Lecture 40: Fancies vs. Fads

Fads are not new roads, but new ruts. They are not broadening, they are narrowing. They are not forms of freedom but forms of servitude. The person following a fashion is a kind of slave who does whatever he is told. He is stuck. Each of the “wild theorists” of our time, says Chesterton, “is necessarily imprisoned in his own curious cosmos, in other words, he is limited by the very largeness of his own generalization. The explanations of the Marxian must not go outside economics; and the student of Freud is forbidden to forget sex.” The faddists suffer from something else besides their narrowness and servility. They take themselves entirely seriously. Chesterton proposes to look at “the fanciful side of these serious sects,” in other words, to laugh at them. He knows he is indulging in a frivolous pleasure with his frivolous criticisms. But such frivolity, such fancy, he says, “is the last lingering form of freedom.”

Fancies Versus Fads, published in 1923 and unfortunately out of print, is one of Chesterton’s best collections of essays, gathered from the London Mercury, the New Witness, and the Illustrated London News. Among the fads that he goes after in this book are Feminism, Free Verse, Prohibition, Vegetarianism… which is variation on Prohibition… come to think of it, Free Verse is also a variation on Prohibition. Prohibition is a fad against the traditional and basic pleasure of beer and wine. Free Verse attacks the tradition and pleasure of rhyme and meter, and in the process also avoids its lushness and danger. Feminism is also a variation on Prohibition. It wants to prohibit women from being mothers and make them into something narrow resembling men. Chesterton says, “It is the convention of journalism at this moment to support what is feminist against what is feminine. It is not fashionable to say that a woman may gain a professional success at the price of a domestic failure.” The Press can be counted on to fan the flames of any fad. Newspapers are good for getting fires started. But they never produce a permanent long-lasting flame.

Another hotbed for fads that burn out quickly is education, where new ideas are continually tried out on young minds at the expense of the old tried and true ideas. The loss of respect of tradition always “makes life narrower and not broader.” The modern “educationists” have things exactly backwards. They presume be more liberal by leaving religion out of education. But religion is a large thing to leave out. They want to avoid being “dogmatic” but as Chesterton points out, that is not possible: “There are only two kinds of people, those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it.” They think the point of education is to prepare people for the world, but it is not; it is to prepare people for the home, which is the place where all the important things in life happen. The inside of a house, says Chesterton, is larger than the outside. “Private life is more important than public life.” But that is not what is taught in any public school.

As we said, all these fads are a form of prohibition, attacks on personal freedom. They make our lives smaller. “Freedom,” says Chesterton, “is fullness, especially fullness of life.”

The problem is not so much Prohibition with a large P as prohibition with a small one. I mean, I am interested not so much in liquor as in liberty. I want to know on what principle the prohibitionists are proceeding in this case, and how they think it applies to any other case. And I cannot for the life of me make out. They…do not attack liquor; they do quite simply attack liberty. I mean that they are satisfied with saying about this liberty what can obviously be said about any liberty – that it can be, and is, abominably abused. If that had been a final objection to any form of freedom, there never would have been any form of freedom.

In the modern world, with our ever changing ideas about what is good or bad for a person, with our blind faith in science as an authority, and with our general loss of common sense, we resort to Prohibition, to vast restrictions that affect every aspect of our lives. We do not trust people to make their own decisions, on the contrary, we want to prevent them from having any free will at all, both in principle and in practice.

So long as we combine ceaseless and often reckless scientific speculation with rapid and often random social reform, the result must inevitably be not anarchy but ever-increasing tyranny. There must be a ceaseless and almost mechanical multiplication of things forbidden. The resolution to cure all the ills that flesh is heir to, combined with the guesswork about all possible ills that flesh and nerve and brain-cell may be heir to – these two things conducted simultaneously must inevitably spread a sort of panic of prohibition. Scientific imagination and social reform between them will quite logically and almost legitimately have made us slaves.

MENU