Chesterton and what’s wrong with the world

January 18, 2010

This year is the centenary of one of Chesterton’s lesser known books, What’s Wrong with the World.  A week or two ago, the Guardian published a short article about the book:

The cumulative impact of the book is a little like reading a supremely elegant, aphoristic Nietzsche, but one domesticated for the English gentleman’s study. There is the same vertiginous thrill at lurching from exemplary declarations of universalist ethics (“Men have never wearied of political justice; they have wearied of waiting for it”) to the flared-nostrilled defence of Edwardian privilege, such as public schools. But for its sober humanism, as much as its infuriating patrician conservatism, it deserves to be read.

I am not sure it could ever be truly licit to compare Chesterton to Nietzsche, even a “supremely elegant” Nietzsche, and the “patrician conservatism” is probably more infuriating to the average reader of the Guardian than to most people, but, still, it is nice to see Chesterton getting some attention.  Read the whole thing.

The full text of What’s Wrong with the World is available from Project Gutenberg, and several editions are in print.  The book has also inspired a lively blog sporting the same name.

Incidentally, What’s Wrong with the World is the source for one of my favourite of Chesterton’s witticisms: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”  I included this wise and witty remark in the front-matter of my doctoral thesis (which, for the stout of heart, can be viewed in its entirety here).

5 Responses to “Chesterton and what’s wrong with the world”

  1. Janet Says:

    Fond as I am of you, Craig, I think I’ll wait and let you tell me about your thesis in Heaven, where I’ll be more nonperturbative.


  2. Nick Milne Says:

    I have never been entirely at home with that most famous of Chestertonian aphorisms. The sense in which it was originally and contextually meant is fine (in fact it’s from an essay called “Patriotism and Sport,” but if it appears in WWWTW, too, that’s fine), but the uses to which it could so easily be put frustrate me endlessly. I would rather have it said that anything worth doing is worthy at least of the attempt to do it well, even if that attempt may not necessarily succeed or dazzle. This admirably covers the possibility of noble failure, but also, crucially, privileges success – which is after all the point.

  3. cburrell Says:

    The trouble with your revised version of the aphorism, Nick, is that it’s just not very aphoristic! I agree that Chesterton’s meaning must be taken in the right way, otherwise he is giving bad, unwise advice, the precise opposite of what mother taught. But that reversal is the source of much of the wit, after all.

  4. renebreuel Says:

    Great to find another Chesterton fan, he is a guy worthy of reading even badly 😉 Cheers

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