Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton
I must admit that I did not know exactly what to expect with this book but that I was pleased with its content and approach. Some books have a certain approach and this particular book did in a way that was appealing and–after a while–somewhat comforting. The author’s approach, repeated over and over again in the book, is to take what is the popular wisdom about a particular person or school of thought or even country and to show that the truth is exactly the opposite of what is believed. This is hinted at in the title of the book, which discusses heretics, and shows how it is that the modern age (even as of a century ago or more) featured a great deal of people who took pride in being heretics rather than, as was previously the fashion, defending themselves as orthodox and others as being in the wrong. Orthodoxy, rather than being viewed as a very good thing, started being viewed as an insult, which led people to see themselves and others in a reversed way that has led to a decline in the insight possessed by our cultural and political elites. For if one cannot diagnose what one is or what others are but calls it by an opposite term, one will not know precisely how to deal with or come to grips with them.
In terms of this book’s contents, the book is almost 300 pages long and divided into twenty chapters. The author begins with some introductory remarks on the importance of orthodoxy (1), which are bookended at the end of the volume by some concluding remarks on the importance of orthodoxy (20). In between the author discusses the negative spirit (2) as well as the way that Rudyard Kipling made the world small (3) and Bernard Shaw (4) and H.G. Wells (5) were far less inscrutable than others thought. The author discusses the Aesthetes (6), Omar and his translator (7), and the surprising mildness of the yellow press (8), and even the moods of George Moore (9). There are chapters on simplicity (10), on science and savages (11), on the melancholy nature of paganism (12), and on the practical aspects of Celtic identity (13). The author discusses the institution of the family in modern literature (14), the smart set (15), divine frivolity in the writings of Mr. McCabe (16), and the savage wit of Whistler (17). The book then ends with some discussions about the United States as a old nation (18) as well as the problems that slum novelists have in turning their vision down (19).
Are the people in this book really heretics? Much depends on perspective. Frequently the author’s insight is very penetrating, as when he comments that H.G. Wells is predictable in a way that Prime Minister Asquith was not, and that humility is a forgotten key to being genuinely brave and talented, because when we fancy ourselves brave we are often great moral and physical cowards. This sense of reversal is likely not going to be everyone’s tastes, but for the reader who appreciates Chesterton’s wit and the way that he takes what are viewed as cliched truisms and turns them on their head, this book is a source of considerable enjoyment. And if Orthodoxy was important at the beginning of the 20th century it is certainly even more important and even more rare today. As might be expected, Chesterton has a wide interest in what he views as heretical, discussing poets and novelists on the one hand and scientists and artists on the other, and having some savage and funny things to say about the “smart” set and even the nature of the United States as an old nation because of its ties to Greece and Rome, even if we are regularly counted as a young people.