G.K. Chesterton was a prolific writer and giant of religious thought around the turn of the 20th century, and his works on theology and philosophy, while from a Catholic perspective, continue to ring true today – even for us Evangelicals.
While I have primarily read his fiction (the semi-fantastical The Man Who Was Thursday; the thought-provoking Father Brown series), I found Eugenics and Other Evils full of his characteristically fanciful turns of phrase and complex, allegorical illustrations. While I didn’t always follow his argument (and while I didn’t always agree with it when I did), his unique perspective (observing the Eugenics movement when it was in an earlier and more intellectual stage of its life-cycle) is worth reading.
As he says, “Eugenics itself is a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning.”
The Eugenics that Chesterton attacks suggests that certain elites should arrange the marriage of the common man to safeguard healthy children (a very MacroEvolutionary concept). That, in Chesterton’s words, “marrying an invalid is a kind of cruelty to children.
As I read I couldn’t help thinking of our current cultural climate, where the literal safety and health of unborn children is completely disregarded and the idea that any authority should have an exercise over which persons shack up is vehemently attacked.
With characteristic wit, Chesterton delivers his arguments against the Eugenists’ ideas (since part of the value of reading Chesterton is the dry and raucous humor of his words, I recommend you read the full book for yourself):
—To construct a moral principle (we ought to do this, not that) on the basis of what might result sometime later is shaky ground.
—There is already a mechanism for preventing extraordinarily ill-suited matches: common sense. Most men have an instinctive revulsion to marrying their grandmothers, without knowing the genetic disadvantages to marrying relatives. Eugenics is not necessary for the exceptions, and in fact that is not their aim: they want to control all matches.
—Science is not so advanced as to authoritatively say with positive certainty what would happen – or what would be the traits – for a child conceived by two particular parents.
—This social development is only possible in a political climate where government has forgotten its proper purposes. Eugenists have gained a foothold through the Lunacy Laws, but they want to extend the government’s natural control over madmen to control all men.
Chesterton discusses and describes at length the distinct difference between a criminal (who has done something wrong) and a lunatic (who has something wrong with him).
The criminal admits the facts, and therefore permits us to appeal to the facts. We can so arrange the facts around him that he may really understand that agreement is in his own interests. We can say to him, “Do not steal apples from this tree, or we will hang you on that tree.” But if the man really thinks one tree is a lamp-post and the other tree a Trafalgar Square fountain, we simply cannot treat with him at all. It is obviously useless to say, “Do not steal apples from this lamp-post, or I will hang you on that fountain.” If a man denies the facts, there is no answer but to lock him up.
Thus it is plain there are some extreme cases where no reasoning or communication is possible. These are the exceptions that prove the rule, the outliers that allow us to define the norm. But we have seen in our own time and nation the desire of some to treat all “social deviants” as mentally different from “normal people” – the “normal” being their own set, the “deviants”, the “insane”, those with whom they disagree.
Sound like a conspiracy? Consider how often the accusation “Nazi!” or “Racist!” is used to shut down modern attempts at debate. We see from Chesterton’s words that this way of thinking is nothing new.
The modern evil, we have said, greatly turns on this: that people do not see that the exception proves the rule. Thus it may or may not be right to kill a murderer; but it can only conceivably be right to kill a murderer because it is wrong to kill a man. If the hangman, having got his hand in, proceeded to hang friends and relatives to his taste and fancy, he would (intellectually) unhang the first man, though the first man might not think so.
Part of my division with Chesterton comes from his diagnosis of the root cause of Eugenics. Through the convoluted allegory of a theoretical, aggregated Businessman, Chesterton traces the motive for “breeding” the lower classes to the industrial revolution, crony capitalism, and the desire to improve the usefulness of the poor, working classes via genetic manipulation (AKA eugenics).
I see a lot of potential good in the free-market capitalist system, but that’s because my emphasis is on the free part. Chesterton rightly points out that when some of the parties are not free – when they have no choice in where to work, what work to do, who to work for, etc. – they are no better than slaves. Indeed, Chesterton proclaims them worse than slaves, since slaves were essentially part of the household, but the hired hand has no such claim on the master.
Apart from this somewhat bewildering and questionable section, Chesterton’s picturesque rhetoric is vibrantly employed to attack the elitist dominance that desires to both “sack [the workman] like a stranger” and “supervise him like a son”.
Apparently elites who would tear apart our families, dumb down our education, drive doctors out of practice, and regulate businesses into closing simply because they want to personally control things aren’t an invention of our generation.
Seeking the so-called “betterment of humanity” through these regulations and practices is simply a smokescreen (at least for the truly cynical inner circle). Chesterton even insists that the Eugenists don’t know what a “better humanity” would look like — as they push their controls and ideals on their fellow men, they are seeking their own definition of improvement.
And the image of a flock of elite academics, trotting around and doing experiments on their fellow men to determine what “insanity” and “health” and “weak mindedness” mean, conjures haunting memories of the Nazi death camps where genetic purification of the species was one of the stated goals.
Which brings us to the place Chesterton leaves us. On the verge of describing the first “glorious” steps of this new science, Eugenics, he explains that a set-back occurred:
A very curious thing happened. England went to war.
This would in itself have been a sufficiently irritating interruption…in the early establishment of Eugenics. But a far more dreadful and disconcerting fact must be noted. With whom, alas, did England go to war? England went to war with the Superman in his native home. She went to war with that very land of scientific culture from which the very ideal of a Superman had come. … She gave battle to the birthplace of nine-tenths of the professors who were the prophets of the new hope of humanity.
… It had long been the model State of all those more rational moralists who saw in science the ordered salvation of society. It was admittedly ahead of all other States in social reform. All the systematic social reforms were professedly and proudly borrowed from it. Therefore when this province of Prussia found it convenient to extend its imperial system to the neighbouring and neutral State of Belgium, all these scientific enthusiasts had a privilege not always granted to mere theorists. They had the gratification of seeing their great Utopia at work, on a grand scale and very close at hand. They had not to wait, like other evolutionary idealists, for the slow approach of something nearer to their dreams; or to leave it merely as a promise to posterity…but in the flesh they had seen their Paradise. And they were very silent for five years.
The thing died at last, and the stench of it stank to the sky. It might be thought that so terrible a savour would never altogether leave the memories of men; but men’s memories are unstable things. It may be that gradually these dazed dupes will gather again together, and attempt again to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes.
All of which reminds us that a handful of years later, in the wake of World War II, the “civilized” Western world saw that the Eugenists had been at it again. Trying to purify humanity by disposing of the less desirable elements…in truly horrific ways.
Mankind never changes. The beast that reared its head – and was cut down by the combined forces of the Allies and the underground – will rise again, perhaps in a different guise and a different place, but it will rise.
As strongly as my denial clings, it is imperative that I remember what happened to the Slavs, Jews, gypsies, and Poles of the 1930s and ‘40s, what happened to Terri Schiavo and Charlie Gard, must be combatted at every turn.
If I have trouble believing it, how much more the poor dupes who embrace this same ideology, not envisioning where it will – where it must – lead?
[I]f they do not believe now, neither would they believe though one rose from the dead; though all the millions who died to destroy Prussianism stood up and testified against it.
You might also check out The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s eery and upbeat and philosophical and poetic, all at once!