Chesterton Is Right About What’s Wrong With the World

BOOK PICK: New edition of 1910 classic packs relevance today.

‘What’s Wrong With the World’ was written more than 100 years ago.
‘What’s Wrong With the World’ was written more than 100 years ago. (photo: Sophia Institute Press)

Sophia Institute Press has just republished a book with a title that is as perennial as it is thought-provoking: What’s Wrong With the World by G.K. Chesterton. 

Essentially a book of political philosophy, Chesterton lampoons, with forensic wit, what were then faddish ideas in Edwardian Britain. His four targets are: large corporations, even bigger governments, feminism and education. These and the then thinking underpinning them are the public “wrongs” he identifies, alongside an overarching one, namely, man’s fallen human nature. 

First published in 1910, one may well ask: What does What’s Wrong With the World have to say to today’s world? 

Depressingly, the same wrongs are with us still, if receiving fresh expression in the 21st century. Helpfully, Chesterton not only identifies “what’s wrong” with the world but also points out that what people, often erroneously, think is wrong, and then wherein lies the cure of the world’s ills. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, and depressingly given today’s ongoing “battles,” Chesterton underlines that the family is being attacked under the guise of “progress.” Again, not surprisingly, rather than being the “problem,” the family, Chesterton reveals, is the bedrock of any civilized society. In fact, it is the solution to much that ails society — and therefore something that needs buttressing, not undermining. 

One of the chief charges against a book such as this, written nearly 100 years ago, is that it is “out of date.” One of Chesterton’s chief contentions in this work, however, is that such a judgment is based upon the false assumption that our forebears were somehow less intelligent than we and that therefore their struggles and ideas are out of date, simply on account of the relentless march of time. 

In his chapter entitled “The Fear of the Past,” Chesterton demolishes the false notion that progress is guaranteed solely by the advance of time and, furthermore, exposes a deluded fascination with a mythic future in which “progress” — whatever that is in the minds of those who entertain such fantasies — is always guaranteed. He identifies, correctly in my view, that this belief in an ever-desired, utopian future stems from a fear of the past. Put simply, we are ashamed to acknowledge the past standards of behavior and heroism because we do not live up to those standards anymore. 

It is an interesting idea, given that the need to hide this cowardice of ours, argues Chesterton, is the catalyst by which we then slander the past and those who went before us. This is because, observes the writer, it is harder to look back to see the real past than to look forward to times yet to come, something which is often an easy escape from our current complications; for, as Chesterton notes, “The future is a refuge from the fierce competition of our forefathers. … [The future is] a blank wall on which every man can write his own name as large as he likes.” This perception of an uneasy and false judgment of (and escape from) the past allied to a facile optimism in the future gives What’s Wrong With the World an unexpectedly contemporary relevance. 

The Christian view of time does look to a glorious future, however, and, in particular, to our part in it. Essentially, it is this concept of time, acting as a philosophical backdrop, that is explored throughout the book. 

In these pages, the figures of history rise as living realities who continue to resonate right down even to the times in which he writes: Edwardian England. Chesterton’s refers to history and to those who made it not as dead persons and even deader debating points but rather historical figures who act as an effective counterblast to the beat of the progressive drum urging us on in the relentless march forward to a better future. Of this “march,” Chesterton shrewdly points out, the marchers never say where, exactly, they are taking us. 

Also, in regard to time, intriguingly, to the retort that the clock cannot be put back, Chesterton is adamant: It can. The reason? “A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human figure or hour. In the same way,” he continues, “society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.” It is hard to fault such lucid logic.  

And, yet, Chesterton never comes across as a reactionary. Far from it. He possessed too brilliant a mind to allow it to become imprisoned in fantasies of the past any more than in phantasms of the future. He simply observes and notes the present, and the past, and in doing so allows it to speak to all ages. 

Is this not the mark of a great mind, namely, the timeless quality of its insights? 

Maybe that was because his concept of history was timeless. Therefore, this book is not only a critique of Edwardian England but also one with a view not so much of the future as toward the eternal. That is one of the reasons that this book remains relevant to us today. The other is Chesterton himself. No one could argue that his thoughts were dull in 1910; and they continue to provoke and amuse in equal measure these many decades later, for he, too, is timeless. 

That said, sometimes his observations appear prophetic. The Prussians, he suggests, were a people who had barely embraced Catholicism before their religious lives were upended by Martin Luther. He goes on to add: “This explains a great deal of their subsequent conduct.” His words proved prescient, as, only four years later, German armies under a Prussian monarch invaded Belgium. 

Not yet a Catholic, Chesterton has an interesting take on the Reformation. The much-quoted Chestertonian aphorism that appears in the chapter “The Unfinished Temple” states, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Here, one discovers that what “has been untried” is not some vague Christian ideal but the specific truths of Catholicism. Even as a Protestant, Chesterton’s view was that the Reformation tore Europeans apart just at the time when the Catholic Church was trying to return Europe to the unifying peace that the Holy Roman Empire had achieved. 

This view of time in and through history ultimately informs his theology. As we know, Chesterton did enter the Catholic Church 12 years after writing the book, which makes his comments all the more interesting, in that we appear to be reading the thoughts of a mind still on a quest, a journey that was far from its final destination, if on the right track.  

In 1910 The Times had run a series of articles by eminent writers and thinkers of the day asking what was wrong with the world. In response, Chesterton wrote to the newspaper as follows: “Dear Sirs, [What’s wrong with the world?] I am.” He was right, of course. And, by extension, we also — the rest of humanity — are wrong. That, in short, is the real problem of the world: past, present, and, no doubt, future.