Posts Tagged ‘The Fallacy of Success’

G.K. Chesterton on the fallacy of success

October 13, 2013
G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton, journalist, essayist and author of the Father Brown detective stories, wrote the following in 1909 about books purporting to give the secrets of success.

These writers profess to tell the ordinary man … … how, if he is a grocer, he may become a sporting yachtsman; how, if he is a tenth-rate journalist, he may become a peer; and how, if he is a German Jew, he may become an Anglo-Saxon.  This is a definite and business-like proposal, and I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back. 

Nobody would dare to publish a book about electricity which literally told one nothing about electricity; no one would dare to publish an article on botany which showed that the writer did not know which end of a plant grew in the earth.  Yet our modern world is full of books about Success and successful people which literally contain no kind of idea, and scarcely any kind of verbal sense.

It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding.  One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating.  Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. 

If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so.  If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards.  You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist.  But you cannot want a book about Success.

After pointing out some ridiculous examples of the genre, Chesterton concluded:

Let us hope that we shall all live to see these absurd books about Success covered with a proper derision and neglect. They do not teach people to be successful, but they do teach people to be snobbish; they do spread a sort of evil poetry of worldliness. The Puritans are always denouncing books that inflame lust; what shall we say of books that inflame the viler passions of avarice and pride?

A hundred years ago we had the ideal of the Industrious Apprentice; boys were told that by thrift and work they would all become Lord Mayors.  This was fallacious, but it was manly, and had a minimum of moral truth.  In our society, temperance will not help a poor man to enrich himself, but it may help him to respect himself.  Good work will not make him a rich man, but good work may make him a good workman. The Industrious Apprentice rose by virtues few and narrow indeed, but still virtues.

But what shall we say of the gospel preached to the new Industrious Apprentice; the Apprentice who rises not by his virtues, but avowedly by his vices?

Click on The Fallacy of Success to read the whole essay and All Things Considered for a collection of Chesterton essays.

Hat tips to Mustapha Abiola and kottke.org