This year marks the centenary of G. K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World. The book continues to inspire and surprise with its prophetic insights on issues from economics and property, to its bracing defense of the “wildness of domesticity.”
And what is wrong with the world for Chesterton? “What is wrong with the world is that we do not ask what is right.” In other words, the evils are plain, but to solve them we must know what is the good that will correct these evils. As Chesterton put it in his opening chapter, “The Homelessness of Man”:
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.
At a stroke, Chesterton anticipates — and refutes — the proponents of what is sometimes called the neutrality of liberalism. Such a program focuses on means, rather than ends; process, rather than substance: Thus, American political culture is inundated with talk of rights but little discussion of what rights might be for. We have built remarkable bureaucracies to solve problems, but without providing a description of what solutions to those problems would look like.
Joined to this lack of what may be called (but Chesterton does not) teleology is an ideology of innovation. The reformers in Chesterton’s day were convinced that the future held endless possibility, and was to be preferred over the dysfunctional present or the boring past. He writes:
We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be.
Chesterton applies his analysis to mistakes modern reformers make about man, woman, and child, and concludes with “the Home of Man.” His focus on the family unit is crucial, because for Chesterton the family is the center of human society, and we must understand what the family is before we can help it. He defends the family both against the socialists who would end the family in favor of the state as well as the capitalists who would destroy it in the name of individualism. Indeed, in his incisive parable about Hudge the socialist and Gudge the capitalist, they amount to the same thing in terms of their damage to the family.
Chesterton confronted liberalism in its heyday, when progressives thought they were at the vanguard of a new world. Tradition and religion were hidebound and destined to disappear. The American writer and critic Russell Kirk faced a different world: When Kirk was writing his great books and essays in the 1950s and 1960s, such as The Conservative Mind, he had already begun to discern the end of liberal hegemony and an opportunity to renew enduring norms.
However, Kirk was left to contend with the results of the same mistakes concerning human nature that Chesterton had identified. They both criticized the illusions of social engineers, capitalist economic redistribution, a fetish for technology, and a misplaced reliance on the moral authority of science. But where Chesterton could at least invoke the common history and morals of the West in his debates with progressives, today that kind of common language has almost been lost.
With Chesterton, however, Kirk realized that imagination would be the most important tool in any cultural renewal. Kirk saw coming an Age of Sentiments, spurred by new technologies that rely on image, not on rational argumentation that was characteristic of the age of liberalism. “The immense majority of human beings will feel with the projected images they behold upon the television screen; and in those viewers that screen will rouse sentiments rather than reflections. Waves of emotion will sweep back and forth, so long as the Age of Sentiments endures. And whether those emotions are low or high must depend upon the folk who determine the tone and temper of television programming.” And those folk must be infused with the moral imagination, or else the tone of the ever-present images will be low indeed.
Chesterton used his amazing facility for paradox and wordplay, on display in every page of What’s Wrong with the World, to showcase the flaws in modern ideology. Kirk created an alternative thought-world for those seeking refuge from liberalism’s death throes. But each served the same cause of reminding the West that it is as important to know what is right with the world as it is to know what is wrong.