Posts Tagged ‘G K Chesterton’

G K Chesterton

Neither "progressive" nor "conservative" ... Chesterton was a thinker.

As we contemplate the future of Western society … well, I am, even if you aren’t … then it is worth pondering, I think, what GK Chesterton once wrote in a piece which has become known as “Chesterton’s Fallacy”.

Read one way, it is the most cogent argument for conservatism I have ever come across – and I am not wildly in favour of conservatism, as anyone can tell you. Nevertheless, whether we are debating the way we deal with society’s rioting miscreants, how to refocus our businesses’ activity, what do do about the global financial system, or how to respond to matters as diverse as global climate change or the apparently inexorable rise of Asian economies, we would do well to dwell on these comments. As I get older, I find myself, for example, instinctively lending additional weight to the arguments of those who have “been there, done that”, rather than the arguments of those who argue merely from first principles, with the delightful arrogance of youth,  unwashed and ungrimed by the messy waters of practical experience. (I never thought I would write such a sentence, and I stand ready to be shot down in flames for premature fogeyism, but there it is.)

So to my eyes, this is not an argument for resisting change, but it is an argument for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, until we have checked the baby for signs of life. Anyway, what do you think?

“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.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense.

The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.

It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.

There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”

Time magazine, in a review of a biography of Chesterton, observed of his writing style: “Whenever possible Chesterton made his points with popular sayings, proverbs, allegories — first carefully turning them inside out.” For example, Chesterton wrote “Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.”

Chesterton, as a political thinker, cast aspersions on both progressive and conservative styles of thought, saying, “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” Writer and philosopher George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton’s “friendly enemy”, said of him, “He was a man of colossal genius”.

How we need such thinkers today. Food for thought, huh? Comments welcome.