“What Is Wrong Is That We Do Not Ask What Is Right.”

Guest post by E2

[Introduction: G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) is one of the greatest of all English language writers and thinker, as well as one of the most entertaining. He wrote about literary and visual art, history, religion, politics, economics, science, and ethics, and if this is his first appearance on Ethics Alarms as I suspect, I am awash with shame. E2, in this guest post, does us all a great service by presenting this example of his thinking regarding the ethical problem of deciding how to construct better cultures and societies. The title is taken from the conclusion of the Chesterton quote offered—JM]

I have known about G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) for a long time, as a brilliant British philosopher and social critic (and the author of the witty and wry and silly “Father Brown” stories – though obviously not of the TV version), but I never bothered to actually read him. I admit that it was only recent chance and a cheap Kindle book that finally allowed me to do so.

The first chapter of his 1910 book “What’s Wrong With The World” was a ‘bright-light’ experience for me. Though hopelessly outdated in some 21st century factual respects, it is interesting because Chesterton takes the time to examine the thought process and how it affects the outcomes of different kinds of thinking, reminiscent of the “observer effect.” (Though he was, in 1910, much more trusting of science and medicine than we are now, e.g., and did not address 21st century thought process issues like the scientists’ dilemma about doing something simply because they can, without considering if they should.)

Herewith a short sample of G.K. Chesterton’s “What’s Wrong With The World,” now in the public domain in the US and considered to be one of his more interesting works. (So why did I pay anything at all for the book when I could have downloaded it for free? Because I wouldn’t have thought that day to google him or it and so have had this happy accident.) If you check the internet today you will find articles as recent as Christmas Eve 2021 about GKC and Santa Claus… Final note: succeeding chapters are just as fun.

“A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called “The Remedy.” It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that “The Remedy” is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology. It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure. But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease.

“The fallacy is one of the fifty fallacies that come from the modern madness for biological or bodily metaphors. It is convenient to speak of the Social Organism, just as it is convenient to speak of the British Lion. But Britain is no more an organism than Britain is a lion. The moment we begin to give a nation the unity and simplicity of an animal, we begin to think wildly. Because every man is a biped, fifty men are not a centipede. This has produced, for instance, the gaping absurdity of perpetually talking about “young nations” and “dying nations,” as if a nation had a fixed and physical span of life.

“Thus people will say that Spain has entered a final senility; they might as well say that Spain is losing all her teeth. Or people will say that Canada should soon produce a literature; which is like saying that Canada must soon grow a new moustache. Nations consist of people; the first generation may be decrepit, or the ten thousandth may be vigorous. Similar applications of the fallacy are made by those who see in the increasing size of national possessions, a simple increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. These people, indeed, even fall short in subtlety of the parallel of a human body. They do not even ask whether an empire is growing taller in its youth, or only growing fatter in its old age. But of all the instances of error arising from this physical fancy, the worst is that we have before us: the habit of exhaustively describing a social sickness, and then propounding a social drug. Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason.

“Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs. The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.

“But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health. No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache. Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles. Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.

“This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out. We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing. We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one. Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong.

“The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health. Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity. We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them. Mr. Cadbury and I would agree about the bad public house. It would be precisely in front of the good public-house that our painful personal fracas would occur.

“I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.”

4 thoughts on ““What Is Wrong Is That We Do Not Ask What Is Right.”

  1. Thanks, E2. This is timely.

    A week or so ago, there was a post and commentary about student debt. EC made a nice comment but concluded that (I may be over-simplifying or misrepresenting EC’s point but I’m just using it, perhaps unfairly, to make my point) a society that generated graduates with unmarketable degrees needs to be reconstructed. This looking for a universal solution to a specific problem is a problem. It’s a tendency that needs to be resisted. It’s particularly common among the young (the Squad), or the young at heart or just plain idiotic (Bernie Sanders). “Whoa there, cowboy!” is a good starting point when people are proposing massive changes. That and “baby, meet bathwater.”

  2. Chesterton, and I, agree with you Other Bill.

    My favourite Chesterton quote for this day’s world:

    “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’
    G.K. Chesterton

      • Orthodoxy is probably his most well-known work, and is not terribly long. You might also look at his ballad of “Lepanto”, the event from which we get Our Lady of the Rosary celebrated on October 7th. But there is also a good work entitled “The Everlasting Man” that I enjoyed quite a bit. “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” is considered among his best works, but I only read a portion of it.

        One my favorite Chesteron quotes, which I believe I’ve posted here a few times before, is from “What is Right With the World”:

        For at present we all tend to one mistake; we tend to make politics too important. We tend to forget how huge a part of a man’s life is the same under a Sultan and a Senate, under Nero or St Louis. Daybreak is a never-ending glory, getting out of bed is a never-ending nuisance; food and friends will be welcomed; work and strangers must be accepted and endured; birds will go bedwards and children won’t, to the end of the last evening.

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