From The Imaginative Conservative
By Joseph Pearce
The difference between an argument and a quarrel is the difference between heaven and hell. An argument for something is the expression of a line of reasoning in support of a proposition. It is in this spirit that I dare to pick an argument with G.K. Chesterton himself, confident that it could never become a quarrel.
One of my favourite maxims, which I’ve adopted as a personal motto and have accepted as moral guidance, was written by G.K. Chesterton. It’s from his autobiography and refers to Chesterton’s relationship with his brother. “We were always arguing,” Chesterton wrote, “but we never quarreled.”
The difference between an argument and a quarrel is the difference between heaven and hell. An argument for something is the expression of a line of reasoning in support of a proposition. The word has its root in the Latin arguere, which means to make clear, or make known, or prove. It is the exercise of reason in pursuit of truth. An argument with someone is the expression of contrary or differing lines of reasoning in support of a proposition or to counter a proposition. A true argument is always put at the service of the truth it is seeking and is governed by the twin principles of clarity and charity. It is the union of reason and love.
A quarrel, on the other hand, is characterized by enmity and belligerence, both of which are inimical to the practice of love and reason. This is why we should always be arguing but should never be quarreling.
Following this principle, I have long had the desire to write a book entitled “Arguing with Giants” in which I would have the temerity to beg to differ with those who are my superiors and betters. It is in this spirit that I dare to pick an argument with Chesterton himself, confident that it could never become a quarrel.
In his wonderful book Orthodoxy, in the chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland”, Chesterton seems to be less than his usual coherent self in his discussion of the “chivalrous lesson” that is taught by the fairy story, “Jack the Giant Killer”:
There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer”; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite.
This strikes me as problematic in a number of ways. First, it seems a little harsh to suggest that giants should be killed merely because they are giants. They should be resisted and even killed, if necessary, when they are using their size as a means of tyrannizing those who are smaller and weaker than themselves. When giants become tyrants they must be fought. Jack has the same chivalrous duty to defend the weak against the wickedness of the giant as St. George has to defend the damsel from the wickedness of the dragon. But the dragon is not slain by the saint because of its size but because of its wickedness; it is the saint’s and the knight’s solemn duty to protect the weak from wickedness, not to slay giants merely because they are gigantic.
Yet this quibble with Chesterton’s reasoning does not address the most problematic aspect of the passage I’ve quoted. What, for instance, are we to make of the apparent suggestion that Jack and the Jacobin are united in “a manly mutiny against pride as such”? The Jacobins, the most extreme of the French Revolutionaries, were responsible for the Reign of Terror in the Revolution’s wake in which thousands were put to death for the crime of being either rich or religious. The Jacobins were atheists whose war on the Church was not “a manly mutiny against pride” but a prideful mutiny against God. The Jacobins became, collectively, the wicked giant that terrorized the weak through the use of brute power. In the face of such a tyrannical giant, the peasants of the Vendée stood, like Jack the Giant Killer, in a true “manly mutiny” or chivalrous crusade against the atheistic pride of the Jacobins. The Vendée uprising was put down with genocidal brutality, the Jacobin giant defeating the courageous but relatively powerless Jack. In the case of the Vendée the chivalrous underdogs were slain, the crusaders being crucified like the God for whom they fought.
As for Chesterton’s claim that “the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite”, we might concede that the spirit of rebellion does indeed go back to the dawn of time. It goes back to the first rebellion of our first parents. In fact, if the full truth is to be told, the spirit of rebellion goes back even further than the dawn of time. It has its root in that primal diabolical rebellion which led to the fall of lucifer. And yet, in spite of rebellion’s antediluvian and prelapsarian pedigree, it is simply not true that “the rebel is older than all the kingdoms”. Need we remind Chesterton and ourselves that these earliest of all rebels were rebelling against the Kingdom of God?
The featured image is a photo of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, taken no later than 1922, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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