Chesterton to the Rescue


I have spent a significant part of my life trying to convince students in my ethics classes (I refrain from identifying them as "ethics students") of the indispensable value of good moral principles.

G.K. Chesterton

Life is certainly confusing; especially if you have no principles to give it coherence, direction, and meaning. Without principles, we become mere spectators to a life that we can neither comprehend nor enjoy. Shakespeare once described such an existence as a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

I have spent a significant part of my life trying to convince students in my ethics classes (I refrain from identifying them as "ethics students") of the indispensable value of good moral principles. Teaching, as someone once said, is the art of putting abstract ideas into concrete heads. I would prefer to think of it as awakening my students to reality. My pupils, in general, like concreteness. For them, it is the very synonym of reality. It is "abstractness" (sometimes known as "philosophy") that they distrust. And our materialistic world has convinced so many of them, without their permission or understanding, that abstractions are not part of the real world.

So I began one class by pointing out how practical principles are. "Imagine," I suggested, "the impracticality of a telephone directory that lists the names of people and their corresponding phone numbers in random order. Is not the principle of alphabetical order, indeed, most practical?" One student pondered what I had said and then offered an objection: "I organize my personal telephone book according to frequency of use." He did not recognize that he was utilizing a principle, though a very odd one that would require incessant updating. But it was his principle and he felt that he had successfully prevented me from "imposing" one of "mine" on his free spirit.

On another occasion, and after my initial class one fine fall evening, a rather anxious student accompanied me out to the parking lot explaining to me how at sea I was with regard to my grasp of moral principles. He confessed having done something during the summer that left him with a deep and painful sense of regret. His single life principle was "never experience regret". He rejected "do good and avoid evil." He dismissed both these notions as being excessively vague. Being an existentialist, of sorts, he, too, was primarily interested in concreteness, particularly his own feelings.

I tried, without success, to explain to him that "not experiencing regret" is not an object of choice, either for him or for anyone else. If it were, everyone would choose it, and no one would ever experience regret. "Do good," I proposed, "and you will experience peace, the natural preventative of regret. Neither happiness nor 'not feeling regret' is an object of choice. Each is a consequence of our choosing or not choosing something else. It is precisely that 'something else' that should occupy our attention."

Now standing next to my car, I noticed how the smoke my student was exhaling obscured his features. There will be a time, I thought to myself, when he will come to regret his involvement with the wicked weed. He was already scheduling his date with regret. My words fell on deaf ears. He insisted on being my teacher. After all, he had been taught by experience itself. He was the one who was realistic and practical. "Regret is painful. Don't experience it!" That's all there is to it. Life is really quite simple. But he was not aware of the dangers inherent in his own narcissism. If there is one way to insure the arrival of regret, it is to place your private interests above those of everyone else's.

I saw little of this student until the day before the end of the term. He came into my office in a desperate mood. He had not attended any more of my classes and asked if I could give him my notes so he could study for the final exam. I explained that, unfortunately, I had no such notes to give him and suggested that he obtain them from another student. He confessed, forlornly, that he did not know anyone in the class. Regret was weighing heavily on my poor student. I was careful not to mention the word. He needed a miracle, not a sermon.

A teacher wants his students to learn in the classroom, not in the school of hard knocks that can leave him hopeless and defeated. What would Chesterton have said to him? He had a genius for making philosophy so irresistible to common sense that it provoked not opposition, but enlightened laughter. How would he, who had mastered the art of bringing abstract principles to life by marrying them to the right image and phrase, have handled the matter?

Philosophers are pedagogues, a word that has an interesting association with walking. In What's Wrong with the World? Chesterton refers to a nearly forgotten notion that is "most nearly paralleled by the principle of the second wind in walking." "The principle is this," as he explains: "That in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived so that the pleasure may revive and endure." The pleasure of learning comes only after the inconvenience of studying. The joy of victory comes only after the boredom of training. The pride of graduation comes only after the pain of dedication. But neither learning, victory, nor graduation could eventuate unless we survived the inevitable moments of inconvenience, boredom, and pain. "In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor."

Chesterton's "principle of the second wind" makes ethics irresistible, principle practical, and reason unrejectable. The success of teaching is realized only after surviving the ordeal and frustration that both patience and commitment require.


DeMarco, Donald. "Chesterton to the Rescue." Gilbert (August 9, 2000).

Reprinted with permission of Donald DeMarco.


Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright 2000 Donald DeMarco

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