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

There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men. They are much more wild than the wildest romances of chivalry and much more dull than the dullest religious tract. Moreover, the romances of chivalry were at least about chivalry; the religious tracts are about religion. But these things are about nothing; they are about what is called Success. On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books. To begin with, of course, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey. Any live man has succeeded in living; any dead man may have succeeded in committing suicide. But, passing over the bad logic and bad philosophy in the phrase, we may take it, as these writers do, in the ordinary sense of success in obtaining money or worldly position. These writers profess to tell the ordinary man how he may succeed in his trade or speculation—how, if he is a builder, he may succeed as a builder; how, if he is a stockbroker, he may succeed as a stockbroker. They profess to show him how, if he is a grocer, he may become a sporting yachtsman; how, if he is a tenth-rate journalist, he may become a peer; and how, if he is a German Jew, he may become an Anglo-Saxon. This is a definite and business-like proposal, and I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back. Nobody would dare to publish a book about electricity which literally told one nothing about electricity; no one would dare to publish an article on botany which showed that the writer did not know which end of a plant grew in the earth. Yet our modern world is full of books about Success and successful people which literally contain no kind of idea, and scarcely any kind of verbal sense.

It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so. If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards. You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about Success. Especially you cannot want a book about Success such as those which you can now find scattered by the hundred about the book-market. You may want to jump or to play cards; but you do not want to read wandering statements to the effect that jumping is jumping, or that games are won by winners. If these writers, for instance, said anything about success in jumping it would be something like this: "The jumper must have a clear aim before him. He must desire definitely to jump higher than the other men who are in for the same competition. He must let no feeble feelings of mercy (sneaked from the sickening Little Englanders and Pro-Boers) prevent him from trying to do his best. He must remember that a competition in jumping is distinctly competitive, and that, as Darwin has gloriously demonstrated, THE WEAKEST GO TO THE WALL." That is the kind of thing the book would say, and very useful it would be, no doubt, if read out in a low and tense voice to a young man just about to take the high jump. Or suppose that in the course of his intellectual rambles the philosopher of Success dropped upon our other case, that of playing cards, his bracing advice would run—"In playing cards it is very necessary to avoid the mistake (commonly made by maudlin humanitarians and Free Traders) of permitting your opponent to win the game. You must have grit and snap and go in to win. The days of idealism and superstition are over. We live in a time of science and hard common sense, and it has now been definitely proved that in any game where two are playing IF ONE DOES NOT WIN THE OTHER WILL." It is all very stirring, of course; but I confess that if I were playing cards I would rather have some decent little book which told me the rules of the game. Beyond the rules of the game it is all a question either of talent or dishonesty; and I will undertake to provide either one or the other—which, it is not for me to say.

Turning over a popular magazine, I find a queer and amusing example. There is an article called "The Instinct that Makes People Rich." It is decorated in front with a formidable portrait of Lord Rothschild. There are many definite methods, honest and dishonest, which make people rich; the only "instinct" I know of which does it is that instinct which theological Christianity crudely describes as "the sin of avarice." That, however, is beside the present point. I wish to quote the following exquisite paragraphs as a piece of typical advice as to how to succeed. It is so practical; it leaves so little doubt about what should be our next step—

"The name of Vanderbilt is synonymous with wealth gained by modern enterprise. 'Cornelius,' the founder of the family, was the first of the great American magnates of commerce. He started as the son of a poor farmer; he ended as a millionaire twenty times over.

"He had the money-making instinct. He seized his opportunities, the opportunities that were given by the application of the steam-engine to ocean traffic, and by the birth of railway locomotion in the wealthy but undeveloped United States of America, and consequently he amassed an immense fortune.

"Now it is, of course, obvious that we cannot all follow exactly in the footsteps of this great railway monarch. The precise opportunities that fell to him do not occur to us. Circumstances have changed. But, although this is so, still, in our own sphere and in our own circumstances, we can follow his general methods; we can seize those opportunities that are given us, and give ourselves a very fair chance of attaining riches."

In such strange utterances we see quite clearly what is really at the bottom of all these articles and books. It is not mere business; it is not even mere cynicism. It is mysticism; the horrible mysticism of money. The writer of that passage did not really have the remotest notion of how Vanderbilt made his money, or of how anybody else is to make his. He does, indeed, conclude his remarks by advocating some scheme; but it has nothing in the world to do with Vanderbilt. He merely wished to prostrate himself before the mystery of a millionaire. For when we really worship anything, we love not only its clearness but its obscurity. We exult in its very invisibility. Thus, for instance, when a man is in love with a woman he takes special pleasure in the fact that a woman is unreasonable. Thus, again, the very pious poet, celebrating his Creator, takes pleasure in saying that God moves in a mysterious way. Now, the writer of the paragraph which I have quoted does not seem to have had anything to do with a god, and I should not think (judging by his extreme unpracticality) that he had ever been really in love with a woman. But the thing he does worship—Vanderbilt—he treats in exactly this mystical manner. He really revels in the fact his deity Vanderbilt is keeping a secret from him. And it fills his soul with a sort of transport of cunning, an ecstasy of priestcraft, that he should pretend to be telling to the multitude that terrible secret which he does not know.

Speaking about the instinct that makes people rich, the same writer remarks—

"In olden days its existence was fully understood. The Greeks enshrined it in the story of Midas, of the 'Golden Touch.' Here was a man who turned everything he laid his hands upon into gold. His life was a progress amidst riches. Out of everything that came in his way he created the precious metal. 'A foolish legend,' said the wiseacres of the Victorian age. 'A truth,' say we of to-day. We all know of such men. We are ever meeting or reading about such persons who turn everything they touch into gold. Success dogs their very footsteps. Their life's pathway leads unerringly upwards. They cannot fail."

Unfortunately, however, Midas could fail; he did. His path did not lead unerringly upward. He starved because whenever he touched a biscuit or a ham sandwich it turned to gold. That was the whole point of the story, though the writer has to suppress it delicately, writing so near to a portrait of Lord Rothschild. The old fables of mankind are, indeed, unfathomably wise; but we must not have them expurgated in the interests of Mr. Vanderbilt. We must not have King Midas represented as an example of success; he was a failure of an unusually painful kind. Also, he had the ears of an ass. Also (like most other prominent and wealthy persons) he endeavoured to conceal the fact. It was his barber (if I remember right) who had to be treated on a confidential footing with regard to this peculiarity; and his barber, instead of behaving like a go-ahead person of the Succeed-at-all-costs school and trying to blackmail King Midas, went away and whispered this splendid piece of society scandal to the reeds, who enjoyed it enormously. It is said that they also whispered it as the winds swayed them to and fro. I look reverently at the portrait of Lord Rothschild; I read reverently about the exploits of Mr. Vanderbilt. I know that I cannot turn everything I touch to gold; but then I also know that I have never tried, having a preference for other substances, such as grass, and good wine. I know that these people have certainly succeeded in something; that they have certainly overcome somebody; I know that they are kings in a sense that no men were ever kings before; that they create markets and bestride continents. Yet it always seems to me that there is some small domestic fact that they are hiding, and I have sometimes thought I heard upon the wind the laughter and whisper of the reeds.

At least, let us hope that we shall all live to see these absurd books about Success covered with a proper derision and neglect. They do not teach people to be successful, but they do teach people to be snobbish; they do spread a sort of evil poetry of worldliness. The Puritans are always denouncing books that inflame lust; what shall we say of books that inflame the viler passions of avarice and pride? A hundred years ago we had the ideal of the Industrious Apprentice; boys were told that by thrift and work they would all become Lord Mayors. This was fallacious, but it was manly, and had a minimum of moral truth. In our society, temperance will not help a poor man to enrich himself, but it may help him to respect himself. Good work will not make him a rich man, but good work may make him a good workman. The Industrious Apprentice rose by virtues few and narrow indeed, but still virtues. But what shall we say of the gospel preached to the new Industrious Apprentice; the Apprentice who rises not by his virtues, but avowedly by his vices?

Footnotes

  1. Chesterton has just described Midas as “a failure of an unusually painful kind.” Here, however, though he hides the accusation in a parenthetical, he implies not only that most other prominent persons would hide their ass-ears, but that they do. They are, like Midas, trying to conceal their foolishness from the world, and Midas’s failure is extrapolated to encompass “most other prominent and wealthy persons.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. This is not the first time Chesterton has employed first-person narration in this essay, but this parenthetical marks the beginning of his longest stretch in that mode. The aside establishes a new, more conversational tone for the piece, and shows that Chesterton is willing to call his own assertions into question. By noting that his memory on this point of the Midas story could be faulty, Chesterton humanizes himself, implying that he is open to correction, making his arguments more approachable to skeptical readers. That he is, in fact, correct about the barber upholds his general authority as an informed speaker.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The sibilant hissing of this alliteration mimics the sound of the whisper being described. Consistent use of sound-based techniques like this contribute to Chesterton’s colloquial tone; it’s easy to imagine this piece being read aloud. The tonal variety of his diction, combined with the rhythms of his parallel constructions, creates an immersive sonic experience for readers, contributing to his use of pathos by engaging their interests and sympathies on a subconscious level as well as an intellectual one.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. This appeal includes a very subtle use of ethos. By adding a “we” to the statements he makes about human nature, Chesterton is including himself in the group he describes and placing himself as a spokesman for the entirety of humanity. His self-inclusion softens the blow of what could read as a harsh indictment of impractical behavior.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. It is unclear if Chesterton is referring to an actual article or if he has fabricated the excerpts he will include below, either as pastiches of articles he has read or as entirely fictional. The answer may have been more obvious to his contemporaries, but modern readers are left uncertain.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. Chesterton frequently uses extremes to convey the scale of his disdain for his subject. To contrast with the hyperbolic vehemence of his fictional excerpts, he uses understatement to describe a “decent little book” that conveys factual information pertinent to the situation he describes. Following so much empty blustering, the statement is appealing in its simplicity and clarity.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. By paraphrasing the style of the books he derides, Chesterton hopes to demonstrate that he has, in fact, read them. It would be easy for him to mock these works without any firsthand knowledge of them, but his familiarity with their style and contents gives him authority as an informed speaker and weights his arguments with ethos, the appeal to that authority.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. In this paragraph, Chesterton has devised a fictional conversation with his readers, who he speaks to directly as “you.” He is appealing to a shared human experience, that of wanting to acquire a skill, that readers are likely familiar with. This is an argument that uses pathos to engage readers in an emotional response as they place themselves in the fictional narrative Chesterton is creating.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. In the Greek myth of Midas, the foolish Minoan King Midas is granted a wish by the god Bacchus, and he asks that everything he touch turn to gold. Initially he is overjoyed, but the lasting effects of his new power become apparent when he attempts to enjoy a meal, and he begs Bacchus to free him from his curse. (A later interpolation, perhaps creditable to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 retelling in A Wonder Book for Girls & Boys, has Midas’s daughter fall prey to his “golden touch,” with his remorse at her temporary solidification motivating his redemption.) Hating the trappings of wealth, Midas flees to the countryside. There, he overhears a musical contest between Pan, a woodland deity, and Apollo, the Olympian god of light and music. Midas, alone of all, favors Pan’s reed pipes to Apollo’s lyre, and in retaliation Apollo replaces his human ears with those of an ass.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. A list of three parallel elements in succession is called a “tricolon,” and is a common rhetorical device. The tricolon serves both a rhythmic purpose, using repetition to build and reinforce the piece’s tone, and also an argumentative one, offering a memorable break from the more linear examples of parallelism and juxtaposition that tend to include only two comparative elements. Famous examples include [Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar] (http://www.owleyes.org/text/julius-caesar/read/act-iii-scene-ii#root-71641-36), and [“we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground,” from Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”] (http://www.owleyes.org/text/gettysburg-address/read/text-of-lincolns-speech) The tricolon Chesterton employs here combines with hyperbole to create an escalating sense of the of absurdity of the supposed wisdom of the books he mocks.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. While it is not a strict example, this sentence loosely follows a pattern called chiasmus, in which the second portion of a parallel construction is grammatically inverted. Because Chesterton uses parallel construction so frequently, these instances of formal inversion stand out. Here, the inversion hides a flaw in Chesterton’s coming argument: if a donkey “succeeds” simply by being a donkey (in the lines following), then these men who have written books have succeeded simply by writing them.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. Chesterton is invoking a perceived disparity in the quality of personhood between a German Jew and an “Anglo-Saxon,” or white Northern European. When All Things Considered was published in 1909, systemic anti-Semitism in Europe had been declining for some time, but Chesterton’s remark is indicative of the social standing and cultural perception of Jews in some circles, and potentially of the anti-Semitism of which Chesterton would later be personally accused.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. “Peer” refers to a member of the peerage, the system of hereditary noble titles in Britain. The peerage includes ranks such as Duke and Earl. It is highly unlikely that one of these honors would be bestowed upon a “tenth-rate journalist.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. Here Chesterton alludes to the seven deadly sins, a list of behaviors considered immoral according to Christian orthodoxy. The sins do not originate in the Bible; rather, they were introduced into Christian theology by Egyptian mystics in the 3rd-century CE. In his criticism of “Success” culture, Chesterton accuses those who pursue “Success” of the sins of avarice—that is, material greed—and pride—that is, selfishness. The other five sins are lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. In this section of the essay, Chesterton’s tactic has shifted; rather than attacking the idea of “Success” at the level of logic, he is attacking it at the level of morality.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. Chesterton crafts an original phrase here—an “ecstasy of priestcraft.” “Ecstasy” refers to a state of immense joy, literally an out-of-body experience. “Priestcraft” refers to the functions performed by clergy. Chesterton suggests that the “Success” mongers relate to their millionaire idols with the same crazed joy with which priests relate to their God and the attendant mysteries of divinity.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. Here Chesterton crafts another tricolon—a three-part parallel construction that posits two false definitions before landing on the proper formulation. Chesterton also makes use of internal rhyme. The phrase “mysticism of money” is a clear use of alliteration. “Cynicism” and “mysticism” rhyme through assonance, as the two words share identical vowel sounds. These musical flourishes contribute to Chesterton’s appeal to pathos; the rich sounds of his language help to drive home his arguments.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) was an American railroad magnate who rose from poverty to unprecedented wealth over the course of his lifetime. Vanderbilt represented an ideal subject for writers of “Success” books in that he was American and he embodied the “rags-to-riches” narrative, making him a ready object of admiration among would-be entrepreneurs.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. By directly quoting a passage from one of the works he critiques, Chesterton appeals to both ethos and logos. He makes himself seem more credible by presenting his audience with evidence and he makes his argument seem more rational by critiquing his subject at the level of language. Referring to the quoted paragraphs as “exquisite” is a blatant use of irony; it is clear that Chesterton finds the prose of the “Success” writers unsuccessful, let alone exquisite.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  24. The “Lord Rothschild” referred to here is Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744–1812), a German financier who founded what is perhaps the wealthiest banking dynasty in the world. The Rothschild name has come to be associated with the highest strata of wealth.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  25. This is an allusion to the work of biologist Charles Darwin, who first postulated and popularized the theory of evolution with his seminal 1859 volume On the Origin of Species. One of Darwin’s core ideas was that of “natural selection,” which Chesterton amusingly rephrases as “‘THE WEAKEST GO TO THE WALL.’” In using the phrase, Chesterton is mocking the text of the success books he seeks to systematically dismiss. The suggestion here is that success books can offer nothing more than broad, inane motivational statements about the nature of competition.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  26. This aside makes an allusion to the “Little Englanders,” a loosely defined group of English citizens who, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, opposed English imperialism and expansionism. During the Second Boer War (1899–1902), in which England fought against the Dutch Boers in South Africa, the Little Englanders opposed England’s activities. Chesterton uses the Little Englanders as an example of people who are ostensibly working against their own purposes—a mistake for those seeking “Success,” as the books he mimics would have it.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  27. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  28. After setting forth and supporting his own interpretation of “Success,” Chesterton describes the definition he will be contending with for the remainder of the essay. Though the writers of “Success” literature fail to define “Success” as such, Chesterton assumes that their aims are among the most time-tested and Darwinian: money and status. By criticizing the “bad logic and bad philosophy” of his subject, Chesterton makes an appeal at the level of logos.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  29. This sentence is a paradox, in that it contradicts itself entirely. “These things,” the books, cannot simultaneously be “about nothing” and be “about what is called Success”—if Success can be defined and named, it’s not exactly nothing. The purpose of this paradox is to equate the two, “nothing” and “what is called Success,” in the reader’s mind, necessitating a pause and a reevaluation of expectations for both terms. One logical outcome of this equation is that “Success” amounts to, or is worth, “nothing.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  30. This is an example of parallelism, or parallel construction, a device that Chesterton employs repeatedly throughout this essay. Parallelism serves to uphold the tone and rhythm of a work by chaining together multiple similarly formulated phrases which contribute to a point or argument. Here, the near-identical constructions of “the romances of chivalry were at least about chivalry” and “the religious tracts are about religion” prime readers for a similar description of the books about “Success.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  31. By engaging such disparate extremes—the “wildest romances” and the “dullest tracts”—Chesterton is employing hyperbole, or the use of exaggeration for rhetorical emphasis. He returns to this technique throughout, using it to subtly underpin his arguments while still rendering them entertaining to the reader.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  32. Here and throughout this essay, Chesterton employs alliteration to link words and concepts that might otherwise seem to contrast each other entirely. In this instance, “sincerely” and “solemnly” both carry connotations of seriousness and gravity. While “silly” did not have quite the lightheartedly goofy connotation it does today, it is still a much more frivolous word than those proceeding, and the contrast solidly establishes Chesterton’s paradoxical tone.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff