The great writer and moralist George Orwell began his literary career as a disciple of G. K. Chesterton. Even after Orwell explicitly diverged from some of Chesterton’s views in the 1930s, under the influence of socialist ideas and hopes, Chesterton’s assumptions and political and ethical conceptions continued to shape him.
Orwell’s biographers provide intriguing evidence. Bernard Crick tells us that Orwell’s first published essay appeared in Chesterton’s renegade “Distributist” magazine G.K.’s Weekly on December 29, 1928, and that later Orwell was recorded as saying that “what England needed was to follow the kind of policies in Chesterton’s G.K.’s Weekly”—that is, anti-imperialist, “Little England” policies. Gordon Bowker writes that as a teenager, Orwell gave someone Chesterton’s novel Manalive. He adds that Orwell loved Chesterton’s “Father Brown” detective stories. Robert Colls tells us that although Orwell's friends, such as Malcolm Muggeridge, accepted Orwell’s own characterization of himself from the ’30s on as some kind of socialist, this characterization was in several ways anomalous—not only because of his Tory upbringing, private education at Eton, and accent, but also because of his traditionalist sensibility and “the way in which he took his bearings from a natural and moral universe.” This is a precise and pregnant comment.
Orwell has come to have a unique authority among English-language readers, mainly due to the great anti-totalitarian novels Animal Farm and 1984. But these works were also important in communist-dominated Eastern Europe from their publication until the fall of the Soviet communist empire in the early 1990s. In The Captive Mind, the great Polish dissident writer Czesław Miłosz tells us how 1984 circulated surreptitiously in Poland and Eastern Europe (including a Ukrainian translation), and how its readers were “amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception of its life.” One hopes that Orwell’s anti-totalitarian novels have also found readers in China and North Korea.
Literary and cultural critics have also argued that Orwell was indebted to Chesterton as a thinker and writer. Both the wise but now-neglected English writer Hugh Kingsmill and the eminent American critic Lionel Trilling saw Orwell’s social-cultural criticism as in a direct line from William Cobbett, through Dickens, to Chesterton. Orwell’s own longstanding interest in Dickens, evident in his substantial 1939 essay on Dickens, is clearly and explicitly influenced by Chesterton, who wrote two substantial books on Dickens and is perhaps his greatest commentator.
It is perhaps Orwell’s 1939 essay on Dickens that best begins to explain what Chesterton and Orwell had in common in philosophical, ethical, and political terms and why these common factors still matter today. Orwell tries to specify or pin down the ethical basis of Dickens’s great fictional works, in addition to his transfiguring gifts of generous humor, characterization, description, narrative, and symbolism. He sees and says that Dickens was a believing Christian, that his “morality is the Christian morality,” and that despite Dickens's dislike of both Catholicism and ostentatious evangelical Protestant religiosity, “he was essentially a Bible-Christian” with a “quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressor . . . on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.”
Throughout the essay, Orwell uses a word that has come to be identified with him as a person and writer: decency. He says that Dickens’s “whole message” is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: “If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.” Like George Bernard Shaw, Orwell is disappointed that Dickens did not adhere to socialism and was even unsympathetic to the trade-union movement: “Obviously he wants the workers to be decently treated, but there is no sign that he wants them to take their destiny into their own hands, least of all by open violence.” With some annoyance, Orwell asks, “What does [Dickens] want? As always, what he appears to want is a moralized version of the existing thing.”
Despite Orwell’s criticism of Dickens’s reformist, moralistic politics, he continues to insist that Dickens was neither superficial nor foolish: To say “‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds.” He adds: “In the last resort there is nothing [Dickens] admires except common decency.” Writing with great eloquence in the concluding paragraph of the essay, Orwell praises Dickens’s devotion to human brotherhood and the idea of equality under God, with which “all through the Christian ages, and especially since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted.” Orwell insists, against the ascendant fascists and communists, that “the ordinary people in the Western countries have never entered, mentally, into the world of ‘realism’ and power politics.” Yet he concedes that they may come to do so, “in which case Dickens will be . . . out of date. . . . [He] has been popular chiefly because he was able to express in a comic, simplified and therefore memorable form the native decency of the common man.”
With this emphasis we return to Chesterton, who wrote an influential 1906 book on Dickens and also introductions to each of the novels, which were published in Everyman editions and then gathered as a separate book in 1911. Chesterton saw Dickens as having an elemental, primitive, profound Christian vision of the human person and society. He believed in this vision, and worked against the spirit of his own age—the first third of the twentieth century—in trying to recover, renew, and defend the Judeo-Christian Natural Law tradition that is the ultimate source of Dickens’s worldview and Orwell’s, too: the very basis of Orwell’s own, dogged “common decency.”
Orwell himself intermittently saw this. His intellectual departure from Chesterton occurred partly because Chesterton became a serious Christian—first an Anglo-Catholic and then, in 1922, a Catholic—and tried to renew the central Christian tradition through thought, argument, and writing. The vaguely, residually Anglican but increasingly agnostic Orwell moved on to socialism. He vehemently opposed the Catholic Church and, in fact, all systematic thinking, especially Marxism (“an education in Marxism and similar creeds consists largely in destroying your moral sense”). His own “socialism” never favorably impressed left-wing intellectuals, who have always been his greatest haters and detractors.
True communists or socialists such as Raymond Williams, Isaac Deutscher, E. P. Thompson, and the Arab-American Edward Said always knew that Orwell’s “socialism” was a jerry-built, home-made, unsystematic, non-Marxist affair, a fact made particularly clear in Orwell’s own 1941 book The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius and in many of his best essays and reviews. One of the most revealing is his December 1940 review of Charlie Chaplin’s satirical-comic, anti-Hitler film The Great Dictator. In this review, he credits Chaplin with depicting “a sort of concentrated essence of the common man [and] the ineradicable belief in the decency that exists in the hearts of ordinary people, at any rate in the West. We live in a period in which democracy is everywhere in retreat . . . liberty explained away by sleek professors, Jew-baiting defended by pacifists. And everywhere, under the surface, the common man sticks obstinately to the beliefs that he derives from Christian culture.” Just as Orwell was to be banned in Soviet Russia and its satellites, Charlie Chaplin was banned in Nazi Germany (“it is precisely the idea of human equality—the ‘Jewish’ or ‘Judaeo-Christian’ idea of equality—that Hitler came into the world to destroy,” Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn).
But Chesterton understood something that Orwell would not steadily meditate: This set of allegedly “normal” beliefs is not “ineradicable.” Orwell wanted—loved, in fact—the fruits of centuries of Christian civilization, including manners and customs, and often said so, dreading their replacements. (Of a popular, depraved contemporary novelist he wrote in 1944: “Emancipation is complete, Freud and Machiavelli have reached the outer suburbs.”) But those fruits that Orwell loved came from Judeo-Christian roots. It was Chesterton’s long quest to recover and restore those roots, through popular and witty but also powerfully philosophical works such as The Everlasting Man and St. Thomas Aquinas. In “A Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” a brilliant retrospective 1971 essay on Orwell, Malcolm Muggeridge praised his dogged devotion to the truth but warned that “one of the great weaknesses of the progressive, as distinct from the religious, mind, is that it has no awareness of truth as such; only truth as enlightened expediency.”
Orwell thought, or at least hoped, that “common decency” (ethics) and “objective truth” (epistemology) could survive without any metaphysical-philosophical basis or confessional-ecclesiastical structure, though he married in an Anglican church and requested burial in an Anglican service and grave (which was a bit tricky for his friends Muggeridge and David Astor to arrange). But he was also frightened at the erosion of this inheritance: “the common people, on the whole, are still living in the world of absolute good and evil from which the intellectuals have long since escaped . . . but . . . the doctrine of ‘realism’ is gaining ground” (“Raffles and Miss Blandish,” 1944). The ascendancy of fascist and communist propaganda in the 1930s and ’40s “is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world” (“Looking Back on the Spanish War,” 1943). Of course, this is the ultimate nightmare of 1984.
Orwell had gotten his essential currency of beliefs and valuations from traditional English culture, whose nineteenth-century and subsequent capitalist-imperialist developments he documented, despised, and critiqued with great eloquence in his novels and expository prose works. The culture he loved was represented by writers such as Shakespeare, Swift, Dickens, and Chesterton, not by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin—or even by H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. In 1936, when he tried to get a letter of recommendation to fight in Spain from Harry Pollitt, the leader of Great Britain's Communist Party, he was turned down. In Spain he fought the fascists (and was badly wounded) but was horrified by the communist purges of fellow Spanish Republicans, including the party of anarchists in whose ranks he was serving. Orwell’s documentary account of his experience in Homage to Catalonia was not initially popular, but Trilling’s 1952 introduction to an American edition did much to make Orwell’s modern reputation, and not only in America.
Orwell rather dangerously committed himself more than once to the phrase and idea that “all art is propaganda” (“Charles Dickens,” 1939). “Every writer, especially every novelist, has a message. . . . Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this.” He means that all art—every work of art—propagates some worldview and scheme of valuations, however absurd, idiosyncratic, or irrational. But this is to recognize that philosophy, worldview, or “ideology” cannot be escaped; that analytical reason, inference, implication, and evaluation are inevitable in humans. Philosophy cannot be escaped.
Chesterton died too early (1936) to see the astounding historical tragedies that Orwell would see before his untimely death in 1950. But Chesterton was in crucial respects wiser and deeper. In 1906, the same year his first great book on Dickens was published, he wrote a brief introduction to a volume of selections from the Victorian sage Matthew Arnold. He praised Arnold and credited him with great insight. He “discovered (for the modern English) the purely intellectual importance of humility,” Chesterton wrote. “He had none of that hot humility which is the fascination of saints and good men. But he had a cold humility which he discovered to be a mere essential of the intelligence. To see things clearly, he said, you must ‘get yourself out of the way.’”
It is that “cold humility,” self-depreciating and honest, that so many of Orwell’s friends, admirers, and readers saw or see in him. Whatever his deficiencies, we are right to do so.
M. D. Aeschliman is the author of The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism.
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