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Themes in The Fallacy of Success

The Ghostly Abstraction of Success: Chesterton’s primary criticism of the idea of “Success” amounts to an error in reasoning. As Chesterton points out, the many writers who prescribe paths to Success operate with an underlying assumption that Success can be generalized. Success, then, becomes an abstraction. Chesterton points out that there is no Success in a general or abstract sense: it only occurs in particular contexts. A successful bricklayer builds a strong house; a successful writer writes a compelling book. There is no broad pattern of Success which encompasses the two trades, only specific successes that result from either “very good work” or “cheating.” From the abstraction of Success emerges the proclivity to mystify it, causing Success-monsters to treat it as a divine force at work in the universe.

The Sinfulness of Success: Chesterton assesses the pursuit of Success as a moral aim and finds it lacking. Chesterton was a deeply religious person and devoted much of his energies as a writer to the composition of theological tracts and Christian apologetics. The phenomenon of rampant, winner-takes-all capitalism, fueled by the rise of industrialism, failed to meet Chesterton’s standards. As he sees it, turn-of-the-century England was a place where “vices” were rewarded over “virtues.” He calls for a reversal in values; in his words, “temperance will not help a poor man to enrich himself, but it may help him to respect himself.”

Themes Examples in The Fallacy of Success:

G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success"

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"I have sometimes thought I heard upon the wind the laughter and whisper of the reeds...."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

In this paragraph, the scope of the essay expands from a narrow critique of “success” books and encompasses those who venerate the successful—embodied in the writer of the article Chesterton cites—as well as the successful themselves, as embodied by Rothschild and Vanderbilt. This particular line constitutes a direct attack on the trustworthiness of Rothschild and Vanderbilt, who Chesterton assumes to be hiding, in the manner of Midas, some personal secrets or shames. It also marks a firm transition in the point of Chesterton’s argument. Where at first he decried books about “success” as illogical and useless, he now transitions into a stance of finding the pursuit of success—including people who are wildly successful—innately immoral.

"the horrible mysticism of money..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

Chesterton returns to this theme in “The Worship of the Wealthy,” another of his essays collected in [All Things Considered] (https://www.owleyes.org/text/all-things-considered/read/the-worship-of-the-wealthy). In that essay, Chesterton criticizes the tendency among the poor to treat the wealthy as if they were especially noble and sacred. True to Christian ethics, Chesterton often pointed out the false conflation of material riches with spiritual attainment.

"That a thing is successful merely means that it is..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

To support his argument that “what is called Success” is functionally meaningless, Chesterton invents a definition for “Success” that is logically sound but potentially at odds with more common understandings of the word. To Chesterton, success is necessarily local, determined by the boundaries of the specific domain of action. For example, a donkey is just as successful as a millionaire, given that the former is involved in being a donkey and the latter in being a millionaire. Thus, there is no generalized definition of success; no success as such.

"But what shall we say of the gospel preached..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

Chesterton continues to view the entrepreneurial landscape through a lens of religious language and metaphors. Comparing the previous generation of “Industrious Apprentice” with that of today, Chesterton discusses the differing “gospel[s] preached” to the two. For the prior generation, it was “Good work will not make him a rich man, but good work may make him a good workman.” For the new generation, the gospel of “Success” motivates the workman to rise “not by his virtues, but avowedly by his vices.” For Chesterton, such language is important not for its religious connotations, but as a shorthand through which to discuss values and ethics.

"Unfortunately, however, Midas could fail; he did...."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

Chesterton points out the inherent error of those “Success” writers who cite the life of King Midas as a “progress amidst riches.” The error is one of omission. Chesterton’s assessment is correct: to view King Midas’s story as a model of entrepreneurial triumph is to neglect the end of the myth as well as its ultimate lesson about the catastrophes that follow the unabashed pursuit of worldly goods. Chesterton simply returns Midas’s “‘Golden Touch’” to its proper mythical context of failure and dissolution.

"It is perfectly obvious..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

The phrase “it is perfectly obvious” establishes the ensuing statement as the only logical possibility. As far as Chesterton is concerned, “Success” can only be attributed to hard work or cheating. There is no mystical, Platonic specter of Success to be wooed or pursued. While the phrase “it is perfectly obvious” is intellectually heavy-handed, it helps Chesterton make the case for a limited definition of “Success,” which is important for his overall argument.

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