Heretics – Chapter 19: Slum Novelists and the Slums


I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. Every election season and every time there is a public policy issue there is a renewed effort to help the poor. As Christians we are commanded and called to help the poor but we do so because each individual is created in the image of God. We actually never help the poor as an aggregate but we help the poor because they are people.

Heresy exposed: Seeing the poor as a thing to be fixed and not as people.

Summary of Chapter:

Today the world is mostly democratic or yearning for democracy, but we still do not know what that means. Just look at the U.S. election today. Everyone is talking about social justice being democracy or equality being democracy. In reality democracy is not the raising of people to greatness it is because all people are great.

Democracy is not philanthropy; it is not even altruism or social reform. Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man; democracy is founded on reverence for the common man, or, if you will, even on fear of him. It does not champion man because man is so miserable, but because man is so sublime. It does not object so much to the ordinary man being a slave as to his not being a king, for its dream is always the dream of the first Roman republic, a nation of kings.

When we lose this greatness we start worshiping demagogues. Arguably, this has happened or will happen when we chose as a leader someone who only platform is being a minority in race, gender or someone that will do something for us but does not have character.

Men trust an ordinary man because they trust themselves. But men trust a great man because they do not trust themselves. And hence the worship of great men always appears in times of weakness and cowardice; we never hear of great men until the time when all other men are small.

Once again, democracy is not a political system. That is the main problem with most people today is that is how they define democracy. Democracy is the belief that all men (people) are created equal and given rights by the Creator that no one can take away. There is no factor that creates a better class of people or a worse class of people – education will not increase this value and neither will money.

But the thing which is really required for the proper working of democracy is not merely the democratic system, or even the democratic philosophy, but the democratic emotion. The democratic emotion, like most elementary and indispensable things, is a thing difficult to describe at any time. But it is peculiarly difficult to describe it in our enlightened age, for the simple reason that it is peculiarly difficult to find it. It is a certain instinctive attitude which feels the things in which all men agree to be unspeakably important, and all the things in which they differ (such as mere brains) to be almost unspeakably unimportant. The nearest approach to it in our ordinary life would be the promptitude with which we should consider mere humanity in any circumstance of shock or death. We should say, after a somewhat disturbing discovery, “There is a dead man under the sofa.” We should not be likely to say, “There is a dead man of considerable personal refinement under the sofa.” We should say, “A woman has fallen into the water.” We should not say, “A highly educated woman has fallen into the water.” Nobody would say, “There are the remains of a clear thinker in your back garden.” Nobody would say, “Unless you hurry up and stop him, a man with a very fine ear for music will have jumped off that cliff.” But this emotion, which all of us have in connection with such things as birth and death, is to some people native and constant at all ordinary times and in all ordinary places.

Yet, we make laws against the sins of the poor while praising the rich for their misdeeds.

Everything in our age has, when carefully examined, this fundamentally undemocratic quality. In religion and morals we should admit, in the abstract, that the sins of the educated classes were as great as, or perhaps greater than, the sins of the poor and ignorant. But in practice the great difference between the mediaeval ethics and ours is that ours concentrate attention on the sins which are the sins of the ignorant, and practically deny that the sins which are the sins of the educated are sins at all. We are always talking about the sin of intemperate drinking, because it is quite obvious that the poor have it more than the rich. But we are always denying that there is any such thing as the sin of pride, because it would be quite obvious that the rich have it more than the poor. We are always ready to make a saint or prophet of the educated man who goes into cottages to give a little kindly advice to the uneducated. But the medieval idea of a saint or prophet was something quite different. The mediaeval saint or prophet was an uneducated man who walked into grand houses to give a little kindly advice to the educated. The old tyrants had enough insolence to despoil the poor, but they had not enough insolence to preach to them. It was the gentleman who oppressed the slums; but it was the slums that admonished the gentleman. And just as we are undemocratic in faith and morals, so we are, by the very nature of our attitude in such matters, undemocratic in the tone of our practical politics. It is a sufficient proof that we are not an essentially democratic state that we are always wondering what we shall do with the poor. If we were democrats, we should be wondering what the poor will do with us. With us the governing class is always saying to itself, “What laws shall we make?” In a purely democratic state it would be always saying, “What laws can we obey?”


We are undemocratic, then, in our religion, as is proved by our efforts to “raise” the poor. We are undemocratic in our government, as is proved by our innocent attempt to govern them well. But above all we are undemocratic in our literature, as is proved by the torrent of novels about the poor and serious studies of the poor which pour from our publishers every month. And the more “modern” the book is the more certain it is to be devoid of democratic sentiment. A poor man is a man who has not got much money. This may seem a simple and unnecessary description, but in the face of a great mass of modern fact and fiction, it seems very necessary indeed; most of our realists and sociologists talk about a poor man as if he were an octopus or an alligator. There is no more need to study the psychology of poverty than to study the psychology of bad temper, or the psychology of vanity, or the psychology of animal spirits. A man ought to know something of the emotions of an insulted man, not by being insulted, but simply by being a man. And he ought to know something of the emotions of a poor man, not by being poor, but simply by being a man. Therefore, in any writer who is describing poverty, my first objection to him will be that he has studied his subject.

How do we know what the poor are: studies, books, and writings. How should we know what the poor are like: because we are all men. When we see the poor not as us but as something to study we in actuality are only writing about what we see as tourists of the poor.

In short, these books are not a record of the psychology of poverty. They are a record of the psychology of wealth and culture when brought in contact with poverty. They are not a description of the state of the slums. They are only a very dark and dreadful description of the state of the slummers.


If we wish to lay a firm basis for any efforts to help the poor, we must not become realistic and see them from the outside. We must become melodramatic, and see them from the inside. The novelist must not take out his notebook and say, “I a man expert.” No; he must imitate the workman in the Adelphi play. He must slap himself on the chest and say, “I am a man.


People say that money changes a man, and while this may be true it is not necessarily true. Is there a point where having an extra $20 in my pocket makes me a better person? Is there a point that I become less of a person for being in debt? The answer is no. My mind and heart make me. The battle against pride, sloth, and other sins makes me (with Christ’s help). People are people and while the sins of a group are being praised no one ever sees the virtues. Today people may march for a higher minimum wage or vote with anger to keep jobs that are being outsourced. Even if these social changes happen it will not change who they are: people.

Jesus himself had no home and his disciples in more that one occasion skimmed wheat off of fields to eat. They were poor, but they changed the world because they were men impacted by the grace of God. When we help the poor we only do it because we have been impacted by the grace of God and want to share that joy.




  1. Excellent post.

    It is always interesting when talking about the differences between the rich and the poor. A poor woman who indulges in adultery is a whore; a rich woman who indulges in adultery is merely playing around or having an affair. But they are both adulterers, which is a sin against God.

    The best way to uplift and strengthen a democracy is through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is even more interesting is that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy.

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