and to discover) that it is not true. I know by now enough at least of his origin to know that he was not evolved, but simply disinherited.

Chesterton tells this story in behalf of his disinherited countrymen, so that they may regain their inheritance. Now, those who are familiar with post-modernism will instantly recognize in this all the post-modernist themes, namely history as narrative, power as knowledge, and text as context. The Enlightenment preached that knowledge was power, and that science (understood as naturalism) trumped narrative (man's “myths.”) However, this science was itself merely a narrative, one that refused to submit itself to any criticism, but rather demanded the right to be the sole arbiter of every other narrative. But in arbitrating all other disputes, it is not a just judge. Although the Liberalism of the Enlightenment believed that knowledge gave us the freedom to manipulate the world to our will, what it really did was take away all freedom. The man “below stairs” is kept in his place because power forms what he can know of his place, and hence the grounds on which he can object to his place and seek a better one. Power controls what he knows; it even dictates what is knowable, and by marginalizing all other forms of knowledge, it marginalizes all other (and truer) forms of freedom. The man in the inferior place cannot seek to regain his inheritance until he knows that he has been disinherited, and this is the knowledge that power seeks to deny him.

For these reasons, Chesterton is the first and finest of the postmoderns (see G. K. Chesterton—Postmodernist). To be a true postmodern, one must first be a pre-modern, but a pre-modern who insists on applying the classic wisdom to the current situation. And this is where postmodernism has its biggest problems. Lacking a pre-modern foundation, its critiques of the Enlightenment have nowhere to go. They end up being excessively modern and insufficiently post. And they end up being obscure. The ideas that Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault place in incomprehensible French, Chesterton states in clear and elegant English. (See Is the Devil from Paris?)

Chesterton has a second concern with is connected to the first: the rise of what he sees as “Prussianism.” He writes this essay in 1917, in the midst of the darkest days of World War I. Chesterton was a supporter of that war, a war which cost him his brother's life, Cecil. And Cecil's death was a loss to Distributism as well, since Cecil was its practical and organizational genius, as much as Gilbert was its literary genius. Gilbert's support of the war strikes us as problematic, and at odds with his opposition to most imperial adventures, such as the Boer War. But Chesterton saw in Prussianism the modern man par excellence. For him, it was the Prussian spirit, rather than the French Revolution, which really heralded the downful of Christian Europe. The ideals of the French Revolution, liberté, égalité, fraternité, were, after all, just ancient Christian ideals stripped of their sacred roots, and whithering on the vine. The French Revolution could be re-Christianized; Chesterton did not think this was possible for the Prussian evolution. Prussia was the last place in Europe to be converted to Christianity, and the first to leave it; they had barely become Catholic when they were asked to become Protestant. And perhaps “asked” isn't the right word.

Chesterton's essay is also a lesson in good historiography, namely that it is written with humility and charity. Chesterton always tries to see the world from the viewpoint of the people and times he is describing, and without this act of humility, real history—history that is not merely ideological special pleading—is impossible. Chesterton is always quick to praise the virtues of his enemies, nor does he hesitate to chide the vices of his friends. And always, there is his quick wit, his apt turn of phrase. In this brief book, I gained a deeper understanding of the English nation, and their semi-angelic struggle.

Posted by John Médaille