Philosophy, we have heard many a time in many a formulation, is a luxury of the rich. A keenly true statement even if genuine philosophers tend to side with the poor because siding with the rich means endorsing what has already been accomplished – but I digress. It is no surprise that national suicide rates in peaceful places are often in direct proportion to two factors: the level of the country's economic development and the degree of its secularization, and the correlation seems frightfully clear. The closer to money and the farther from God, the more likely your earthly business will hasten you to contemplate closure and finality, and the less the smaller pleasures in life – which are, of course, really the greater pleasures – seem to be worthwhile. Readers of these pages know of my passion for Northern Europe and its pagan prosperity; they may also suspect that I have always believed in Something far greater than myself. How one might go about reconciling these ostensible incongruities is outlined in this fantastic book.
You may have heard the argument before, capitalism versus socialism, but you will have rarely heard it so eloquently summarized. Capitalism certainly has a handful of advantages, the most important of which is social mobility; after all, bloodlines and banquets were overthrown with the Bastille. The freedom of social mobility means allowing the poorest and hardest working to break their cycle of indigence and achieve a better life. But capitalism left unchecked becomes as ruthless and self-justifying as any evil prince wont to getting whatever he wishes, explaining his affluence with a terse motto from a coat of arms which, as it were, will uncannily resemble a company logo and slogan. Socialism, on the other hand, chokes these robber barons into sharing everything with everyone but then prevents anyone from enjoying it. This naturally has led in socialism's numerous earthbound manifestations to hoarding, complete and unwavering corruption, and an utter lack of trust in the government. Somewhere in between these distant towers lies paradise, the sane, Christian approach to society, and much of our problem has to do with how we have perceived the past:
There are two things, and two things only, for the human mind, a dogma and a prejudice. The Middle Ages were a rational epoch, an age of doctrine. Our age is, at its best, a poetical epoch, an age of prejudice. A doctrine is a definite point; a prejudice is a direction. That an ox may be eaten, while a man should not be eaten, is a doctrine. That as little as possible of anything should be eaten is a prejudice.
The modern mind, steeped in its bewildering ignorance, may snap a crooked smile at the notion that the Middle Ages – often darkened by their detractors – could have been anything in the way of rational. But they most certainly were. What needs to be clarified is the definition of rational. It is rational to want the salvation of man, and quite irrational to settle for his survival. It is also rational to change the world so that man's soul may flourish while it is grossly irrational to change man's soul so that the evils of the world may seem like logical inevitabilities. Rational and religious are held by some of these same unlearned contemporary thinkers as polar opposites, when any religious person will tell you how much more rational it is to believe that someone died for our sins two thousand years ago, someone who was both God and man, than to believe that a universe created itself billions of years ago out of absolutely nothing. That same religious person would tell you that the notion that our conscience is our guiding force through this life makes much more sense than claiming we are simply a very complex chemical experiment that can be shaken and stirred like an alembic. The corollary to such an understanding of the world, of course, is not that science and its shape-shifting pundits have replaced religion because the latter failed, but that religion never failed at all. In fact, says our author, even at the height of its dominion it was never close to attaining its ends.
The ends of the Middle Ages can be attained with the help of, well, everyone. Democracy may have once been the rule of the people, but the people have grown unwieldy. Now we have nations of millions who elect hundreds to make decisions that will affect every home of one, two, three or more individuals. What the Middle Ages had, for better or worse, is a code of how things should be and how to make them that way; what we have now, greatly for the worse, is how things will be and how to make ourselves into those things. Instead of the world changing to suit the man, the man changes to suit the world, which leads to the very dastardly notion that man's position is to adapt, and that those who don't adapt were meant to die out anyway. Thus when industrialists get filthy rich, they drop the filthy and keep the rich. Their rise to the top is as pure and unchallengeable as the rise of a virtuous soul to heaven because that is where each of them rightly belongs. But how great amounts of money that no good person could ever possibly need have become equated with great amounts of beneficence that no bad person could ever endure is one of the most baffling mysteries of mankind. Then again, perhaps it is one of the simplest. The modern mind thinks religion has failed, when religion has not begun; the very modern mind thinks property has failed, when property was usually hoarded and thus also hardly begun. One tries to abolish the other and aggrandizes its own achievements as natural, when there is nothing more natural than a small, self-sufficient familial unit in a decent, safe home with enough food and enough space. And, it should be said, a certain amount of creative latitude:
For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed by an idea unpopular in present discussions – the idea of property. The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and though he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist because he has chosen. The average man cannot paint the sunset whose colors he admires; but he can paint his own house with what color he chooses, and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.
Something akin to such self-expression, wonderful to relate, has been facilitated by that awesome leveller of playing fields, the Internet, which doesn't quite allow everyone to see everything, but does allow most people to see most things, a few flights of steps in the right direction. Indiscretions and mistakes can really no longer be concealed, and personal tastes now rule our senses as if the ineluctable modality of the visible came equipped with a like button. You may opine, and you would not be entirely wrong, that both Chesterton's description and our current reality plagued by ego surfing and solipsistic rants suggest that permitting the simple man his motley home makes the man a narcissist. But a man is only a narcissist if he gladly comes home to a house full of mirrors. If he comes home, however, to be greeted by a partner and smaller versions of themselves, and if he understands that all that he does is for them and that they are his world, then he can create a love and life in his own image as love and life have been created for him.
As it is first absorbed, What's Wrong With the World, like many books of pure genius, seems as true and reliable as oxygen, so a clarification should be made regarding its portrayal of women. When Chesterton says that women should not vote, he means – and is probably correct – that if women really were the rulers of every household and every household were more important than any town or city, then voting for some local umbrella organization to see to the erection of a public house or a statue would strike a woman of even average intelligence as more than a bit daft. Since households have been replaced by statistics for household income and women have been given all the rights of men and women except their inalienable rights to be women and different, these same familial units, the backbone of any society, have crumbled into fractured ruins, roofless huts after the wrath of a tornado, and skinny shacks teetering on a precipice. Women are not inferior to men, but they are also not men. And the most important way in which they are not men is the only way we have been able to propagate our species and win a modicum of terrestrial immortality. The world's basic shortcoming is that we have demeaned the family, the notion of hard work and equitable payment, the notion of fairness and justice, the notion of ideals that will allow man's soul to bask in its innate glory, all in favor of a theory that what has happened was bound to happen and what will happen may be streamlined but cannot be stopped. And there is something very wrong in thinking that we live in a world that cannot be wrong simply because it is supposed to be inevitable.