This is by no means definitive. What it does, though, is outline the tone, momentum and edge. From which Chesterton engraved an unmistakable mark into the hard surface of arrogance and happy ignorance.
What is presented here are, in my opinion, some of the most pointed aspects of Heretics.
These points, more than any others, is why I’m growing to be as much a fan of Heretics as I am of Orthodoxy. Heretics may not introduce Chesterton’s theology as brilliantly as Orthodoxy does, in the end though it doesn’t matter. The essence is there. It is in the poetic phrases and witty criticisms
Chesterton’s thoughts on humility, nations, family, pathos, science and faith, all signify the value of this work to a contemporary audience.
‘The whole secret of the practical success of Christendom lies in the Christian humility, however imperfectly fulfilled. For with the removal of all question of merit or payment, the soul is suddenly released for incredible voyages.’ (p.34)
‘Humility is not merely too good for this world; it is too practical for this world; I had almost said it is too worldly for this world.’ (p.35)
‘It is the humble man who does the big things. It is the humble man who does the bold things.’ (p.36)
‘The worship of [human] success ends in mere mediocrity; its followers are foredoomed to become slaves and cowards.’ (p.61)
‘To the humble person, and to that humble person alone, the sun is really a sun; the sea is really a sea.’ (p.87)
‘The ultimate psychological truth, the foundation of Christianity, is that no man or woman is a hero to himself. Oliver Cromwell, according to Carlyle, was a strong man. According to Cromwell, he was a weak one.’ (p.87)
On Nations and The Family:
‘Nationality exists, and has nothing in the world to do with race.’ (p.95)
‘A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge. We can see this change, for instance, in the modern transformation of the thing called a club.’ (p.95)
‘The man or woman who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us […] It is a good thing for man or woman to live in a family in the same sense that it is a beautiful and delightful thing for a man or woman to be snowed up in a street. They are forced to realise that life is not a thing from outside, but a thing from inside.’ (p.99)
‘The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as medicine…Drink because you are happy, never because you are miserable.’ (p.53)
‘Human emotions are never hard and never gem-like; they are always dangerous, like flames, to touch or even examine.’ (p.56)
‘For a hearty laugh it is necessary to have touched the heart. I do not know why touching the heart should always be connected with the idea of touching it to compassion or a sense of distress. The heart can be touched to joy and triumph and the heart can be touched to amusement.’ (p.110)
‘Were even the Puritans Stoics? The English Puritans repressed a good deal, but even they were too English to repress their feelings.’ (p.112)
‘Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.’ (p.50)
‘Science can analyse a pork-chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyse any man’s wish for a pork-chop, and say how much of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a haunting love of the beautiful. The man’s desire for the pork-chop remains literally as mystical and ethereal as his desire for heaven.’ (p.76)
’Science in the modern world has many uses; its chief use, however, is to provide long words to cover the errors of the rich. The word “kleptomania” is a vulgar example of what I mean.’ (p.91)
‘Science is always by its nurture more solemn and austere than religion.’ (p.115)
‘To use a thing in vain means to use it without use.’ (p.117)
‘In the modern world solemnity [by way of grave and verbose writers (p.118)] is the direct enemy of sincerity.’ (p.119)
‘Science means specialism, and specialism means oligarchy […] the expert is more aristocratic than the aristocrat [and] if we look at the progress of our scientific civilization we see a gradual increase everywhere of the specialist.’ (p.121)
‘A man or woman who has faith must be prepared not to be a martyr, but to be a fool.’ (p.49)
‘Whatever may be the meaning of faith; it must always mean a certainty about something we cannot prove. Thus, for instance, we believe by faith in the existence of other people.’ (p.85)
‘Faith is unfashionable, and it is customary on every side to cast against it the fact that it is a paradox (p.83). [But] Paradoxes are true(p.120) […] a paradox is not a frivolous thing, but a very serious thing; it simply means a certain defiant joy which belongs to belief. I should regard any civilization which was without a universal habit of uproarious dancing as being, from the full human point of view, a defective civilization. And I should regard any mind which had not got the habit in one form or another of uproarious thinking as being, from the full human point of view, a defective mind.’ (p.123)
Some of his criticisms aren’t as cutting to a modern reader. Such as his rebuttal to H.G Wells, F. Nietzsche, or Rudyard Kipling and the Ex-Catholic Priest, Joseph McCabe. All seem overly wordy and lack absolute clarification about the context of Chesterton’s criticisms.The modern reader is then left a little shell-shocked, having to piece together fragments of Chesterton’s commentary in order to completely understand the significance of certain criticisms. In some respects it’s like wading through a fog with only Chesterton’s humour laced voice to guide the way – step here, tread there, no wait, go back, this way, not that.
It’s this trail, however, that makes Heretics what it is: a tour of an era, high on the belle époque of pre-WW1 humanism. Chesterton isn’t out to impress anyone. This is the one endearing tone of Heretics that rises higher than the rest. Honest, sometimes humorous and broad thought encapsulates its real value. In spite of the limitations Chesterton looks towards the precipice ahead. Pointing, with pipe and pint in hand, he then resoundingly argues that the trajectory of human pride ends, not in victory, but in a tragic free-fall from a fast approaching ledge.
Chesterton, G.K. 1905 Heretics, Catholic Way Publishing