Yearly Archives: 2014

Book Review: What’s Wrong With The World

G. K. Chesterton’s 1910 collection What’s Wrong With The World surprisingly does not open with “this is going to take more than one book.”

In fact, he is quite to-the-point about exactly what he thinks the problem is:

Now, to reiterate my title, this is what is wrong. This is the huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul…it is the huge heresy of Precedent. It is the view that because we have got into a mess we must grow messier to suit it; that because we have taken a wrong turn some time ago we must go forward and not backwards; that because we have lost our way we must lose our map also.

Examples are clearly needed, but before we continue, a digression.

Chesterton is a brilliant writer and a genius in understanding the human soul. Sometimes these are good things – in Chesterton’s case, it’s a big part of what makes his fiction so amazing. Other times they aren’t. There’s a famous failure mode where some brilliant scientist who is a genius at understanding particle physics sees a social problem, pulls a few equations out of his tool kit, and declares the issue solved.

In the same way, I worry that Chesterton pulls a few emotions and brilliant turns of phrase out of his tool kit and thinks he’s solved everything. And the difference between brilliant physicists and brilliant students of human experience is that physicists are less likely to convince anyone else.

The trademark style of What Is Wrong With The World is to take some common-sense proclamation, like “feminism is about fighting for women” and come up with some incredibly clever reason why exactly the opposite is true:

By the beginning of the twentieth century, within the last few years, the woman has in public surrendered to the man. She has seriously and officially owned that the man has been right all along; that the public house (or Parliament) is really more important than the private house; that politics are not (as woman had always maintained) an excuse for pots of beer, but are a sacred solemnity to which new female worshipers may kneel; that the talkative patriots in the tavern are not only admirable but enviable; that talk is not a waste of time, and therefore (as a consequence, surely) that taverns are not a waste of money. All we men had grown used to our wives and mothers, and grandmothers, and great aunts all pouring a chorus of contempt upon our hobbies of sport, drink and party politics. And now comes Miss Pankhurst with tears in her eyes, owning that all the women were wrong and all the men were right; humbly imploring to be admitted into so much as an outer court, from which she may catch a glimpse of those masculine merits which her erring sisters had so thoughtlessly scorned.

Now this development naturally perturbs and even paralyzes us…We knew quite well that nothing is necessary to the country except that the men should be men and the women women. We knew this; we thought the women knew it even more clearly; and we thought the women would say it. Suddenly, without warning, the women have begun to say all the nonsense that we ourselves hardly believed when we said it. The solemnity of politics; the necessity of votes; the necessity of Huggins; the necessity of Buggins; all these flow in a pellucid stream from the lips of all the suffragette speakers. I suppose in every fight, however old, one has a vague aspiration to conquer; but we never wanted to conquer women so completely as this.

Do you follow? Men have from time immemorial been pushing the importance of male pursuits like politics and public life; women have been equally pushing the importance of family, virtue, and the private household. Feminists are then a group of women who have given up, admitted men have always been right about everything and all female pursuits are a waste of time; now women are desperately pleading that men allow them to join in their superior ways.

Therefore, Chesterton opposes feminism not because he is against women being equal to men, but precisely because he wants to keep women equal to men. The entire book is like this – paragraph after paragraph of verbal judo in which you end up opposing conservativism because you want things to stay the same, or supporting rebellion to protect the integrity of the state, or whatever other crazy inverted idea Chesterton has turned his brilliant but twisted mind to.


At its best, this is a form of narrative reversal that helps break through our preconceptions and see things in a different light. At its worst, I worry Chesterton has actually lost, through atrophy, the ability to think in a straight line. Like, there must be at least one thing which is approximately the way it appears, and I’m not convinced Chesterton will be able to notice it. Ask him whether we should drown puppies, and he will come up with an extremely convincing argument that we should drown puppies precisely because we abhor cruelty to animals.



To very briefly sum up the main argument of What’s Wrong:

1910s Britain has a lot of social problems, many of them caused by the Industrial Revolution steamrolling over human values. Conservatives demand that we keep things exactly as they are, social problems and all. Progressives correctly point out that the new industrial economy conflicts with human values, but “solve” the problem by demanding we destroy whatever human values are left in people to make them better cogs in the industrial machine. For example, women traditionally value having a home of their own and getting to spend time raising children, but this is inconsistent with women working full time in factories – therefore, socialists and feminists demand we put people in communal housing, have children raised communally, and promote women taking on the male gender role – so that all barriers to women doing factory work full-time are removed. Possibly the Conservatives and Progressives are secretly in cahoots – the Conservatives protect the interests of the upper class directly, and the Progressives remake the lower class into a form compatible with serving the system that the upper class run, all upon “humanitarian” grounds.

Chesterton, on the other hand, believes that we should promote human values against the Industrial Revolution and the upper classes who intend to benefit from it. The values he wants seem to be of the “everyone lives in their own nice cottage with a nice garden and a nice picket fence and the men have stable fulfilling jobs and the women stay home and raise children” type. This will require undoing a lot of “progress”, and admitting that the medievals were better than us in a lot of ways, but it’s better than continuing to slide toward doom. It will also involve redistributing property so that everybody has enough money to make this vision a reality. Chesterton has a perfectly marvelous solution for how to do this, which unfortunately this book is too small to contain. But he did warn us by calling the book What Is Wrong With The World and not What Is Wrong With The World And How I Propose To Fix It, so it’s okay.


I wasn’t too sure what to make of all this. The political landscape of the 1910s when the book was published is recognizable, but only barely. In particular, although I can’t tell if Chesterton’s claims fairly described the Left of his own time, they don’t seem to describe the Left of ours. Chesterton’s Left was obsessed with industrial order and optimization, hoping to replace a society ruled by traditions with one ruled by nearly fanatical efficiency and conformity. The modern Left seems to have switched tactics entirely, and insofar as it can be accused of falling too far to one side of the chaos-order dichotomy I think both its friends and enemies would admit it is squarely allied with Chaos, and with a fertility of difference and distinction that borders on the cancerous. As the book was at least in part a polemic against a position that no longer seems to exist, one that barely even seems to have any cladistic descendants, I’m not really sure what to make of it.

There were a lot of digressions into individual issues, some convincing, others less so. But there were two parts I consider central to the whole idea, and which I want to go into at more length:

My point is that the world did not tire of the church’s ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. Christianity was unpopular not because of the humility, but of the arrogance of Christians. Certainly, if the church failed it was largely through the churchmen. But at the same time hostile elements had certainly begun to end it long before it could have done its work. In the nature of things it needed a common scheme of life and thought in Europe. Yet the mediaeval system began to be broken to pieces intellectually, long before it showed the slightest hint of falling to pieces morally. The huge early heresies, like the Albigenses, had not the faintest excuse in moral superiority. And it is actually true that the Reformation began to tear Europe apart before the Catholic Church had had time to pull it together. The Prussians, for instance, were not converted to Christianity at all until quite close to the Reformation. The poor creatures hardly had time to become Catholics before they were told to become Protestants. This explains a great deal of their subsequent conduct. But I have only taken this as the first and most evident case of the general truth: that the great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

This is one of those times when writing in 1910 makes things too easy. If Chesterton had been writing in 1990, he might have thought to ask – has Communism been tried and found wanting? Or has it been found difficult and left untried?

And with our modern hindsight, he might decide there’s not so big a difference as he thinks. Like, Chesterton is defining “Everyone was super-obsessed with Christianity all the time for hundreds of years” as “Christianity was left untried”. The definition only works if by “try Christianity” he means “everyone lives exactly according to the Christian ideal.” But “make everyone live exactly according to the Christian ideal” is not a primitive action.

At the very least, the medievals tried to try Christianity. They reserved political power for Christians, gave immense wealth and clout to the clergy, gave religion a monopoly on education, required everyone to go to church, and persecuted atheism and heresy. If, as per Chesterton’s definition, this didn’t result in people trying Christianity, then that means that trying to try Christianity has failed. If an idea is impossible to implement, that is a strike against the idea. Unless Chesterton has a better idea for how to implement Christianity than the way the medievals tried, his argument is wrong and it is perfectly legitimate to say that the failure of the Christian project during the Middle Ages doesn’t bode well for it today.

And I understand that making a medieval-level effort to retry Christianity isn’t exactly in the Overton Window, but this ties into the other passage of Chesterton’s I want to talk about:

A little while ago certain doctors and other persons permitted by modern law to dictate to their shabbier fellow-citizens, sent out an order that all little girls should have their hair cut short. I mean, of course, all little girls whose parents were poor. Many very unhealthy habits are common among rich little girls, but it will be long before any doctors interfere forcibly with them. Now, the case for this particular interference was this, that the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice.

Yet it could be done. As is common in most modern discussions the unmentionable thing is the pivot of the whole discussion. It is obvious to any Christian man (that is, to any man with a free soul) that any coercion applied to a cabman’s daughter ought, if possible, to be applied to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask why the doctors do not, as a matter of fact apply their rule to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask, because I know. They do not because they dare not.

But what is the excuse they would urge, what is the plausible argument they would use, for thus cutting and clipping poor children and not rich? Their argument would be that the disease is more likely to be in the hair of poor people than of rich. And why? Because the poor children are forced (against all the instincts of the highly domestic working classes) to crowd together in close rooms under a wildly inefficient system of public instruction; and because in one out of the forty children there may be offense. And why? Because the poor man is so ground down by the great rents of the great ground landlords that his wife often has to work as well as he. Therefore she has no time to look after the children, therefore one in forty of them is dirty. Because the workingman has these two persons on top of him, the landlord sitting (literally) on his stomach, and the schoolmaster sitting (literally) on his head, the workingman must allow his little girl’s hair, first to be neglected from poverty, next to be poisoned by promiscuity, and, lastly, to be abolished by hygiene. He, perhaps, was proud of his little girl’s hair. But he does not count.

First of all, either the misuse of the word “literally” is more ancient than I had supposed, or else the customs of the 1910s class system are indeed weird and wonderful. But putting that aside…

I am clearly one of the people whom Chesterton is talking to. I have yet to prescribe any particular remedy for lice, but that is because lice aren’t so much of a problem today, or if they are they don’t make it to a psychiatrist. But I have given antidepressants.

And this seems a lot like Chesterton’s lice. Once again, people are crowded together into squalor, oppressed by landlords and schoolmasters, and so some of them – usually the poor – become depressed. Antidepressants are moderately effective against this problem, although they have physical side effects in some people and are considered embarrassing by many more. To take an antidepressant is a sacrifice in much the same way that cutting your hair is a sacrifice. Its only possible justification is that it does treat depression, just as haircuts do treat lice.

So I can imagine Chesterton coming at me, fire in his eyes, demanding “Why are you solving this problem by giving pills?! You should be solving this by improving society so that poor people don’t end up depressed!”

And all I could answer is “If I wrote a prescription for ‘improve society’, I’m not sure the pharmacist would know how to fill it.”

Like, I want society to be improved. And I try. I give money to charity. I vote. I try to argue persuasively for good political positions. But when I’m done doing all of that, it turns out there are still depressed people left over. At that point, if I take the “high road” and say “no, I’m not going to give you an antidepressant, society should be giving you a job and better housing and more opportunities for social interaction,” then it doesn’t shame society into doing that. It just means that my patient will get more and more depressed and maybe commit suicide.

And I can imagine a 1910s doctor in my same position, who’s done what he can to help the poor, but in the meantime, he’s treating this girl, and if he doesn’t tell her to get a haircut it’s not going to make her life better, it’s just going to mean she gets lice. Which are creepy and gross and probably not very fun to have at all.

So Chesterton says “Whatever, I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to society!”

But society isn’t listening! Chesterton may be the most brilliant essayist of all time, here’s this classic book he wrote which is still justly famous over a hundred years later, and people didn’t even listen to him. They’re sure not going to listen to me.

Even if the intellectual battle were to be completely won – even if nobody objects to helping the poor on the grounds of “there’s not enough money”, or the grounds of “it would disincentivize them to work”, or the grounds of opportunity costs, or whatever – actually getting society to do something would still be just as difficult as getting it to do all the other things we all agree it should, like end corporate welfare or have less police brutality.

This is why I am so worried that Chesterton calls Christianity “left untried”. He seems to hear “This idea would work if we could get people to do it, which we obviously can’t” and answer “So you’re saying it would work! Great! Everyone who wants anything other than this idea is wrong and should stop!”

The problems Chesterton writes about are clearly the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. He doesn’t say so in so many words, but I think he considers “rolling back the Industrial Revolution” to be a perfectly reasonable solution:

There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

There is another proverb, “As you have made your bed, so you must lie on it”; which again is simply a lie. If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God I will make it again. We could restore the Heptarchy or the stage coaches if we chose. It might take some time to do, and it might be very inadvisable to do it, but certainly it is not impossible as bringing back last Friday is impossible. This is, as I say, the first freedom that I claim: the freedom to restore. I claim a right to propose as a solution the old patriarchal system of a Highland clan, if that should seem to eliminate the largest number of evils. I claim the right to propose the complete independence of the small Greek or Italian towns, a sovereign city of Brixton or Brompton, if that seems the best way out of our troubles.

If every single person in the world wanted to roll back the Industrial Revolution, and we all had perfect coordination power and followed absolutely every command of a task force appointed for that problem – then yes, we could do it. But if even one person objects, then that person is going to start manufacturing things cheaper than the rest of us. If one country objects, that country is going to manufacture tanks and cannons and stealth bombers and the rest of us are going to have knights on horseback with which to fight them off.

The arrow of time is not nearly as bidirectional as Chesterton seems to think. The reason that the medievals could maintain deindustrialization without any effort is that nobody knew how to be industrialized even if they wanted to, and nobody wanted to because nobody knew there was such a thing as “industrialization” to want. Any modern attempt to recreate medieval society is doomed to be different than medieval society, because it will involve either industrialization, or an extremely concerted and tyrannical worldwide effort to suppress industrialization – both of which the medievals lacked.

The socialists, feminists, and other groups whom Chesterton dislikes seem to understand this. They say things like “Well, we’re never getting rid of industrialization and the pressure it puts on people to live in dingy slums. So let’s at least institute communal housing which will be a little more liveable and affordable than the other kind.” It might work or it might not, but it’s the sort of thing you can imagine coexisting with modern society. Chesterton’s argument is “No, let’s roll everything back until everyone can have a nice cottage in the Cotswolds.” It’s a very desirable solution, but it’s addressed to a hypothetical universal monarch who has the power to implement solutions against incentive gradients with no defectors ever. This is a book whose target audience is nowhere to be found, and those physicians who were cutting children’s hair to protect them from lice could justly have replied “Dammit, Gilbert, I’m a doctor, not a God-Emperor!”

There’s obviously a line of intellectual descent from Chesterton to the neoreactionaries of today. And yet the latter group seem less naive in an important way. They know that their proposals are impossible within the sphere of normal politics, so they’ve mostly stopped the “arguing for their proposals” part of the plan and started crafting alternative ways to have human societies in which apparently impossible coordination problems can get solved. Meanwhile, poor Chesterton never seems to get beyond wanting his utopian vision to become a party platform.

And I’m not sure he can. I get a weird vibe out of everything he’s written, like his brain lacks the gear that goes back and questions whether what it’s saying actually makes sense. I mean, no one does a great job having this gear, but in him it just seems completely missing, as if he is so feverishly brilliant that to try to analyze the truth-value of what he’s written or look for another side would break the spell.

But I can’t complain. It gives me paragraphs like this:

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

This is exactly the project, but it’s probably going to have to wait for after the Singularity.

(see also: Gutenberg)