Chesterton on Reformers

March 22, 2008

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.

The pessimist reformer believes in the individual’s inadequacy and smallness and need to be sheltered and protected — by force, if necessary.

The optimist reformer believes in the individual’s capacity and desire to make something great of himself – and his right to do so.

When we find meanness and failure the surprise, when we expect success and greatness, when we respect equality and deem all men as capable as ourselves, we become enablers instead of fixers and 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)