Category Archives: G. K. Chesteron

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