…The sensation connected with Bernard Shaw in recent years has been his sudden development of the religion of the Superman. He who had to all appearance mocked at the faiths of the forgotten past discovered a new god in the unimaginable future. He who had laid all the blame on ideals set up the most impossible of ideals, the ideal of a new creature…
The truth is that Mr. Shaw has never seen things as they really are. If he had he would have fallen on his knees before them. He has always had a secret ideal that withered all the things of this world. He has all the time been silently comparing humanity with something that was not human, with a monster from Mars, with the Wise Man of the Stoics…
It is not seeing things as they are to think first of Briareus with a hundred hands, and then call every man a cripple for only having two… it is not seeing things as they are to imagine a demi-god with infinite mental clarity, who may or may not appear in the latter days of the earth, and then to see all men as idiots. And this is what Mr. Shaw has always in some degree done.
When we really see men as they are, we do not criticize but worship, and rightly so. For a monster with mysterious eyes and miraculous thumbs, with strange dreams in his skull, and a queer tenderness for this place or that baby, is truly a wonderful and unnerving matter…
After belaboring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr. Shaw has discovered.. that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being can be progressive at all… [and he] decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake… It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw that baby out of window and ask for a new baby.
Mr. Shaw cannot understand that the thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man—the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, falling, sensual, respectable man. And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – This chapter proved to be rather hard to excerpt in a coherent fashion. Earlier in the chapter GKC had established George Bernard Shaw’s consistent rejection of any ideals whatsoever, his absolute constancy in mocking and deriding any and all creeds, values, ideologies, principles, in favor of some absolute realism, some sterling quality of seeing things, not as they should be or as we would like them to be or as our ideals demand they should become, but as they really are.
He goes on to point out that Shaw’s rejection of any kind of idealism or binding law or absolute value was meant to be in the service of liberty—that by saying ‘the one rule is that there is no golden rule’ (a quote from Shaw), is supposed to free us simply to accept people ‘as they are’ and judge and act accordingly.
But, of course people ‘as they are’ are inherently idealistic, moralizing, law-making (and yes, law-breaking), wholly ordered towards finding out what is good and formulating this good into general statements of principle and law. People ‘as they are’, humanity ‘as it is’ has from its first movements until today been ineluctably dedicated to articulating what is good in the form of law and moral order.
Shaw’s Superman has come and gone and left behind merely the DC comics light parody of itself. But the progressive idea is alive and kicking in our world today—that is, the idea that it is so utterly important to be ‘progressive’ that we must throw out everything that is retrograde, up to and including humanity, in service of progress, whatever that means.
This is not fantasy—the post-humanist manifesto can be found on-line, and trans-humanism is a viable scientific project, the crafting of an ‘new and improved’ humanity through various forms of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and cybernetics. I don’t know enough science to know the extent of this movement’s real world viability, but the spirit of Shaw is alive and well in it, and GKC’s critique holds firm.
Namely, what does progress mean if it is at the expense of the human person as he or she is? When we talk about improving the human race by making it other than what it is, whose standards of improvement are we talking about? Who says it’s better for us to live 200 years as opposed to 100? Who says we would be ‘better’ having our consciousness downloaded into digital hard drives, or the various other modifications proposed by the trans-humanists? What does ‘better’ mean when we are no longer talking about serving the good of the human person?
The same holds true with all the ‘progressive’ ideals that are no longer grounded in the truth of humanity. The people who want to save the environment by slaughtering the human race (yes, they exist), the people who want to uphold the value of gender identity by draining gender identity of any coherent meaning grounded in the body, the people who want to promote the ideals of peace and tolerance by denying the existence of any ideals at all—these all fail miserably as logical coherent systems, and so collapse into sheer unreasoning voluntarism.
In other words, “I will do what I want to do, and if you even suggest I ought not, I will destroy you.” This is the inevitable end point of ‘progress’ valued in itself, as opposed to progress towards a clear and coherent moral good, at the service of humanity. As GCK says, it is man who we value, who we love, the human person who is the cherished thing, both by God and by ourselves, and it is this human person, as we are, who we are, that is the great good we are called to serve and love in this world, as God serves and loves us in this world.