by Tammy Drennan
Leave it up to G. K. Chesterton to get to the heart of the matter. The problem, by Chesterton’s definition, with reform movements boils down to the fact that most reformers are pessimists – they believe everything is bad, life unjust, people fairly helpless to better their lot.
Only the man who is shocked at injustice, who finds it an unnatural state of affairs, has any hope of seeing it actually remedied and not simply managed. The man who expects injustice also expects more of it – always more of it; he may find it unfair and he may fight it, but he does not expect it to truly diminish.
The successful reformer believes in the good and is surprised at the bad, does not expect the bad, finds the bad shocking beyond reasonable belief – so shocking that the initial reaction is to laugh and think that surely someone will recognize and right the absurd situation immediately.
It’s not that he doesn’t know evil exists or that men can be weak; he simply believes that men can be expected to choose good and right – and that is what he expects, which is why his sensibilities are affronted when men choose what’s wrong instead. He believes in the ability and the desire of people to do the right thing and aims to shore them up to that end. He believes in freedom because he believes in goodness. He expects that free men will strive to be great men and will fuel one another toward greater ends.
The unsuccessful reformer expects the bad and is so shocked at the good that he cannot – will not — believe it. He believes men are eternally unequal, that some are less capable of rising to greatness, that some are inferior, and that fairness can come only with leveling the playing field and subordinating all to a depressing common denominator. He does not believe in freedom because he does not believe in goodness (though he may vehemently profess otherwise). He believes that men left free will sink to the behavior of devils and will goad all toward the same behavior.
The optimist reformer believes in the individual’s capacity and desire to make something great of himself – and his right to do so.
The pessimist reformer believes in the individual’s inadequacy and smallness and need to be sheltered and protected — by force, if necessary.
Note that Chesterton does not deny the need for reform. Man is not perfect. Man is not all goodness, but neither is he all badness. The optimist sees the potential for humanity in its goodness. The pessimist sees only the badness and the need for improvement, but holds no hope for true change – only for management; and management means the suppression of freedom.
Improving the human lot is hard work no matter how we go about it. But it is impossible work when we rob people of their self-reliance and self-determination, when we define their lives for them and proceed to impose restrictions on them based on our definitions, when we expect failure and plan from that view.
But when we find failure the surprise, when we expect success and greatness, when we respect equality and deem all men as capable as ourselves, that is when we begin to see the future brighten.
Here it is in Chesterton’s memorable words:
“The optimist is a better reformer than the pessimist; and the man who believes life to be excellent is the man who alters it most. It seems a paradox, yet the reason of it is very plain. The pessimist can be enraged at evil. But only the optimist can be surprised at it. From the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise. He must have the faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment. It is not enough that he should think injustice distressing; he must think injustice absurd, an anomaly in existence, a matter less for tears than for shattering laughter. On the other hand, the pessimists at the end of [19th] century could hardly curse even the blackest thing, for they could hardly see it against its black and eternal background. Nothing was bad because everything was bad. Life in prison was infamous – like life everywhere else….”
“One of the actual and certain consequences of the idea that all men are equal is immediately to produce very great men. I would say superior men, only that the hero thinks of himself as great, but not as superior…. There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.
“The spirit of the early century produced great men, because it believed that men were great. It made strong men by encouraging weak men…. And by encouraging the greatness in everybody, it naturally encouraged superlative greatness in some. Superiority came out of the high rapture of equality.”
From Charles Dickens: A Critical Study by G. K. Chesterton (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1913 edition, pp 6-9)