The following is an excerpt from a new biography on GK Chesterton entitled “Defiant Joy - The Remarkable Life and Impact of GK Chesterton” by Kevin Belmonte. It highlights the unraveling of Western thought which Chesterton observed in his time. I believe the confusion on these matters continues today.
The longer, set off quotation below is from his 1907 work Heretics. Much of Chesterton’s poignant cultural critique was on the eve of a world that spawned the two most horrific wars in human history…all in the name of civilization, progress and freeing the masses from the past. The 20th century was wrought by highly educated people claiming to seek the “good” of the world. Chesterton was a prophet in his day warning of madness being spoken in his day. He lived to see much of it take place around him. For collapses in thinking always proceed collapses in doing.
Chesterton warned that a “great and silent collapse” had taken place in his time. “All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions.
Acquiescing in this mind-set was an act of sheer and dangerous folly. For Chesterton, it came down to this: many of his contemporaries were seeking to solace themselves in a series of self-deceptions.
Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are found of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.”
This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”
Chesterton called such self-deception “solemn folly”…
Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy - The Remarkable Life and Impact of GK Chesterton, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011) 89, 90
I encourage you to take up some Chesterton if you have never read any of his works. I recommend his classic 1908 work Orthodoxy is the best place to begin. Enjoy.