Heretics – Chapter 1: Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy

HereticsI am beginning to document my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. If you would like to follow along here is the free public domain text: and here it is read by David “Grizzly” Smith: and here is the podcast feed:

Mr. Smith writes this about the book; ‘“Heretics” is a book about religion and politics, theory and fact, morals and efficiency. What I most admire about “Heretics,” written a bit over a century ago, is that his arguments are exceptional, and that so many of them are still quite recognizably true. He argues that the weakening and devaluing of religion has also weakened and devalued heresy. He argues that people should be able to speak freely — but that freedom of speech has actually decreased people’s willingness to speak about important issues. And so much more.”

Heresy exposed:

Ignoring the past, and thinking that the past is insignificant.

Summary of Chapter:

In this Topsy-turvey world of ours words have had meanings changed and swapped. It now is safe to destroy an idea but villainy to build on the foundation of the past. This is due (I agree with Chesterton) to the removal of philosophical thought.  Even Alan Bloom agrees with this in his book “Closing of the American Mind“.  Philosophy has cloistered itself away from the true  battles and has concerned herself in small and specific ideas.  It should be engaging the world with general ideals.

“The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical.”

The result of this removal of general ideals and history is that they are not attacked.  There is no discourse for those deemed ‘ignorant’.  This ‘silent game’ played by rude children is now played in realms of science, politics, and everyday life.  If there is a confrontation then the two parties start on equal ground and must use logic and reasoning.  In the past the mistake was to confront a heretic and kill them – today the larger error is that the heretic ignores the opposing side entirely.

“It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period.”

In Ancient Greece, the first democratic state, the birth of western rhetoric began. Pubic oratory was a necessary part of life. From courtrooms evaluating law to legislative assemblies the Athenians found that their fortunes, stability, and lives depended on their ability to speak.  This is evident in their Olympic games where speaking was an event, the winner receiving an olive wreath and being paraded through his hometown as a hero. In this environment the need for professional speakers arose, the wisdom bearers or sophists become the vanguard of words.  However like is seen throughout the course of history, the inner thoughts influence the outer actions. The viewpoint of these rhetoricians was stated by Protagorious that ‘man was the measure of all things’, the belief that all that mattered was appearance. This perspective of speaking lead to the practice of verbal manipulation, personal attacks and even to the grievous crime of torturing slaves to witness falsely in courts for the benefit of winning a case or argument. The end mattered more than anything.  Richard Katula the chair of modern languages in Northeastern University wrote that “With the help of the sophists the art of composing highly probable arguments was often sublimated into the art of hoodwinking the audience in any manner possible”.  The statements said by these tricksters (now not all of the sophists were bad, but the philosophy was unsound) was that they should not worry about the reasons why but has to be concerned with the every day matters of security and efficiency.  This also happened in the Second Sophistic during the last phase of the Roman empire.  Historically a society is about to fall when the philosophy of the culture is ‘the ends justify the means’ and ‘efficiency above all else’.  Sounds familiar even today.

“Now, in our time, philosophy or religion, our theory, that is, about ultimate things, has been driven out, more or less simultaneously, from two fields which it used to occupy. General ideals used to dominate literature. They have been driven out by the cry of “art for art’s sake.” General ideals used to dominate politics. They have been driven out by the cry of “efficiency,” which may roughly be translated as “politics for politics’ sake.” Persistently for the last twenty years the ideals of order or liberty have dwindled in our books; the ambitions of wit and eloquence have dwindled in our parliaments. Literature has purposely become less political; politics have purposely become less literary. General theories of the relation of things have thus been extruded from both; and we are in a position to ask, “What have we gained or lost by this extrusion? Is literature better, is politics better, for having discarded the moralist and the philosopher?”  When everything about a people is for the time growing weak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency. So it is that when a man’s body is a wreck he begins, for the first time, to talk about health. Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes, but about their aims. […] Neither in the world of politics nor that of literature, then, has the rejection of general theories proved a success. It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleading ideals that have from time to time perplexed mankind. But assuredly there has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality”

“What have we gained or lost by this extrusion? Is literature better, is politics better, for having discarded the moralist and the philosopher?”  Of course the answer is an emphatic no – is a cake better without flour? If the Aristotelian soul is of discourse is missing and by that I mean the purpose then the towering confection of rhetoric has become a “pan”-cake – only fit for tricksters. The first part of every argument is to define terms, to understand what the issue is rally about.  This was done in the past – to make sure there was no heresy.  Today there is no doctrine to even start a discussion let alone come to a conclusion.  People state ‘change for change sake’ without figuring out why there ought to be change and where.  To truly find an answer one must start at the beginning.

“I perceive that it is far more practical to begin at the beginning and discuss theories. I see that the men who killed each other about the orthodoxy of the Homoousion were far more sensible than the people who are quarrelling about the Education Act. For the Christian dogmatists were trying to establish a reign of holiness, and trying to get defined, first of all, what was really holy. But our modern educationists are trying to bring about a religious liberty without attempting to settle what is religion or what is liberty. If the old priests forced a statement on mankind, at least they previously took some trouble to make it lucid. It has been left for the modern mobs of Anglicans and Nonconformists to persecute for a doctrine without even stating it.”


The ending portion of this chapter is one of my favorites and summarizes the introduction and the whole book in a parable:

“Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.”After finished a venture through time in ‘The Everlasting Man’, I decided to start another journey into ‘Heretics’.

Also this destruction of the past by ignoring it or stating it irrelevant was seen by C.S. Lewis who devoted a whole essay to this problem of chronological snobbery. He states “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Stated simply the fallacy is thus:

  • You argue that A implies B.
  • A implies B is an old argument, dating back to the times when people also believed C.
  • C is clearly false.
  • Therefore, A does not imply B.

In this sense of modernity ruling over everything  we have been taking a Swiftian modest proposal by metaphorically burning books, and philosophers to solve our energy problem.


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