Chesterton Conclusion–Go Back to Being Roman

Thomas Fleming


August 23, 2017

But Rome endures in more places than the seven hills on the Tiber.  The civilization of Europe and its colonies is only an extension of the Roman world, from which we have never been really cut off. Where world- historians such as Spengler have seen ages and cycles severed from each other by cataclysmic events, Chesterton sees continuity. We do not understand, to be sure, the few monuments left by our distant neolithic ancestors; but the Greek gods have never died in that fashion; and the Roman empire has never died at all. Of the most modem industrial cities in England, many have in their very names the title of the Roman camp; and wherever there stood the Roman camp, there stood afterwards the Christian Cathedral. There was never one moment, in the long history from Herodotus to Herr Spengler, when all the men who counted in any age did not talk of the Fall of Troy.”

Chesterton was always fonder of the Romans than he was of the Greeks.  Perhaps it was because of the trouble he had with the Greek letters which appeared to him like swarms of gnats, but he quite correctly insisted on the vital importance of the Iliad and Odyssey as the founding works of the classical tradition.  The Trojan War in that sense is of more enduring importance than the American Revolution and the Second World War.

If that is so, then the Western man who does not or cannot talk of the Fall of Troy is a savage who counts for nothing in this or in any age, no matter if he be President or Prime Minister, yea even if he be a Chief Executive Officer.

Chesterton was perfectly correct to emphasize the continuity of a European civilization rooted in the ancient classics. Today, however, we may indeed be on the other side of a cataclysmic break, when even the so- called educated classes no longer read Latin or talk of Troy. The consequences of this break extend far beyond questions of literature and education—as Chesterton realized:

It is true that now, for the first time, the race that has always remembered is invited on every side to forget… today, for the first time, our newspapers and our politicians have asked us to forget not what happened a thousand years ago or a hundred years ago, but what happened twenty years ago. When it is a question of shifting a policy or rehabilitating a politician, they will ask us to forget what happened two years ago or two months ago. . . . Here is the true trick of regarding ourselves as divided into by aeons and abysses, not only from our fathers, but from ourselves. Thus, by reading the daily newspaper every day, and forgetting everything that is said on the previous day, we can divide human history into self-contained cycles; each consisting, not of five hundred years, but of twenty-four hours. By this means we can regard the politician we trusted last week as we regard the cave-man whose carvings we could not decipher in a hundred years. By this means we can consider the slogans and swaggering policies which we ourselves cheered only recently, as if they were hieroglyphics as unintelligible as the Cup and Ring Stones.

Chesterton, who really appreciated the achievements of the Saxon kings, could not endure the teutonophilia that infected English atheists, and not just racialist crackpots such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain who to Chesterton's relief abandoned England for Prussia. In Chesterton's essay, "English Literature and the Latin Tradition," he boldly declares that England was never a barbarian German nation. Of course, the educated classes knew Latin—that is, after all, what it means to be educated; but the common folk also know Latin without knowing it.  We cannot speak ordinary English without using the roughly sixty percent of the language that is derived from Latin. If Chesterton knew that statistic, he does not cite it. But what he does say is better: that it is "almost as impossible to weed out the Latin culture from England as to weed it out from Italy"; and if some professor tried to persuade the Italians that "their heritage came only from German mercenaries or English trippers or American globe- trotters… the very stones would cry out. Not merely the ruins, but the common stones; the stones along the Roman road." That Roman road also runs through England, where, as Chesterton notes. Englishmen still swear, "By Jove," but never "By Thor."

Chesterton's vision of England is most powerfully expressed in “The Ballad of the White Horse;” and, at the great battle against the Teutonic north, Alfred arrays his Christian Saxons alongside Celtic Irishmen and a Roman exile, who tells them to bury him where he falls:

"Lift not my head from bloody ground. Bear not my body home.

For all the earth is Roman earth. And I shall die in Rome."

For Chesterton, all England is Rome, and all English literature is classical—Shakespeare no less than Milton.  For him the study of classics was not a tradition mechanically handed on by pedantic schoolmasters, nor was it merely an effective way of educating English children:  It was the language, culture, and history of Rome, and, since we are all Romans, it is an essential part of who we are.

The world of Europe and the Americas—what we once called Christendom—is a civilization informed by faith, but the materials included the languages and literatures of Greece and Rome. The Christian faith might be preached to Martians in their own language, and a Martian "Christendom" might be constructed out of their own rocks and gas and history, but for our Christendom, the pagan classics are indispensable.  Some early Christians tried to create a curriculum based only on Christian writings, but they failed. What Chesterton saw so clearly was that the men of Northern Europe were barbarians until they learned Latin; and, in replacing classical studies with job training, they sink back into a joyless savagery far worse than the clean barbarism of their ancestors.

The whole tendency of the modern world has been to reduce education to mere technical training.  In an essay "On Business Education," Chesterton imagines a parent asking "What is the use of my son learning all about ancient Athens… and medieval guilds and monasteries, and all sorts of dead or distant things, when he is going to be a scientific plumber in Pimlico?" Chesterton's answer is that one cannot be a good scientist or a good businessman or even a good plumber unless his mind has been properly formed with standards of right and wrong, good and bad. "The modern student," he complains, "has never been taught to think, but only to count."  Classics give us objective criteria for judging our own society.  A man with no standards but those of his own place and time, will never be able to criticize cannibalism in a cannibal country.  A State with an entirely practical system of education "will never have the ideas or imagination to reform itself; and hustle and bustle and business activity will have resulted in the dead fixity of a fossil."

"The dead fixity of a fossil" more or less describes the state of North American civilization in our own day.  If anyone doubts this, let him spend an hour or two reading the effervescent prose of the New York Times or the grave and learned discourse of academic journals, particularly those edited and written by self-described professors of literature who have got sick, trying to consume indigestible French theories or, just as bad, the anti-human propaganda that masquerades as academic history. In so much modern historical writing, readers are taught to despise their own culture, hate their ancestors, and worship the most bizarre alien peoples.

If morbidity and sterility and a lack of balance bordering on madness are the symptoms of that modern disease which Chesterton saw as resulting from the loss of paganism, then the only cure for the modem mind is a return to the sound regimen of the classics. The health of the mind is, as Chesterton reminds us, the object of culture; and "the true teaching, which strengthens and steadies the mind so that it knows and rejects madness at sight, has, in fact, come down to us very largely from the culture of those great languages in which were written the works of the last Stoics and the first Saints, the Greek Testament and the Roman Law.  To be of the company of such men, to have the mind filled with such words, to remember the tone of their orators or the gestures of their statues, is to feel a steadying power upon the spirit and a love of large spaces and large ideas, rather than of little lunacies and secrecies."

Latin and Greek are the grammar and spelling of the humanities, or to use a musical parallel, they are the acoustics, harmony, and scales.  Ancient history supplies the rhetoric and the harmony, the sense of balance and proportion that gives us not only a human world but also one moulded by God for our use.  A civilization deprived of these basics flies off into atonality, ugliness, and irrelevance in its art; and its religion and morality are weaned away from  the gods of light and reason to the demons of darkness and death. Men that knew Latin and read Livy would not easily embrace the worship of Moloch and Baal; and a Church that spoke the language of Jerome and Augustine (and, I would add, the language of Paul and John Chrysostom) would command respect from pagans who could read and write the same languages. The decline in classical learning has been matched, step by step, with the decline both of civilization and of civility. Chesterton and Belloc and their friends knew this; indeed every civilized and humane person once knew that our civilization depended upon Latin and Greek. If those who claim to speak for Christendom can no longer use Christendom's languages and will no longer insist upon a restoration of the classical curriculum, then we shall continue our precipitous slide into Punic darkness, where moral relativism turns questions of life and death into matters of choice or of mere taste, where it does not matter whether Scipio defeated Hannibal two thousand years ago, because it does not matter whether the principles of Carthage or those of Rome will triumph in our own day

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

14 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Really enjoyed this . Thank you for posting it.

    ” Of the most modem industrial cities in England, many have in their very names the title of the Roman camp; and wherever there stood the Roman camp, there stood afterwards the Christian Cathedral. There was never one moment, in the long history from Herodotus to Herr Spengler, when all the men who counted in any age did not talk of the Fall of Troy.”

    When one of Belloc’s nieces from America visited him in his old age, she asked to see some Roman ruins and he replied, ” My dear child, England is a Roman ruin. ”

    At least the Church kept the best or what could be carried into the wilderness and I have been advocating more monastic houses my entire adult life. It is not the ordinary means to salvation, as is the married life, but these are not ordinary times either.

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    Chesterton was right. After all, the identity of the English was formed out of a conscious merger of the Anglo-Saxon with the Celtic and the Roman, and with Christianity. Also, they didn’t call Moscow the Third Rome for nothing. There is a reason why America, Russia, Germany, Serbia, and other western countries use the eagle as a national symbol.

    This article gives us a new perspective. It could be summarised thus: “The fall of Rome was only the collapse of a government, but Roman civilization continued, developed though the middle ages, and then spread over the world as the former provinces built their own empires, spreading their own local, regional versions of it over vast areas”.

  3. Frank Brownlow says:

    A lovely piece, and profoundly true. When I was about nine, growing up in England, I was taken to the local county town, Chester. built originally by the Romans as Castra Deva or Deva Victrix, the headquarters, I suppose, of a legion, and I can never forget clambering up the steps of the Roman wall around the city & walking along the top of it. Roman roads, harbors, villas, and fortifications defined the social geography of England. The first major English poet to deny that, and to turn his back on England’s Roman-ness was W.H.Auden, and anyone who wishes to explain the rootlessness and, finally, the pointlessness of his output need look no further. The odd thing is that in his later years Auden read and admired Chesterton, presumably without really understanding him. But then he liked Tolkien, too, without understanding him.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    I always though Auden was always best while being inspired than analytical, so maybe this explains his admiration for even poets he didn’t quite understand. Plato suggests the possibility in the last lines of The ION.

    , indeed, Ion, if you are correct in saying that by art and knowledge you are able to praise Homer, you do not deal fairly with me, and after all your professions of knowing many, glorious things about Homer, and promises that you would exhibit them, you are only a deceiver, and so far from exhibiting the art of which you are a master, will not, even after my repeated entreaties, explain to me the nature of it. You have literally as many forms as Proteus; and now you go all manner of ways, twisting and turning, and, like Proteus, become all manner of people at once, and at last slip away from me in the disguise of a general, in order that you may escape exhibiting your Homeric lore. And if you have art, then, as I was saying, in falsifying your promise that you would exhibit Homer, you are not dealing fairly with me. But if, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired. Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired?

    Ion. There is a great difference, Socrates, between the two alternatives; and inspiration is by far the nobler.

    Soc. Then, Ion, I shall assume the nobler alternative; and attribute to you in your praises of Homer inspiration, and not art.

  5. Konstantin Solodov says:

    “we are all Romans”
    Question: are you Romans of regal period, Republic or Empire?

  6. Allen Wilson says:

    Mr Solodov,

    Republican would be fine, but I would prefer post-Constantinian Christian Imperium.

  7. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    “We are all Romans” means that we are heirs to Romanitas, the Roman tradition of law and civility, the Roman dream expressed by Vergil in the Aeneid, where we are told that Rome has a destiny to spare the defeated and tame the arrogant, the Rome of Cicero’s elaboration of natural law, the Rome of Dante and Petrarch, Erasmus and More, Ben Jonson and Sam Johnson….

  8. Konstantin Solodov says:

    Mr. Wilson
    Why do you prefer post-Constantinian Christian Imperium?

  9. Konstantin Solodov says:

    Mr. Fleming
    But Roman tradition of law and civility of Vergil’s time and tradition of law and civility in Dante’s time are different.

  10. Allen Wilson says:

    Mr Solodov,

    Mainly because it’s Christian. Of course it wasn’t perfect, but being part of an overtly Christian civilization would be rather appealing. In any case, the Christian period of late Rome seems to me to be the culmination of ancient civilization, before the deluge of barbarians beat it to pieces, and they seemed to have a better balance and harmony between “Athens and Jerusalem” than the medieval west did. For that matter, so did the Byzantines.

  11. Konstantin Solodov says:

    Mr. Wilson
    “the Christian period of late Rome seems to me to be the culmination of ancient civilization”
    which criteria do you use?

  12. Allen Wilson says:

    I suppose that the criteria would have to be the traditional culture and virtues of the pagan Greeks and Romans refined by Christian teaching, that teaching eliminating the unseemly aspects of the culture, allowing it to rise above what it had been before. Your question deserves a more specific answer but right now I can’t come up with one.

  13. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, as Latin and Italian are different, as Florence is different from Imperial Rome is from the Athenian politeia…. I fear you are not attending to the train of thought. When GKC said everyone who counted–and he did not mean from 1 to 10–is forever talking of Troy, I think we know that he knew they would be speaking in different tongues, just as Shakespeare’s tyrannicide in the marvelous brief speech, “stoop, then, and wash. .How many ages hence will this our lofty scene be acted o’er, in states unborn and accents yet unknown..” (I may be dropping a word here or there from loss of memory.) I don’t wish to be uncharitable, but it would help if readers did not assume that a writer well-versed in both Latin and Italian was a complete ignoramus.

  14. Lewis Bell says:

    Excellent! Thank you!