Chesterton’s parable of the fence

The British writer G. K. Chesterton is probably best known to the general public as the author of the “Father Brown” series of mysteries. Among English-speaking Catholics, he is also well known as an apologist for their faith. Agree or disagree with his views, friend and foe recognized his intellect.

In one of his apologetic works (“The Thing”, quoted here, and discussed here from a different religious perspective) he coined an interesting parable:

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, 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.

Meaning no disrespect to Chesterton’s splendid prose, allow me to paraphrase and elaborate in plain(er) contemporary English.

Suppose you are walking along a road and see it blocked by a fence. Is your first impulse: “this fence is oppression! We must tear it down!” Chances are you are a left-liberal “progressive” — especially if you flip 180 degrees to “we must keep the fence, and saying otherwise is hate speech!” after being told that the fence was erected by or at the behest of one of your mascot groups.

Is your first impulse rather, on seeing or suspecting that the fence was erected by the state: “down with the state! down with the fence!” Then, if told that the fence was erected because there was a cliff behind it, or quicksand: “it is my dog-given right to drive off a cliff or into quicksand if I choose to do so, and the state has no business making such a fence!” Chances are you’re a doctrinaire big-L Libertarian. (A more sensible libertarian might advocate tearing down the fence but putting up warning signs, saying “proceed at your own risk”.)

Or is your first impulse that the fence is sacred just because it has always been there, and we must not question why? Chances are you are a reactionary.

Or, finally, is your first thought: “Hmm, that fence wasn’t put there overnight by leprechauns. We must find out how that fence came to be and why. It’s quite possible that the fence was built for reasons that are no longer relevant, and that we can safely tear it down; it’s also possible that the fence is still sorely needed. Until we have a straight answer to this question, let’s not mess with it.” That is what it means to be a conservative. Not to be afraid of anything new, not to oppose reform or evolution —  but to go about it cautiously and thoughtfully, and mindful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  A conservative with libertarian sympathies (like myself) may err on the side of allowing people to make their own mistakes rather than “protecting them against themselves” — but still would not tear down the fence unthinkingly. I might be more rash, if I were alone on a desert island. But in the immortal words of John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 

 

 

One thought on “Chesterton’s parable of the fence

  1. Have you seen the related one about the lamp-post?
    It’s basically the parable of the fence, but from the perspective of after a “coalition” has torn down the light, and then has to deal with “wait, that was there for a reason…and, actually, we’ve got contradictory reasons for wanting it down….”

    Here we go:
    https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1884008-heretics
    “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.”
    ― G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

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