In that never-ending battle to answer the question, “Which Chesterton book should I read first?” one of the easiest and yet most pointed solutions came from that great English Chestertonian, Aidan Mackey, who said read any of Chesterton’s books first. It doesn’t matter as long as you start somewhere. The important thing is to start. You’ve wasted enough time already! And he was right in saying so.
Mr. Mackey, who is more fit than anyone on the planet to write an introduction to any one of Chesterton’s books, has written the introduction to a stunning new IHS Press edition of Chesterton’s Utopia of Usurers. Ironically, in the very first sentence of his introduction, he says this is not a book he would recommend to newcomers. And he’s right again.
“Start anywhere, but start,” is still sound advice. “But don’t start here,” is even sounder. The reason is that this is a book written in a rage, as Chesterton himself admits in his opening paragraph. We like to think of Chesterton as avuncular. We like to see him in his slippers. We want him to look comfortable because we want to be comfortable. But this is not a book that offers a lot of comfort.
Similarly, we may encourage people to read the Bible, but we don’t recommend that they start by opening to the prophet Amos. The comparison is a good one, for in addition to admitting that he is in a rage, Chesterton also admits to being a prophet-probably the only time in his entire literary career where he makes such a statement. That is because there is a direct connection to his writing in a rage and his writing as a prophet. He is not predicting the future, he is warning about an almost certain sort of future unless things change, and his hope, like the hope of the prophets of old, is that his prophecy may not come true.
He warns, among other things, of the runaway growth of a bureaucracy that answers to nobody, of compulsory education that dissatisfies everybody, of prisons that reform nobody, of wage slavery that encompasses almost everybody.
The thesis may be troubling, and disputed by some, but the facts he uses to support his point are indisputable…and even more troubling.
For instance, does anyone dispute that the arts have become degraded? And the most degrading thing is that the once noble use of the arts and the once noble skills of the artists have been co-opted by advertisers. Art – once the handmaiden of religion, that was used to express the inexpressible, to help lift our eyes and our hearts toward heaven – art is now merely a tool of commercial interests, used expressly for the purpose of getting the many to give money to the few. Now, says Chesterton, “the artist will work, not only to please the rich, but to increase their riches; which is a considerable step lower.”
Does anyone doubt that the media is controlled by only a few, and therefore, information is controlled by those same few? Says Chesterton, “Knowledge is now a monopoly, and comes through to the citizens in thin and selected streams, exactly as bread might come through to a besieged city. Men must wish to know what is happening, whoever has the privilege of telling them. They must listen to the messenger, even if he is a liar. They must listen to the liar, even if he is a bore.” A more apt description of the network news you will not find anywhere, even though this passage was written a lifetime before the first television signal beamed its boredom into anyone’s living room.
The modern world suffers horribly, from the physical poverty of the permanently poor, to the moral and spiritual poverty of the ever-shrinking middle class, and G.K. Chesterton lays much of the blame at the feet of the very rich. The rich, he says, are the new rulers, “kings that have taken no oath nor led us into any battle.” They have cast a spell, turning men into sheep. We follow them wherever their advertisements lead us. We believe whatever their headlines tell us. We watch them passively as they transform the world we live in. We think bigness is a guaranty of quality. We shop in their few big stores not because we can get what we want but because we get what we’re told, and we give in to a “queer idolatry of the enormous and the elaborate.” We know very well that we’re frustrated by it, and yet, says Chesterton, “this strange poetry of plutocracy prevails over people against their very senses.”
There is no question that the legitimate fears of the black holes of communism and socialism have served to fuel the sometimes mindless defense of capitalism, but capitalism can be as godless and soulless and evil as its counterpart at the other end of the spectrum, chewing up people and spitting them out. We should know that there is something terribly wrong when we find ourselves defending the unimaginable wealth of a Bill Gates because we feel forced to defend the system that creates such wealth. In Chesterton’s own day, the counterpart to Bill Gates was John D. Rockefeller. What Chesterton says about Rockefeller, and what he says he would say to Rockefeller’s face might surprise you. Until you remember that is the same thing Jesus said to the rich men of his own time. And like Jesus, Chesterton is not without compassion for the rich, who indeed have a heavy burden that is no doubt difficult to unload. He calls them, “these unlucky lucky men.” Those at the top may have created this utopia for themselves, but they are as miserable as everyone else.
Chesterton argues that the capitalist society has lost the meaning of honor, and with it, the meaning of disgrace. It has separated men, body and soul. We have been compartmentalized into wage earners, consumers, and audiences. Religion has been marginalized, and our souls are as bankrupt as our checkbooks. And the middle class, that backbone of society, has become soft and passive and has “lost its old appetite for liberty.” We have been kept in our place with “the encouragement of small virtues supporting capitalism, the discouragement of the huge virtues that defy it.”
The prophet has spoken. And most of his warnings have gone unheeded. And thus, most of his prophecies have been fulfilled. And the road ahead looks rougher than ever. But the prophet is still hoping to be wrong. There is still a way to change the future. The same way it was done in the past: repentance.
There is one final proof that this is a book of prophecy. Aidan Mackey points out in his introduction this is the only book that Chesterton wrote that has never been published in England. As Jesus said, a prophet is without honor in his own country.