The Man Who Kept His Head
I’m writing an article on unhealthy philosophical trends in the field of medicine in the first decades of the 20th century and in first decades of the 21st century. In the early 20th century, the corrupt science of eugenics permeated medicine, with the aim of imposing selective breeding on humankind by way of sterilizations, immigration controls, and worse. Scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, medical professors, schoolteachers, writers, politicians, and others joined the chorus, and those who opposed the cause of eugenics faced ostracism.
One of the few sane voices in the wilderness was that of British writer G. K. Chesterton, who loudly and fearlessly defied the madness and the mob in his writings and public speaking. My article will include selective quotes from Chesterton. Here, I’ll share a few longer, more complete quotes than will appear in the article. Today, with medicine and medical education growing more ominously ideological by the day, Chesterton’s quotes are as applicable to the 2020s as they were to the 1920s.
For me, Chesterton is the clearest example of the type that his contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, described in “If—.”
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
This is admittedly ironic, since, if Kipling wasn’t an outright eugenicist himself, he certainly stoked the fires of those who were and clearly shared some of their worldview. Still an outstanding quote, however. Appropriately, Chesterton made known his opinions about Kipling (of whom he was fond), including this gem:
Mr. Kipling does certainly know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.
Chesterton had his own vision about how we come to understand one another—and how we do not.
“It is inspiriting without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets.”
And now, on to four choice quotes.
Subscriptions to Bastiat’s WIndow are either free or paid. Paid helps, but either way is appreciated.
Conservatives and Progressives
Somehow, in the course of modern discourse I find that people expect me to swear fealty to either Republicans or Democrats, Trump or Biden, Fox or MSNBC, Elon or Jack, and I will do no such thing. I know of no better statement of this contemporary annoyance than that voiced 99 years ago by Chesterton in the Illustrated London News (1924)
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.
Vices and Virtues
Yesterday, I gave a lengthy interview aimed at a national audience of medical students, and, in the course of our discussion, I read the following Chesterton quote in full. Medical schools and other medical organizations are going full tilt into ideological indoctrination. After I wrote the first of those two links above, the president of the American Medical Association said that I failed to understand what his organization and the Association of American Medical Colleges were “trying to accomplish” in producing a voluminous speech code for med students. I responded that, “my goal was not to describe what [the two organizations] tried to accomplish, but rather what they did accomplish—which was to undermine patient care and trust in at least five ways.” This does not, however, mean that I ascribe bad motives to the AMA and AAMC. Just the opposite—I’m quite sure their intentions are good. In part, my opinion is informed by a deeply insightful quote by Chesterton in his Orthodoxy (1908):
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.
Part of the ongoing problem in politicized medicine is a desire on the part of reformers to jettison that which they do not fully understand—such as the value of free speech, even when that speech seems odious, distasteful, or misinformed. After I quoted Chesterton in my interview yesterday, the interviewer mentioned the following quote from Chesterton’s The Thing (1929).
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
Socialism, Individualism, and Other
Finally, similar to the problem addressed by the first quote above (“Conservatives and Progressives”), there is a widespread assumption that if you believe Z, then you must also believe a long list of other things that Z-enthusiasts also tend to like. Chesterton described this irritating tendency well in Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized Society (1922):
[W]henever anyone attempts to argue rationally for or against any existent and recognisable thing, such as the Eugenic class of legislation, there are always people who begin to chop hay about Socialism and Individualism; and say "You object to all State interference; I am in favour of State interference. You are an Individualist; I, on the other hand," etc. To which I can only answer, with heart-broken patience, that I am not an Individualist, but a poor fallen but baptised journalist who is trying to write a book about Eugenists, several of whom he has met; whereas he never met an Individualist, and is by no means certain he would recognise him if he did. In short, I do not deny, but strongly affirm, the right of the State to interfere to cure a great evil. I say that in this case it would interfere to create a great evil; and I am not going to be turned from the discussion of that direct issue to bottomless botherations about Socialism and Individualism, or the relative advantages of always turning to the right and always turning to the left.
A little something to hear after reading Chesterton. Sunday, friend and scholar Joe sent me this uplifting, delightfully produced, and visually splendid video of The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.”