Book Review: The Appetite of Tyranny – By G. K. Chesterton

appetiteoftyrannyOn June 28th of the year 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a small group of Serbians, an event which would begin Europe’s spiral into what was to be deemed “the war to end wars,” otherwise called The Great War or World War I.

In his book The Appetite of TyrannyG.K. Chesterton endeavors to assess the events which followed the assassination, primarily the psyche of Prussia as it sought to wrest control of Europe and bring upon the world the ‘progress’ of the ‘superior’ Teutonic race.

Chesterton’s main goal is to analyze what made for the incoherence and barbarism of the Prussian philosophy of that era, where ‘barbaric is defined as “one who is hostile to civilization, not one who is insufficient in it.”

Chesterton begins with a description of the details leading up the war: the assassination of the Archduke, the first hostilities of the Prussians, here making it a point to discuss what it is that marks the difference in the Prussian mindset from the rest of Europe, or what it is that makes the Prussians more properly ‘barbaric’ than the Russians. These differences primary include – as Chesterton sees it – that the Prussians do not value or uphold the promises they had made to others, but then expected the others to value and uphold promises made to the Prussians; thus, “his limited but very sincere lunacy concentrates chiefly in a desire to destroy two ideas, the twin root ideas of rational society. The first is the idea of record and promise: the second is the idea of reciprocity.”

This lack of care for the idea of a promise is then coupled with – or perhaps supposedly justified by – the Prussian idea that they themselves (or at least those of Teuton heritage) – were a superior race to all others, that progress consisted of them claiming establishing that superiority. In establishing this superiority Chesterton argues that the Prussians felt that “victory was a necessity and honour was a scrap of paper”  which was then coupled with “the idea that glory consists in holding the steel, and not in facing it.” Hence the Prussian “will explain, in serious official documents, that the difference between him and us is a difference between ‘the master-race and the inferior-race.'”

The majority of this text is spent elaborating these ideas, of analyzing what it is that set the Prussian mindset at odds with the rest of Europe. In this Chesterton is at times lucid, and at other times hard to follow (though that may partially be due the great amount of specificity that he goes into and my own not being fully aware of the issues), this was especially true in the letters addressed to Italy that make up the final portion of the text.

Finally, Chesterton is aware that the English were not perfect, and this then is where he draws another distinction (in feeling that the Prussians felt they themselves could do no wrong), thus: “I am that Englishman who has tortured Ireland, who has been tortured by South Africa; who knows all his mistakes, who is heavy with all his sins. And he tells you, Faultless Being, with a truth as deep as his own guilt, and as deathless as his own remembrance, that you shall not pass this way.”

Overall, this was a good read, and provides great insight into the events and philosophies surrounding the events of World War I, which is if nothing else good for any attempt to see similar trends in the contemporary world. More than anything, Chesterton’s work is valuable for two things:

  1. Chesterton masterfully lays out just what it was that made the Prussian philosophy the thing that it was: the ideas of superiority, of militarism for militarism’s sake, of being hostile to civilization itself. Chesterton shows that these were not peripheral issues, but were central to the Prussian mindset and mission. In this he gives a wonderful window into the psychological and philosophical world of the early 20th Century, one that you can’t get by reading just any historical text on the topic.
  2. Chesterton offers a well thought-out defense of the War, of war in general, and especially of an imperfect nation’s involvement in war. Chesterton does not shy away from the many sins committed by England, but he also realizes that this does not disqualify them from engaging their present threat. It is a good object lesson in our need to both realize our own faults and at the same time stand up for our convictions.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you; and howls when you hurt him.”

-“[T]he essence of every game is that the rules are the same on both sides.”

-“But the truth is that all that they call evolution should rather be called evasion. They tell us they are opening windows of enlightenment and doors of progress. The truth is that they are breaking up the whole house of the human intellect, that they may abscond in any direction. There is an ominous and almost monstrous parallel between the position of their over-rated philosophers and of their comparatively under-rated soldiers. For what their professors call roads of progress are really routes of escape.”

-“The cockney and incomplete civilisation always sets itself up to be copied. And in the case here considered, the German thinks that it is not only his business to spread education, but to spread compulsory education. “Science combined with organisation,” says Professor Ostwald of Berlin University, “makes us terrible to our opponents and ensures a German future for Europe.” That is, as shortly as it can be put, what we are fighting about.”

-“It is vital in a discussion like this, that we should make sure we are going by meanings and not by mere words. It is not necessary in any argument to settle what a word means or ought to mean. But it is necessary in every argument to settle what we propose to mean by the word. So long as our opponent understands what is the _thing_ of which we are talking, it does not matter to the argument whether the word is or is not the one he would have chosen… A soldier does not say “We were ordered to go to Mechlin; but I would rather go to Malines.” He may discuss the etymology and archæology of the difference on the march; but the point is that he knows where to go. So long as we know what a given word is to mean in a given discussion, it does not even matter if it means something else in some other and quite distinct discussion”

-“I wish to tell these people that they are wrong; that they are wrong upon all principles of human justice and historic continuity: but that they are specially and supremely wrong upon their own principles of arbitration and international peace. These sincere and high-minded peace-lovers are always telling us that citizens no longer settle their quarrels by private violence; and that nations should no longer settle theirs by public violence. They are always telling us that we no longer fight duels; and need no longer wage wars. In short, they perpetually base their peace proposals on the fact that an ordinary citizen no longer avenges himself with an axe. But how is he prevented from revenging himself with an axe? If he hits his neighbour on the head with the kitchen chopper, what do we do? Do we all join hands, like children playing Mulberry Bush, and say “We are all responsible for this; but let us hope it will not spread. Let us hope for the happy day when he shall leave off chopping at the man’s head; and when nobody shall ever chop anything for ever and ever.” Do we say “Let byegones be byegones; why go back to all the dull details with which the business began; who can tell with what sinister motives the man was standing there within reach of the hatchet?” We do not.”

-“The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known. Just as a man who cannot keep an appointment is not fit even to fight a duel, so the man who cannot keep an appointment with himself is not sane enough even for suicide. It is not easy to mention anything on which the enormous apparatus of human life can be said to depend. But if it depends on anything, it is on this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of to-morrow. On that solitary string hangs everything from Armageddon to an almanac, from a successful revolution to a return ticket.”

-“For instance, no man of the world believes all he sees in the newspapers; and no journalist believes a quarter of it. We should, therefore, be quite ready in the ordinary way to take a great deal off the tales of German atrocities; to doubt this story or deny that. But there is one thing that we cannot doubt or deny: the seal and authority of the Emperor. In the Imperial proclamation the fact that certain “frightful” things have been done is admitted; and justified on the ground of their frightfulness.”


Chesterton’s full argument of what defines ‘barbaric’:

“If the German calls the Russian barbarous he presumably means imperfectly civilised. There is a certain path along which Western nations have proceeded in recent times; and it is tenable that Russia has not proceeded so far as the others: that she has less of the special modern system in science, commerce, machinery, travel or political constitution. The Russ ploughs with an old plough; he wears a wild beard; he adores relics; his life is as rude and hard as that of a subject of Alfred the Great. Therefore he is, in the German sense, a barbarian. Poor fellows like Gorky and Dostoieffsky have to form their own reflections on the scenery, without the assistance of large quotations from Schiller on garden seats; or inscriptions directing them to pause and thank the All-Father for the finest view in Hesse-Pumpernickel. The Russians, having nothing but their faith, their fields, their great courage, and their self-governing communes, are quite cut off from what is called (in the fashionable street in Frankfort) The True, The Beautiful and The Good. There is a real sense in which one can call such backwardness barbaric; by comparison with the Kaiserstrasse; and in that sense it is true of Russia.

Now we, the French and English, do not mean this when we call the Prussians barbarians. If their cities soared higher than their flying ships, if their trains travelled faster than their bullets, we should still call them barbarians. We should know exactly what we meant by it; and we should know that it is true. For we do not mean anything that is an imperfect civilisation by accident. We mean something that is the enemy of civilisation by design. We mean something that is wilfully at war with the principles by which human society has been made possible hitherto. Of course it must be partly civilised even to destroy civilisation. Such ruin could not be wrought by the savages that are merely undeveloped or inert. You could not have even Huns without horses; or horses without horsemanship. You could not have even Danish pirates without ships, or ships without seamanship. This person, whom I may call the Positive Barbarian, must be rather more superficially up-to-date than what I may call the Negative Barbarian. Alaric was an officer in the Roman legions: but for all that he destroyed Rome. Nobody supposes that Eskimos could have done it at all neatly. But (in our meaning) barbarism is not a matter of methods but of aims. We say that these veneered vandals have the perfectly serious aim of destroying certain ideas which, as they think, the world has outgrown; without which, as we think, the world will die.”



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