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The Chartered Libertine

I find myself in agreement with Mr. Robert Lynd for his most just remark
in connection with the Malatesta case, that the police are becoming a
peril to society. I have no attraction to that sort of atheist asceticism
to which the purer types of Anarchism tend; but both an atheist and an
ascetic are better men than a spy; and it is ignominious to see one's
country thus losing her special point of honour about asylum and liberty.
It will be quite a new departure if we begin to protect and whitewash
foreign policemen. I always understood it was only English policemen who
were absolutely spotless. A good many of us, however, have begun to feel
with Mr. Lynd, and on all sides authorities and officials are being
questioned. But there is one most graphic and extraordinary fact, which
it did not lie in Mr. Lynd's way to touch upon, but which somebody really
must seize and emphasise. It is this: that at the very time when we are
all beginning to doubt these authorities, we are letting laws pass to
increase their most capricious powers. All our commissions, petitions,
and letters to the papers are asking whether these authorities can give an
account of their stewardship. And at the same moment all our laws are
decreeing that they shall not give any account of their stewardship, but
shall become yet more irresponsible stewards. Bills like the
Feeble-Minded Bill and the Inebriate Bill (very appropriate names for
them) actually arm with scorpions the hand that has chastised the
Malatestas and Maleckas with whips. The inspector, the doctor, the police
sergeant, the well-paid person who writes certificates and "passes" this,
that, or the other; this sort of man is being trusted with more authority,
apparently because he is being doubted with more reason. In one room we
are asking why the Government and the great experts between them cannot
sail a ship. In another room we are deciding that the Government and
experts shall be allowed, without trial or discussion, to immure any one's
body, damn any one's soul, and dispose of unborn generations with the
levity of a pagan god. We are putting the official on the throne while he
is still in the dock.

The mere meaning of words is now strangely forgotten and falsified; as
when people talk of an author's "message," without thinking whom it is
from; and I have noted in these connections the strange misuse of another
word. It is the excellent mediaeval word "charter." I remember the Act
that sought to save gutter-boys from cigarettes was called "The Children's
Charter." Similarly the Act which seeks to lock up as lunatics people who
are not lunatics was actually called a "charter" of the feeble-minded.
Now this terminology is insanely wrong, even if the Bills are right. Even
were they right in theory they would be applied only to the poor, like
many better rules about education and cruelty. A woman was lately
punished for cruelty because her children were not washed when it was
proved that she had no water. From that it will be an easy step in
Advanced Thought to punishing a man for wine-bibbing when it is proved
that he had no wine. Rifts in right reason widen down the ages. And
when we have begun by shutting up a confessedly kind person for cruelty,
we may yet come to shutting up Mr. Tom Mann for feeblemindedness.

But even if such laws do good to children or idiots, it is wrong to use
the word "charter." A charter does not mean a thing that does good to
people. It means a thing that grants people more rights and liberties.
It may be a good thing for gutter-boys to be deprived of their cigarettes:
it might be a good thing for aldermen to be deprived of their cigars.
But I think the Goldsmiths' Company would be very much surprised if the
King granted them a new charter (in place of their mediaeval charter), and
it only meant that policemen might pull the cigars out of their mouths.
It may be a good thing that all drunkards should be locked up: and many
acute statesmen (King John, for instance) would certainly have thought it
a good thing if all aristocrats could be locked up. But even that
somewhat cynical prince would scarcely have granted to the barons a thing
called "the Great Charter" and then locked them all up on the strength of
it. If he had, this interpretation of the word "charter" would have
struck the barons with considerable surprise. I doubt if their narrow
mediaeval minds could have taken it in.

The roots of the real England are in the early Middle Ages, and no
Englishman will ever understand his own language (or even his own
conscience) till he understands them. And he will never understand them
till he understands this word "charter." I will attempt in a moment to
state in older, more suitable terms, what a charter was. In modern,
practical, and political terms, it is quite easy to state what a charter
was. A charter was the thing that the railway workers wanted last
Christmas and did not get; and apparently will never get. It is called in
the current jargon "recognition"; the acknowledgment in so many words by
society of the immunities or freedoms of a certain set of men. If there
had been railways in the Middle Ages there would probably have been a
railwaymen's guild; and it would have had a charter from the King,
defining their rights. A charter is the expression of an idea still true
and then almost universal: that authority is necessary for nothing so much
as for the granting of liberties. Like everything mediaeval, it ramified
back to a root in religion; and was a sort of small copy of the Christian
idea of man's creation. Man was free, not because there was no God, but
because it needed a God to set him free. By authority he was free. By
authority the craftsmen of the guilds were free. Many other great
philosophers took and take the other view: the Lucretian pagans, the
Moslem fatalists, the modern monists and determinists, all roughly confine
themselves to saying that God gave man a law. The mediaeval Christian
insisted that God gave man a charter. Modern feeling may not sympathise
with its list of liberties, which included the liberty to be damned; but
that has nothing to do with the fact that it was a gift of liberties and
not of laws. This was mirrored, however dimly, in the whole system.
There was a great deal of gross inequality; and in other aspects absolute
equality was taken for granted. But the point is that equality and
inequality were ranks--or rights. There were not only things one was
forbidden to do; but things one was forbidden to forbid. A man was not
only definitely responsible, but definitely irresponsible. The holidays
of his soul were immovable feasts. All a charter really meant lingers
alive in that poetic phrase that calls the wind a "chartered" libertine.

Lie awake at night and hear the wind blowing; hear it knock at every man's
door and shout down every man's chimney. Feel how it takes liberties with
everything, having taken primary liberty for itself; feel that the wind is
always a vagabond and sometimes almost a housebreaker. But remember that
in the days when free men had charters, they held that the wind itself was
wild by authority; and was only free because it had a father.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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