Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Artillery Row

G.K. Chesterton and the pandemic

The prince of paradox predicted the absurdities of Covid lockdowns

G .K. Chesterton may have been the greatest writer to rely upon paradox almost exclusively in his cultural and political analysis. He had a singular gift for drawing contradiction out of controversy, like a white rabbit out of a hat. Dubbed “the prince of paradox”, Chesterton found humour in the truth, and truth in humour. 

It is a law that the rich make knowing they can always break it

Although he worked primarily as a journalist, the resilience of paradox elevated his commentary to classic status. Paradox is more subtle than pointing out hypocrisy, because it involves not a truth and a lie, but two truths. It is more complex than sarcasm, which exposes by cutting down or carving away, whereas the two sides of a paradox are constantly revisiting and redefining each other in their refutation. Chesterton wielded it as a mirror rather than a sword, revealing us to ourselves.

Knowing him best for religious writings on Orthodoxy, his poetic epic The White Horse and enchanting comic sketches like “A Piece of White Chalk”, I was intrigued to stumble on his politically-minded travelogue What I Saw in America.

In some ways, it doesn’t wear as well as his more famous works. Possibly exhausted after a long trip, Chesterton occasionally strays into querulousness. One smiles at more than sympathises with his pet peeves, like being misquoted in newspapers. On serious questions, his language around other races would scandalise even conservative sensibilities, let alone the woke crowd.

Nonetheless, in his commentary on 1920s politics and Anglo-American relations, Chesterton proves himself worthy of his other title, “the laughing prophet”. He is eminently quotable as always, dropping jewels like “The American Republic is the last mediaeval monarchy” and “The chief difference between the humdrum English business man and the hustling American business man is that the hustling American business man is always late.” Nor does Chesterton spare his own country: “Britain alone really possesses the noble thing called weather,” he pronounces, “most other countries having to be content with climate. It must be confessed, however, that they often are content with it.”

He interweaves this levity with insights that make you cry until you laugh. “It was a conversational commonplace among the enlightened, somewhere about the year 1913, that all wars were receding farther and farther into a barbaric past,” Chesterton remarks drily, an observation that would give analysts today reason to blush. As for the progressivism that has evolved into social justice and cancel culture, he takes its measure in a sentence: “Democracy is reproached with saying that the majority is always right. But progress says that the minority is always right.”

Of all the contemporary politics that occupied Chesterton’s attention, one might have expected that 1920s-era Prohibition would be the least relevant today. Instead, Chesterton’s devastating critique — “it is a law that the rich make knowing they can always break it” — presents stark parallels to Covid lockdowns. Just as he warned then, “there is a danger of a sort of amateur science or pseudo-science being made the excuse for every trick of tyranny and interference”. Trade out the key word, and Chesterton’s analysis gives a perfect diagnosis of our society’s motivations: just like Prohibition, Covid policy “was largely passed in a sort of fervour or fever of self-sacrifice”.

The test of true prophecy is whether it comes true

It’s great fun to quote someone from another century and find that he “predicted” our current affairs — the test of a true prophecy is, after all, whether the prophecy comes true.

What’s striking about Chesterton’s Prohibition critiques is not that they came true, but that he never expected them to. “The same American atmosphere that permits Prohibition permits of people being punished for kissing each other,” he snorted, adding, “I never can see why they should not apply it to talking.” The parody begins to sound more and more familiar: “Perhaps it would be effected in a more practical fashion, and the private citizens would be shut up as the public-houses were shut up,” Chesterton suggested. “Perhaps they would all wear gags…” 

He concludes, “It is surely obvious that if this were the normal life of the citizen, the citizen would have no normal life.”

Chesterton conjured this scenario to press the logic behind Prohibition to the height of absurdity, yet it is a fair description of human lives worldwide for the past two years. How to account for the actuality of what seemed impossible? If we choose Orwell as our Covid prophet, we see how lockdowns were evil: a tyranny of power imposed on its victims, with tracking devices in every home and the redefinition of words like “household” to serve the state’s policies. If we choose Chesterton, we see how Covid policy was ridiculous. 

To admit we have been ridiculous requires a measure of humility. As illustrated by the children’s story, the emperor’s new clothes embarrassed not only the emperor, but everyone who stood in the parade clapping. If we can humble ourselves enough to admit our foolishness, the charge of absurdity can at least offer us some hope. Unlike in a dystopia, where human nature tends inevitably towards misery, we might avoid stumbling into such senseless destruction again. Chesterton wished as much: he conjured these uncomfortable fantasies in an invitation for us to not only recognise ourselves in them, but to mend our ways. Otherwise, we may find the commentators of the next century reading over our op-eds and shaking their heads.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover