Last year, I read G.K. Chesterton’s book Heretics, and just got around to reading the follow-up, Orthodoxy. The earlier volume focuses on criticising modern ideas, essentially “bursting the bubbles of ‘clever sillies,'” as I put it in my last review. Here, he attempts to state his own philosophy in positive terms, and most of the book goes through various ideas that lead him to become a Christian. This isn’t in the form of a Catechism or series of logical proofs like the Summa Theologica or De Romano Pontifice, though. Rather, it’s more of a series of loosely connected observations. As he says, I think accurately, “the evidence in my case… is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts… a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.” In other words, people aren’t convinced of something because of a powerful proof, but because a number of seemingly disparate observations all point in the same direction.
Unfortunately, though there is some very good material here, it’s a weaker volume than its predecessor. Most of the book is fine, of course, but applying common sense to modern “heresies” is easier than building up a positive case, and the latter requires a more rigorous, traditional sort of approach to philosophy, which isn’t Chesterton’s strong suit. As a result, though the book is still well worth reading, there are a few major arguments that are surprisingly weak.
Let’s start with some of the strong points. Those on the Right today will likely have seen the argument that Progressivism is, in a sense, a “Christian heresy,” and Chesterton makes a broadly similar point about modernity:
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone… For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race— because he is so human.
I’m not sure who Mr. Blatchford is, due to Chesterton’s understandable but annoying habit of not explaining his references, but one senses that he was on the farthest end of a contemporary holiness spiral. Progressives are certainly anti-Christian, as they often claim to be, but Chesterton is correct in this early observation that they attempt to be “holier than Jesus,” so to speak, and try to take certain Christian virtues without the underlying reason behind them. It may be an interesting research project to see who was the first to make this connection between Progressivism or Liberalism and Christianity, but Chesterton is the first that I’m aware of.
Speaking of early observations of modern trends, Chesterton also noticed that Liberals like to appeal to The Current Year as if it’s a decisive argument. He writes, “An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another.” He then makes the obvious point that a dogma is either true or it is not, regardless of what the calendar says. Just because one idea is newer than another or even arose from another does not mean that it has meaningfully progressed, in the sense of improved, in any way. As he says in a later discussion, in a comparison to Darwinian evolution, some men “think that so long as they were passing from the ape they were going to the angel. But you can pass from the ape and go to the devil.”
All good so far, and becoming of the Apostle of Common Sense. Then, we get this discussion:
This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common… The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe)… is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well.…