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    The Man Who Thinks Backwards

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    The man who thinks backwards is a very powerful person to-day: indeed, if
    he is not omnipotent, he is at least omnipresent. It is he who writes
    nearly all the learned books and articles, especially of the scientific or
    skeptical sort; all the articles on Eugenics and Social Evolution and
    Prison Reform and the Higher Criticism and all the rest of it. But
    especially it is this strange and tortuous being who does most of the
    writing about female emancipation and the reconsidering of marriage. For
    the man who thinks backwards is very frequently a woman.

    Thinking backwards is not quite easy to define abstractedly; and, perhaps,
    the simplest method is to take some object, as plain as possible, and from
    it illustrate the two modes of thought: the right mode in which all real
    results have been rooted; the wrong mode, which is confusing all our
    current discussions, especially our discussions about the relations of the
    sexes. Casting my eye round the room, I notice an object which is often
    mentioned in the higher and subtler of these debates about the sexes: I
    mean a poker. I will take a poker and think about it; first forwards and
    then backwards; and so, perhaps, show what I mean.

    The sage desiring to think well and wisely about a poker will begin
    somewhat as follows: Among the live creatures that crawl about this star
    the queerest is the thing called Man. This plucked and plumeless bird,
    comic and forlorn, is the butt of all the philosophies. He is the only
    naked animal; and this quality, once, it is said, his glory, is now his
    shame. He has to go outside himself for everything that he wants. He
    might almost be considered as an absent-minded person who had gone bathing
    and left his clothes everywhere, so that he has hung his hat upon the
    beaver and his coat upon the sheep. The rabbit has white warmth for a
    waistcoat, and the glow-worm has a lantern for a head. But man has no
    heat in his hide, and the light in his body is darkness; and he must look
    for light and warmth in the wild, cold universe in which he is cast.
    This is equally true of his soul and of his body; he is the one creature
    that has lost his heart as much as he has lost his hide. In a spiritual
    sense he has taken leave of his senses; and even in a literal sense he has
    been unable to keep his hair on. And just as this external need of his
    has lit in his dark brain the dreadful star called religion, so it has lit
    in his hand the only adequate symbol of it: I mean the red flower called
    Fire. Fire, the most magic and startling of all material things, is a
    thing known only to man and the expression of his sublime externalism. It
    embodies all that is human in his hearths and all that is divine on his
    altars. It is the most human thing in the world; seen across wastes of
    marsh or medleys of forest, it is veritably the purple and golden flag of
    the sons of Eve. But there is about this generous and rejoicing thing an
    alien and awful quality: the quality of torture. Its presence is life;
    its touch is death. Therefore, it is always necessary to have an
    intermediary between ourselves and this dreadful deity; to have a priest
    to intercede for us with the god of life and death; to send an ambassador
    to the fire. That priest is the poker. Made of a material more merciless
    and warlike than the other instruments of domesticity, hammered on the
    anvil and born itself in the flame, the poker is strong enough to enter
    the burning fiery furnace, and, like the holy children, not be consumed.
    In this heroic service it is often battered and twisted, but is the more
    honourable for it, like any other soldier who has been under fire.

    Now all this may sound very fanciful and mystical, but it is the right
    view of pokers, and no one who takes it will ever go in for any wrong view
    of pokers, such as using them to beat one's wife or torture one's children,
    or even (though that is more excusable) to make a policeman jump, as the
    clown does in the pantomime. He who has thus gone back to the beginning,
    and seen everything as quaint and new, will always see things in their
    right order, the one depending on the other in degree of purpose and
    importance: the poker for the fire and the fire for the man and the man
    for the glory of God.

    This is thinking forwards. Now our modern discussions about everything,
    Imperialism, Socialism, or Votes for Women, are all entangled in an
    opposite train of thought, which runs as follows:--A modern intellectual
    comes in and sees a poker. He is a positivist; he will not begin with any
    dogmas about the nature of man, or any day-dreams about the mystery of
    fire. He will begin with what he can see, the poker; and the first thing
    he sees about the poker is that it is crooked. He says, "Poor poker; it's
    crooked." Then he asks how it came to be crooked; and is told that there
    is a thing in the world (with which his temperament has hitherto left him
    unacquainted)--a thing called fire. He points out, very kindly and
    clearly, how silly it is of people, if they want a straight poker, to put
    it into a chemical combustion which will very probably heat and warp it.
    "Let us abolish fire," he says, "and then we shall have perfectly straight
    pokers. Why should you want a fire at all?" They explain to him that a
    creature called Man wants a fire, because he has no fur or feathers. He
    gazes dreamily at the embers for a few seconds, and then shakes his head.
    "I doubt if such an animal is worth preserving," he says. "He must
    eventually go under in the cosmic struggle when pitted against
    well-armoured and warmly protected species, who have wings and trunks and
    spires and scales and horns and shaggy hair. If Man cannot live without
    these luxuries, you had better abolish Man." At this point, as a rule, the
    crowd is convinced; it heaves up all its clubs and axes, and abolishes him.
    At least, one of him.

    Before we begin discussing our various new plans for the people's welfare,
    let us make a kind of agreement that we will argue in a straightforward
    way, and not in a tail-foremost way. The typical modern movements may be
    right; but let them be defended because they are right, not because they
    are typical modern movements. Let us begin with the actual woman or man
    in the street, who is cold; like mankind before the finding of fire. Do
    not let us begin with the end of the last red-hot discussion--like the end
    of a red hot poker. Imperialism may be right. But if it is right, it is
    right because England has some divine authority like Israel, or some human
    authority like Rome; not because we have saddled ourselves with South
    Africa, and don't know how to get rid of it. Socialism may be true. But
    if it is true, it is true because the tribe or the city can really declare
    all land to be common land, not because Harrod's Stores exist and the
    commonwealth must copy them. Female suffrage may be just. But if it is
    just, it is just because women are women, not because women are sweated
    workers and white slaves and all sorts of things that they ought never to
    have been. Let not the Imperialist accept a colony because it is there,
    nor the Suffragist seize a vote because it is lying about, nor the
    Socialist buy up an industry merely because it is for sale.

    Let us ask ourselves first what we really do want, not what recent legal
    decisions have told us to want, or recent logical philosophies proved
    that we must want, or recent social prophecies predicted that we shall
    some day want. If there must be a British Empire, let it be British, and
    not, in mere panic, American or Prussian. If there ought to be female
    suffrage, let it be female, and not a mere imitation as coarse as the male
    blackguard or as dull as the male clerk. If there is to be Socialism, let
    it be social; that is, as different as possible from all the big
    commercial departments of to-day. The really good journeyman tailor does
    not cut his coat according to his cloth; he asks for more cloth. The
    really practical statesman does not fit himself to existing conditions, he
    denounces the conditions as unfit. History is like some deeply planted
    tree which, though gigantic in girth, tapers away at last into tiny twigs;
    and we are in the topmost branches. Each of us is trying to bend the tree
    by a twig: to alter England through a distant colony, or to capture the
    State through a small State department, or to destroy all voting through a
    vote. In all such bewilderment he is wise who resists this temptation of
    trivial triumph or surrender, and happy (in an echo of the Roman poet) who
    remembers the roots of things.
    If you're writing a The Man Who Thinks Backwards essay and need some advice, post your Gilbert Keith Chesterton essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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