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homo vulgaris“There never was any Supreme Anarchist Council,” he said. “We were all a lot of silly policemen looking at each other. And all these nice people who have been peppering us with shot thought we were the dynamiters. I knew I couldn’t be wrong about the mob,” he said, beaming over the enormous multitude which stretched away to the distance on both sides. “Vulgar people are never mad. I’m vulgar myself, and I know. I am now going on shore to stand a drink to everybody here.”[1]

These lines, from The Man Who Was Thursday, are uttered by Dr. Bull, the novel’s perennial optimist, whose views seem to epitomize and encapsulate the philosophy of G. K. Chesterton, the novel’s author.

The common man, which we might translate as either homo vulgaris or homo plebeius, was, for Chesterton, the custodian of common sense, the latter of which Chesterton believed was notably absent from the mad philosophies of the intelligentsia and other supercilious elites. Indeed, the whole of The Man Who Was Thursday, arguably Chesterton’s most successful sortie into the realm of fiction, is an attack on such elites and the mad ideas that they disseminate. In many ways the novel was a reaction against the radical pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer and the iconoclastic cynicism of Oscar Wilde. It was, however, I would argue, not merely a reaction but an over-reaction.

Chesterton had been influenced in his youth, albeit for a mercifully brief period, by the reductive reasoning of Schopenhauer and by the seductive paradoxes of Wilde. His conversion to better, cleaner and healthier things was in many ways triggered by his recoil from such reductive and seductive nonsense. Thereafter, he would counter the Decadent disdain for the common man, as was voiced with inveterate invective by the arch-cynic Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, with the optimistic praise for the mob and all things plebeian and vulgar, as voiced with such triumphal self-confidence by Dr. Bull in the above quoted passage.

In order to illustrate this distinction between the Wildean and Chestertonian view of the common man, my good friend, William Fahey, president of Thomas More College in New Hampshire and a Latinist of the first order, distinguishes between homo vulgaris and homo plebeius:

Chesterton would write homo plebeius. Homo vulgaris would be correct in form, but the tone would be approaching the way, say, an aesthete might say it. But homo vulgaris is correct in form for the ordinary man, the common sort of man. St. Thomas uses both homo plebeius and homo vulgaris, but I think tilts towards homo plebeius. In classical Latin, plebeius alone would have communicated the idea: a pleibus… or one of the plebs. Had Cicero known Chesterton, he would have called him a plebicola: a friend of the common man.[2]

The problem is that the common man, as championed by Chesterton, is a figment of the optimist’s imagination. He is an idealized figure in an idyllic world. He is an unobtrusive but very ancient sort, more numerous than he is today. He loves peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside is his favourite haunt. He does not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though he is skillful with tools. This is the Chestertonian common man, which as the more astute reader will have noticed, is also basically word-for-word, Tolkien’s description of the hobbit. The common man, like the hobbit, is the figment of an idealistic desire for the way the common man ought to be. It is not, unfortunately, the way he is, any more than the real Shire in which he lives is like Tolkien’s Shire or that other idyllic Shire, around which Chesterton’s rolling English road rambles.

Today’s common man is likely to be an agnostic or an atheist (though he might not know the difference between the two) who is addicted to fast food and bad beer, and to sports and TV, not to mention pornography and other equally gollumizing manifestations of our deplorably meretricious age. And, lest we fall into the error of harking back to a mythical golden age in the past, we might remind ourselves that it has never really been very different. Survey the motley medley of folk whom Chaucer places together on his pilgrimage to Canterbury, or the human menagerie that Shakespeare presents to us in his plays. Pace my learned friends, the plebs have always been vulgar, in the pejorative sense of the word, and they have always been placated with panem et circenses (bread and circuses: i.e., food, wine, mass entertainment, and lascivious “sex”).

And as for the mob, defended so naively by Dr. Bull in Chesterton’s novel, it is rarely right and almost always wrong, and as often as not murderously mad.

Hilaire Belloc

I blame Hilaire Belloc, another of my heroes and mentors, for Chesterton’s romantic idealization of the mob. Belloc allowed his French patriotism and republicanism to blind him to the horror and reality of the French Revolution, a blindness which Chesterton, as a disciple of Belloc’s historical perspective, seemed happy to share. It is, for instance, no mere coincidence that the mob being praised so fulsomely by Dr. Bull is French, nor that Marat and Robespierre, two of the Revolution’s most bloodthirsty ideologues, are praised earlier in the same novel as being “idealists” guiltless of the “murderous materialism” of the novel’s anarchist protagonists. Since Marat and Robespierre were the leading radical demagogues of the Revolution that would be the progenitor of the communist revolutions that followed in its wake, it beggars belief that Belloc and Chesterton could exonerate them or that they could idealize the secular fundamentalist mob which put countless Christians to their death in the Reign of Terror.

Having had the temerity, and some might say foolhardiness, to have argued in my last essay for The Imaginative Conservative with the great C. S. Lewis about the meaning of love, I have now vented my dissident perspective, though emphatically not my spleen, against the equally great and arguably greater Gilbert Keith Chesterton. In doing so, am I mad, merely arrogant, or simply stupid? Am I as irritatingly supercilious as those bogus intellectuals whom Chesterton targets in his novel? Or have I only dared to suggest that even the greatest of minds and men sometimes stoop to folly?

Perhaps the foregoing questions are for the reader to answer, though whether, as a group, the readers of an essay are any more trustworthy than the revolutionary mob is possibly a moot point. In any event, I can say with complete certainty that my argument with the great GKC is offered in the spirit with which he would have approved. In his autobiography, Chesterton wrote of his relationship with his brother that they were always arguing but that they never quarreled. In this healthy Chestertonian spirit, I can say, with a clean conscience, that the foregoing is an argument that will never become a quarrel.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who was Thursday (London: Penguin Books, 1937), p. 150

[2] William Fahey, e-mail to the author, October 13, 2014

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9 replies to this post
  1. Dear Mr Pearce,

    A brilliant essay. My grandfather and I both came to your conclusion after reading ‘Thursday’. What British (and American) writers sometimes forget is that British (and American) politics are really sufficiently democratic that it’s rather impossible (at least in the post-Jacobean Era) to blame any large corporate entity without, in some way, inculcating the British (or American) people. If the government’s gone mad, if the corporations have gone mad, if the military’s gone mad—well, the people must’ve gone mad.

    It’s old news, but one of the sharpest insights into politics is C.S. Lewis’s:

    ‘You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.’

    How to go about properly ‘democratizing’ society (or removing as much of influence one individual over his fellow as possible: whatever you’d like to call that) is another question. But the really fundamental principle of conservative—and sane—political discourse is to recognize that human nature is bad enough that an optimistic view of mankind’s abilities is unwarranted.

  2. This piece, sir, like your piece on CS Lewis, is well worth reading. No need to worry about presenting a sufficient argument against the giants – I am sure that they would be far more pleased with pupils who ask the right questions in reaction to their work, rather than those who clap politely and say “well that is true.”

    I had a mind, but did not, to reply to your CS Lewis piece – and so shall do so here – since it is related to the problem you raise of the common man via Chesterton:

    A common thread – in terms of the problem of Love and the problem of the common man – should actually take us right back to Nietzsche.

    It was Nietzsche who has convinced our contemporaries that since it is bad to be homo plebius, then everyone ought to aspire to be super-man; and thus homo-plebius has come to consider himself super-man, without ever bothering to recall to mind that Nietzsche had already branded the homo-plebius-turned-super-man as the rather dull, horrid “Last Man.” It is the same with Love – Agapic love, having been in fact that crowning glory of the earlier loves in the pre-Christian world, is now – thanks to Nietzsche – seen not as a final achievement in a civilizational progression towards the highest – but rather as a kind of cholesterol blocking the blood from flowing through the arteries – which Nietzschean plebians-turned-super-men must all unblock.

    To this end, I highly recomend for everyone who has not already read his book – that everyone take interest in Max Scheler and his wonderful book “Resentiment & Morality” which is a devestating critique of Nietzsche and of Nietzsche’s teachings about Love and the Common Man.

    Scheler writes with Nietzschean flair against Nietzsche, making him the sort of writer that is never assigned to young people who confront Nietzsche for the first time, because if they read Scheler alongside Nietzsche – then they might just risk becoming passionate in the Nietzschean sense about Love in the Christian sense – and they might even find that the most “super-human” people are the simple neighbors next door who have managed to stay married for decades, out of trouble with the police, and relatively comfortable as they “keep the aspidistra flying” (another good book, this one by George Orwell on the same subject).

  3. Mr. Pearce, I believe you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head. The unwashed have always been the problem. Yet, it is and always has been, extremely difficult to produce a cultural aristocracy with the wisdom and insight to construct a regime grounded on those republican virtues that include (the) hoi polloi in the difficult task of seeking the ‘Good’.


  4. You are right against Chesterton here Mr. Pearce. And although you disagreed with C.S. Lewis elsewhere, here I think you might agree with him concerning the quote which Mr. Davis uses in his above reply. In sum I think Isaiah in 53:6 said it simply enough: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way….”

    Our very nature puts us between the proverbial horns of a dilemma.

  5. Excellent points, Mr. Pearce. However, I do have a couple of thoughts I want to put forth. First off, both Chesterton and Belloc are human. All men, regardless of station or class or race or ethnicity, are prone to making mistakes or being enraptured in flights of fancy (and, as it sometimes were, folly). That great men should have misplaced hope is no great vice, at least in my opinion, because, thankfully, the lowest and most base of men have had misplaced hope as well, and the population at large is better off for it. Better that a few great men get a few things wrong and be the wiser for it than the better part of the basest men get things wrong and yet succeed in their machinations anyway. Having read “Thursday,” I also would like to point out that the mob that chases the policeman is, by and large, those of a very conservative bent: the wood-chopper, the doctor who lends them the car, the French colonel, the townspeople in rural France. I’ve seen for myself that no matter where one goes, if one leaves the ideology-infested cities and walks among the common people of the field and fain, by and large, though they be somewhat vulgar, they are in fact very traditional and more conservative in their world view.

  6. Let me echo the others, this is an excellent piece. I did not realize that Chesterton and Belloc idealized the French Revolution. I personally think The Man Who Was Thursday is an under rated classic. Let me quibble with one minor point you make. I don’t think the common man is actually agnostic or atheist. That’s for the mad, sophisticated “intelligentsia.” The common man is actually a spiritualist, the one who claims “he’s spiritual but not religious.” Which I think is a shade more optimistic.

  7. A wonderful essay, as others have noted. To recall Chesterton’s response to the question as to what is wrong with the world, he said, “I am.” And so are each of us.

    Being born a vulgar plebeian, I must say that growing up in that milieu gave no dissatisfaction, as there were no standards for comparison available. Until the advent of television. (We got our first set in time to watch Dobie Gillis cavort with his friend Maynard G. Krebs about The Thinker.) Once attuned, I perceived classical music (from the local PBS college radio station), Great Books (thanks to the ‘middlebrow’ Mortimer Adler), and chess (as opposed to checkers) as my way UP. It took years to shake off the prejudices I gladly embraced.

    Of late, I have several friends who react to cultural degeneration with political activism, holding signs which read, “Take Back Our Government.” The incoherent response of who THEY are, prompts me to remind them that in the USA, the ‘Gummint’ is not some foreign occupying power, nor is it in the end those of the Patrician class, those born to wealth, power, and privilege, who rule.

    However messily democratic and vulgarly republican, the basis of Constitutional Federalism is the people, individually and together. What my friends object to is that a majority of their neighbors (and friends and relatives) have different ideas than they.

    It has famously been said, “God must love the common man, he made so many of them.” But, He may have had an off day? Or should this Common-ness be celebrated with a fanfare a la Copeland? Or should an attempt be made to “elevate the masses” with cultural recitals (yuck).

    But, I have always found, and am prejudiced in favor having experienced it, that plumbers can profit from Plato and electricians from Epictetus as much as any professor or professional pundit. But these are the proles. Can the same be done with the “lumpenproletariat”? Have we ever tried?

    When Mortimer Adler came out with the Great Books program, it was derided as “middlebrow” by the intelligentsia, who saw their dominance threatened, so they moved further out, into incomprehensibility in culture, philosophy, and art. They are now almost irrelevant, having tied their search for “relevance” to one moment in intellectual history.

    Personally, I am fond of cheap beer, since my retirement pension will not support anything further. But, there are yet my books and my poetry to protect me.

  8. Obviously late to the party. As much as I love Chesterton, this is the precise area I’ve always wrinkled my nose at. His comments about Torquemada “defending reason” always seemed to me either, at best, a provocation, and at worst a defense of the indefensible.

    However, I do think it would be interesting to do a thorough comparison of Dr. Bull’s, well, preening to GKC’s comments about the mob as a presence at the Crucifixion in The Everlasting Man. Even in the context of his habit of idealizing obviously problematic things, at least there he displays a certainty that they could never save us, even in their imaginary ideal form. That chapter on the Passion is probably one of the most moving things I’ve ever read.

    I think GK really LOVED things, and was able to see both their potential and, thus, the tragedy of their actual flaws. Even when he was wrong, I think he taught me that it’s possible to lose something if we renounce a thing to the point of losing parts of our imagination that can be vital to life.

  9. Even later to the party. Here’s my take on Chesterton’s view of the common man. First of all, I don’t remember the exact quote, but I’ll paraphrase one of Chesterton’s lines in the vein of: “Shaw says that some men are fools, whereas Christianity tells us that in fact all men are fools.” And, certainly Chesterton affirmed the doctrine of Original Sin, and the fallen nature of humanity. So, even with Chesterton’s idealization of the common man, I don’t think he was denying the fact that the common man was by and large ignorant, foolish, and gravitated towards sin–indeed, that’s the human condition.

    I think Chesterton’s take (and probably Lewis’ and Tolkien’s) was that the ignorance and sinfulness of the common man was LESS bad than that of powerful, charismatic, intellectual elites–who probably had more power to influence society with their (flawed) utopian visions and personal agendas, and who were able to operate without the constraints that the common man usually has. Lewis spoke of moral debates being valid when engaged in by people who were arguing from within the Tao (his word for the framework of true objective morality), but when one stepped outside the Tao (into the world of complete heresy, or moral relativism), then the moral debate would rapidly degenerate. I kind of see Chesterton as viewing the common man as at least being “within the Tao”, which is not always the case with societal elites. That’s my take, anyway.

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