Thursday, July 31

Heretics (1905)

By G. K. Chesterton

I am even more convinced that this is absolutely required reading as an introduction preceding Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Of course, Chesterton himself says as much in calling the latter book “a companion to 'Heretics,' […] put[ting] the positive side in addition to the negative” (Orthodoxy, “Preface”). I would not, however, characterize Heretics as “negative” in the sense that we usually thing of it, as simply an unrelenting attack on ideologies with which Chesterton disagreed. Rather he presents carefully reasoned and always clever refutations of those ideologies, eloquently demonstrating the limitations and implications of disordered moralities and philosophies that erupted into the 20th century as traditional notions were increasingly turned on their head, old certainties being questioned and rejected, in favor or … what, exactly? – more or less, nothing. Presciently, Chesterton realized the deleterious effects on society that would be wrought by the current advent of relativism, the abolition of the absolute or any accepted societal consensus of right and wrong, of good and evil:

Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word 'orthodox.' In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodoxy. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law – all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a conscious laugh, 'I suppose I am very heretical,' and looks round for applause. The word 'heresy' not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word 'orthodoxy' not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong” (Chap. 1, “Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy”).

Concurrent with the loss of orthodoxy has been the loss of a sense of sin, or even worse, the inversion of morality into the gravest sin of all, that of calling good evil and evil good. If that's too abstract, consider the devastating hypocrisy of modernity, when values and consistency of application of moral standards become dependent on the situation and societal whim: “In the fifteenth century men cross-examined and tormented a man because he preached some immoral attitude; in the nineteenth century we feted and flattered Oscar Wilde because he preached such an attitude, and then broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out. It may be a question which of the two methods was the more cruel; there can be no kind of question which was the more ludicrous” (Chap. 1, “Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy”). Such cynical, subjectivist, opportunistic application of situational ethids is the bane of modern political discourse, eating away at the vitals of modern society.

As a preface to Orthodoxy, here in Heretics can be found Chesterton's specific discussions of a whole range of figures invoked in passing in the later book. Were I to attempt detailed commentary … well, that's one reason this blog post for a book I finished well nigh two months gone has remained incomplete until now. In order to get it out, I'm simply going to fall back on reproducing the list of chapters as a statement of the range of figures included:

Chap. 1, “Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy”
Chap. 2, “On the Negative Spirit”
Chap. 3, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”
Chap. 4, “Mr. Bernard Shaw”
Chap. 5, “Mr. H. G. Wells and the Giants”
Chap. 6, “Christmas and the Esthetes”
Chap. 7, “Omar and the Sacred Vine”
Chap. 8, “The Mildness of the Yellow Press”
Chap. 9, “The Moods of Mr. George Moore”
Chap. 10, “On Sandals and the Savages”
Chap. 11, “Science and the Savages”
Chap. 12, “Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson”
Chap. 13, “Celts and Celtophiles”
Chap. 14, “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”
Chap. 15, “On Smart Novelists and the Smart Set”
Chap. 16, “On Mr. McCabe and a Divine Frivolity”
Chap. 17, “On the Wit of Whistler”
Chap. 18, “The Fallacy of the Young Nation”
Chap. 19, “Slum Novelists and the Slums”
Chap. 20, “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy”

I will also say this: I “read” (i.e., listened to) Orthodoxy yet again immediately after finishing Heretics, and my understanding was the better for it. I just finished that (one reason I felt compelled to revisit a composition that had lain fallow for so long) and am now just beginning what should be considered the climax of G. K. Chesterton's great trilogy of Christian philosophy, The Everlasting Man, written a couple of decades later when, after a long delay, he had finally taken the final step homeward into the Catholic Church that had captured his mind and heart so long before.

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!

NOTE: I've been pretty much absent from this blog for a good bit of the summer. One reason is that I hit a point where I have so many irons in the fire reading-wise that even though I've finished several items I've not been able to get traction composing any kind of commentary on them. This very post is a good example, started weeks ago, only now finished. Another is that I've been more than usually unfocussed in my reading … I always have several things going at once, but lately I've been starting new things faster than I can finish anything. Another is that, about a month ago I signed onto an on-line course in Thomistic Theology [LINK] which has taken a good bit of my reading time. And finally, in the past couple of weeks I have had to get to work doing a major revision of my Early World Civilizations history survey course, which has to be ready to kick off at the beginning of the new semester in just a couple of weeks. That's what I really ought to be working on right now! – and will be momentarily!

NOTE:  Edited to fix formatting.

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