Book Review: Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton
Congratulate me, friends! I recently completed a book that was a Christmas present from my parents: Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton. And it was quite wonderful.
Like anything by Chesterton, it was a dazzling read. He's always got something surprising and true to say (apparently that's the only reason we listen to anyone, he says - to hear them say something unexpected). For instance, I never knew before that the most democratic thing in the world is a hereditary monarchy. But according to Chesterton it is, because by giving the power to an entirely random person whose only claim to the throne is blood, it is carrying out the principle tenant of democracy: that no man is better than another and thus any man may rule.
Was the entire book about politics and democracy? Not exactly. Each chapter was Chesterton arguing (in his very genial way) against the heretics of his day - men like George Bernard Shaw and (to my surprise) Rudyard Kipling.
I think the hardest thing about this book was the fact it referred so much to the philosophies of men I knew practically nothing about. For example, I couldn't tell you the first thing about George Bernard Shaw, and my knowledge of Rudyard Kipling doesn't go much further than the poem "If" and the fact that he wrote the Just-So Stories. (And the Jungle Book? Did he write the Jungle Book? I think he did. But I don't know.) Nevertheless, the book definitely deals with matters relevant today, and it's quite possible to read, understand, and appreciate it without knowing much about the heretics discussed. It wasn't so concerned with the men themselves as with their way of looking at things.
At first glance, these worldviews which Chesterton condemns as heresies seem like very trivial matters. The problem with Rudyard Kipling, for example, was that he has no deep-rooted patriotism, but sees England, his homeland, as merely another place which he may move away from if he so chooses. He's a wanderer. And the problem with Mr. McCabe (please don't ask me who he is) is that he objects to saying serious things in a serious way. And the problem with Whistler (or one of his problems, at any rate) is that he cannot escape from viewing himself as an artist, not even when he's taking a walk or eating supper. Chesterton also addresses such things as pessimism and the belief that paganism was more joyful a religion than Christianity. Never does he go into a full-fledged debate about the divinity of Christ, or Mary's perpetual virginity, or the authority of the pope, or anything else you might expect to find addressed in a book entitled "Heretics." And yet, as he argues in his brilliant, engaging, and highly amusing way, it becomes clear that these little things he's talking about aren't so little after all. The vague ideas we have floating around in the back of our head about the simplest things are really what define how we live. And it's incredibly important that we get these ideas straight.
A tip for anyone giving this book a shot: view it as a collection of essays, not one big thesis paper. For about the first half of it, I tried to read each chapter as a part of a whole and got bogged down in all the separate ideas so that they went over my head (which is really a crying shame - I should go back and read those chapters again). When I finally decided to take one chapter at a time, everything made much more sense to me.
As always with Chesterton, the book was chock full of delightful quotes. For example...
"The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else."
"Humility is so practical a virtue that men think it must be a vice."
"There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person."
"Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about 'liberty'; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about 'progress'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about 'education'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good."
"But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period."
The greatest thing about reading Chesterton is to see how relevant all his ideas still are. Don't those last two quotes just shout our society today?
Our modern world really needs a slap in the face. If only we could convince it to read Heretics, it might get that slap in the face.