Chesterton: The Ball and the Cross

February 13, 2015

The Ball and the Cross
G.K. Chesterton
Introduction by Martin Gardner
(Dover) [1906]
190 p.

In this, one of his earliest novels, Chesterton tells the story of two Scotsmen, MacIan and Turnbull, the former a Catholic and the latter an atheist, trying to settle their differences not through argument but rather by that time-honoured tradition: the duel. But each time they find a quiet place to conduct their business, they are interrupted at the last moment. The characters who wander between them roughly represent different philosophies and views of life, and so the book is a sequence of scenes in which the Catholic and the atheist argue with a wide spectrum of opponents, all the while wanting only to fight one another. In the end the two find that, despite their differences, they can indeed fight side by side, for they share one conviction not shared by the others: devotion to truth.

It is not one of Chesterton’s best books; he himself claimed later in life that he did not like it, even penning a little verse on the subject:

This is a book I do not like,
Take it away to Heckmondwike,
A lurid exile, lost and sad
To punish it for being bad.
You need not take it from the shelf
(I tried to read it once myself:
The speeches jerk, the chapters sprawl,
The story makes no sense at all)
Hide it your Yorkshire moors among
Where no man speaks the English tongue.

His judgement is basically sound: little effort is made to disguise the fact that the minor characters exist only as an occasion to critique one worldview or another. It has some structural problems, too; one gets the impression that he didn’t know from one chapter to the next what would happen; his attempts at probing the deep significance of the conflict between MacIan and Turnbull through their dreams are failures. Yet, even so, I would not be as hard on the book as Chesterton was.  There are some good things in it. The premise that a metaphysical dispute can and should be settled by a brawl or duel is itself a Chestertonian joke. Like all of Chesterton’s work, the book is full of good humour and that joie de vivre with which he was so generously endowed.

Chesterton frequently defended the merit of fighting for religious ideas.  Here is a passage in which MacIan, the Catholic, recalls the reason for the duel and defends it to a judge:

If he had said of my mother what he said of the Mother of God, there is not a club of clean men in Europe that would deny my right to call him out.  If he had said it of my wife, you English would yourselves have pardoned me for beating him like a dog in the market place.  Your worship, I have no mother; I have no wife.  I have only that which the poor have equally with the rich; which the lonely have equally with the man of many friends.  To me this whole strange world is homely, because in the heart of it there is a home; to me this cruel world is kindly, because higher than the heavens there is something more human than humanity.  If a man must not fight for this, may he fight for anything?

Chesterton made his living in journalism, and here he makes some amusing remarks about that profession:

…there exists in the modern world, perhaps for the first time in history, a class of people whose interest is not that things should happen well or happen badly, should happen successfully or unsuccessfully, should happen to the advantage of this party or the advantage of that party, but whose interest simply is that things should happen.

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding.

The two would-be duelers meet a character – a `Tolstoian’ – who advocates non-violence, mutual understanding, and love. MacIan responds with memorable vehemence:

Sir, talk about the principle of love as much as you like. You seem to me colder than a lump of stone; but I am willing to believe that you may at some time have loved a cat, or a dog, or a child. When you were a baby, I suppose you loved your mother. Talk about love, then, till the world is sick of the word. But don’t talk about Christianity. Don’t you dare say one word, white or black, about it. Christianity is, as far as you are concerned, a horrible mystery. Keep clear of it, keep silent upon it, as you would an abomination. It is a thing that has made men slay and torture each other; and you will never know why. It is a thing that has made men do evil that good might come; and you will never understand the evil, let alone the good. Christianity is a thing that will only make you vomit, until you are other than you are. I would not justify it to you, even if I could. Hate it, in God’s name…It is a monstrous thing for which men die.

Which, to put it mildly, is not usually the way one thinks about it.

One of Chesterton’s favourite themes — even here, a full 15 years before his conversion — was the continuity and endurance of Catholicism contrasted with the ephemeral careers of all those doctrines attacking her. Thus, MacIan says to his opponent, James Turnbull:

I begin to understand one or two of your dogmas…and every one that I understand I deny.  Take any one of them you would like.  You hold that your heretics and sceptics have helped the world forward and handed on a lamp of progress.  I deny it.  Nothing is plainer from real history than that each of your heretics invented a complete cosmos of his own which the next heretic smashed entirely to pieces.  Who knows now exactly what Nestorius taught?  Who cares?  There are only two things that we know for certain about it.  The first is that Nestorius, as a heretic, taught something quite opposite to the teaching of Arius, the heretic who came before him, and something quite useless to James Turnbull, the heretic who comes after.  I defy you to go back to the freethinkers of the past and find any habitation for yourself at all.  I defy you to read Godwin or Shelley or the deists of the eighteenth century or the nature-worshipping humanists of the Renaissance, without discovering that you differ twice as much from them as you differ from the Pope.  You are a nineteenth century skeptic, and you are always telling me that I ignore the cruelty of nature.  If you had been an eighteenth century skeptic you would have told me that I ignore the kindness and benevolence of nature.  You are an atheist, and you praise the deists of the eighteenth century.  Read them instead of praising them, and you will find that their whole universe stands or falls with the deity.  You are a materialist and you think Bruno a scientific hero.  See what he said and you will think him an insane mystic.  No, the great freethinker, with his genuine ability and honesty, does not in practice destroy Christianity.  What he does destroy is the freethinker who went before.  Free-thought may be suggestive, it may be inspiriting, it may have as much as you please of the merits that come from vivacity and variety.  But here is one thing free-thought can never be by any possibility – free-thought can never be progressive.  It can never be progressive because it will never accept anything from the past; it begins every time from the beginning, and it goes every time in a different direction.  All the rational philosophers have gone along different roads, so it is impossible to say who has gone the furthest.  Who can discuss whether Emerson was a better optimist than Schopenhauer a pessimist?  It is like asking whether the corn is as yellow as the hill is steep.  No; there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority.  They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church.

Do I hear an Amen?

3 Responses to “Chesterton: The Ball and the Cross”

  1. godescalc Says:

    “one gets the impression that he didn’t know from one chapter to the next what would happen…”

    To a certain degree I think most of his long-form fiction has problems with the plot being improvised as he goes along; The Flying Inn is possibly the worst in that regard. They’re still great fun to read, though, so it barely matters that the plot is thrown together on the fly.

    I read The Ball and the Cross at a young age and took away from it the lesson that atheists were this sect of people who were wrong on the existence-of-God issue but made up for it by being honourable and brave and Scottish. (The bit where they exchange vows is classic.) Later I found this was an oversimplification of the matter, although Christopher Hitchens always reminded me of Turnbull a bit.


  2. Amen.

    I immediately wondered if there was any connection between this atheist Scotsman and the one in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Lewis’s was supposedly modeled partly on one of his tutors but I can’t remember whether he was Scottish or not.

  3. cburrell Says:

    I’ve not read That Hideous Strength, so I’m half-blind here, but the tutor to whom Lewis attributed a great influence — and who was an atheist — was called Kirkpatrick, which I believe is a Scottish name.


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