January 25th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Wildfires: Lessons from the past not yet learnt

EDITORIAL America 'resets' foreign policy on China and Russia

CANBERRA OBSERVED After the fires, we still need an economy and to power it

GENDER POLITICS In trans Newspeak, parental consent is a 'hurdle'

REFLECTION Conjugal honour: Love of husband and wife joined together in pure intimacy

LIFE ISSUES Pro-lifers punished for exposing baby harvesting

LAW AND SOCIETY Cardinal Pell and the Appeal Court judges

LITERATURE AND SOCIETY The poetry of Distributism

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Botany Bay: Always more than a dumping ground

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Finally getting Brexit done

HUMOUR The MacStuttles probe

MUSIC From retch to wretched

CINEMA Three times the bravura: 1917, The Gentlemen, Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon

BOOK REVIEW The contradictions of the dominant ideology

BOOK REVIEW Novel celebrates inventor of literary fairytales



HUMAN RIGHTS A Magnitsky-style law for Australia?

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The poetry of Distributism

by Karl Schmude

News Weekly, January 25, 2020

Is it possible to speak of a social and economic philosophy as “poetic”? The name G.K. Chesterton gave to his social philosophy – “Distributism”, which he admitted was “an awkward but accurate name”[1] – conveys its essential meaning of widely distributed property and ownership (as against their concentration in a few hands), but its origins can be seen as poetic more than philosophical.

Distributism lay deeply rooted in Chesterton’s imagination. It was revealed in his first responses to the world and in his fiction, his novels and poetry, not just in his didactic works of social and political criticism. His early experiences and intuitions helped to form his mature philosophy of a well-ordered society: a Distributist society, marked, as he believed it should be, by the broadest possible spread of property, forming the foundation, not only of economic freedom, but of all other freedoms as well – social, political, cultural and religious.

A crucial reason for probing the imaginative roots of Chesterton’s social outlook is that, as Ian Boyd, a pioneer of the modern Chesterton movement, has noted, Chesterton did not provide in his writings a systematic account of Distributism.[2] This is not to say that he failed to make clear what he meant by it, but simply to suggest that it emerged from his imagination, not only his reason, and that both played a crucial part in shaping his social outlook.

The late Les Murray, regarded as Australia’s unofficial poet-laureate, captured this insight in his poem, Poetry and Religion:

“Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
And nothing’s true that figures in words only.”[3]

It is also worth recalling that Chesterton began writing as a poet and an artist, not as a journalist. He had produced poems even before he turned 10 years of age and, after leaving school, he attended, not a university, but an art school in London. His first published books (in the year 1900) were works of poetry – one comprising satirical pieces called Greybeards at Play; and the other, a bigger and more varied collection, entitled The Wild Knight and Other Poems.

Searching for evidence of the earliest intimations of Distributism in Chesterton’s writings, we might begin with his autobiography, completed only a few weeks before his death in 1936. This has been a highly underrated work. As his latest biographer, Ian Ker, suggests, it is a “vividly authentic self-portrait”, worthy to be ranked with Saint John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.[4]

The early portions of the autobiography shed fascinating light on the ways in which children develop their picture of the world. In one chapter, “Nationalism and Notting Hill”, Chesterton recalls his childhood enchantment with the first telephone installed in his home. It ran from the top bedroom to the far end of the garden. It startled Chesterton to hear a voice that was actually as distant as the next street, and he would hardly have been more startled if it had been as distant as the next town – or the next continent.

Thus, in his first years, he was impressed imaginatively on a small scale by a large scientific wonder. “I always found,” he wrote, “that I was much more attracted by the microscope than the telescope.”[5] The microscope, that is, penetrating more deeply into reality than the telescope, which brings a remote reality closer – to more intimate (and, in a sense, illusory) awareness. Things are not really as close as the telescope makes them appear, but they are as close as the microscope reveals more fully.

Chesterton builds on this reflection by discussing his theory of liberty. He contrasts the world’s common understanding of liberty with his own.

It is a contrast, he says, between seeing liberty in expansive terms, “as something that merely works outwards”, getting bigger and bigger, and – in Chesterton’s sharply different view – seeing liberty as “something that works inwards”, getting smaller and nearer, closer to the core, the spiritual centre, of our lives.[6]

Chesterton’s understanding of human freedom is, indeed, decidedly at odds with the view that is deeply embedded in our culture. We are accustomed to seeing liberty in terms of latitude and licence, of freedom from restrictions. We see it in terms of “freedom from”, rather than, as Chesterton saw it, “freedom to” – freedom to explore and to probe and to penetrate, in search of deeper meaning; freedom to uncover what is there; not freedom to invent what is not there.

Chesterton did not share the common description of the first dreams of life as “mere longing for larger and larger horizons”, a working towards the infinite. He thought, on the contrary, that the imagination thrived on valuing the finite. The imagination, he said, as the word itself implies, “deals with an image. And an image is in its nature a thing that has an outline and therefore a limit.”[7] Thus Chesterton thought – in his characteristically paradoxical way – that the basis of liberty was limits.

As he recalled: “All my life I have loved edges; and the boundary-line that brings one thing sharply against another. All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.”[8]

This fundamental insight finds expression in many of Chesterton’s works, not only his directly philosophical writings but also his fiction. For example, in The Return of Don Quixote, the main character, Michael Herne, is performing in a play and wearing a medieval costume with a hood. At one point he says that there is something “symbolical” about wearing a hood; and when asked by the author of the play to explain what he meant, he replied:

“Have you never looked through an archway … and seen the landscape beyond as bright as a lost paradise? That is because there is a frame to the picture. … You are cut off from something and allowed to look at something. When will people understand that the world is a window in a wall of infinite nothing? When I wear this hood I carry my window with me. I say to myself – this is the world that Francis of Assisi saw and loved because it was limited. The hood has the very shape of a Gothic window.”[9]

In his autobiography, Chesterton reflects on the importance of limits in the life of a child. This experience is not one of seeking to destroy limits, but rather to invent imaginary ones. Chesterton instanced sports and games, which depend on the creation and acceptance of certain rules and restrictions, certain self-limitations, for the pleasures of the sport or the game to be enjoyed.

His insight into the intrinsic link between limits and liberty provides a glimpse into what predisposed him to Distributism – what underlay his psychology of interest in this social and economic philosophy. It is an intuition that helped to account for what I have called “the poetry of Distributism”. It paved the way for his mature conviction that the social order most in tune with human nature is one that recognises, and even celebrates, limits, not just possibilities, in life. It is not a social order that favours the infinite, for that will tend to induce utopian fantasies, such as those that disfigured human history in Chesterton’s lifetime as well as since his death.

There is another dimension of Chesterton’s espousal of Distributism that The Return of Don Quixote highlights. That is, facing the challenge in any age to break away from settled assumptions and prevailing opinion. This is decidedly so in our age, bombarded as it is by unrelenting communication modes and messages.

In the novel, the costume being worn by the character Michael Herne is that of a medieval king. When the play finishes, Herne stays in his costume and refuses to change back into his present-day clothes. His fellow players are first bemused and finally displeased with him. Yet this is not a case of Herne being eccentric or trapped in the past. Rather it is Chesterton’s way of showing that Herne is taking on the perspective of the past in order to evaluate and criticise the present.

Herne is distancing himself mentally from his own era and taking on the dress of another age as an avenue to intellectual liberty. In Chesterton’s description: “He was simply embarrassed, or rather paralysed, in the presence of his own old clothes.”[10]

Every reader of Chesterton is aware of his exceptional gift for finding vivid ways of refreshing important truths. In this case, he uses the costume of a past age to signal a detachment from the prejudices of a present age. He places us mentally in another time, sharply different from our own, to open up the freedom to question the fashionable ideas and theories that clamour for obedience in our own cultural landscape.

He adopted the same approach in striving to persuade us of the value of Distributism as a social and economic philosophy. Conditioned as we are by the presumed benefits of bigness – the bigger, the better – it takes an enormous intellectual, and imaginative, leap to see the advantages of smallness, and to conceive of a different kind of social order.

Similarly, it takes an act of the imagination to be thankful for the things we do enjoy – to take them with gratitude, as Chesterton put it, and not take them for granted.[11]

There are striking examples of this insight in his novel, Manalive (1912), in which the main character, Innocent Smith, plays a part similar to Don Quixote – the “holy fool”, as he has been called. He appears to be mad but is, in fact, a repository of perennial wisdom.

Innocent Smith is a new tenant at a London boarding house who is accused of various crimes – including burglary, attempted murder, and polygamy. Evidence is then presented that shows him to be, indeed, innocent. Thus the attempted murder charge arises because Smith fires bullets near people – but he does this, not to threaten them, but to re-excite their appreciation of life. The women he elopes with are in every case his wife, Mary, who poses as an unmarried woman under different names as a way of reliving their days of courtship and rediscovering their original love.

Smith leaves home to travel round the world, not to escape from the humdrum but to recapture a sense of thankfulness for the familiar – for his own home and family – a renewed appreciation of his own property and all it offers him.

Karl Schmude is a co-founder of Campion College in Sydney and a former university librarian at the University of New England. He is also president of the Australian Chesterton Society. Visit the society’s website at chestertonaustralia.com



[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1927), p.16.

[2] Ian Boyd, The Novels of G.K. Chesterton, A Study in Art and Propaganda (London: Elek, 1975), p.77.

[3] Les Murray, “Poetry and Religion,” in Collected Poems (Port Melbourne: Heinemann, 1994), p.267.

[4] Ian Ker, G.K. Chesterton: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp.xi, 128.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1936), p.106.

[6] Ibid., p.107.

[7] Ibid., p.107.

[8] Ibid., p.32.

[9] G.K. Chesterton, The Return of Don Quixote (London: Chatto & Windus, 1927), pp.171-172.

[10] Ibid., p.189.

[11] G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1936), p.330.

Parts Two and Three of this series can be read here and here.

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