“Pardon me, pardon me, President,” said Barker, warmly; “my sympathies are with no nation. You misunderstand, I think, the modern intellect. We do not disapprove of the fire and extravagance of such commonwealths as yours only to become more extravagant on a larger scale. We do not condemn Nicaragua because we think Britain ought to be more Nicaraguan. We do not discourage small nationalities because we wish large nationalities to have all their smallness, all their uniformity of outlook, all their exaggeration of spirit. If I differ with the greatest respect from your Nicaraguan enthusiasm, it is not because a nation or ten nations were against you; it is because civilisation was against you. We moderns believe in a great cosmopolitan civilisation, one which shall include all the talents of all the absorbed peoples—”
“The Señor will forgive me,” said the President [of Nicaragua]. “May I ask the Señor how, under ordinary circumstances, he catches a wild horse?”
“I never catch a wild horse,” replied Barker, with dignity.
“Precisely,” said the other; “and there ends your absorption of the talents. That is what I complain of your cosmopolitanism. When you say you want all peoples to unite, you really mean that you want all peoples to unite to learn the tricks of your people. If the Bedouin Arab does not know how to read, some English missionary or schoolmaster must be sent to teach him to read, but no one ever says, ‘This schoolmaster does not know how to ride on a camel; let us pay a Bedouin to teach him.’ You say your civilisation will include all talents. Will it? Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimaux has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus? I recur to the example I gave. In Nicaragua we had a way of catching wild horses—by lassooing the fore feet—which was supposed to be the best in South America. If you are going to include all the talents, go and do it. If not, permit me to say what I have always said, that something went from the world when Nicaragua was civilised.”
“Something, perhaps,” replied Barker, “but that something a mere barbarian dexterity. I do not know that I could chip flints as well as a primeval man, but I know that civilisation can make these knives which are better, and I trust to civilisation.”
“You have good authority,” answered the Nicaraguan. “Many clever men like you have trusted to civilisation. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilisation, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”
“I think you do not quite understand, President, what ours is,” answered Barker. “You judge it rather as if England was still a poor and pugnacious island; you have been long out of Europe. Many things have happened.”
“And what,” asked the other, “would you call the summary of those things?”
“The summary of those things,” answered Barker, with great animation, “is that we are rid of the superstitions, and in becoming so we have not merely become rid of the superstitions which have been most frequently and most enthusiastically so described. The superstition of big nationalities is bad, but the superstition of small nationalities is worse. The superstition of reverencing our own country is bad, but the superstition of reverencing other people’s countries is worse. It is so everywhere, and in a hundred ways. The superstition of monarchy is bad, and the superstition of aristocracy is bad, but the superstition of democracy is the worst of all.”
The old gentleman opened his eyes with some surprise.
“Are you, then,” he said, “no longer a democracy in England?”
“The situation invites paradox,” he said. “We are, in a sense, the purest democracy. We have become a despotism. Have you not noticed how continually in history democracy becomes despotism? People call it the decay of democracy. It is simply its fulfilment. Why take the trouble to number and register and enfranchise all the innumerable John Robinsons, when you can take one John Robinson with the same intellect or lack of intellect as all the rest, and have done with it? The old idealistic republicans used to found democracy on the idea that all men were equally intelligent. Believe me, the sane and enduring democracy is founded on the fact that all men are equally idiotic. Why should we not choose out of them one as much as another. All that we want for Government is a man not criminal and insane, who can rapidly look over some petitions and sign some proclamations. To think what time was wasted in arguing about the House of Lords, Tories saying it ought to be preserved because it was clever, and Radicals saying it ought to be destroyed because it was stupid, and all the time no one saw that it was right because it was stupid, because that chance mob of ordinary men thrown there by accident of blood, were a great democratic protest against the Lower House, against the eternal insolence of the aristocracy of talents. We have established now in England, the thing towards which all systems have dimly groped, the dull popular despotism without illusions. We want one man at the head of our State, not because he is brilliant or virtuous, but because he is one man and not a chattering crowd. To avoid the possible chance of hereditary diseases or such things, we have abandoned hereditary monarchy. The King of England is chosen like a juryman upon an official rotation list. Beyond that the whole system is quietly despotic, and we have not found it raise a murmur.”
“Do you really mean,” asked the President, incredulously, “that you choose any ordinary man that comes to hand and make him despot—that you trust to the chance of some alphabetical list....”
“And why not?” cried Barker. “Did not half the historical nations trust to the chance of the eldest sons of eldest sons, and did not half of them get on tolerably well? To have a perfect system is impossible; to have a system is indispensable. All hereditary monarchies were a matter of luck: so are alphabetical monarchies. Can you find a deep philosophical meaning in the difference between the Stuarts and the Hanoverians? Believe me, I will undertake to find a deep philosophical meaning in the contrast between the dark tragedy of the A’s, and the solid success of the B’s.”
“And you risk it?” asked the other. “Though the man may be a tyrant or a cynic or a criminal.”
“We risk it,” answered Barker, with a perfect placidity. “Suppose he is a tyrant—he is still a check on a hundred tyrants. Suppose he is a cynic, it is to his interest to govern well. Suppose he is a criminal—by removing poverty and substituting power, we put a check on his criminality. In short, by substituting despotism we have put a total check on one criminal and a partial check on all the rest.”
The Nicaraguan old gentleman leaned over with a queer expression in his eyes.
“My church, sir,” he said, “has taught me to respect faith. I do not wish to speak with any disrespect of yours, however fantastic. But do you really mean that you will trust to the ordinary man, the man who may happen to come next, as a good despot?”
“I do,” said Barker, simply. “He may not be a good man. But he will be a good despot. For when he comes to a mere business routine of government he will endeavour to do ordinary justice. Do we not assume the same thing in a jury?”
The old President smiled.
“I don’t know,” he said, “that I have any particular objection in detail to your excellent scheme of Government. My only objection is a quite personal one. It is, that if I were asked whether I would belong to it, I should ask first of all, if I was not permitted, as an alternative, to be a toad in a ditch. That is all. You cannot argue with the choice of the soul.”
“Of the soul,” said Barker, knitting his brows, “I cannot pretend to say anything, but speaking in the interests of the public—”
Mr. Auberon Quin rose suddenly to his feet.
“If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, “I will step out for a moment into the air.”
“I’m so sorry, Auberon,” said Lambert, good-naturedly; “do you feel bad?”
“Not bad exactly,” said Auberon, with self-restraint; “rather good, if anything. Strangely and richly good. The fact is, I want to reflect a little on those beautiful words that have just been uttered. ‘Speaking,’ yes, that was the phrase, ‘speaking in the interests of the public.’ One cannot get the honey from such things without being alone for a little.”
“Is he really off his chump, do you think?” asked Lambert.
The old President looked after him with queerly vigilant eyes.
“He is a man, I think,” he said, “who cares for nothing but a joke. He is a dangerous man.”
Lambert laughed in the act of lifting some maccaroni to his mouth.
“Dangerous!” he said. “You don’t know little Quin, sir!”
“Every man is dangerous,” said the old man without moving, “who cares only for one thing. I was once dangerous myself.”
And with a pleasant smile he finished his coffee and rose, bowing profoundly, passed out into the fog, which had again grown dense and sombre. Three days afterwards they heard that he had died quietly in lodgings in Soho.
~Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill.