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The Man Who Thinks Backwards

The man who thinks backwards is a very powerful person to-day: indeed, if
he is not omnipotent, he is at least omnipresent. It is he who writes
nearly all the learned books and articles, especially of the scientific or
skeptical sort; all the articles on Eugenics and Social Evolution and
Prison Reform and the Higher Criticism and all the rest of it. But
especially it is this strange and tortuous being who does most of the
writing about female emancipation and the reconsidering of marriage. For
the man who thinks backwards is very frequently a woman.

Thinking backwards is not quite easy to define abstractedly; and, perhaps,
the simplest method is to take some object, as plain as possible, and from
it illustrate the two modes of thought: the right mode in which all real
results have been rooted; the wrong mode, which is confusing all our
current discussions, especially our discussions about the relations of the
sexes. Casting my eye round the room, I notice an object which is often
mentioned in the higher and subtler of these debates about the sexes: I
mean a poker. I will take a poker and think about it; first forwards and
then backwards; and so, perhaps, show what I mean.

The sage desiring to think well and wisely about a poker will begin
somewhat as follows: Among the live creatures that crawl about this star
the queerest is the thing called Man. This plucked and plumeless bird,
comic and forlorn, is the butt of all the philosophies. He is the only
naked animal; and this quality, once, it is said, his glory, is now his
shame. He has to go outside himself for everything that he wants. He
might almost be considered as an absent-minded person who had gone bathing
and left his clothes everywhere, so that he has hung his hat upon the
beaver and his coat upon the sheep. The rabbit has white warmth for a
waistcoat, and the glow-worm has a lantern for a head. But man has no
heat in his hide, and the light in his body is darkness; and he must look
for light and warmth in the wild, cold universe in which he is cast.
This is equally true of his soul and of his body; he is the one creature
that has lost his heart as much as he has lost his hide. In a spiritual
sense he has taken leave of his senses; and even in a literal sense he has
been unable to keep his hair on. And just as this external need of his
has lit in his dark brain the dreadful star called religion, so it has lit
in his hand the only adequate symbol of it: I mean the red flower called
Fire. Fire, the most magic and startling of all material things, is a
thing known only to man and the expression of his sublime externalism. It
embodies all that is human in his hearths and all that is divine on his
altars. It is the most human thing in the world; seen across wastes of
marsh or medleys of forest, it is veritably the purple and golden flag of
the sons of Eve. But there is about this generous and rejoicing thing an
alien and awful quality: the quality of torture. Its presence is life;
its touch is death. Therefore, it is always necessary to have an
intermediary between ourselves and this dreadful deity; to have a priest
to intercede for us with the god of life and death; to send an ambassador
to the fire. That priest is the poker. Made of a material more merciless
and warlike than the other instruments of domesticity, hammered on the
anvil and born itself in the flame, the poker is strong enough to enter
the burning fiery furnace, and, like the holy children, not be consumed.
In this heroic service it is often battered and twisted, but is the more
honourable for it, like any other soldier who has been under fire.

Now all this may sound very fanciful and mystical, but it is the right
view of pokers, and no one who takes it will ever go in for any wrong view
of pokers, such as using them to beat one's wife or torture one's children,
or even (though that is more excusable) to make a policeman jump, as the
clown does in the pantomime. He who has thus gone back to the beginning,
and seen everything as quaint and new, will always see things in their
right order, the one depending on the other in degree of purpose and
importance: the poker for the fire and the fire for the man and the man
for the glory of God.

This is thinking forwards. Now our modern discussions about everything,
Imperialism, Socialism, or Votes for Women, are all entangled in an
opposite train of thought, which runs as follows:--A modern intellectual
comes in and sees a poker. He is a positivist; he will not begin with any
dogmas about the nature of man, or any day-dreams about the mystery of
fire. He will begin with what he can see, the poker; and the first thing
he sees about the poker is that it is crooked. He says, "Poor poker; it's
crooked." Then he asks how it came to be crooked; and is told that there
is a thing in the world (with which his temperament has hitherto left him
unacquainted)--a thing called fire. He points out, very kindly and
clearly, how silly it is of people, if they want a straight poker, to put
it into a chemical combustion which will very probably heat and warp it.
"Let us abolish fire," he says, "and then we shall have perfectly straight
pokers. Why should you want a fire at all?" They explain to him that a
creature called Man wants a fire, because he has no fur or feathers. He
gazes dreamily at the embers for a few seconds, and then shakes his head.
"I doubt if such an animal is worth preserving," he says. "He must
eventually go under in the cosmic struggle when pitted against
well-armoured and warmly protected species, who have wings and trunks and
spires and scales and horns and shaggy hair. If Man cannot live without
these luxuries, you had better abolish Man." At this point, as a rule, the
crowd is convinced; it heaves up all its clubs and axes, and abolishes him.
At least, one of him.

Before we begin discussing our various new plans for the people's welfare,
let us make a kind of agreement that we will argue in a straightforward
way, and not in a tail-foremost way. The typical modern movements may be
right; but let them be defended because they are right, not because they
are typical modern movements. Let us begin with the actual woman or man
in the street, who is cold; like mankind before the finding of fire. Do
not let us begin with the end of the last red-hot discussion--like the end
of a red hot poker. Imperialism may be right. But if it is right, it is
right because England has some divine authority like Israel, or some human
authority like Rome; not because we have saddled ourselves with South
Africa, and don't know how to get rid of it. Socialism may be true. But
if it is true, it is true because the tribe or the city can really declare
all land to be common land, not because Harrod's Stores exist and the
commonwealth must copy them. Female suffrage may be just. But if it is
just, it is just because women are women, not because women are sweated
workers and white slaves and all sorts of things that they ought never to
have been. Let not the Imperialist accept a colony because it is there,
nor the Suffragist seize a vote because it is lying about, nor the
Socialist buy up an industry merely because it is for sale.

Let us ask ourselves first what we really do want, not what recent legal
decisions have told us to want, or recent logical philosophies proved
that we must want, or recent social prophecies predicted that we shall
some day want. If there must be a British Empire, let it be British, and
not, in mere panic, American or Prussian. If there ought to be female
suffrage, let it be female, and not a mere imitation as coarse as the male
blackguard or as dull as the male clerk. If there is to be Socialism, let
it be social; that is, as different as possible from all the big
commercial departments of to-day. The really good journeyman tailor does
not cut his coat according to his cloth; he asks for more cloth. The
really practical statesman does not fit himself to existing conditions, he
denounces the conditions as unfit. History is like some deeply planted
tree which, though gigantic in girth, tapers away at last into tiny twigs;
and we are in the topmost branches. Each of us is trying to bend the tree
by a twig: to alter England through a distant colony, or to capture the
State through a small State department, or to destroy all voting through a
vote. In all such bewilderment he is wise who resists this temptation of
trivial triumph or surrender, and happy (in an echo of the Roman poet) who
remembers the roots of things.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton