Chesterton as Belloc’s Proverb-Maker

NPG 3654,Conversation piece,by Sir James Gunn

Elliot Milco has written a wonderfully amusing post against G.K. Chesterton quotes (expanded at First Things):

I made it through the first two pages (of sixteen) devoted to Chesterton on a popular quotation website. Here are a few of the stupidities I found:
People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are.
By this logic, the works of E.L. James must be extremely true.
One sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak.
One sees small things from the valley, but only at the peak can one see the greatness of which they form a part.
Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all.
Love means to love what is worthy of love; everything else is vice.
Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.
Maybe it’s because Chesterton wasn’t educated that he believed this, but I find that educated people tend to take each other much more seriously than uneducated people take them. People with college degrees don’t tend to call intellectuals “egg heads.”

And so on. It reminded me of Belloc’s immortal rant against the proverb maker in The Path to Rome (which is good enough to be quoted at length):

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When that first Proverb-Maker who has imposed upon all peoples by his epigrams and his fallacious half-truths, his empiricism and his wanton appeals to popular ignorance, I say when this man (for I take it he was a man, and a wicked one) was passing through France he launched among the French one of his pestiferous phrases, ‘Ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûté’ and this in a rolling-in-the-mouth self-satisfied kind of a manner has been repeated since his day at least seventeen million three hundred and sixty-two thousand five hundred and four times by a great mass of Ushers, Parents, Company Officers, Elder Brothers, Parish Priests, and authorities in general whose office it may be and whose pleasure it certainly is to jog up and disturb that native slumber and inertia of the mind which is the true breeding soil of Revelation.
For when boys or soldiers or poets, or any other blossoms and prides of nature, are for lying steady in the shade and letting the Mind commune with its Immortal Comrades, up comes Authority busking about and eager as though it were a duty to force the said Mind to burrow and sweat in the matter of this very perishable world, its temporary habitation.
‘Up,’ says Authority, ‘and let me see that Mind of yours doing something practical. Let me see Him mixing painfully with circumstance, and botching up some Imperfection or other that shall at least be a Reality and not a silly Fantasy.’
Then the poor Mind comes back to Prison again, and the boy takes his horrible Homer in the real Greek (not Church’s book, alas!); the Poet his rough hairy paper, his headache, and his cross-nibbed pen; the Soldier abandons his inner picture of swaggering about in ordinary clothes, and sees the dusty road and feels the hard places in his boot, and shakes down again to the steady pressure of his pack; and Authority is satisfied, knowing that he will get a smattering from the Boy, a rubbishy verse from the Poet, and from the Soldier a long and thirsty march. And Authority, when it does this commonly sets to work by one of these formulae: as, in England north of Trent, by the manifestly false and boastful phrase, ‘A thing begun is half ended’, and in the south by ‘The Beginning is half the Battle’; but in France by the words I have attributed to the Proverb-Maker, ‘Ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûte’.
By this you may perceive that the Proverb-Maker, like every other Demagogue, Energumen, and Disturber, dealt largely in metaphor–but this I need hardly insist upon, for in his vast collection of published and unpublished works it is amply evident that he took the silly pride of the half-educated in a constant abuse of metaphor. There was a sturdy boy at my school who, when the master had carefully explained to us the nature of metaphor, said that so far as he could see a metaphor was nothing but a long Greek word for a lie. And certainly men who know that the mere truth would be distasteful or tedious commonly have recourse to metaphor, and so do those false men who desire to acquire a subtle and unjust influence over their fellows, and chief among them, the Proverb-Maker. For though his name is lost in the great space of time that has passed since he flourished, yet his character can be very clearly deduced from the many literary fragments he has left, and that is found to be the character of a pusillanimous and ill-bred usurer, wholly lacking in foresight, in generous enterprise, and chivalrous enthusiasm–in matters of the Faith a prig or a doubter, in matters of adventure a poltroon, in matters of Science an ignorant Parrot, and in Letters a wretchedly bad rhymester, with a vice for alliteration; a wilful liar (as, for instance, ‘The longest way round is the shortest way home’), a startling miser (as, ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’), one ignorant of largesse and human charity (as, ‘Waste not, want not’), and a shocking boor in the point of honour (as, ‘Hard words break no bones’–he never fought, I see, but with a cudgel).

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Not that Chesterton’s character was much like that of the Proverb-Maker; his method sometimes was. “But,” Belloc continues, and his last point is perhaps more applicable to Chesterton than Milco admits:

he had just that touch of slinking humour which the peasants have, and there is in all he said that exasperating quality for which we have no name, which certainly is not accuracy, and which is quite the opposite of judgement, yet which catches the mind as brambles do our clothes, causing us continually to pause and swear. For he mixes up unanswerable things with false conclusions, he is perpetually letting the cat out of the bag and exposing our tricks, putting a colour to our actions, disturbing us with our own memory, indecently revealing corners of the soul. He is like those men who say one unpleasant and rude thing about a friend, and then take refuge from their disloyal and false action by pleading that this single accusation is true; and it is perhaps for this abominable logicality of his and for his malicious cunning that I chiefly hate him: and since he himself evidently hated the human race, he must not complain if he is hated in return.

5 thoughts on “Chesterton as Belloc’s Proverb-Maker

    • And got the school-boys he taught to translate it into Latin.

      But are you being the advocatus diaboli here against poor GKC? I think each of the quotations above could be justified given enough explanation. Perhaps as it is said of the angelic doctor, ‘semper formalissime loquitur’ we could say of the doctor of Beaconsfield, ‘semper materialissime loquitur’.

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      • Yes, of course. Just as one can justify the proverb “only the first step costs”:

        Take, for instance, this phrase that set me writing, ‘Ce nest que le premier pas qui coûte’. It is false. Much after a beginning is difficult, as everybody knows who has crossed the sea, and as for the first step a man never so much as remembers it; if there is difficulty it is in the whole launching of a thing, in the first ten pages of a book, or the first half-hour of listening to a sermon, or the first mile of a walk. The first step is undertaken lightly, pleasantly, and with your soul in the sky; it is the five-hundredth that counts. But I know, and you know, and he knew (worse luck) that he was saying a thorny and catching thing when he made up that phrase. It worries one of set purpose. It is as though one had a voice inside one saying:
        ‘I know you, you will never begin anything. Look at what you might have done! Here you are, already twenty-one, and you have not yet written a dictionary. What will you do for fame? Eh? Nothing: you are intolerably lazy–and what is worse, it is your fate. Beginnings are insuperable barriers to you. What about that great work on The National Debt? What about that little lyric on Winchelsea that you thought of writing six years ago? Why are the few lines still in your head and not on paper? Because you can’t begin. However, never mind, you can’t help it, it’s your one great flaw, and it’s fatal. Look at Jones! Younger than you by half a year, and already on the Evening Yankee taking bribes from Company Promoters! And where are you?’ &c., &c.–and so forth.
        So this threat about the heavy task of Beginning breeds discouragement, anger, vexation, irritability, bad style, pomposity and infinitives split from helm to saddle, and metaphors as mixed as the Carlton. But it is just true enough to remain fast in the mind, caught, as it were, by one finger. For all things (you will notice) are very difficult in their origin, and why, no one can understand.

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  1. I’ve never really cared for Chesterton because most of what he has to say is rather obvious. Or at least I thought it was.

    Take the first quote you cite, at least novels make an attempt to ground themselves in common experience. Whereas the scientific and the metaphysical all too commonly begin by ignoring common experience in preference for some unproven beginning. The scientific and metaphysical are little better than vampire novels, or perhaps worse, since even the vampire novels attempt to set themselves in a social environment that is believable.

    Or take the second quote, It’s the difference between loving abstractions versus loving those who hold our hands.

    Or take the third, I never understood love or the sacrifice on the cross until I had children. Our love is not an intellectual act of justice of balancing a scale, but a desire to sacrifice and give all we have for the good of another regardless.

    Or take the last quote you cite, the illiterate may derisively call the intellectual class eggheads, and deservedly so, but nevertheless, they do unfortunately take the intellectual class seriously because they cannot see just how incompetent the intellectual class actually is.

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