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Full text of "Divorce versus democracy"


York Books : XXI 

Continuity Tracts 



^ DIVORCE 

^ versus T 

DEMOCRACY 



BY 



G. K. CHESTERTON 



X oquere 
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Israel 




ut proh- 
ciscantur 



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London 
THE SOCIETY OF 
SS. PETER & PAUL 

Publish fr$ to the Church of Englatid 

32 George St., Hanover Square, • j 

^y V and 302 Regent St., W. VV^ 



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H. Knox. 

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DIVORCE 



Versus 



DEMOCRACY 



PR 

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ft 16 
H36' 

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BY 



G. K. CHESTERTON 



Reprinted from ^^ Nash^s Magazine''^ 




ut profi- 
ciscantur 



London 
THE SOCIETY OF 
SS. PETER & PAUL 

Publishers to the Church of England 

32 George St., Hanover Square, 

and 302 Regent St., W. 

1916 



I HAVE been asked to put forward in pamphlet form 
this rather hasty essay as it appeared in " Nash's 
Magazine"; and I do so by the kind permission of 
the editor. The rather chaotic quaHty of its journalism 
it is now impossible to alter. The convictions upon 
which it is based are unaltered and unalterable. In- 
deed, in so far as circumstances have since affected 
them, they are greatly strengthened. In so far as 
there was something sporadic and seemingly irrelevant 
in the writing, it was partly because I was contending 
against an evil that was diffused and indefinable, at 
once tentative and ubiquitous. Since then that 
disease has come to a head and burst ; primarily in 
the North of Europe. By that historic habit which 
generally makes one European people the standard- 
bearer of a social tendency, which made the Empire 
a Roman Empire and the Revolution a French Revolu- 
tion, the North Germans have become the peculiar 
champions of that modern change which would make 
the State infinitely superior to the Family. It is even 
asserted that Prussian political authority is now en- 
couraging the abandonment of common morality for 
the support of population ; and even if this horrible 
thing be untrae, it is highly significant that it can be 
plausibly said of Prussia, and certainly of no other 
Christian State. And in the new light of action it is 
possible to trace more clearly the trend towards 
divorce, as also that trend towards the other pagan 
institution of slavery, which would certainly have 
accompanied it. But the enslaving force in Europe 
struck too early ; and the whole movement has been 
brought to a standstill. 

The same circumstances have given an importance 
to a formula of my own which I still think rather 



5Dit)orce versus Democtacp 

important. It may be summarised as the patriotism 
of the household. In the experience of nationality 
we do not admit that any excess of despair can come 
into the same logical world as desertion. No amount 
of tragedy need amount to treason. The Christian 
view of marriage conceives of the home as self- 
governing in a manner analogous to an independent 
state ; that is, that it may include internal reform 
and even internal rebellion ; but because of the bond, 
not against it. In this way it is itself a sort of standing 
reformer of the State ; for the State is judged by 
whether its arrangements bear helpfully or bear 
hardly on the human fulness and fertility of the free 
family. Thus the Wicked Ten in Rome were con- 
demned and cast down because their public powers 
permitted a wrong against the purity of a private 
family. Thus the mediaeval revolt against the Poll 
Tax began by the authority of an official insulting 
the authority of a father. Men do not now, any more 
than then, become sinless by receiving a post in a 
bureaucracy ; and if the domestic affairs of the poor 
were once put into the hands of mere lawyers and 
inspectors, the poor would soon find themselves in 
positions from which there is no exit save by the 
sword of Virginius and the hammer of Wat Tyler. 
As for the section of the rich who are still seeking a 
servile solution, they, of course, are still seeking the 
extension of divorce. It is only " divide et impera " ; 
and they want the division of sex for the division of 
labour. The very same economic calculation which 
makes them encourage tyranny in the shop makes 
them encourage licence in the family. But now the 
free families of five great nations have risen against 
them ; and their plot has failed. 

G. K. CHESTERTON 



JBiborce versus Bemocrac^ 




N this question of divorce I do 
not profess to be impartial, 
for I have never perceived 
any intelligent meaning in 
the v^^ord. I merely (and 
most modestly) profess to 
be right. I also profess to 
be representative : that is, 
democratic. Now, one may 
believe in democracy or dis- 
believe in it. It would be 
grossly unfair to conceal the fact that there are diffi- 
culties on both sides. The difficulty of believing in 
democracy is that it is so hard to believe — ^like God 
and most other good things. The difficulty of dis- 
believing in democracy is that there is nothing else to 
believe in. I mean there is nothing else on earth or in 
earthly politics. Unless an aristocracy is selected by 
gods, it must be selected by men. It may be nega- 
tively and passively permitted, but either heaven or 
humanity must permit it ; otherwise it has no more 
moral authority than a lucky pickpocket. It is baby 
talk to talk about " Supermen " or " Nature's Aris- 
tocracy " or '' The Wise Few." " The Wise Few " 
must be either those whom others think wise — ^who 
are often fools ; or those who think themselves wise 
— ^who are always fools. 

Well, if one happens to believe in democracy as I 
do, as a large trust in the active and passive judgment 
of the human conscience, one can have no hesitation, 
no " impartiality," about one's view of divorce ; and 
especially about one's view of the extension of divorce 
among the democracy. A democrat in any sense must 
regard that extension as the last and vilest of the 



Ditjotce versus Dcmocracp 

insults offered by the modern rich to the modern poor. 
The rich do largely believe in divorce ; the poor do 
mainly believe in fidelity. But the modern rich are 
powerful and the modern poor are powerless. There- 
fore for years and decades past the rich have been 
preaching their own virtues. Now that they have 
begun to preach their vices too, I think it is time to 
kick. 

There is one enormous and elementary objection to 
the popularising of divorce, which comes before any 
consideration of the nature of marriage. It is like an 
alphabet in letters too large to be seen. It is this : 
That even if the democracy approved of divorce as 
strongly and deeply as the democracy does (in fact) dis- 
approve of it — any man of common sense must know 
that nowadays the thing will be worked probably 
against the democracy, but quite certainly by the 
plutocracy. People seem to forget that in a society 
where power goes with wealth and where wealth is in 
an extreme state of inequality, extending the powers 
of the law means something entirely different from ex- 
tending the powers of the public. They seem to forget 
that there is a great deal of difference between what 
laws define and what laws do. A poor woman in a 
poor public-house was broken with a ruinous fine for 
giving a child a sip of shandy-gaff. Nobody supposed 
that the law verbally stigmatised the action for being 
done by a poor person in a poor public-house. But 
most certainly nobody will dare to pretend that a rich 
man giving a boy a sip of champagne would have been 
punished so heavily — or punished at all. I have seen 
the thing done frequently in country houses ; and my 
host and hostess would have been very much surprised 
if I had gone outside and telephoned for the police. 
The law theoretically condemns any one who tries to 
frustrate the police or even fails to assist them. Yet 
the rich motorists are allowed to keep up an organised 
service of anti-police detectives — wearing a con- 
spicuous uniform — for the avowed purpose of showing 



Ditjotce versus s:)emactacp 

motorists how to avoid capture. No one supposes 
again that the law says in so many words that the 
right to organise for the evasion of laws is a privilege 
of the rich but not of the poor. But take the same 
practical test. What would the police say, what 
would the world say, if men stood about the streets 
in green and yellow uniforms, notoriously for the 
purpose of warning pickpockets of the presence of a 
plain-clothes officer ? What would the world say if 
recognised officials in peaked caps watched by night to 
warn a burglar that the police were waiting for him ? 
Yet there is no distinction of principle between the 
evasion of that police-trap and the other police-trap 
— the police-trap which prevents a motorist from 
killing a child like a chicken ; which prevents the 
most frivolous kind of murder, the most piteous kind 
of sudden death. 

Well, the Poor Man's Divorce Law will be applied 
exactly as all these others are applied. Everybody 
must know that it would mean in practice that well- 
dressed men, doctors, magistrates, and inspectors, 
would have more power over the family lives of ill- 
dressed men, navvies, plumbers, and potmen. Nobody 
can have the impudence to pretend that it would mean 
that navvies, plumbers, and potmen would (either in- 
dividually or collectively) have more power over the 
family lives of doctors, magistrates, and inspectors. 
Nobody dare assert that because divorce is a State 
affair, therefore the poor citizen will have any power, 
direct or indirect, to divorce a duchess from a duke or 
a banker from a banker's wife. But no one will call it 
inconceivable that the power of rich families over poor 
families, which is already great, the power of the duke 
as landlord, the power of the banker as money-lender, 
might be considerably increased by arming magistrates 
with more powers of interference in private life. For 
the dukes and bankers often are magistrates, always 
the friends and relatives of magistrates. The navvies 
are not. The navvy will be the subject of the new 



Drtotce ve7'S7is Democracp 

experiments; certainly never the experimentalist. It is 
the poor man who will show to the imaginative eye of 
science all those horrors which, according to newspaper 
correspondents, cry aloud for divorce — drunkenness, 
madness, cruelty, incurable disease. If he is slow in 
working for his master, he will be " defective." If he 
is worn out by working for his master, he will be 
" degenerate." If he, at some particular opportunity, 
prefers to work for himself to working for his master, 
he will be obviously insane. If he never has any 
opportunity of worlang for any masters he will be 
" unemployable." All the bitter embarrassments and 
entanglements incidental to extreme poverty will be 
used to break conjugal happiness, as they are already 
used to break parental authority. Marriage will be 
called a failure wherever it is a struggle ; just as 
parents in modern England are sent to prison for 
neglecting the children whom they cannot afford to 
feed. 

I will take but one instance of the enormity and 
silliness which is really implied in these proposals for 
the extension of divorce. Take the case quoted by 
many contributors to the discussion in the papers 
— the case of what is called " cruelty." Now what is. 
the real meaning of this as regards the prosperous and 
as regards the struggling classes of the community ? 
Let us take the prosperous classes first. Every one 
knows that those who are really to be described as 
gentlemen all profess a particular tradition, partly 
chivalrous, partly merely modern and refined — a 
tradition against " laying hands upon a woman, save 
in a way of kindness." I do not mean that a gentleman 
hates the cowing of a woman by brute force : any one 
must hate that. I mean he has a ritual, taboo kind of 
feeling about the laying on of a finger. If a gentleman 
(real or imitation) has struck his wife ever so lightlv, he 
feels he has done one of those things that thrill the 
thoughts with the notion of a border-line ; something 
like saying the Lord's Prayer backwards, touching a 

8 



3Dit3arce verms Democracy 

hot kettle, reversing the crucifix, or " breaking the 
pledge." The wife may forgive the husband more 
easily for this than for many things ; but the husband 
will find it hard to forgive himself. It is a purely class 
sentiment, like the poor folks' dislike of hospitals. 
What is the effect of this class sentiment on divorce 
among the higher classes ? 

The first effect, of course, is greatly to assist those 
faked divorces so common among the fashionable. 
I mean that where there is a collusion, a small pat or 
push can be remembered, exaggerated, or invented ; 
and yet seem to the solemn judges a very solemn 
thing in people of their own social class. But outside 
these cases, the test is not wholly inappropriate as 
applied to the richer classes. For, all gentlemen feeling 
or affecting this special horror, it does really look bad 
if a gentleman has broken through it ; it does look 
like madness or a personal hatred and persecution. It 
may even look like worse things. If a man with 
luxurious habits, in artistic surroundings, is cruel to 
his wife, it may be connected with some perversion of 
sex cruelty, such as was alleged (I know not how truly) 
in the case of the millionaire Thaw. We need not deny 
that such cases are cases for separation, if not for 
divorce. 

But this test of technical cruelty, which is rough and 
ready as applied to the rich, is absolutely mad and 
meaningless as applied to the poor. A poor woman 
does not judge her husband as a bully by whether he 
has ever hit out. One might as well say that a school- 
boy judges whether another schoolboy is a bully by 
whether he has ever hit out. The poor wife, like the 
schoolboy, judges him as a bully by whether he is a 
bully. She knows that while wife-beating may really 
be a crime, wife-hitting is sometimes very like just self- 
defence. No one knows better than she does that her 
husband often has a great deal to put up with ; some- 
times she means him to ; sometimes she is justified. 
She comes and tells all this to magistrates again and 



Ditjotcc versm Dcmoctacp 

again ; in police court after police court women with 
black eyes try to explain the thing to judges with no 
eyes. In street after street women turn in anger on 
the hapless knight-errant who has interrupted an 
instantaneous misunderstanding. In these people's 
lives the rooms are crowded, the tempers are torn to 
rags, the natural exits are forbidden. In such societies 
it is as abominable to punish or divorce people for a 
blow as it would be to punish or divorce a gentleman 
for slamming the door. Yet who can doubt, if ever 
divorce is applied to the populace, it would be applied 
in the spirit which takes the blow quite seriously ? If 
any one doubts it, he does not know what world he is 
living in. 

It is common to meet nowadays men who talk of 
what they call Free Love as if it were something like 
Free Silver — a new and ingenious political scheme. 
They seem to forget that it is as easy to judge what it 
would be like as to judge of what legal marriage would 
be like. "Free Love" has been going on in every town 
and village since the beginning of the world ; and the first 
fact that every man of the world knows about it is plain 
enough. It never does produce any of the wild purity 
and perfect freedom its friends attribute to it. If any 
paper had the pluck to head a column " Is Concubinage 
a Failure ? " instead of " Is Marriage a Failure ? " the 
answer " Yes " would be given by the personal memory 
of many men, and by the historic memory of all. 
Modern people perpetually quote some wild expression 
of monks in the wilderness (when a whole civilisation 
was maddened by remorse) about the perilous quality 
of Woman, about how she was a spectre and a serpent 
and a destroying fire. Probably the establishment of 
nuns, situated a few miles off, described Man also as 
a serpent and a spectre ; but their works have not 
come down to us. 

Now all this old-world wit against Benedick the 
married man was sensible enough. But so was the 
bachelorhood of the old monks, who said it, sensible 

lO 



Ditjorce verms Democracp 

enough. It is perfectly true that to entangle yourself 
with another soul in the most tender and tragic degree 
is to make, in all rational possibility, a martyr or a fool 
of yourself. Most of the modern denunciations of 
marriage might have been copied direct from the 
maddest of the monkish diaries. The attack on 
marriage is an argument for celibacy. It is not an 
argument for divorce. For that entanglement which 
celibacy avowedly avoids, divorce merely reduplicates 
and repeats. It may have been a sort of solemn comfort 
to a gentleman of Africa to reflect that he had no wife. 
It cannot be anything but a discomfort to a gentleman 
of America to wonder which wife he really has. If 
progress means, as in the ludicrous definition of 
Herbert Spencer, " an advance from the simple to the 
complex," then certainly divorce is a part of progress. 
Nothing can be conceived more complex than the 
condition of a man who has settled down finally four 
or five times. Nothing can be conceived more com- 
plex than the position of a profligate who has not only 
had ten liaisons, but ten legal liaisons. There is a real 
sense in which free love might free men. But freer 
divorce would catch them in the most complicated 
net ever woven in this wicked world. 

The tragedy of love is in love, not in marriage. 
There is no unhappy marriage that might not be an 
equally unhappy concubinage, or a far more unhappy 
seduction. Whether the tie be legal or no, matters 
something to the faithless party ; it matters nothing 
to the faithful one. The pathos reposes upon the 
perfectly simple fact that if any one deliberately 
provokes either passions or affections, he is responsible 
for them as long as they go on, as the man is responsible 
for letting loose a flood or setting fire to a city. His 
remedy is not to provoke them, like the hermit. His 
punishment, when he deserves punishment, is to spend 
the rest of his life in trying to undo any ill he has 
done. His escape is despair — ^which is called, in this 
connection, divorce. For every healthy man feels one 

II 



5Dit)otce verms 2;)emocracp 

fundamental fact in his soul. He feels that he must have 
a life, and not a series of lives. He would rather the 
human drama were a tragedy than that it were a series 
of Music-hall Turns and Potted Plays. A man wishes 
to save the souls of all the men that he has been : of 
the dirty little schoolboy ; of the doubtful and morbid 
youth; of the lover; of the husband. Re-incarnation 
has always seemed to me a cold creed ; because each 
incarnation must forget the other. It would be worse 
still if this short human life were broken up into yet 
shorter lives, each of which was in its turn forgotten. 

If you are a democrat who likes also to be an honest 
man — if (in other words) you want to know what the 
people want and not merely what you can somehow 
induce them to ask for — then there is no doubt at all 
that this is what they want. You can only realise it 
by looking for human nature elsewhere than in election 
reports ; but when you have once looked for it you see 
it and you never forget it. From the fact that every 
one thinks it natural that young men and women 
should carve names on trees, to the fact that every one 
thinks it unnatural that old men and women should 
be separated in workhouses, millions and millions of 
daily details prove that people do regard the relation 
as normally permanent ; not as a vision, but as a vow. 

Now for the exceptions, true or false. I would note 
a strange and even silly oversight in the discussion of 
such exceptions, which has haunted most arguments 
for further divorce. The ordinary emancipated prig 
or poet who urges this side of the question always 
talks to one tune. " Marriage may be the best for 
most men," he says, " but there arc exceptional natures 
that demand a more undulating experience ; con- 
stancy will do for the common herd, but there are 
complex natures and complex cases where no one 
could recommend constancy. I do not ask (at the 
present Stage of Progress) for the abolition of marriage; 
I hereby ask that it may be remitted in such individual 
and extreme examples." 

12 



aDitJorce versus Democracp 

Now it is perfectly astounding to me that any one 
who has walked about this world should make such a 
blunder about the breed we call mankind. Surely it 
is plain enough that if you ask for dreadful exceptions, 
you will get them — too many of them. Let me take 
once again a rough parable. Suppose I advertised in 
the papers that I had a place for any one who was too 
stupid to be a clerk. Probably I should receive no 
replies ; possibly one. Possibly also (nay, probably) it 
would be from the one man who was not stupid at 
all. But suppose I had advertised that I had a place 
for any one who was too clever to be a clerk. My 
office would be instantly besieged by all the most 
hopeless fools in the four kingdoms. To advertise for 
exceptions is simply to advertise for egoists. To 
advertise for egoists is to advertise for idiots. It is 
exactly the bore who does think that his case is in- 
teresting. It is precisely the really common person 
who does think that his case is uncommon. It is 
always the dull man who does think himself rather 
wild. To ask solely for strange experiences of the 
soul is simply to let loose all the imbecile asylums about 
one's ears. Whatever other theory is right, this theory 
of the exceptions is obviously wrong — or (what 
matters more to our modern atheists) is obviously 
unbusinesslike. It is, moreover, to any one with 
popular political sympathies, a very deep and subtle 
sort of treason. By thus putting a premium on the 
exceptional we grossly deceive the unconsciousness of 
the normal. It seems strangely forgotten that the in- 
difference of a nation is sacred as well as its differences. 
Even public apathy is a kind of public opinion — and in 
many cases a very sensible kind. If I ask everybody to 
vote about Mineral Meals and do not get a single ballot- 
paper returned, I may say that the citizens have not 
voted. But they have. 

The principle held by the populace, against which 
this plutocratic conspiracy is being engineered, is 
simply the principle expressed in the Prayer Book in 

13 



Ditjotce vcrsiis Democracy 

the words " for better, for worse." It is the principle 
that all noble things have to be paid for, even if you 
only pay for them with a promise. One does not take 
one's interest out of England as one takes it out of 
Consols. A man is not an Englishman unless he can 
endure even the decay and death of England. And 
just as every citizen is a potential soldier, so every wife 
or husband is a potential hospital nurse — or even 
asylum attendant. For though we should all approve 
of certain tragedies being mitigated by a celibate 
separation — yet the more real love and honour there 
has been in the marriage, the less real mitigation there 
will be in the parting. But this sound public instinct 
both about patriotism and marriage also insists that 
the first vow or obligation shall be mitigated, not 
merely erased and forgotten. Many a good woman 
has loved and refused a doubtful man, with the 
proviso that she would marry no one else ; the old 
institution of marriage has the same feeling about the 
tragedy that is post-matrimonial. The thing remains 
real ; it binds one to something. If I am exiled from 
England I will go and live on an island somewhere and 
be as jolly as I can. I will not become a patriot of any 
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specimen of the printer's art."— P<?a;. "Most 
readable, an altogether attractive volume." — 
Guardian, "Wonderfully interesting, and the 
illustrations are charming." — Glasgow Herald, 



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