Chesterton Conclusion–Go Back to Being Roman
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