How secularism ‘avoids discussing what is good’

From the second chapter entitled ‘On the Negative Spirit’ of G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics, he majestically dismantles the secualrized notion of “progress”, an idea that on the surface of things sounds mature but as Chesterton shows, is actually devoid of a telos, a true goal that most of human history (until the modern age) has been concerned with.  In other words, modern secularism is self-referential to the point of madness and absurdity, “It has no perfection to point to” hence,

“All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission (the absence of an enduring and positive ideal [or] absence of a permanent key to virtue), good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.  To us light must be henceforward the dark thing – the thing of which we cannot speak…

…  The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained the knowledge of good and evil.  Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us.  A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization…”

20618693._UY475_SS475_And now we are set for the full force of Chesterton’s genius.  I have rearranged the shape of the following paragraph so that it can be seen more clearly, but the order of words and ideas is exact):

“… Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk what is good.

We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid talking about what is good.

We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.”  This is logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”

He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.”  This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle for what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.”

He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.”  This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Heresy, p.13

Chesterton later calls this “unconscious shirking” (p.14), before stating:  “What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man?  You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself.”


All this light and so much darkness

20618693._UY475_SS475_Concluding his astonishing Introductory Remarks in his book Heretics, G. K. Chesterton spins a yarn:

“I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting things done.  Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down.  A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages [one can’t help but think this is Thomas Aquinas], is approached on the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light.  If Light be itself good….”

At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down.  All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality.

But as things go on they do not work out so easily.  Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light;

some because they wanted old iron;

some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil.

Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post,

some too much;

some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery;

some because they wanted to smash something.

And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes.  So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, tomorrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that it all depends on what is the philosophy of Light.  Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.”

Heretics, p.7-8

(parentheses mine)