All I Survey/Essay XXXVIII

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



Essay XXXVIII: On Making Good—I

THE other day I was stricken by a great grief; I will not go so far as to say that I burst into tears at the breakfast table, but I believe I must have uttered a deep and hollow groan, to the surprise and alarm of my family. For I found that no less a person than the Dean of St. Paul's had used the now common phrase about people "making good." He said, in support of his recognized preference for the produce of the super-villas over that of the slums, that there is "nothing snobbish" in recognizing the superiority of "those who have made good" over the wastrels and misfits, whom he seems to conceive as constituting the whole population of the poorer quarters of the modern city. Talking about "making good" seems to me much worse than snobbish, for it is not even English. And if, as satirists have said, the English have some tendency to be snobs, they might at least be content to be English snobs. Now, this is very sad and strange; hence my outburst of emotion at the breakfast table. For, in the ordinary way, Dean Inge writes most beautiful English; sometimes really splendid English. He writes the sort of strong English that is founded on strong Latin, not the more modern sort that is in theory Nordic and in practice Yankee--or sometimes even Cockney. This again is curious, for in a way his practice is better than his precept; and it does not so much matter if he is Nordic in his theory of history, since he is entirely Mediterranean in his practice of scholarship. He is always cursing the Latin culture, and no man's culture is more entirely Latin.

But I am not dealing here with the many matters on which I differ from the Dean, or even those on which the Dean differs from himself. I will not pause here to attempt to dispel that extraordinary nightmare that appears to brood upon his brain; the general notion that all the inhabitants of West Ham or Hoxton are hunch-backs, homicidal maniacs, or hereditary cripples, every man born with one leg and one eye. I will not stop to explain that the Old Kent Road is not exclusively inhabited by wealthy men who have wasted their fortunes and become "wastrels," and that if poor men, as well as rich men, may sometimes be "misfits," it is the business of a philosopher to criticize not only them, but the framework in which they were expected to fit. But all this is an old argument, and my present concern with the Dean is not to express a difference from his opinions, but rather a tender solicitude for his style. I write not in a spirit of antagonism, but of admiration; of admiration tinged with alarm. By all means let him defend, in his own brilliant and lucid fashion, what he calls the upper middle class. Let him indulge in the most spirited, sparkling, and daring paradoxes about these ladies and gentlemen. Let him say that they do good, that they are good; but not, 0 not, in the name of our noble tongue and heritage, that they make good!

I know not where that man hides and cowers, probably among the millions who had fled to the criminal dens and lairs of the United States, who actually originated the phrase about "making good." If I knew who he was, I would write a life of him; having first killed him, of course, to make the biography complete. He must have been rather a great man in his own perverted and repulsive fashion, for he managed to sum up the supreme essential falsehood of a whole century and a whole civilization in one exactly appropriate phrase, a phrase that is all the more appropriate because it is idiotic. He must be rather like one of the great poisoners, for indeed he has poisoned the whole modern mind. He must be much more than one of the great conspirators, for, as Mr. Wells would say, it is an entirely open conspiracy. He has managed to put all the current contemporary philosophies into one phrase that means nothing. Everybody whose instincts are on the side of such sophistry instantly seizes on it, because of its ambiguity. With one single twist of bad grammar or bad logic, it tangles up together the two things that have been in sharp contrast and contradiction in every decent religion or moral system in history-- the idea of moral greatness and the idea of mere material success. And yet making good is not even making sense. It will not really serve to make a sentence, let alone a good sentence or a true sentence.

Thus we can say of one of these abject beings who happen to live in Hoxton or the Harrow Road that he makes good beer-barrels; that he makes good drain-pipes; that he makes good penny-whistles or good pork-pies; but not that he makes good. It does not make sense; it does not make a sentence. And this ambiguous phrase about making good was invented because it was ambiguous; it was invented by the man who did not make pies or pipes or barrels or anything in the East End, but only scooped the profit on other men's work and went off with it to live in the West End. That is all that is meant by making good. It did not matter so much so long as people refrained from describing it as making good; so long as they were content to describe it as making money. Considered merely as one of the mild forms of rascality very common among human beings, it might really be described as mild or even as human. But by the fatal and blasting hypocrisy of this one American catchword, it was transformed from a matter of unmoral adventure to a matter of thoroughly immoral morality. The phrase "making good," merely because it contains the word "good," always carries some shadowy suggestion that the man who has merely done well for himself must also have really done well; done well as in the old creeds and codes of morals; done well in the sight of God and humanity. And that is not merely immorality, it is blasphemy; for it is practically saying that the selfish man is the saint, and that Judas with the bag is greater than Jesus with the cross.

Meanwhile, nothing but this fog of a phrase, like a real London fog choking the streets round St. Paul's Cathedral, could have so completely hidden the facts of the modern social situation from the Dean of St. Paul's. If making good meant making good things, pipes or barrels or what not, it would be obvious that people go on doing it, generation after generation, as much in the lower class as in his favourite upper middle class. I wonder how often these sages of the upper middle class stop to think what London would be like, if all the lower classes were really such fools as they suppose. What would London in a fog be like, for instance, if enormous numbers of cabmen and carmen, and men controlling traffic, were most of them drunken or incompetent? The fact is that the wastrels and the misfits, or in other words the working classes, are making good all the time. They are making good day and night; they are making good from minute to minute; or none of us would get to the end of an hour's journey. The Dean is quite entitled to praise the sort of clerical or academic family that he himself comes of; to note the virtues they really possess; and doubtless there are virtues which are easier for such a clergyman than for such a cabman. But it is very far from being self-evident that every clergyman is more successful with his sermon than any cabman with his service. Both the clergyman and the cabman may be good men; but the more they are really good men, the less they will be attracted by the ideal of making good.