G.K. Chesterton’s writings are as prescient today as they were over three quarters of a century ago. When he wrote most of the essays in this anthology during the early 20th century, he was either warning Great Britain about the impending dangers of war or offering advice on how to create a state of peace. This new collection, selected and edited by Michael W. Perry, contends that Chesterton was one of the great voices of sanity during his era, calling for genuine peace while many of the most celebrated thinkers of the time were doing their best to let the world either burn or freeze.
Chesterton took aim at both the militarists and the pacifists of his day. He attacked the militarists for attempting to advance their personal agendas through bloodshed and destruction, and he pilloried the pacifists for being so desperate to avoid conflict that they deliberately misrepresented the international situation and were willing to sell out other people’s rights and freedoms so as not to inconvenience their own positions of comfort and desires for the future.
One pacifist in particular is singled out for attack by Perry: Sir Norman Angell, the 1933 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In presenting Angell with his award, committee member and fellow Peace Prize Laureate Christian Lous Lange declared, “It is mankind’s deep tragedy that it so rarely sees reality . . . We see what we desire to see, not naked reality.” In Perry’s estimation, this line ought to be Angell’s epitaph. While Angell’s fans claimed that their man was able to assess the international situation with greater clarity and precision than the other pundits of his day, Perry indicates that Angell recklessly circulated erroneous beliefs about German harmlessness and patronizing assumptions about human nature. Throughout this book, Perry takes aim at Angell and similar thinkers who contend that peace requires people to pretend that potential problems do not exist.
Perry’s thesis centers on his contention that Chesterton’s efforts to promote real peace and to restore sanity to discussions of international politics ought to have earned him the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize. In particular, Chesterton’s far-seeing warnings about the dangers of Nazism, coupled with his denunciations of eugenics and genocide at a time when most leaders were calling for unthinking appeasement and elites almost universally embraced racist science, ought to have earned him better notice. Unfortunately, no matter how fully the ensuing decades might have proved Chesterton prescient, his clashing with the popular trends of his day probably cost him the prestige Perry thinks he deserved. Nearly every one of Chesterton’s essays is prefaced with a short introduction by Perry explaining Chesterton’s major points and why his predictions proved right where the confident assertions of prominent men turned out to be so fatally misguided. Particularly pithy and insightful lines are highlighted in bold, although many of Chesterton’s better quotations have not been singled out for special attention.
Throughout the book, Chesterton continually warns against warfare while stressing that sometimes nations have to take up arms because it would be immoral not to stand up for something right or to battle something utterly wrong. In one 1908 Illustrated London News column, he wrote:
There are some things more important than peace, and one of them is the dignity of human nature. It is a humiliation of humanity that humanity should ever give up war solely through fear, especially through fear of the mere machines that humanity itself has made. We all see the absurdity of modern armaments. It is a grotesque end for the great European story that each of us should keep on stuffing pistols into his pockets until he falls down with the weight of them. But it is still worse that we should only be friends because we are too nervous to stand the noise of a pistol . . .
I would have any war, however long and horrible, sooner than such a horrible peace. I would run any risk rather than submit to such a spiritual indignity as that man dare not, for the most crying justice or the most urgent chivalry, turn one of his own handles. War is an absolute calamity; so be it. Then let man silence his guns, but, in the name of human honour, do not let his guns silence him.
Chesterton does an excellent job in getting his view across, but the editor’s commentary enhances it a great deal. Indeed, Perry’s introductions and personal commentary compose roughly 20 percent of the book. Perry has heavily annotated the essays because of the obscurity of some of the political and cultural references, and his additions are a highly welcome supplement. Perry’s efforts are clearly a labor of love, and the impact of the book is all the more intense for being fueled by the passion of a fan who mourns the fact that more people did not pay attention to Chesterton’s writings during his lifetime. It might have made all the difference for Europe in the decades to come.
The Appendix to the book contains brief selections on the nature of armed conflict by St. Thomas Aquinas, Winston Churchill, Norman Angell, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and H.G. Wells. Perry contends that the worldviews of the latter five contrast starkly with Chesterton’s. Aquinas’s and Churchill’s acknowledgements of the horrors of war, coupled with their statements that war is on certain occasions necessary to preserve justice, coincide well with Chesterton’s essays in this collection. While the additional opinions help to give breadth to the ideological spectrum, it seems unfitting that Mr. H.G. Wells should have the last word in this anthology. And it is not quite clear from the brief excerpt included here why Gandhi’s views on the nature of conflict and resistance are opposed to Chesterton’s. Perry might have gone on to add a short epilogue to put the differing opinions into better context.
[Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements That Led to Nazism and World War II, edited by Michael W. Perry (Seattle: Inkling Books) 448 pp., $24.95]