Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“G. K. Chesterton’s Critique of Eugenics in Scientific, Religious, and Political Context,” By Dennis L. Durst

G. K. Chesterton at work


In 1903 George Bernard Shaw published The Revolutionist’s Handbook, which set forth the playwright’s agenda for revolutionizing views of marriage in the West. Shaw wrote: “If the Superman is to come, he must be born of Woman by Man’s intentional and well-considered contrivance.” He further held that traditional marriage practices would delay the advent of the Superman, yet expressed confidence that marriage would persist only “as a name attached to a general custom long after the custom itself will have altered.”[1]

Such were the sentiments to which G. K. Chesterton responded by composing Eugenics and Other Evils prior to the Great War. When the popularity of eugenics increased after the war, Chesterton published the book in 1922. In this paper I argue that Chesterton’s critique of eugenics was part of a larger protest against the illegitimate encroachment of governmental and scientific elites into the sacred precincts of the marriages of the poor.[2]

Other Voices of the Day

That Chesterton was willing to call eugenics “evil” set him apart from some of his prominent Catholic co-religionists as well as leading Protestants of the day. On the Protestant side was “The Gloomy Dean,” William Ralph Inge (1860–1954), Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1911–34. Seeking social control over the quality of British births, Inge aimed his barbed pen in a predictable direction, smugly claiming that: “When a Catholic people begins to be educated, the priests apparently lose their influence upon the habits of the laity, and a rapid decline in the births at once sets in.”[3] Ironically, not quite a century later, Pope Francis would talk to the press about responsible parenthood, remarking in rather impolitic fashion that Catholics need not be like rabbits.[4] On a more ominous note Inge predicted: “the state of the future will have to step in to prevent the propagation of undesirable variations, whether physical or mental, and will doubtless find means to encourage the increase of families that are well endowed by Nature.”[5] It is precisely this casual assumption that the state possessed the right so to interfere that raised the hackles of traditionalists such as Chesterton.

On the Catholic side of the religious equation, the Rev. Thomas J. Gerrard set forth the revised edition of his book The Church and Eugenics in 1917. Gerrard was critical of some eugenic excesses, yet claimed “there is much in it that is in harmony with Catholic principles, and indeed highly conducive to the end for which God’s church exists.”[6] Gerrard decried efforts at legalizing sterilization and marriage restriction for the feeble-minded and epileptics in the United States.[7] Gerrard applauded Caleb Saleeby’s positive and affirming comments about motherhood. At the same time he criticized the support of George Bernard Shaw for the “superman” concept of Nietzsche and for the related claim to have established a “eugenic religion.”[8] Regarding the treatment of the cognitively disabled, Gerrard surveyed efforts to study the problem by the Royal Commission on the Mentally Deficient, which met from 1904–8. On efforts to segregate the sexes in mental health facilities during reproductive years and prevent their marriage, Gerrard sought to protect the role of the church in sanctioning marriages, stating: “The Church has never regarded the marriage of degenerates as unlawful in itself,” and taking a swipe at the marriage restriction laws becoming more popular in England and the United States. In a defense of the civil liberties even of marginal citizens he added, “they cannot be deprived of their right without very grave reason.” On sterilization, Gerrard admitted the Holy See had not yet weighed in on the morality of vasectomies. He was able to cite Catholic theologians and physicians in opposition to the operation because it would “tend to increase immoral practices,” and “open the door to malpractices in matrimonial relations.”[9] Gerrard insisted that the church is the best guardian of eugenic marriages, by which he meant unions characterized by both moral and physical fitness.[10] Thus he tried to turn a popular concept, eugenics, in a spiritual and moral direction, using a homiletical strategy with Catholic moral lessons on purity. Whether such a strategy could work to rehabilitate the concept of “eugenics” was regarded far more pessimistically by Chesterton. Eugenics held good and bad elements from which the pious Catholic such as Rev. Gerrard assumed they could pick and choose the best and leave the rest.

Chesterton’s Opening Salvo

By contrast, for G. K. Chesterton, the word “eugenics” was, by 1922, a term beyond redemption. Eugenics was better classed with “other evils” that bedeviled England in the early decades of the twentieth century. In part, the book serves as a literary riposte and response to George Bernard Shaw, who had stated publically that it would be good for society if humans were bred like carthorses. Chesterton labels eugenics a form of quackery, while recognizing it as symptomatic of a larger problem in modern England. In his preface he writes: “The criticism of Eugenics soon expanded of itself into a more general criticism of a modern craze for making governmental functions more ‘scientific.’” Such a development is momentous for Chesterton as a cultural battle between “scientific officialism” and his own tradition, namely “the older culture of Christendom.”[11]

For Chesterton this tendency is the ill effect of German (“Prussian”) influence in the intellectual trends of the time.[12] These imports into England he calls “the same stuffy science, the same bullying bureaucracy and the same terrorism by tenth-rate professors that have led the German Empire to its recent conspicuous triumph.” Chesterton published Eugenics and Other Evils three years after the war, a war in which the German way had not triumphed—at least militarily. Yet the German ethos had extended a form of triumph in the arena of ideology, and Chesterton’s work serves as a prophetic warning against the excesses and abuses of a “scientific” education tinged with Prussian elements.

Dividing the book into two major sections, Chesterton addresses “The False Theory” and then “The Real Aim” of eugenics. He published this critique at the peak of the popularity of eugenics. The Second International Eugenics Congress on the topic had been heralded with much fanfare the previous year. This congress brought together several hundred eugenicists from at least twelve countries.[13] In the opening address, its president, Henry Fairfield Osborn, a leading American paleontologist and prominent eugenicist, asserted “the right of the state to safeguard the character and integrity of the race or races on which its future depends . . . .”[14] Osborn called for an enlightened government empowered for “the prevention of the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society, the spread of feeblemindedness, of idiocy, and of all moral and intellectual as well as physical diseases.”[15] The year 1921 was also a year during which Chesterton traveled and spoke extensively in the United States.[16] Thus it may be argued that exposure to the transatlantic popularity and spread of eugenics ideology may have been a dispositive factor in Chesterton’s publication of concerns he had harbored for nearly a decade.

Eugenics as Poison

In marked opposition to attitudes of elites like Inge and Gerrard, Chesterton insists: “Eugenics itself is a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning.”[17] For Chesterton, eugenics turns ethics upside down. In a colorful phrase, he points out that “the heroisms of history are actually the crimes of Eugenics.” Whereas in the past, marrying an invalid would have been an heroic act of charity, for the eugenicist such a union was the object of scorn and horror.[18]

The danger of allowing eugenicists to persuade Parliament to pass laws, for example, to control the feeble-minded is that the category is so imprecise. Chesterton notes that if a doctor labels a person “weak-minded,” this hardly qualifies the government to exert control over the life of that person: “Since there is scarcely any human being to whom this term has not been conversationally applied by his own friends and relatives on some occasion or other.” Chesterton sneers, “it can be clearly seen that this law . . . is a net drawing in of all kinds.”[19] Eugenics ideology penalizes people for having quirks and foibles that are the lot of the human race. Under such laws suddenly “every tramp who is sulky, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can quite easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs.”[20]

Chesterton takes up an analysis of the lunatic asylum, both in its historical purpose and the way it would change under eugenics. He distinguishes madmen from dissidents in the statement, “the madman is not the man who defies the world; he is the man who denies it.”[21] He illustrates this with several rhetorically pointed examples. “The lunatic does not say he is as wise as Shakespeare; Bernard Shaw might say that. The lunatic says he is Shakespeare.”[22] The lunatic, unlike the criminal, is in an important sense outside the law. The lunatic can only be condemned to a “general doom,” whereas a criminal (at least outside the realm of the immoral policy of the indeterminate sentence) is given a specific penalty related to a particular crime. The act of a burglar, though wrong, is intelligible and thus punishable; the act of the madman only yields a “general untrustworthiness,” to be guarded against “by a general restraint.”[23]

Chesterton is unimpressed with the rejoinder that eugenic assessments of the feeble-minded have been rendered by medical professionals. In a democratic fashion he insists on assessing madness “by the common human definition” that all people could recognize once it exists. He rejects the efforts of eugenicists to assess madness in advance of its actual manifestation via speculations on hereditary defect. Chesterton forbids the “scientific man” to “meddle with the public definition of madness.” Such a person is called in by the rest of us to tell us where and when the madness is, but “we could not do so, if we had not ourselves settled what it is.”[24] In a populist way, Chesterton demands that public policy use public arguments, assessments, and accessible terms available to the reasoned evaluation of the average citizen.

Chesterton fumes at eugenicists who believe they should intervene to prevent the procreation of persons afflicted with consumption. He asks: “What is the good of telling people that if they marry for love, they may be punished by being the parents of Keats or the parents of Stevenson?” The absurdity of such advice is self-evident. He further insists with delicious verve that “Keats died young; but he had more pleasure in a minute than a Eugenist gets in a month.” He adds, with exasperation, that though Stevenson had lung trouble, and this may have even been predictable had a eugenicist been present to examine his parents prior to his conception, it still would not mean the world would be a better place without Stevenson. “If he had died without writing a line,” Chesterton rhapsodizes, “he would have had more red-hot joy than is given to most men.” Adding a line from biblical Job, he queries “Shall I say of him, to whom I owe so much, let the day perish wherein he was born?”[25]

Religious and Scientific Authority

In a chapter colorfully entitled “The Flying Authority,” Chesterton bores in on the elusive putative basis on which eugenicists ply their trade. The eugenicists seeking to restrict marriages do not mean to permit average citizens, Jones and Brown, to decide the marital matches appropriate each for the other. “The question remains, therefore, whom they do instinctively trust when they say this or that ought to be done?” Chesterton adds. He seeks the source of “this flying and evanescent authority that vanishes” whenever one seeks to locate it clearly. He concludes: “in a large number of cases I think we can simply say that the individual Eugenicist means himself, and nobody else.”[26]

In remarking on a bill to control the feeble-minded debated in Parliament, Chesterton offers that even if he were himself a eugenicist, he could not bring himself to support the incarceration of feeble-minded persons as defined by the bill. First, he opines that there are not that many such persons and that those who do exist are not reported to do more harm than good in society. Even with those cases he personally knows well, “they are not only regarded with human affection, but can be put to certain limited forms of human use.” With wry wit he adds that the strong-minded are of more danger, since they are the ones who tend to force their will on their companions. “If the strong-minded could be segregated it would quite certainly be better for their friends and families,” he jests.[27] In this category he places the eugenicists themselves, especially “medical men” imposing “despotism over their neighbors.”[28]

Circling back to things divine, Chesterton insists experts ought to have less control over their fellow citizens than they desire. The issue, again, is one of authority, and Chesterton in good Catholic fashion returns to its ultimate ground: “In the matter of fundamental human rights, nothing can be above Man, except God. An institution claiming to come from God might have such authority; but this is the last claim the Eugenists are likely to make.”[29] The secular language favored by eugenicists omitted consideration of ultimate values and a transcendent frame of reference for culture and society.

Chesterton next engages in a debate with one of England’s most prominent physician eugenicists, Dr. Caleb Saleeby. Having published such works as Parenthood and Race Culture: An Outline of Eugenics in 1909 and The Methods of Race Regeneration in 1911, as well as serving on the National Birthrate Commission of 1918–20, Saleeby was a prominent mouthpiece for marriage and procreation restriction in England.[30]

The main issue separating Chesterton from Saleeby is the status of the term “feeble-minded,” which, for Chesterton is a phrase that “conveys nothing fixed and outside opinion.” Segregation of maniacs and idiots has always occurred and is thus not objectionable, but “feeble-mindedness is a new phrase under which you might segregate anybody.” The notion involves, for Chesterton “the fundamental fallacy in the use of statistics” and the uselessness of “exact figures about an inexact phrase.”[31] Feeble-mindedness, to one degree or another, can apply to all members of humanity, much like “vanity” or some other common flaw. This imprecision of language also makes it notoriously difficult to disprove, once the label is affixed to a citizen by persons in authority.[32]

Chesterton also challenges how eugenicist policy makers use the concept of heredity. He points out three facts about heredity: 1) that it undoubtedly exists, 2) that it is not simple but “literally unfathomable,” and 3) the combinations of heredity and experiences are unlike anything else on earth.[33] Chesterton pleads that if we can barely make laws that consistently prosecute straightforward concepts like murder and theft, then he “simply cannot conceive any responsible person proposing to legislate on our broken knowledge and bottomless ignorance of heredity.”[34] With panache Chesterton skewers a favorite trope of the eugenicists—inherited beauty:

Marry two handsome people whose noses tend to the aquiline, and their baby (for all you know) may be a goblin with a nose like an enormous parrot’s. Indeed, I actually know a case of this kind. The Eugenist has to settle, not the result of fixing one steady to a second steady thing; but what will happen when one toppling and dizzy equilibrium crashes into another.[35]

The Church of Doubt

In “The Established Church of Doubt,” Chesterton hits his verbal stride by attacking the modern ideology underpinning eugenics, namely, the creed he calls “the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics.” Using an analogy that surely makes his interlocutors squirm, Chesterton proclaims that “Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.” In contrasting the attitude of the religious and the scientific zealot, Chesterton writes, “The devotee boasted that he would never abandon the faith; and therefore he persecuted for the faith. But the doctor of science actually boasts that he will always abandon a hypothesis; and yet he persecutes for the hypothesis.”[36]

Chesterton compares the Inquisition with the eugenics movement, to the detriment of the latter. “If I gave in to the Inquisitors,” he quips, “I should at least know what creed to profess. But even if I yelled out a credo when the Eugenicists had me on the rack, I should not know what creed to yell. I might get an extra turn of the rack for confessing to the creed they confessed quite a week ago.”[37] Parrying the common refrain amongst eugenicists that eugenics must become a new religion, Chesterton describes this as “the first religion to be experimental instead of doctrinal.” Whereas other established churches have been founded on the principle of “somebody having found the truth,” the church of eugenics “is the first Church that was ever based on not having found it.”[38]

Maltreatment of the Poor by Eugenicists

The second half of the book treats the practical social policies either implemented or seriously considered by Parliament and focuses on the “other evils” promised in the book’s title. As a general critique of the progressive tenor of the times, Chesterton notes that the modern ethos is about never going back but always only going forward. “Now everybody talks about reform,” he observes, “but nobody talks about repeal.”[39] For Chesterton eugenics is only the latest in a long history of the tale of the wealthy and powerful trampling upon the poor and the weak. Chesterton exposes with bitter irony the better treatment of the medieval serf than the modern tramp. For the tramp “has lost what was possible to the serf. He can no longer scratch the bare earth by day or sleep on the bare earth by night, without being collared by a policeman.”[40] After a critique of the workhouse system in England and its manifest injustices, Chesterton points out the incongruity of the wealthy forbidding homelessness, “because it is precisely this adventurous and vagabond spirit which the educated classes praise most in their books, poems and speeches.” Such literature romanticizes the self-made man who started with only twopence in his pocket. Yet “when a poorer but braver man with less than twopence in his pocket does the very thing we are always praising, makes the blue heavens his house, we send him to a house built for infamy and flogging.”[41]

In a chapter tellingly titled “The Meanness of the Motive,” Chesterton’s acerbic wit and social critique hits full stride. He notes that the desire of the procreation restrictionists to reduce family size among the poor has to do not with the good of the poor but with the good of those ruling them. Industrialists presume that life and love must fit into a fixed framework of bad employment.[42] He also skewers the blindness of those aristocrats who decry the inbreeding of the poor, yet at the same time severely limit their own spousal choices to a small pool of interconnected families of presumptive good breeding.[43]

Another tendency of eugenicists that comes under Chesterton’s withering gaze is the common practice of calling the poor a “race.” Yet Chesterton correctly notes: “the poor are not a race or even a type. It is senseless to talk about breeding them; for they are not a breed.”[44]


Chesterton concludes Eugenics and Other Evils with a “Very Short Chapter” pregnant with prescience. For in that chapter he notes again that much of the structure of eugenic thought has emerged from the Prussian mindset. He tells the tale of a foreigner named Bolce, living at Hampstead, who has volunteered to be the father of the promised Superman lauded by Friedrich Nietzsche. It turns out the child born is actually a superwoman, upon whom is bestowed the unfortunate name “Eugenette.” The newspapers follow the saga enrapt as the parents strive to create perfect prenatal conditions for the perfect child. Chesterton notes that some time later Mr. Bolce was “sued in a law-court for keeping his own flat in conditions of filth and neglect.”[45] The story is dropped in the papers, as England plunges into the Great War.

Writing in 1922, Chesterton ends his work with a lament. For the ideal of a scientifically and eugenically ordered utopia praised by the Prussians did not die along with the millions who perished to defeat Prussianism. Such a mentality was again on the rise throughout Europe.[46] Only two years later a social agitator who had served as a corporal in the Great War would sit in a German prison.[47] With his free time he began to pen the book that would lay the groundwork for the most thoroughgoing eugenic program for societal transformation yet invented. That vision would become a worldview productive of other monstrous evils—evils that could beggar even an imagination as vivid as Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s.


Dennis L. Durst is Associate Professor of Theology at Kentucky Christian University.



[1] George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy (New York: Brentano’s, 1903), 185–88.

[2] For more historical contextualization, see David Barker, “How to Curb the Fertility of the Unfit: The Feeble-Minded in Edwardian Britain,” Oxford Review of Education 9 (1983): 197–211; Dan Stone, Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race and Eugenics in Edwardian and Interwar Britain, Studies in European Regional Cultures 6 (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2002); and Louise Hide, Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890–1914 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[3] William Ralph Inge, Outspoken Essays (First Series) (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1919), 73.

[4] Jasmine Garsd, “Pope Francis Says Catholics Don’t Need to Breed ‘Like Rabbits,’” The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR, January 20, 2015, His words were: “God gives you methods to be responsible. Some think that—excuse the word—that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No.”

[5] Inge, Outspoken Essays, 78.

[6] Thomas J. Gerrard, The Church and Eugenics, 2nd, rev. ed. (London: P. S. King & Son, 1917), 7.

[7] Ibid., 8–10.

[8] Ibid., 15, 17.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Ibid., 40. He even included a chapter defending “The Eugenic Value of Celibacy,” pp. 47–50.

[11] G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils (London: Cassell, 1922), “To the Reader.”

[12] For a fuller discussion of Chesterton’s wartime propaganda efforts against “Prussianism,” see Ian Ker, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 365–72.

[13] A photo of the Certificate for Meritorious Exhibits at this conference is available online at, accessed January 13, 2016.

[14] Henry Fairfield Osborn, “The Second International Congress of Eugenics Address of Welcome,” Science (October 7, 1921): 312.

[15] Ibid., 313.

[16] Ker, Chesterton, 427–86.

[17] Chesterton, Eugenics, 4.

[18] Ibid., 7.

[19] Ibid., 20.

[20] Ibid., 21.

[21] Ibid., 32.

[22] Ibid., 33–34.

[23] Ibid., 35–36.

[24] Ibid., 42.

[25] Ibid., 44–45.

[26] Ibid., 50.

[27] Ibid., 51.

[28] Ibid., 54.

[29] Ibid., 60.

[30] See Caleb Saleeby, Problems of Population and Parenthood (New York: Dutton, 1920).

[31] Chesterton, Eugenics, 61.

[32] Ibid., 62–63.

[33] Ibid., 67–68.

[34] Ibid., 68–69.

[35] Ibid., 71.

[36] Ibid., 78. In his autobiography, Chesterton critiqued the inconsistency inherent in a religion of Darwinism: “Men who believed ardently in altruism were yet troubled by the necessity of believing with even more religious reverence in Darwinism, and even in the deductions from Darwinism about a ruthless struggle as the rule of life” (G. K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton [New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936], 178).

[37] Ibid., 79.

[38] Ibid., 80.

[39] Ibid., 95.

[40] Ibid., 106.

[41] Ibid., 109.

[42] Ibid., 139.

[43] Ibid., 140–41.

[44] Ibid., 143.

[45] Ibid., 181.

[46] Ibid., 183–84.

[47] Charles Bracelen Flood, Hitler: The Path to Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), 586–96.

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