Heretics–On the Negative Spirit

by Oak Hill Studio

The second chapter of Heretics has given me a fresh perspective on the importance of the person of Christ–not only (but especially) for the Christian, but for all of humanity.

Here Chesterton makes a very clear point regarding a major deficiency of modern morality.  In his own terms, a modern morality“can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow breaches of law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill.  It can only point to imperfection.  It has no perfection to point to.”

I find this a rather interesting point.  For all time prior to Christ, mankind had no vision of the “perfect man.”  The focus was then, and remains until today, for the most part, on the imperfect man, for he is everywhere present.  But with the birth of Christ, the perfect man provides for “the monk meditating on Christ…an image of perfect health, a thing of clear colours and clean air.”

But with the rejection of that clear vision of Christ, what is mankind left with?

“All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man.  A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbors.”

And since ultimate good cannot be known to modern man, he must resort to his own standards.

“Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘liberty’; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘education’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  The modern man says, ‘Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.’ That is, logically rendered, ‘Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.’  He says, ‘Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.’  This, logically stated, means, ‘Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.’ 

In speaking of progress, Chesterton shows the ludicrous reality of striving for “progress” without settling this question of what is good.

“As enunciated today, ‘progress’ is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.  We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress–that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what.  Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning.  But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous.  So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth.  Nobody has any business to use the word ‘progress’ unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals….For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress.”

I come away from this with a fresh desire to fix my eyes on that perfect man; on Jesus Christ, whose pure beauty allures me like no other.

*To read the entire chapter go here.