The Malta Independent on Sunday
Chesterton conference at University of Malta
The 2012 Conference on Chesterton was a great success last year. It was no less a success this year. The labyrinth that is the university which is simply not adequately sign-posted ensured I arrived late but just in time for the two main papers delivered by two eminent Chesterton scholars: Fr Ian Boyd and Prof. Dermot Quinn. This year the topic addressed was ‘Chesterton’s Social and Economic Vision.’
Prof. Peter Vassallo launched the conference and Dr Klaus Vella Bardon played a significant role throughout having also organized it, no mean task. As we know by now the initiative for the organization of these conferences originally came from him and the late John Micallef whose column in The Sunday Times often quoted Chesterton and was also antiLabour Party. Poor John must be turning in his grave at present with the Labour Party gaining such a huge majority in the last election and more recently in the MEP election. But if heaven there is, he must be thriving there and he richly deserves it.
*** I learnt that Seton Hall University which harbours the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture is to be found in New Jersey where I have just spent five weeks. I must pay them a visit next time I am there.
Gloria Garafulich-Grabois, the Managing Editor of The Chesterton Review was also present.
As Dr Vella Bardon told me in an unpublished interview before the Conference took place, Chesterton influenced many people in his lifetime. His writing led to the conversion of C.S. Lewis and more recent conversions include the Czech Tomáš Halík, this year’s winner of the prestigious Templeton Prize and Joseph Pearce who was formerly aligned with the National Front and after reading Chesterton converted to Roman Catholicism in 1989, repudiated his earlier views, and now writes from a Catholic perspective.
*** I will write about a few points which struck me in both papers starting with that of Fr Ian Boyd The Restoration of Freedom, Initiative, Property and the Free Family. Chesterton had spoken of the dangers springing from a standardized and coarsened culture. His prophecy has been fulfilled. “One only has to look around and what does one see? There is, first of all, a loss of stability in family and religious life; then there is the debasement of both the physical and moral environments in a world where a consumerist ethos has undermined traditional belief more completely than totalitarian systems were ever able to do; and finally, there is a general loss of a sense of the transcendent; a loss which has resulted, that, for the first time in human history, entire civilizations are living a life in which a belief in God has no place.” Chesterton saw social reform as primarily a religious work. To awaken and preserve a sense of wonder and thanksgiving was for him the basis for all reform. To lose or neglect this sense of wonder and gratitude was the most serious weakness that can afflict an individual or a people. Chesterton had written: ‘Unless we can make daybreak and daily bread and the creative secrets of labour interesting in themselves, there will fall on our civilization a fatigue, which is the one disease from which civilizations do not recover. So died the great Pagan civilization, of bead and circuses and forgetfulness of the household gods.” His social philosophy, Fr Boyd said, is best described as a celebration of the wonder of ordinary things, and especially of the hidden wonder of ordinary material things.
*** Chesterton’s childhood was a happy one and he speaks about it in his autobiography. ‘What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world,’ which he decribes as ‘a hundred windows opened on all sides of the head.’ Fr Boyd continued ‘here surely is the source for the mature Chesterton’s philosophy of wonder and gratitude.’ Chesterton believed that he had only two friends: God and the people; and, in his view, these two friends were both voiceless and unarmed. ‘Chesterton’s mission as an author was to be their voice and their weapon.’ Fr Boyd spoke of Chesterton’s programme of social reform which he called, rather awkwardly, Distributism. ‘For Chesterton, Distributism was simply a description of the way in which most of the human race had lived during most of their history. In his view, the modern world of industrial Capitalism was the exception and the aberration. Distributism represented a return to the normal. Its aim was the recovery of a more human rhythm of life.’ Fr Boyd discussed at some length and in some detail Distributism. For Chesterton the needs of men could be best served in the family.
“He would not have been surprised to learn that in contemporary America the six or so individuals who inherited the Walmart fortune control as much wealth as that of some forty per cent of the total American population, Fr Boyd said, continuing ‘Standardization by a low standard remains as much a cultural peril as it did when Chesterton gave his warning about it as the coming peril in his 1927 centenary address to London University.’ He quoted Geoffrey Ashe who wrote in his book Camelot and the Vision of Albion that Chesterton believed that the solution to the modern crisis was an essentially religious one: ‘Liberty must mean small capitalists, house-holders owning their homes, little farms, a balanced economy. The worse of the evil was recent. It must not be encouraged to ‘evolve’. It must be done away with. This colossal task presupposed human beings restored to vision and spiritual grandeur... (Chesterton’s) mature radicalism was bound up with his religion. The Church ws the one credible icebreaker, the one power that could lift Man out of delusion and deadlock, and form the apostles of a renovated social order.’
*** Chesterton’s final writing is dominated with the theme of resurrection. ‘He was convinced,’ said Fr Boyd, ‘that the immense suffering of World War I had made possible the resurrection of the Irish and Polish nations which occurred as a result of that War. Only a Divine Power was capable of transforming his dream of a distributist social order into a reality. Fr Boyd expressed his hope:‘there is no reason why one may not hope that such a transformation might still take place.’
*** Professor Dermot Quinn, Professor of History at Seton Hall and an Irishman is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, and Oxford University. He is also an authority on Chesterton’s social and economic vision. His paper is entitled Chesterton and the Moral Economy. ‘It was G.K. Chester- ton’s life-long fate to be taken seriously when he was being flippant, and flippantly when he was being serious.’ These were the words with which Prof. Quinn started his amply referenced paper. He went on to expound on this and described Chesterton as one of the deepest thinkers who ever lived. He went on to speak of Distributism ‘the central insight of that philosophy was that the widest possible distribution of private property is the most efficient means of securing social and political liberty… In books and essays and talks, in his public and private friendships, in the way he spent his money, in everything he believed about marriage and family and the raising of children, Chesterton made clear that, second only to Catholicism, and intimately linked to it, the restoration of private property was the most important political cause of his life.’ But even among his admirers this theory did not enjoy a good press. Let me quote A.N. Wilson from one of several authors quoted by Professor Quinn. Wilson wrote that the idea ‘that more freedom would result if everyone had three acres and a cow was not one which any existing political system could realistically promote.’ However Chesterton tried to defend it and Prof. Quinn quoted Roger Scruton who recently wrote, ‘the gradual transfer of economic life from private enterprise to central government has meant that in France and Italy, for instance, more than half of citizens are net recipients of income from the state while small businesses struggle to comply with a regime of regulations what seems designed on purpose to suppress them.’ Prof Quinn said that the same was true of the United States. However he pointed out that Chesterton’s Distributism deserved and was getting a second look. He quoted A.J. Penty who wrote ‘all the problems of money arise from the fact that there are so many people in the world who do not want to use money as a common measure of value but to make more money.’ How very true this is, of Malta too.
*** Prof. Quinn said that Chesterton was not so much a social critic as a social visionary, ‘a man in the tra- dition of Cobbett, Tolstoy, Kropotkin and Pope Leo XIII who saw, as they had, that modernity had brought about not only a new way of producing and consuming but mentally and morally, a new civilization. He then went to quote extensively Pope Leo’s Rerum Novarum’ and that Chesterton’s point was not so much to rescue human beings from poverty, although that was the consequence, but to rescue them from the notion that they could not be their own masters… the expectation that the state, or an employer, or a patron would always provide – was the disease from which Distributism proposed itself as a cure. Prof. Quinn made the point, more than once, that Chesterton was angry at the economic inequality of the world. He believed that economics on a small scale was not only more attractive: it was also more efficient. “Chesterton,” said Prof. Quinn, “… wanted to encourage his readers to see the world of chain stores and trusts as neither necessary nor permanent. There was an alternative.”
*** Prof Quinn went on to talk about the recent financial crises and collapse and nationalization of the banking system in several countries, the levels of unemployment in parts of Europe not seen since the 1930s, after the foreclosures of millions of over-mortgaged properties and said that ‘might there not be something to be said, after all, for credit unions, for locally owned co-operatives, for microloans, for economics on a human scale?’ For Chesterton the small, the limited, the local was less an economic than a moral and a metaphysical principle.’ He believed in communities built on a human scale – the family, the village, the nation, the home. ‘Chesterton’ understood, in other words that our deepest need is not for things but for each other. He was on the side of the socially invisible, the people of small consequence, the ordinary men and women of his time… the poor and low and feeble.’ Prof. Quinn described him as a Christian revolutionary. ‘Today his voice is as powerful as ever: perhaps, indeed, it is more powerful than it was a century ago, a prophet now vindicated.’
*** I cannot possibly do justice to these papers. They need to be read, again and again to be fully appreciated. The evening itself ended with a Q & A session – followed by wine. It should have lasted longer considering the amount of toil that goes into organizing this sort of event. But it had to be over by a certain time I am told.