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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
21 Jun 2002
The Outline of Sanity
G.K. Chesterton
   reviewed by S.A. Phelan

Graham Searjeant is the Financial Editor of the prestigious London Times. In his column printed on April 26th 2002, he brought to light several very interesting facts. He wrote: "American economists are alarmed that ordinary people do not understand how their economy works. . . . .A survey taken at the height of the long economic boom asked the same questions of economics PhDs and a cross section of the public. They agreed on hardly anything. . . . .The American public was convinced that the economy was suffering from high taxes, excess public spending, too much foreign aid, too many immigrants, and having too many people drawing welfare benefits. Economists did not rate any of those much of a problem."

Read that paragraph again to get the full force of the meaning, and then read this. Searjeant continued: "The public saw high business profits, executives paying themselves too much, technology displacing people and companies restructuring as detrimental to the economy. To the economists, none of these were bad and some were good."

Read that paragraph again to get the full force of the meaning, and then read this final quotation: "Ominously, the public said that freer trade costs American jobs whilst economists are convinced that it creates more. Worst of all, ordinary people were convinced that they had become worse off over the previous two decades while the income and output statistics relied on by the economists showed precisely the opposite."

These quotations prove two things beyond any shadow of a doubt. The first is that ordinary people are still remarkably alert on the economic realities of life, despite the best efforts of newspaper, television and radio pundits to confuse them with partial explanations, partisan explanations, and virtual "facts." The second is that economists - the people who are supposed to be in charge of directing, guiding and informing the economy of the nation - are quite simply mad. There is no other word for it, for who could see high taxation, excess public spending (debt to you and me, and paid for by you and me), unemployment and machinery that causes further unemployment as either neutral or good, other than a mad man? Corporate profits on paper are soaring, chief executives are earning more in a year than most people earn in a lifetime and economists think this normal, positive. Ordinary people - perversely so, according to economists - see unemployment, high taxation, the moving of jobs to Third World countries where the natives can be exploited even more extensively, and the constantly rising cost of paying the rent/mortgage and putting food on the table as bad things. It is a sign of the times that good has been transformed into bad, and vice versa. It is a sign of the times that ordinary people, who live with the harsh realities of life, are regarded as crazy, whilst the economists, who live in a virtual bubble of stocks, hedges and futures, are regarded as sane. It is a further sign of the craziness of the modern world that the "proof" put forward by economists to "refute" what ordinary people know by personal experience is statistics. What did normal people used to say about statistics a generation ago? "There are Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics."

The trouble with this kind of madness in the economic field is that it spreads, inexorably, to other fields until we arrive at the point where the world, as a whole, appears to be saturated in unreality of every kind. Thus, we find that homosexuals want to marry and have children - sacramental and biological unreality. Those who advocate child slaughter - politely termed "pregnancy termination" - call it rather a "right" and a "good" - mental, moral and legal unreality. Thus, we have "experts" and "leading showbiz personalities" (what a surprise!) calling for monkeys to be granted "a legal right to bring court cases against human beings" on a number of counts. This is no joke. This is something being seriously advocated in the USA on the grounds that since children have rights, it makes no sense that monkeys do not have legal rights given that they can be said to have a mental age of 3 or 4 years - what kind of unreality this is, I leave to the reader.

There cannot be many who have not asked themselves at one time or another whether or not they thought they were going crazy. They see things on television - one of the truly real unrealities of our time - or read something in newspapers and they question if it is they or the world which has lost the capacity for rational thinking, for commonsense. For a Catholic the answer is - or should be - simple. It is the world that is going mad, and it is going mad because it is giving itself over more and more to the domination of the Prince of Lies: and there is nothing more unreal than a Lie.

We see this air of unreality most clearly in the Church. It once possessed the certitude of all Truth, but now this is an "hypothesis" - and it is "good" because we are now "searching for" something that we used to have. Work that out if you can. The Second Vatican Council was supposed to be "a Second Pentecost" but it has become a Second Crucifixion - but it is "good" because it is "purifying the Church" through declining Mass attendances, plummeting numbers of vocations, fewer baptisms and marriages, second-questioning of every doctrine of the Faith, growing irrelevance in society at large, and increasingly little influence of any kind in the halls of power. Presumably the "purification" process will only be a complete "success" when it has seen the last Catholic laid to rest in an almost wholly abandoned cemetery.

Of course, this all-pervading madness did not erupt overnight. Rather it has been a process that has developed over centuries, with society moving from being wholly sane - within the limits of human nature - by graduated steps to our present near lunacy.

This gradual development has not passed without comment, in all times and in all places. Some have approached the problem from a philosophical or theological perspective, others from the perspective of culture, education, history and so on.

One of the great commentators - from a social, economic and technological perspective - was the outstanding English writer and polemicist, G.K. Chesterton. The hallmark of his thinking was Catholic, even in the period before he officially converted to Catholicism. He denied and ridiculed with astonishing precision all of the great shibboleths of the day, most of which are still being used in our day: that big is always better; that the "experts" always know best; that the direction of the world represents Progress, and this movement forward is unstoppable; that the real aims in life can be summed up in the mantra: money, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Of course, for many people, Chesterton's name is synonymous with Father Brown - the character of the detective priest, which he created; and it is sad to relate that many people, even Catholics, are not aware that G.K. wrote far more weighty things, things that are every bit as relevant to us today as they were to the Catholics and citizens of his day. Thus, the IHS Press is to be congratulated for bringing back into print one of his most forceful works of social commentary, The Outline of Sanity, which was first published in 1926, and which to our knowledge only saw a second economical reprint in the early Seventies.

The theme of the book is very simple. It is that the direction of contemporary society is crazy. Crowding people by the millions into sprawling, crime-ridden, ugly cities is crazy. Driving people off the land and handing it over to agri-managers is crazy. Paying huge numbers of people welfare to do nothing is crazy. Allowing a handful of men and companies to so dominate a market, service or commodity that they effectively possess an irresistible monopoly is crazy. Permitting machinery to be developed, refined and diffused which makes men obsolete is crazy. Burning up the world's material resources to produce an ever-expanding stream of products which are designed to break, are often wholly useless luxuries, and which cannot be bought by huge masses of people because their wage packets are so slim, is crazy.

The solution to madness, according to Chesterton, and to any person with a functioning brain, is to seek sanity. The basis of the return to sanity, says GK, is to act upon the Catholic principle of subsidiarity: where a smaller, less complex mechanism or structure can do the job effectively use it, avoiding that which is over-complex. Thus, if agriculture was more diverse, more productive, less costly in terms of the economy and in terms of the environment in days gone by - and history shows that this was so, despite statistics! - then it is vital to return to that sane structure of Agriculture which rejoiced in large numbers of large families living on the land, owning the land and caring for the land. To follow that simple principle - a principle that is to be found at work in all the "Golden Ages" of the great civilizations - is to transform our society. Why? Because if large numbers return to the land, the cities empty. If the cities empty, much of the crime, ugliness and social alienation goes with it. If the cities empty in the return to the land, the numbers of unemployed, and consequently of welfare payments, drops dramatically. If the numbers employed, and employed usefully, grows, then there is more money in circulation to buy goods - but people living in a nice environment with a reasonable standard of living are not going to buy poor quality goods, they are going to seek things of real and lasting value. The search for things of real and lasting value leads to the return of craftsmanship, for who is going to buy a set of tables and chairs, mass produced in some sweatshop either here or in Asia, when he can buy for almost the same price, a set of tables and chairs that are hand-made, individual, and carry the imprint of beauty that all craftsmen seek to put into their work. The return of the craftsman, however, means that the demand for mass produced goods - the alleged benefit of the Industrial Revolution that has blighted the landscape of countless countries, and blighted the lives and souls of countless millions - will decline rapidly over a period of time, with the result that the mania for machines making more machines that displace men, or dehumanize men, will fade away. And once people are in touch with the realities of life - owning land and a house, eating food produced by the sweat of their brow, living amidst a countryside of trees, fields, rivers, animals and fresh air, enjoying the beauty of craftsmanship in all aspects of life, from hand-made shoes, individually turned knives and forks, and quality furniture that can be passed from father to son and even to grandson - they will be in touch with nature, that nature created by God for man in order that he might seek his salvation, not in a prison of smoking chimneys, choked motorways and artificially lit buildings, but in a Garden - of fallen nature it is true - where our First Parents started out. Once this has been achieved, it is inevitable that people by the tens of millions will return to God, to His Holy Catholic Church, for it is the Social Teaching of the Church that Chesterton articulates in this book, even if the word "Catholicism" does not appear once. It is the substance, not the label, which counts in the final analysis.

IHS Press is to be congratulated for publishing this beautiful edition of The Outline of Sanity. It is not merely that they have brought back an important text to our time, but that they have done so with style. The typeface, the layout, the mass of line drawing artwork and the copious and highly informative footnotes that graces the 180 odd pages of this book is wholly in line with the arguments of Chesterton: if a thing be worth doing, do it well and do it as a labor of love. Clearly the Directors have taken great pains to ensure that this book, from the impressive front cover through to the succinct back page notes, exudes style and positively invites the reader to submerge himself in the brilliance of Chesterton's writing.

This book deals with deep issues, vital issues, but it does so in a manner that even the ordinary citizen will have no trouble in understanding. Chesterton keeps it simple since he maintains, rightly, that simplicity brings sanity. If you are worried about the future, about the morrow and what it will bring, you could do no better than begin with this book. It is not merely polemics at its best, but philosophy at its most inspirational, theology at its most profound and answers at their most practical.

If you want a way out of the rat race, of the helter-skelter craziness of modern society, and a way back to Catholic sanity, then you absolutely must read The Outline of Sanity. You have little to lose and everything to gain.

S.A. Phelan

The Outline of Sanity by G.K. Chesterton is available direct from IHS Press for $14.95 plus $2.50 shipping and handling.

Paperback, full color covers, 183 pages extensive Introduction, footnotes and artwork.
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IHS Press
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