Chesterton: What’s Wrong with the World

June 3, 2012

What’s Wrong with the World
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1987) [1910]
190 p.

One of Chesterton’s relatively early books, published in the same year as his classic Orthodoxy, What’s Wrong with the World is one of his principal defences of the family and domestic life. He saw clearly enough that the family was threatened by a variety of forces, and the book is a rousing assault on quite a number of them. It is also — be forewarned, gentle reader — thoroughly politically incorrect. To put it mildly, Chesterton had little reverence for many of our contemporary pieties.

He has no desire to be original; his views on men, women, children, and families are those that have been common to our culture for centuries. The first obstacle, therefore, that he must clear out of the way is the characteristically modern notion that change is somehow inevitable, that one “cannot set the clock back”. Says Chesterton:

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.

His basic views on the family can be briefly summarized. First, he holds that the family is natural to man, and that it is a principal guarantor of liberty. Under normal circumstances the State ought not to interfere with it, and strong domestic ideals and traditions help to ensure that it need not. Marriage, in particular, as the social institution upon which family life is founded, has been recognized by all cultures as something which ought to be encouraged and stabilized. Such encouragement, which can be instantiated in legal forms and expectations, the State may legitimately provide. Social and legal pressures, when directed toward sustaining and strengthening families when ordinary resolve falters, are beneficial to society. “Coercion is a kind of encouragement; and anarchy (or what some call liberty) is essentially oppressive, because it is essentially discouraging.” The domestic ideal includes not only a family, but also a home: “As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of a woman, every normal man desires a house of his own to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair below him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses.”

About men in particular Chesterton has relatively little to say. He argues that comradeship, a “rowdy egalitarianism”, is essential to male friendship, and he worries aloud that the increasing need for specialization in one’s work threatens the spirit of equality which makes such comradeship possible. I did not find these arguments especially compelling.

It is when he turns to the topic of women, and feminism (which he calls “the mistake about women”) that things get really interesting. The world demands, he argues, that those who work to earn a living must dedicate the greater part of their time to their labour; they must therefore be specialists, doing a small number of things and doing them well. Tradition has also recognized that such specialization is a narrowing, and that it is good to have some citizens who are not specialists. Furthermore, the line between specialists and generalists — between cleverness, on one hand, and wisdom, on the other — has been the line between the sexes, and for an eminently practical reason: women bear children. As such, they must, at least, withdraw from the workforce at intervals, and, if principal care of the children is to be their responsibility, it will be most convenient for them to remain at home.

Tradition has decided that only half of humanity shall be monomaniac. It has decided that in every home there shall be a tradesman and a Jack-of-all-trades. But it has also decided, among other things, that the Jack-of-all-trades shall be a Jill-of-all-trades. It has decided, rightly or wrongly, that this specialism and this universalism shall be divided between the sexes. Cleverness shall be left for men and wisdom for women. For cleverness kills wisdom; that is one of the few sad and certain things.

Needless to say, this kind of argument will be hotly contested today from a number of angles. One might object that women need not, in fact, bear children; Chesterton, who was opposed to birth control on independent grounds, might grant the point in special cases but not in general. Or one could argue that parental duties can be shared, permitting both men and women to pursue their careers outside the home; such an arrangement may indeed be feasible in the short term — in my province, for instance, parents can, following the birth of a child, share up to 12 months of parental leave in whatever way they deem best, and I am myself currently enjoying an extended period of paternity leave — but I am not aware of any jurisdictions in which this can, as a matter of policy, be extended indefinitely. Most employers, for understandable reasons, want full-time and reliable employees. As such, when women pursue careers eventually their children, even very young children, will be cared for by someone other than the parents. Is that desirable?

But Chesterton raises a further objection to the dual-career model, hinted at above: he fears that it leads to the decline of the domestic sphere as such:

Government is only one side of life. The other half is called Society, in which women are admittedly dominant. And they have always been ready to maintain that their kingdom is better governed than ours, because (in the logical and legal sense) it is not governed at all.

By keeping women out of public life, society on the old model kept a large part of the population insulated from markets, from competition, and from specialization. Chesterton foresaw that if that division and separation were to be abandoned, such things, precisely because they are so powerful, would assume an importance and force they had not had before, and the sphere of life that exists apart from rules and governance — the world of tact — would wither under the strain.

Notice that Chesterton does not base his arguments on any of the straw men that are commonly trotted out as representing anti-feminism. He does not, for instance, claim that women are somehow inferior to men. Quite the contrary,

Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs. It was only by partly limiting and protecting the woman that she was enabled to play at five or six professions and so come almost as near to God as the child when he plays at a hundred trades.

This notion that domestic life is more varied, more interesting, and more fulfilling than a life in the workplace is, for me, both surprising and agreeable. It certainly answers to my own experience. Why anyone would prefer to punch a clock, submit to performance reviews, be tied to a desk, fight traffic, and spend the better part of each day in the company of people who, however pleasant they may be, would get over one’s departure in a week or two, when one might instead be at home, enjoying the company of one’s children, free to come and go as one pleases, maintaining and improving the home, keeping a garden, listening to music, singing, and learning to cook, is, I admit, beyond me. And it was beyond Chesterton too:

To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?

For Chesterton, therefore, feminism was very nearly an unmitigated disaster, precisely because it represented the paradoxical triumph of the masculine way of life over the feminine. The balance between public and private, the division of labour, the friendly war between the sexes was upset when women, in effect, surrendered to men, forsaking their own special post and leaving it unguarded:

Males, like females, in the course of that old fight between the public and private house, had indulged in overstatement and extravagance, feeling that they must keep up their end of the see-saw. We told our wives that Parliament had sat late on most essential business; but it never crossed our minds that our wives would believe it. . . Suddenly, without warning, the women have begun to say all the nonsense that we ourselves hardly believed when we said it.

He saw, however, that feminism was gaining political and social clout, and of course it continued to do so. We live today with the consequences, both for better and for worse. Chesterton worried aloud about the future of his domestic ideal, centered on the feminine genius, questioning “whether we can recover the clear vision of woman as a tower with many windows, the fixed eternal feminine from which her sons, the specialists, go forth; whether we can preserve the tradition of a central thing which is even more human than democracy and even more practical than politics; whether, in word, it is possible to re-establish the family, freed from the filthy cynicism and cruelty of the commercial epoch.” I expect that he would not have been entirely pleased at how things have turned out.

Attention turns next to children, and especially to education. Chesterton opposed two particular trends in education. The first was the idea that teachers ought not to instruct — not to teach “dogmas” — but rather to encourage self-expression. In his view this was plain nonsense:

It is quaint that people talk of separating dogma from education. Dogma is actually the only thing that cannot be separated from education. It is education. A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching.

Furthermore, he argues that even those who profess not to be ‘dogmatic’, but to let the students develop their own ideas, are nonetheless involved in shaping the students, for they cannot avoid encouraging certain kinds of expression and discouraging others. It is impossible to avoid authority in education.

His second objection was to state-controlled curricula, and on two counts: first, state education as often as not works against parents, not for them; second, such curricula, because shaped by a small but powerful group, will be subject to fads, and this is not what one wants in education:

It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school to-day the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience, and has weathered the world longer, than the dogma to which he is made to submit.

Making due allowance for the possibility that he may have overstated the distinction between types of education — undoubtedly we do want our children to learn something definite, but so too do we want them to creatively shape the world on the strength of what they have learned — the intervening years have given us little reason to think him unduly alarmed.

In the closing pages of the book, he returned to the idea that powerful social and political forces were tending to weaken the family, and thus the liberty of the common man. In his view, this was not an attack coming from one part of the political spectrum; it was bipartisan. He expressed the reasoning using two characters: Gudge, representing the “right wing” of business and markets, and Hudge, representing the “left wing” of social progressivism:

I will whisper in the reader’s ear a horrible suspicion that has sometimes haunted me: the suspicion that Hudge and Gudge are secretly in partnership. That the quarrel they keep up in public is very much of a put-up job, and that the way in which they perpetually play into each other’s hands is not an everlasting coincidence. Gudge, the plutocrat, wants an anarchic industrialism; Hudge, the idealist, provides him with lyric praises of anarchy. Gudge wants women-workers because they are cheaper; Hudge calls the woman’s work “freedom to live her own life.” Gudge wants steady and obedient workmen, Hudge preaches teetotalism — to workmen, not to Gudge. Gudge wants a tame and timid population who will never take arms against tyranny; Hudge proves from Tolstoi that nobody must take arms against anything. Gudge is naturally a healthy and well-washed gentleman; Hudge earnestly preaches the perfection of Gudge’s washing to people who can’t practice it. Above all, Gudge rules by a coarse and cruel system of sacking and sweating and bi-sexual toil which is totally inconsistent with the free family and which is bound to destroy it; therefore Hudge, stretching out his arms to the universe with a prophetic smile, tells us that the family is something that we shall soon gloriously outgrow.

I do not know whether the partnership of Hudge and Gudge is conscious or unconscious. I only know that between them they still keep the common man homeless.

In this way of framing the issue one can see the seeds of Chesterton’s political and economic thought, his “third way” between capitalism and socialism, which he developed, sort of, in his later book The Outline of Sanity. Those ideas are not without their problems, but certainly this closing flourish on Hudge and Gudge provides anyone who shares Chesterton’s concern for the health of families with matter for long consideration.

6 Responses to “Chesterton: What’s Wrong with the World”

  1. Douglas Says:

    “He expressed the reasoning using two characters: Hudge, representing the “right wing” of business and markets, and Gudge, representing the “left wing” of social progressivism:”
    Just a nitpicky comment, but I think you got them swapped. I’ve read it through a couple times and it only makes sense to me if Gudge is business and Hudge is progressivism.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Right you are! I’ll fix that.

  3. Denise :) Says:

    Wow. Thank you for posting that, Craig! Andrew sent me this link, and for people like this stay-at-home-mama, time to read books is sparse, though I”ve been stealing time of late to read more than I usually do. I appreciate your summary. What Chesterton has said and what you’ve expressed articulates what I know to be true. Read on and continue to share it. You do it well.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for your kind comments, Denise. I write about books fairly regularly (the more-or-less full list is here). Not many have been on this topic though.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    One struggle I have as a stay-at-home mom, is the idea that I have fallen way behind my working counterparts when it comes to a “career path”. Part of this is vanity, which should be ignored, and part comes from the reality that we are simply not in the same economic position as families with 2 working parents, and likely never will be due to my years of lost income.

    I don’t find it intellectually stifling to be at home. What makes it hard for me is just being “on call” all the time – even going to the bathroom alone is a luxury.

    However, I also think that we as a society are engaged in a never-before-tested social experiment, whereby we are sending our children en masse to spend the majority of their waking hours to be cared for by people who do not have the same level of emotional involvement in their lives as we, their parents and family, do, and at an increasingly younger age. The true cost of this experiment is yet unknown.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Craig, I’m having a lot of trouble posting. It wan’t accept my email address. \Kathy


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