Protect the seemingly useless

Advice I could have done with as a teenager, from G.K. Chesterton:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Thanks to Mike Blume via me via Robert Wiblin via Jane Galt.

11 responses to “Protect the seemingly useless

  1. Thanks for linking to the Jane Galt piece, it’s one of the most measured cases against gay marriage that I’ve ever read.

  2. The advice sounds good; but it part of a whole thought-gestalt centering around G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a few other early 20th-century conservative Christian English writers; and I’ve found that people who buy into this gestalt always go too far. There is something toxic about that set of memes.

    • What’s the rest of the thought-gestalt about?

    • What’s toxic is what they serve. I scrutinize everything before accepting it already, but I agree with your specific caution (don’t trust religious apologetics).

      For instance, I agree with the advice, but it’s insanity to follow it absolutely. Once I’ve searched and not found the good reason behind some tradition or law, I reserve the right to hold that there is no need to keep it.

    • There is something very, very toxic about thinking that ‘memes’ is some sort of advance over using the word ‘ideas.’

  3. A good and wise quote indeed. But yes, easy to go too far with it.

  4. It’s as good a two paragraph advocacy for conservatism as you are likely to find.

    I don’t buy it as a convincing argument against gay marriage, but its certainly a point to be acknowledged and addressed within the debate.

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  6. Pingback: Mistakes #3: breaking Chesterton’s fence in the presence of bull | Meteuphoric

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