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All I Survey/Essay XXXIX

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Essay XXXVIII All I Survey
Essay XXXIX
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XL



Essay XXXIX: On Making Good—II

A VERY eminent and distinguished critic has done me the honour to criticize, in a private letter, the remarks I made recently in disparagement of the phrase "making good." He agrees with me, or at least he disagrees with Dean Inge, in so far as to admit that the Dean's controversial use of the term was a sophistry. We should not differ very much about the social views involved. But about the verbal and grammatical matter my correspondent does not agree, and he is prepared to maintain that the phrase "making good" can be defended as a form of English idiom. He says, very truly, that it is possible to use it in a much more natural and ordinary way than it is used in the particular argument of the Dean of St. Paul's. He says that the ordinary honest plumber, of whom I spoke, might be said to have made good in carrying out a small job or contract, and that there would be nothing odd about the phrase. It is possible, of course, that the Dean would decline to accept the arbitration of the plumber, as much as I should decline to accept the arbitration of the Dean. But the point seems to me worth a word or two of further elucidation and explanation.

First, upon the primary point, I am disposed to stand firm; I mean the point of the logic of grammar. For I am, I confess, so degenerate a Latin type of mind that I think there ought to be some logic in grammar. And it seems to me a simple fact that "to make" is a transitive verb, and must have an object or accusative. We can make a plumber good, or make a Dean good, or even make a poor bewildered and overwrought journalist, writing in a weekly illustrated paper, good; but we cannot make good. If it is an allowable idiom, it must be an exception and not a rule; and it must be an exception by some exceptional process, such as that of depending upon words that are "understood." I know that this practice does exist; nor can the most logical Latin wholly condemn it, for it exists even in the logical Latin language. There is a form, which I remember learning laboriously in the Latin grammar as a boy, by which some such word as _officium,_ for instance, could be understood. It is allowable to say in Latin: "It is of a good man to worship the gods," or "It is of a good father to feed his children." Here certainly there is some word, such as "part" or "duty," left to be understood.

But the worst of these words that are understood is that they are not understood. Even in face of the few Latin precedents I rather doubt whether it is wise to follow such precedents, and certainly whether it is wise to create new precedents. But it is particularly undesirable at the present day, at a period in which things are emphatically not understood; a period in which they are, beyond all previous precedent, misunderstood. For men do not now agree, even as much as the Romans did, about the relations of a good man to the gods or the relation of a father to the children. At the best, there is some ambiguity in saying: "It is of a good man to go to church." For one man will read it in the form "It is the duty of a good man to go to church." Another may read it, in a cynical spirit, in the form "It is the interest of a good man to go to church." A third will read it in the form "It is the infernal bore inflicted on a good man to go to church." Now, that ambiguity did not so often happen in older and simpler social systems. There is less of that ambiguity in the Latin phrase. But there is nothing but ambiguity in the modern English phrase. There is only blank, unadulterated ambiguity in that English phrase-- if you can call it an English phrase. And that is the root of my unrepentant revolt against it.

I mean that we may forgive the plumber (a form of Christian charity which many seem to find difficult) when he says that, in some small job, he has made good. But we only forgive him because we think that he, being poor and honest, really means "I have made good my word" or "I have made good my compact." But it is still true that a less honest plumber, and possibly a richer plumber, _might_ mean by the phrase: "I have made good my intention to swindle this old fool," or "I have made good money out of this business, and much more than I had any right to receive."

Now, that is the moral ambiguity that I complain of, to start with, in the very nature of the phrase. But, in its actual modern use in any ordinary newspapers or novels, it goes far beyond ambiguity and becomes anarchy. It is bad policy, at the best, to allow a word to be understood; because it is first of all misunderstood, and afterwards mistaken or betrayed or supplanted by some baser word in the minds of baser people. Even if the man did originally mean: "I have made good my word," he will be unwise to leave out the word. It will be better, in every sense, if he keeps his word. A man's word is only too easy to forget. And, after a time, some meaner notion, such as making good his plan or plot or conspiracy, will have crept into the vacuum of that silence. But in the vulgar use of the phrase, in the modern world at this moment, there is not the remotest notion of anything so honest. Those who say that Hiram Q. Hogswash made good in Wall Street never did mean, and never were even supposed to mean, that he had made good any word or any contract or any honest purpose of any sort. Saying that Hiram made good simply means that Hiram made money, and never means anything else. Now, Hiram is not necessarily to be blamed for making money; but neither certainly is he to be praised for it. And this twisted and stunted form of words was invented so that he might be praised for it. By dragging in the word "good" where it is neither good grammar nor good ethics, a falsification of moral standards is created, tending to suggest that there is some connexion between making money and being good. So that, while we may invoke the ancient Roman to excuse the primary habit of leaving out logically necessary words, and while we may invoke the modern plumber to excuse the simpler sort of language about making good a job or a contract, we shall still lament over the larger and more desolating calamities that the Roman and the plumber, between them, have let loose upon the modern world. We shall recognize that this piece of phraseology is now, in fact, identified with a philosophy which teaches snobbish self-interest as a sort of ideal. If it is permissible to use a phrase like having made good, it is permissible to say that this particular phrase has most unmistakably made bad.

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