Jun 11, 2013
This weekend I was unexpectedly, and pleasantly, caught up by chance in reading through a biography of Robert Browning by G. K. Chesterton. It’s essentially one-third a history of Browning, with the remainder being comprised of Chesterton’s insights on intangibles and a blossoming philosophy of various topics within his reach from the platform of the great poet’s life and work. Chesterton himself would go on to be regarded as one of the great thinkers of his time, and a master of the English language. In one brief section related to the life of the Brownings in Italy, Chesterton addresses the idea of what he describes as “muddle-headed tyranny.”
“When Browning was first living in Italy, a telegram which had been sent to him was stopped on the frontier and suppressed on account of his known sympathy with the Italian Liberals. It is almost impossible for people living in a commonwealth like ours to understand how a small thing like that will affect a man. It was not so much the obvious fact that a great practical injury was really done to him; that the telegram might have altered all his plans in matters of vital moment. It was, over and above that, the sense of a hand laid on something personal and essentially free. Tyranny like this is not the worst tyranny, but it is the most intolerable. It interferes with men not in the most serious matters, but precisely in those matters in which they most resent interference. It may be illogical for men to accept cheerfully unpardonable public scandals, benighted educational systems, bad sanitation, bad lighting, a blundering and inefficient system of life, and yet to resent the tearing up of a telegram or a post-card; but the fact remains that the sensitiveness of men is a strange and localised thing, and there is hardly a man in the world who would not rather be ruled by despots chosen by lot and live in a city like a mediæval Ghetto, than be forbidden by a policeman to smoke another cigarette, or sit up a quarter of an hour later; hardly a man who would not feel inclined in such a case to raise a rebellion for a caprice for which he did not really care a straw. Unmeaning and muddle-headed tyranny in small things, that is the thing which, if extended over many years, is harder to bear and hope through than the massacres of September.”1
It is a passage worthy of consideration, though my gut feeling (for all its non-worth) is that what Chesterton appears to be ascribing as common sentiment to the whole is, while being in some ways curiously unfortunate, almost too broadly fetched. A great number of people, after all, face a disappointing struggle to discover within themselves any self-value worthy of preserving. Others live life as a series of seemingly unconnected compromises, numbly, dismantling a sacred free-will piece by piece. I would go so far as to say these individuals (believing themselves to belong to one of virtually any number of diverse ideological groups) may find a broken arrangement such as Chesterton describes works for them, even comfortably, so long as those in leadership share some commonality in worldview and philosophy.
Chesterton highlights a need to be wary of a thoughtfulness so flawed with selfish regard that it capably ignores the larger issues. In making his argument he does not excuse the tendency he observes in society that makes it possible to live with the public scandals and shortcomings of civil leadership. But, the heart of his conclusion isn’t really about this ignoble feature of western society at all. In fact, his intention is most likely not really that of making sweeping statements about humanity as a whole at all, but rather about the proud class of the world’s thinking free. Chesterton is merely concluding what anyone who would might observe about them: small freedoms account for much in the way of personal fulfillment, and a society would do well to commit itself to that fact.
Freedom has been made a problem increasingly difficult to navigate in a modern age. Always a fine balance of judgment exists to be perched; but, the unfortunate judgment of present society seems to be ever-bending toward removing areas of judgement itself where possible, and replacing those areas with an extended skeletal mass of zero-tolerance policy. That’s not to argue that there is no care, or reason in many of these regulations. Who can bring an argument against much of the well-meaning nature of many of the restrictive personal laws which have been developed? For instance, what individual can lightly find fault with the apparent good that has come from seatbelt laws at the expense of little freedom? They have, in all likelihood, saved a great number of children. But where the great line which guards a personal — even dangerous — freedom is drawn is the great and difficult task undertaken and recently guided largely by the changed and changing philosophy of a national post-modern transmutation.
Can one make an exacting comparison of modern America to the challenges exampled in Chesterton’s musing of late nineteenth century Italy? Certainly not — thanks be to God. And perhaps the answer might even be, hardly a passing comparison. But who can deny the sense of a stirring thoughtful undercurrent, agnostic of traditional societal boundaries — religious, political, and moral — creating an unnatural amalgamation of discontent? The American public has lately had quite a bit to digest along this line of thinking. The apparent politically motivated targeting of certain groups by the government agency responsible for revenue has been rank news. An energetic discourse of the encroaching border of health and lifestyle protections at the expense of so many little freedoms is an ever-constant companion. A quickening realization of a serious erosion of personal privacy, long presumed by technology workers, is budding among a citizenry at large left wondering if there will be any remaining safe place for a private thought between the phone metadata collections,2 internet archives, and a looming domestic drone program.3 No, this is not the day of some Tom Joad browbeat after lights out in a work camp; but, we just might be witnessing the pre-natal development of a burgeoning new hyper-class of digital dust-bowlers.