Printer Friendly

Stranger than fiction: Hannah Arendt and G. K. Chesterton.

JUDGING from their respective biographies and reputations, one would initially imagine that the assertion that there are affinities between the work of the German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt (19061975) and the English-Christian novelist, poet, and journalist G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) would be met with disbelief. After all, Arendt was educated at the universities of Marburg, Freiburg, and Heidelberg, where she received instruction from such leading figures in European philosophy as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers. After the war, and in exile in the United States, Arendt rose to public recognition as the somber analyst of the various historical factors which had crystallized into the twentieth-century nightmares of Nazism and Stalinism--"the dark lady of American intellectuals," in Stephen Whitfield's characterization (7). Chesterton, by contrast, left the Slade School of Art in London without a degree and embarked on a career as a novelist, poet, and Fleet Street journalist, where he cut an eccentric and obese figure with his cape, slouch hat, and swordstick--the epitome of absent-mindedness and wine-fuelled joviality. Considering the kind of imagery associated with each writer, it is understandable that the underlying affinities in their work are not exactly obvious. (1)

The key to unlocking these affinities is the fact that both authors shared a sense of wonder at, and gratitude for, sheer existence. By wonder, we mean the existential amazement at the fact of Being. Fundamental to this experience of wonder is the awareness of the reality of a world independent of our own selves. As the philosopher Mary Midgley explains, "It is an essential element in wonder that we recognise what we see as something we did not make, cannot fully understand, and acknowledge as containing something greater than ourselves" (41). Wonder accepts the mystery of Being; it represents the experience of being brought back to an awareness of the actuality of existence, of a reality independent of ourselves and our own designs. In this perspective, because the source of reality is recognized to originate from outside ourselves it comes to us as a gift and, like all gifts, demands the response of gratitude.

Arendt herself believed--like Plato and Aristotle--that "thaumazein, the shocked wonder at the miracle of Being, is the beginning of all philosophy" (Human Condition 302). Yet there is something characteristic about Arendt's thought which distinguishes her from these philosophers of the ancient world, who had grounded their contemplation in wonder: she maintained that the realm of human affairs was itself worthy of wonder. For Plato and Aristotle, philosophy did indeed spring from "that thaumazein, the wonder at that which is as it is"; but "even they had refused to accept [it] as a preliminary condition for political philosophy" ("Concern with Politics" 445). For Arendt, a genuine political philosophy would emerge when such a sense of wonder was directed into the realm of human affairs and actions. Central for these new political philosophers would be the idea of human "plurality": "Biblically speaking, they would have to accept-as they accept in speechless wonder the miracle of the universe, of man and of being--the miracle that God did not create Man, but 'male and female created He them.' They would have to accept in something more than the resignation of human weakness the fact that 'it is not good to be alone'" ("Philosophy and Politics" 103).

It is therefore the sense of wonder which lies behind that most characteristic element of Arendt's political thought: her stress on the importance of recognizing human plurality, "the fact that men not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world" (Human Condition 7). This is an insight which Chesterton shared, as we can see from his appreciation of Robert Browning: "The sense of the absolute sanctity of human difference was the deepest of all his senses.... He did not love humanity but men" (Browning 187).

ANYONE who is familiar with the work of Chesterton--one of the most important Christian authors of the twentieth century--will know that such a sense of wonder is the main theme of his work. Indeed, it was an awakening sense of wonder and gratitude for sheer existence which pulled Chesterton out of his youthful period of solipsism and morbidity at the Slade School of Art and launched him on his literary career and conversion to Christianity. Awakening such a sense of wonder in a period which seemed dominated by doubt and subjectivism was at the forefront of his literary mission: "Of one thing I am certain, that the age needs, first and foremost to be startled; to be taught the nature of wonder" (Man Who Was Orthodox 160). In the context of his study Chaucer (1932), the mature Chesterton provided one of the most succinct and vivid statements of wonder at Being--and of the appropriate human response of gratitude:
   There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more
   blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the
   abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly
   are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost
   incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against
   not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we
   may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially
   unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does
   outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments
   for negation, and under all our grumblings there is a subconscious
   substance of gratitude. (36-7)

Chesterton's association of thinking with thanking anticipates the connection made by Arendt's former teacher Martin Heidegger--from whom she may have acquired the philosophical sense of wonder. Arendt in fact endorses Heidegger's combination of thinking and thanking, yet she also questions how this association can accommodate the fact of evil. Certainly, when Arendt calls for the sense of wonder to be directed into the realm of human affairs she maintains that it must consider that realm both "in its grandeur and misery" ("Philosophy and Politics" 103). Furthermore, Arendt maintains that the experience of horror is akin to that of wonder, and its own exclusion by contemporary political philosophy is entailed by the general refusal to accept the wondering glance into the realm of human affairs ("Concern with Politics" 445). At the root of both wonder and horror is a fundamental awareness of reality, and if wonder brings forth praise then horror would elicit resistance. In her Preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt summarized her own attempt at understanding the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism: "Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated facing up to, and resistance of, reality--whatever it may be" (Origins viii).

Indeed, while Chesterton's sense of wonder grounded his philosophy in a fundamental affirmation of Being, this was not to the extent that it would entail the denial of evil in human affairs--Chesterton maintained the orthodox Christian position of man's fallen nature. And the presence of evil is encountered with that fundamental perception of reality we find in the sense of wonder: Charles Dickens, for example, "encounters evil with that beautiful surprise which, as it is the beginning of all real pleasure, is also the beginning of all righteous indignation. He enters the workhouse just as Oliver Twist enters it, as a little child" (Appreciations 48). Chesterton's sense of wonder and horror--directed into the realm of human affairs--drives the combative character of his work by which he confronted social injustice and led him to oppose, for example, the tyrannical proposals of eugenics.

By acknowledging both the goodness and evil of experience, Chesterton constantly distanced himself from the perspectives of optimism and pessimism which he believed were detrimental to a project of radical social reform: "The optimist will say that reform is needless. The pessimist will say that reform is hopeless" (Charles Dickens 207). Arendt also believed these perspectives avoided the confrontation with reality. She explained that The Origins of Totalitarianism had "been written against a background of both reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition, not of faith" (Origins vii).

Arendt's classification of optimism and pessimism as forms of superstition is of great interest because she herself recognized Chesterton as being one of the greatest critics of such fictitious beliefs. Arendt was in fact familiar with Chesterton's work in a variety of fields: poetry, fiction, philosophical biography, journalism, and even including one of his obscure works of first-world-war propaganda. (2) He is referred to in The Origins of Totalitarianism as having been one of the very few people who had seen through the ideology of imperialism which had dominated prewar European thought: "Peguy in France and Chesterton in England knew instinctively that they lived in a world of hollow pretense and that its stability was the greatest pretense of all" (Origins 147). Arendt also refers appreciatively to Chesterton's novel The Return of Don Quixote (1927) for its "wonderful description" of the turning away from serious political questioning in the two decades prior to the First World War, quoting his "penetrating words" to the effect that "everything is prolonging its existence by denying that it exists" (qtd. in Origins 51).

Arendt does seem to have particularly appreciated his attacks upon the various absurd and fanatically pursued "progressive" doctrines which had become a hallmark of modernity. In her early essay "Christianity and Revolution" (originally published in 1945), she expressed her admiration for Chesterton in these terms:
   There are no more amusing, or better-written polemics against the
   host of modern superstitions, from Christian Science to gymnastics
   as a means to salvation, to teetotalism, and Krishnamurti, than
   Chesterton's essays.... When Chesterton describes the rich man who
   for the pretended sake of humanity has adopted some fancy new
   vegetarian rule as the man who does not go "without gardens and
   gorgeous rooms which poor men can't enjoy" but has "abolished meat
   because poor men like meat," or when he denounces the "modern
   philanthropist" who does not give up "petrol or ... servants" but
   rather "some simple universal things" like "beef or sleep, because
   these pleasures remind him that he is only a man"--then Chesterton
   has better described the fundamental ambitions of the ruling
   classes than have all the academic discussions of the functions of
   capitalists. (152-3)(3)

Arendt recognized that it was the realism entailed in Christian thought that enabled its possessors--she gives the examples of Chesterton himself as well as her own friends W. H. Auden and Waldemar Gurian--the capacity to see through the ideological fictions and superstitions which typified modernity. (4) Related to this ontological realism is the sense of limits which pervades Chesterton's thought: "The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits" (Orthodoxy 69). It is in such terms of a respect for the limits of the human condition which Arendt praised Chesterton in "Christianity and Revolution," and which she claims allowed him to be a genuine revolutionary thinker and a powerful social critic, "more radical than the radicals":
   The insistence of the Christian doctrine on man's limited condition
   was somehow enough of a philosophy to allow its adherents a very
   deep insight into the essential inhumanity of all those modern
   attempts--psychological, technical, biological--to change man into
   the monster of a superman. They realized that a pursuit of
   happiness which actually means to wipe away all tears will pretty
   quickly end by wiping out all laughter. It was again Christianity
   which taught them that nothing human can exist beyond tears and
   laughter, except the silence of despair. This is the reason why
   Chesterton, having once and for all accepted the tears, could put
   real laughter into his most violent attacks. (153)

Although Arendt only mentions Chesterton in the closing sentence, it is fairly clear that she has him in mind from the beginning of the section. Arendt does not give away any specific reference, but it is obvious through her allusion to the effect that only despair can exist "beyond tears and laughter" that she has in mind Chesterton's novel The Flying Inn (1914). The passage to which Arendt is referring occurs in the context of an exhibition of "post-futurist" art. Lord Ivywood--the villain of the novel--declares in the manner of a Nietzschean Superman his contempt for the limits placed on human life:
   I deny that any limit is set upon living things.... I would walk
   where no man has walked; and find something beyond tears and
   laughter.... And my adventures shall not be in the hedges and the
   gutters; but in the borders of the ever-advancing brain.... I will
   be as lonely as the first man.... He discovered good and evil. So
   are these artists trying to discover some distinction that is still
   dark in us.... I see the breaking of the barriers ... beyond that
   I see nothing. (qtd. in Medcalf 118)

By contrast, Chesterton believed that genuine human freedom required acceptance of the principle of limitation--to refuse such limits would be self-defeating, for a being's limits were its very definition: "You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel" (Orthodoxy 69). The refusal of such limits represented a radical ingratitude for the gift of a world which was not of our own making:

Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to something outside. So long as they have this they have as the great minds have always declared, a something which is present in childhood and which can still preserve and invigorate manhood. The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and despair. (Common Man 252-3)

The total disdain for reality, understood as a resentment of "the given" --of that which man did not himself make--was a theme of Arendt's "Concluding Remarks" to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism (released in England under the title of The Burden of Our Time) and is linked to the dangers of hubris. In modern times, writes Arendt, "man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence--to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment, he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world. In his resentment of all laws merely given to him, he proclaims openly that everything is permitted and believes secretly that everything is possible." Arendt asserts that the fundamental dilemma today "is the choice between resentment and gratitude as basic possible modern attitudes" (Burden 438).

ARENDT had seen that twentieth-century totalitarianism was marked by a flight from the recognition of a reality which would be replaced by the attempt at a fabrication of an ideological "fictitious world." The condition of the masses in both Germany and Russia who had been dislocated by war, revolution, and inflation produced solitary and "lonely" individuals who lacked a world in common with others--the framework for the common sense which tolerates the ambiguities and fortuitous aspects of reality. Such atomized masses became easy prey to the illusions of a fictitious yet ideologically consistent world offered by the propagandists of totalitarian movements who could "conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself: in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations" (Origins 352). The masses could easily be conditioned "to think that everything was possible and that nothing was true" (353). That is, to lose both their awareness of reality and the sense of limits which coincides with "the given." Nazis and Stalinists--in the manner of a paranoiac--were committed to a ruthless logicality, pursuing their theories to their ultimate conclusions in complete defiance of conventional assumptions as to what was considered either acceptable or possible.

For Chesterton too, the fictitious ideologies of the Edwardian intellectuals also possessed a ruthless logicality. In political terms, Chesterton's recognition of external reality manifested itself as a distrust of those utopian reformers who would recreate the world as a reflection of their own solitary and imagined fantasies--they were quite literally maniacs. Chesterton understood that the problem was not reason itself--he was no romantic irrationalist and indeed sought to defend reason--but explained that the danger was to be found in reason freed from the limits of common sense and mystery: "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason" (Orthodoxy 30). When transferred to the political realm, such intemperate reasoning leads to tyranny: the solitary view of the monomaniac is imposed without any recognition of the different views of others, i.e. without respect to common sense, which for Chesterton represents a form of practical wisdom formed through living life in common with others (Canovan, "Chesterton and Hannah Arendt" 141-2). Like Arendt, Chesterton perceived that the modern preference for ideological illusions was a retreat into a narrower world. It was a haven for minds that could not tolerate the unexpected and contradictory aspects of our existence--and indeed it was a narcissism which lay behind theories of racial superiority:

The Lunatic is the man who lives in a small world but thinks it is a large one: he is the man who lives in a tenth of the truth, and thinks it is the whole. The madman cannot conceive any cosmos outside a certain tale or conspiracy or vision. Hence the more clearly we see the world divided into Saxons and non-Saxons, into our splendid selves and the test, the more certain we may be that we are slowly and quietly going mad. The more plain and satisfying our state appears, the more we may know that we are living in an unreal world. For the real world is not satisfying. The more clear become the colours and facts of Anglo-Saxon superiority, the more surely we may know we are in a dream. For the real world is not clear or plain. The real world is full of bracing bewilderments and brutal surprises. (Charles Dickens 152)

Modern ideologies involved the subordination of distinct human beings to some all-embracing process of becoming. In What's Wrong with the World (1910), Chesterton claimed that the popular aversion to evolutionism perceived the threat that such an intellectual shift entailed: "when one begins to think of man as a shifting and alterable thing, it is always easy for the strong and crafty to twist him into new shapes for all kinds of unnatural purposes" (What's Wrong 259).

FOR Arendt, in the mid-nineteenth century a crucial change occurred in how history and nature were conceptualized and which reflected a refusal to accept wonder at Being. Instead of the wonder at that which is "as it is" we find the concept of process; in this context nothing can be appreciated in terms of its own existence but only as a stage for some future development:

Underlying the Nazis' belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin's idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human beings, just as under the Bolsheviks' belief in class-struggle as the expression of the law of history lies Marx's notion of society as the product of a gigantic historical movement which races according to its own law of motion to the end of historical times when it will abolish itself. (Origins 463)

In totalitarian regimes these laws of movement are made manifest through terror, which, for the totalitarian government, takes the place of positive laws that had previously functioned as stabilizing boundaries. If lawlessness was the essence of tyranny, then terror is the essence of totalitarianism: it is the means by which the forces of nature or history can "move freely through mankind unhindered by any spontaneous actions" (465). Total terror "substitutes for the boundaries and channels of communication between individual men a band of iron which holds them so tightly together that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions" (465-6).

In his own opposition to modern ideologies Chesterton did not take up a Right-wing or romantic-irrationalist position. Arendt herself wished to drive home the point about Chesterton's democratic radicalism. In "Christianity and Revolution," she distinguished between radical Catholic converts such as Chesterton and those "Catholics without faith" who were not themselves attracted to the Church by any teachings of charity, democracy, or human equality--which they found repugnant--but out of a desire for authoritarian and hierarchical organization. Chesterton in England, with Peguy and Bernanos in France, were quite different from such "dilettantes of fascism" according to Arendt:
   For what these men hated in the modern world was not democracy but
   the lack of it. They saw through the appearances of democracies
   which might be more accurately described as plutocracies and
   through the trimmings of a republic which was much more a political
   machine. What they sought was freedom for the people and reason for
   the mind. What they started from was a deep hatred of bourgeois
   society, which they knew was essentially anti-democratic and
   fundamentally perverted. What they fought against always was the
   insidious invasion of bourgeois morals and standards into all walks
   of life and all classes of people. (152)

This passage provides a good example of the "radical populist" element in Arendt's early work and which, although less strident, can be detected in her later work too. According to Richard J. Bernstein, it is possible to see "a strong radical populist strand in her thinking about politics. She advocated a politics 'from below' in which the Jewish people would organize themselves and fight for their rights as Jews in alliance with other oppressed groups. There is a direct continuity between her earliest summons to the Jewish people to fight for their political rights and her later attempt to recover 'the lost treasure' of the revolutionary spirit" (10-11). This populism, "the most persistent strand in Arendt's understanding of politics," is intimately connected with her adoption of the position of the "conscious pariah." Arendt, writes Bernstein, "was never tempted to 'belong' to society; she never wanted to be the 'exceptional Jew'; she never exhibited any parvenu tendencies. She wrote to Karl Jaspers: 'I'm more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society'" (qtd. in Bernstein 180). This populism and the support of the pariah, the marginal figure "who is at once an outsider and yet never completely an outsider," writes Bernstein, is also reflected in Arendt's sympathy for the losing side in history: "She was never afraid of championing the defeated cause--and knew the consequences of doing so" (183). Against the progressive view of history and against the belief that a cause is vindicated by success, Arendt liked to cite the line from Cato: "victrix causa deis placuit, sed victa Catoni (the victorious cause pleases the gods, but the defeated cause pleases Cato)" (105).

Indeed, Chesterton's sympathies were also with the defeated side in history--in his perspective, the English working class--and he was constantly ridiculing the "worship of success" and all the other "fads" of the privileged classes which, more often than not, represented not only an attack on reason but on the freedoms of ordinary people. Chesterton had himself been one of England's most powerful radical populist writers. (5) Vigorously anti-capitalist, yet believing socialism would only lead to tyranny, Chesterton distrusted the rule of elites and experts and favored the common sense of ordinary people who, he maintained, ought to possess their own productive property as a guarantee of their political freedom and should no longer remain the servants either of a class of capitalists, political administrators, of, indeed, aristocratic landowners. Chesterton was the intellectual figurehead of a social and political perspective known as "distributism" which would take inspiration from the Papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and which represented a reassertion of the Thomist principle of private property for common use. Chesterton maintained that capitalism was a system based on the denial of productive property to large numbers of the population--instead, it was a commercial process which concentrated ownership into a minority of capitalists. Chesterton rejected socialism because it failed to get to the root of the problem and merely offered to extend the concentration of ownership even further--into an even smaller minority of state officials.

For Chesterton, capitalism was an economy built on the principle of exchange value rather than use value and as such it initiated an endless process of capital accumulation: "There is a limit to the number of apples a man can eat. But there is no limit to the number of apples he may possibly sell; and he soon becomes a pushing, dexterous and successful Salesman and turns the whole world upside-down" (Well and Shallows 229). Central to the distributist vision of a society marked by widespread ownership of small-scale and well-defined private property was a concern to reassert the economic principles of the mediaeval Guild system in order to impose limits on the use of property, such that its use was directed to the common good and not to amassing a personal fortune.

REGAINING such a sense of limits would also involve recovering a sense of reality itself. In the perspective of the commercial elites, the world becomes a mere reflection of their own fantasies and desires: "The business men live in a world of notions; they live in a world of fictions; they live in a world of dreams" (Sidelights on New London 121). The life rooted in the enduring ties of family and the solidity of property, by contrast, is one that is rooted in the distinction between reality and fantasy. The stockbroker is philosophically speaking a nominalist but the farmer is a realist who knows that his own subjective feelings do not create the world: "Distributism is not a dream. It is a project, which may or may not be found practicable by particular people at a particular time. But when it is established, its fundamental facts, like the land or the family, are not affected by what other people say about them. They do not vanish as the result of a rumour or roll away like clouds because somebody releases the rigid strain of being optimistic about them" (123).

A commodified society which was founded on the principle of wealth accumulation as opposed to the production of useful objects, Chesterton realized, was inherently unstable and thereby a context conducive to the fostering of illusions: "since Price is a crazy and incalculable thing, while Value is an intrinsic and indestructible thing, they have swept us into a society which is no longer solid but fluid, as unfathomable as a sea and as treacherous as a quicksand" (Well and Shallows 230). Arendt, as we have already seen, understood totalitarianism in terms of a flight from reality combined with the construction of a fictitious world marked, not by stability, but by a relentless process of movement. In contrast, Arendt understood a genuine, stable public realm as a guardian against such a politics of illusion; the free public realm was the sphere in which reality disclosed itself. The public world is shared with others--it is a "common world"--and the various perspectives from which individuals look upon commonly shared objects lends a sense of reality (or "objectivity") to that world. To be deprived of the public world is to be deprived of the sense of reality itself: "To men the reality of the public world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all; 'for what appears to all, this we call Being,' and whatever lacks this appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality" (Human Condition 199).

Pre-modern societies held that private property--and not wealth--was sacred; it was a private location in the world and the necessary condition for citizenship: "To own property meant here to be master over one's own necessities of life and therefore potentially to be a free person, free to transcend his own life and enter the world all have in common." Property represents "the privately owned share of a common world and therefore is the most elementary condition for man's worldliness" (65). At the root of modern "worldlessness," by contrast, was the transformation of property into wealth which began in the sixteenth century with the Reformation's expropriation of monastic and Church property. As a result of this process of expropriation, millions of peasants were deprived of a stable place in the world--a situation which, says Arendt, "was marked by its cruelty," as the laboring poor lost the protections offered by both family and property and became the mere embodiments of the productive force of "labor power" (255). The course of modernity was marked by a move away from the ownership of stable property towards the inherently worldless activity of accumulating wealth. "Immobile property," durable and thus worldly, came to be replaced by "mobile wealth," which, lacking any definable end, led not to a durable world but culminated in a fluid, ever-expanding consumer's "society." The worldlessness of society is marked by a loss of the sense of reality as individuals are thrown back upon their own subjective experiences and natural drives, tending less to initiate spontaneous actions than to conform to predictable patterns of behavior. Humans come to be understood as interchangeable and not unique beings.

Arendt certainly believed that we were living in "dark times," but, as we have seen, neither optimism nor pessimism were available to her. Arendt retains her capacity for hope in the existence of "natality"--the fundamental unpredictability in the realm of human affairs due to the fact that new individuals are constantly being born into the world and bring with them the potential for new beginnings. Arendt states that the most succinct and glorious expression of the faith and hope which emerges from this condition of human experience is to be found in the "glad tidings" of the Gospels: "A child has been born unto us" (Human Condition 247). (6)

This hope for new beginnings drew Arendt, in On Revolution (1963), towards a sympathetic understanding of the "lost treasures" of the revolutionary tradition, which testify to the possibility for resisting apparently irresistible historical processes, of founding an enduring republic, and for establishing new forms of government which involve a wider possibility for citizen participation than representative democracy.

It is less often realized that alongside the hope for a renewed public world Arendt maintained that private property was an important source for stability--and she hoped that it could be more widely dispersed. Like Chesterton, she was aware that capitalism represented the eclipse of the ideal of private property, not its embodiment, and that socialism was the logical culmination of the property-destroying trend initiated by capitalism. In an interview in 1970 she was more explicit in her own preference for private rather than capitalist or socialist ownership of property than she had been in The Human Condition: "Our problem today is not how to expropriate the expropriators, but, rather, how to arrange matters so that the masses, dispossessed by industrial society in capitalist and socialist systems, can regain property" (Crisis 175).

IN their differing ways, Arendt and Chesterton grounded their thought in the sense of wonder and gratitude for an existence which was not of their own making. Their understanding of the need to respect the limits of the human condition allowed them to perceive the dangers when a sense of resentment for given reality can render us prey to the soothing fictions of ideologies. Chesterton summed up the dilemma with aphoristic succinctness: "Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves" (Heretics 53-4). For both, their philosophical sense of wonder at Being transferred politically into a wonder at human beings--and a gratitude for human plurality. In shunning the limits of common sense, the solitary creator of fictitious ideologies betrays not just a resentment of Being but of those human beings with whom he shares the world. Both Arendt and Chesterton found it necessary to defend the need for stability and continuity in human affairs--for unlike Marx would have us believe, "when all that is solid melts into air" we are not forced to confront the reality of our existence and relations with others. Arendt and Chesterton argue that we are driven back into a narcissistic inner life of subjectivity and deprived of the awareness of a reality shared in common with others. Both would also defend genuine privately owned property against either capitalist monopoly or socialist control and offered a critique of the eclipse of both private and public life by an unlimited desire for the accumulation of wealth which overruns humanly established boundaries and stable structures. Nevertheless, while stressing the need for stability in human affairs, both maintained a hope that unexpected actions could lead to new beginnings--their perspectives were at the same time both conservative and revolutionary. The existence of such common ground is quite striking--particularly when viewed against the background of Arendt and Chesterton's very different personalities, experiences, and the contrasting forms and styles of their writing. But then truth is stranger than fiction, and that is something for which we can be grateful.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Burden of Our Time. London: Secker and Warburg, 1951.

--. "Christianity and Revolution," Essays in Understanding. 1930-1954. Ed. Jerome Kohn. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1994. 151-155.

--. "Concern with Politics in Recent European Philosophical Thought." Essays in Understanding. 1930-1954. Ed. Jerome Kohn. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1994. 428-447.

--. Crisis of the Republic. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

--. The Human Condition. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

--. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. New ed. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1979.

--. Men in Dark Times. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

--. "Philosophy and Politics." Social Research 57.1 (1980): 73-103.

--. "Remembering Wystan H. Auden." W. H. Auden: A Tribute. Ed. Stephen Spender. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974/5. 181-187.

--. On Revolution. London: Penguin, 1990.

--. Bernstein, Richard J. Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question. Cambridge: Polity P, 1996.

Canovan, Margaret. "Chesterton and Hannah Arendt." The Chesterton Review 7.2 (1981): 139-53.

--. G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Chesterton, G. K. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1911.

--. Charles Dickens. London: Methuen and Co., 1907.

--. Chaucer. London: Faber and Faber, 1934.

--. The Common Man. London: Sheed and Ward, 1950.

--. The Crimes of England. London: Cecil Palmer and Hayward, 1915.

--. The Flying Inn. London: Methuen and Co., 1927.

--. Heretics. London: The Bodley Head, 1928.

--. The Man Who Was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. Chesterton. Ed. A. L. Maycock. London: Dennis Dobson, 1963.

--. The Man Who Was Thursday. Bristol: Arrowsmith, 1947.

--. The New Jerusalem. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920.

--. Orthodoxy. London: Bodley Head, 1927.

--. The Return of Don Quixote. London: Chatto and Windus, 1927.

--. Robert Browning. London: Macmillan and Co., 1911.

--. St. Thomas Aquinas. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1933.

--. The Well and the Shallows. London: Sheed and Ward, 1937.

--. What's Wrong with the World. London" Cassell and Co., 1912.

Medcalf, Stephen. "The Achievement of G. K. Chesterton." G. K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal. Ed. John Sullivan. London: Paul Elek, 1974. 81-121.

--. Midgley, Mary, Wisdom, Information, and Wonder: What is Knowledge For? London: Routledge, 1989.

Whitfield, Stephen J. Into The Dark: Hannah Arendt and Totalitarianism. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1980.


(1) I am not the first to notice this as some of the common ground was outlined in a short article by Margaret Canovan, "Chesterton and Hannah Arendt," 139-53.

(2) Arendt's published work contains references to of quotes from the following books by Chesterton: The Flying Inn, The Return of Don Quixote, and The Man Who Was Thursday (novels); The New Jerusalem (travel writing/religion); St. Thomas Aquinas (philosophical biography/religion); and The Crimes of England (war propaganda). See Hannah Arendt, "Christianity and Revolution," 153-5; Origins of Totalitarianism, 51, 74, 127-8; Men in Dark Times, 252.

(3) Arendt does not refer to her source, but she is in fact quoting from a conversation between the Irish Radical Patrick Dalroyd and the Tory landlord Humphrey Pump, the two heroes in Chesterton's 1914 novel The Flying Inn, 157-8.

(4) See Arendt, "Christianity and Revolution," 152-4; Men in Dark Times, 257; "Remembering Wystan H. Auden," 185.

(5) See Margaret Canovan, G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist.

(6) Chesterton, I believe, would have endorsed this insight. See G. K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows, 145-6.
COPYRIGHT 2010 Marquette University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gill, Richard
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
Previous Article:The exercise of spirit: phenomenology in response to poetry.
Next Article:Protest or process: theodicy responses to Elie Wiesel's The Trial of God.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters