The Equality of Elfland

G.K. Chesterton’s “democratic faith” demanded that the choosing of spouses be left to ordinary people, not the state. Which ideological tendency today best practices what he preached?

In his delicious essay “The Ethics of Elfland,” G.K. Chesterton wrote:

     This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

Hear, hear. But the practicing democrats here, it seems to me, are liberals. We’re the ones who want the mating of the sexes to be left to ordinary people, not the State. Conservatives are the ones who want to tell Anderson Cooper that he must choose a wife—and Christine Quinn that she’s not allowed to.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

10 thoughts on “The Equality of Elfland”

  1. I somehow doubt that Chesterton — a man, after all, who converted to Roman Catholicism, though “The Ethics of Elfland” was written prior to that — would have approved of same-sex marriage (see his stance on birth control).

    His line of argument seems to be more about who is part of the political nation (elites vs. ordinary people) and not whether a democratic government can make collective judgements on how society’s institutions (via “the laws of the state”) should be constructed.

  2. Of course Chesterton would have hated gay marriage. I was just (puckishly) suggesting that his democratic-conservative philosophy of letting ordinary people run their own lives, even at the cost of making their own mistakes, sits oddly with the view that government knows people’s “real” sexual orientation better than they do.

    1. I understand, but is he arguing that? His seems to be an argument about aristocracy vs. democracy (in the sense of Cicero’s three forms of government in De Re Publica), not about whether a democratic majority can or cannot make universally binding laws, including ones that enshrine traditional values. In fact, in the very next paragraph he seems to argue specifically that the majority can and even should do that.

      1. Sure, but the reasons he has for being democratic are at war with each other here. He thinks the “making of laws” should be left to ordinary people because these are things that all people (equally) should best do for themselves. But independent of that, he also thinks that “mating of the sexes” and the choosing of spouses should be left up to ordinary people. (He’s not some kind of cartoon majoritarian and would be very upset if the majority voted to assign spouses through an expert allocation system.) But he doesn’t really *believe* in leaving these sorts of decisions to ordinary people when doing so conflicts with his view of what ordinary people ought to want. Ordinary people are to be trusted up to the point where their decisions conflict with his view of morality and no further.

        1. Other people are to be trusted with making their own arrangements until those arrangements clash with the measures recognized by their ancestors. To make new social dealings to which generations long tone would have objected is to disenfranchise them simply because they are dead. Tradition, says GKC, refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

          Democracy means giving our grandfathers and great-grandfathers a vote. Tradition is the democracy of the dead–something Chesterton considered to be a good thing. They are not to be disqualified from voting simply by accident of death. He would think it is not his view of morality to which the living must defer; it is the views of his ancestors, who outnumber the living, which win by majority vote.

          1. Even if one agrees with the Burkean view Ed has explained very well here, there is the small matter of KNOWING exactly what the ancestors would have wanted, because of the sticky matter that we can no longer ask them.

            This is no minor objection. A recurrent theme in the politics of “of course …” is INCORRECT pronouncements by non-experts that some feature of the world matches their world-view. This is the non-biologist telling us there is no homosexuality in nature, the non-constitutional scholar telling us what the US Founding Fathers thought of some matter, and the non-historian telling us the views on marriage of people “in the past”, that undifferentiated lump of stuff, homogeneous across time and space, beginning maybe 50 years ago. Exactly WHO ARE the ancestors we should care about? Do they begin with h. Erectus, or do they go back to australopithecus? Do they include only ancestors born within the territory of the USA, or everyone who spent at least some time within that territory? etc etc

            If one insists on the politics of the ancestors, be sure to explain exactly why one feels that they would be more concerned about gay marriage than about, to take a random example, the effort spent on worshipping a single god rather than a more generic shamanistic nature worship…

          2. there is the small matter of KNOWING exactly what the ancestors would have wanted, because of the sticky matter that we can no longer ask them.

            True.

            And there is also the small problem that even if we could ask them their answers would be based on an understanding of the world that differs widely from our own. If the voting dead largely believe things about the capacities of women, or blacks, or the nature of homosexuality, or the divine right of kings, or whatever, deferring to their views is absurd.

    1. Kevin, if it does, make sure you heed the other commenters and quote it in context (unlike mischief-making me). Patrick Deneen’s *Democratic Faith*, whose title derives from this passage, actually reads the conservative-democratic sentiment the way Chesterton intended it (though the book is far from being just a reading of Chesterton).

  3. “The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
    Katja,
    It’s kinda fun!

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