Re-reading Chesterton’s inscrutable classic The Man Who Was Thursday, I realized that this book is an image of our era. Or rather, it is the vision of one who saw our era coming and intellectually engaged with it before it had arrived. In its pages are at least a hint of the kind of attitudes that will be needed to face the monstrous leviathan that has since consumed the world in a manner as complete as Sunday’s apparent triumph.
For those who have read it, I will refresh your memories of the chief course of events. Those who have not read it have better do so now, for I will be spoiling the course of the story. To spoil the secrets of the novel is beyond my powers, and perhaps few men outside of the author himself (if even he) could have done so. In any case, you are warned.
The novel centers around Gabriel Syme, a gentleman poet of the early years of the 20th century. Syme is a poet of sanity and order, expounding on the mystical wonder of railroad time tables and the glorious adventure of being respectable. One evening Syme provokes the anarchist poet, Lucian Gregory, by refusing to believe that he actually believe in the anarchy he professes. In response, after swearing him to secrecy, Gregory takes Syme to a secret meeting of anarchists who are about to elect a representative to the Supreme Anarchist Council. To Gregory’s horror, Syme manages to get himself elected to the post just after confiding that he is in fact a detective tasked with battling the forces of anarchy.
The Council is composed of seven men designated by code names according to the days of the week. Syme has been elected Thursday, and the Council is presided over by the enigmatic and terrifying Sunday.
One by one, Syme discovers that his fellow council members are all, in fact, undercover policemen like himself. Not only that, but like him they were commissioned by an unseen figure in a black room specifically to hunt anarchists. Once all six of the council have discovered this, they pursue Sunday himself, who first reveals that he himself was the unseen figure before leading them on a long, surreal chase through London and beyond.
At the end of it they find themselves invited into his home as guests and presented with robes illustrating their own day of the week. There the real anarchist – Gregory – comes forward dressed all in black to accuse them. His accusation is not that they are unjust, but that they are comfortable. That they, the rulers of mankind, do not suffer as their subjects suffer. To this Syme answers by citing the terrors and existential dread the council had suffered at Sunday’s hands. He then asks Sunday whether he too had suffered, to which he answers “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”
With those words, Syme awakes from his vision to find himself in a calm discussion with Gregory and with Gregory’s red-haired sister waiting to receive them.
The Meaning and Parallels With Today
As may be found from this brief synopsis, the book is very strange and often surreal. It’s sometimes called a ‘metaphysical thriller’. At the same time there is a sharp and at times disturbing exactness of its vision of the world and the philosophies at work in the modern day. Consider, for instance, Gregory’s assertion of what the anarchists really want:
“To abolish God! We do not want to upset a few despotism and police regulations...We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves.”
Indeed, though they lack the capacity to put it in such terms, the modern woke anarchist would likely agree with such sentiments in his heart. What is the common thread in their insane rhetoric but the destruction of the hard lines of reality: not just right and wrong, but male and female, family and stranger, citizen and foreigner, living and dead, man and beast? All subsumed into a morass of self-will. Yet a will founded in a self that, removing these solid foundations, is as insubstantial and pliable as a cloud.
And as is said later in the novel, “When duty and religion are really destroyed, it will be by the rich.” The poor, Chesterton suggests, will never truly be anarchists or anything of the kind. It is the rich, the educated, the sophisticates who play with such fire. “The scientific and artistic worlds are silently bound in a crusade against the Family and the State,” says the man who recruits Syme to the police, before going on to lay out how much more wholesome mere criminals are than the kind of modern philosophers who hate marriage as marriage, property as property, and life as life.
Meanwhile, there is a deluded ‘outer-ring’ of anarchists who believe that “all the evil results of human crime are the results of the system that has called it crime.” That is to say, the kind of people who condemn ‘slut-shaming,’ who call ‘mis-gendering’ violence, or who rail about the demographics of prison populations without once mentioning the words ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent.’
Yet even these are only the dupes, the willing tools of their leaders, who though they mouth the same platitudes understand as the rank and file do not the true meaning behind them and “have but two objects, to destroy humanity and then themselves.”
It is sometimes hard to believe, looking at the current crop of politicians and other social elites, that this is not precisely what they have in mind.
Syme, standing against the anarchists, stands explicitly for sanity, respectability, and the “common and kindly people in the street.” His backstory tells of his being “surrounded by every conceivable kind of revolt since infancy,” leaving him with only one thing to rebel into: sanity. In this he is an early prototype of the strange fact that to defend the values that once defined our civilization is now itself an act of rebellion.
And the only motive for such a hopeless and Quixotic rebellion is “that unanswerable and terrible truism of the song of Roland”: Pagans are wrong and Christians are right.
Liberal broadmindedness has nothing to say in answer to such reckless hate as the anarchists bring. Only the great counter assertion of right and wrong, of true and false, and of the real, solid distinctions of real natures will do. “Perhaps we are both doing what we think right,” Syme tells Gregory early in the novel. “But what we think right is so damned different that there can be nothing between us in the way of concession. There is nothing possible between us but honour and death.”
The six days on the council turn out to each embody a certain philosophical approach to the world, from the poetical Thursday to the practical and single-minded Monday to the optimistic Saturday (who chooses to believe himself mad rather than that the world has accepted anarchy). Each sees things from a slightly different angle and draws different conclusions that yet turn out to be in harmony with one another.
As for the meaning of Sunday himself, Chesterton denied the idea that he was meant to be God. Rather, Sunday is something more ambiguous and uncertain: possibly the face of nature, or of creation, or the world itself. “We have only known the back of the world,” Syme says at one point while musing on Sunday. “We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal.” Terrifying, cunning, capricious, charming, and lovable all at once, Sunday himself declares that no one will ever truly know what he is. “Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf – kings and sages, and poets and lawgivers, all the churches, and all the philosophers. But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay.”
This is, indeed, the answer that was given in the Book of Job (which, despite its seemingly light-hearted tone, this book takes specific inspiration from); the answer of God to the questions of man is itself a mystery. Creation is not to be caught and tied down in complete comprehension, nor to be held at bay until it is understood or made palatable, but to be accepted with gratitude and humility.
That said, the voice of God does seem to speak a little through Sunday (as indeed it speaks through the world): in the final council of days, he recalls to the others – now dressed in robes symbolizing their day of creation – how he “sat in darkness, where there is not any created thing,” from which he “sent you out to war” at the beginning of the world.
In his oblique way, Chesterton here envisions the different aspects of the created world as champions sent forth from darkness to war against anarchy: the force that hates and despises distinctions, existence, and therefore God Himself.
For God made things distinct and according to their own natures, not as a vague mass of ephemeral phenomena to be interpreted according to our subjective whims or emotions. When God declared that a thing should be this, He simultaneously declared that it should not be that. The hard edges of real things that hurt so much to run against are in fact the markers that declare them to be real things, the true markers of identity. As St. Thomas said, “the more completely we see how a thing differs from others, the more perfectly we know it, since each thing has in itself its own being distinct from all other things” (Summa Contra Gentiles, 1:14).
Like with Syme and the rest of the Council of Days, it is this assertion of reality, of distinction, of the glory of a thing that really is that we must take as our rallying cry if we are to oppose the anarchists of our day. Not freedom, for anarchy can always claim to bring greater freedom (even if it really brings slavery and death), but truth. Reality. The frightening, beautiful, uncompromising world that God created.
Photo Credit: The Edge