Chesterton is an utter bastard, and enjoying himself while he’s at it. As a result, I enjoyed myself, too: He’s unrepentant in how conservative he is, and he likes using a handful of cheap tricks to make himself seem both very clever and very plausible. He’s neither as clever nor as plausible as he thinks he is, but if I have to read an opposing viewpoint (and is he ever), I might as well enjoy myself. Though it would have been nice if he hadn’t planned his chapters to lead from one witticism to the next – it’s a bit obvious and tiring in the long run.
With that disclaimer out of the way, what is Heretics about? It’s basically Chesterton having a go at his philosophical opponents, one at a time, summing up their entire world view in just a handful of pages, and then explaining how they are brilliant and yet completely wrong by virtue of some place where they differ from Mr Chesterton himself, as a pseudo-traditional conservative Catholic populist. A quote late in the books sums him up really well: “No man ought to write at all, or even to speak at all, unless he thinks that he is in truth and the other man in error.”
Obnoxious? Yeah, for sure. But it was extremely intriguing to see prolific writers condensed to their essence in style and world view, and to see a contrasting opinion expressed clearly. I kept wondering who could (and would!) do the same today. There are some very occasional blog authors who are similarly good at pointing out the essence of something, but they are rare, and not easy to find (they are basically never famous or have big blogs).
Below follow some notes regarding the actual content, because I read the stuff and I want to avoid having to read it again – feel free to skip if you don’t want to know Chesterton’s opinion on Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling.
Chesterton is extremely offended by people who are aphilosophical (and to a lesser degree, by the apolitical). He’d rather have days of discussions with an atheist, or worse, a protestant, than encounter somebody who doesn’t give a damn. He’s very like Nietzsche in his burning desire to argue about truth and beauty. Big theories, so Chesterton, lead to big results. When people stop being interested in the big theories and start being too pragmatic (there are whole pages hating on politicians without principles), we might as well give up.
Next, we have to be angry about progress – or rather, the people using the term. Chesterton demands that if you are using the word “progress”, you damn well better back it up with a solid philosophy. Progress from where? Progress where? Criteria, axes, please! He claims that the modern era has less to offer in terms of progress than the 12th century, and drops the charming bon mot “Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal”, which is so on point today that it hurts. Progress supposes faith, in a way, and where is ours, thunders Chesterton. (He was a century off the current progressive culture, we can forgive him.)
Chesterton and Shaw were friends who loved to argue, so he’s intimately familiar with his world view. He argues that Shaw is incredibly principled and never switches positions for shits and giggles and cleverness – but that he’s lacking in humility as a product of his lack of appreciation for the dark/mystic. Basically a lack of religion and appreciation of humanity.
Interestingly, he makes a rather unusual argument for the Catholic Church here: that it is the best way for anybody to remain in genuine contact with ancient European religions, because the Church absorbed everything in a way, in the big holy days and the small rituals.
Another excellent point is about small and large places: how the village is more scary than the city, how moving or travelling to far away places gives in to a fear. Our neighbours are more terrifying and strange than foreign cultures (who are more easily contained and less in our Shadow, not Chesterton’s words). “It is a good thing for a man to live in a family for the same reason that it is a good thing for a man to be besieged in a city.”
Money quote: “I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.” He does a bit of summing up of other people I care less about. The Kipling chapter was charming and informative, particularly since I have read very little Kipling.
He really really dislikes Nietzsche, which is hilarious because the two have so much in common – in particular, their absolute conviction, their love of a good argument, and their biting language. I nearly fell over at this: “Nietzsche and the Bow Bells Novelettes have both obviously the same fundamental character; they both worship the tall man with curling moustaches and herculean bodily power, and they both worship him in a manner which is somewhat feminine and hysterical.” I would pay good money to know what Nietzsche would’ve said, had he still been alive.
He also has some excellent call-outs of rationalists and post-rats, which entertained me to an unreasonable degree. See more context in the quotes I’ve collected!