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Chesterton’s reply to “What’s Wrong with the World”

Chesterton’s reply to What’s Wrong with the World*

Alberto M.  Piedra Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, The Institute of World Politics 

The British philosopher and writer G.H Chesterton wrote in his remarkably perceptive book What’s Wrong with the World: “…in the modern world we are primarily confronted with the extraordinary spectacle of people turning to new ideals because they have not tried the old.  Men have not got tired of Christianity; they have never found enough Christianity to get rid of.  Men have never wearied of political justice; they have wearied of waiting for it.”1  This wise statement, made by the brilliant British writer and philosopher Chesterton, should be reread by those contemporary theologians who dispute original sin, the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved.  They admit divine sinlessness which they cannot see but they deny human sin which they can see in the street.2  Apparently, they have forgotten that Orthodoxy, as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments are the best root of energy and sound ethics.3  As to the question What’s Wrong with the World? He unhesitatingly answers: “What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.” This is exactly what he does in this amazingly perceptive book in which he analyzes the social issues of our time.

The Second Vatican Council detects a law which man does not impose on himself but which holds him to obedience; to love good and avoid evil.   Faithful to his love for man, God gives him his Law (cf. Ex 19:9-24 and 20:18-21) in order to restore man’s origins and peaceful harmony with the creator and with all creation, and, what is more, to draw him into his divine law.4  The law of Human Nature (Natural Law) is so ingrained in men’s minds that few, if any, have challenged its existence.5

The morality of an act is defined as the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good.  The authentic good is established by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end.  The natural law is infused in man by God and is written in his heart. It is known by human reason. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (Rom 2:14-16).6  

The relationship between freedom and law is intimately connected with one’s understanding of the moral law.  John Henry Cardinal Newman considers conscience, not as a rule of right conduct, but as a sanction of right conduct.7  Thus, the view that freedom and law are set in opposition to each other and kept apart, and freedom is exalted almost to the point of idolatry can only lead to a creative understanding of moral conscience, which diverges from the teaching of the Church’s tradition and her Magisterium.8

One of the major problems facing mankind today is relativism. It has become the central problem for faith in our time. For many of our contemporaries, freedom is the greatest good there is and, as a result, everything else is of secondary importance.9  Cardinal Ratzinger insists on the point that if we can no longer recognize what is true and can no longer distinguish it from what is false, then it becomes impossible to recognize what is good; the distinction between good and evil loses its basis.10

There is no doubt that modern man witnesses demonstrable and frequent incidents of all the vices, yet it is true that it is a time in which everything is molded around one vice.  “This is the vice that corrupts all the virtues and all the vices.  It is the vice that justifies abortion on a theory of choice and divorce on a theory of freedom.  It is the vice that maintains that no one is guilty.  It is the vice that abolishes any distinction of good and evil.  It is the vice that says that all is relative, that nothing is true. Its model remains ‘I shall not serve.’ Chesterton’s sermon against pride remains the one that we most need to hear in our days.  This may be the reason why we are least likely to hear it.”11  And this too is pride. The most ardent political defenders of relativism would find it difficult to defend the Holocaust and the killing of innocent people. 

Things that are wrong can never become right.  It is often essential, claims Chesterton, to resist a tyranny or a heresy before it exists.  In the Introduction to Chesterton’s Collected works, Volume IV , Father James V. Schall S.J. claims that, according to Chesterton, it is the newer heresies that are the more difficult to contradict, even though he saw them at their beginning and where they might well end.12

In summary, freedom takes place above all other values; the media and all means of communication being no exception.

Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, in an address delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2016 clearly reminded us that what Christians mean by freedom before the law is very different from the secular content of those words. For the believer, freedom is more than a means of choice or the absence of oppression.  Christian freedom is the liberty, the knowledge and the character to do what is morally right.  And the Christian meaning of equality is much more robust than the moral equivalent of a math equation.13

Even the sacred world of art is not respected.  Beauty is often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. The objective reality of truth has been subjected to the dominant philosophy of relativism. Frequently it is used as a means to limit freedom and spread false and pernicious ideologies.  Relativism, under the guise of tolerance, is undermining the very concept of truth and undermining the realm of art.14

Perhaps, the brilliant philosopher Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher, composer and member of the Framkfurter Schule of Social Theory and Critical philosophy, associated with the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt’s Goethe University, explains best how art can be used as a political tool in the struggle against capitalism.  His Aesthetic Theory is not limited only to the question of beauty and sublimity in art but primarily with the relation between art and society.  Art must be freed from the shackles of capitalism and expand its responsibility to the field of social criticism.15

If modern man wants to straighten things out in this confused world of the 21st century, he cannot find   the solution in the new doctrine of human perfectibility. He can only do it with the old doctrine of Original Sin.  Quoting again from Chesterton: “Not only is the faith the mother of all worldly energies, but its foes are the fathers of all worldly confusion.  The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things if that is any comfort for them.  The Titans did not scale heaven, but they laid waste the world.”16

A  Christian order of life, reminds us Romano Guardini, could only come into existence in which natural human powers would be freed for full development, a development impossible outside a Christian order. Man might then become conscious of values which, although evident in themselves, only take on visible manifestation under the aegis of Revelation. Those who maintain that these values and cultural attitudes are simply one with the autonomous developments of human nature misunderstand the essential role of a Christian economy of revelation.”17  Guardini does not repudiate or glorify the modern world.  He simply tries to comprehend why it is coming to an end and to understand the nature of the new epoch which is being born.

*Please note: The views expressed by Amb. Piedra do not necessarily reflect those of The Institute of World Politics.


G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World?  p.  41

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Image Books, p.15

Ibid., p.13

John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington DC, 2007, pp.17-18.

 St. Thomas Aquinas defines Natural Law as the participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.  It is written in the hearts of each and every man.  It is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided.  Its precepts are in exact correspondence with our natural inclinations and follow the same order.  pp.9-10.  See: Alberto M. Piedra. Natural Law, The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System, Lanham Md. Lexington Books, 2004. p. 10.                     

See:  John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, Encyclical Letter, August 6. 1993. pp.19-20.

John Henry Newman, Grammar of Assent, New York, Image Books 1955,  p. 99

Veritatis Splendor, op.cit., Chapter Two, Conscience and Truth. p. 86.  

Joseph Cardinal Ratrzinger Truth and Tolerance, San Francisco, Ignatius Press 2004, p. 117.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger ibid. p. 214.

James v. Schall,  Schall on Chesterton, Against Pride, Washington DC,  The Catholic University of America Press, 2000, p. 82.

G. K Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume 4, Introduction, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1987. p. 29.

Arhbishop Chaput claims that Chesterton was right when he once quipped that Catholics in America have been largely assimilated to and digested by a culture that bleaches out strong religious conviction in the name of liberal tolerance and dulls our longing for the supernatural with a river of predicable atheism in the form of consumer goods. 

For an interesting ironic criticism of contemporary  art and advertisement see Chesterton, Utopia and Usurers, Chapter I, pp.15-18,Norfolk, Virginia, HIS Press, 2002. 

Theodor Adorno, Aesthetische Theorie (Aesthetic Theory), Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1970.  See also; Alberto M. Piedra, Adorno and his Theory of Ethics, The Wanderer, July 13, 2017.                                                  

Chesterton, Orthodoxy, op. cit, pp.240-241.  For a more complete understanding of Chesterton’s work, it is necessary to read what some scholars consider his greatest masterpiece, The Everlasting Man.  Christ is not another myth in the history of mankind and to say that all religions are similar contradicts the facts of history.  With respect to God and comparative religions, he writes in Chapter IV the following; “Comparative religion is very comparative indeed.  That is, it is so much a matter of degree and distance and difference that it is only comparatively successful when it tries to compare.  When we come to look at it closely we find it comparing things that are really quite incomparable.”  Chesterton disputes also the theory of H.G. Wells  (The Outline of History) which portrays human life and civilization as a seamless development from animal life and Jesus as another charismatic figure.

Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World.  ISI Books, 1998. p. 98.