Monday, March 2, 2009

GK’s “What’s Wrong with the World” as a work of Anti-Utopian Literature

Whether or not Anti-Utopian Literature is a literary category in itself is a matter of debate. With the works of Chesterton, it probably doesn’t matter anyway. It’s the anti-utopian ideas within it that are of interest.
This may come as somewhat of a surprise. After all, doesn’t the very title imply that Chesterton wants a better world? But Chesterton’s ideal world is anything but a utopia, and the ideas of his ideal world are anything but similar to the utopian ideas of others. I’ll be using ‘The Republic’ for most of my examples because “What’s Wrong With the World” specifically countered some of its concerns for me that I could not answer.
With unexpected efficiency (because we ought not expect that what’s actually wrong with the world is a method just as much as a thing or condition), Chesterton outlines the method of dealing with social problems that has caused yet worse social problems: that people prescribe cures for social evils without considering that others in the world might not agree that the result is desirable. The perennial example (I don’t remember if Chesterton actually uses it) is the teetotaler (of course): there is less question that making alcohol illegal under Sharia law will reduce drunkenness than there is that eliminating both alcohol and drunkenness from the human condition is a good thing.
And this is exactly the first error of utopians. In their utopias, both Marx and Plato wish to make a perfect world through changing human nature: Marx by placing humans in a questionably effective economic environment, Plato by a state-sponsored system of ideal education (Plato’s world is not perfect, even according to him, as he admitted it would fall into decay, though through questionable methods, but he did see it as an improvement over what the Greeks had at the time). This is exactly what Chesterton denies; he wants to describe a better society for humans as they are, with full attention given to Original Sin, the relationships between the sexes (even the culturally determined ones), and the good-but-dangerous inclinations of humanity.
In the question of the roles of the sexes (the one I could not answer), Chesterton in fact provides an answer to Plato’s most difficult false thesis: that women should be given exactly what they have aptitude for, even if their aptitudes are manly. Chesterton answers (without specifically referring to Plato, by the way), that even if this is a good, it destroys two goods, men and women, two elements of human nature. It destroys men by destroying comradeship (a specifically male form of friendship with these five qualities: equality among those concerned, an impersonal treatment of the others, a ’were all in this together’ attitude, competition (whether verbal or non-verbal), and bad, bold, physically dirty manners) because women can neither be comrades nor do they generally even permit it among men if they can help it. It destroys women by destroying their broadmindedness (their ability, within the home only, to do and think and answer childish questions about everything, rather than one specialization), their dignity (which is there terrible and impressive atmosphere of cold modesty: “But when men wish to be safely impressive, as judges, priests or kings, they do wear skirts, the long, trailing robes of female dignity The whole world is under petticoat government; for even men wear petticoats when they wish to govern.”), their freedom (for if they act like men, they will do it, and their former housework, with an enslaving conscientiousness), and their protection from the evil of politics known as punishment of criminals.
Plato is in many other ways opposed to Chesterton in the way described above, for he constantly ignores the good he would destroy by removing an evil that is opposed to his utopia. Removing all musical modes except the Dorian and Phrigian might destroy drunkenness, but it would also destroy drinking-songs. Taking the children to view the battles might destroy their fear, but it would also destroy their innocence. Living in common might destroy selfishness, but it would also destroy a man’s right to be king and knight-errant in his own home. Making government more efficient might destroy inefficiency, but it would also destroy democracy.
We know what Chesterton would say about all these objections to utopia. The fact that Plato does not address them, and that Marx’s addressing of them are at best insufficient points to the fact that the non-ideal state of Chesterton is the superior state.

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