Read an Excerpt
Heretics (1905) is a brilliant example of the critical style for which G. K. Chesterton was famous in his lifetime. It remains important for its insightful reading of early twentieth- and late nineteenth-century British literature—especially the work of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells; but its primary importance a century after it first appeared lies in its withering criticism of a philosophical outlook in which “everything matters—except everything.” Though the book is titled Heretics, it begins and ends with “remarks on the importance of Orthodoxy,” prefiguring the essay Chesterton published under that title in 1908 as well as his later conversion to Catholicism. “Nothing,” he begins, “more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word ‘orthodox.’” A term that was once embraced as fiercely by every person accused of heresy as by every accuser had, by the time Chesterton wrote, taken on a mostly negative connotation—a negative connotation that still clings to it a century later. For Chesterton, this reversal was a key to understanding many of the social and political ills of the society in which he lived and wrote. He located the source of the problem in the refusal to embrace any orthodoxy, the shying away from general truths he identified with Bernard Shaw’s summary of “Ibsenism”: “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” Chesterton proposes a return to “fundamentals,” but what is most important about the present work is its insistence on attention to “cosmic,” as opposed to merely particular, truth. In discussing the “old Liberals” who first “removed the gags from all the heresies,” he says that “cosmic truth” is “so important that everyone ought to bear independent testimony.” For Chesterton, Truth matters, and that is the basis for a good argument. In this, he is well aware of the use of the Greek term behind the English “heretic” to describe one who makes a choice or takes a position; and he joins the ranks of heretics who embrace their heresies as orthodoxies, as positions that are true.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London on May 29, 1874 and grew up in a middle-class atmosphere that was liberal in political orientation and Unitarian in theological outlook (though nominally Anglican). Because he was not sent off to boarding school (as was common for children of his class at the time), family influences have an intimacy in his life that is most often missing among his contemporaries. Biographers identify the death of his sister Beatrice when she was eight and he was three as the only tragedy of an otherwise idyllic childhood. It was a profound one, with a lasting effect. Chesterton wrote that he was not old enough at the time to remember a great deal about his sister; but he did recall that they had been close, and he knew that his father responded to the death by attempting to remove all traces of her memory. Beatrice, as Chesterton recalled, was the only subject about which his father did not talk. This made him particularly conscious of the importance of memory and the power of silence in its public construction. What one chooses not to say is critically important to what one says and to what others hear. Two years after Beatrice’s death, Gilbert’s brother Cecil was born, and, shortly thereafter, the family moved from urban to suburban London. Gilbert greeted the news of his new brother’s arrival by saying, “now I shall always have an audience.” Cecil proved to be a critical audience, and the lifelong argument he and Gilbert sustained in the context of their close relationship partly explains Gilbert’s ability to maintain friendships across political and theological divides. This is particularly important for Heretics, which turns its critical light on a number of writers Chesterton counted among his friends. Cecil anonymously published the first biography of his brother in 1908 as an attack on his politics. That the attack was launched by someone who had been—and remained—close to its target is instructive. Chesterton’s friendships routinely bridged political chasms, and that makes him an exemplar for an age of deepening political divisions in which civility seems an impossible dream. Cecil and Gilbert knew how to argue, and they were more than willing to demonstrate. The same was true of Gilbert and his friends.
Chesterton’s background and training in the visual arts (he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London) always influenced his writing and very likely contributed to the preponderance of image over linear argument so many commentators have noted (some favorably, some not). But he was a theoretician at heart, for reasons he makes evident in this essay. He was never an academic and never aspired to be one, preferring always to refer to himself as a journalist. For Chesterton, the distinction turns partly on specialization. As a journalist, he plunged into whatever topic presented itself; this has led some to criticize him for spreading himself too thin, never staying with one topic long enough to achieve scholarly depth. But the distinction turns also on tone, and the “journalistic” tone Chesterton cultivated combined with his resistance to specialization to make him a popular writer. Heretics is not a sustained philosophical argument so much as a series of personal impressions that support an assertion. Chesterton never trusted the persuasive power of “pure” reason (which he associated with insanity), so it is not surprising that his rhetoric inclines toward something less pure—something that more nearly approximates the language one might hear in the community (as Chesterton would put it) of a third class coach than the language one might hear in a lecture hall.
Given Chesterton’s delight in paradox, it is appropriate that he uses the concrete and particular language of popular journalism to make a case in this essay for abstraction. Chesterton counts himself among the people “who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady, considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them.” For Chesterton, the point is not to choose between the “abstract” and the “practical.” The point is to embrace the practicality of abstraction against a cult of efficiency that has come to dominate the world. That point, made at the beginning of the twentieth century, could not be more relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first. “Neither in the world of politics nor that of literature,” Chesterton writes, “has the rejection of general theories proved a success. It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleading ideals that have from time to time perplexed mankind. Assuredly there has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality.” Practically, making “practicality” an abstract ideal does not work. “A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.” Chesterton’s defense of orthodoxy begins with evidence that its abandonment has been a failure. He employs a philosophically pragmatic method to undermine the dogmatic devotion to “efficiency” contained in the modern admonition to be practical. This takes him back, he says, to “fundamentals”--and to “the general idea of this book.” That idea, he says, is “to deal with my most distinguished contemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach. I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong. I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.” One could not hope for anything more practical. Nor could one hope for a more coherent explication of a theory of the cosmos. For Chesterton, the cosmos in which Truth matters and good argument is not only possible but necessary is one in which heresies and heretics are taken seriously by being taken as competing orthodoxies. He respects those he criticizes enough to believe that they take their positions because they believe them true. He values his own position enough to engage positions with which he does not agree. The state of the world he decries results from the dismissive conviction that, because everyone is entitled to an opinion, opinions do not matter. But opinions mean the world to us; nothing could matter more.
Chesterton’s description of “modern realists” as “terrorists” has a chillingly contemporary ring: “both realists and dynamiters are well-meaning people engaged in the task, so obviously ultimately hopeless, of using science to promote morality.” There is room to argue with Chesterton’s use of “science,” but his point—crucial to his reading of Shaw—is that “morality” without a vision of the good is problematic. Shaw’s golden rule that there is no golden rule “leaves us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.” As a result, Chesterton maintains, “a great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbors. Ibsen is the first to return from the baffled hunt to bring us the tidings of great failure.” Chesterton’s criticism of Shaw (and Shaw’s Ibsen) and of H. G. Wells is not a criticism of their work on aesthetic grounds. It is a moral claim that they render “progress” meaningless to the extent that they deny the possibility of a vision of the good. A vision of the good—as opposed to a vision of the practical or efficient—is essential to any idea of progress. While science, in Chesterton’s understanding of it, is capable of identifying what is efficient or what is harmful to our health, it is not capable of imagining the good. Imagining the good is a task for poetry. Without it, we may be “efficient,” but we are rudderless. Without it the term “progressive,” so important to Wells, is meaningless. There can be no claim of progress without the direction of a moral vision. Without an idea of the good, we have no way to know whether our actions contribute to “progress.”
Equally contemporary is Chesterton’s reading of the interplay of global and local. Rudyard Kipling serves as the example for Chesterton of a cosmopolitanism that seeks to enlarge the world by abandoning the local, by looking elsewhere for truth and insight. The paradox is that this kind of cosmopolitanism, far from enlarging the world, diminishes it: “The globetrotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world.” Chesterton does not accuse Kipling of cynical cosmopolitanism, but he cautions against cosmopolitanism’s simplification of the world. The world of the peasant is larger for two reasons. First, the peasant is rooted in a place; and “the moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe.” This is not unlike Flannery O’Connor’s observation that the more we know of a place the more we see of the whole world in it. Second, the peasant encounters people where he lives as human beings rather than as objects of curiosity. “It is inspiriting without doubt,” Chesterton writes, “to whiz in a motorcar ’round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them. The man standing in his own kitchen-garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance; the motorcar stupidly destroys it.” Equally important, in Chesterton’s view, is the fact that “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.… 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.”
In the end, Chesterton says, “We shall be of those who have seen and yet believed.” That he does not set up a simple dichotomy between the seeing of science and the believing of faith is as promising as the way he makes between parochial vision and blind progress. “Briefly,” he writes in his conclusion, “we dismiss the two opposite dangers of bigotry and fanaticism; bigotry which is a too great vagueness and fanaticism which is a too great concentration.” It would be difficult to imagine two more relevant dangers at the beginning of the twenty-first century than bigotry and fanaticism. Chesterton’s way between them is, predictably, paradoxical. It returns to the method he proposed near the beginning, that of taking heresies seriously enough to engage them as competing orthodoxies. “We have a general view of existence, whether we like it or not; it alters or, to speak more accurately, it creates and involves everything we say or do, whether we like it or not.… Every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly. The possibility is that he may have held it so firmly and so long as to have forgotten all about its existence.”
That ending marks a most interesting starting point: “Let us, then, go upon a long journey and enter on a dreadful search. Let us, at least dig and seek till we have discovered our own opinions.” That may spare us from the “one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period.” A century later, we seem equally divided between indifference and the fire. That makes the time right for another look at Chesterton’s third way.
Steven Schroeder is a poet and philosopher who lives and writes in Chicago.