The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton (Excursus 4)

“Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test. We often hear it said, for instance, ‘What is right in one age is wrong in another.’ This is quite reasonable, if it means that there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain times and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant, it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish to be oblong.”

This, I think, is still a pertinent critique of a largely aimless world. Chesterton criticizes here the rapidly changing aim of his time, but I think perhaps we suffer now from an even worse problem. We have as a culture abandoned aim in and of itself. To carry out Chesterton’s analogy, the ideal is that women should wish to be elegant and adapt the changing means to the unchanging end. The flawed system of Chesterton’s time is represented by women who thought they could improve by no longer wanting to be elegant but deciding instead to be oblong thus making both the ends and the means totally fluid. What has happened now is women no longer care to be elegant or to be oblong or to be anything. They do not even care to care, but have removed the possibility of an end altogether and thus making whatever means used not only fluid but ultimately irrelevant. There is a nasty nihilism lurking just beneath the surface of society, and we are determined to dance just as nearly to it as we can without falling off entirely into oblivion.

Or to put it in loftier terms (those of David Bentley Hart), in a world where the possibility of a definite end for progress has been destroyed by a post-Christian world’s “ineluctable antinomianism” it should not surprise us to find that “the ethical strain in postmodern thought is usually its emptiest gesture.”

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