What's wrong, Chesterton?

February, a whole month of recurrent sickness—for me and my kids—heavy work projects, and terrible weather, has also accidentally turned into GK Chesterton month on my blog. I’ve posted on his attitude toward argument and controversy and the lack of any real controversy in his world—and ours—and I also looked at his enviable ability to laugh at himself. I’ll end the month with a tiny bit of Chesterton detective work.

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

Yesterday, a colleague pointed me toward this post on the most frequently misquoted Christian writers. Chesterton was on there for a number of quotes, misquotes, and apocryphal sayings, perhaps the most famous of which was this:

In answer to a newspaper’s question, “What is Wrong With the World?”  G. K. Chesterton wrote in with a simple answer: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

I’ve seen a couple different versions of this story with slight variations—sometimes Chesterton’s answer comes in response to a survey of journalists or something similar, sometimes it’s slightly wordier—but the gist is always the same, and it’s easy to see why it sticks around. It’s been quoted by present day evangelical writers as prominent as Tim Keller. It’s cheeky and succinct, worthy of a man who enjoyed his bon mots as much as his beer. But also not quite true.

If you want to confirm a quotation’s authenticity—and you should—it’s relatively easy, and this was easy to disprove, as there are plenty of places logging it as doubtful or inauthentic. Wikiquote includes it in its “misattributed” section on Chesterton’s page. The American Chesterton Society had a rather noncommittal post on the quotation a few years ago, as did a Chesterton enthusiast’s blog.

But as it happens, the latter blog post included a couple of important tidbits. First, it clarified the actual, correct wording of Chesterton’s reply:

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.

This, helpfully, provides a lot more context and explanation about what exactly Chesterton meant. It’s also a handy passage to plug into Google. But alas, nothing.

Second, the blogger’s post indicated that Chesterton’s letter came in response to another letter not from the Times, but from the Daily News—a newspaper founded by Charles Dickens, one of Chesterton’s literary heroes—and from a specific issue: August 16, 1905. I don’t know where the blogger dug this info up, but it was enough to go on. It turned out to be correct.

Having turned up nothing via Google, and beginning to suspect that this was either elaborately fabricated or a previously totally unavailable Chesterton essay, I searched for the Daily News itself. The paper merged with another in the 1910s and no longer exists, but a free trial of the British Newspaper Archive allowed me to look at digital scans of its entire archives and the specific issue of the paper noted in the blogger’s post.

And behold:

The  Daily News , August 16, 1905

The Daily News, August 16, 1905

Chesterton’s complete letter to the editor in response to “A Heretic,” and the germ of the oft-repeated misquotation, right there.

As I mentioned, I was flummoxed that this bit of Chesterton lore was unavailable anywhere online, especially since the misquoted version has proved so persistent and vexing. So I’ve transcribed the entire text of the letter and included it below so that the whole thing is available somewhere. I hope having the full text available will prove a good resource for anyone, like me, hunting for the source of that famous story. I’ve included a handful of hyperlinks to things that might clarify some of Chesterton’s allusions or asides.

Like all of Chesterton’s work, it’s amusing and thought-provoking. And despite coming early in his career—three years before his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, five before the book What’s Wrong with the World—and from a lost world—nine years before the First World War!—in many ways as alien to us now as the antebellum South, medieval Britain, or republican Rome, much of his concern is eerily prescient, particularly in an age of religious flabbiness, unease with the status quo, political strife, the squandering of inherited blessings, and increasingly insistent reliance on the State.

This was by no means a difficult bit of detective work—I’m no Father Brown—but I enjoyed the hunt, and I enjoyed reading a new bit of recovered GKC. I hope y’all enjoy and benefit from it as well.

* * * * *

From the Daily News, August 16, 1905

Sir,—I must warmly protest against people mistaking the uneasiness of “A Heretic” for a sort of pessimism. If he were a pessimist he would be sitting in an armchair with a cigar. It is only we optimists who can be angry.

Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would.

One thing, of course, must be said to clear the ground. Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would. Now, I know there is a feeling that Government can do anything. But if Government could do anything, nothing would exist except Government. Men have found the need of other forces. Religion, for instance, existed in order to do what law cannot do—to track crime to its primary sin, and the man to his back bedroom. The Church endeavoured to institute a machinery of pardon; the State has only a machinery of punishment. The State can only free society from the criminal; the Church sought to free the criminal from the crime. Abolish religion if you like. Throw everything on secular government if you like. But do not be surprised if a machinery that was never meant to do anything but secure external decency and order fails to secure internal honesty and peace. If you have some philosophic objection to brooms and brushes, throw them away. But do not be surprised if the use of the County Council water-cart is an awkward way of dusting the drawing-room.

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby. But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion. Is there something, as “Heretic” suggests, which belongs to this age specially, and is the business of reform? It is a dark matter, but I will make a suggestion.

Every religion, every philosophy as fierce and popular as a religion, can be regarded either as a thing that binds or a thing that loosens. A convert to Islam (say) can regard himself as one who must no longer drink wine; or he can regard himself as one who need no longer sacrifice to expensive idols. A man passing from the early Hebrew atmosphere to the Christian would find himself suddenly free to marry a foreign wife, but also suddenly and startlingly restricted in the number of foreign wives. It is self-evident, that is, that there is no deliverance which does not bring new duties. It is, I suppose, also pretty evident that a religion which boasted only of its liberties would go to pieces. Christianity, for instance, would hardly have eclipsed Judaism if Christians had only sat in the middle of the road ostentatiously eating pork.

Yet this is exactly what we are all doing now. The last great challenge and inspiration of our Europe was the great democratic movement, the Revolution. Everything popular and modern, from the American President to the gymnasium in Battersea Park, comes out of that. And this Democratic creed, like all others, had its two sides, the emancipation and the new bonds. Men were freed from the dogma of the divine right of Kings, but tied to the new dogma of the divine right of the community. The citizen was not bound to give titles to others, but was bound to refuse titles for himself. The new creed had its saints, like Washington and Hoche; it had its martyrs, it had even its asceticism.

Now to me, the devastating weakness of our time, the sin of the 19th century, was primarily this: That we chose to interpret the Revolution as a mere emancipation. Instead of taking the Revolution as meaning that democracy is the true doctrine, we have taken it as meaning that any doctrine is the true doctrine. Instead of the right-mindedness of the Republican stoics, we have the “broad-mindedness” of Liberal Imperialists. We have taken Liberty, because it is fun; we have left Equality and Fraternity, because they are duties and a nuisance. We have Liberty to be unequal. We have Liberty to be unfraternal. At the last we have Liberty to admire slavery. For this was the just and natural end of our mere “free-thinking”—the Tory Revival. Liberalism was supposed to mean liberty to believe in anything; it soon meant liberty to believe in Toryism. Democracy in losing the austerity of youth and its dogmas has lost all; it tends to be a mere debauch of mental self-indulgence, since by a corrupt and loathsome change, Liberalism has become liberality.—Yours, etc.,

G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton's enormous chivalry

I ran across this anecdote, headlined “A ‘Bus Story,” some years ago and unfortunately don’t have the original source written down. It sounds enough like Chesterton to count as what one of my college professors defined as an apocryphal story—“A story that probably isn’t true… but should be.”

GKC vanity fair.jpg

It is always said that no one enjoys a joke more than Chesterton, and, even when the jokes tells against himself, he never fails to be heard laughing above the whole company. It is related that a certain man told of an act of politeness he had witnessed. He had seen a man give up his seat in a tram-car to a lady. “That’s nothing,” said one of the company. “What about old Chesterton here? I saw him get up and give his seat to three ladies.” The company roared, but louder than the others was heard the jovial laughter of Chesterton. It is in more respects than one that Chesterton lays claims to “greatness.”

As evidenced by the many, many stories of Chesterton poking fun at his own size, he had an enviable ability to laugh at himself and see his own absurdity. Indeed, not thinking too much of oneself, being able to see one’s own absurdity, and to enjoy it, is a recurring theme through all of his work. From Orthodoxy:

Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

And, from the same passage: “a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

It’s telling that the theme of the joke in the above anecdote was chivalry; I don’t think, given Chesterton’s emphasis on not minding a joke at one’s own expense, that that is accidental. Chivalry, after all, is a code of deference, which means thinking of oneself less, cultivating an instinct to think of others first. Which is something I think all of us could stand a little more of. Because, as he noted in 1907, “there is no limit to the lunacy of men when they think themselves superior both to humility and laughter.” Which I think has been abundantly illustrated by now.

Food for thought. I know I struggle not to take myself so seriously and to put others ahead of myself. Both would be good habits to cultivate, and if it means I get to enjoy a good laugh—even at myself—more often, all the better.

Chesterton on controversy

…or the lack thereof. Alan Jacobs, in a post called “insincere controversialists” at his blog Snakes and Ladders, brought this passage from What’s Wrong With the World back to my attention this morning:

GKC 1904.jpg

Genuine controversy, fair cut and thrust before a common audience, has become in our special epoch very rare. For the sincere controversialist is above all things a good listener. The really burning enthusiast never interrupts; he listens to the enemy’s arguments as eagerly as a spy would listen to the enemy’s arrangements. But if you attempt an actual argument with a modern paper of opposite politics, you will find that no medium is admitted between violence and evasion. You will have no answer except slanging or silence. A modern editor must not have that eager ear that goes with the honest tongue. He may be deaf and silent; and that is called dignity. Or he may be deaf and noisy; and that is called slashing journalism. In neither case is there any controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

I’ve quoted a selection from this passage here before, in “Chesterton on arguing,” about his more charitable approach to arguing, back last summer. Chesterton published What’s Wrong With the World in 1910—four years before the First World War, in a different world entirely—but the situation has only deteriorated in the eleven intervening decades.

Without being too topical, and trying not to pick on any one person or group (for there is none righteous), I intentionally ignored the State of the Union Address last night. I had more important and meaningful things to do—children to feed and take care of, an old friend to meet up with, a wife to talk to, books to read. But I couldn’t help noticing that, all afternoon, the News app on my phone desperately wanted me to read some selections from Stacey Abrams’s forthcoming rebuttal to the forthcoming State of the Union. With assertions and responses already thus prearranged, with the “party combatants” thus arrayed for battle, would anyone actually be listening to the speech? Or to the other side at all?

I don’t think I have to provide an answer. Don’t bother listening to your opponents—which would actually be engaging with them—but valiantly attack into the safe space of your ideological bubble and give bold speeches about your side’s bravery and the enemy’s duplicity. I can’t improve on Chesterton’s wonderful phrase above:

there [is no] controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

Despite everything you see on the news—and, God help us, social media—we don’t actually have much controversy any more, but it’s not for lack of noise and strife. Our politics and combat are noisy because we’ve lost the ability to listen.

Chesterton on bigotry as failure of imagination

Bigot has become one of our culture’s favorite devil terms—a “potent but vague” word that carries overwhelmingly negative baggage. The power of the devil term is such that if you can throw it at someone and make it stick even a little bit, they can be ruined. Often, the mere accusation is enough. I shouldn’t need to supply recent examples.

Unfortunately, the very vagueness of devil terms and the inevitable process of escalation in political rhetoric almost always lead to their promiscuous use and abuse. While bigot may be a rhetorical sidearm—second choice after the blunt-edged claymore of racist—these two and the even vaguer prejudice are frequently used as if they mean the same thing. They don’t.

Prejudice is a bit of a bugaboo, of course—we all have prejudices, our reason’s experience-based shorthand, so they need not be negative—and I don’t intend to peer into the dumpster fire that is the definition of racism. But bigot bridges the latter two in being, like racist, definitively bad and undesirable, and, like prejudice, so vague that it is often used to mean something else.

Here’s GK Chesterton, in a 1910 essay called “The Bigot,” on what bigotry actually means:

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

And, from later in the same essay:

It is admitted, even in dictionaries, that an example assists a definition. I take an instance of the error of bigotry out of my own biography, so to speak. Nothing is more marked in this strange epoch of ours than the combination of an exquisite tact and sympathy in things of taste and artistic style, with an almost brutal stupidity in the things of abstract thought. A principal critic on the "New Age" made a remark about me a little while ago which amused me very much. After saying many things much too complimentary but marvelously sympathetic, and offering many criticisms which were really delicate and exact, he ended up (as far as I can remember) with these astounding words: "But I can never really feel a man to be my intellectual equal who believes in any dogma." It was like seeing a fine Alpine climber fall five hundred feet into the mud.

Bigotry [is] the failure of the mind to imagine any other mind.

For this last sentence is the old, innocent, and stale thing called Bigotry; it is the failure of the mind to imagine any other mind. My unhappy critic is among the poorest of the children of men; he has only one universe. Everyone, of course, must see one cosmos as the true cosmos; but "he" cannot see any other cosmos, even as a hypothesis.

Chesterton—who, as I’ve noted here before, didn’t mind a good argument—elaborates on this theme quite a lot in his work. There’s his famous line about open minds: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” There’s this passage from “The Bigotry of the Rationalists,” published the same year as “The Bigot”: “There is no person so narrow as the person who is sure that he is broad; indeed, being quite sure that one is broad is itself a form of narrowness.”

From “The Bigot” again:

True liberality, in short, consists of being able to imagine the enemy.

Bigotry, in Chesterton’s view, is first and foremost self-deceit through pride. The bigot cheats himself out of the whole picture, out of the truth. Forget empathy—a favorite god term nowadays—bigotry is a failure of imagination. But mere “openmindedness,” tolerance’s lazy schoolmaster, is not the solution:

The free man is not he who thinks all opinions equally true or false; that is not freedom, but feeble-mindedness. The free man is he who sees the errors as clearly as he sees the truth.

A self-regarding insistence on one’s own broadmindedness is in fact as exclusive and narrow as an insistence that all members of X group behave in Y way, or that all adherents of X religion will themselves think Y about Z. The bigoted exist in Edwin A. Abbott’s Pointland: alone, dimensionless, with “no cognizance even of the number Two,” and content “to be vile and ignorant.”

But perhaps the most pervasive form of bigotry today is even worse for its dim awareness of other points of view: imagining the vast bigotry of our opponents and congratulating ourselves on our empathy and perspicacity, unaware, in our self-satisfaction, that we’re locked in an intellectual prison—one whose doors lock from the inside.

A warning for conservatives

Abtei im Eichwald , by Caspar David Friedrich

Abtei im Eichwald, by Caspar David Friedrich

While visiting home in Georgia this weekend, my wife and I went to my parents’ church. The sermon came from the Book of Exodus, but an aside from Ecclesiastes caught us both off guard and gave us a lot to think about:

Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
— Ecclesiastes 7:10

For my wife, this brought to mind changes at work, a difficult new generation of students, and a longing for years past, before present troubles. I thought immediately of conservatism—not the political position, but the attitude or temperament that is prior to any particular political idea: a disposition rather than an ideology, according to Michael Oakeshott; a state of mind, an instinct to preserve and maintain, to adhere to tradition and custom, to guarantee continuity, according to Russell Kirk; an understanding that good things are hard to create and easy to destroy, according to Roger Scruton. We could go on much further.

So while I am a conservative, both by temperament and because I agree with the above, I’m not talking about political conservatism, which is in bad shape in the United States anyway. I mean the general disposition, to which even self-described progressives are susceptible, and what I see as its besetting danger.

That danger is what is commonly called nostalgia now: a sentimentalized reverence for a past that—probably—never existed.

This shouldn’t be news—conservatives are accused of nostalgia all the time—but I do wrestle with a longing for a time without our present troubles. There were good things about the past, things it is good to preserve or recover, and there are serious problems at present, problems to which the past may—and I think often does—hold the solutions. But I have to remind myself that while the people of the past may not have had our problems, they had plenty of their own, and there were even then people like me who cast longing backward glances at their own simpler, more peaceful, less troubled pasts. It’s simpler times all the way down.

And there stand the words of the preacher. In the magisterial archaism of the KJV: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.”

This is not, of course, a resounding endorsement of nostalgia’s opposite error, progressivism—“a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” And it is good to remember that Ecclesiastes is hardly a straightforward collection of proverbial wisdom. But this passage is a good reminder of the unwisdom of two related mistakes: assuming the past was necessarily better than the present, and using that assumption as an excuse to neglect the present.

Mea culpa. This is a tall order for someone who is both a conservative and an historian, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.

Food for thought at an obsessively nostalgic time of year. To conclude with a warning against focusing obsessively on the future—a New Year’s warning, perhaps—here’s the Gospel of Matthew:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
— Matthew 6:34

Chesterton on backbone and bravado

All Saints’ Day seems like an appropriate time to think about courage, which is—for a few other coincidental reasons—what I’ve been doing for most of the morning. From “The Prehistoric Railway Station,” an essay in Tremendous Trifles:

Brave men are vertebrates; they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle. But these modern cowards are all crustaceans; their hardness is all on the cover and their softness is inside.

Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” which he explained as “exercising intelligent forethought and . . . decisive action . . . far in advance of any likely crisis,” comes to mind, as do the courteous medieval knight, who could compose romantic lays at court and ride his opponents down on the battlefield, and the refined antebellum gentleman, who could observe proper etiquette in all situations and fight duels.

Real bravery is built from the inside out, which takes firmness of purpose and discipline and results in the kind of rigidity that carries both individuals and groups through crises. It’s a lifestyle—in the same sense that the renunciations and carefully structured life of a Benedictine friar were a lifestyle. Compare this passage from Lord Moran’s Anatomy of Courage:

Courage is a moral quality; it is not a chance gift of nature like an aptitude for games. It is a cold choice between two alternatives, the fixed resolve not to quit; an act of renunciation which must be made not once but many times by the power of the will. Courage is willpower.

I’ve just returned to my office from showing a class the end of The Alamo, and the backbone—the softness of honor and courtesy on the outside with the toughness of honor and bravery in the middle—of those men still beggars belief. William Barret Travis could conclude a letter with “Victory or death!” and mean it. It wasn’t just a slogan.

What we have today, especially in our increasingly shrill political debates, is a lot of bravado and tough-talking. Witness the “bravery” of screaming protesters, vandals of inanimate objects, or, at its very worst, resentful loners trying to kill—sometimes successfully—the people they blame for society’s ills. It’s no coincidence that actors—people paid millions to play pretend for a living—can be called “brave” for the roles they take. “Bravery” is simply another posture now, a shape people put on, not a fundamental character quality. A society that makes bravery an attitude, a rhetorical mode, a system of virtue signalling, is a society of Chesterton’s crustaceans. When the crisis comes, they’ll crunch.

But respect for the vertebrate is still alive. One of the most uplifting, hopeful moments of a given day for me comes when—most frequently by accident now—I run across the story of some ordinary person showing this kind of courage. The fact that such stories can still evoke our awe and admiration tells me that hope is not lost.

To take this back to Chesterton, here’s another line from this essay that I appreciated, on respect for and value of tradition among ordinary people and the elite:

If you wish to find the past preserved, follow the million feet of the crowd. At the worst the uneducated only wear down old things by sheer walking. But the educated kick them down out of sheer culture.

Less talk, less crust. More backbone. We all know this; we just have to recover it and practice it.

Chesterton on a particularly vile modern evil

While I love the work of GK Chesterton, owe him a great deal, and am indebted to him in ways I’ll probably never fully realize, I never appreciate him quite so much as I do when I discover that we share a pet peeve:

Of all modern phenomena, the most monstrous and ominous, the most manifestly rotting with disease, the most grimly prophetic of destruction, the most clearly and unmistakably inspired by evil spirits, the most instantly and awfully overshadowed by the wrath of heaven, the most near to madness and moral chaos, the most vivid with devilry and despair, is the practice of having to listen to loud music while eating a meal in a restaurant.
— Illustrated London News, April 22, 1933

I’ve had good conversations with friends in restaurants after which I’m hoarse, simply because I’m trying to make myself heard above the music. I may not want to hear my neighbor smacking his lips and guzzling his drink, but I at least want to hear his voice.

That is, if I’m there to eat at all.

Chesterton on arguing

From GKC's Illustrated London News column, March 9, 1929: 

People generally quarrel because they cannot argue. And it is extraordinary to notice how few people in the modern world can argue. This is why there are so many quarrels, breaking out again and again, and never coming to any natural end.

Chesterton relished debate, and enjoyed deep and lasting friendships with a number of people diametrically opposed to his beliefs. Unsurprisingly, the difference between argument and mere quarreling is a topic he returned to over and over again.

From What's Wrong with the World, published nearly two decades before the above quotation: "If you attempt an actual argument with a modern paper of opposite politics, you will have no answer except slanging or silence." From his Autobiography, published after his death in 1936, reflecting on his younger brother Cecil, who died in World War I: "I am glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarreled." And, as an aside:

Perhaps the principal objection to a quarrel is that it interrupts an argument.

Food for thought. Chesterton, as usual, being relevant from beyond the grave.

Chesterton on South Carolina

Historians will probably mark the present epoch by the problem of the Traffic. Unless, indeed, the historians, who are an absent-minded race of men, have all been killed by the traffic before they can write any histories of it.
— GK Chesterton, 1936

I consider myself warned. 

The opening lines of "About Traffic" from As I Was Saying, a collection of essays published the year of his death.

Chesterton on politicians

An old favorite of mine from Chesterton, taken from an interview given to the Cleveland Press during his 1921 trip to the United States:

The men whom the people ought to choose to represent them are too busy to take the jobs. But the politician is waiting for it. He’s the pestilence of modern times. What we should try to do is make politics as local as possible. Keep the politicians near enough to kick them. The villagers who met under the village tree could also hang their politicians to the tree. It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged.