“The feeble things that we fight in vain”

We should be startled if hair-brushes instantly brushed our hair off, or pocket-handkerchiefs entirely removed the nose. Yet the strange modern waste and ruin, moral and material, is really a destruction of strong things by soft things. This is the picturesque point in the Scripture phrase about the moth and rust that corrupt. The moth is frailer than the garments. The rust is softer than the iron. We have to guard the heavy robes of Pontiffs from the wrath of a butterfly. We have to protect the swords of Paladins from a mere red dust or powder, as light as a lady’s rouge. It is the vanities that consume and the feeble things that we fight in vain.

That is true of a society and the ideas that govern a society. It is truest of all of those soft doubts and soft confusions that eat it away. These doubts are never strong, even when they are victorious. They are never cleared up and justified themselves, even when they have condemned and darkened everything else. They produce only anarchy: they cannot rise so high as usurpation.

It would not be difficult to take instances in modern England of this strange triumph of things shapeless and negative in themselves. For instance, compulsory education for the poor has come into conflict all along the line with much more popular and fundamental things. We have come very near to teaching children disobedience to fathers and mothers in order to teach them the secondary obedience to pastors and masters. That a child may be taught at school to cook in six saucepans, the child is often forbidden to boil a kettle for a sick mother or sister. We punish the parents for the usefulness of their children. We can only encourage domesticity in the schoolrooms, where it is useless. We can penalize it in any place where we can prove it is indispensable.

Now, it is here that the curious thing comes in. That an institution or policy should be found in such fanatical conflict with the first affections of human nature, would lead one to suppose that it was some very dogmatic institution, some very exacting and persecuting policy. One would expect it to be a creed for zealots; something like the rush of the hermits into the desert, or the raid of the Moslems out of it. Nothing less, one would fancy, could keep men in these constrained attitudes of exaltation in which they can ignore the family or the flesh.

But when we look at the case, we can find none of these things. The people who disregard Public Education are found and punished. The people who specially regard it are by no means so easy to find. It is rare to come across anyone enthusiastic for our system of elementary instruction. It is not common to find anyone who is even free from grave misgivings about it. One may meet enthusiasts for Eugenics; some of them so enthusiastic that they may almost be described as enthusiasts for polygamy and murder. One may meet enthusiasts for Christian Science, and even for Mrs. Eddy herself. But nobody seems very keen about education — least of all the educators. I have a huge personal respect for the teachers in the Church and State schools, in regard to their untiring cheerfulness, industry, and courage. But I never met one of them who seemed at all certain that the system was doing any good. Yet this invisible thing is visibly violating the sanctuary and the home. This unreality is fighting and subduing the oldest realities of the earth. The life of man is a very strange business.

— The Illustrated London News, 24 August 1912.

Published in: on June 8, 2016 at 7:22 am  Leave a Comment  

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