Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Thing

The wind awoke last night with so noble a violence that it was like the
war in heaven; and I thought for a moment that the Thing had broken free.
For wind never seems like empty air. Wind always sounds full and
physical, like the big body of something; and I fancied that the Thing
itself was walking gigantic along the great roads between the forests of

Let me explain. The vitality and recurrent victory of Christendom have
been due to the power of the Thing to break out from time to time from its
enveloping words and symbols. Without this power all civilisations tend
to perish under a load of language and ritual. One instance of this we
hear much in modern discussion: the separation of the form from the spirit
of religion. But we hear too little of numberless other cases of the same
stiffening and falsification; we are far too seldom reminded that just as
church-going is not religion, so reading and writing are not knowledge,
and voting is not self-government. It would be easy to find people in the
big cities who can read and write quickly enough to be clerks, but who are
actually ignorant of the daily movements of the sun and moon.

The case of self-government is even more curious, especially as one
watches it for the first time in a country district. Self-government arose
among men (probably among the primitive men, certainly among the ancients)
out of an idea which seems now too simple to be understood. The notion
of self-government was not (as many modern friends and foes of it seem to
think) the notion that the ordinary citizen is to be consulted as one
consults an Encyclopaedia. He is not there to be asked a lot of fancy
questions, to see how he answers them. He and his fellows are to be,
within reasonable human limits, masters of their own lives. They shall
decide whether they shall be men of the oar or the wheel, of the spade or
the spear. The men of the valley shall settle whether the valley shall be
devastated for coal or covered with corn and vines; the men of the town
shall decide whether it shall be hoary with thatches or splendid with
spires. Of their own nature and instinct they shall gather under a
patriarchal chief or debate in a political market-place. And in case the
word "man" be misunderstood, I may remark that in this moral atmosphere,
this original soul of self-government, the women always have quite as much
influence as the men. But in modern England neither the men nor the women
have any influence at all. In this primary matter, the moulding of the
landscape, the creation of a mode of life, the people are utterly impotent.
They stand and stare at imperial and economic processes going on, as
they might stare at the Lord Mayor's Show.

Round about where I live, for instance, two changes are taking place which
really affect the land and all things that live on it, whether for good or
evil. The first is that the urban civilisation (or whatever it is) is
advancing; that the clerks come out in black swarms and the villas advance
in red battalions. The other is that the vast estates into which England
has long been divided are passing out of the hands of the English gentry
into the hands of men who are always upstarts and often actually

Now, these are just the sort of things with which self-government was
really supposed to grapple. People were supposed to be able to indicate
whether they wished to live in town or country, to be represented by a
gentleman or a cad. I do not presume to prejudge their decision; perhaps
they would prefer the cad; perhaps he is really preferable. I say that
the filling of a man's native sky with smoke or the selling of his roof
over his head illustrate the sort of things he ought to have some say in,
if he is supposed to be governing himself. But owing to the strange trend
of recent society, these enormous earthquakes he has to pass over and
treat as private trivialities. In theory the building of a villa is as
incidental as the buying of a hat. In reality it is as if all Lancashire
were laid waste for deer forests; or as if all Belgium were flooded by the
sea. In theory the sale of a squire's land to a moneylender is a minor
and exceptional necessity. In reality it is a thing like a German
invasion. Sometimes it is a German invasion.

Upon this helpless populace, gazing at these prodigies and fates, comes
round about every five years a thing called a General Election. It is
believed by antiquarians to be the remains of some system of
self-government; but it consists solely in asking the citizen questions
about everything except what he understands. The examination paper of the
Election generally consists of some such queries as these: "I. Are the
green biscuits eaten by the peasants of Eastern Lithuania in your opinion
fit for human food? II. Are the religious professions of the President of
the Orange Free State hypocritical or sincere? III. Do you think that the
savages in Prusso-Portuguese East Bunyipland are as happy and hygienic as
the fortunate savages in Franco-British West Bunyipland? IV. Did the
lost Latin Charter said to have been exacted from Henry III reserve the
right of the Crown to create peers? V. What do you think of what America
thinks of what Mr. Roosevelt thinks of what Sir Eldon Gorst thinks of the
state of the Nile? VI. Detect some difference between the two persons in
frock-coats placed before you at this election."

Now, it never was supposed in any natural theory of self-government that
the ordinary man in my neighbourhood need answer fantastic questions like
these. He is a citizen of South Bucks, not an editor of 'Notes and
Queries'. He would be, I seriously believe, the best judge of whether
farmsteads or factory chimneys should adorn his own sky-line, of whether
stupid squires or clever usurers should govern his own village. But these
are precisely the things which the oligarchs will not allow him to touch
with his finger. Instead, they allow him an Imperial destiny and divine
mission to alter, under their guidance, all the things that he knows
nothing about. The name of self-government is noisy everywhere: the Thing
is throttled.

The wind sang and split the sky like thunder all the night through; in
scraps of sleep it filled my dreams with the divine discordances of
martyrdom and revolt; I heard the horn of Roland and the drums of Napoleon
and all the tongues of terror with which the Thing has gone forth: the
spirit of our race alive. But when I came down in the morning only a
branch or two was broken off the tree in my garden; and none of the great
country houses in the neighbourhood were blown down, as would have
happened if the Thing had really been abroad.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton