Heretics – Chapter 2: On the Negative Spirit

HereticsI am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.

In Ecclesiastes the author writes over and over that ‘there is nothing new under the sun”.  Yet today we here over and over (primarily in the political realm) that we are ‘progressing’ with every ‘change’ we make.  Progress it seems has become a virtue without the virtue of progress being discussed. Like Ecclesiastes stated “there is nothing new under the sun” – what is being touted today was spoken yesteryear.

Heresy exposed:

Progress without virtue thus progress without direction.

Summary of Chapter:

The main argument here is that without a starting point there can be no start, without a yardstick there can be no measure, without a standard there can be no change. There is always a standard (as what Ravi Zacharias states here).  People can always state what is wrong in the world, but in general people cannot find a consensus over what is good.  This is due in part to the loss of the quest of ‘the good life’.

“It is more wholesome for this reason, that it can contemplate the idea of success or triumph in the hopeless fight towards the ethical ideal, in what Stevenson called, with his usual startling felicity, “the lost fight of virtue.”A modern morality, on the other hand, can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow breaches of law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill. It can only point to imperfection. It has no perfection to point to.”

We have given up on the quest for virtue.  As Chesterton said (below) that we have fallen a second time – losing the knowledge of good.  In the study of writing law and rules to games both people (lawyers and children) create a safe place to live and play.  As always however the children have a purer way – they define how to play, but in the adult world we are told what not to do.  Children here know the ideal, while the adults know what not to do.

“The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained knowledge of good and of evil. Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us. A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.”

In the making of law, or society (where most of the change argument exists) all the rules and regulations that use the stance of progressiveness are just avoiding discussing what is good – in essence they are tearing down a lamppost before discussing the nature of light.

“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 main issue is that to point in a direction there must be a direction.

“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.”


It’s like that famous myth about the family that always cut off the ends of a ham before cooking it.  It was a habit and a tradition.  Finally one day the curiosity of one of the families children asked the mother why she cut off the ends of the ham.  The mother did not know, it was just something her mother used to do.  So she called up her mother, who in turn said it was something her mother used to do.  So the next day the two women went to the Grandmother’s house (which was nearby) and asked her why the ends of the ham were cut off.  The Grandmother laughed and said that the pan she used to use to cut the ham was too small thus the need to cut off the ends.  Everyone laughed.  But the story goes on… To this day they still cut off the ends of the ham before cooking it in memory of their family tradition.  The habit of ham cutting links them to the past and gives a story to tell.  The pragmatic way of cooking meat is shadowed by the people who cooked in the past and the praise of those people.

The idea of progress without a foundation of value is what the book “10 books that Screwed over the World” is all about.  However the idea and concept of progress is being touted as a virtue, and as the highest form of praise when in fact unbridled ‘progress’ is regressive in nature. Morality is not a social norm.

It all comes down to our view of humanity.  Is humanity inherently good or is it inherently bad?  If humanity is inherently good then that nature will exert itself in all we say and do.  Every step we make brings us closer and closer to the utopia that has been promised by the Modernists.  According to this we started in the mire of savagery and are everyday by everything we do becoming more and more civilized.  Think of this as a graph with a positive slope. If humanity is inherently bad (as in fallen creatures – created good but tainted by sin) then our peak was in the past (before the Fall) and we slide daily away from the greatness that we once knew.  Think of this as a graph with a negative slope. The only way to progress then is to look to the past to see the giants from which we have jumped off of.

Ideas have consequences. History is the best mechanism to see what those consequences are.


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