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THE PHILOSOPHY OF ISLANDS.

    Suppose that in some convulsion of the planets there fell
upon this earth from Mars, a creature of a shape totally
unfamiliar, a creature about whose actual structure we were
of necessity so dark that we could not tell which was creature
and which was clothes. We could see that it had, say, six
red tufts on its head, but we should not know whether they
were a highly respectable head-covering or simply a head.
We should see that the tail ended in three yellow stars, but it
would be very difficult for us to know whether this was part
of a ritual or simply part of a tail. Well, man has been from
the beginning of time this unknown monster. People have
always differed about what part of him belonged to himself,
and what part was merely an accident. People have said
successively that it was natural to him to do everything and
anything that was diverse and mutually contradictory; that
it was natural to him to worship God, and natural to him to
be an atheist; natural to him to drink water, and natural to
him to drink wine; natural to him to be equal, natural to be
unequal; natural to obey kings, natural to kill them. The
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divergence is quite sufficient to justify us in asking if there are
not many things that are really natural, which really appear
early and strong in every normal human being, which are not
embodied in any of his after affairs. Whether there are
not morbidities which are as fresh and recurrent as the
flowers of spring. Whether there are not superstitions whose
darkness is as wholesome as the darkness that falls nightly
on all living things. Whether we have not treated things
essential as portents; whether we have not seen the sun as a
meteor, a star of ill-luck.

    It would at least appear that we tend to become separated
from what is really natural, by the fact that we always talk
about those people who are really natural as if they were goblins.
There are three classes of people for instance, who are in a
greater or less degree elemental: children, poor people, and to
some extent, and in a darker and more terrible manner, women.
The reason why men have from the beginning of literature
talked about women as if they were more or less mad, is
simply because women are natural, and men, with their
formalities and social theories, are very artificial. It is the same
with children; children are simply human beings who are
allowed to do what everyone else really desires to do, as for
instance, to fly kites, or when seriously wronged to emit pro-
longed screams for several minutes. So again, the poor man
is simply a person who expends upon treating himself and his
friends in public houses about the same proportion of his
income as richer people spend on dinners or hansom cabs, that
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is a great deal more than he ought. But nothing can be done
until people give up talking about these people as if they were
too eccentric for us to understand, when, as a matter of fact, if
there is any eccentricity involved, we are too eccentric to under-
stand them. A poor man, as it is weirdly ordained, is definable
as a man who has not got much money; to hear philan-
thropists talk about him one would think he was a kangaroo.
A child is a human being who has not grown up; to hear
educationalists talk one would think he was some variety of a
deep-sea fish. The case of the sexes is at once more obvious
and more difficult. The stoic philosophy and the early church
discussed woman as if she were an institution, and in many
cases decided to abolish her. The modern feminine output of
literature discusses man as if he were an institution, and
decides to abolish him. It can only timidly be suggested that
neither man nor woman are institutions, but things that are
really quite natural and all over the place.

    If we take children for instance, as examples of the uncor-
rupted human animal, we see that the very things which
appear in them in a manner primary and prominent, are the
very things that philosophers have taught us to regard as
sophisticated and over-civilised. The things which really
come first are the things which we are accustomed to think
come last. The instinct for a pompous intricate and recurring
ceremonial for instance, comes to a child like an organic
hunger; he asks for a formality as he might ask for a drink of
water.

    Those who think, for instance, that the thing called super-
stition is something heavily artificial, are very numerous; that
is those who think that it has only been the power of priests or
of some very deliberate system that has built up boundaries,
that has called one course of action lawful and another un-
lawful, that has called one piece of ground sacred and another
profane. Nothing it would seem, except a large and powerful
conspiracy could account for men so strangely distinguishing
between one field and another, between one city and another,
between one nation and another. To all those who think
in this way there is only one answer to be given. It is to
approach each of them and whisper in his ear: “Did you
or did you not as a child try to step on every alternate paving-
stone?” Was that artificial and a superstition ? Did priests
come in the dead of night and mark out by secret signs the
stones on which you were allowed to tread? Were children
threatened with the oubliette or the fires of Smithfield if they
failed to step on the right stone? Has the Church issued a
bull “Quisquam non pavemento?” No! On this point on
which we were really free, we invented our servitude. We
chose to say that between the first and the third paving-stone
there was an abyss of the eternal darkness into which we
must not fall. We were walking along a steady, and safe and
modern road, and it was more pleasant to us to say that we
were leaping desperately from peak to peak. Under mean and
oppressive systems it was no doubt our instinct to free our
-selves. But this truth written on the paving-stones is of even
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greater emphasis, that under liberal systems it was our instinct
to limit ourselves. We limited ourselves so gladly that we
limited ourselves at random, as if limitation were one of the
adventures of boyhood.

    People sometimes talk as if everything in the religious
history of men had been done by officials. In all probability
things like the Dionysian cult or the worship of the Virgin
were almost entirely forced by the people on the priesthood.
And if children had been sufficiently powerful in the state,
there is no reason why this paving-stone religion should not
have been accepted also. There is no reason why the streets
up which we walk should not be emblazoned so as to com-
memorate this eternal fancy, why black stones and white
stones alternately, for instance, should not perpetuate the
memory of a superstition as healthy as health itself.

    For what is the idea in human nature which lies at the back
of this almost automatic ceremonialism? Why is it that a
child who would be furious if told by his nurse not to walk
off the curbstone, invents a whole desperate system of foot-
holds and chasms in a plane in which his nurse can see little
but a commodious level? It is because man has always had
the instinct that to isolate a thing was to identify it. The flag
only becomes a flag when it is unique; the nation only becomes
a nation when it is surrounded; the hero only becomes a hero
when he has before him and behind him men who are not
heroes; the paving-stone only becomes a paving-stone when
it has before it and behind it things that are not paving-stones.

    There are two other obvious instances, of course, of the
same instinct, the perennial poetry of islands, and the perennial
poetry of ships. A ship like the Argo or the Fram is valued
by the mind because it is an island, because, that is, it carries
with it floating loose on the desolate elements the resources,
and rules, and trades, and treasuries of a nation, because it
has ranks, and shops, and streets, and the whole clinging like
a few limpets to a lost spar. An island like Ithaca or England
is valued by the mind because it is a ship, because it can find
itself alone and self-dependent in a waste of water, because its
orchards and forests can be numbered like bales of merchandise,
because its corn can be counted like gold, because the starriest
and dreariest snows upon its most forsaken peaks are silver
flags flown from familiar masts, because its dimmest and most
inhuman mines of coal or lead below the roots of all things
are definite chatels stored awkwardly in the lowest locker of
the hold.

    In truth nothing has so much spoilt the right artistic attitude
as the continual use of such words as ” infinite” and “immeasur-
able.” They were used rightly enough in religion because
religion, by its very nature, consists of paradoxes. Religion
speaks of an identity which is infinite, just as it spoke of an
identity that was at once one and three, just as it might
possibly and rightly speak of an identity that was at once
black and white.
    The old mystics spoke of an existence without end or a
happiness without end, with a deliberate defiance, as they

    might have spoken of a bird without wings or a sea without
water. And in this they were right philosophically, far more
right than the world would now admit because all things grow
more paradoxical as we approach the central truth. But for
all human imaginative or artistic purposes nothing worse
could be said of a work of beauty than that it is infinite; for
to be infinite is to be shapeless, and to be shapeless is to be
something more than mis-shapen. No man really wishes a
thing which he believes divine to be in this earthly sense
infinite. No one would really like a song to last for ever, or
a religious service to last for ever, or even a glass of good ale
to last for ever. And this is surely the reason that men have
pursued towards the idea of holiness, the course that they have
pursued; that they have marked it out in particular spaces,
limited it to particular days, worshipped an ivory statue,
worshipped a lump of stone. They have desired to give to it
the chivalry and dignity of definition, they have desired to save
it from the degradation of infinity. This is the real weakness
of all imperial or conquering ideals in nationality. No one
can love his country with the particular affection which is
appropriate to the relation, if he thinks it is a thing in its
nature indeterminate, something which is growing in the night,
something which lacks the tense excitement of a boundary.
No Roman citizen could feel the same when once it became
possible for a rich Parthian or a rich Carthaginian to become
a Roman citizen by waving his hand. No man wishes the
thing he loves to grow, for he does not wish it to alter. No
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Imperialist would be pleased if he came home in the evening
from business and found his wife eight feet high.

    The dangers upon the side of this transcendental insularity
are no doubt considerable. There lies in it primarily the great
danger of the thing called idolatry, the worship of the object
apart from or against the idea it represents. But he must
surely have had a singular experience who thinks that this
insular or idolatrous fault is the particular fault of one age.
We are not likely to suffer from any painful resemblance to
the men of Thermopylae, the Zealots, who raged round the
fall of Jerusalem, to the thunderbolts of Eastern faith and
valour who hurled themselves on the guns of Lord Kitchener.
If we are rushing upon any destruction it is not, at least, upon
this.

                                                          G. K. CHESTERTON.

MLA citation:

Chesterton, G. K. “The Philosophy of Islands.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 1, 1903, pp. 2-9. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.