homo vulgaris“There never was any Supreme Anarchist Council,” he said. “We were all a lot of silly policemen looking at each other. And all these nice people who have been peppering us with shot thought we were the dynamiters. I knew I couldn’t be wrong about the mob,” he said, beaming over the enormous multitude which stretched away to the distance on both sides. “Vulgar people are never mad. I’m vulgar myself, and I know. I am now going on shore to stand a drink to everybody here.”[1]

These lines, from The Man Who Was Thursday, are uttered by Dr. Bull, the novel’s perennial optimist, whose views seem to epitomize and encapsulate the philosophy of G. K. Chesterton, the novel’s author.

The common man, which we might translate as either homo vulgaris or homo plebeius, was, for Chesterton, the custodian of common sense, the latter of which Chesterton believed was notably absent from the mad philosophies of the intelligentsia and other supercilious elites. Indeed, the whole of The Man Who Was Thursday, arguably Chesterton’s most successful sortie into the realm of fiction, is an attack on such elites and the mad ideas that they disseminate. In many ways the novel was a reaction against the radical pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer and the iconoclastic cynicism of Oscar Wilde. It was, however, I would argue, not merely a reaction but an over-reaction.

Chesterton had been influenced in his youth, albeit for a mercifully brief period, by the reductive reasoning of Schopenhauer and by the seductive paradoxes of Wilde. His conversion to better, cleaner and healthier things was in many ways triggered by his recoil from such reductive and seductive nonsense. Thereafter, he would counter the Decadent disdain for the common man, as was voiced with inveterate invective by the arch-cynic Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, with the optimistic praise for the mob and all things plebeian and vulgar, as voiced with such triumphal self-confidence by Dr. Bull in the above quoted passage.

In order to illustrate this distinction between the Wildean and Chestertonian view of the common man, my good friend, William Fahey, president of Thomas More College in New Hampshire and a Latinist of the first order, distinguishes between homo vulgaris and homo plebeius:

Chesterton would write homo plebeius. Homo vulgaris would be correct in form, but the tone would be approaching the way, say, an aesthete might say it. But homo vulgaris is correct in form for the ordinary man, the common sort of man. St. Thomas uses both homo plebeius and homo vulgaris, but I think tilts towards homo plebeius. In classical Latin, plebeius alone would have communicated the idea: a pleibus… or one of the plebs. Had Cicero known Chesterton, he would have called him a plebicola: a friend of the common man.[2]

The problem is that the common man, as championed by Chesterton, is a figment of the optimist’s imagination. He is an idealized figure in an idyllic world. He is an unobtrusive but very ancient sort, more numerous than he is today. He loves peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside is his favourite haunt. He does not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though he is skillful with tools. This is the Chestertonian common man, which as the more astute reader will have noticed, is also basically word-for-word, Tolkien’s description of the hobbit. The common man, like the hobbit, is the figment of an idealistic desire for the way the common man ought to be. It is not, unfortunately, the way he is, any more than the real Shire in which he lives is like Tolkien’s Shire or that other idyllic Shire, around which Chesterton’s rolling English road rambles.

Today’s common man is likely to be an agnostic or an atheist (though he might not know the difference between the two) who is addicted to fast food and bad beer, and to sports and TV, not to mention pornography and other equally gollumizing manifestations of our deplorably meretricious age. And, lest we fall into the error of harking back to a mythical golden age in the past, we might remind ourselves that it has never really been very different. Survey the motley medley of folk whom Chaucer places together on his pilgrimage to Canterbury, or the human menagerie that Shakespeare presents to us in his plays. Pace my learned friends, the plebs have always been vulgar, in the pejorative sense of the word, and they have always been placated with panem et circenses (bread and circuses: i.e., food, wine, mass entertainment, and lascivious “sex”).

And as for the mob, defended so naively by Dr. Bull in Chesterton’s novel, it is rarely right and almost always wrong, and as often as not murderously mad.

Hilaire Belloc

I blame Hilaire Belloc, another of my heroes and mentors, for Chesterton’s romantic idealization of the mob. Belloc allowed his French patriotism and republicanism to blind him to the horror and reality of the French Revolution, a blindness which Chesterton, as a disciple of Belloc’s historical perspective, seemed happy to share. It is, for instance, no mere coincidence that the mob being praised so fulsomely by Dr. Bull is French, nor that Marat and Robespierre, two of the Revolution’s most bloodthirsty ideologues, are praised earlier in the same novel as being “idealists” guiltless of the “murderous materialism” of the novel’s anarchist protagonists. Since Marat and Robespierre were the leading radical demagogues of the Revolution that would be the progenitor of the communist revolutions that followed in its wake, it beggars belief that Belloc and Chesterton could exonerate them or that they could idealize the secular fundamentalist mob which put countless Christians to their death in the Reign of Terror.

Having had the temerity, and some might say foolhardiness, to have argued in my last essay for The Imaginative Conservative with the great C. S. Lewis about the meaning of love, I have now vented my dissident perspective, though emphatically not my spleen, against the equally great and arguably greater Gilbert Keith Chesterton. In doing so, am I mad, merely arrogant, or simply stupid? Am I as irritatingly supercilious as those bogus intellectuals whom Chesterton targets in his novel? Or have I only dared to suggest that even the greatest of minds and men sometimes stoop to folly?

Perhaps the foregoing questions are for the reader to answer, though whether, as a group, the readers of an essay are any more trustworthy than the revolutionary mob is possibly a moot point. In any event, I can say with complete certainty that my argument with the great GKC is offered in the spirit with which he would have approved. In his autobiography, Chesterton wrote of his relationship with his brother that they were always arguing but that they never quarreled. In this healthy Chestertonian spirit, I can say, with a clean conscience, that the foregoing is an argument that will never become a quarrel.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Notes: 

[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who was Thursday (London: Penguin Books, 1937), p. 150

[2] William Fahey, e-mail to the author, October 13, 2014

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