For the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, πóλεμος (polemos or strife) is “the father of all things,” an aphorism that seeks not to encourage actual warfare, but rather to acknowledge that conflict and struggle in one form or another bring to light what is finer and higher. Lest this be shocking, we should remember that Christ Himself reminds us that He came not “to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), while urging his followers to sell their garments if need be, in order to buy a sword (Luke 22:36). At the very least, we may conclude that the Kingdom of God is worth fighting for. Addressing our age of “conflict resolution” that seeks to melt everything into a bland aggregation, and that praises accommodation while pursuing annihilation, Jesse Cone discusses G. K. Chesterton’s depiction of how opposing one’s enemy can ennoble both parties, while at the same time revealing the sacred. This insight is sorely lacking in today’s political, ethical, and cultural discussions, he argues, and we would benefit from rediscovering it since it reaffirms the vital importance of the sacred in our lives and safeguards our human dignity.
By Jesse S. Cone
“I have seen something today that is worse than death: and the name of it is Peace,” exclaims Patrick Dalroy, the fictional descendent of Ulysses in G.K. Chesterton’s The Flying Inn. The exclamation comes moments before the signing of a peace treaty, a treaty Dalroy succeeds in thwarting. Unsurprisingly the statesmen, architects of the treaty, recoil in horror and dismay. The commander of the opposing army, however, accepts the declaration with relief because, while he knows the ravages of war far more than any of the horrified statesmen, he also knows that the declaration of war grants him honor. Dalroy’s declaration of a fierce opposition to him honors the rival commander’s way of life; it does so by allowing him to elevate what he loves over and above his own life. It acknowledges the weightiness of what he holds sacred. A strange homage has been given to him by his mortal enemy: “I see what you love, and I see it is worth dying for.” The declaration of war—or at least the rejection of a lukewarm peace—also elevates Dalroy in the eyes of his enemy, since he too is willing and able to pay the price of death for that which he loves. Such fierce opposition simultaneously ennobles both sides.
Chesterton’s insightful image is not original to him. Homer’s Iliad is full of fearsome and formidable warriors facing off in order to test their mettle and demonstrate their excellence, and his Odyssey demonstrates the same argument from lack: the later epic culminates in the violent purging of unworthy opponents who have infested Odysseus’ house like insects. One sees the truth of this insight in history as well. In modern memory great fighters come to mind in tandem with their counterpart: Grant and Lee, Patton and Rommel, Ali and Frazier, Bird and Magic. These men remind us that great men are revealed by their worthy opponent. And while these opponents battle each other, they also respect each other. One remembers David cutting the cloth from Saul’s tunic, demonstrating his unwillingness to take his enemy’s life in an ignoble way, depriving him of the opportunity of an honorable fight. While the fierce-yet-noble opposition of such men often appears in the painful context of war it is not born from bloodlust or some over-simple, rigid cultural or ethical judgment. The truth is quite the opposite. Being able to see the good, noble, and virtuous in one’s opponent—especially in the heat of contention—requires a magnanimity that far outpaces the juvenile determinations of black-hat villains and knights astride white horses. And noble opposition of this kind is not limited to the fields of battle and sport. Reading of Dalroy’s fierce respect for his mortal enemy helps us understand how Chesterton could for years affably enjoy his intellectual enemy and debate opponent, the “heretic” George Bernard Shaw. Both men greatly respected each other, and both thought the other was so dangerously wrong that they hoped their erroneous ideas would die with them.
Today’s deconstruction of our fairy tales and myths fails to see the ennobling possibility of fierce opposition. Shrek-like tropes now leave one suspicious of kind fellows on the white horse (“What hidden motives is he hiding? What woeful shortcoming are we not seeing?”) and excusing of the villains (“If you had the childhood of Maleficent or Elphaba…”). The disenfranchised war against the privileged because of either a painful personal or corporate history, not because of things in our lives that we hold sacred.
All of this comes rushing to mind when looking at the ideological conflicts of the day. Trump, Obama, and George W. Bush have each been cast simultaneously as incompetent dolts and nefarious, conniving threats of the highest magnitude. That person who disagrees with you on Facebook is “ignorant”, subscribes to “fake news”, and the world must be told what a sniveling insignificant person they are so you can “no platform” them by making them an ignoble and unworthy opponent (And yes, before you go there, both sides are guilty of this.) But is this an appropriate response? Are we depriving our opponent and ourselves of the nobility of worthy opposition?
Nowhere has our tendency to render our opponent ignoble been more apparent recently than in the opposition to the shockingly popular academic Jordan B. Peterson. Recent profiles, debates, and interviews have revealed a general unwillingness to confront Peterson in his ideological field of play. Attempts are made to disqualify him from the field of intellectual discourse by implying his ideas are merely excuses for his anger or ambition, by discrediting him based on a portion of his supporters, and—my favorite—claiming the former Harvard, now University of Toronto, author of scores of peer reviewed journal articles doesn’t meet the necessary bar of public intellectual discourse. He can be dismissed as the “stupid man’s smart person.” The anti-Peterson group works overtime to prove he is a boxer who is not worth a fight, while to the pro-Peterson group he looks like an ideological Muhammad Ali, stalking an empty ring with no Joe Frazier coming. This is a far, far cry from the likes of Chesterton, a man who would praise an opponent like H.G. Wells for his “brilliance”, “humility”, “deeper philosophy”, and “growth” while still denouncing him as one of the culprits of his book Heretics and as the main ideological combatant in his Everlasting Man.
Chesterton’s great opponent was not, however, H.G. Wells or George Bernard Shaw. It was Friedrich Nietzsche. Like the great warriors of old, Chesterton’s noble fighting spirit is best seen in the light cast by the brilliance of his opponent. While Nietzsche eschewed traditional and popular morality, he delighted in the acquisition of nobility. To acquire nobility one must demonstrate his excellence through competition, and for this competition to be effective and meaningful it must be dangerous. The problem, as Nietzsche winsomely presents it, is that the world has been deprived of this noble activity by Christianity’s resentful lies like the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Christianity, for Nietzsche, is the, sniveling, unworthy opponent whose danger lies in great men taking such an opponent seriously. The lies and weakness terminate in the figure of the “last man” whose self-deception brings him to the point where he listlessly believes he has invented happiness; but unable to enjoy it, he’s only able to blink.
But to noble opponents Nietzsche bestowed fulsome praise. “My brothers in war, I love you thoroughly; I am and I was of your kind,” says Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. “And I am also your best enemy.” Both men lauded the spiritedness that causes men to die for something dear and sacred to them, and so it is fitting that the spirited Chesterton chose a monumental thinker like Nietzsche for his fiercest ideological enemy. For Chesterton, the Christianity that Nietzsche dismissed as too weak and pathetic to limp onto the battlefield was the only thing strong enough to embrace the fullness of reality. “War and courage have accomplished more great things than love thy neighbor,” claims Nietzsche, but for Chesterton, love encompasses both one’s courage in war and one’s magnanimous humility in the face of a daring and dangerous truth.
Of course this does not mean that Chesterton found every enemy and every argument worthy of noble and fierce opposition. Some enemies, ideological and otherwise, arise out of such error that they collapse upon their own weight. In a short anti-Nietzschean story called “The Finding of the Superman”, a journalist discovers the “over-man” whose coming Nietzsche anticipated with such fanfare, only to accidentally kill him by opening the door to his room and exposing him to the formidable dangers of ordinary air. Chesterton’s critique? The superman Nietzsche imagined as superior would be, in reality, weak and fragile rather than superior and unassailable. Error contains the seeds of its own destruction, and Chesterton believes Nietzsche’s error is that he fails to realize the permanence and power of the ordinary and awesome. But “The Finding of the Superman” is not a haughty slight, a flippant dismissal, or an ideological attempt to “no platform” Nietzsche—it’s a serious critique of a central Nietzschean idea. It does not disregard the idea by disregarding the thinker. It’s a worthy battle against Nietzsche using one of Nietzsche’s favorite literary weapons: characterization. It is, after all, the superman who is dismissed as failing to rise to the level of an enemy—not Nietzsche.
Unlike Nietzsche, Chesterton did not recommend that we “have eyes that always seek an enemy,” or that we “should love peace as a means to new wars”, but rather that we should love what is sacred in our ordinary lives so fiercely that we would risk our lives for it. “Courage,” says Chesterton, “is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers.” And so it is that we learn from the martyrs—some things are so precious that we make our lives valuable by sacrificing for their sake. For Chesterton, the martyr’s nobility was of the same cloth as that of the courageous warrior. Like the fallen hero, his life was lost, but in that loss was ultimate success.
In the stirring poem, “The Last Hero”, Chesterton expounds upon the greatness of an unnamed warrior who knows he soon will die on the battlefield. Writing from the perspective of the warrior, Chesterton lets the character boast magnanimously. “Know you what earth shall lose to-night, what rich uncounted loans, What heavy gold of tales untold you bury with my bones?” What the earth shall lose is a courageous and principled man, strong enough to see more glory in a woman’s frown than other men do in a her smile. He accepts the world on its terms. He accepts the adventure of reality; and in so doing, is granted a privileged view of the world. This view admires more than merely what is pleasant for the hero, because his perspective is far larger than himself.
To see this fair earth as it is to me alone was given,
The blow that breaks my brow to-night shall break the dome of heaven.
The skies I saw, the trees I saw after no eyes shall see,
To-night I die the death of God; the stars shall die with me;
One sound shall sunder all the spears and break the trumpet’s breath:
You never laughed in all your life as I shall laugh in death.
It is worth noting that it is entirely unclear whether or not Chesterton would have sided with this hero. Unlike the belittling ideological responses that beset us in our current moment—responses that belittle both the accuser and the accused alike—Chesterton’s admiration is as likely to apply to his mortal enemy as his dear ally. Perhaps it is for this reason that I like to think that Chesterton places the courageous words of “The Last Hero” not in the mouth of his ally, but in that of his enemy: testifying to both men’s greatness and nobility.
About the Author
- Jesse S. Cone is a teacher in the Rhetoric School at The Covenant School of Dallas and a PhD student of Philosophy at the University of Dallas. His interests are in the great books of the Western canon, the writings of the Eastern Christian Church, and in contemporary ethical dialogue. He lives in Dallas with his wife and three sons.