On Chesterton’s Fence

As always, Chesterton offers us sage advice:

No, I don’t mean we should seek to sit on the fence where G. K. Chesterton used to live. I am not even sure if there is a fence there. What I am referring to here is a very wise maxim that Chesterton spoke about now and then. The great English thinker and writer is known for many things, including his fence.

Many of you would have heard of the phrase, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.” It was evidently a favourite of John F. Kennedy, who attributed it to Chesterton. Well the idea is certainly Chesterton’s, although perhaps not the exact phrase.

The saying of course has to do with the reformers and the revolutionaries wanting to recklessly tear things down. In the West we refer to these folks as “progressives”. In America that would include the Democrats, and in Australia, the Labor Party – and certainly the Greens.

But Chesterton rightly wanted us to first consider why something exists. If there is a fence at the top of a steep cliff, for example, we can guess why it was put there, and it would be foolish in the extreme to pull it down in the name of progress and reform.

As to the actual quote, you will need to take from your shelves the book Chesterton penned in 1929 called The Thing. If you lack it, not to worry. I do have it and I have pulled it off my shelves. After blowing the dust off, I came upon where this is found. (As an aside, I note from the inscription in my copy that I first picked up this volume on October 14, 1982, in Amsterdam.)

The book contains an Introduction and 34 essays. Early on we find this one: “The Drift from Domesticity.” Let me offer you the opening paragraphs from it:

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, or 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. We might even say that he is seeing things in a nightmare. This principle applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as true institutions, to convention as well as to conviction. It was exactly the sort of person, like Joan of Arc, who did know why women wore skirts, who was most justified in not wearing one; it was exactly the sort of person, like St. Francis, who did sympathise with the feast and the fireside, who was most entitled to become a beggar on the open road. And when, in the general emancipation of modern society, the Duchess says she does not see why she shouldn’t play leapfrog, or the Dean declares that he sees no valid canonical reason why he should not stand on his head, we may say to these persons with patient benevolence: “Defer, therefore, the operation you contemplate until you have realised by ripe reflection what principle or prejudice you are violating. Then play leapfrog and stand on your head and the Lord be with you.”

There are of course all sorts of things the radicals want to tear down. One obvious thing they want destroyed is the valuable social institution, the family. Much of the rest of Chesterton’s essay deals with this. He continues:

Among the traditions that are being thus attacked, not intelligently but most unintelligently, is the fundamental human creation called the Household or the Home. That is a typical thing which men attack, not because they can see through it, but because they cannot see it at all. They beat at it blindly, in a fashion entirely haphazard and opportunist; and many of them would pull it down without even pausing to ask why it was ever put up. It is true that only a few of them would have avowed this object in so many words. That only proves how very blind and blundering they are. But they have fallen into a habit of mere drift and gradual detachment from family life; something that is often merely accidental and devoid of any definite theory at all. But though it is accidental it is none the less anarchical. And it is all the more anarchical for not being anarchist. It seems to be largely founded on individual irritation; an irritation which varies with the individual. We are merely told that in this or that case a particular temperament was tormented by a particular environment; but nobody even explained how the evil arose, let alone whether the evil is really escaped. We are told that in this or that family Grandmamma talked a great deal of nonsense, which God knows is true; or that it is very difficult to have intimate intellectual relations with Uncle Gregory without telling him he is a fool, which is indeed the case. But nobody seriously considers the remedy, or even the malady; or whether the existing individualistic dissolution is a remedy at all. Much of this business began with the influence of Ibsen, a very powerful dramatist and an exceedingly feeble philosopher. I suppose that Nora of The Doll’s House was intended to be an inconsequent person; but certainly her most inconsequent action was her last. She complained that she was not yet fit to look after children, and then proceeded to get as far as possible from the children, that she might study them more closely.

Image of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 3: Where All Roads Lead / The Catholic Church and Conversion / Why I Am a Catholic / The Thing / The ... Shallows / The Way of the Cross (Volume 3)
The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 3: Where All Roads Lead / The Catholic Church and Conversion / Why I Am a Catholic / The Thing / The ... Shallows / The Way of the Cross (Volume 3) by G. K. Chesterton (Author), James J. Thompson (Introduction) Amazon logo

A similar sort of warning about this rush to rip things down is found in his 1905 volume Heretics. There he says this (at the end of his first chapter):

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Wise words from the master. All sorts of things, including moral codes and values, social and public institutions, and long-standing beliefs and traditions have arisen for good reason. Before we rush headlong in seeking to raze them all, it would be most sensible to seek to learn why they exist in the first place.

Or to use the variation on Chesterton’s original words: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.”

[1606 words]

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