110 years since it was published, Heretics hasn’t lost a great deal of its significance.
In-situ, Heretics is a sum of careful considerations rendered at a time of significant change. Although his one hundred year old addresses easily convey to a modern reader, a sense of prophetic poignancy, Chesterton’s insights aren’t compromised by it. He is still a man writing for his own times. A simple example of this is that Chesterton is as critical of progressives as he is of aristocracy, and yet he is neither against progress nor entirely against the existence of an aristocrat. His concern is with the true and false definitions.
This is perhaps more clearer in the final chapter of Heretics than anywhere else:
‘The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed […] Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. (p.163)
Chesterton’s conclusions seek to follow some of the logic of his day to their eventual ends. Mocking selectively, he unapologetically points out their inadequacies, lamenting that a time may come when the consequential absurdity that follows them might actually be given free reign. In fact, judging by the overall tone of Heretics it’s something Chesterton sees as already starting to happen.
‘Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions. It is the resistance offered to definite ideas by that vague bulk of people whose ideas are indefinite to excess. Bigotry may be called the appalling frenzy of the indifferent. This frenzy of the indifferent is in truth a terrible thing; it has made all monstrous and widely pervading persecutions.’ (pp. 158-159)
‘Bigotry in the main has always been the pervading omnipotence of those who do not care, crushing out those who care, in darkness and blood…Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas.’(p.159)
‘It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs’ (p.129)
‘All the art of all the artists looked tiny and tedious beside the art which was a by-product of propaganda […] Originality is disagreement with others’ (p.155)
‘A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.’ (p.155)
‘The men and women who have really been the bold artists, the realistic artists, the uncompromising artists, are the men who have turned out, after all, to be writing “with a purpose.” (p.155)
‘When we want any art tolerably brisk and bold we have to go to the doctrinaires.’ (p.156)
On Literary Criticism:
‘It need hardly be said that this is the real explanation of the thing which has puzzled so many dilettante critics, the problem of the extreme ordinariness of the behaviour of so many great geniuses in history. Their behaviour was so ordinary that it was not recorded; hence it was so ordinary that it seemed mysterious. Hence people say that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare…The explanation is simple enough; it is that Shakespeare had a real lyrical impulse, wrote a real lyric, and so got rid of the impulse and went about his business. Being an artist did not prevent him from being an ordinary man.’ (p.130)
‘Democracy is not philanthropy; it is not even altruism or social reform. Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man; democracy is founded on reverence for the common man, or, if you will, even on fear of him.’ (p.143)
‘Nothing can be more dangerous than to found a social philosophy on any theory which is debatable but has not been debated.’ (p.153)
‘If a man or woman convinces us at all, it should be by his or her convictions.’ (p.156)
‘When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.’ (p.153).
‘No man ought to write at all, or even to speak at all, unless he thinks he is in truth and the other man in error.’ (p.154)
‘Dogmatism is the founding of a system.’ (p.154)
‘Heresy is the intellectual poisoning of a whole people, in which only a prosperous and prominent man would be likely to be successful. The evil of aristocracy is not that it necessarily leads to the infliction of bad things or the suffering of sad ones; the evil of aristocracy is that it places everything in the hands of a class of people who can always inflict what they can never suffer.’ (p.147)
‘The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. It may be thought “dogmatic,” for instance, in some circles accounted progressive, to assume the perfection or improvement of man in another world. But it is not thought “dogmatic” to assume the perfection or improvement of man in this world; though that idea of progress is quite as unproved as the idea of immortality, and from a rationalistic point of view quite as improbable. [For example] we see the full frenzy of those who killed themselves to find the sepulchre of Christ. But being in a civilization which does believe in this dogma of fact for facts’ sake, we do not see the full frenzy of those who kill themselves to find the North Pole.’ (p.162)
[Memorable quote:] ‘Some hold the undemonstrable dogma of the existence of God; some the equally undemonstrable dogma of the existence of the man next door.’ (p.163)
‘most of our realists and sociologists talk about a poor man as if he were an octopus or an alligator.’ (p.147)
‘The missionary comes to tell the poor man that he is in the same condition with all men. The journalist comes to tell other people how different the poor man is from everybody else.’ (p.148)
‘If we talk of a certain thing being an aspect of truth, it is evident that we claim to know what is truth; just as, if we talk of the hind leg of a dog, we claim to know what is a dog. Unfortunately, the philosopher who talks about aspects of truth generally also asks, ‘What is truth?” Frequently even he denies the existence of truth, or says it is inconceivable by the human intelligence.’ (p.157)
‘It is ludicrous to suppose that the more sceptical we are the more we see good in everything. It is clear that the more we are certain what good is, the more we shall see good in everything.’ (p.157)
Chesterton walks along the edge of poignancy. His wit and quips land closer to sharp and reasoned criticism than they do to a flippant, mournful, petulant rejection of his subject matter. Chesterton has widely read and thought about the material he is addressing.
G.K. Chesterton’s voice, although slightly worn and visibly dated in some aspects, still remains as confronting as it did when he first put pen to paper.
That parallels can be proven to exist between the then and the now shows the longevity of Chesterton’s broad intellect, the broad impact of his ability to laugh and courage to speak out.
‘Eternity is the eve of something…Our existence is still a story. In the fiery alphabet of every sunset is written, “to be continued…” (pp.125 & 102)
Chesterton, G.K. 1905 Heretics, Catholic Way Publishing