Chesterton’s Heresy–Ch 1–The Golden Rule is That There is No Golden Rule

by Oak Hill Studio

I mentioned last time that I have moved on from Chesterton’s All Things Considered to Heretics.  I am quickly becoming a fan of Chesterton and his ability to hone in on important, yet sometimes subtle realities of modern philosophies and their implications.  In an effort to solidify my understanding, I thought I’d jot down a few main points from each chapter.

The first chapter is entitled Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy.  He begins by rather humorously exposing the reality of the complete reversal of terms.  A person who was once considered orthodox, is now called a heretic–and vice versa.

The word ‘heresy’ not only means no longer being wrong: it practically means being clear-headed and courageous.  The word ‘orthodoxy’ not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong.  All this can mean one thing, and one thing only.  It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right.

The heretic is now the person who has a system of belief; the orthodox, he who has cast aside “cosmic philosophy.”

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe.  That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object.  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.  General theories are everywhere condemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man.  Atheism itself is too theological for us today.  Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint.  We will have no generalizations.  Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: ‘The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.’ We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature.  A man’s opinion on tram cars matters; his opinion on objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost.  Everything matters—except everything.

It seems pretty evident to me that this mindset still prevails over modern thought over a century later.  It is in good taste to have opinions on the minor details of life, but poor taste to have an opinion on the major, overarching philosophies that tie all of the details together–what Chesterton would refer to as “cosmic truth,” and which will lead a person onward towards an ultimate goal.  Even (true) heretics were at one time allowed to speak because the value of finding out what is right would, in the end, be worth it.

This was certainly not the idea of those who introduced our freedom.  When the old Liberals removed gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made.  Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony.  The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what one says.

Now, rather than seeking to understand and come to a conclusion regarding truth which in turn will drive a people to strive after an ideal, the practical or “efficient” is all that matters.  Chesterton goes on to discuss a few examples, primarily in modern literature and politics, where this new theory of practicality and opportunism had taken over (and continue to this day.)  He states,

Nothing in this world is so unwise as worldly wisdom.  A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed.

He comes to his conclusion:

And having discovered that opportunism does fail, I have been induced to look at it more largely, and in consequence to see that it must fail.  I perceive that it is far more practical to begin at the beginning and discuss theories.

I really like his ending parable which poignantly sums it all up.

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post,
which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the
Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen,
“Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this
point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the
lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval
practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the
lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some
because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a
lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some
because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom
he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the
conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light.
Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

*To read the entire chapter, go here.