What’s Wrong with G. K. Chesterton

In 1910, G. K. Chesterton published a book in the form of a rambling more or less connected series of essays, which he titled What’s Wrong with the World.  A hundred years later, it serves as an interesting example of much which is right and appealing in Chesterton’s work – and also much which is odd, not to say (to modern ears) appalling: thus the title of this piece.  That the attempted humor of my title is perhaps too obvious for good taste is merely a nod to Chesterton’s contention within this very volume that an obvious joke simply means one which is understood, and that an obvious joke should therefore be regarded as a good one.  I am not sure I agree in all cases.

Regarded as a logical argument, What’s Wrong with the World is a failure.  Chesterton’s central axioms are sound enough (if as unpopular now or more as they were with the Edwardian intelligentsia), but he displays here in startling degree his great weakness: that of treating his personal tastes, desires, and prejudices as truths and sound premises.  He claims at one point, “I do not know the East; nor do I like what I know,” – a raw emotional rejection I rather doubt Chesterton would have let slide in the other side of any of his debates.  It is clear enough that to Chesterton “the East” stands as a label attached generally to most if not all of the world outside of European – or, what he would likely contend was more important, Christian – culture.  That he could thus readily conflate in his own thinking such varied societies as the Ottomans, India (with its kaleidoscope of cultures), and Japan is perhaps no more than a sign of his times: that he would put this kind of thinking down on paper as an argument is, while honest enough, problematic in a moral sense.  It certainly causes his own thesis no end of trouble.  It also, however it may have sounded to his contemporaries, is a rather startling and uncomfortable contention to all but the most rabidly nationalistic modern ears, even those who have not themselves any particular affection for any of those societies.

This is particularly unfortunate in that examination of – for example – Indian society would in any case have largely strengthened his point.  Chesterton proposes, against the more rabid Socialists and Eugenicists – not to mention other varieties of social planners – that the basis of society is the family; that the family should be free; and that free families on the whole want to be left alone, if not from social demands, at least by the force of the State.  He maintains that any measures taken to stave off actual physical need which reduce the independence of the family should be regarded as emergency measures – in modern political parlance, we might dub them a least of evils.  So far, sound enough: but laying down a universal principle while dismissing quite a deal of evidence about what the universe might think of it is unsound.  The family – whatever its cultural habits – really is as universal as he thinks it is.  Men and women – regardless of their geographical location on the globe – really have, on the whole, preferred to live in decent independence from any overbearing State as long as this remains at all possible.  Instead of piling up this evidence, his distaste for other cultures leaves his book open to a superficial reading in which he composed nothing more than one more militant complaint about new ideas, one more appeal to the good old days.

More problematic still to modern ears is the tone which he takes when discussing the role of women in the family – and by extension, society.  He talks rather as though the traditional approach had been carefully thought out and planned.  His figures seem to imply not so much a practical consensus in behavior as an intentional construction of society along certain lines.  His greatest logical failure is his appeal that most women would actually agree with his social positions – an argument to authority which collapses if the authority changes its mind.  But his tendency to present the “traditional” scheme of the family as answering difficulties after considerable thought and planning is really rather odd.  It seems to militate against history: not that philosophers have not defended normal family life in such terms, but there have been as many philosophers, from Plato on, who have if trying to plan a society come up with different schemes.  The philosophers and planners, it might be argued, have tended towards the egalitarianism Chesterton detests.

If, however, we set aside this rhetorical foible, his argument is strong enough, granting his axioms.  He makes what is very possibly the strongest practical argument in favor of women (or at least wives) behaving mainly as homemakers.  He states in the strongest terms the goodness and necessity of the work: he makes even an argument that, at least in terms of character and psychology the demands of an intimate motherhood are anything but limiting.  If this part of the argument is repellent to modern ears, it is merely because Chesterton flips modern assumptions on their head: he is inclined to see the fact that men commonly must work away from the house a defect in society.  If men are forced into limited work, at least women are kept safe and sane.  The home is a safe harbor.  For children to be expected to live mainly outside the home – especially the young children currently (Chesterton would think, and I am at least emotionally inclined to agree) victimized by the current fad for preschools and such – is yet more a travesty.

Those defending traditional common sense are often accused of protecting entrenched interests.  Chesterton, at least, is free from this charge: he sees the moneyed and influential classes embracing new heresies and social programs as a method of tightening control.  He even discusses at length the problem of social planners who take emergency measures – and then under political pressure, forget the original emergency and argue for their stopgap plans as innate goods.  Moreover, Chesterton has a clear idea of an ideal practiced and transforming society (although his ideas – not discussed in this volume – for achieving final results are in my opinion unreliable).  That it is an old idea is rather a point in its favor than otherwise to the Roman Catholic apologist.  “[The purpose] of all these pages, is this: the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. … If other things are against it, other things must go down.  If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down.  With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.  Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property, because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution.”