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Posted: July 10, 2017


Chesterfield and Chesterton

Much of Life may come down to a choice between the respective views of Lord Chesterfield, who urged his son always to excel at whatever he did, and G.K. Chesterton, who once wrote that, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

The issue, of course, is what the “thing” in question is. If it is a mere amusement, like social dancing or karaoke or hobby painting or Sunday-afternoon poetizing or weekend shooting, Chesterton was right. If, on the other hand, it’s professional ballet, or operatic singing, or painting on commission or writing for pay, or military marksmanship, Chesterfield was. A further issue is whether that thing is worth doing on a “serious” or professional basis: ball-playing, for example, or bowling, or swimming, or tennis, or golf, or any other sport, the essence of which is, or should be, the sheer joy of the thing itself rather than whatever tangible result may come of it. Chesterton also wrote,

I entertain a private suspicion that physical sports were much more really effective and beneficent when they were not taken quite so seriously. One of the first essentials of sport being healthy is that it should be delightful; it is rapidly becoming a false religion with austerities and prostrations.

He failed to add that it was also in the process of becoming a major industry, whose tangible results include vast sums of money paid out to a great many people, and not just to the athletes themselves.

The worth of doing something badly or not is ultimately a matter of discernment, determined by one’s ability to distinguish between what really is important in human terms and what isn’t; it is a question of final values. Approached from this perspective, push-pin or football is the equal of singing bel canto at the level demanded by La Scala, or writing the Four Quartets, or weaving a traditional Navajo rug. The problem here is that for modern pluralist-democratically minded people there are no ascertainable values, only imagined or, at best, relative ones. The way around or through this cultural impediment is to evaluate in an objective, rather than a subjective, manner the several elements of which a particular activity is composed. Professional football demands, beyond natural ability, physical strength and stamina induced by training, physical skills including speed, maneuverability and dexterity, superb hand-to-eye coordination, and a profound knowledge of the rules of the game. Professional singing requires a voice of superior beauty and agility, an exquisite ear, physical stamina, endless vocal practice, sound training in music theory, basic competence as an actor and a sense of stage presence, the ability to sight-read, sing in parts, and learn complex scores, for which a basic proficiency in piano is a great help. Beyond all of that lies the crucial intellectual component: the intellect, as distinct from intelligence, which cannot be taught but only cultivated, and which allows the singer to grasp the intent of the librettist as well as that of the composer, and how text and score complement each other, to interpret a work of art with a completeness and impact that can be achieved only by a superior musician endowed, in addition to the other gifts, with a profound human sensibility that, being largely instinctive, also cannot be taught but must be developed by years of experience and artistic development. As for poetry, it, too, depends upon, besides natural talent and a good ear, training (more likely self-training) in poetic structure (rhythm, meter, rhyme, form, and so forth), and the movement of the intellect: wide learning in many fields, the gift of observation and the ability to represent what one sees and has seen, a powerful poetic imagination, human insight and understanding of a kind granted to few people, and, finally, the ability to bring these things together in a unique work of art. When compared with singing and poetry, rug-weaving, though indisputably requiring talent, skill, a sense of color, and inordinate patience, is plainly a craft, distinguishable from the arts by the fact that the intellect is unnecessary to it, though certainly it may nevertheless be possessed by the craftsman.

The point of this disquisition is a simple one: The greater the part the intellect plays in any human activity, the less value (and the less excuse) there is in doing it badly.

Since Chesterton’s time, the view of Chesterfield has come to prevail, with bad effects that Chesterton himself apprehended. It ought to be obvious that to approach every activity every day as a quest for the Olympic gold or the Nobel Prize or an Oscar or the Prix Goncourt is unhealthy—but to contemporary people, it isn’t. Consider, for example, exercise and physical fitness today, when it seems that the large majority of people who are not professional athletes either refuse to get up from a chair or make a fetish of “working out,” rising hours before work to visit the gym and taking lessons from certified trainers in how to develop this or that muscle group, one or another physical skill, by acquiring the right “technique.” A generation or two ago, it would have occurred to few even of the most active people that physical exercise is something to be taught, that fitness is properly an academic subject to be studied, and with great solemnity. Exercise was simply doing something, and if it were done badly—Quelle différence? One enjoyed the bodily activity, and felt the better for it, and was the better for it. Similarly with the out-of-doors. Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, and Edward Abbey went into the forests, the mountains, the plains to explore, observe, appreciate, enjoy, and even meditate upon the natural world, whose peace and solitude, as well as the opportunity for adventure and even danger, was the point of it all. Today, such people have been replaced almost entirely by competitive joggers, mountain bikers, dirt bikers, rock climbers, parachutists, kayakers, and endurance riders who seem to have little interest in the natural setting in which they pursue their sport but only in its special technique and their own performance. Read any of Abbey’s books, while trying to imagine him doing any of these things in Utah’s Grand Gulch, The Maze, on the slopes of Tukuhnikivatz in the La Sal Mountains above Moab. Or Thoreau, in the woods and mountains of Massachusetts and New Hampshire and on the Maine rivers. Or Hemingway up in Michigan. These men enjoyed direct physical contact with the natural world, careless for the most part of whether they were “expert” in their engagement with it or not. (Hemingway was foolishly competitive in the field, but the Rough Rider assessed himself as a no better than average shot.) Yet they were knowledgeable and proficient outdoorsmen, far better equipped to survive the onslaughts of nature than most mountain bikers knocked off their machines or runners caught by an unexpected snowstorm in the backcountry. Most importantly, Thoreau’s Walden, John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail were not the results of timed jogs and competitive group-runs or horseback races through the wilderness, but the artistic issue of long, contemplative walks and other more vigorous explorations on foot, in the saddle, or by canoe in the beloved country, whatever and wherever it was.

Postmoderns have a horror of anything done “badly” (meaning, for them, “not as well as it might be done”) that helps explain their inordinate respect for and reliance upon “experts” in every field of human activity, from selecting a bottle of wine to rearing children to holding political office—and running for it. Since around the middle of the 19th century, when the push for a professional civil service was begun in Great Britain and America, expertise earned through academic training and long practical experience, supported by an ethos of professionalism and careerism, have been thought necessary to a competent performance in public affairs, political as well as administrative. The idea behind civil-service “reform” was to flush out the “amateurs”—meaning, in Britain, second and third sons and their aristocratic relatives—from public life and replace them with “experts,” including “scientific” experts. This prejudice in favor of the “expert” has only widened and solidified since then, despite the fact that the bureaucrats and public specialists the new regime embodied have been no more successful at governing than their blue-blooded predecessors. Arguably, they have been a good deal less so, when one considers the decline of Great Britain since 1914 and the gummy gelatinous maze the American public sphere has subsided into over the same period. Before last summer, professional politicians were credited with knowing at least how to manage such things as putting on national referenda and winning their personal electoral campaigns—until a wealthy British insurance tycoon and his friends succeeded in wrecking the plans of a prime minister by pulling off Brexit. Five months later an American tycoon with no political experience delivered a sound shellacking to the Chief Priestess of Wonkery, whose coronation had been expected by experts in the media and in the academy, while spending a third of the money his opponent burned through in the effort. The experts are now agreed that the same tycoon campaigned in person as badly as the neophytes he hired for his staff ran the wider operation. But he won—having reveled in the battle, “unprofessionally” as it may have been prosecuted. One wonders what Chesterfield would have made of this. On the other hand, it is more than possible that Chesterton, the champion of the little man, would have enjoyed the spectacle immensely, despite his lack of sympathy for plutocrats.

The movement across the Western democracies that has been so inaccurately and misleadingly called “populism” is, among other things, a rejection of the expertise, scientism, and professionalism of the political and bureaucratic elites who insist that they, and they alone, are capable of doing all that needs to be done to maintain the power, the affluence, the security, even the continued existence of complex technocratic postmodern societies. “Populism,” however, guarantees that elitist candidates for public office, and indeed any sort of government job, will be challenged by people who would rather see the right things done more or less badly than the “wrong” things, as their presumptuous overeducated betters see them, done well. Political and public life, as the history books show, has always been largely a matter of muddling through with the aid of circumstance, contingency, and simple luck, a business in which nonspecialists and even amateurs have as good a shot at success as the “experts,” technocrats, and planners whose best-laid plans have far more often than not been thwarted by the simplest events and run aground on the most ordinary human facts and existing social conditions. If the human race depended for its survival on sheer intellect and expertise, it would have gone extinct millennia ago.

During the Vietnam War, liberals did not bother to disguise their faith in what one of their stellar lights memorably called “the best and the brightest.” The phrase has hardly been heard since 1974, but the faith itself has not gone away. Instead, it has been replaced by confidence in “the experts” who, though having been even less successful in war and peace than their famous predecessors, pride themselves nonetheless on their determination to excel at everything they put their hand to, and their ability to win every time, despite having so often lost in ways embarrassing to themselves and with dire consequences for their country. It’s no mystery why populism should have arisen when it did, and where the populists themselves come from.

Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture June 1, 2017

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