It had been awhile since I read a book by Chesterton that wasn’t poetry. When in Portland this spring I found What’s Wrong With The World on a shelf in Powell’s City of Books, I knew it would be a high priority on the waiting list.
In his title, Chesterton asks a probing and universal question that has been associated with his literary image ever since. It is important to note that, rather uncharacteristically, he seeks to answer this question without reference to particulars of dogma or doctrine. He explains in another place why he chooses to do so. In fact, this essay titled What’s Right With The World should be treated as an introduction to the text of the book, as apart from it a reader may not be able to understand the full import and implication of the longer work.
Here is a portion of that explanation:
What is wrong with the world is the devil, and what is right with it is God; the human race will travel for a few more million years in all sorts of muddle and reform, and when it perishes of the last cold or heat it will still be within the limits of that very simple definition. But in an age that has confused itself with such phrases as ‘optimist’ and ‘pessimist’, it is necessary to distinguish along more delicate lines.
These “more delicate lines” make up the structure and backbone of the book, What’s Wrong With The World. They are summarized at the beginning of the book as follows
It is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease… Exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease.
In other words, what is wrong with the world is not only that no one can agree on what would set it right, but that everyone has a conflicting view of what right even looks like. Building on this intriguing premise, Chesterton then presents a fascinating collection of related essays exploring social issues from feminism to education to class warfare to divorce to home ownership.
While I found just about every one of these little essays enjoyable, some of the ones I especially appreciated were those dealing with feminism – what Chesterton calls, “the mistake about women.” Although his views would be considered radical and archaic by most Westerners today, Chesterton is no chauvinist. On the contrary, his gentle arguments against the movement for women’s suffrage and the push for women to join the workforce are based entirely on his very exalted opinion of the female and of her grand purpose in the scheme of things. In fact, when Chesterton gets done talking about feminism, everybody ought to want to be a girl! Even if you disagree with him, you are forced to respect his kindly and deferential manner of stating his case.
Another cause he champions valiantly and well is that of “wild domesticity” – the importance of home ownership and children and responsibility and autonomy to men and women. A man who owns a home is a free man during at least some part of his day, Chesterton asserts. He has a kingdom to rule over and the probability of adventures and the right to paint his front door green with purple spots if he wants to.
Chesterton is characteristically sweeping in his statements. When a good idea hits him, he doesn’t pause to deliberate over the details, but lays out his theory in whole, and in a grand and masterly fashion. Whether or not he is always right is, of course, up to the reader to determine. However, it can be safely said that he often is not satisfactorily exhaustive in his explanations of stunning generalizations.
Mainly for this reason, I give What’s Wrong With The World 4 out of 5 stars.
I’m still working through my summer reading list and have been maintaining a goodreads account to track my want-to-read lists, progress and reviews. I find goodreads an extremely practical way to keep up with every form and fashion of reading plan, and highly recommend it.
What words have you been poring over this summer?