The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton
From the April 9, 2002 lecture at Seattle Pacific University
This book is not a dispassionate philosophical treatise. Instead, it’s the account of a desperate war with high stakes: the future of human society hangs in the balance. This, Chesterton tells us, is what is really at issue when Gabriel Syme, the hero of the story, meets the anarchist Lucian Gregory in Saffron Park, a fantastical suburb of London, and they debate about law and anarchy.
The two men are not really at war. Nevertheless, they represent two different philosophies, and those philosophies really are at war. As a sidelight, this was true of Chesterton personally. He had close friendships with individuals, like George Bernard Shaw for example, whose ideas he attacked energetically in debate and in print. We tend to emphasize the danger that we might, in resisting false ideas, fail to honor the value and worth of people who hold those ideas. That is a danger we need to avoid. There is an opposite danger—that we will be so concerned about the people that we will pretend that their ideas are perfectly acceptable. Chesterton didn’t fall into that trap. He remembered that God is the God of both grace and truth, and that false ideas, therefore, are destructive and must be refuted.
Gabriel Syme, the hero of the story, is an undercover policeman in a special branch of the force. This branch exists to combat an intellectual conspiracy that threatens civilization. Syme is engaged by an official of Scotland Yard whom he never sees, since he meets the man in a pitch black room.
‘Are you the new recruit?’ asked the invisible chief. . . ‘All right. You are engaged.’
. . . ‘I really have no experience,’ Syme began.
“No one has any experience,’ said the other, ‘of the battle of Armageddon.’
‘But I am really unfit—’
‘You are willing, that is enough,’ said the unknown.
‘Well, really,’ said Syme, ‘I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.’
‘I do,’ said the other—‘martyrs. I am condeming you to death. Good day.’
So Syme sets out on his new duties. He manages, while undercover, to be elected to the Supreme Anarchist Council, whose seven members have code names that are the days of the week. The head of the council is Sunday and Syme becomes Thursday. One by one, each member of the Anarchist Council is revealed to be a policeman in disguise. When they arrive to confront Sunday, they demand an explanation. “Who are you? What are you?” Sunday replies:
‘Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf—kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, 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. I have given them a good run for their money, and I will now.’
And then, just before Sunday jumps over the balcony and leads them on a long chase, which ends at his home, he says: “There’s one thing I’ll tell you, though, about who I am. I am the man in the dark room, who made you all policemen” (155).
In Chesterton’s story, the destructiveness of false ideas is represented by anarchy. Anarchist movements and activities were common in Europe at the end of the 19th century (there were several dynamite attacks in London in the 1880s), just as we at the present are facing terrorist movements. In opposition to anarchy, Chesterton places creation. The members of the Anarchist Council are named for the days of creation, and creative principles that are represented by those days refute various modern philosophical errors. That’s what I’m going to talk about tonight.
What are the ideas, then, that make up Chesterton’s modern “nightmare”?
1. Chaos over Law
The first of these ideas is lawlessness, the idea that chaos is superior to order, that somehow rules and structures are inherently evil, limiting and squelching human beings. This idea is advocated at the beginning of the book by the anarchist poet Gregory, who argues that “an artist . . . abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only” (18). Later, when Syme makes his speech to the assembly of anarchists, trying to pass himself off as an anarchist, he makes the same argument. “Society is the enemy of humanity,” Syme says. This is one of the arguments of Romanticism, the ideal of the noble savage. In this view, without the oppressive rules and structures of society, human beings would display their natural perfection, their natural nobility.
It is appropriate that the position of Thursday on the anarchist council is the counter to this view. Let me take a moment to clarify how Chesterton is assigning the days of Creation. Syme’s valet at the end of the novel points out to him his passage from Genesis.
It was that in which the fourth day of the week is associated with the creation of the sun and the moon. Here, however, they reckoned from a Christian Sunday (175).
So, the first day—the creation of light—is Monday in the novel, and so on. In the account of creation, Thursday, the fourth day, is the day that represents order and law.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.’ . . . And God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night”(Gen. 1:14, 16)
The emphasis in the creation account is on structure and order. These are things provided by the sun and the moon; their function is even described as governing. Well, why is Syme particularly suited to be Thursday? I think we would grant that rules and structures can become harsh and oppressive, but Syme is a personal demonstration that throwing out all the rules is just as destructive to our humanity. Here is how Chesterton describes Syme’s background:
“He came from a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. . . . The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.” (41)
Syme reacts against his background by developing a hatred of modern lawlessness, and his attitude is intensified by his presence at a dynamite attack.
“He had been blind and deaf for a moment, and then seen the smoke clearing, the broken windows and the bleeding faces. After that he went about as usual—quiet, courteous, rather gentle; but there was a spot on his mind that was not sane.” (41-2)
This revolt against the conventions of society, conventions like wearing a hat or wearing clothes, this revolt did not produce health. Not only did it result in the “broken windows and the bleeding faces,” but in Syme’s case it twisted his humanity. The novel describes Syme as he was before he was recruited for the police force:
“Syme was shabby in those days. . . . He seemed to be getting no nearer this enemy, and, what was worse, no nearer a living. As he paced the Thames Embankment, bitterly biting a cheap cigar and brooding on the advance of Anarchy, there was no anarchist with a bomb in his pocket so savage or so solitary as he.” (42).
Far from enhancing his humanity, having been reared without the structure of society’s conventions results in Syme prowling around like a wild animal. Instead of modern chaos with its rebellion against all structure and convention, creation offers the order and boundaries that produce health.
2. Pessimism or Nihilism
The second idea that is part of the nightmare of modernity is pessimism, the philosophy of nihilism, which is represented by Professor de Worms. His day, Friday, is the day of teeming life, the day when the sky swarms with birds and the waters swarm with fish. By contrast, de Worms is a corpse-like creature, the epitome of old and senile decay. His very name, Worms, has overtones of death. The real Professor de Worms “insisted on the need for a furious and incessant energy, rending all things in pieces” (89-90). But when Syme meets Friday, he finds him the opposite of those things. Professor de Worms appears almost incapable of simple movement, much less furious and incessant energy, and rather than rending all things in pieces, he seems to be falling to pieces himself. Syme “could not help thinking that whenever the man moved a leg or arm might fall off” (60). Of course, we discover later that the Friday of the Anarchist Council is really an actor perfectly portraying the nihilist professor.
And this is also significant. The fake Professor de Worms is better at being the nihilist professor than is the real one. The actor describes his comic meeting with the real professor.
“The pessimists all round me looked anxiously from one Professor to the other Professor to see which was really the more feeble. But I won. An old man in poor health, like my rival, could not be expected to be so impressively feeble as a young actor in the prime of life. You see, he really had paralysis, and, working within this definite limitation, he couldn’t be so jolly paralytic as I was.”
There is an inherent contradiction in nihilism. To succeed at his project of destruction, the nihilist must destroy himself. The closer he is to his own ideal—nothingness—the less he is able to implement it.
But I think there may be an additional significance in the fact that the false Professor de Worms is an actor. The philosophy of nihilism is most associated with Frederich Nietzsche. He believed that good and evil were only constructs of those in power, but more than his contemporaries, probably, he also realized that people need those constructs. To avoid the final end of nihilism, the nihilism that is the inevitable result of modern thought, he posited the Superman, the individual who is able to live with the recognition that good and evil are illusions and who creates the realities for everyone else. In Nietzsche’s system, common people would be enslaved by requirements of good and evil invented by the Superman, but the Superman would be truly free, constrained by nothing except his own will and also imposing his will on everyone else.
It’s possible that Professor de Worms is Chesterton’s humorous picture of the Superman. He creates an illusion for everyone else—he gives the admirers of nihilism something to believe in. If so, then the role of the Superman, being the Superman, is not liberating. More than any of the other members of the anarchist council, Professor de Worms is trapped inside his costume—his persona. “I acted the paralytic Professor so well, that now I can’t leave off,” he explains to Syme (93). Further, the others are all proud of their disguises. Tuesday, for example, is a young Englishman who is disguised as a tragic Pole with a thick beard and head of hair and a thick Polish accent to match. When exposed, he brags, “All I say is, I don’t believe any Pole could have imitated my accent like I did his” [emphasis mine] (70). But the poor professor finds his disguise disgusting—as does everyone else.
Instead of nihilism, then, creation offers life with all of its energy and vitality.
3. Scientific Materialism
If abolishing order doesn’t liberate, and if abolishing everything doesn’t liberate, and if creating your own reality doesn’t liberate, what about science? Modern science is to liberate us from superstition by reliance on human reason. The third component of the modern nightmare is what Chesterton describes as “the fear of the airless vacuum of science” (115). This idea is represented by Dr. Bull, who is Saturday on the Council. While Syme’s fear of de Worms was nightmarish, “the old fear that any miracle might happen,” the fear of Dr. Bull is “the more hopeless modern fear that no miracle can ever happen.”
Chesterton, of course, is not attacking Reason. Chesterton fans will probably remember when Chesterton’s priest-detective, Father Brown, first interacts with the great criminal Flambeau, who was disguised as a priest. After he’s been unmasked, he asked Father Brown how he penetrated his disguise. How did Father Brown know that the criminal wasn’t really a priest? “You attacked reason,” Father Brown answers. “It’s bad theology.” In this novel, too, the anarchist Gregory describes how he tried to disguise himself as a bishop.
‘When on my first appearing in episcopal gaiters in a drawing-room I cried out in a voice of thunder, “Down! down! presumptuous human reason!” they found out in some way that I was not a bishop. I was nabbed at once.’ (24)
Nevertheless, reason isn’t everything. “Poetry is sane,” Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. . . The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits” (220).
In Chesterton’s novel, Dr. Bull is Saturday, the sixth day of creation, in which God made human beings in His image, not only material but also spiritual, not only rational but also intuitive and creative, creative as God is Himself. Our material form is only one part of our being, and our capacity for reason is only one attribute of our humanity.
In the novel, the defense against reason turned in on itself is poetry and intuition. They remind us that we are more than reason. As the Professor talks laboriously with Dr. Bull, Syme suddenly signals to him that he has an intuition.
‘You scarcely realize how poetic my intuition is. It has that sudden quality we sometimes feel in the coming of spring. . . . It resembles that sudden smell of the sea which may be found in the heart of lush woods. . . . It is positive, as is the passionate red hair of a beautiful woman.’ (100-101)
Syme’s intuition is to ask Dr. Bull to remove his dark glasses. When he does so, we see reason restored to its humanity. Dr. Bull bursts out laughing. He says, “It is jolly to get some pals. . . . I’ve been half dead with the jumps, being quite alone” (102-103). Syme’s intuition also restores science to its proper place, as only one function of the human mind. When Dr. Bull takes off his glasses, “Syme sprang to his feet . . . like a chemical lecturer from a successful explosion” (101). It is Syme’s intuition, his poetry, that makes him a scientist. This is a remarkable insight by Chesterton, because he’s quite right. New scientific discoveries, particularly, are often the result of the scientist’s intuition. Rather than laboriously amassing the evidence and carefully reasoning to a new scientific understanding, the scientist often makes an imaginative leap—thinks, “it must be like this.” Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity has few experimental proofs, for example. But for those who can understand its complex math (I am not included in that number), it has great symmetry and beauty—an abstract, mathematical beauty. This was part of the reason that Einstein thought it was true.
Creation answers the all-encompassing claims of science by putting reason in its proper place as only one attribute of our complex humanity.
4. The Worship of Power
The fourth component of the nightmare of modernity is the worship of power. To quote from the book: “Many moderns, inured to a weak worship of intellect and force, might have wavered in their allegiance . . . but this was a kind of modern meanness to which Syme could not sink. . . . Like any man, he was coward enough to fear great force; but he was not quite coward enough to admire it” (63-64). Unfortunately, this “modern meanness” is somewhat prevalent in our society. Many ask what can be more liberating than to have power, or at least to be friends with the people who have the power?
I think the Marquis de St. Eustache, Wednesday on the Anarchist Council, represents the cruelty of power that is not restrained by anything.
“Syme, sensitive to such things, felt somehow that the man carried a rich atmosphere with him, a rich atmosphere that suffocated . . . In the bright coloured Persian tiles and pictures showing tyrants hunting, you may see just those almond eyes, those blue-black beards, those cruel crimson lips.” (59)
The Marquis not only reminds Syme of a far Eastern dictator, he also has all the characteristics of power of our own culture: he is wealthy, he has social position, he has a deadly skill in fencing. When Syme faces him, sword to sword, Syme knows that he is facing death. Indeed, he is facing the devil, whose false offer to human beings is the offer of power.
The Marquis’s day of creation is Wednesday. It is the day God created trees and plants, roses and daffodils, apples and cherries. In the meadow where they are to fight, Syme sees “spring flowers burning gold and silver in the tall grass” and “like a tinted cloud, a small almond bush in flower” (114). Syme is fighting against the devil for all the fresh and kindly things of the natural world.
Instead of power, creation offers us fruitfulness. Power may be necessary to protect life—the Marquis turns out to be a police Inspector, in a sense the superior to all the other policemen-in-disguise on the Anarchist Council—but life doesn’t consist of power and isn’t sustained by power. Instead, life is sustained by the fruitfulness of the earth.
For the final piece of the modern nightmare, I’d like to turn back to the discussion on reason. It is bad theology to attack reason. Nevertheless, as Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all” (236). We cannot reason unless we accept by faith that there are realities outside of ourselves and that those realities are accessible to our minds. All of modern science actually rests on this faith, but scientific materialism—the idea that matter is all there is—calls it into question. If human beings are only matter, then the mind itself is only matter. But if so, the thoughts produced by the mind are only the arbitrary results of random motions of matter. There would be no sense in calling those thoughts “true” or “false.” Reason requires a foundation, the foundation of faith. It is reason disconnected from that foundation that produces the final result of modernity: meaninglessness.
“There is a thought that stops thought,” Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy. “That is the only thought that ought to be stopped” (236). After the Marquis is revealed to be a police inspector, the four police flee from the Secretary of the Anarchist Council, Monday, the only anarchist (besides Sunday himself) whom they still believe to be an anarchist. They flee into a wood.
“The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers. The fancy tinted Syme’s overwhelming sense of wonder. Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything? This wood of witchery . . . seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people. That tragic self-confidence which he had felt when he believed that the Marquis was a devil had strangely disappeared now that he knew that the Marquis was a friend. He felt almost inclined to ask after all these bewilderments what was a friend and what an enemy. Was there anything that was apart from what it seemed?” (126-7)
This is the wood of Impressionism, an art form in which apparently meaningless dots of paint form a picture. In another sense, this is the wood of evolution, in which one thing turns into something else, and every “thing” is really only a random collection of elements that appears to be something until it disintegrates and the elements randomly form some new appearance.
The answer to this modern meaninglessness is creation itself. God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. This is Monday, the first day of creation, and the light is both reality and truth. Creation brings something into existence—a reality that is separate from our minds—and the things that are created are not random, but have structure, design and a purpose. Indeed, for the philosophy of modern meaninglessness, there a Problem of Good. How can we explain all the structure and order that we observe, and which we observe everywhere, what one Darwinist has called “the overwhelming illusion of design”?
Our answer is that design is not an illusion—the universe was, in fact, designed. But having stated this answer, we are led to a deeper and more perplexing question: the question of the problem of evil. Chesterton’s story is driven inevitably to address this question.
The Problem of Evil
At the end of the book, the six police, formerly disguised as anarchists, join forces to track down Sunday. As they pursue him across England, Sunday throws little notes back to each of them. Dr. Bull’s note reads “What about Martin Tupper now?” Syme’s note reads:
‘No one would regret anything in the nature of an interference by the Archdeacon more than I. I trust it will not come to that. But, for the last time, where are your goloshes? The thing is too bad, especially after what uncle said.’ (156)
Inspector Ratcliffe’s note reads: “Fly at once. The truth about your trouser-stretchers is known. – A FRIEND” (157). Gogol receives a bulky parcel consisting of “thirty-three pieces of paper of no value wrapped one round the other. When the last covering was torn away it reduced itself to a small slip of paper on which was written: The word, I fancy, should be pink” (160-61).
Now, what is all this? Isn’t Chesterton pointing here at the absurdity that we often find in life? Yes, we see ample evidence of design and order, but we also experience an endless barrage of events and many don’t seem to fit into any explanatory system. But it’s worse than that. The whole structure presents this problem. Sunday, the head of the anarchist council, was the voice in the dark that made them all policemen. He sent them out—in the best construction—on an elaborate wild-goose chase. Don’t we empathize with Monday, the Secretary, demanding savagely of Sunday, “We have come to know what all this means” (154). “I know who you are . . . the ultimate reconciliation. Well, I am not reconciled. If you were the man in the dark room, why were you also Sunday, an offence to the sunlight? If you were from the first our father and our friend, why were you also our greatest enemy?” (180).
What response does the story offer? Does Chesterton have an answer to the problem of evil? Well, this is not the kind of question that has a simple, definitive answer, just as reality itself is not simple and definitive. Rather, Chesterton hints at some truths that must be taken into account when we ponder this problem, the problem of evil.
A. Opportunity for Virtue
A first truth is that evil provides the opportunity for virtue. Chesterton emphasizes at least three ancient virtues.
The virtue of honor, honor being understand here primarily as keeping faith, keeping one’s promises. Again and again Syme is tempted to break his promise and go to the police. He even wonders if he is really bound by “a rash vow made to a villainous society” (63). But when the choice comes, Syme realizes that “this very pride in keeping his word was that he was keeping it to miscreants. It was his last triumph over these lunatics to go down into their dark room and die for something that they could not even understand” (66).
But in fact, they can understand it. That is, even anarchists understand it. The sense of honor is a tie of our common humanity. Lucian Gregory says to Syme “if, after all this, you were to break your word, God would make a hell only for you, to howl in for ever. Syme answers, “I shall not break my word . . . nor will you break yours” (29). And he doesn’t—neither of them do. The police and the anarchists both believe that they ought to keep their vows and the elaborate war in which they are engaged provides an opportunity for them to keep their vows under pressure.
Closely related to honor is glory. The policeman who recruits Syme exclaims that if he waits to join them “you may lose the glory of working with us, perhaps the glory of dying with the last heroes of the world” (46). Syme assents: “It is a chance not to be missed, certainly.” Glory is sharply contrasted with mere success. In fact, the glory is almost greater in losing than in winning, because it becomes clear that the only motive is standing for what is right. It is this glory that Professor de Worms is reaching for when he joins Syme, telling him, “You think that it is impossible to pull down the President. I know that it is impossible, and I am going to try it” (87) [emphasis mine].
Finally, the virtue of courage. I couldn’t give a C.S. Lewis Institute lecture without quoting Lewis at least once. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions.” “We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone” (The Screwtape Letters, 137-8).
The events of the story allow each member of the Anarchist Council to stand alone. At some point, each disguised policeman thinks he’s the only one standing against all the others in a desperate battle to save humanity. Each one has the opportunity to show enormous courage, and that opportunity—the opportunity for virtue—is only provided by the dangerous situation in which they find themselves. Why must people face evil? Syme answers, “So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter” (182-3).
B. Appearances can be Deceiving
The second truth about reality that bears on the problem of evil can be summed up in the saying “Appearances can be deceiving.” The Man who was Thursday is full of such appearances. Again and again we discover with Syme that things are quite different from what they appear.
After Syme’s first breakfast with the anarchists, for example, he longs to get away, but everywhere he goes, he finds that the paralytic professor has somehow followed him. The pursuit is nightmarish, especially since Syme can’t understand how the decrepit professor can keep up with him. In the end, it turns out that the professor is a fellow police officer and Syme had nothing to be afraid of at all.
Near the end of the story, Syme and the others chase Sunday to estate surrounded by a high fence. Is it Sunday’s house? And what is that awful sound from inside? “the most horrible noises . . . a long growling roar . . . a hoarse screaming as of things protesting and clamouring in sudden pain” (158). And then they realize that—it’s the Zoo!
It doesn’t seem that the problem of evil could be fully explained by false appearances, but on the other hand, how little we really understand. How many things there are that we must admit we don’t know. Thomas Sowell has suggested that every high school student, before being permitted to graduate, should be required to stand up in front of a room of people and say 100 times, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” Maybe this is an idea that older people could also take to heart.
Finally, I would like to talk about fellowship. The Christian idea of heaven isn’t centered in pleasure nor in power nor in wealth nor even in beauty, although all those things are used as images to help us understand heaven. Our idea of heaven is centered in fellowship. Heaven is fellowship with God and the joy that comes with it.
What do we know about fellowship? After the attacks on September 11, something happened in America that many Americans had never experienced before. There was a unity, a sense of shared identity and shared purpose. That unity trumped all the differences and disagreements between us that had dominated our society previously. Suddenly, Americans found themselves all in agreement. The members of Congress rapidly, with little dissent, passed bills, not under pressure, but because they found themselves united in their ideas about what needed to be done. And this was true about Americans in general. Everyone wanted to help. If necessary, the people in California would have hopped into their cars and driven over to New York if they thought they could do any good. Across the country, people started flying flags and signs sprang up. We have one that I see on the way to the grocery store. It reads: In God we trust; United we stand.
Our experience is not unique. During World War II, Hitler bombed London in the hopes of terrorizing the British people into surrender. But his plan backfired. What he succeeded in doing was uniting the British people in a way that they hadn’t been united before. England is a very class-conscious society. There are fairly rigid distinctions between people based on their class. But those who lived through that bombing report that those distinctions didn’t seem to matter. An individual who lived in London at that time was interviewed a few years ago and said, “That was the best time of my life.” Isn’t that astonishing? We are talking here about brutal warfare, unrestrained war against innocent civilians, a kind of war we rightly find abhorrent.
Perplexing as it is, these evil events produced a good, a very great good, which we have not been able to produce any other way. How can we experience that deep fellowship with God, that unity of being comrades-in-arms, of standing, as it were, side by side with God with our backs to the wall, fighting for our lives, unless we’d been at war together? This is Chesterton’s characteristically exuberant and optimistic answer to the problem of evil. This, of course, is Sunday, the last day of creation: the rest that can only come after work, the satisfaction that is only produced by labors completed, the peace of God.
Sonja West is a freelance writer and editor and alumna of Seattle Pacific University. She is the editor, with her husband and Discovery senior fellow John West, of The Theology of Welfare (University Press of America).