“Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation” – GK Chesterton, Allan Massie and complexity

. As I have recently written, I am reading a collection of Allan Massie’s Life and Letters columns from the Spectator, which is full of shrewd judgments. In particular there is this on G K Chesterton:

What is disconcerting for many about Chesterton is that, while deadly serious, he revelled in paradoxes, absurdity and farce. He believed in the Devil, believed in him as perhaps few in the last centuries did, but the weapon he employed against him was laughter; he was at one with Rabelais : ‘the discovery of the reality of evil and the battle against it are at the basis of all gaiety and even of all farce’.

Chesterton would have found Orwell admirable — and ridiculous; ridiculous because of his solemnity. ‘The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums’, he declared. He thought in paradoxes, on the sensible ground that if an idea is worth anything it ought to be able to be held upside down and shaken about.

Sometimes, admittedly, the paradoxes flew too easily, too frequently and tiresomely from his pen. He wrote too much and often, I suspect, when he was tired, and then the paradoxes had a mechanical or tinkling sound like music from an elderly barrel-organ. But at his best they make you think, and this is always disturbing: ‘Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.’

That’s a thought you get your mind round. Because he was a man of faith he understood and valued doubt. He thought Charles II’s deathbed admission to the Roman Church proof of his perfect scepticism. The wafer might, or might not be, the body of Christ, but then it might, or might not be, a wafer. More than 70 years after his death he remains an entertaining writer, and a disquieting one. In the opinion of the editor of L’Atelier du Roman, Lakis Proguidis, ‘no twentieth-century author has so thoroughly examined the yawning gulf cut in each soul by the ideology of Progress’.

I know what Massie means about “too easily, too frequently and tiresomely” – at times in the polemical and apologetic works there is a sense of dead horses being flogged. At his best, however, there is a freshness to Chesterton’s prose, especially his fiction. Borges adored Chesterton, indeed placed him with Stevenson (and on one occasion Homer) in a personal pantheon.

Anyhow all this is prelude to a passage from The Everlasting Man which struck me as forcibly summarising the thoughts of Joseph Tainter on complexity:

It is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy. To this day the comparatively simple agricultural communities are by far the purest democracies. Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation. Anyone who likes may state it by saying that democracy is the foe of civilisation. But he must remember that some of us really prefer democracy to civilisation, in the sense of preferring democracy to complexity.

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