With the consent of Fr Anthony, and with the permission of Dale Ahlquist, publisher of Gilbert (gilbertmagazine.com) I am putting up a piece that appeared in my regular column there. It is ostensibly about Chesterton, but I actually offer it as an apologetic for a different way of seeing the reform and the reform of the reform. Like Dr Dolittle’s fictional PushmePullme creature, we think one side can advance only if the other retreats. Chesterton makes me think differently about the relationship of liberal and conservative, leaving me to value both.
Nudge and Judge
Gilbert!, Volume 3, Number 7, Issue 24, June 2000, 33.
I was recently asked to compose an editorial for a journal to which I subscribe. The invitation carried the stipulation that the editorial be “opinionated,” as in “editorials should be topical and opinionated,” but before that publication receives its editorial, I am distracted to write something about the process of writing editorials. I hope the other journal gets its piece eventually.
I’m sure the request for an opinionated editorial sounds reasonable to the average person, but the average person is not hampered, as I am, by a Scandinavian character. We are a mild-mannered and mediatorial people, and in order to become opinionated I thought I had to become pugnacious. I resolved to be truculent on all subjects, at all times. So it happened during my calisthenics that a stray remark provoked an argument within my head as to whether large is better than small. First I contentiously rose to the defense of small, pointing out that it is tidy, trim, precious, manageable, delicate, refined, and unpretentious. Then I disputatiously pointed out that large is expansive, magnanimous, plenteous, sturdy, commanding, substantial, and capacious.
Alas, at the end of the drill I was stopped short by an observation, the observation which sidetracked me to this reflection. I realized that my whole argument was all adjective, and no noun. There were so many vivid associations with each word that in the heat of opinionated dispute it felt like a real argument, but anyone eavesdropping on my practice session would do me in by asking, “Is a large what better than a small what?” At which point it struck me that most of our political quarrels or religious feuds are mostly adjectival recoils. Someone incautiously asserts that liberalism is better for being open, lenient, clement, philanthropic, beneficent, reformative, and prodigal, to which someone contentiously rises to the defense of conservatism as ancient, enduring, inveterate, discreet, circumspect, prudent and traditional. (The helpfulness of a thesaurus in adjectival arguing should not go unnoticed.) We need someone – maybe Chesterton – to whisper into our barren debates, “But what do you want to conserve? What do you want to liberate?”
Few people are as opinionated as Chesterton, but I would not call him quarrelsome, since he professed that “the principal objection to a quarrel is that it interrupts an argument,” and since his opinion results not from adjectives, but from thought about a thing. Surely eternal values like human dignity, and the family, and the mystery of the Mass want conserving; but surely the poor want liberation from unjust systems, and women from prejudices which stifle their full dignity, and worshipers from perfunctorily performing priests.
I think, then, that I’ve hit upon why our arguments are so unfruitful, but my explanation would benefit from personifying the two parties involved. When Chesterton wanted to personalize progressives and conservatives he called them Hudge and Gudge. Since he has already taken the letters ‘H’ and ‘G’, I will pick two other letters from the alphabet, completely at random, with no particular significance, and call them Nudge and Judge.
Nudge desires to rectify the world’s faults; he is filled with the restless, creative, God-given energy to imagine new possibilities and, after envisioning them, bring them to realization; he incites and provokes, agitates and instigates. Judge, by contrast, desires to conserve a hard-won heritage; he is filled with the grounded, providential, God-given energy to preserve accomplished goods; he sustains life by tending its boundaries, and preserves liberty by protecting from chaos. But the reason why today’s Nudge and Judge find it difficult to hold a civil conversation is because they lack a common subject. The subject of Nudge’s attention is the world, while the subject of Judge’s attention is Nudge.
Chesterton nudged. He did so when he supported distributism and Ireland’s independence; he did so as comrades-in-arms with his brother Cecil and Belloc on the New Witness; he opposed the popular Boer war with an unpopular attack on jingoism; and he befriended the right a besieged lower class had to home and self-rule and beer.
And Chesterton judged. He wrote, “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution of law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it way. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”
Judge’s flaw is to be so distracted by his self-appointed task of being his brother Nudge’s keeper that he neglects to put his own shoulder to the wheel; Nudge’s flaw is to see from his narrow perspective, without due regard for ancient and wider vision. Judge’s sin is condescension, Nudge’s sin is conceit. But in fact, Judge needs Nudge’s energy, and Nudge needs Judge’s perspective, and Chesterton had both, and I will be disappointed if I let one prevail over the other in myself.