G.K. Chesterton cherished human freedom; however, he did not believe that freedom ought to be exercised to fulfill all human desires. Rather, a man should willingly submit to moral law, established by God for the benefit of humanity, as a way to experience the true freedom that God intended. A lover of paradox, it is evident that Chesterton’s perspective on human freedom could be understood as a contradiction by some. If Man is truly free, then he should not have to subject himself to moral law. Conversely, if Man is not subject to moral law, then Chesterton argues he is not truly free. The key to unraveling this seeming contradiction rests in the fact that the truest expression of freedom can only be found when one is rightly aligned with God’s law. When that dynamic is out of alignment, any freedom that man might believe he has is nothing but an illusion.
By modern standards, Chesterton took a rather curious position on boundaries. While most people contend that boundaries are the imposition of a higher power impinging on the freedom of those subjected to the rule of that power, Chesterton realized that boundaries can be beneficial and actually useful in preserving freedom itself. He explains, “We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries.” There was no danger on top of the mountain because of the boundary. While some may have considered the wall to be a restriction of the children’s freedom, it is worth considering how many things the children were able to do because they did not have to fear. Tossing a football would not be accompanied by the fear that the receiver would go tumbling into the ocean. Their environment would not ruin their game. The freedom to truly enjoy what was meant for them to enjoy was only possible because they were protected from the danger that surrounded them. Chesterton went on to describe a world without boundaries by saying, “But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased.” The children understood the situation they were in. Because they did not want to fall off the edge, recognizing that a fall was the worst possible outcome, they sat in the middle of the island. No motion was better than potential danger.
The irony of the entire situation is that removing the boundary had absolutely no impact on the degree of freedom that these children had. The patch of grass had not changed in size whatsoever. The children still could take just as many steps safely as they could before. However, without the wall, the element of fear crept into their minds. They did not want to get too close to the edge because there was no longer a wall that would hold them in safely. Without the boundary, there was no guarantee that everything would be all right. Instead, exercising their freedom fully meant taking a risk that a strong wind might blow and have fatal consequences if they got too close to the edge. Because of this risk, the children then voluntarily restricted their freedom to an even greater degree than the wall ever did. In fact, as it turned out, the wall itself was never even a restriction. There was no land outside of the wall. They were on a plateau. What might seem to be a restriction of freedom and a boundary actually turned out to be what allowed these children to enjoy the entire plot of land they were given to enjoy.
Chesterton wanted to encourage humanity to enjoy all the good things in life. He wrote, “A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes traveling in the land of authority.” Chesterton believed that most ordinary people desire a, “combination of something that is strange with something that is secure.” In his typically witty fashion, he quipped, “What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales.” This combination of adventure and security is why man desires boundaries. It is wonderful to have the freedom to go to Australia, but there is something extraordinarily comforting about being home again in the United Kingdom.
To transition this argument into moral terms, it is wonderful to have the ability to do anything, but there is naturally danger associated with certain activities. Surely a man is free to put his hand in a fire, but he is not free of the painful consequences of doing so. Therefore, it is reasonable to self-impose a boundary in this situation. An individual makes a conscious decision based on some external authority, in this case, experience, to not participate in a specific activity. Certainly, it is a restriction of freedom, but it is voluntarily coming under the direction of a set of guidelines that provide an ultimate benefit. In this case, subscribing to a belief system that advises one not to put his hand into the fire will lead directly to an avoidance of pain, an objectively good outcome based on the worldview of this person has embraced.
Chesterton highlighted the importance of boundaries as necessary for protecting freedom because he held a person’s philosophy as a matter of high regard. The shape and condition of those boundaries would be defined by the philosophy of the person or deity who put them there. Chesterton pointed out the absurdity of a man who espoused a philosophy claiming that life did not matter. “At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, ‘Life is not worth living.’ We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world. And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head.” It is not hard to conclude that the shape of the boundaries that encircle a world where life is not worth living would be substantially different than the boundaries that surround a world where life is worth living.
In the first world, murder and suicide might be more honorable and noble than birthdays. In the first world, reckless endangerment might actually be celebrated as a way to help those who are stuck in this pointless life find their way out of it. If humanity consistently embraced the philosophy that life was not worth living, there would be no one left on earth because all would have terminated their meaningless lives. The picture of a universe where life is worth living is incredibly different than the picture of a universe where life is not worth living.
Therefore, philosophy is naturally of chief importance. As Chesterton said, “We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.” In order to win the battle, it is vital for the general to understand his enemy’s philosophy and tactics. Numbers matter, but they are not the chief concern. A terrible general can easily squander superior numbers, and an excellent general can triumph with fewer troops. The philosophy makes all the difference, and it defines the success that the army is going to have. Similarly, the boundaries that a society sets based on the philosophy that it embraces can make all of the difference between successful manifestations of freedom or utter destruction and chaos.
Freedom, therefore, needs to be understood in the context of the framework that surrounds it. These boundaries can also be positive or negative according to Chesterton. “A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.” In one situation, the young man is faced with potential danger, but in the other he is viewing that which is actually good. There is a difference between avoiding evil and embracing good. This is again a question of philosophy. For Chesterton, these are not equivalent by any means, and it is much better to establish boundaries that encourage the good. Thinking back to the children playing on the plateau, the purpose of the boundary was not to prevent them from falling or even restrict their freedom but rather to encourage them to play all over the plateau. Yes, it had the associated benefit of keeping the children safe, but the proper purpose of the boundary was to encourage good behavior.
The chief problem in Chesterton’s day should sound familiar to contemporary readers. In determining the shape of these boundaries that are meant to encourage freedom to do good, inevitably, the moral relativist will chime in and challenge whether or not that which is good can actually be discerned from that which is bad. Chesterton saw the mental gymnastics people were willing to go through in his day and lamented, “The modern man says, ‘Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.’ This is, logically rendered, ‘Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.’” It is difficult to determine that which is good, and it is a controversial exercise to say the least because of the modern infatuation with either moral relativism or simultaneously affirming worldviews with different, objective claims. Therefore, it is tempting to leave this question for another day. It is tempting to try to avoid the conversation of actually discovering what is right or wrong in the world.
The problem, of course, with this approach is that it is impossible to establish the necessary boundaries before deciding what shape they need to be in. As Chesterton wrote, “Nobody has any business to use the word ‘progress’ unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals.” There is no way to move ahead with establishing these boundaries or make any progress without first settling the question of what is actually right and wrong. However, without these boundaries, it is impossible to truly exercise freedom, so the challenge of civilization is to first understand morality so that the foundation can be established. Without the foundation, the entire exercise in and of itself is going to collapse from within. Freedom, therefore, cannot be exercised properly without boundaries, and boundaries are not able to be determined without first deciding where they should be put up.
In determining where these boundaries ought to be built, Chesterton came to believe that Christianity provided the best framework for explaining the world and the way that it was. One of the chief attractions that drew him to Christianity was the fact that it allowed for freedom. He cherished the ability for people to exercise their free will, and he understood that the entire process of true freedom could only be recognized within the context of a Christian worldview. “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
Again, some may contend that this is a restriction of freedom. Because Christianity had established rules and order, absolute freedom was indeed constrained. However, it was constrained by the individual. It was brought upon himself through his own decision to subscribe to the teachings of the Christian religion. Chesterton compared one who was upset about the boundaries of Christianity to one who ultimately shuts himself out of any world because he has rebelled against the world itself. “It is all the difference between being free from them, as a man is free from a prison, and being free of them as a man is free of a city.” Christianity allows man to be free from boundaries, but that does not mean that he is free of them. No boundary is imposed on the Christian, but God imposes boundaries that define what is best for human flourishing and what exercises of freedom are most consistent with that purpose. People freely choose to subscribe to those boundaries by virtue of being Christians. Therefore, it comes down to a theological question for Chesterton. He was chiefly concerned with what religion provided the best environment for good things to run wild. Based on the boundaries that outlined the best possible use of human freedom and encouraged that behavior, he came to the conclusion that Christianity was the best candidate to determine where those boundaries ought to be established.
The right answer was determined, again, based on philosophy. “The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach.” What made the difference was ultimately the person of Jesus Christ. It was the teaching and the doctrine that made the difference. He explained, “If the divinity is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary. That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever.” Because of this commitment to courage and the uniqueness of Christianity, Chesterton found that it was, “the most adventurous and manly of all theologies.” In this way, it fit perfectly with Chesterton’s original assertion that ordinary people desire adventure and are pleasantly surprised when they are able to avoid the discomfort in that adventure. Being what he considered an ordinary man himself, it should be no surprise to anyone that he was drawn to Christianity. If adventure is what people desire, then a theology with a God who was “a rebel as well as a king” seemed to be one that was worth following.
The fulfillment of those desires then completes Chesterton’s causal chain that leads to his affirmation of the proper type and use of human freedom. He wrote, “Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small.” There is a simple and straightforward joy that overcomes a man when he finds a philosophy that is consistent with reality. That is what Chesterton found in Christianity. He understood that he wanted the world to be the right way, and as he understood Christianity more and more, his instincts about desiring the good were reconfirmed by what Christianity taught. He found the shape that he ought to build these boundaries in.
Zak Schmoll. “The Freedom of Boundaries.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 2. (Advent 2019): 181-194.