Heretics – Chapter 17: On the Wit of Whistler


I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. Pride takes many forms, but it places the self above others. Sometimes pride comes in one seeing themselves as smarter than others, but other times as more caring than others. In other forms it is seen as being beyond what holds others back – this is one of the most deadly variants of pride.

Heresy exposed: Feeling beyond morality and thus beyond humanity itself.

Summary of Chapter:

There has been a battle for a very long time between the head-heart people and the heart-head people. Both use rationality and emotion but in different orders and with different hierarchies. The head-heart people tend to be the ‘Spocks’ but the heart-head people tend to be ‘starving artists’. Both are in error as one is a ‘man without a chest’ as C.S. Lewis would state and the other is a ‘chest without being a man’. The error in both is that they are out of balance but put their point of view as better than the other. They also state that their virtues are better than the other (as well as what was done in the past). Chesterton takes an issue with that claim.

Unquestionably it is a very common phrase of modern intellectualism to say that the morality of one age can be entirely different to the morality of another. And like a great many other phrases of modern intellectualism, it means literally nothing at all. If the two moralities are entirely different, why do you call them both moralities? It is as if a man said, “Camels in various places are totally diverse; some have six legs, some have none, some have scales, some have feathers, some have horns, some have wings, some are green, some are triangular. There is no point which they have in common.” The ordinary man of sense would reply, “Then what makes you call them all camels? What do you mean by a camel? How do you know a camel when you see one?” Of course, there is a permanent substance of morality, as much as there is a permanent substance of art; to say that is only to say that morality is morality, and that art is art. An ideal art critic would, no doubt, see the enduring beauty under every school; equally an ideal moralist would see the enduring ethic under every code.


This bias against morality among the modern aesthetes is nothing very much paraded. And yet it is not really a bias against morality; it is a bias against other people’s morality.

Both sides use art and writing, and both sides use satire to focus on the issues of each. This art form is a good thing but only if used in the correct way. according to Chesterton there are three great classes of satirists.

There are three distinct classes of great satirists who are also great men –that is to say, three classes of men who can laugh at something without losing their souls. The satirist of the first type is the man who, first of all enjoys himself, and then enjoys his enemies. In this sense he loves his enemy, and by a kind of exaggeration of Christianity he loves his enemy the more the more he becomes an enemy. He has a sort of overwhelming and aggressive happiness in his assertion of anger; his curse is as human as a benediction. Of this type of satire the great example is Rabelais. This is the first typical example of satire, the satire which is voluble, which is violent, which is indecent, but which is not malicious. The satire of Whistler was not this. He was never in any of his controversies simply happy; the proof of it is that he never talked absolute nonsense. There is a second type of mind which produces satire with the quality of greatness. That is embodied in the satirist whose passions are released and let go by some intolerable sense of wrong. He is maddened by the sense of men being maddened; his tongue becomes an unruly member, and testifies against all mankind. Such a man was Swift, in whom the saeva indignatio was a bitterness to others, because it was a bitterness to himself. Such a satirist Whistler was not. He did not laugh because he was happy, like Rabelais. But neither did he laugh because he was unhappy, like Swift. The third type of great satire is that in which he satirist is enabled to rise superior to his victim in the only serious sense which superiority can bear, in that of pitying the sinner and respecting the man even while he satirises both. Such an achievement can be found in a thing like Pope’s “Atticus” a poem in which the satirist feels that he is satirising the weaknesses which belong specially to literary genius. Consequently he takes a pleasure in pointing out his enemy’s strength before he points out his weakness. That is, perhaps, the highest and most honourable form of satire. That is not the satire of Whistler. He is not full of a great sorrow for the wrong done to human nature; for him the wrong is altogether done to himself.

The issue here really is the self above others. The great satirists (and people in general) puts others ahead of themselves or at least puts themselves in what they are satirizing. When due to being ‘heady’ or ‘hearty’ we cannot be human because we need emotion and the ability to express it well.

The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being. It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure, and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament. Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men–men like Shakespeare or Browning. There are many real tragedies of the artistic temperament, tragedies of vanity or violence or fear. But the great tragedy of the artistic temperament is that it cannot produce any art.

If we see ourselves as superior we actually believe that everyone is equal. We are inferior when we remove ourselves and try to transcend what it means to be human.

All very great teachers and leaders have had this habit of assuming their point of view to be one which was human and casual, one which would readily appeal to every passing man. If a man is genuinely superior to his fellows the first thing that he believes in is the equality of man. We can see this, for instance, in that strange and innocent rationality with which Christ addressed any motley crowd that happened to stand about Him. “What man of you having a hundred sheep, and losing one, would not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which was lost?” Or, again, “What man of you if his son ask for bread will he give him a stone, or if he ask for a fish will he give him a serpent?” This plainness, this almost prosaic camaraderie, is the note of all very great minds.


Dangerous words: ‘be more than human’. Those who have an imbalance of head and heart always want to be above. Truly Jesus Christ who was both the ‘smartest person who ever lived’ as well as the most caring person who ever lived. He was not head-heart or heart-head but both equally matched in perfect tension. When we as fallen humans put ourselves above morality, above others, and/or above humanity we are putting ourselves in a great imbalance because we are putting ourselves above God.




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