Called by some the most quoted man in English, Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton, lived in England during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An Edwardian man of letters, he was a journalist whose prolific writings included essays, novels, poetry, biography, literary and social criticism. His influence was far ranging. One of his essays is said to have inspired Gandhi to lead the movement to end British colonial rule in India. Another of his works, a novel called The Napoleon of Notting Hill, inspired Michael Collins to lead the movement for Irish independence.
Chesterton lived before women barristers could be found in the hallways of Old Bailey, when the court system was an entirely male domain. His choice of words should be judged in light of the then prevailing culture. While often droll and humorous, Chesterton still exhibited great depth of thought. As one critic put it, he does not write merely to amuse; he amuses to make a point.
A collection of his essays, originally written between 1901 to 1913 for the Daily News (London), was published in a book, Tremendous Trifles, considered to contain some of the best of Chesterton’s writings. 'The Twelve Men,' an essay included in that book, sets forth Chesterton’s thoughts about his being 'snatched up and put into a jury box to try people.' His unique perspective is well worth looking at today. He wrote:
'The trend of our epoch up to this time has been consistently towards specialism and professionalism. We tend to have trained soldiers because they fight better, trained singers because they sing better, trained dancers because they dance better, specially instructed laughers because they laugh better, and so on and so on. The principle has been applied to law and politics by innumerable modern writers. Many Fabians have insisted that a greater part of our political work should be performed by experts. Many legalists have declared that the untrained jury should be altogether supplanted by the trained judge....
'Now, it is a terrible business to mark a man out for the vengeance of men. But it is a thing to which a man can grow accustomed, as he can to other terrible things; he can even grow accustomed to the sun. And the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it.
'Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop. Therefore, the instinct of Christian civilization has most wisely declared that into their judgments, there shall upon every occasion be infused fresh blood and fresh thoughts from the streets. Men shall come in who can see the court and the crowd, and coarse faces of the policeman and the professional criminals, the wasted faces of the wastrels, the unreal faces of the gesticulating counsel, and see it all as one sees a new picture or a play hitherto unvisited.
'Our civilization has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.'
If Chesterton’s conclusions are accurate, he gives the legal profession cause for self-examination. Are lawyers, judges and police so focused on legality as to lose sight of humanity – almost like a person performing a task on a machine? Journalists, legislators and others who view arbitration as some kind of panacea, would do well to consider these words of G.K. Chesterton.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Granata is a Portland lawyer.
© 2002 Fred Granata