Category Archives: G. K. Chesteron

What I Learned from G. K. Chesterton’s WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD

GKG Cover2What Chesterton Said

I recently read G. K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World. He wrote this book in 1900. Although some of the later segments are not directed toward questions that are not under consideration today (for example: Why would women want the vote?), the very first part, the part that gave rise to the title, I found very helpful in guiding my thinking and proved very relevant to the questions that seem to confront me at every turn.

His discussion focuses on mistakes made by those who advocate for some the elimination of a perceived ill through social change.

Chesterton begins by pointing out that those who advocate for some social change explicitly or implicitly use the metaphor of a physician treating a disease. This is a false assumption because in disease we all know what health looks like and so the only dispute is about the nature of the disease and the proper treatment to return the individual to health.

However, in discussing social ills and their cure, we give little or no consideration to what health looks like and if we did we would likely have broad disagreement on the goal. Chesterton says:

But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health.

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World (p. 3). Kindle Edition.

Chesterton going on about this point:

The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health.

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World (p. 3). Kindle Edition.

I think Chesterton would say the first step in this discussion would be to talk about our private ideal of social health and defend why everyone should want to get there. We might agree that the current situation is bad, but that doesn’t mean the proposed change won’t make things worse.

Chesterton again:

The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World (pp. 3-4). Kindle Edition.

What Chesterton Taught Me

So how do I apply this? When I read about the identification of a sociological problem along with a proposed solution, I’ve come up for a series of questions that I think Chesterton might have asked:

If I applied this proposed solution what would our society look like? Would our freedoms be enhanced? Would I still be able to speak freely and follow my convictions? Would my freedom to choose what I think is best for myself, my family, and community be unimpaired? Would there truly be equality of opportunity? Would competence be recognized and rewarded?

Is the proposed solution tyrannical or draconian? Would I be setting up a new kind of oppression? Am I restricting people’s employment or their ability to go into business for themselves? Does the solution implementation consist of convincing people by argument and example that the new proposal is a better way to a worthy end or am I legislating and punishing to get there?

These two clusters of questions have been most helpful in thinking about these social remedies that I see on Twitter, Facebook, in the news, or spoken about over coffee. They also help me as a science fiction writer.

How Chesterton Impacts My SF Writing

As I write my novels I am often confronted with painting, using words, a future world. One way to get the painting right would be to use the Chesterton questions to extrapolate into the future. If I do that, I can often see how these questions illuminate the difficulties in the proposals and lead to dysfunction and unintended consequences.

If you have any thoughts on this, I would appreciate hearing from you.

Peter Kazmaier is the author of the science fiction series, THE HALCYON CYCLE. His books can be found on Amazon, Chapter/Indigo, iBooks, Google Play, and at your local library through Overdrive.

The Importance of Focusing on the Ideal. A Lesson Learned from G. K. Chesterton’s WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD

I recently had a conversation with a friend at my cottage about one of the injustices that occurred in our past in Canada and the inevitable question came up: “What do we do about it now?” As various potential answers to this question were proposed, they seemed unsatisfactory. IndeeIdealismd often they seem to propose a new injustice visited on people who were, of course, not alive one hundred or two hundred years ago to redress wrongs in which they had no direct part.

I was just reading G. K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World at the time, and it struck how illuminating and helpful his work was for enabling me personally sort through this puzzle of separating good solutions from bad ones.

Chesterton made the point that so often when we try to fix what is wrong with the world, we pay insufficient attention to defining what the ideal is or should be (the picture of flower reminds me of an ideal). He uses the metaphor of a medical doctor. If a doctor is to heal a patient, he has to have an accurate notion of what a healthy person looks like. If he just  focuses on defects or things that are wrong, then the remedial action may actually make things worse rather than better for the patient.

To use an extreme example to make a point, a doctor distressed by the lack symmetry in a one legged patient, may decide to restore the symmetry by removing the other leg, rather than enabling some walking capability by providing the patient with a prosthetic.

Similarly for the injustices in our past that face us now, I need to ask “What kind of society do I want to live in? What would make it fair and just? For me, asking this question, removes from consideration many options which simply implement new injustices to make up for old ones.

If you haven’t read Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World, I suggest you give it a try. I think it was first published in 1910 (some say 1900 but I think that’s too early since Chesterton first began writing books in 1900) yet it seems prophetic and anticipates so many questions facing us today.

G. K. Chesterton on Paganism

The Everlasting ManI have been reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. This book, first published in 1925, has much to say to a 21st century reader. For me, the early chapters generated one of those wonderful intellectual events, when on reading Chesterton’s account, a number of disparate puzzles coalesced for me and came together in an ‘ah hah’ moment.

Let me explain. In chapters V-VII, Chesterton describes three strands of paganism which ran side-by-side: mythology with all of its fantastic stories; philosophy, particularly post-Socratic philosophy which has given our civilization so much; and those strands of paganism which worshiped demons and were linked with human sacrifice such as Moloch worshipers in Palestine and the Aztecs in the new world. In one sense these three strands were contradictory. How could philosophically rigorous thinkers participate in rites and observances related to Bacchus? How could peoples who at least believed in objective values, as Lewis calls it, the tao (The Abolition of Man), degenerate into human sacrifice?

Chesterton showed how these strands really represented three attempts to connect with the spiritual. Mythology was an act of the imagination. Philosophy was an act of reason, but the two always remained separate, if parallel, strands of connection to the spiritual Other. The darker strand of demonology and human sacrifice, was more pragmatic than the other two. At some point, reason and imagination were abandoned and people sought for what worked. And so dark powers were invoked, requiring hideous sacrifices, all to a pragmatic end – they’ll give us the power that we want.

Chesterton goes on to point out that synthesis between the philosophical strands and the imaginative yearning for mystical experience were only thoroughly synthesized in the Middle Ages. From my own reading I can see how Thomas Aquinas was able to bring reason, faith, and mystical experience together. Perhaps this is why pagan societies, for all their shortcomings, were often very open to the Gospel. The imagination, reason, along with objective value had prepared them.

One final point. In my last post, I discussed the book Living at the Crossroads. It was interesting to see how in our current age the imaginative strand and the logical strand have parted company again. We have Postmodernism (imaginative strand) and Modernism (logical, data-driven strand) existing side by side. We yearn for the beauty and meaning of Postmodernism and yet fall back to the sterile world of data and logic because in some sense it is more connected with reality and outcomes. We have lost the synthesis.

If you have read The Everlasting Man, I would appreciate hearing what you thought of it.

Thanks for reading,

Peter