Chesterton moves into chapter 7 by addressing the notion of ideals. He ended chapter six by explaining some of the ideals for which Christianity was criticized, so he now wants to move into assessing how we know what good and bad ideals are. To start things off, Chesterton goes all out to show how the materialist has absolutely no ground to stand on when discussing any form of objective standards or ideals. He says,
The materialist has no ground on which to judge any standard as “good” or “bad,” “better” or “worse,” etc. He or she can determine what they like best, but they can make no such claim for everyone else. Chesterton goes on to explain several materialistic philosophies in regard to determining good, but ends by saying that the only semi-reasonable philosophy available to a materialist is the pursuit of his or her own desires. Chesterton acknowledges that this is a good thing in a sense – but a good thing that has gone wrong.
If our desires are to be met – desires like justice, wealth, equality, etc – the world needs to be reformed. But for true reform to happen, Chesterton argues that we must change the world to our ideal, not our ideal to the world. Yet on materialism, it is humanity's ideals that are ever evolving to nature, not so much the other way around. Humanity in one generation had different desires to fit their world, and our modern desires are similarly shaped by the nature we encounter. But this is not the reform of a world to fit our desires and intuitions, it is a conformity to a cruel, uncaring world that determines us.
In a lengthy section, Chesterton goes on to explain how freethought ends up not being so freeing. He explains that the constant shifting of ideals makes morality, idealism, and revolution impossible to implement consistently, suddenly, and with force. Chesterton explains,
“We may say broadly that free thought is the best of all the safeguards against freedom. Managed in a modern style the emancipation of the slave’s mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation of the slave. Teach him to worry about whether he wants to be free, and he will not free himself. Again, it may be said that this instance is remote or extreme. But, again, it is exactly true of the men in the streets around us. It is true that the negro slave, being a debased barbarian, will probably have either a human affection of loyalty, or a human affection for liberty. But the man we see every day— the worker in Mr. Gradgrind’s factory, the little clerk in Mr. Gradgrind’s office— he is too mentally worried to believe in freedom. He is kept quiet with revolutionary literature. He is calmed and kept in his place by a constant succession of wild philosophies. He is a Marxian one day, a Nietzscheite the next day, a Superman (probably) the next day; and a slave every day. The only thing that remains after all the philosophies is the factory. The only man who gains by all the philosophies is Gradgrind. It would be worth his while to keep his commercial helotry supplied with sceptical literature. And now I come to think of it, of course, Gradgrind is famous for giving libraries. He shows his sense. All modern books are on his side. As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realised, or even partly realised. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.
This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards which progress is directed; it must be fixed. Whistler used to make many rapid studies of a sitter; it did not matter if he tore up twenty portraits. But it would matter if he looked up twenty times, and each time saw a new person sitting placidly for his portrait. So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless. The question therefore becomes this: How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art? How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always satisfied with working? How can we make sure that the portrait painter will throw the portrait out of window instead of taking the natural and more human course of throwing the sitter out of window?
A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also necessary for rebelling. This fixed and familiar ideal is necessary to any sort of revolution. Man will sometimes act slowly upon new ideas; but he will only act swiftly upon old ideas. If I am merely to float or fade or evolve, it may be towards something anarchic; but if I am to riot, it must be for something respectable. This is the whole weakness of certain schools of progress and moral evolution. They suggest that there has been a slow movement towards morality, with an imperceptible ethical change in every year or at every instant. There is only one great disadvantage in this theory. It talks of a slow movement towards justice; but it does not permit a swift movement. A man is not allowed to leap up and declare a certain state of things to be intrinsically intolerable. To make the matter clear, it is better to take a specific example. Certain of the idealistic vegetarians, such as Mr. Salt, say that the time has now come for eating no meat; by implication they assume that at one time it was right to eat meat, and they suggest (in words that could be quoted) that some day it may be wrong to eat milk and eggs. I do not discuss here the question of what is justice to animals. I only say that whatever is justice ought, under given conditions, to be prompt justice. If an animal is wronged, we ought to be able to rush to his rescue. But how can we rush if we are, perhaps, in advance of our time? How can we rush to catch a train which may not arrive for a few centuries? How can I denounce a man for skinning cats, if he is only now what I may possibly become in drinking a glass of milk? A splendid and insane Russian sect ran about taking all the cattle out of all the carts. How can I pluck up courage to take the horse out of my hansom-cab, when I do not know whether my evolutionary watch is only a little fast or the cabman’s a little slow? Suppose I say to a sweater, 'Slavery suited one stage of evolution.' And suppose he answers, “And sweating suits this stage of evolution.” How can I answer if there is no eternal test? If sweaters can be behind the current morality, why should not philanthropists be in front of it? What on earth is the current morality, except in its literal sense-the morality that is always running away?”
Chesterton recognized that revolution made no sense on materialism. There was no ideal for which to fight, only a nature to which we were to conform. There was no possibility of legitimate judgment, or of being judged. Yet Chesterton’s deep intuition told him that there was a fixed, objective ideal. His deepest intuitions weren't fleeting fancies that an impersonal nature had carelessly formed within him. Rather, they were fixed features of a personal creator who had expectations and hopes for his creation.
“For the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good anything but good. Man may have had concubines as long as cows have had horns: still they are not a part of him if they are sinful. Men may have been under oppression ever since fish were under water; still they ought not to be, if oppression is sinful. The chain may seem as natural to the slave, or the paint to the harlot, as does the plume to the bird or the burrow to the fox; still they are not, if they are sinful. I lift my prehistoric legend to defy all your history. Your vision is not merely a fixture: it is a fact." I paused to note the new coincidence of Christianity: but I passed on.”
The first thing Chesterton noted about reformation is that for reform to truly exist, there must be a fixed ideal - for reform seeks to form the world into the way it once was, and the way it should be. It looks back to the ultimate standard and pursues its restoration. Chesterton goes on to explore two other notions that accompany true reform. The second idea is that true reform that leads to betterment must be guided by a mind. For the world to truly become a better place, this is a work of purposing and complexity. Such things do not just happen and will never be achieved by an impersonal nature. The third idea is that humanity is never to be fully trusted – especially the rich and ruling classes. History tells us that humans fail, especially when they are elevated in status and position. Therefore, reform always seeks caution and accountability.
This third point is particularly interesting, as Chesterton points out that only Christianity would predict such a thing. All logic would tell us that the best leaders would be the wealthiest, most educated, and most experienced. Yet Christianity always keeps us skeptical of these very people.
“Is there any answer to the proposition that those who have had the best opportunities will probably be our best guides? Is there any answer to the argument that those who have breathed clean air had better decide for those who have breathed foul? As far as I know, there is only one answer, and that answer is Christianity. Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest— if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this— that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy.
Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. A Christian may consistently say, 'I respect that man's rank, although he takes bribes.' But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, 'a man of that rank would not take bribes.' For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. When people say that a man 'in that position' would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment…We have not got to crown the exceptional man who knows he can rule. Rather we must crown the much more exceptional man who knows he can't."
The utopia that everyone seeks is a real utopia. It is a utopia that has been formed by a mind and is pursued by minds. And it is a utopia that is constantly hindered by minds that seek self rather than the utopia for all. If this utopia is only in each individual's mind, then there is no utopia for which to strive. It is a mental fabrication. Recognizing that morals and ideals are fixed and objective is extremely important. While the modern materialist may think this binding to freedom, as it forces one to conform to something outside themselves (as if following our evolution doesn't force us to conform to what nature has determined for us), it actually does quite the opposite. It makes them free to enjoy. Chesterton explains,
“When the ordinary opponents of Socialism talk about impossibilities and alterations in human nature they always miss an important distinction. In modern ideal conceptions of society there are some desires that are possibly not attainable: but there are some desires that are not desirable. That all men should live in equally beautiful houses is a dream that may or may not be attained. But that all men should live in the same beautiful house is not a dream at all; it is a nightmare. That a man should love all old women is an ideal that may not be attainable. But that a man should regard all old women exactly as he regards his mother is not only an unattainable ideal, but an ideal which ought not to be attained. I do not know if the reader agrees with me in these examples; but I will add the example which has always affected me most. I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself. Complete anarchy would not merely make it impossible to have any discipline or fidelity; it would also make it impossible to have any fun. To take an obvious instance, it would not be worth while to bet if a bet were not binding. The dissolution of all contracts would not only ruin morality but spoil sport. Now betting and such sports are only the stunted and twisted shapes of the original instinct of man for adventure and romance, of which much has been said in these pages. And the perils, rewards, punishments, and fulfilments of an adventure must be real, or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare. If I bet I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting. If I challenge I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging. If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing. You could not even make a fairy tale from the experiences of a man who, when he was swallowed by a whale, might find himself at the top of the Eiffel Tower, or when he was turned into a frog might begin to behave like a flamingo. For the purpose even of the wildest romance, results must be real; results must be irrevocable. Christian marriage is the great example of a real and irrevocable result; and that is why it is the chief subject and centre of all our romantic writing. And this is my last instance of the things that I should ask, and ask imperatively, of any social paradise; I should ask to be kept to my bargain, to have my oaths and engagements taken seriously; I should ask Utopia to avenge my honour on myself.
All my modern Utopian friends look at each other rather doubtfully, for their ultimate hope is the dissolution of all special ties. But again I seem to hear, like a kind of echo, an answer from beyond the world. "You will have real obligations, and therefore real adventures when you get to my Utopia. But the hardest obligation and the steepest adventure is to get there."
Chapter seven is a beautiful evaluation of the hope that each of us has - or had. It is the hope that there is a utopia, that this broken world isn't really how its supposed to be, and that all things will be made right in the end. But such a hope comes at a price. It forces us to give up our vision of what we think a utopia would look like. We have to give up the vision of a world where we are god. To embrace true utopia, we must also give up the self-deluded notion that we can trust other individuals, our political parties, or our religious leaders without reservation. And most strikingly, we must give up the delusion that we can trust ourselves. The utopia can only begin as we lay down our "deity" to reflect the true deity as image bearers, and as we understand that this utopia has been hindered by no one more than ourselves.