The Gospel of Chesterton

The Book of Heretics

Chapter 1

1. There is one thing infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter.

2. The time of big theories was the time of big results. General ideas used to dominate literature. They have been driven out by the cry of “art for art’s sake.” General ideas used to dominate politics. They have been driven out by the cry of “efficiency,” which may roughly be translated as “politics for politics’ sake.” Is literature better, is politics better, for having discarded the moralist and the philosopher?

3. When everything about a people is for the time growing weak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency. When a man’s body is a wreck he begins, for the first time, to talk about health. Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes, but their aims.

4. There has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality. Nothing is so unwise as the worship of worldly wisdom. The man who is theoretically a practical man will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.

5. Opportunism does fail, and it must fail. It is far more practical to begin at the beginning and discuss theories. The men who killed each other about the orthodoxy of the Homoousion were far more sensible than the people who are quarrelling about the Education Act. For the Christian dogmatists were trying to establish a reign of holiness, and trying to get defined, first of all, what was really holy. But our modern educationists are trying to bring about a religious liberty without attempting to settle what is religion or what is liberty.

6. A great commotion arises in the street about a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk is approached upon the matter, and begins to say “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediæval practicality.
+++But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the bulb; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes.
+++So, gradually and inevitably, today, tomorrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the lamp, we must now discuss in the dark.

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