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  • Conceiving a Culture of Life in a Century of Bones:G. K. Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge as Social Critics
  • Adam Schwartz (bio)

Poet Jill Baumgautner Perez has aptly labeled the twentieth century "a century of bones." But it was also a century of converts. Particularly in Britain, prominent intellectuals defied prevalent post-Christian cultural trends to profess orthodox Christianity, and especially Roman Catholicism, persistently. Among the first to swim the Tiber was journalist G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936), who ended a lengthy spiritual sojourn by becoming a Roman Catholic in 1922. In the century's twilight, another "vendor of words," Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–90), similarly brought a protracted pilgrim's progress to its end by entering the Catholic Church in 1982. Besides their chosen occupations and prolonged conversions, these two authors' lives and work had other crucial affinities. In particular, both men were acute social critics, an aspect of their thought that has received little comparative attention.1 Yet this scholarly deficiency should be rectified, for there are striking resemblances in Chesterton's and Muggeridge's critiques of what they saw as their day's dominant mores. Specifically, each thinker combated what he considered the materialistic ethic he associated with modern capitalism, one both of them deemed at odds with traditional Christianity [End Page 50] and corrosive of the core social institution, the family, especially as manifested in the eugenic impulse. Both men, in turn, regarded orthodox Christianity (particularly Roman Catholicism) as a convincing counterstatement to such apparently regnant, if destructive, civilizational currents. Elucidating these likenesses in Chesterton's and Muggeridge's outlooks will thus not only deepen understanding of each writer's thought, but will also suggest that disquiet with the acquisitive society and its cultural repercussions was a consistent concern of British Christian converts across the twentieth century's span.

Chesterton: Early and Consistent Critic

Chesterton's criticism of capitalism began in boyhood. As early as age twelve, he condemned capitalist industry's purported exploitation of the poor.2 This sympathy led him to favor socialism as an alternative to capitalism by the mid-1890s, as he then regarded socialism as a "passionate protest and aspiration: it arises as a secret of the heart, a dream of the injured feeling. . . . The intellectual philosophies ally themselves with success and preach competition, but the human heart allies itself with misfortune and suggests communism."3 He asserted contemporaneously that this sense of solidarity is at the root of Christianity as well, claiming that both Christianity and socialism are grounded in "a feeling of sympathy with the disregarded: of defiant protection of the simple, the aggregate, the anonymous."4 As Chesterton moved closer to orthodox Christianity in the first decade of the 1900s, he became somewhat more critical of socialism, but he continued to censure capitalism and to place compassion for the common man at the core of his faith, as he would for the remainder of his career.

Once Chesterton began integrating some central traditional Christian teachings, particularly the doctrine of original sin, into his political outlook, he gained a new basis for his distrust of capitalism. Orthodox Christianity confirmed his dissent from what seemed the [End Page 51] modern veneration of wealth and the wealthy. As he explained in 1908, "the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy which (for a Christian) is not tenable." The reason it was untenable for this Christian was the doctrine of the Fall. To Chesterton, all people are inclined to be self-seeking, but those with more earthly goods and power are especially tempted to worship those gifts rather than their Giver: "the whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt . . . to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck."5

This general indictment of the evils of riches eventually led Chesterton to reprove the specific philosophy behind capitalism on similar grounds. He held that thinkers like Adam Smith presupposed people to be naturally sympathetic and hence inclined to use their talents for the common...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-791X
Print ISSN
1091-6687
Pages
pp. 50-76
Launched on MUSE
2008-04-03
Open Access
No
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