Done reading The Outline of Sanity

Something I read recently (I don’t remember what) reminded me that I still hadn’t gotten around to reading about Distributism, which proposes an economics that is neither capitalist nor socialist. So I poked around and found what looked like the most important books about Distributism, namely An Essay on the Restoration of Property, Economics for Helen, and The Servile State, all by Hilaire Belloc, and The Outline of Sanity by G.K. Chesterton. Hoping for something a bit lighter than what I’ve been reading lately, I started with Chesterton.

I was disappointed with the book, although it may be my own fault. Chesterton has his own style, one that enamors him greatly to his fans. And I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Chesterton in the past (The Man Who Was Thursday and Orthodoxy). But as I read this book I came to despise his deliberate unwillingness to get to the point. I wasn’t interested in reading Chesterton for his own sake, but for learning about Distributism. But in the book he says only a few fundamental things about Distributism, things that could have been stated in a few pages. In fact, he goes ahead and restates them in the short final chapter—and even there he goes on at unnecessary length.

As I said, my disappointment is largely my own fault. I suppose any Chesterton fan would be delighted by this book; Chesterton is clearly delighted by his own words. And that was the sticking point for me. The clever analogies went on way too long, the carefully turned phrases seemed to be turned just for the sake of turning them, and the pointed responses to critics seemed mostly pointless. As I read, I remembered that these were newspaper essays, and I wondered if GKC was being paid by the word. Anyway, I wasn’t enjoying the writing for its own sake, and as a result it just got in the way of what I would have really enjoyed, namely a simple explanation of the details of Distributism.

This paragraph from the summary chapter more or less sums up the problem, with the usual Chestertonian twist:

Now in this book I am well aware that there are many digressions that may not at first sight seem to be necessary. For I have had to construct it out of what was originally a sort of controversial causerie; and it has proved impossible to cut down the causerie and only leave the controversy. Moreover, no man can controvert with many foes without going into many subjects, as everyone knows who has been heckled. And on this occasion I was, I am happy to say, being heckled by many foes who were also friends. I was discharging the double function of writing essays and of talking over the tea table, or preferably over the tavern table. To turn this sort of mixture of a gossip and a gospel into anything like a grammar of Distributism has been quite impossible. But I fancy that, even considered as a string of essays, it appears more inconsequential than it really is; and many may read the essays without quite seeing the string. I have decided, therefore, to add this last essay merely in order to sum up the intention of the whole; even if the summary be only a recapitulation. I have had a reason for many of my digressions, which may not appear until the whole is seen in some sort of perspective; and where the digression has no such justification, but was due to a desire to answer a friend or (what is even worse) a disposition towards idle and unseemly mirth, I can only apologize to the scientific reader and promise to do my best to make this final summary as dull as possible.

Well, after 170 pages of this sort of thing it was sounding to me like GKC was on automatic pilot, churning out the words because that’s the sort of thing GKC does, as well as the sort of thing that his fans expect. But I suppose it may be sheer grumpiness on my part to think so.


10 thoughts on “Done reading The Outline of Sanity

  1. I have just started reading about distributism myself. Only I started with “What’s Wrong With the World”. I was going to read “Outline of Sanity” next, maybe I will just read “The Servile State” instead.

  2. Nicholas,

    I probably should have started with What’s Wrong With the World as well. I haven’t read it, but I assume that there Chesterton makes the three points I got out of The Outline of Sanity, namely:

    • Capitalism and socialism make the same mistake in concentrating property (i.e. the means of production) in the hands of a few.
    • Large shops have no advantages over small shops, but have many disadvantages, and should be avoided to the point of boycott.
    • It is quite possible to turn back the clock, and to do so via scattered individual efforts.

    I’ve just started reading An Essay on the Restoration of Property by Belloc, and although it is boring and precise it also does a much better job of explaining the Distributist view of property.

  3. I happened to find the second chapter to The Outline of Sanity online and read it when I was in the midst of a discussion on agrarianism at a forum I frequent. He aptly expressed the very frustration I felt, in his own wordy, wandering way. I wondered how the rest of the book was.

    I’m looking forward to your reviews of the other books to help me decide where I should start reading on the economic question.

  4. Have you heard of the new book: Look Homeward America by Bill Kauffman? He’s a local, smalltown advocate/author from NY and this book talks about many famous and non-famous americans, including a lady named Dorothy Day who was a distibutist. I heard of this book while hearing him being interviewed on a late-night radio show. I havent read it yet, but it sounds right up your alley.

  5. I think what I like about Chesterton and CS Lewis and their ilk is that I don’t have to have a clue what they are saying to thoroughly enjoy hearing them say it.

    I felt that way after reading The Problem of Pain. I was scratching my head and enjoying the ride at the same time.

  6. Kelly,

    It makes sense that you thought he was expressing your frustration, because he was certainly expressing his own frustration with the thick-headedness of folks who were criticising distributism. But that particular mission of his was a major distraction from the thing I was interested in, namely a good exposition of distributism. I felt like everyone else at the party already knew all the details, while I was reduced to reading between the lines to reconstruct those details.


    I will try to find out more about the book you mention.


    My criticism of The Outline of Sanity is only that it didn’t suit my purposes, which I suppose isn’t much of a criticism. Any Chesterton lover would enjoy reading the book; it is full of very clear and novel thinking, cleverly expressed, as usual. I enjoyed it myself—there are many, many passages underlined in my copy.

    But I was frustrated that GKC, who clearly knew the answers to my questions about distributism, chose mostly to focus on something else, namely the misguided and thoughtless criticisms that then-current critics of distributism were slinging his way. It was more of a curio than most of his other books, tied to a particular place and time and intellectual atmosphere. It is a good read, but I’d recommend that anyone who hasn’t read GKC’s more substantial works start with those, since they’re just as enjoyably written, and wrestle with much more important matters.

  7. After reading your book list below, I requested from the library Belloc’s *Europe and the Faith* (seemingly the most general title of Belloc’s available) and also G.G. Coulton’s *The Medieval Scene.*

    Belloc arrived first, and I finshed it day before yesterday. Belloc is a tight logician, but I feel sure he picks and chooses his facts. I enjoyed the book anyway, because I found his broad brush style valuable even while understanding that it might leave out some inconvenient details. I think you’re right that out of the Chesterbelloc duo, he would be the preferable one to read on Distributionism. There are some similarities in style, and both are writing as apologists, but Belloc doesn’t write every sentence as a play on words.

    Yesterday I picked up Coulton, and by the first chapter I knew something was up. His views are in many places the polar opposite of Belloc’s. So far it’s as though the two books were written as opposite sides in a debate, with many points designed as specific answers to those in the other book.

    Well, suffice it to say it didn’t take much digging to find that Belloc and Coulton were indeed fierce antagonists, though I don’t know if these two books were specifically written against each other. It reminds me of the verse,
    “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” (Proverbs 18:17) That is certainly a constant process in history reading! Of course, I don’t feel qualified to have a strong opinion myself on who was right, particularly as I’m only on chapter two of Coulton. But even at this stage, it helps to know something about the betes noires of each.

    Anyway, just thought you might find that an interesting bit of background to know while you’re reading Belloc.

    I like Chesterton, by the way, but don’t know if I’d choose him for factual background reading. Oh, and I also have Dorothy Day’s autobiography on request from the library, but it’s so popular that I’m going to have to wait a while. I requested it after a friend invited me to a play about her life, though I’m sure that my other reading made the subject matter to stand out.

  8. Laura,

    I didn’t know that about Belloc and Coulton either until I ran across a review of a Belloc biography a few days back. The review also said that Belloc was known for ignoring facts (and occasionally lying) to bolster his arguments. And I’ve noticed in reading his Argument for the Restoration of Property that he is often way over the top in ruling out possibilities he doesn’t care for.

    So, someone to be read with discernment. I find Belloc very helpful for understanding what the distributists have to say, but fortunately I don’t find him overly persuasive; when I agree with him it’s because of things I already knew, and when he makes claims I have no independent knowledge of I tend to suspend judgment.

  9. Hello, this is Roy F. Moore, one of the contributors to the news and opinion weblog “The Distributist Review”.

    When Chesterton was writing “The Outline of Sanity”, he said at the beginning of the book that it was only a “sketch” or “outline” of what distributism was. It would fall to others over the decades to refine and explain what it is, how it works and how it can be applied today.

    For further research, may I suggest checking Wikipedia for it’s entry on Distributism.

    There is also a Distributism Yahoo Group that discusses matters like this, and I invite all to join who are interested in knowing more of it.

    Thank you for your time, and may God richly bless you and yours.

  10. Hi Rick, I just finished Outline of Sanity and thought about you and your fellow agrarians while I was reading it. No surprise to come to your site and search your archives and see you have already read it and discussed it. I enjoyed it. I’m a long time GKC fan, so I had no problem with his added “color” commentary. I had a first impression (wrong, I know) that distributism was mainly a critique a critique of industrialized agriculture. It is that of course, though a complete system opposing and reversing the harm over-mechanization has wrought. What would GKC think now of our cell-phone culture, energy crisis, and hyper-entertainment mindset? I suppose he wouldn’t be shocked at all. It’s unfolding just as he predicted. Thanks, -Mark in Austin

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