Mr Chesterton’s Mountain

Mr Chesterton’s Mountain

Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.

MR. G. K. CHESTERTON, with whom we had some friendly but inconclusive discussion a few years back, has lately discovered the “basic error” of humanitarianism, and has given his portentous discovery to the world. 1 There is a great mountain, it seems, of which we humanitarian “fanatics” are wholly ignorant, but which looms so large in the Chestertonian philosophy that it may well be rechristened “Mount Chesterton.” This “great mountainous thing, a thing like Mont Blanc,” is the fact that mankind is, in a special and exclusive sense, “a society,” different in kind, and not in degree only, from the inferior races.

“Mankind is not a tribe of animals to which we owe compassion. Mankind is a club to which we owe our subscription. Pity, the vague sentiment of the sunt lacrymæ rerum, is due indisputably to everything that lives. And as regards this, the difference between our pity for suffering men and our pity for suffering animals is very possibly only a question of degree. But the difference between our moral relation to men and to animals is not a difference of degree in the least. It is a difference of kind. What we owe to a human being we owe to a fellow-member of a fixed, responsible, and reciprocal society. . . . This is the basic error upon which all Mr. Salt’s school goes wrong. They will not see that when we talk of human superiority we do not mean superiority in a degree on an inclined plane; we mean the existence of a certain definite society, different from everything else, and founded not on the sorrows of all living, but on the rights of man. Cruelty to men and cruelty to animals are two quite detestable, but quite different, sins. . . . The man who breaks a cat’s back breaks a cat’s back. The man who breaks a man’s back breaks an implied treaty. The tyrant to animals is a tyrant. The tyrant to man is a traitor. Nay, he is a rebel, for man is royal.”

Now, it is impossible for us to deal in a brief article with the large issues indirectly raised by Mr. Chesterton—the problem of the rights of animals in their relation to the rights of man; nor is it necessary for us to do so, for the subject has been more than once treated of in the Humanitarian League's publications; 2 but as regards our supposed blindness to Mount Chesterton, we must at least point out the absurdity of the complaint that we are not aware of that immense edifice of the old anthropocentric philosophy, the assumption that between mankind and the other animals there is a great gulf fixed. Not only do we “see” Mr. Chesterton’s “mountainous fact,” but we see through it to something even larger and more comprehensive that lies beyond. We know well that mankind is “a society,” and we know well that the anthropocentric school, of which Mr. Chesterton is the latest and not least brilliant exponent, regards that society as not only superior to all else, but final, absolute, and unique. But without in the least disparaging the greatness and sacredness of human fellowship—and surely humanitarians are the last people to be charged with such a fault, inasmuch as they are devoting a good part of their lives to the service of that same society—we hold that the superiority of the human over the non-human society, however great it may be, is one of degree, not of kind, and that the duties, however paramount, which man owes to his fellow-men, are different, not in kind, but in degree, from those which he owes to his other, though humbler, fellow-beings. 3

Mr. Chesterton’s assertion that there is “a difference of kind” between human and non-human, is one to which neither science, nor history, nor logic gives one atom of support. On the physical side man is confessedly an animal, and societies of men are, physically, societies of animals; and though our psychological and moral relations to the animals are as yet less determined, here again the tendency of modern thought is beyond doubt in this direction to which humanitarians incline. Mr. Chesterton tells us—as if it were an argument against humanitarianism—that his own reason for abstaining from cannibalism is not a humane but a social one. “I do not eat men,” he says, “because I am a man.” To which the humane dietist will obviously make answer: “And I do not eat animals because I am an animal.” The disuse of flesh-eating, like the disuse of cannibalism, is based not on mere pity, but on the recognition of kinship.

Our critic is at great pains to show that these sympathetic feelings are merely a matter of “where to draw the line,” and that the line, wherever drawn, is only a personal and arbitrary one; but here again it is he who is blind to the facts. Humanitarianism is by no means the “vague sentiment” that he imagines it, for history shows that the humane instinct is neither stationary nor sporadic, but constant and progressive, and reason shows that the line of sympathy must be drawn, generally speaking, at the most advanced point indicated by the collective conscience of each age—a conscience which becomes more sensitive, more alive to the reality of a widening circle of brotherhood, as our civilisation develops. Mr. Chesterton attempts to ridicule the humanities of diet by professing a solicitude for the sensitiveness of plants; but in this he only shows how little share or understanding he has of the humane spirit. It will be time enough to consider our moral relation to plants when our conscience is troubled on that score. At present there is no repugnance, on humane grounds, to the destruction of plants, but very widespread repugnance to the destruction of animals; and this is sufficient answer to Mr. Chesterton’s frivolities. The one is a present moral question, the other is not.

But mankind, says Mr. Chesterton, is “a society.” So are bees and beavers. There are innumerable societies, and it is impossible to prove that the human society is more organic or more conclusive than the rest. Our sense of kinship is continually widening, and there never has been, nor is, any finality in the social bond of which Mr. Chesterton speaks. It would have surprised the Greek or Roman of old to be informed that he was a member of the same society with the barbarian or the slave. It would hardly be admitted by the white American of to-day that he and the African negro are own brethren. That, presumably, is because their sympathies are not yet developed enough to enable them to see even the stupendous mass of Mount Chesterton. But what if Mr. Chesterton’s sympathies are not developed enough to enable him to see what many less subtle intellects have already seen-that beyond this “human” society there is the still larger society of the higher sentient existence, and that behind the great mountain range which at present monopolises his vision, there lies a remoter but not less real range, which is gradually materialising to men's sight? “The man who breaks a cat’s back breaks a cat’s back.” We assure Mr. Chesterton that this terse saying of his contains the root of all cruelty to animals, the quintessence of all the anthropocentric bigotry which has caused the immemorial manifold ill-usage of the nonhuman races through the length and breadth of the world. “The man who breaks a cat’s back breaks a cat’s back.” Yes, and the scientist who vivisects a dog, vivisects a dog; the sportsman who breaks up a hare breaks up a hare; the butcher who bleeds a calf bleeds a calf. That is all. And if one points out the cruelty, injustice, and folly of vivisection, or sport, or flesh-eating, appeal is instantly made to the glories of Mount Chesterton—the “mountainous” fact that man is “royal,” and the human race “a society.” 4

Well, perhaps we need not grudge the epithet “mountainous” to this colossal prejudice and conceit. It is a mountain—a mountain which has long been in labour to bring forth excuses for man’s selfishness, and its latest progeny is the “ridiculous mouse” of Mr. Chesterton’s argument.


1 Daily News, April 10, 1906, in a review of "The Logic of Vegetarianism," by Henry S. Salt.

2 E.g., in “The Universal Kinship,” by J. Howard Moore; “Animals’ Rights considered in Relation to Social Progress,” by Henry S. Salt; and “The New Charter: a Discussion of the Rights of Men and the Rights of Animals.”

3 Mr. Chesterton appears to be under the delusion that humanitarians confine their sympathies to the lower animals, whereas, of course, the essential idea of humanitarianism is the claim for justice (not mercy) to human and non-human alike.

4 “It is scarcely possible,” says Mr. J. Howard Moore in his remarkable work “The Ethical Kinship,” “to commit crimes upon any beings in this world except men. There are no beings in the universe, according to human beings, except themselves. All others are commodities. They are of consequence only because they have thighs, and can fill up the unoccupied places of the human alimentary. . . . The denial by human animals of ethical relations to the rest of the animal world is a phenomenon not differing either in character or cause from the denial of ethical relations by a tribe, people, or race of human beings to the rest of the human world. The provincialism of Jews toward non-Jews, of Greeks toward non-Greeks, of Romans toward non-Romans, of Moslems toward non-Moslems, and of Caucasians toward non-Caucasians, is not one thing, and the provincialism of human beings toward non-human beings another. They are all manifestations of the same thing. There is, in fact, but one great crime in the universe, and most of the instances of terrestrial wrong-doing are instances of this crime. It is the crime of exploitation—the considering by some beings of themselves as ends, and of others as their means.”

H. S. Salt

The Humane Review, 1907-7