BOOK REVIEW: What’s Wrong With The World (G.K. Chesterton)

Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - What's Wrong With The WorldIt had been awhile since I read a book by Chesterton that wasn’t poetry.  When in Portland this spring I found What’s Wrong With The World on a shelf in Powell’s City of Books, I knew it would be a high priority on the waiting list.

In his title, Chesterton asks a probing and universal question that has been associated with his literary image ever since.  It is important to note that, rather uncharacteristically, he seeks to answer this question without reference to particulars of dogma or doctrine. He explains in another place why he chooses to do so. In fact, this essay titled What’s Right With The World should be treated as an introduction to the text of the book, as apart from it a reader may not be able to understand the full import and implication of the longer work.

Here is a portion of that explanation:

What is wrong with the world is the devil, and what is right with it is God; the human race will travel for a few more million years in all sorts of muddle and reform, and when it perishes of the last cold or heat it will still be within the limits of that very simple definition. But in an age that has confused itself with such phrases as ‘optimist’ and ‘pessimist’, it is necessary to distinguish along more delicate lines.

These “more delicate lines” make up the structure and backbone of the book, What’s Wrong With The World. They are summarized at the beginning of the book as follows

It is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease… Exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease.

In other words, what is wrong with the world is not only that no one can agree on what would set it right, but that everyone has a conflicting view of what right even looks like. Building on this intriguing premise, Chesterton then presents a fascinating collection of related essays exploring social issues from feminism to education to class warfare to divorce to home ownership.

While I found just about every one of these little essays enjoyable, some of the ones I especially appreciated were those dealing with feminism – what Chesterton calls, “the mistake about women.”  Although his views would be considered radical and archaic by most Westerners today, Chesterton is no chauvinist. On the contrary, his gentle arguments against the movement for women’s suffrage and the push for women to join the workforce are based entirely on his very exalted opinion of the female and of her grand purpose in the scheme of things. In fact, when Chesterton gets done talking about feminism, everybody ought to want to be a girl! Even if you disagree with him, you are forced to respect his kindly and deferential manner of stating his case.

Another cause he champions valiantly and well is that of “wild domesticity” – the importance of home ownership and children and responsibility and autonomy to men and women. A man who owns a home is a free man during at least some part of his day, Chesterton asserts. He has a kingdom to rule over and the probability of adventures and the right to paint his front door green with purple spots if he wants to.

Chesterton is characteristically sweeping in his statements. When a good idea hits him, he doesn’t pause to deliberate over the details, but lays out his theory in whole, and in a grand and masterly fashion. Whether or not he is always right is, of course, up to the reader to determine. However, it can be safely said that he often is not satisfactorily exhaustive in his explanations of stunning generalizations.

Mainly for this reason, I give What’s Wrong With The World 4 out of 5 stars.

I’m still working through my summer reading list and have been maintaining a goodreads account to track my want-to-read lists, progress and reviews.  I find goodreads an extremely practical way to keep up with every form and fashion of reading plan, and highly recommend it.

What words have you been poring over this summer?

2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: What’s Wrong With The World (G.K. Chesterton)

  1. Your observations about Chesterton are very insightful, William. I don’t feel any need to add to what you’ve said.

    I haven’t read As I Lay Dying, and now I probably won’t — unless I run out of other good books to read, of course. Which I doubt will happen any time soon :) Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. What’s Wrong With The World is the first non-fiction Chesterton I encountered and I agree it’s definitely worth reading. What he says is always thought-provoking, usually sensible, and at best profound; I thought I might eventually get irritated by his folksy authorial voice, but never did. Many Goodreads reviewers mention how the book still seems relevant; I guess things haven’t changed so much in a hundred years. ‘Now it is one of the mean and morbid modern lies that physical courage is connected with cruelty’, for example, rings just as true when ‘modern’ means 21st century, rather than 20th.

    One minor complaint I have is his obsession with ‘paradox’; i.e. inverting the reader’s expectation. He uses this so much it amounts almost to a nervous tic. Sometimes it fits naturally a good point (for example, that feminism’s ‘victory’ was really a capitulation) but elsewhere it just makes for an awkward start to a paragraph, and occasionally even appears to force him into a dubious position simply because he felt obliged to say something iconoclastic to begin with.

    At the end I assume you mean that it’s only because he does not back up certain sweeping statements that you don’t give it 5/5. I agree, anyone really opposed to his views is not going to be won over, but they were never being won over anyway. When you write a book with this title you can’t be expected to prove everything by quarter-inches!

    Recently pored-over: As I Lay Dying. (A nice pun for Faulkner, not one of the great literary teetotalers, apparently.) There is good writing here, but the whole thing is as crazy as a barrelful of beavers. It reminds me of D.H.Lawrence in some ways – you can see there is intelligence and sensitivity at work, but it’s all so over-wrought and melodramatic it’s teetering on the brink of farce. Maybe that’s what’s intended but I’m not convinced…

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