Our Birthday

From G. K.s Weekly, 21st March, 1935.
This was written on the occasion of the paper's 10th anniversary.

As this is a Birthday Number, I propose to write about birthdays in a futile and irresponsible manner, as befits a festive occasion; and to leave for a later issue some of the serious questions that are raised in this one. I remember that long ago, in one of my countless controversies with Mr. Bernard Shaw, I commented on a scornful remark of his that he did not keep his own birthday and would not be bothered with anybody else's; and I argued that this exactly illustrates the one point upon which he is really wrong; and that if he had only kept his birthday, he might have kept many other things along with it. It will be noted that, with the magnificent magnanimity in which he has never failed, especially in dealing with me and my romantic delusions, he has contributed to this special number an article dealing with very vital matters. I hope to answer that article, in greater detail, in due course; here I will only give a very general reply upon the particular aspect which is excellently and exactly represented by Birthdays.

For one happy hour, in talking about Birthdays, I shall not stoop to talk about Birth-Control. But when Mr. Shaw asks why I doubt that he and I, not to mention Mr. H. G. Wells and Mr. Bertrand Russell, can form a committee to produce a creed, not to say a cosmos--my general answer is that the difference begins with the very birth of the conception. A Birthday embodies certain implicit ideas; with some of which he agrees and is right; with others of which he disagrees and is wrong. In some matters the difference between us seems to amount to this: that I very respectfully recognize that he disagrees with me; but he will not even allow me to disagree with him. But there is one fundamental truth in which I have never for a moment disagreed with him. Whatever else he is, he has never been a pessimist; or in spiritual matters a defeatist. He is at least on the side of Life, and in that sense of Birth. When the Sons of God shout for joy, merely because the creation is in being, Mr. Shaw's splendid Wagnerian shout or bellow will be mingled with my less musical but equally mystical song of praise. I am aware that in the same poem the patriarch Job, under the stress of incidental irritations, actually curses the day he was born; prays that the stars of its twilight be dark and that it be not numbered among the days of the year; but I am sure that G.B.S. will not carry his contempt for birthday celebrations to that length. The first fact about the celebration of a birthday is that it is a way of affirming defiantly, and even flamboyantly, that it is a good thing to be alive. On that matter, and it is a basic matter, there really is a basis of agreement; and Mr. Shaw and I, giving our performance as morning stars that sing together, will sing in perfect harmony if hardly with equal technique.

But there is a second fact about Birthdays, and the birth-song of all creation, a fact which really follows on this; but which, as it seems to me, the other school of thought almost refuses to recognize. The point of that fact is simply that it is a fact. In being glad about my Birthday, I am being glad about something which I did not myself bring about. In being grateful for my birth, I am grateful for something which has already happened; which happened, sad as it may seem to some, quite a long time ago. Now it seems to me that Mr. Shaw and his school start almost everything in the spirit of people who are saying, I shall myself select the 17th of October as the date of my birth. I propose to be born at Market Harborough; I have selected for my father a very capable and humane dentist, while my mother will be trained as a high-class headmistress for the tremendous honor and responsibility of her position; before that, I think I shall send her to Girton. The house I have selected to be born in faces a handsome ornamental park, etc., etc." In other words, it seems to me that modern thinkers of this kind have simply no philosophy or poetry or possible attitude at all, towards the things which they receive from the real, world that exists already; from the past; from the parent; from the patriotic tradition or the moral philosophy of mankind. They only talk about making things; as if they could make themselves as well as everything else. They are always talking about making a religion; and cannot get into their heads the very notion of receiving a revelation. They are always talking about making a creed; without seeing that it involves making a cosmos. But even then, we could not possibly make the cosmos that has made us. Now nobody who knows anything about my little tastes and prejudices will say that I am not in sympathy with the notion of making things. I believe in making thousands of things; making jokes, making pictures, making (as distinct from faking) goods, making books, and even articles (of which, as the reader will sadly perceive, there is no end), making toys, making tools, making farms, making homes, making churches, making sacred images; and, incidentally also, making war on people who would prevent me from doing these things. But the workshop, vast as it is, is only one half of the world. There is a whole problem of the human mind, which is necessarily concerned with the things that it did not make; with the things that it could not make; including itself. And I say it is so with any view of life, which leaves out the whole of that aspect of life; all receptivity, all gratitude, all inheritance, all worship. Unless a philosopher has a philosophy, which can make tolerable and tenable his attitude towards all the actualities that are around him and before him and behind him--then he has only half a philosophy; blind, though he is the wittiest man in the world, he is in that sense half-witted.

Mr. Bernard Shaw is certainly one of the wittiest men in the world, and about whole huge aspects of life, one of the wisest. But if I am to sit down with him at a committee of evolutionists, to draw up a creed for humanity, I fancy I foresee that this is the line along which I shall eventually come to issue my Minority Report. I shall find myself the representative, and I suspect the only representative of the implications of my Birthday. I do not even mind calling it the pride of birth, which of course has nothing to do with the pride of rank; so long as it involves the humility of birth also.


[home] Up to G.K.Chesterton's Works on the Web.
Last modified: 26th February, 2007
Martin Ward, Software Technology Research Lab, De Montfort University, Leicester.
Email: martin@gkc.org.uk