I just began delving into a biography of Chesterton, who, according to the SciFi author Terry Pratchett, “in small doses taken regularly is good for the soul.” Chesterton isn’t as widely read today, which is such a shame, considering how much insight he has on modern problems.
I was reading a summary of one of his books, “Heretics.” “Heretics”, at first sounds a little polemical; he takes aim at some of the literary voices of his day– H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling– and seems to poke fun at them. He explained his real purpose thus:
I wish to deal with my most distinguished contemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach. I am not concerned with Mr Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic — that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine.
In other words, he doesn’t take any personal attacks on these men, but rather the ideas they represent. I think we could do well to learn from his example where much of our politics and disagreements are fought in a very ad hominem fashion.
Progress for Progress’s Sake
Chesterton takes Shaw to task for making progress his creed:
after belabouring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense, that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being with two legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake.
I liked being reminded of Chesterton’s words on skepticism. We don’t use this word very much anymore in dialogue. Chesterton defines his terms well here, and I think the skepticism he describes is very prevalent in society today:
The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must be the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to a conclusion it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down the carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep the door shut.
With our greatest concern being toleration, we are too shy to express our own convictions. We either live them silently, or we do away with convictions all together. Further:
[When a man] drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
I think of the many I met on my mission who would engage in a discussion about God and modern revelation, but would reason that they believe in all religions, that all have the truth or a form of it.
Modern notion of dogmatism as bigotry
A common hesitation in our day touching the use of extreme convictions is a sort of notion that extreme convictions, specially upon cosmic matters, have been responsible in the past for the thing which is called bigotry. But a very small amount of direct experience will dissipate this view. In real life the people who are most bigoted are the people who have no convictions at all. The economists of the Manchester school who disagree with Socialism take Socialism seriously. It is the young man in Bond Street, who does not know what socialism means, much less whether he agrees with it, who is quite certain that these socialist fellows are making a fuss about nothing. The man who understands the Calvinist philosophy enough to agree with it must understand the Catholic philosophy in order to disagree with it. It is the vague modern who is not at all certain what is right who is most certain that Dante was wrong. The serious opponent of the Latin Church in history, even in the act of showing that it produced great infamies, must know that it produced great saints. It is the hard-headed stockbroker, who knows no history and believes no religion, who is, nevertheless, perfectly convinced that all these priests are knaves… Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions. It is the resistance offered to definite ideas by the vague bulk of people whose ideas are indefinite to excess. Bigotry may be called the appalling frenzy of the indifferent.
All the more reason that we need informed citizens to make good and fair decisions. We need people willing to understand what they believe and what they disbelieve, rather than vaguely disagreeing with anything brave enough to stand up for something.