Impressions of “Heretics,” by G.K. Chesterton

Heretics is not, as I expected, an overview of the great Heresies of the past. It is instead effectively a series of magazine articles G.K. Chesterton wrote against contemporary writers a century ago. As such it’s slightly less organized than Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, meaning it is the least enjoyable book by him I have ever read.

The meaning of “Heretics” is hidden until the end, where Chesterton notes that Britain contains blasphemy (hate speech) laws that are used against the poor, but not anti-heresy laws that could be used against the rich.

Everything in our age has, when carefully examined, this fundamentally undemocratic quality. … But the modern laws are almost always laws made to affect the governed class, but not the governing. We have public-house licensing laws, but not sumptuary laws. That is to say, we have laws against the festivity and hospitality of the poor, but no laws against the festivity and hospitality of the rich. We have laws against blasphemy—that is, against a kind of coarse and offensive speaking in which nobody but a rough and obscure man would be likely to indulge. But we have no laws against heresy—that is, against the intellectual poisoning of the whole people, in which only a prosperous and prominent man would be likely to be successful.

Thus the book is not against blasphemy, or hate speech, but against poisonous intellectuals. It makes some good points, but there are… issues with the writing quality.

An example is useful here. The entirety of Heretics is captured by this passage, which is the opening fourth of a longer paragraph

The idea that there is something English in the repression of one’s feelings is one of those ideas which no Englishman ever heard of until England began to be governed exclusively by Scotchmen, Americans, and Jews. At the best, the idea is a generalization from the Duke of Wellington—who was an Irishman. At the worst, it is a part of that silly Teutonism which knows as little about England as it does about anthropology, but which is always talking about Vikings. As a matter of fact, the Vikings did not repress their feelings in the least. They cried like babies and kissed each other like girls; in short, they acted in that respect like Achilles and all strong heroes the children of the gods. And though the English nationality has probably not much more to do with the Vikings than the French nationality or the Irish nationality, the English have certainly been the children of the Vikings in the matter of tears and kisses. It is not merely true that all the most typically English men of letters, like Shakespeare and Dickens, Richardson and Thackeray, were sentimentalists. It is also true that all the most typically English men of action were sentimentalists, if possible, more sentimental. In the great Elizabethan age, when the English nation was finally hammered out, in the great eighteenth century when the British Empire was being built up everywhere, where in all these times, where was this symbolic stoical Englishman who dresses in drab and black and represses his feelings?…

You can see all fo the book, good and bad in this passage

1. Original ideas, such as that the British stiff upper life is foreign to Britain

“The idea that there is something English in the repression of one’s feelings is one of those ideas which no Englishman ever heard of”

2. An opposition to imperialism and globalism

Until England began to be governed exclusively by Scotchmen, Americans, and Jews

3. A delight in the surprise negation — which, because Chesterton uses it all the time, gradually becomes less surprising

At the best, the idea is a generalization from the Duke of Wellington—who was an Irishman.

4. A witty conversationsism, hints of the brilliant apologetics that C.S. Lewis would write a few decades later

At the worst, it is a part of that silly Teutonism which knows as little about England as it does about anthropology, but which is always talking about Vikings.

5. Did I mention Chesterton liked the surprise negation?

They cried like babies and kissed each other like girls; in short, they acted in that respect like Achilles and all strong heroes the children of the gods.

6. A repetition that reminds me of St. Augustine’s Confessions, and which is not entirely out of fashion.

And though the English nationality has probably not much more to do with the Vikings than the French nationality or the Irish nationality, the English have certainly been the children of the Vikings in the matter of tears and kisses.

7. Repetition, again, even of the original ideas

In the great Elizabethan age, when the English nation was finally hammered out, in the great eighteenth century when the British Empire was being built up everywhere, where in all these times, where was this symbolic stoical Englishman who dresses in drab and black and represses his feelings?

(And the paragraph is only one-fourth finished!)

So Heretics makes some excellent points. But they are buried in repetition, interlaced with comments on contemporary political events, and marred by verbal tics.

I listened to Heretics in the Audible edition.

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