I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.
Sometimes the most famous people are the ones who have the most quirks. This is usually due to the fact that their fame is built on those quirks. In Chesterton’s day there were tons of writers as the print media had no competitors like today. In his day writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells wrote their great works. There are also writers that we may not recognize as much today. One of these is George Moore.
Heresy exposed: Vanity as social pride
Summary of Chapter:
Chesterton begins by praising Mr. Moore. Heresies are not people but the worldviews that they have the end up damaging the person and their soul.
Mr. George Moore began his literary career by writing his personal confessions; nor is there any harm in this if he had not continued them for the remainder of his life. He is a man of genuinely forcible mind and of great command over a kind of rhetorical and fugitive conviction which excites and pleases. He is in a perpetual state of temporary honesty. He has admired all the most admirable modern eccentrics until they could stand it no longer. Everything he writes, it is to be fully admitted, has a genuine mental power.
The worldview here is that when one rejects Christianity like Chesterton claims George Moore did, they also reject what comes from Christianity like its virtues.
The truth is that the tradition of Christianity (which is still the only coherent ethic of Europe) rests on two or three paradoxes or mysteries which can easily be impugned in argument and as easily justified in life. One of them, for instance, is the paradox of hope or faith–that the more hopeless is the situation the more hopeful must be the man. Stevenson understood this, and consequently Mr. Moore cannot understand Stevenson. Another is the paradox of charity or chivalry that the weaker a thing is the more it should be respected, that the more indefensible a thing is the more it should appeal to us for a certain kind of defence. Thackeray understood this, and therefore Mr. Moore does not understand Thackeray. Now, one of these very practical and working mysteries in the Christian tradition, and one which the Roman Catholic Church, as I say, has done her best work in singling out, is the conception of the sinfulness of pride. Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy. The Christian tradition understands this; therefore Mr. Moore does not understand the Christian tradition.
Chesterton writes of 3 paradoxes: “The more hopeless the situation, the more hopeful must be the man”, “The weaker a thing is, the more it should be respected”, and that pride is a weakness of character and does not produce vigor; it dries it up.
For the truth is much stranger even than it appears in the formal doctrine of the sin of pride. It is not only true that humility is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride. It is also true that vanity is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride. Vanity is social–it is almost a kind of comradeship; pride is solitary and uncivilized. Vanity is active; it desires the applause of infinite multitudes; pride is passive, desiring only the applause of one person, which it already has. Vanity is humorous, and can enjoy the joke even of itself; pride is dull, and cannot even smile.
Now comes the strange observation: Vanity is pride but while pride is a solitary things, vanity seems to have vigor and virtue! However, vanity eventually becomes pride. This happens when this vanity becomes the all consuming perspective that infects both the moral and the aesthetic. The vain becomes small as everything revolves around that person.
One of the thousand objections to the sin of pride lies precisely in this, that self-consciousness of necessity destroys self-revelation. A man who thinks a great deal about himself will try to be many-sided, attempt a theatrical excellence at all points, will try to be an encyclopaedia of culture, and his own real personality will be lost in that false universalism. Thinking about himself will lead to trying to be the universe; trying to be the universe will lead to ceasing to be anything. If, on the other hand, a man is sensible enough to think only about the universe; he will think about it in his own individual way. He will keep virgin the secret of God; he will see the grass as no other man can see it, and look at a sun that no man has ever known.
The writings of George Moore, according to Chesterton, have become infected with this vanity.
He is profoundly absorbed even in views he no longer holds, and he expects us to be. And he intrudes the capital “I” even where it need not be intruded–even where it weakens the force of a plain statement. Where another man would say, “It is a fine day,” Mr. Moore says, “Seen through my temperament, the day appeared fine.” Where another man would say “Milton has obviously a fine style,” Mr. Moore would say, “As a stylist Milton had always impressed me.” The Nemesis of this self-centred spirit is that of being totally ineffectual. Mr. Moore has started many interesting crusades, but he has abandoned them before his disciples could begin. Even when he is on the side of the truth he is as fickle as the children of falsehood. Even when he has found reality he cannot find rest.
Today, we follow vanity. It seems to us that the most famous people know exactly what to say. That is why we will listen to athletes when they sell us cars, personal care items, or other gadgets. We will listen to people who do not claim to be doctors but play them on TV. Actors speak in front of the United Nations and try to affect policy. We listen to those who may be vain because of their position because we wish we were in their position. We can see this vanity infect the aesthetic as well. To sell things to the most people however, those who are vain try to be a person for everyone and will lose themselves. When we lose ourselves we can never rest even when we find what is real.
Besides marketing we can also see vanity affecting the aesthetic when writers use snarkiness to make a point. By doing so they put themselves above what they are seeing and experiencing just like George Moore is accused of doing. You can see in many books that have been published even having the ‘Christian label’ doing this but excuse it away because they claim to be authentic. Claiming to be authentic is often an excuse for being vain.
As Kevin DeYoung writes in the above linked article:
“Remember, it was the Gnostics who peddled the false gospel of salvation-through-self-awareness, while the authentic gospel promised something better than authenticity. The New Testament says little about getting in touch with the real you and a lot about walking in step with the real Him. If you follow the logic of Matthew 23 it becomes clear that hypocrisy is essentially saying one thing and doing another. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that what we do or think or feel matters less than whether we admit to doing and thinking and feeling those things. To act in a way that is right and proper, even when you feel something different, is not hypocrisy. It’s called maturity.”
This is a danger that we as a culture are facing. We praise the ‘authentic’ but despise the mature. We avoid the real because we are too vain for it. When reality is beneath us we have become to fickle for it; where else can we retreat but to heresies.