Chesterton on Eugenics

Chesterton warned us long ago about the dangers of eugenics:

I have written before about the menace of eugenics, statist medicine, Big Brother tyranny, and rogue science. And I have often written on the incomparable G. K. Chesterton. He got a brief mention in my most recent piece, along with people like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as I discussed our post-human future being driven by the new technologies, AI and the great reset mob:

Since I mentioned Chesterton, it seemed appropriate to pull out one of his celebrated works and revisit it. In 1922 a very important book of his was published: Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State. He was certainly ahead of the times, warning in advance about the very things Hitler would fully take on board just a few decades later.

Here I am using the version as found in G. K. Chesterton: Collected Works, put out by Ignatius Press. You can find this book in Volume 4 (which appeared in 1987). It is on pages 291-418. Here are some key quotes – some short, some long – from that important work:

The wisest thing in the world is to cry out before you are hurt. It is no good to cry out after you are hurt; especially after you are mortally hurt. People talk about the impatience of the populace; but sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. It is often essential to resist a tyranny before it exists. It is no answer to say, with a distant optimism, that the scheme is only in the air. A blow from a hatchet can only be parried while it is in the air. There exists to-day a scheme of action, a school of thought, as collective and unmistakable as any of those by whose grouping alone we can make any outline of history. . . . It is called for convenience ‘Eugenics’; and that it ought to be destroyed I propose to prove in the pages that follow. I know that it means very different things to different people; but that is only because evil always takes advantage of ambiguity. I know it is praised with high professions of idealism and benevolence; with silver-tongued rhetoric about purer motherhood and a happier posterity. But that is only because evil is always flattered, as the Furies were called ‘The Gracious Ones.’ I know that it numbers many disciples whose intentions are entirely innocent and humane; and who would be sincerely astonished at my describing it as I do. But that is only because evil always wins through the strength of its splendid dupes; and there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin.” 297

“Eugenics, as discussed, evidently means the control of some men over the marriage and unmarriage of others; and probably means the control of the few over the marriage and unmarriage of the many” 303

Image of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 4: What's Wrong with the World / The Superstition of Divorce / Eugenics and Other Evils / Divorce versus Democracy / Social Reform versus Birth Control
The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 4: What's Wrong with the World / The Superstition of Divorce / Eugenics and Other Evils / Divorce versus Democracy / Social Reform versus Birth Control by Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton (Author), James V. Schall (Author) Amazon logo

“Most Eugenists are Euphemists. I mean merely that short words startle them, while long words soothe them. And they are utterly incapable of translating the one into the other, however obviously they mean the same thing. Say to them ‘The persuasive and even coercive powers of the citizen should enable him to make sure that the burden of longevity in the previous generation does not become disproportionate and intolerable, especially to the females’; say this to them and they will sway slightly to and fro like babies sent to sleep in cradles. Say to them ‘Murder your mother,’ and they sit up quite suddenly. Yet the two sentences, in cold logic, are exactly the same. Say to them ‘It is not improbable that a period may arrive when the narrow if once useful distinction between the anthropoid homo and the other animals, which has been modified on so many moral points, may be modified also even in regard to the important question of the extension of human diet’; say this to them, and beauty born of murmuring sound will pass into their face. But say to them, in a simple, manly, hearty way ‘Let’s eat a man!’ and their surprise is quite surprising. Yet the sentences say just the same thing. Now, if anyone thinks these two instances extravagant, I will refer to two actual cases from the Eugenic discussions. When Sir Oliver Lodge spoke of the methods ‘of the stud-farm’ many Eugenists exclaimed against the crudity of the suggestion. Yet long before that one of the ablest champions in the other interest had written ‘What nonsense this education is! Who could educate a racehorse or a greyhound?’ Which most certainly either means nothing, or the human stud-farm. Or again, when I spoke of people ‘being married forcibly by the police,’ another distinguished Eugenist almost achieved high spirits in his hearty assurance that no such thing had ever come into their heads. Yet a few days after I saw a Eugenist pronouncement, to the effect that the State ought to extend its powers in this area. The State can only be that corporation which men permit to employ compulsion; and this area can only be the area of sexual selection. I mean somewhat more than an idle jest when I say that the policeman will generally be found in that area. But I willingly admit that the policeman who looks after weddings will be like the policeman who looks after wedding-presents. He will be in plain clothes. I do not mean that a man in blue with a helmet will drag the bride and bridegroom to the altar. I do mean that nobody that man in blue is told to arrest will even dare to come near the church. Sir Oliver did not mean that men would be tied up in stables and scrubbed down by grooms. He meant that they would undergo a less of liberty which to men is even more infamous. He meant that the only formula important to Eugenists would be ‘by Smith out of Jones.’ Such a formula is one of the shortest in the world; and is certainly the shortest way with the Euphemists.” 303-304

“The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal.” 311

The modern evil, we have said, greatly turns on this: that people do not see that the exception proves the rule. Thus it may or may not be right to kill a murderer; but it can only conceivably be right to kill a murderer because it is wrong to kill a man. If the hangman, having got his hand in, proceeded to hang friends and relatives to his taste and fancy, he would (intellectually) unhang the first man, though the first man might not think so. Or thus again, if you say an insane man is irresponsible, you imply that a sane man is responsible. He is responsible for the insane man. And the attempt of the Eugenists and other fatalists to treat all men as irresponsible is the largest and flattest folly in philosophy. The Eugenist has to treat everybody, including himself, as an exception to a rule that isn’t there. The Eugenists, as a first move, have extended the frontiers of the lunatic asylum: let us take this as our definite starting point, and ask ourselves what lunacy is, and what is its fundamental relation to human society. Now that raw juvenile scepticism that clogs all thought with catchwords may often be heard to remark that the mad are only the minority, the sane only the majority. There is a neat exactitude about such people’s nonsense; they seem to miss the point by magic. The mad are not a minority because they are not a corporate body; and that is what their madness means. The sane are not a majority; they are mankind. And mankind (as its name would seem to imply) is a kind, not a degree. In so far as the lunatic differs, he differs from all minorities and majorities in kind. The madman who thinks he is a knife cannot go into partnership with the other who thinks he is a fork. There is no trysting place outside reason; there is no inn on those wild roads that are beyond the world. The madman is not he that defies the world. The saint, the criminal, the martyr, the cynic, the nihilist may all defy the world quite sanely. And even if such fanatics would destroy the world, the world owes them a strictly fair trial according to proof and public law. But the madman is not the man who defies the world; he is the man who denies it.” 315-316

“The thing that really is trying to tyrannize through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen—that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the government will really help it to persecute its heretics. Vaccination, in its hundred years of experiment, had been disputed almost as much as baptism in its approximate two thousand. But it seems quite natural to our politicians to enforce vaccination; and it would seem to them madness to enforce baptism. I am not frightened of the word ‘persecution’ when it is attributed to the churches; nor is it in the least as a term of approach that I attribute it to the men of science. It is a term of legal fact. If it means the imposition by the police of a widely disputed theory, incapable of final proof—then our priests are not now persecuting, but our doctors are. The imposition of such dogmas constitutes a State Church—in an older and stronger sense than any that can be applied to any supernatural Church to-day.”345

“Government has become ungovernable; that is, it cannot leave off governing. Law has become lawless; that is, it cannot see where laws should stop. The chief feature of our time is the meekness of the mob and the madness of the government.” 349

“That is the problem, and that is why there is now no protection against Eugenic or any other experiments. If the men who took away beer as an unlawful pleasure had paused for a moment to define the lawful pleasures, there might be a different situation. If the men who had denied one liberty had taken the opportunity to affirm other liberties, there might be some defence for them. But it never occurs to them to admit any liberties at all. It never so much as crosses their minds. Hence the excuse for the last oppression will always serve as well for the next oppression; and to that tyranny there can be no end.” 396

Bonus quotes

There were many other places in the GKC corpus where we find him writing about eugenics. Here are three further brief quotes:

“The Eugenic professor may or may not succeed in choosing a baby’s parents; it is quite certain that he cannot succeed in choosing his own parents. All his thoughts, including his Eugenic thoughts, are, by the very principle of those thoughts, flowing from a doubtful or tainted source. In short, we should need a perfectly Wise Man to do the thing at all. And if he were a Wise Man he would not do it.” Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays, 1907, Ch. 6: “Science and the Eugenists”

“Eugenics seems to be quite as barbarous as cannibalism. If we have a right to mate and breed men and women like beasts, I cannot see why we should not cook and eat them like beasts. If a citizen may not settle what is to happen to his live body, why should he be allowed to be fastidious about what happens to his dead body?” Illustrated London News, March 6, 1909

The whole point of the Eugenic pseudo-scientific theories is that they are to be applied wholesale, by some more sweeping and generalizing money power than the individual husband or wife or household. Eugenics asserts that all men must be so stupid that they cannot manage their own affairs; and also so clever that they can manage each other’s.” Illustrated London News, May 14, 1932

[2091 words]

6 Replies to “Chesterton on Eugenics”

  1. This article is just so full of “meat, the kind that really makes you chew and chew. I almost gave up half way through as I had to think so hard to understand some of it, but I am so glad that I read to the end. By the end my brain was comprehending and my mind was expanded and I not only learned new things, but I started to understand so much. Such meaty reading – I hope everyone reads to the end and really takes it all in if they haven’t already. And what I am left with is just how sinister a small portion of this world is to the innocents who like lambs are being led to the slaughter. Like the frog in the pot slowly coming to boiling point.

  2. The choosing of sperm donors based on declared characteristics by lesbian couples is a modern version of eugenics. Similarly the homosexual male couples’ choices for their “offspring”. Evil is ever more inventive. Abortions based on information obtained from amniocentesis is another application of science to reproduction. So it is with us already even before governments begin their population controls.

  3. From a more personal perspective, when our family buried my wonderful husband Ernest yesterday, one of my beacons of strength and resilience was my nineteen year old grand daughter Kelly. If it had been up to the advocates of eugenic disability cleansing, including my former son in law, my daughter and her mother would have been coerced into aborting my beautiful grand daughter, because Kelly has a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, which affects her muscular and skeletal growth. Domestic violence was involved. Thankfully, my daughter got away in time and divorce followed. With our help, our daughter brought up our grand daughter and she graduated from high school a couple of years ago. She graduated from high school and now she’s at Otago University studying pre-med.

    Every day I thank God that she wasn’t aborted and that there is still resistance to the evil of eugenics amongst so many people. Thankfully, my granddaughter’s right to life was respected and cherished and bore abundant fruit. I remember my dear friend Alison Davies, a dynamic woman with spina bifida and campaigner for the right to life of disabled infants and unborn children. And I remember young Heidi Crowter, who is fighting in the European Court of Human Rights now to protect disabled unborn children from Britain’s monstrous abortion laws, which allow disabled unborn babies to be aborted to the time of their birth.

  4. Eugenics was practised in Australia as late as the 1920s, with state laws able to police Aboriginal people, once thought to be a dying race. The removal of so-called ‘half-caste’ children and the evolutionary ‘smoothing the dying pillow’, as well as telling people who they could marry played a part. While Christian missionaries provided a refuge, they were sometimes forced to collude with Australian governments in these practices, although, some stood up to them and many hid children from police visitation. This background informs living memory and is a testament to those who withstood such an evil practice. We need to unite against those who would divide us, to make sure that our history is known and therefore not to be repeated.

  5. Lord help us “turn the world upside down”. After the Holy Ghost has come upon us.

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