Philosophy in the Edwardian Age

Heretics - G.K. Chesterton

This is one of those books that has so much in it that it is literally impossible to cover in a single review. Okay, I probably could do it but the review would be incredibly long and I would probably end up repeating everything Chesterton said in the book, but then again a lot of my reviews end up being a short rehash of what the author said anyway. I guess the reason that I do this is because even if everybody who reads this review puts the book onto the TBR list, if your list is anything like mine then even with all good intentions, you probably won't end up reading the book anyway. This is the beauty of websites like Booklikes – we can read a book and share what we got from the book and even if the reader of the review never gets to read the book at least they can be influenced to some extent.


Chesterton is an interesting author because most of us think of him as simply being an author of detective fiction but never realise that he actually wrote philosophic texts as well. Granted, Chesterton was a Christian and his writings tend to be that of an orthodox Christian, but I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing. To be honest the main reason that I wanted to read Chesterton was not so much because he wrote detective fiction but rather because he wrote Christian philosophy and influenced the likes of C.S. Lewis. When I discovered that Slavoj Zizek also heavily referenced him I became even more intrigued.


As you can probably guess, this book is about heresy, however it is not necessarily about any old heresy but rather about what he considered heresy, from the point of view of an orthodox Christian, at the turn of the 20th Century. Mind you, some of the writers that he speaks about we have probably never heard of simply because they disappeared into the mists of history. However there are other writers, such as Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells whose writings have come down to us today and are still very popular (and considering that Hollywood seem to want to rehash the Wells stories every decade or so is evidence of that). Oh, and I should probably add that while he is exploring the ideas of these authors from a Christian perspective, he isn't writing in the same vein of some modern writers, who claim that anybody who reads the Harry Potter books are on a slippery slope to hell. Sure, he may be critical of the ideas, but he never actually attacks the person, and even goes as far as to suggest he even likes some of these author's works, despite disagreeing with their premise.


However, the problem with exploring the ideas that have come out of this book is that these writers are so different in there philosophies that one has to look at them each individually. There are some overarching themes that come out of each of them, such as Shaw's search for the Superman and Wells' search for his utopian society. In a way they are different, but in a way they are the same in that they see the possibility of humanity evolving through their own willpower – with Shaw this is evolution on and individual basis whereas with Wells' this is evolution on a social basis. Mind you, when this was being written it was a popular belief that humanity had finally evolved beyond the need for war and was on the cusp of a golden age of peace and prosperity. With the exception of the Crimean War the last major European War was the Napoleonic Wars a hundred years previously. The catch is that this was from an English perspective because they didn't consider the Franco-Prussian War as a proper war simply because they weren't involved, and nor did they consider their colonial wars proper wars either because they were fought against people they considered savages.


The criticism of Kipling is interesting because we are seeing one huge change that is coming about in the western world: the tyranny of distance is being defeated. With the advent of the steam train, and then the motor car (and then the aeroplane) travel that used to take days, or even months, was now taking a lot less time. However the problem that he sees (that we in the 21st Century don't see as much) is that there is no longer an attachment to a locality. The town in which we live ceases to be our universe and starts to be a place. I remember growing up in Adelaide - when I didn't have all that much money, Adelaide was my universe, a universe that had boundaries. However once I get a job and could afford holidays Adelaide ceased to be a universe and started to become a place. At first the universe was limited to the Australian continent, but upon my first trip overseas the universe expanded once again. Mind you, despite wandering around Europe and England (and despite the fact that I have this strange attachment to London) the one place where I feel comfortable, and feel at home, is here in Australia.


It is interesting reading Chesterton's book because in a way it seems that very little has changed in the hundred odd years since he wrote it, though in some ways things seem to have changed a lot. In Chesterton's era we are on the cusp of a transformation that has been created by the industrialised age. New philosophies are coming about and the old philosophies of the past are being discarded. From Chesterton's view point he sees that we have a choice in what philosophy we embrace – spiritualism or secularism. From my vantage point of 2016 I can clearly see which philosophy we ended up embracing (though it is interesting that he claimed that when he wrote this book talking about God, or the non-existance of God, was not something that was done in polite company).


However we always seem to be in a period of flux, a period where we can chose which way we will head. These days it is a question of whether we vote for prosperity or for the Earth. Do we vote for Trump or do we vote for the other person. Mind you, in my mind a vote for Trump is a complete unknown, but at least with the US system of primaries they get to choose the nominee the party puts forward for president. Here in Australia we have a choice of two people – Shorten and Turnball, neither of whom inspire me with any confidence.


Anyway, enough of politics because all that seems to be flooding my Facebook feed these days (depending on which group you subscribe to – I doubt the Wodonga Crochet Club talks about voting for Trump, or anybody else, nor does Cat Addicts Anony-mouse). The final thing I wish to bring up though is an interesting thing that Chesterton mentions near the end of the book: the idea of law. Apparently in the middle ages when a law as created the law applied to everybody – the duke included (though for some reason I don't think that is entirely true). However these days laws tend to be very specific, in that they target the poor as opposed to the rich. His example is the blasphemy law, which is in effect the law against using foul language. The aristocracy don't use foul language, the common people do, so the aristocracy is unlikely to be caught by this law. This is very clear in our day because the aristocrats can get away with things that us ordinary plebs can't. For instance if I am working for an investment bank and buy shares (or sell shares) before a big deal is released to the market then I am guilty of insider trading. However is the managing director of the investment bank retires, and sells all of his shares before a major crash then he is a canny business man. The same thing is the case with pensions – if I am on a pension and am also earning income from a side job, then I am double dipping and guilty of a crime. However if a former politician takes a job after retiring on a government pension then, well, that is okay.