Chesterton’s Neighbour

The neighbour as a metaphor against elitism and abstraction

One of the things I like most about living in a city is that you don’t need to know anyone, and they don’t need to know you. It’s possible to go years without knowing the first thing about your neighbour.

Whereas, small towns seem to embody a cloying nosiness, the inhabitants for some reason always eagerly inquisitive about the smallest real or imagined doings of others.

Naturally, you can spin it both ways. That the city breeds isolation and disconnectedness, while the hinterland fosters comradeship and fraternity. Or that the city brings freedom and acceptance, and the countryside spawns gossip and idleness.

I like to think the apparent apathy of the city is because people have things to do – other than speculate about others. Those with things that matter to them can’t devote their attention to simply any random thing that seeks it. The more one has going on in their life, the less they look to others to complete it.

The complaint we commonly have to make of our neighbours is that they will not, as we express it, mind their own business. We do not really mean that they will not mind their own business. If our neighbours did not mind their own business they would be asked abruptly for their rent, and would rapidly cease to be our neighbours. What we really mean when we say that they cannot mind their own business is something much deeper. We do not dislike them because they have so little force and fire that they cannot be interested in themselves. We dislike them because they have so much force and fire that they can be interested in us as well. What we dread about our neighbours, in short, is not the narrowness of their horizon, but their superb tendency to broaden it. And all aversions to ordinary humanity have this general character. They are not aversions to its feebleness (as is pretended), but to its energy. The misanthropes pretend that they despise humanity for its weakness. As a matter of fact, they hate it for its strength.

Heretics, G.K Chesterton

Chesterton, curiously enough, claims the exact opposite. That it’s not because they have too little going on in their own lives to be interested in themselves, but that they have so much strength they can be interested in ours as well, even while living theirs. I’m not sure I’d agree, but it’s an interesting take, especially for those of us given to considering ourselves snowflakes, different from the run of the mill masses.


Why this aversion to a neighbour’s friendly interest? Keeping aside the usual explanations – privacy, time and the like, there’s something more interesting GK Chesterton mentions. I can choose my friends, filter them as per my tastes, but not my neighbour (to an extent – gated communities obviously are a filter).

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice or a kind of taste. We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy. We may love negroes because they are black or German Socialists because they are pedantic. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there—a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.

GK Chesterton

A big setup, like a metropolis, gives you the chance to filter and live in your bubble. From a population of millions, you can draw your sample the way you want it.

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.

GK Chesterton

The usual story is that where one lives it is dull. Excitement is to be had elsewhere, adventures to undertake and cultures to experience – not here, with my neighbours – but in faraway lands, with strangers.

Chesterton spins it the other way, that one flees from his street because it’s too exciting, because the neighbours have such force and fire. They’re not mere impersonal curios to stare at, strange ships passing by in the night, but co-passengers who seek to draw one in.

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals—of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering. He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles. These creatures are indeed very different from himself. But they do not put their shape or colour or custom into a decisive intellectual competition with his own. They do not seek to destroy his principles and assert their own; the stranger monsters of the suburban street do seek to do this. The camel does not contort his features into a fine sneer because Mr. Robinson has not got a hump; the cultured gentleman at No. 5 does exhibit a sneer because Robinson has not got a dado. The vulture will not roar with laughter because a man does not fly; but the major at No. 9 will roar with laughter because a man does not smoke.

GK Chesterton

Of course, Chesterton is smart enough to recognize that there’s no compulsion to engage with one’s neighbours if one doesn’t want to, nor any reason not to live in a bubble, if that’s what one prefers. He only calls out such selective reclusion for seeking to dress itself up as strength or superiority, when what it really is, he claims, is weakness.

Of course, this shrinking from the brutal vivacity and brutal variety of common men is a perfectly reasonable and excusable thing as long as it does not pretend to any point of superiority. It is when it calls itself aristocracy or aestheticism or a superiority to the bourgeoisie that its inherent weakness has in justice to be pointed out. Fastidiousness is the most pardonable of vices; but it is the most unpardonable of virtues. Nietzsche, who represents most prominently this pretentious claim of the fastidious, has a description somewhere—a very powerful description in the purely literary sense—of the disgust and disdain which consume him at the sight of the common people with their common faces, their common voices, and their common minds. As I have said, this attitude is almost beautiful if we may regard it as pathetic. Nietzsche’s aristocracy has about it all the sacredness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humour and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.

GK Chesterton


It’s easy to speculate about a human in the abstract, their desires, motivations, sorrows and the like. It’s much harder to carry in the same vein when it’s a particular human, one you know too well to be an abstraction, and associate with ordinary, real things rather than imagined constructs – such as a neighbour.

Suppose I say to you suddenly—‘Oblige me by brooding on the soul of the man who lives at 351 High Street, Islington.’… Now you will probably be broadly right about the man in Islington whom you have never seen or heard of, because you will begin at the right end—the human end. The soul of the man in Islington is certainly a soul. He also has been bewildered and broadened by youth; he also has been tortured and intoxicated by love; he also is sublimely doubtful about death. You can think about the soul of that nameless man who is a mere number in Islington High Street. But you do not think about the soul of your next-door neighbour. He is not a man; he is an environment. He is the barking dog; he is the noise of a pianola; he is a dispute about a party wall; he is drains that are worse than yours, or roses that are better than yours. Now, all these are the wrong ends of man.

GK Chesterton

Chesterton’s neighbour is also the difference between the ideal construct and reality. The loftiest and noblest of ideals in thought are often the most mundane of things in experience.

In Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov too, Father Zossima recounts a doctor’s words.

I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,” he said, “I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he said. “On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.”

Which is, I think, another form of the same malaise. Chesterton’s idea of the neighbour is his lambasting of Nietzsche’s disdain for the ordinary human – like one’s neighbour – who could never hope to meet Nietzsche’s ideal construct of the Ubermensch. And it’s also a censure of the lofty, highfalutin talk of impact, loving humanity, changing the world and the like – the abstract thought of doing good vis-à-vis the mundane reality latent in one’s neighbour.