“The Virtues Have Gone Mad”: Chesterton on Untethered Goodness (Updated)

I dislike G.K. Chesterton; but occasionally he hits on a good observation, or nearly does, and in a memorable way. Here is an example from Chapter 3 of Orthodoxy, “The Suicide of Thought.”

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.

First, the problems, of which I will note two: (1) the bit about the Reformation is the typical Chestertonian stupidity on this topic; out of respect, let us not tarry over it. (2) The first sentence is–again, as is typical for Chesterton–only half true. The “modern world,” in so far as we can speak of such a thing, is in many respects evil, and it is evil precisely because it is so convinced of its own goodness. Here, as elsewhere, Chesterton should have studied Luther, and in this way he could have spared himself the vacuity, not to say untruth, of his comments about the Reformation.[1]

But we shouldn’t let these errors prevent us from seeing the truth in some of the rest of what he says. Keep in mind that Orthodoxy was published in 1908, and what he describes is what we now see: so much of our current social insanity–and it is insanity–stems from bizarre and antichristian perversions of Christian virtues.

For what is “love is love” but just such a perversion of properly ordered love? What is unbounded “affirmation” but a perversion of the command to “judge not” and of God’s radical acceptance of sinners? What is “allyship” but a perversion of the command to love one’s neighbor? What is our fetishized “empathy” but a perversion of Christian pity and compassion? What is absolutized “freedom” and autonomy but a perversion of the conscience at peace through Christ’s forgiveness? What is an egalitarianism so relentless it leads to the unrestrained malleability of human nature itself but a perversion of Paul’s proclamation that “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, ESV)?

Not for nothing did Chesterton say a few paragraphs later that “[w]e are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” One can quibble over this really comes from modesty; but one cannot quibble over whether such basic facts of existence are now up for debate.

Or, rather, aren’t–for these distortions of Christian virtues, unchecked and sundered from Christian faith, have run amok and produced a new orthodoxy of their own.


1 I know I said I wouldn’t tarry over it. I was wrong.


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