The Times of London once invited a number of well-known authors to write essays on the theme “What’s Wrong With the World?” G.K. Chesterton wrote his reply in the form of a letter. It read “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton.” It is a letter that showcases his genius; humble, honest, humorous, with a profound understanding of the seriousness and far-reaching effects of individual sin. Apparently, though, Chesterton was not satisfied with just that letter, for he went on to write a book dedicated to the topic of what is wrong with the world.
His answer to that question is not immediately clear. It unfolds slowly, and even obliquely because his answer, by itself, makes no sense. Chesterton argues, in short, that what is wrong with the world is that the world is always trying to solve the most basic problems by treating only the symptoms. In other words, he says, we are always starting at the wrong end. The most startling example he cites in support of his argument is a movement among the intelligentsia of his time to eradicate an infestation of lice among the poor by shaving the heads of the children. Yes, Chesterton acknowledges, that would alleviate the symptom of the lice, but it does nothing to address the ultimate cause: that people are living in conditions of abject poverty that are conducive to the spread of lice. Address the issue of poverty and the symptom of lice will take care of itself.
Chesterton illustrates his argument by examining the mistakes society makes about men, women, children and their proper place in the world and in relationship with each other. He repeatedly shows how those in power nearly always mistake a symptom for the problem, and frequently make things worse when they start “helping”. His observations are profound and incisive, in the most literal sense of the word. They cut into the reader who, if honest, sees his or her own folly reflected back from the pages.
Overall, this is a good book and one worth reading. I must admit, however, that some parts seem dated. Chesterton addresses issues that are specific to his time and place in history. Some of the evils he cites are no longer going concerns. Having said that, the general principles remain relevant, and we ignore him at the risk of committing what he referred to as “chronological snobbery.” There is much to be learned from Mr. Chesterton, and we would all do well to allow him to educate us. The sooner, the better.