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Nov 14 2013

Guest post by Chris Lawson: Sampling the shallow wit of G K Chesterton

Originally a comment on How his belief system drives him to do it, responding to a quotation from Chesterton.

G.K. Chesterton was a very engaging writer with a lovely prose style, but he was also a very shallow thinker who specialised in dressing up fallacies and bigoted prejudices in quaint costumes to make them seem attractive, and was very fond of clever syllogisms that were actually meaningless except to make him seem superior to everyone else around him. Examples?

The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.

Aesthetes never do anything but what they are told.

When learned men begin to use their reason, then I generally discover that they haven’t got any.

I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.

Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance.

Do you see his pattern? But even this I could live with if it wasn’t for his outright lying in order to defend his conservative political and religious beliefs. For instance:

There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.

You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.

There cannot be a nation of millionaires, and there never has been a nation of Utopian comrades; but there have been any number of nations of tolerably contented peasants.

(Note: nice to see a man born in one of the wealthiest parts of London acknowledge all those contented peasants throughout history.)

If there were no God, there would be no atheists.

The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.

(Note: this quote is especially galling because he was writing about the Book of Job.)

The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted: precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden.

(Note: by this tortured reasoning, Chesterton convinces himself that a list of commandments that begins with “You shall have no other gods before me,” forbids all religious art, and forbids working on a certain day, is a liberal work. He also ignores that the Bible is full to the fucking brim with things forbidden. Just because the Top Ten List of Forbidden Things has only ten items, doesn’t mean that Leviticus doesn’t exist.)

Puritanism was an honourable mood; it was a noble fad. In other words, it was a highly creditable mistake.

Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.

Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else.

[No society can survive the socialist] fallacy that there is an absolutely unlimited number of inspired officials and an absolutely unlimited amount of money to pay them.

(Note: this is about as cartoonish a straw man as you’ll ever see.)

Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.

(Note: this is an excellent example of Chesterton’s rhetorical style; write something outrageously, even obviously self-contradictory, and dress up the logical error as a witty verbal paradox!)

I would give a woman not more rights, but more privileges. Instead of sending her to seek such freedom as notoriously prevails in banks and factories, I would design specially a house in which she can be free.

There are many more examples to choose from (Chesterton was quite prolific) but I think I’ve made my point…

 

17 comments

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  1. 1
    nkrishna

    A lot of writers I admire look up to Chesterton and I have to say I never really understood that. Many of the above quotes just remind of me of myself about five years ago: knowing you’re making a bad argument but trying to rationalize it anyway and cloak it in deepities.

  2. 2
    Latverian Diplomat

    “Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance.”

    Mistaking “impartiality” for “indifference” is the same as mistaking “disinterested” for “uninterested”. Seriously, there are people who think not knowing the proper meaning of words is clever?

  3. 3
    iknklast

    Just because the Top Ten List of Forbidden Things has only ten items, doesn’t mean that Leviticus doesn’t exist.

    Of course, few people are aware of what is in Leviticus, because Leviticus is one boring book! I re-read it a couple of years ago, and it is a terrible slog to get through. Most people stop after Noah’s ark, and then just start skimming a few marked passages that say what they like.

  4. 4
    richardelguru

    “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”
    Yeah! There’d just be people.

    (Though I must admit a perverted liking for Lepanto and the Song Against Grocers…’God made the wicked grocer/ As a mystery and a sign/ That Men should shun the awful shops/ And go to inns to dine…’)

  5. 5
    doublereed

    Wow, these are great lines for inane banter, especially for making fun of the ridiculous conservative position. You don’t even need to change the lines. They’re already caricatures.

    Needs more puns, though. Definitely more puns. Like maybe:

    Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists with too much capital.

    The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is left.

  6. 6
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    a very shallow thinker who specialised in dressing up fallacies and bigoted prejudices in quaint costumes to make them seem attractive

    very fond of clever syllogisms that were actually meaningless except to make him seem superior to everyone else around him

    So, basically, G. K. Chesterton was the Malcolm Gladwell of his era? ^^°

    Ah, well. There’s a reason Chesterton’s fiction has better survived than his political writings. Also, nkrishna’s comment reminds me of what another controversial writer, Jorge Luis Borges (who was an avid reader of Chesterton), said about him: something about there being a deep undercurrent of pessimistic absurdism in GKC’s fantasy (and nearly-fantasy) tales, but that you could see the author steering resolutely toward optimism as if it was a matter of faith.

  7. 7
    doublereed

    Or maybe:

    You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. Because anything besides democracy is already revolting.

  8. 8
    M can help you with that.

    (Note: this is an excellent example of Chesterton’s rhetorical style; write something outrageously, even obviously self-contradictory, and dress up the logical error as a witty verbal paradox!)

    Oscar Wilde could pull it off (though only with apparent contradictions). Maybe it’s just that this strategy can only work for someone who a) knows the difference between cliché and wit, and/or b) is part of the gadfly Left instead of the self-satisfied authoritarian Right.

  9. 9
    doublereed

    Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance. Partial ignorance, anyway.

    See, he’s just has go all the way with the inanity. He’s so close!

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    Irène – ha! And yes.

  11. 11
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.

    This is actually a true- or true-ish- statement. Nearly all reforms produce a series of amendments and corrections before an acceptable situation is found. That isn’t an argument against reform but an argument for continual examination and reform.

  12. 12
    ajb47

    He sounds like the Sphinx from Mystery Men:

    When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you can head off your foes with a balanced attack.

  13. 13
    Al Dente

    Chesterton was good at superficial non sequiturs.

  14. 14
    left0ver1under

    Chesterton put the trite in contrite.

  15. 15
    Raging Bee

    ajb47: that comparison is an insult to Mystery Men. You will not that the quote you cite is more reality-based than any of the Chesterton quotes — at least it was referring to REAL things like balance and fighting.

    Oscar Wilde could pull it off…

    That’s because Oscar Wilde was a lot more honest and a lot more in touch with reality than Chesterton. And that, in turn, is probably because Oscar Wilde wasn’t PAID to be an obscurantist anti-rational git.

  16. 16
    Omar Puhleez

    Wilde vs Chesterton? Give me Wilde any day.

    I don’t think GKC could have said “I can resist anythin except temptation”. Too theologically dangerous.

  17. 17
    demonhellfish

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who immediately thought of Mystery Men.

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