The Outline Of Sanity, by G.K. Chesterton

The Outline Of Sanity, by G.K. Chesterton

Peter Westmore

The Outline Of Sanity
by G.K. Chesterton

(IHS Press, Norfolk, Virginia, 2001, 183 pages, $29.95.
Available from AD Books)

The WorldCom default on its loans, amounting to some $4 billion, is just the most recent example and testament to the virtual reality that has become a substitute for an economic system in which real men own real property and from that real property operate real businesses making real products, which in turn would produce real profits. As G.K. Chesterton states it, "Now what is the matter with the financial world is that it is a great deal too full of imagination, in the sense of fiction."

Too many Catholics, who should know better, reject or ignore the warnings and admonitions which issued from the popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII, and have, also, remained ignorant of the critiques of the liberal capitalist system which have issued from Catholic intellectuals such as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

With this said, we must also state that there are those who see the problem, know the Church's social teaching, and yet reject the solutions the Church purposes to the economic situation of the age. Such enthusiasts of the liberal capitalist system have recently published a number of articles to this effect in various American Catholic journals. Their outright rejection of the economic teaching and practical agenda for Catholic social and economic reconstruction, as offered to us by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum and by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, is often subtly laden with a hint of irritation that any would seek to challenge a system which, so obviously, "works."

G.K. Chesterton, in his newly republished book The Outline of Sanity, answers the objectors who ask, "Why deal with this topic at all?" by making the following analogy: "A man has been led by a foolish guide or a self-confident fellow traveller to the brink of a precipice, which he might well have fallen over in the dark. It may well be said that there is nothing to be done but to sit down and wait for the light. Still, it might be well to pass the hours of darkness in some discussion, about how it will be best for them to make their way backwards to more secure ground ... The formulation of any coherent plan of travel will not be a waste of time, especially if there is nothing else to do."


With this one thought, Chesterton justifies his "string of essays," which were published as The Outline of Sanity in 1926 and recently republished by IHS Press, and which serve as what "might rightly be called a manual of Distributism, for it outlines the essential principles of distributism as well as the broad strokes necessary to bring society back to its senses."

Distributism is an economic and social program based upon the social teachings of the Catholic Church and very closely identified with European pre-World War II corporatism, which seeks to provide an alternative vision to that given to the world by liberal capitalism and socialism.

The basic insight of this alternative system, also advanced by Hilaire Belloc in such books as The Servile State and Economics for Helen, is that capitalism and socialism, contrary to much that has been believed by Catholics in some Western nations during the post-World War II period, have the same internal dynamic in which economic wealth, consisting in "capital" and "property," is increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, whether those hands are federal government bureaucrats or Fortune 500 stockholders and business executives.

This basic thesis of Distributism is often surprising to those who have thought on questions of economics, using the notion that capitalism, as it is especially practised in Western nations, is based upon "freedom of individual choice" and the easy acquisition of private property.

In contrast to this common perception of capitalism, Chesterton defines it as, "that economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognisable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage."

It is not merely that capitalism's impetus is towards a consolidation of capital and enterprise in the hands of fewer and fewer men, which ought to concern a Catholic who desires to see the social Kingship of Jesus Christ extend itself into the economic realm of the family, the community, and ultimately, the nation.

The economic meltdowns of the last few years have indicated the fallacy that underlies the very system itself. This fallacy is that if you have a system in which all men seek, and are even encouraged to seek, after their own private economic well-being, the community and nation as a whole will be the beneficiary of that economic self-seeking.

The greatest evil, according to the liberal capitalist ideology, is any type of governmental interference in the private bargaining between employer and employee, seller and buyer, and international financial institution and local borrower.

This is in marked distinction from Chesterton's attitude towards the necessary role a government has in directing the economic activity of a nation so that monopoly does not exist. Chesterton goes so far as to state, concerning his belief in the need for governmental action for the sake of the economic common good: "The present problem of capitalist concentration is not a question of law but of criminal law, not to mention criminal lunacy."

We would miss the point of this text if we did not take seriously the word "sanity" in its title. To the contemporary consumerist technicolor insanity, Chesterton seeks to counter-poise the "sanity of the distributist balance." This "balance" involves many different aspects. The most obvious is the "balance" between the personal and social nature of property, in opposition to the liberal individualist and the left-wing collectivist.


The other "balance" which Chesterton advocates in this text is the balance between the technological means of manipulating nature and the means which are in accord with the basic physical, psychological and spiritual structure of man.

One of the primary purposes of The Outline of Sanity is to challenge the universal assumption, just as much in vogue in 1926 as in 2004, that the technological "advance" is "here to stay" and that nothing, certainly not a book or a movement touting an idealistic agrarian utopianism, will impede that advance. One must simply accept the inevitable and recognise that technology is, in itself, neither good nor bad - only our thinking makes it so.

Yet how can a man be happy, with a truly human happiness, unless his own work is controlled by his own will and not subordinated to the profit-making demands of the owners of capital and the means of production? How can the God-ordained nature of work be realised if neither his hands nor his mind manipulate materials provided to him directly by the Hand of Almighty God according to forms that are derived, through the agency of the human intellect and imagination, from the natural created structure of the world?

So, what can we do to regain the precious commodities of our own work and our own real property? What is the plan and what is distributism's vision for the future?

The sane worldview outlined by Chesterton in The Outline of Sanity, a world of land-owning and land-tilling small farmers and independent, rural-based, craftsmen, is a marked departure from the world in which we presently survive, because for those who have the faith and a real, concrete sense of the civilisation that the faith fashioned for itself and its own, "surviving," rather than flourishing in a land according to our desire, is our momentary lot.

What The Outline of Sanity can do is to provide us with both the vision of a society and economic order in accord with our true natural and supernatural destiny, along with advising us as to how to form that "social circle" of "men who know the end and the beginning and the rounding of our little life."

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