Saffron Park: G K Chesterton on Progressivism

Although best known today as the author of the Father Brown mysteries and The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton was also a philosopher, journalist, religious apologist, poet, playwright, and public debater.  He was the master of the paradox and  used it often to skewer the sloppy thinking of the so-called great minds of his day.  Chesterton took on many of the modern thinkers of his time including, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and H. G. Wells.  And he vigorously challenged the progressive push of the late 19th and early 20th century in many of his writings.

Following, are excerpts from an essay Chesterton penned entitled, On the Negative Spirit.  This essay was part of a collection published in 1905 under the title HereticsHeretics was a frontal assault against many of the modern ‘progressive’ voices of his day, voices that continue to resonate with the progressive pundits of the 21st century.  Chesterton challenges the hollow and directionless call to action of the ‘progressive’ platform and brings his readers back to the foundational formulations of faith.

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘liberty’; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘progress’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘education’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  The modern man says: ” Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.”  This is logically rendered: ” Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”  He says: “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.”  This, logically stated means: “Let us not settle what is good, but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.”  He says: “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.”  This clearly expressed means: “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

The case of the general talk of ‘progress’ is indeed an extreme one.  As enunciated today, ‘progress’ is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.  We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what.  Progress, properly understood, has indeed a most dignified and legitimate meaning.  But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth.  Nobody has any business to use the word ‘progress’ unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals.  Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible–at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress.

Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word ‘progress’ than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, but about the direction they did in the main agree and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress.  But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree.  Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an all most virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy or spare nobody with Nietzsche—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most.

It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this ‘progressive’ age.  It is moreover true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most ‘progressive’ people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress might be trusted perhaps to progress.  The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol shot started the race.  I do not therefore say that the word ‘progress’ is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common.  Progress is not an illegitimate word but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us.  It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the age of faith.

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