For the mind moves by instincts, associations, premonitions…


Why should we be interested in Victorian literature in our present day?  It shouldn’t surprise us by now that through his book about it, Chesterton prophetically pointed to many of the problems and issues in our time.  Note what Dale Ahlquist, President of The American Chesterton Society had to say in his lecture on this piece:

“Darwin rose to prominence, not because of his ideas were scientific but because Utilitarianism was the “philosophy in office.” This philosophy was responsible for “atheist industrialism” and the worship of wealth. Utilitarianism was already whispering about breeding the poor, hinting at infanticide and murmuring at “the folly of allowing the unfit to survive.” It was in this context that the great writers of the Victorian era wrote. Almost all of them reacted against Utilitarianism, but from a variety of perspectives and with a variety of results. They knew something fundamental had been lost from their society, and they were trying to grasp it, but most of them had an incomplete understanding of what it was…

The Victorian revolution in literature led to independence and eccentricity and eventually anarchy. Though the writers rejected Utilitarianism, too many of the leading intellectual lights gave in to an agnosticism that enveloped them in a dark atmosphere of doubt. Darwin made the Victorians “muddle-headed” not only towards God but towards Man. The new ideas were all empty, and nothing could keep “the growing crowds of agnostics back from the most hopeless and inhuman extremes of destructive thought.”

It is a chilling and deadly accurate prophesy. We have seen all those “hopeless and inhuman extremes of destructive thought.” We have seen them in the flesh. We have seen more destruction of humanity than in the entire history of the world. But before it happened, we were warned about it. In 1913, in a slim book of literary criticism, G.K. Chesterton wrote eloquently about the coming Culture of Death.”  – Lecture: The Victorian Age in Literature, Dale Ahlquist

Now in trying to describe how the Victorian writers stood to each other, we must recur to the very real difficulty noted at the beginning: the difficulty of keeping the moral order parallel with the chronological order. For the mind moves by instincts, associations, premonitions and not by fixed dates or completed processes. Action and reaction will occur simultaneously: or the cause actually be found after the effect. Errors will be resisted before they have been properly promulgated: notions will be first defined long after they are dead. It is no good getting the almanac to look up moonshine; and most literature in this sense is moonshine. Thus Wordsworth shrank back into Toryism, as it were, from a Shelleyan extreme of pantheism as yet disembodied. Thus Newman took down the iron
sword of dogma to parry a blow not yet delivered, that was coming from the club of Darwin. For this reason no one can understand tradition, or even history, who has not some tenderness for anachronism.

-G. K. Chesterton, Ch I: The Victorian Compromise and Its Enemies, The Victorian Age in Literature, 1913

Read the rest of this book online: The Victorian Age in Literature

Read the lecture: The Victorian Age in Literature ( Dale Ahlquist )

Image source: The Poultry Cross, Louise Rayer Salisbury (1832 – 1924),  wikimedia commons


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