Thursday, August 27, 2009

Our New Adventure: GKC's What's Wrong With the World

Yes, it is Thursday and so, as promised (or threatened!) we begin a new adventure...

Welcome to the first installment of our study of What's Wrong With the World, the soon-to-be-100-year-old text by G. K. Chesterton!

Please be patient while our assistants check your backpacks and other hiking gear - be sure to have your sunglasses and other safety equipment as this is going to be a challenging expedition. I will be using the CW4 edition by Ignatius Press, available through the ACS; there is also a nice edition available from Dover. However, since this text is divided into about 45 rather small chapters, we may not really require page numbers - we'll have to see. It's a lot of very little, but very steep and strenuous hikes... be sure to have your compass, your plumb bob, your magnifying glass, some snacks, and (very important) your notebook and writing implement... Ready? Forüt!

The first item on our agenda is to consider the title. It may come as some surprise to you that "What's Wrong With the World" was not what GKC wanted to call this book... but perhaps I ought to let him explain, since he actually wrote a very interesting and hilarious explanation for us, which he called:
"What is Right With the World"

The above excellent title is not of my own invention. It was suggested to me by the Editor of this paper, [T.P.'s Weekly] and I consented to fill up the bill, partly because of the pleasure I have always had from the paper itself, and partly because it gives me an opportunity of telling an egotistical story, a story which may enlighten the public about the general origin of such titles.

I have always heard of the brutality of publishers and how they crush and obscure the author; but my complaint has always been that they push him forward far too much. I will not say that, so far from making too little of the author, they make too much of him; that this phrase is capable of a dark financial interpretation which I do not intend. But I do say that the prominent personalities of the literary world are very largely the creations of their publishers, in so far as they are not solely the creations of their wives. Here is a small incident out of my own existence. I designed to write a sort of essay, divided into sections, on one particular point of political error. This fallacy, though small and scholastic at first sight, seemed to me to be the real mistake in most modern sociological works. It was, briefly, the idea that things that have been tried have been found wanting. It was my purpose to point out that in the entanglements of practice this is untrue; that an old expedient may easily be the best thing for a new situation; that its principle may be useful though its practice failed; that its practice may have failed because its principle was abandoned; and so on. Therefore, I claimed, we should look for the best method, the ideal, whether it is in the future or the past. I imagined this book as a drab-coloured, decorous little philosophical treatise, with no chapters, but the page occasionally broken by section-headings at the side. I proposed to call my analysis of a radical error "What is wrong", meaning where the mistake is in our logical calculation. But I had highly capable and sympathetic publishers, whose only weakness was that they thought my unhappy monologue much more important than I did. By some confusion of ecstasy (which entirely through my own fault I failed to check) the title was changed into the apocalyptic trumpet-blast "What's Wrong With the World". It was divided up into three short, fierce chapters, like proclamations in a French riot. Outside there was an enormous portrait of myself looking like a depressed hairdresser, and the whole publication had somehow got the violence and instancy of a bombshell. Let it be understood that I do not blame the publishers in the least for this. I could have stopped it if I had minded my own affairs, and it came out of their beautiful and ardent souls I merely mention it as an instance of the error about publishers. They are always represented as cold and scornful merchants, seeking to keep your writers in the background. Alas (as Wordsworth so finely says), alas! the enthusiasm of publishers has oftener left me mourning.

Upon the whole, I am rather inclined to approve of this method of the publisher or editor making up the title, while the author makes up the remarks about it. Any man with a large mind ought to be able to write about anything. Any really free man ought to be able to write to order. ...
[GKC T. P.'s Weekly, (Christmas) 1910 in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, 161-2]
As we shall see next week, when we examine the dedication, there was some other humour to be gotten from this title. But let us proceed a bit further, since the title is our schema, our outline, for the entire series of hikes we are embarking on.

As I mentioned, there are some 45 little chapters, which are grouped under five major heads:
1. "The Homelessness of Man"
2. "Imperialism, or the Mistake About Man"
3. "Feminism, or the Mistake About Woman"
4. "Education, or the Mistake About the Child"
5. "The Home of Man"
There are also three short "notes" which conclude the text.

But what really is the thrust of the text? What IS wrong with the world?

One very speculative view (submitted by a ridiculous computer scientist who likes to read GKC) is that WWWTW is a kind of extended commentary on something from GKC's earlier book, Orthodoxy. Now, you are all geared up for a new adventure, and no doubt do not wish to review the hikes of yesteryear... but I think it's the same mountains we are facing: "Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed." [GKC The Defendant, 3] And I mention Eden for good reason, for that is the clue to what is wrong:
Christianity spoke again and said: "I have always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is - the Fall."

Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall. In Sir Oliver Lodge's interesting new Catechism, the first two questions were: "What are you?" and "What, then, is the meaning of the Fall of Man?" I remember amusing myself by writing my own answers to the questions; but I soon found that they were very broken and agnostic answers. To the question, "What are you?" I could only answer, "God knows." And to the question, "What is meant by the Fall?" I could answer with complete sincerity, "That whatever I am, I am not myself." This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves, but even more natural to us than ourselves.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:321, 363, emphasis added]
Yes, as painful as it msut be for us, the short answer to what's wrong with the world is the FALL. (Yes, I am well aware that there is a famous "missing quote": some news editor who asked "What IS wrong with the world?" GKC is reputed to have written back "I am." It is not clear if this is hearsay or a not-yet-found item, but it does not seem to appear in AMBER.) Here we have a clear statement of GKC's sense of what is wrong - and it is consistent with his other writing:
These men were conscious of the Fall, if they were conscious of nothing else; and the same is true of all heathen humanity. Those who have fallen may remember the fall, even when they forget the height. Some such tantalising blank or break in memory is at the back of all pagan sentiment. There is such a thing as the momentary power to remember that we forget.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:226]
But it is also consistent with the writing of others, and to conclude our initial study today I shall give you three other links, both earlier and later than GKC's writing, to this very important matter:
What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connections, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and condition of his being. And so I argue about the world; - if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.
[J. H. Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua Part VII]

It must be first of all recognized that the condition of things inherent in human affairs must be borne with, for it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level. Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such unequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition. As regards bodily labor, even had man never fallen from the state of innocence, he would not have remained wholly idle; but that which would then have been his free choice and his delight became afterwards compulsory, and the painful expiation for his disobedience. "Cursed be the earth in thy work; in thy labor thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life."[Gen 3:17]
[Leo XIII Rerum Novarum 17]

As a champion of the study of the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Leo XIII had most articulate views on the support which man's fallen nature has to take from the supernatural in order to cope with the natural order. Those views are most timely parts of his Encyclical at a time when Catholic theological, philosophical, and socio-economic discourse is cavorting with sheer naturalism. A pivotal part of that naturalism is the denial of original sin. Within the perspective of that denial (mostly by silence although at times vocal) any reference to original sin should appear most unscholarly, if not plainly ridiculous. Not so to Leo XIII. He devoted a full paragraph to the consequences of the Fall of which hard bodily labor was one... [here SLJ quotes RN 17, see above]
[S. L. Jaki "Beyond the Tools of Production" in The Gist of Catholicism and Other Essays 240]
Lest you think this is going to be a "theological" treatise, I would say that it is theological only because Man is theological. Remember when Holbrook Jackson wrote:
II. Theology and religion are not the same thing. When the churches are controlled by the theologians religious people stay away.
[HJ Platitudes in the Making 25]
Chesterton replied, in green pencil,
Theology is simply that part of religion that requires brains.
[GKC Platitudes Undone 25]
This book, What's Wrong With the World, is about Man, about the World, and about Man's rightful place in the World - which is how we can learn what is wrong. Why? Because when asked "what are you?" we must reply "God knows." And when asked, "What is the meaning of the Fall?" we must reply, "that whatever I am, I am not myself." And because we'll need to understand something about what's wrong in order to know what's right, and what to do in order to repair what is wrong.


  1. I wonder if Chesterton today, would be heard over the din - as he says like proclamations at a French riot. We could use a riot here to shake things up.

    I ran into someone who heard Chesterton speak, in the 1920's
    He says he was certainly intelligent, but no great orator.
    WE have different gifts.

  2. Barbara, have you seen the online clips of Chesterton speaking? It's not like being up close and personal, of course--but he seemed charming and very funny, as you'd imagine, though, as you were told, not necessarily oratorically spellbinding.

    Dr. Thursday, thanks for the very informative and clarifying start. I'm struck that Chesterton in these passages (particularly the one from EM) seems to stress the Fall's aspect an ongoing process of decay and errancy (man as "natural backslider," etc.) while the quotations you choose from others either stress the Fall's aspect as a rupture that happened in a primitive past, though with uenending consequences ("aboriginal catastrophe") or don't really address whether or not man in continuing to fall. Do you (Dr. T. or anyone) agree that there is this difference between Chesterton and the other passages, and if so, is this only a function of the passages you chose from the other thinkers, or was Chesterton generally (and particularly in WWWTW, and most particularly in its opening, since I'm not trying to rush this journey!) more inclined than the others to characterize the fall as ever-deepening (for society, at least, if not for the baptized individual)?

  3. I beleive that he was charming, funny and inclined to be self deprecatory as the English can tend to be . He was likely understated.

    As for oratorical skill I'm just repeating what I was told; but thanks for tip about the online clips. I'll try to find them.


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