The Worship of Ashes
A challenge to George Orwell's defense of the coal fireplace pits Enlightenment rationalism against traditionalist conservatism
As of February 2021, UK air pollution laws make selling house coal or wet firewood illegal, leaving dry wood and smokeless substitutes permissible. The merits and demerits of fireplace fuels may not preoccupy public attention amid renewed lockdown measures against the more contagious Coronavirus mutant, but the fireplace’s fate is not completely trivial. Numerous UK households with coal stoves lack other heating systems and many have expressed misgivings beyond the high energy cost of portable space heaters and high capital cost of better alternatives. The ban marks a turning point in a larger contest demonstrated in the opposing positions of two short essays, one defending the coal fireplace by George Orwell, and another criticizing it by Sam Harris. There is a profound and enduring historical tension between traditionalist conservatism and Enlightenment rationalism embodied in microcosm within the fireplace debate between Orwell and Harris.
The Case for the Open Fire
Near the end of a year encompassing both Hitler’s suicide in the spring and nuclear warfare’s debut at summer’s height, while winding down the first autumn after his wife Eileen’s sudden death left their adopted infant son motherless, George Orwell opted to write instead on another topic, asserting that, “Every house or flat should have at least one open fire around which the family can sit.” The piece circulated in a conservative paper a little ahead of the winter holidays in London, on December 8th of 1945. At the time, Animal Farm had been receiving mixed reviews in the two months since it had gone to print, following rejections by four publishing houses including one issued personally by T. S. Eliot working as firm director, and 1984 had not taken shape beyond a preliminary sketch. As winter was setting in, there may have been a few moments of relative calm for Orwell, time to contemplate life, amid the otherwise unremitting mid-century events during the last interlude before his work achieved global success.
Perhaps in such moments, honing this salutary essay and reflecting on the finer things, Orwell anticipated a nice Christmas with the family absent risk of flying bomb raids at last, unlike the previous five Christmases. There would be two months before any tubercular hemorrhages would portend the early end of his life, with his sister Marjorie’s death not to come until May. Four whole precious years remained before an effectual Soviet nuclear test would escalate the new Cold War, arriving right before his own demise and, much worse, China’s fall to Mao.
The brief, maybe abrupt essay, called “The Case for the Open Fire,” is not too sentimental or brooding, despite the recent events of that year, but simple, thoughtful, and direct. As Orwell noticed, “The first great virtue of a coal fire is that, just because it only warms one end of the room, it forces people to group themselves in a sociable way.” He continued:
To one side of the fireplace sits Dad, reading the evening paper. To the other side sits Mum, doing her knitting. On the hearthrug sit the children, playing snakes and ladders. Up against the fender, roasting himself, lies the dog. It is a comely pattern, a good background to one's memories, and the survival of the family as an institution may be more dependent on it than we realize. Then there is the fascination, inexhaustible to a child, of the fire itself.
Unmistakably, in that winter break from grim episodes both personal and international, Orwell had found the spark of some great transcendent good. One of the chief objections T. S. Eliot had raised in explaining why he rejected Animal Farm was that it was only a repudiation of Stalinism but recommended nothing aspirational or positive as an alternative. Is it conceivable, then, that this fireplace scene is some part of what Orwell’s answer to Eliot would have been?
It was worth an essay, at least. But the mood is not strictly aspirational, often calling to mind an elderly curmudgeon frustrated with modernity, seeking to talk sense into misguided young fools who would replace good, old-fashioned coal fire with new-fangled central heating, suitable only to a “workroom… But [not] for a room that is to be lived in...” To an uncharitable eye, Orwell’s case is not unlike one of comedian Dana Carvey’s routines, the Grumpy Old Man.
The Fireplace Delusion
Contradicting Orwell, a 2012 essay by Sam Harris, entitled “The Fireplace Delusion,” devalues the fireplace as an inexcusable health hazard, a “scourge” that claims “two million premature deaths each year, considerably more than were caused by traffic accidents” which tragically cannot be justified by its venerated status:
No amount of wood smoke… is good to breathe… (One study found it to be 30 times more potent a carcinogen [than cigarettes].) [It] contains hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic... Most of the particles generated by burning wood are smaller than one micron—a size believed to be most damaging to our lungs… so fine that they can evade our mucociliary defenses and travel directly into the bloodstream, posing a risk to the heart. Particles this size also resist gravitational settling, remaining airborne for weeks at a time.
Although Harris focuses his analysis on wood smoke, coal smoke is by comparison at least as deadly if not deadlier still. Harris is unequivocal about the risk.
How should fireplace supporters respond to Harris? Isn’t his argument hard to swallow for folks unfamiliar with the tradition of sacralizing reason above anything revered highly by other traditions? Just when the warm glow of something ineffable makes itself felt, here comes Poindexter to educate everyone that what they thought was sacred is all wrong. Indeed, it is a “delusion” that’s going to give people cancer. The ruthless, mechanical grasp of ice-cold reason seizes the beating heart of sublime sanctity once again. So, was it fortunate that modern medicine had not yet encroached onto that sliver of transcendence Orwell encountered during his winter break?
Or is it possible that Orwell’s love of the open fire (along with his smoking habit) disfigured his lungs and exacerbated the tuberculosis that killed him in 1950? Cigarette smoke’s ill health effects were not widely suspected until after he died. Hence, it would not have been remiss at the time to omit similar effects in listing coal smoke’s downsides:
It is quite true that [coal] is wasteful, messy and the cause of avoidable work: all the same things could be said with equal truth of a baby. The point is that household appliances should be judged not simply by their efficiency…
While the issue would have been anachronistic, a retrospective on ill health effects in the context of Orwell’s essay and the circumstances in which he wrote it exemplifies an important phenomena: the conflict that emerges in each generation between those who seek progress toward something hypothetical and those who cherish something existing imperiled by that.
Imagine a radical leftist sect who regard Orwell’s argument as “problematic,” and in intemperate moments, brand him “worse than Hitler” because millions more died from smoke than by Hitler’s hand, condemning “little Eichmanns” who shrugged off the evidence. Then, imagine Orwell defenders explaining, “I didn’t leave the left, the left left me,” who charge that “the left eats its own” when shunned by former allies for heresy, with some becoming intemperate themselves in a reactionary way. Next, conservatives would argue that “judging the past by present standards” is a cheap way for radicals to “feel morally superior” to Orwell without doing real work. After all, Orwell didn’t know about the health effects and would those radicals have acted differently if they had been in his shoes? Finally, the radicals would counter by charging conservatives with hypocrisy for excusing “moral relativism” on the right while complaining about it on the left.
This scenario has played out so many times, from the distant past to the present day; why won’t it repeat again along this pre-arranged script ad infinitum, if not with Orwell’s fireplace than with something else? The exact quoted phrases and vocabulary are known in advance. Here lies that more enduring tension between conservatives and progressives.
Rationalism, the philosophy of Sam Harris, is conventionally deemed a kind of progressivism because it places reason above all traditional values, but it is worth spelling out that Harris is very different from rationalists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Jacobins, Marxists, or Noam Chomsky. For example, Harris completely rejects Rousseau’s doctrine of the perfectibility of man, fundamental to so much progressivism, just as forcefully as any on the right. Perhaps this corroborates G. K. Chesterton, who claimed, "The odd thing about Original Sin is that it is the one Christian doctrine which is not mystical, but a plain piece of rational experience." If true, then rationalism may not always be a species of progressivism and may even be reconcilable with some versions of traditionalism.
On the other hand, Harris also denies the existence of the is-ought problem, first identified and defended by the conservative David Hume, whose argument is central to the rightwing critique of unqualified rationalism purporting to preside over not just what is but what ought to be. To complicate matters further, many progressives today renounce all these figures, including Rousseau and Chomsky, because they are cis-gendered heterosexual white males, or “evil pale penis people,” to borrow a phrase from the American conservative, Jonah Goldberg. In the minds of these contemporary progressives, reason itself is increasingly considered an oppressive social construct. However, at least by nineteenth-century standards, Harris contains both rightwing and leftwing dimensions. Of course, so does Orwell. Still, the two essays taken by themselves hew much more precisely to a conventional debate between rightwing and leftwing.
Orwell’s conservative side
Putting this complicated taxonomy aside, Orwell’s defense of the fireplace is instructive to the deeper history of conservatism, which has many faces and many moods, some of them regrettable and others commendable. Which of these is applicable to Orwell? The work of the late philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, is clarifying on the topic.
Recently, Scruton’s work has helped to restore awareness of an old conservative principle that “good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” This is Scruton’s characteristically succinct paraphrasing of at least a few sources, possibly including famous conservatives like Winston Churchill, and almost certainly Edmund Burke, an important influence on Scruton. A version of the principle appears in an ancient Chinese proverb and arguably in the second law of thermodynamics, which describes entropy.
Scruton’s philosophy founds conservatism on this principle as an act of love for what good things there may be in a society, while not neglecting flaws, and appreciating where hypothetical societies may have flaws hidden to their activists. Those good things that might have taken centuries of untold work, sacrifice, and luck to create, are commonly taken for granted, or are invisible, or little understood, until they are carelessly destroyed and horribly missed. In a related concern, Czech author Ivan Klíma, a survivor of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianisms, cautioned against those who only “demonstrate against what they reject,” on the grounds that mere repudiation absent a genuine love for something real and precious lends itself more to the ease of destruction than to the challenge of creation. The quote is from a samizdat novel Klíma wrote, in which Scruton’s philosophical principle is combined with the exact same point that T. S. Eliot made about Animal Farm.
As it happens, Klíma and Scruton both received the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit. The principle that “good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created” acquired a great significance to Scruton through the tragedies of Klíma’s country, which Scruton devoted much effort to allay, partly by organizing dissident meetings there during the period of Soviet rule when Klíma’s novel was written and banned. Of course, freedom of expression, which only ephemerally flittered through Klíma’s homeland after 1867, not surviving past Klíma’s eighth birthday in 1939, is among those rarest of good things that are maddeningly difficult to create and dreadfully easy to destroy, with vanishingly few societies in history having ever achieved anything like it, much less having kept it for long. Hence, the samizdat status of Klíma’s novel.
Though Scruton was not an absolutist for freedom of expression, or freedom generally, holding higher allegiances to what prerequisites he believed made freedom possible, a strand of Anglo-conservatism connects Scruton to Orwell in defiance of tyranny, which is partly why Scruton’s work is useful in understanding Orwell’s conservative side. Despite the fact that Orwell called himself a democratic socialist, Scruton included a section on him in his 2017 introductory history of the most important figures of various philosophies of conservatism to emerge after 1688 in the West, even asking if Orwell used the socialist title to cloak a closeted conservatism. The question may not be obvious without bearing in mind that Scruton deemed many criticisms of the free market, possibly including some of Orwell’s, as salutary to conservatism. Conspicuously, it is telling that Orwell’s argument for the coal fireplace decried a singular focus on something that also annoyed Scruton and his predecessor Burke in matters of economic policy: “efficiency.”
A grudging attitude to free market economics renders Orwell and Scruton a bit heretical in many circles of especially American conservatism (at least before that movement began inverting itself in 2016). On the other hand, both men engaged thoughtfully with the arguments of Friedrich Hayek, whose probity and nuance in qualified support of free markets was much deeper and more profound than the popular, superficial libertarianism that Orwell and Scruton rejected. It is a wonder what Orwell would have thought about Scruton’s ingenious rebuke of how Karl Marx interpreted Georg Hegel’s philosophy of alienation to critique capitalism. But is Scruton’s admiration for Hegel any less troubling than Orwell’s commitment, however nominal, to socialism? (The only moments when I have ever felt I understood Hegel were when Scruton deciphered him for me, so I sometimes have to ask whether Scruton was simply projecting his own trenchant ideas, about alienation for example, on Hegel’s otherwise impenetrable prose, as if divining tea leaves.)
If the more libertarian-friendly William F. Buckley Jr. built American conservatism, as it is often argued, on the three pillars of religion, family and anti-communism, then Scruton clearly fits on all three counts, while Orwell, an atheist, embraced only two. Granted, Orwell was not strictly hostile to religion and took a position akin to many atheist conservatives, like George Will and David Hume, who have been unromantic about the plausible alternatives that would result from the absence of traditional religion. For that matter, Scruton also spent much of his life as an atheist and only latter adopted a peculiar theology that borrowed less from literal Biblical interpretations than from classical Greek arguments, developed further by St. Thomas Aquinas and Edmund Burke, about the nature of sublime beauty. This partly explains Scruton’s hostility to libertarianism, which he blamed for a preponderance of hideous commercial architecture, inimical to a healthy society and ruinous to sublime beauty.
Orwell’s attitude to the fireplace and the institution of the family seems to share Scruton’s interpretation of conservatism in many ways, just as Scruton shares Orwell’s defiance of tyranny. Indeed, in a world that suffers tyrannies and tragedies, the few sublime beauties, and transcendent marvels, like the love of a family around the fireplace, is to be fiercely protected. This was an instinctive prejudice of both men. Healthy families may be a bulwark against the totalitarian impulse as well. “The Case for the Open Fire” is an act of love for what is hard to create and easy to destroy: the rituals of a good family. Absent the great sanctity of rituals like these, especially to an atheist like Orwell, who may not participate in many religious rituals beyond Christmas, there can be a void that invites mere repudiation, sliding into nihilism and plausibly into a more feverish yearning for despotic action, which is what repelled T. S. Eliot, Ivan Klíma, and Roger Scruton. Orwell may be veering into a cruder reactionism by completely dismissing central heating at home, but could it be made more sophisticated?
The point deserves attention. First, what is lost by giving up the coal fireplace? Maybe a propane fire pit, lacking the same sounds and smells, or some other less charming and healthier substitute for coal, can be a place for the family to gather, if not in a frigid living room than outside. Or absent that, perhaps the family can gather around to hear the reading of great essays instead of around a fire, in a centrally heated living room, and then to play snakes and ladders in homage to Orwell. The compromise could even be as simple as using traditional fireplaces infrequently, while savoring the experience even more as a rare treat, like pumpkin pie on holidays. Any number of alternatives are possible, but nothing can perfectly replace the exact glory of that coal fireplace scene depicted and it is exceedingly important that this is not lost entirely. (Perhaps the right kinds of progressive entrepreneurs and engineers, over centuries, can eventually create a Star Trek holodeck program that perfectly simulates the coal fireplace beyond the human ability to detect a difference.)
Unfortunately, a prudent compromise, a tradeoff, is likely the only way to preserve the essence of that scene, and this is what a more mature and elegant, Burkean conservatism can look like. Is a Burkean conservatism, like Scruton’s, and a sober progressivism that listens to its opposition, like Orwell in his socialist mood, even possible anymore? Let’s not give up the ideal, even if present reality is far removed from it. The romantic composer, Gustav Mahler (who like Klíma was both Czech and Jewish, born sixty miles southeast) perfectly articulated this kind of elegant conservatism when, in a near perfect distillation of Edmund Burke’s philosophy, he said, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”