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Oikos and Logos: Chesterton's Vision of Distributism

Oikos and Logos: Chesterton's Vision of Distributism

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Published by The_Distributist
One of the great pieces on the history of Distributism and its relation to co-founder G.K. Chesterton, from the pen of Richard Gill.
One of the great pieces on the history of Distributism and its relation to co-founder G.K. Chesterton, from the pen of Richard Gill.

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Published by: The_Distributist on Nov 13, 2009
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11/03/2011

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lthough he was appalled
by the social consequences of indus-rial capitalism, the English Catholic novelist, poet, and journalist. K. Chesterton (
175
 –
1936
) rejected the idea that socialism washe solution to such an economic malaise. In fact, he believed thatsocialism represented a continuation and not a curtailment of theprocess of property expropriation inaugurated by the advent of acapitalist economy, which could only be challenged by promotinghe widespread ownership of limited private property. In Chester-on’s Christian-Aristotelian vision of distributism, limits are placedon the life processes of nature—the acquisition of goods and hu-man sexuality—as both aspects of economy are transfigured in ac-cordance with the will of the Creator and the needs for sustaininga human community. The institutions Chesterton offers to this endof transcending the market relations of self-interest in these spheresare Christian marriage and a modern form of medieval guild regu-lation of industry to preserve independent household economies.Leaving London in
1919
on a journey to the Holy Land, Ches-erton remarked on the political confusion that he believed was thehallmark of the industrial West:
Richard Gill
Oikos
and
ogos
Chesterton’s Visionof Distributism
logos 10:3 summer 007
 
oikos
and
logos
: chestertons vision of distributism65
The employers talk about “private enterprise,” as if there wasanything private about modern enterprise. Its combines areas big as many commonwealths; and things advertised in largeletters on the sky cannot plead the shy privileges of privacy.Meanwhile the Labour men talk about the need to “nation-alise” the mines or the land, as if it were not the great difficultyin a plutocracy to nationalise the government, or even to na-tionalise the nation.
1
hesterton’s own sympathies lay on the side of Labour, but he believed that the proposed statist solution—together with its rejec-ion by the plutocracy—was an absurdity: “The mob howls beforehe palace gates, ‘Hateful tyrant, we demand that you assume moredespotic powers’; and the tyrant thunders from the balcony, ‘Vilerebels, do you dare to suggest that my powers should be extended?’There seems to be a little misunderstanding somewhere.”
2
To fathom out this misunderstanding, says Chesterton, we needo get to the root of the problem faced by modern Western civiliza-ion: “We must begin at the beginning; we must return to our firstorigins in history, as we must return to our first principles in phi-losophy. We must consider how we came to be doing what we do,and even saying what we say.”
3
What is the ideal that modern West-ern societies are supposed to be achieving? According to Chester-on, it is democracy: “It is this which prophets promise to achieve,and politicians pretend to achieve, and poets sometimes desire toachieve, and sometimes only desire to desire. In a word, an equalcitizenship is quite the reverse of the modern world; but it is stillhe ideal of the modern world.”hesterton maintains that the source of this classical republicanideal was Rome. Yet the Republic of ancient Rome was built uponslavery, and here is the crux of the dilemma of labor and liberty inhe modern world:
The Labour problem is the attempt to have the democracyof Paris without the slavery of Rome. Between the Roman
 
logos6
Republic and the French Republic something had happened.Whatever else it was, it was the abandonment of the ancientand fundamental habit of slavery; the numbering of men fornecessary labour as the normal foundation of society, even asociety in which citizens were free and equal. When the ideaof equal citizenship returned to the world, it found the worldchanged by a more mysterious version of equality. . . . Wehave now to assume not only that all citizens are equal, butthat all men are citizens.
5
The “something” that had happened—which had transformedhe desire for an equality of citizens into the equality of men—washristendom. Recalling that his destination was Jerusalem, Ches-erton declared, “I know the name of the magic which had made allhose peasants out of pagan slaves, and has presented to the modernorld a new problem of labour and liberty.”
6
Thus for Chestertonhe roots of the dilemma can be traced to the Incarnation and theriddle of the Gospels. Chesterton’s concept of a free society is not
 publica
 —the reality of the “Public Thing”—but the universal free-dom and reality of “The Thing”: the restoration of Christendom.Chesterton rejected the view that he was attempting to reinstatesome medieval Golden Age: “After Eden I know of no golden age inhe past.”
7
He looked to the undeveloped potentials of the Christianmedieval past and saw that “the glory of this great culture is not somuch in what it did as in what it might have done.”
8
Chesterton’smedieval point of reference for social criticism was thus neitherirrational nor romantic; he wanted not to return to the past but topick up the thread lost with the triumph of industrial capitalism andreassert the project to institutionalize the universal freedom thathad been partially achieved in the past by the guild system of theowns and not the feudal framework of agriculture.As Richard Tawney says of medieval Christendom in his classicstudy
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
“Stripped of its eccentrici-ies of period and place, its philosophy had at its centre a determi-nation to assert the superiority of moral principles over economic

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