Heretics (75 Books LXV)

Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton, is another book that I read back in college but decided to revisit recently since I’ll also be reading its follow-up, Orthodoxy, in the near future. That may have been unnecessary, though, because as enlightening and entertaining as Chesterton is, one always knows what to expect from him in his essays, and if you’ve read, say, Tremendous Trifles, What’s Wrong with the World, or any of his other non-fiction work, you know what you’re in for. Here, he goes through a set of erroneous modern ideas put forward by various prominent people, such as Rudyard Kipling or H.G. Wells, and demonstrates why they’re wrong typically by way of a paradox and with several asides.

For example, while discussing Thomas Carlyle’s arguments for aristocracy, he writes:

Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle’s pathetic belief (or any one else’s pathetic belief) in “the wise few.” There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob… And no oligarchies in the world’s history have ever come off so badly in practical affairs as the very proud oligarchies— the oligarchy of Poland, the oligarchy of Venice. And the armies that have most swiftly and suddenly broken their enemies in pieces have been the religious armies— the Moslem Armies, for instance, or the Puritan Armies. And a religious army may, by its nature, be defined as an army in which every man is taught not to exalt but to abase himself. Many modern Englishmen talk of themselves as the sturdy descendants of their sturdy Puritan fathers. As a fact, they would run away from a cow. If you asked one of their Puritan fathers, if you asked Bunyan, for instance, whether he was sturdy, he would have answered, with tears, that he was as weak as water. And because of this he would have borne tortures.

I recall an acquaintance criticising Chesterton for not being “rigorous” is his writing, and since I’ve also written about some “higher class” philosophers this year, perhaps it’s worth pointing out that he’s known as the “Apostle of Common Sense” for good reason. He wrote for a general audience, and addressed that audience perfectly. His reasoning is (almost) always sound, and he’s obviously well-read, but those expecting in-depth Socratic dialogues or Thomistic systematization will be disappointed. Chesterton’s strength, though, is bursting the bubbles of “clever sillies,” that is, the type of person who is genuinely intelligent and well-read, but has reasoned himself into something nonsensical. I don’t recall the context, but I once saw an idea criticised as something “only a philosophy grad student could believe.”

As much as I enjoy Chesterton’s writing, there are a couple small things that bother me. He’s rather too “democratic” minded at times, as in the passage above. Also, he can be a little self-indulgent, getting to his points via roundabout paths, and reveling almost too much in his own paradoxes. Which, now that I think about it, is also a complaint brought against Mencius Moldbug, though Moldbug is more systematic. In any case, neither of these are major problems, and the latter just makes his essays a little more monotonous if one reads a lot of them at once, since they all have basically the same style and structure.

As I said, I will move on to the follow-up book Orthodoxy soon, but honestly I prefer Chesterton’s fiction over his essays, even though he seems better-known for the latter. His epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse is one of my favourite books, and I’d also highly recommend The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man who was Thursday to anyone. If you haven’t read Chesterton before, I’d start with one either Ballad or Napoleon, then pick a collection of essays, because he’s one of the few authors whose fiction and non-fiction are mutually enlightening.


  1. nickbsteves

    Indeed, no one can deny “All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired.” Which does not answer whether there be a sort of man who requires significantly more or less temptation or inspiration respectively.

    • Richard Carroll

      Thanks for the comment.

      Chesterton’s democratic mindset is a decent corrective for the snobbish, technocratic elitism of some of the men he criticises, but he errs in the other direction and is over-enthusiastic about the common man. In the chapter on “slum novelists,” he even presents a brief democratic argument for hereditary monarchy:

      “Rational despotism—that is, selective despotism—is always a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no brotherly respect for him at all. But irrational despotism is always democratic, because it is the ordinary man enthroned. The worst form of slavery is that which is called Caesarism, or the choice of some bold or brilliant man as despot because he is suitable. For that means that men choose a representative, not because he represents them, but because he does not. Men trust an ordinary man like George III or William IV because they are themselves ordinary men and understand him.”

      I don’t recall whether he directly addresses innate differences between people, or the incentives of an aristocrat vs. a politician, and so on, but I don’t think he does.

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