“What is Wrong?” … “I am wrong.”

“In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.”

G. K. Chesterton’s letter to the Editor of the Daily News, August 16, 1905:

One thing, of course, must be said to clear the ground.  Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would.  Now, I know there is a feeling that Government can do anything.  But if Government could do anything, nothing would exist except Government.  Men have found the need of other forces.  Religion, for instance, existed in order to do what law cannot do—to track crime to its primary sin, and the man to his back bedroom.  The Church endeavoured to institute a machinery of pardon;  the State has only a machinery  of punishment.  The State can only free society from the criminal; the Church sought to free the criminal from the crime.  Abolish religion if you like.  Throw everything on secular government if you like.  But do not be surprised if a machinery that was never meant to do anything but secure external decency and order fails to secure internal honesty and peace.  If you have some philosophic objection to brooms and brushes, throw them away.  But do not be surprised if the use of the County Council water-cart is an awkward way of dusting the drawing-room.

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain.  The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.”  Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.  But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion.  Is there something… which belongs to this age specially, and is the business of reform? It is a dark matter, but I will make a suggestion.

Every religion; every philosophy as fierce and popular as a religion, can be regarded either as a thing that binds or a thing that loosens.  A convert to Islam (say) can regard himself as one who must no longer drink wine; or he can regard himself as one who need no longer sacrifice to expensive idols.  A man passing from the early Hebrew atmosphere to the Christian would find himself suddenly free to marry a foreign wife, but also suddenly and startlingly restricted in the number of foreign wives.  It is self-evident, that is, that there is no deliverance which does not bring new duties.  It is, I suppose, also pretty evident that a religion which boasted only of its liberties would go to pieces.  Christianity, for instance, would hardly have eclipsed Judaism if Christians had only sat in the middle of the road ostentatiously eating pork.

Yet this is exactly what we are all doing now. The last great challenge and inspiration of our Europe was the great democratic movement, the Revolution.  Everything popular and modern, from the American President to the gymnasium in Battersea Park, comes out of that.  And this Democratic creed, like all others, had its two sides, the emancipation and the new bonds.  Men were freed from the dogma of the divine right of Kings, but tied to the new dogma of the divine right of the community…

Now to me, the devastating weakness of our time, the sin of the 19th century, was primarily this:   That we chose to interpret the Revolution as a mere emancipation…  Instead of the right-mindedness of the Republican stoics, we have the “broadmindedness” of Liberal Imperialists. We have taken Liberty, because it is fun; we have left Equality and Fraternity, because they are duties and a nuisance.  …Democracy in losing the austerity of youth and its dogmas has lost all; it tends to be a mere debauch of mental self-indulgence, since by a corrupt and loathsome change, Liberalism has become liberality.—Yours, etc.,  G.K. CHESTERTON