by Jeff Polet
My freshman year in college a professor placed in my hands G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, and my life was never the same after. I didn’t at the time recognize that the book was an exercise in apologetics, but I was thoroughly enchanted by both the mode and substance of argumentation. Later, I came to realize that Chesterton was also an incisive social critic, who with humor and grace observed the world around him, constantly alert to its follies and paradoxes. Chesterton was particularly concerned about the ways in which industrialism, modern science, and mass politics shrunk our moral imaginations and often left us more miserable than people had been before they gave over the hearts and lives to “progress.” Previously human beings might have lost their way, Chesterton wagged, but now they had lost their address.
This sense of the relationship between place, moral reasoning, and healthy social institutions is wonderfully unfolded in Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Published in 1902, The Napoleon of Notting Hill told the story of the consequences of powerful men playing at empire, legitimating their actions with references to “progress” and science. It takes place in a Britain ruled by a despotic government. Following the myth that all men are equally rational, the ruler of the country is chosen at random, on the theory that anyone can rule when everyone is equally reasonable. This process fails, however, when Auberon Quin, an eccentric who loves a good joke, becomes the despot. Under his Charter of the Free Cities, he divides London into neo-medieval city-states, each with banners, coats of arms, walls and city guards. A few prominent leaders in London propose to build a road through the city, but the ruler of Notting Hill, Adam Wayne, refuses to allow his place to be run over by progress. Wayne brings Notting Hill to war with the rest of London over the proposed road, and by using guerilla tactics he triumphs, only to succumb to pride and his own ambition to rule the world according to his ideas. After ruling for twenty years, one more battle takes place, which ends the hegemony of Notting Hill. But even at this moment of collapse, Wayne sees Notting Hill as a modern Athens, “the mother of a mode of life, of a manner of living, which shall renew the youth of the world.”
On one level this fantasy mocks the idea of progress—that in the distant future reason and the egalitarian creed will have evolved to a point where anyone could be the ruler. Presumably, according to the creed of progress, education and scientifically founded social institutions will weed out unreason. Quin, however, stands in complete contrast to this vision, for he will go to great lengths to make a joke, even if he is the only one laughing. By making this person king, the entire social experiment of despotism is put at risk, for the point of despotism is unity, and if “any damned man can be king” then any local parish can be self-governing. The despot fears local attachments. Quin’s character sheds light on Chesterton’s view of empire. In effect, Quin sets up the empire in London by arbitrarily creating borders, rather like the British had done in Africa or the Middle East. Quin removed the free associations of the people of London by binding them to particular neighborhoods. Likewise, as many government leaders imposed legislation to ensure capital and profits, Quin imposes legislation to ensure his own enjoyment. Chesterton questioned whether any difference existed, and noted that in both cases, the ruling powers do not have the well-being of the citizens of the country in mind.
As with all facets of his life, Chesterton’s religious convictions ruled his views on patriotism and imperialism, thus making it clear why the outcome of Notting Hill’s victory is as it is. In Notting Hill’s conquest of London, the small became the large. At times, Chesterton can appear as a great idealist who holds high visions of a perfectly moral system. But he is far too wise simply to be a religious romantic, and as much as he enjoyed Notting Hill defeating the rest of London, he knew that those governing Notting Hill were also human and thus sinful as well. James Barker, one of the chief backers of the road that started the war describes the situation under Notting Hill as tyrannical and that its inhabitants now “try to meddle with every one, and rule every one, and tell every one what is good for him.” The same sin of pride that plagued the British during the Boer War has also afflicted the citizens of Notting Hill.
As with most issues in Chesterton, the solution lies in paradox. The Napoleon of Notting Hill contains two completely opposite characters, both of whom are rulers, Auberon Quin, the king who does not take anything seriously, and Adam Wayne, the ruler of Notting Hill, a man who takes everything so. In the last scene of the novel, the narrator explains that these two are both mad, but are in effect, two lobes of the same brain. Wayne says:
It is not merely that you, the humorist have been in these dark days stripped of the joy of gravity. It is not merely that I, the fanatic have had to grope without humor. It is that though we seem to be opposite in everything, we have been opposite like man and woman, aiming at the same moment at the same practical thing.
That “thing” was the Charter of the Free Cities, which was neither a joke nor an obsession, but served the well-being of the common man. The two extremes needed to balance each other, so that the common man’s patriotism would neither grow into an unbridled nationalism or become apathetic and cynical. A free, self-sustaining locale is the nurse-bed of patriotism — Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” — but the coercion and fanaticism that come with empire destroy that genuine patriotism.
Notting Hill mattered to at least one of its residents, who would not sell it so that a road could go through. “That which is large enough for the rich to covet … is large enough for the poor to defend.” And what makes it worth defending? Not that there is something “special” about it, but that it is a piece of “common earth” on which men “have built houses to live, in which they are born, fall in love, pray, marry, and die.” In short, it is intimately connected with the dignity of human beings.
Chesterton’s comparison of imperialism and patriotism led him to claim that these two ideas were “not the same thing, but very nearly opposite things.” He pushed imperialism to its logical end in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, demonstrating the dangers of empire building and the fanaticism and conflicts that it produced. In the novelit is the greed of property owners, cloaked in the rhetoric of urban progress, which triggers the attack by other Londoners on Notting Hill. Chesterton’s unabashed support of the smaller over the larger carried over to his defense of the family and the individual when it came to eugenics (a central progressive tenet). Belief in progress cannot sufficiently justify such transgressions, for “everything that merely progresses finally perishes.” Instead, the only proper government is local, and founded on local knowledge. “The citizens can rule the city because they know the city; but it will always be an exceptional sort of citizen who has or claims the right to rule over ten cities, and these altogether remote and alien cities.”
In the moral and intellectual realm, cosmopolitanism serves as the handmaiden of empires. Chesterton was a harsh critic of the cosmopolitan impulse, for he believed it narrowed the mind rather than broadened it. In order to be a citizen, one must not aspire to be more than one – in this case, the “more than” referring to a social life without limits or location. One problem with cosmopolitan claims are their vacuity: they often act as moral bromides or excuses for sticking your nose in other people’s business. Generally, Chesterton believed, ”When you say you want all peoples to unite, you really mean you want all peoples to unite to learn the tricks of your people.” The cosmopolitan, Chesterton thought, had a narrow vision of the world. Chesterton remarked that while we make our friends and make our enemies, God makes our neighbors. “The duty towards humanity,” he wrote, “may often take the form of some personal choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby, it may even be a dissipation.” Serving an abstract humanity can be an indulgence of our desires, especially our desire to avoid difficult tasks, but not our moral duty. We don’t choose our moral projects, for in neighborly love the project is given to us. “We have to love our neighbor because he is there—a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation.” This is a much more compelling notion of “negotiating differences,” because we cannot do so on our terms, we cannot opt out, and the negotiation will have actual consequences for us. If a person seeking the moral life wants to interact with a person different than himself, “he had much better stop at home and discuss religion with the housemaid.” Indeed, it is in the immediacy of this kind of life that the full range of humanity is on display: the drunkenness of a father, the nastiness of a colleague, the lassitude of a sibling, the eccentricity of an uncle—these are humanity in the flesh and in our face. Our immersion in the humanity of the household and street and workplace alone exposes us to the intimate fullness of human types and their demands.
- Were Burke and Chesterton right in believing that affection had to be learned and demonstrated at a very intimate level before it could ever expand to a larger one?
- What do you think of Chesterton’s view that genuine diversity can’t be constructed but occurs organically and intimately, and makes real demands on us?
- Does progress select out winners and losers? If so, how should the losers respond to the claims of the winners that they are on the side of progress and history and the losers should either go along or get out of the way?