Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
G.K. Chesterton: The fallacy of success (1909) (mustapha.svbtle.com)
206 points by mustapha on Oct 8, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 96 comments

Not on topic as far as the article is concerned, but in regards to G.K. Chesterton, my favorite quote of his is:

"Never take down a fence until you understand why it was put up."

I used to use that one a lot with developers trying to improve on a predecessor's code...

That's the basis for "conservatism": recognize that many processes, rules, barriers, morals, norms, etc. have been hard-won and hard-learned at great cost (money, lives, time), that we may not remember/understand quite why they're in place but they're there for good reason nonetheless, and abandoning/destroying them out of ignorance may doom generations to suffer until they re-discover why those were enacted in the first place.

That's also why rebuilding systems from scratch (the old "just rip it all out and do it again") usually doesn't work: there is a great deal of wisdom, however poorly implemented or documented, buried within that system. Starting over abandons those minute but critical bits, and must be re-discovered the hard way.

And yet the crowning achievement of conservatism in the last thirty years has been tearing down the processes, rules, barriers, morals, norms, etc. that were put in place during the Great Depression to prevent capitalism from tearing itself apart again.

There's a difference between an ideology and a country's political party.

This line of argument tiptoes kind of close to the "no true Scotsman" argument, though. Don't you think?

"Conservatism is about respect for established institutions!"

"But every conservative I see is running around tearing down those institutions."

"Those people aren't real conservatives!"

No, the line of argument is that conservative means two different things in two different contexts.

Thats neo conservatism run for the benefit of "dodgy" barrow boys not old school one nation tory or even 50's republicans like Eisenhower.

Actually, although I don't agree with the idea, this is part of a conservative process. What is supposed to be conserved is the established order (Rich over poor, work over lazyness, God over men, etc.). The premise is that order has value, even if unfair, and that an established order is better than no order at all.

It is the blessing, and the curse, of culture that generations have suffered to find a balanced set of behaviors and rules. Change them at your peril! Its kind of like a system of natural selection - societies must be conservative to survive long-term. Rules change over generations, variations are few since the survival of the collective depends on (some of )them.

However, the world and the society we live in is changing so quickly (technology, cultural mixing, global warming, you name it) that the new norm for changing the rules is not generations but years or months. Using Facebook? Change your settings today or lose your entire life history to strangers! and so on.

I remember just such an occasion a few years back where someone working for me did exactly that. When asked why he hadn't noticed the associated unit tests were failing the reply was "those weren't compiling so I commented them out".

My favorite is when there is a fence with a sign saying, "Erected to prevent buffalo from stampeding our corn fields. It is OK to remove after 1850." Meanwhile there is now a neighboring cattle ranch and the fence is still actively performing a blocking function :)

That can also lead to a hell of a lot of analysis paralysis, however.

I know because I share your approach. Having worked with a great many legacy / inherited systems, most with little or no documentation, and rarely with much in the way of contact with the system designer, it's a bit of an occupational hazard.

Sometimes you've just got to blow down the fences to see what happens. Sometimes it's nothing, sometimes it's the end of the world.

Fortunately, in technology, resurrecting fences is generally fairly straightforward, but not always.

That said, the worst fences are the ones you take down without realizing they were there ... which turn out to be critical.

What do you do if the man that put up the fence does not know why he put it up himself, or if he put it up for all the wrong reasons but is not there to explain them to you?

Hence the proper usage of "question authority": with all due respect[1], investigate the reasoning behind the authority's action and either be enlightened as to the reasons or confirm that the decision makers were, in fact, ignorant/idiots. Alas, the term got misconstrued to validating "ignore those who likely know better, and act confidently in your own impulsive ignorance."

[1] - "all due respect" has also been stripped of proper meaning, relegated to a barely-veiled insult.

The point is not to do it blind.

"I don't know why this is here and I've tried to find out but hit a dead end so I'm getting rid anyway" is better than "I don't know why this is here so I'm just getting rid".

Wow, what fantastic writing. I often find tech entrepreneurs and HN readers are too obsessed with success and wealth, often explaining away any accusations of greed by claiming it's their "passion" and talking in mystic terms of the tech revolution they're a part of.

The biggest thing I would call a "success" in my life is the joy I've received from good friends and family, and the experiences I've had with them. Things that take a long time to cultivate and over which I often have little control.

Value is created when both sides want what the other side is offering more than what they have. There is a case to be made that your wealth is a reflection of the value you have created in the world. Do Big Things in the world, and you may find yourself wealthy. It's not necessarily greed. When you speak of success, and friends and family, most people on HN would agree, but put them on a parallel track to wealth. They are more to do with happiness imho. Rock on.

> Value is created when both sides want what the other side is offering more than what they have.

Value is created when, by your action, you change the world to a state that you, or another person, find preferable to the previous state.

On the other hand, trade is profitable when both sides want what the other side is offering more than they have (with some caveats involving deceit).

That was a quibble with a minor stumble you made, now for a reply of substance:

As for wealth being a reflection of the value that you have created, it might be. It might be that you inherited it. It might be that you stole it. It might be that you tricked someone into believing you had something they wanted, and traded for it. Maybe you extracted rent (in the study-of-economics sense), without creating value. Maybe your wealth comes of virtuous value-generation, but you earned more wealth per value than another person, by virtue of skin colour or gender or whatever. There are many many ways to acquire wealth, and scant few of them require creating value, and even fewer reflect virtue in a linear and straightforward way.

And similarly, value that you create may not convert to wealth. Who created more value, Torvalds or Zuckerberg? Not that Linus is poor, but he's not a billionaire, afaik. I propose for consideration that it may be far easier to create value when wealth is not a priority (though I concede that in some circumstances, vehicles like corporations help with scaling your value-creation).

Now, all that said, you might amend your position thus: "Wealth earned in certain ways, with certain restrictions, is roughly proportionate to value created, perhaps modulo a scaling factor beyond anyone's control." Okay, I sort of agree. BUT! If you believe this, it follows that spending your wealth on yourself is destroying (consuming) value. I make a sandwich, wealth is generated. I eat the sandwich, wealth is destroyed. I make $1000 of software and get paid accordingly, wealth is created. I spend it on plane tickets, I consume/destroy the wealth. Only the money you give away (including via taxes) is wealth created-and-not-consumed. Bill Gates was a leech on society (rent-seeking friction-inducing market manipulation)... until he decided not to be, and redeemed himself twice over.

So, in summary: while there is a relationship, in some limited circumstances, between wealth and value-creation, taking wealth as a proxy for virtue is spectacularly mistaken.

    I spend it on plane tickets, I consume/destroy the wealth.
    Only the money you give away (including via taxes) is 
    wealth created-and-not-consumed.
So if I buy a bottle of wine to have with dinner, and my wife and I drink it with dinner, I have destroyed wealth, and am a mooch. If I give the wine-money to a bum who then uses it to buy a bottle of Mad Dog and drinks himself into a stupor, I have created wealth, and am a benefactor to mankind.

Mad Dog for all bums now!

> There is a case to be made that your wealth is a reflection of the value you have created in the world.

Not a good case, though.

Why not?

I think the previous posters assertion was legitimate. It actually got me thinking.

Creating value isn't necessary or sufficient for capturing revenue streams. When a new technology is invented, for example, there are usually many people involved: there is basic science and mathematics research laying the groundwork, applied research, manufacturing, commercialization, design, marketing, etc. Typically the revenues do not go to these players proportionally to their contribution. For example, a scientific breakthrough may produce considerable value, but it is not typically possible for the scientist(s) making the breakthrough to personally capture the value, because one cannot own scientific breakthroughs. Instead, the value accrues to society generally, including people who did not create it—it might form a major contribution to an upcoming product of mine, for example. If the product is successful, I'll gain wealth, but the scientist whose work enabled the product won't. (Patents are an attempt to provide an accounting mechanism for owning at least those kinds of breakthroughs classed as "inventions", but have their own set of problems, and at least in principle don't apply to basic math/science discoveries anyway.) And some people simply make money by capturing economic rent.

Because your income usually doesn't have anything to do with the value you produce, it has more to do with what your employer can get away with paying you.

We've come a long way indeed. This sounds familiar:

"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."

Now the boys all want to become zillionairs like Zuckerburg or Jobs.

You're lucky.

Wowza, that was some Inception style mind bender out there.

At the top you have a rookie author using an early 21st century platform (svbtle) to dispense bon mots about life and ingratiate himself with his readers who are turned off by current social mores by

--- Aligning himself with the words of a rookie author in the early 20th century platform (books) who dispensed bon mots about life at the turn of the 20th century who in turn ingratiates himself with his readers who are turned off by then current social mores by

--- Invoking the words of puritans of the early 19th century who in turn … well the trail ends since we don’t know what they thought. Plus we live in a puritan culture so I suppose we are stuck with whatever they thought and that is foundational.

Three level inception. Nice.

“Medium” guys take note, svtble is using a three level inception to gain readership. The game is on. You need a four level inception to convince me. Otherwise, I ain’t clicking on your ads.

Seriously though, I’m reminded of the foreword of another early 20th century book as noted by Oscar Wilde

In old days books were written

by men of letters and read by the

public. Nowadays books are written

by the public and read by nobody.

G. K. Chesterton was a great mind and certainly not a "rookie author." I hope I'm reading you wrong there. You may not agree with him, but that doesn't mean he's a rookie.

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._K._Chesterton American Chesterton Society: http://www.chesterton.org/

Sure, he was a great mind. However he was getting started by the time of All things considered, published 1908. Let's put it this way, he published far more after this essay than before, so on a relative level he was rookie author when he wrote the essay.


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.

Bertrand Russell once said that all work falls into one of two basic categories: moving objects on or near the surface of the Earth, and telling other people to do so.

That's a great quote. Do you have a source? I can't find it online from him.

> First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics.

It's from "In Praise of Idleness"

Which is an extremely facile categorization.

Bertrand Russel was a deep thinker who often drew from a deep well of thought and understanding. When he wrote about politics, he seems to have covered the well and sucked his thoughts from a puddle.

We've progressed! Now we tell computers to do so.

No we don't. We tell computers to sell online dog tooth brushing services to people who may or may not move objects.

But still, more and more it's not people who move objects, but robots and machines.

Today, are developed agricultural robots to plant and collect vegetables automatically. One agroengineer will watch out for thousands of robots growing and collecting food by watching and telling his computers.

Google's developping robot cars. But what will be the killer application, is the robot truck! Already, in mines the use robot trucks (because human drivers are too hard to find to work in those remote places, and to drunk to drive them big trunks without straying away the tracks).

Kiva System's developing warehouse robots that store goods and prepare shipments without human intervention.

Amazon of course has developped the computer programs to let us tell the warehouse robots what we want.

Soon we'll celebrate the first google truck taking the first tomatoes and potatoes grown by robot tractors, and bringing them to a robotic warehouse, where Amazon will send food orders that will be prepared by Kiva's robots and distributed to your house by Google trucks and cars.

From the ground to your plate with zero human intervention. Well some human investment. And maintainance, until we develop the maintaining robots. Machines making machines! Oh my!

The only reason why it doesn't go faster, is that companies have a hard time finding out how they'll make any money, trying to bring food and stuff to people who don't have to work for it, and therefore who don't have money for it. Google and Amazon are cheating the other companies, selling them advertisement space, while developping the systems that will make those other companies (their real customers) as obsolete as human workers (already, half the US jobs can be computerized. Federal government shut down? My eye! Just send half the country home, we don't need you to do anything more! Well, not yet, we still have to set up a global robotized agricultural, industrial and distribution system to feed you. But soon. In any case, it's not a question of money anymore.

Just a clarification: what you're saying is that most jobs aren't essential and can be computerized. That doesn't mean they're not worth something, or that people will be able to stay at home and just live in idleness.

What happens is that most jobs switch from agriculture & industry to the infamous "services"... most of us will be/are selling nonessential services (entertainment, leisure, nonessential medical services & care, advertising, etc..). Most of government is probably in the "nonessential" category.

Some % of the workforce will still work on R&D and essential services of course.

Having all the basics covered by a small percentage of the workforce doesn't mean the rest will have to work less.. on the contrary, the battle to divest people from their money will be fiercer than ever - more and better and more exotic services, more advertising, etc. It would be interesting to live in a post-scarcity society, but we're nowhere near there yet (and I'll be a bit Malthusian and say that we should curb the population growth a bit if we want to have what I consider to be a good standard of living in the future)

Tangential curiosity:

Agriculture ... industry ... service ... what's next?

Its already all sales.

In many cases, it's more efficient to have the computers tell the humans what to move.

I think I have been silently screaming to read something like this for ages and ages. Capitalism, the godless religion. Thank you for that link.

For anyone who might be interested, the greater part of Chesterton's work is available for free online.

The essay quoted in the blog post above is from this collection: http://archive.org/details/allthings00chesuoft

Many volunteers have shared recordings of themsevles reading Chesterton's writings aloud


This is excellent. I'll add this to the article so everyone can read it all. Thanks for taking the time out to search for and put it up.

I don't know what Chesterton thought of capitalism, or wealth, or success, but that piece doesn't condemn any of them, as I understood it.

That piece is about bad writing, and vapid self-help books.

Chesterton appears, in this essay, to be fully in favour of getting ahead in the world (though he does take time to suggest that Mr Vanderbilt might not be a deity, so we may conclude that he thinks that getting ahead in the world is not the only valuable thing).

Notice the bits about "if you want to be succeed at whist, great; either learn to be good at whist, or learn to cheat".

Chesterton was a fan of distributism, a "third way" economic system that is neither capitalism (which favors Big Business) nor socialism (which favors Big Government).


I'm not sure I understand your remark about Capitalism. Are you saying you think the article draws some sort of parallel between the success books of the time and Capitalism? Are you now drawing that parallel in today's world? I can't tell what you're getting at.

I think parallels are blatant. Such money-worship is exactly what most persons today equate with success, and that same religious fervency is precisely what is destroying the world at large. I think real success entails principles that Capitalism will always be oblivious to. The pursuit of money is not at all what life is about.

> what is destroying the world at large

I don’t take issue with anything you say. Dismayed by the shape of discourse as I see it, I have been loath to take a position on anything. I merely point out that phrases like this one trigger a dismissive reflex in me, and I do so only in the hope that a mechanical proscription (“don’t say that”) can foster worthwhile reflection. After all, I would like to see your viewpoint spread.

Do you think that the world at large is being destroyed? Are there offsetting Hacker News posts which make you forget this world-destruction for a time, in favor of enthusiastic praise? Consider how you would view this rhetoric from someone you disagreed with. Again, I think we agree on the substance. My comment is about the style.

Today I ran some code through jsLint for the first time, and I remembered reading in “Coders at Work” where Douglas Crockford said that it would “hurt your feelings.” Several of the “error” codes indeed seem like unwarranted nitpicking. But I did find some real errors in the process.

Without meaning to single out your comments (either on this thread or on the Internet at large), I wonder whether some Strunk-&-White-style algorithm couldn’t “warn” us about text referencing “most persons today.” Yes, I know when I say I’m “attached” to some outcome, that Thunderbird is going to ask whether I’m forgetting something, and I know that it's the ignorant reflex of a machine. But sometimes, I really just forgot an attachment.

So for the moment, I will perform the inglorious task of linting an otherwise good remark, with the view that next time you will push yourself further. I believe it is Ecclesiastes that says “The love of money is the root of all evil,” so your view about this “religious fervency” has a scriptural basis. If it was destroying the world then, I suppose it would be destroyed by now. So maybe it is like the sun's fusion: a slow-burning fire. But let's keep things in perspective, and say what we mean.

Capitalism is just private ownership of goods + a market. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitalism I think you're describing something a lot more specific.

> Capitalism is just private ownership of goods + a market.

That's neither the definition used by the critics of the system who coined the term to refer to the complex system by which 19th Century developed countries directed the rewards of economic productivity to the owners of capital, nor a sufficient description of what is proposed by the modern proponents of "capitalism".

And that Wikipedia article is confused -- accurately portraying the "mixed economy" the dominant economic form of the modern developed world, but inaccurately painting it as a form of capitalism (when it is called a mixed economy because it draws elements from both capitalism and socialism, and is distinct from both.) It also refers to state capitalism as a form of capitalism (which is accurate by the original definition, as state capitalism shares the features that were originally criticized in capitalism -- which isn't surprising since both the original definition and the term "state capitalism" come from socialist critics -- but not by the definition in the article.)

There's a conflation of the precise economic definition of capitalism with the thought processes and gestalt that has grown up around it. You're using the precise definition, the grandparent is using the looser definition.

Private ownership of means of production, or "capital assets" in that article (it's just terminology). Neither private ownership of goods nor the existence of markets are specific to capitalism.

You're welcome. :)

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.”

Yeah, that Chesterton, what an anti-capitalist.

Maybe I'm reading it wrong, but I took that as Chesterton taking a jab at the "Success" books and their authors.

There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat. Now I don't cheat. And although I like to think that we have some pretty smart people in this building...it sure is a hell of a lot easier to just be first.

What happened to "be better"?

It's a quote from the movie Margin Call, IIRC.

I loved this article - anything which dismantles an ideology (especially one as ancient and terrible as money-worship) always gives me a smile.

G. K. Chesterton nails it every time.

Success is in the eyes of the beholder. Take two millionaires. On that had the objective of having by now one million bucks, has them, reached his objective, success! The other had the objective of having by now two million bucks, has only one million: failure. Not even close.

Now what if the later changes his objective after the fact? IMO still a failure :-)

So success is not defined by what you have are or archive, but by the goals you set for yourself.

I am a big failure: I'm not 500 light years from here exploring the stars. :-(

So your advice to kids who want to succeed in life would be to aim low?

"Low" by whose standards and compared to what? Those who mistake success for happiness usually end up losing both. We recently had a wealthy corporate CFO in these parts who had pretty much everything everybody else wants jump off a bridge because... I don't even know why.

Set your goals such that their ends will be fulfilling to you. Do not set out with success as your end, else it is meaningless. If success only means to accomplish what you have set out to do, then set out to do something worthwhile, that in success you will have achieved something greater than success itself.

In a chat with one of my older friends who I respect very much, he lent this advice: Mark, the first thing you need to do to be successful is make a decision on what you want to accomplish, and then commit all your resources to that goal.

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...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?

So who are the new new Industrious Apprentices? Growth Hackers? ;)

Graduate nerds being exploited in web dev sweatshops.

The kids who are told that if you just go to college and stick with the education system, doing all your homework, you'll get a high-paying job and be a CEO or president some day.

Chesterton is a great writer that ought to be better known.

Not only are his works worth reading, he is endlessly quotable.

And, as usual, he's quoted for what he did not quite say (but the meaning is accurate): http://www.chesterton.org/discover-chesterton/frequently-ask...


Although the author is trying to make some good points, he succeeds only in attempting to tear down. He does not appear to offer any reasonable alternatives.

I came away from this article feeling slightly unclean, as if wanting to improve myself is both pointless and somehow wrong. It appears that I should have no goals, aiming only for mediocrity.

I think you may be misreading him, Chesterton isn't saying you should stop improving yourself, but that you can't hope to find that improvement in a book detailing the supposed habits of the wealthy and successful (or the one weird trick that makes everyone a millionaire).

Your goal shouldn't be to become Cornelius Vanderbilt, it should be to take advantage of your abilities and circumstances to find your own path to success.

Friend, if something so well written and argued leaves you feeling out of place, perhaps you'd do better to examine yourself for faults, rather than the essay.

It's not about actual advice, but books (or maybe TED talks) full of "advice" like this: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=206

A website post, "Saint Chesterton?" commenting on recent discussion of proposals for canonization of G.K. Chesterton (declaring him to be a saint):


Really a charitable understatement of the case against.

Success is easy to sell as it is most often what someone believes they need. Perhaps it masks a flaw in their character.

The example in the article relates to money but success to a lonely man may be love. Perhaps success means only that which we most feel we need to be complete.

The days of idealism and superstition are over. We live in a time of science and hard common sense...

Unfortunately, it wasn't true in 1909, and still not true at all today

Did you miss the quotes?

I don't know if it's a browser issue or something else, but I actually don't see any quotation marks, or italics, or anything else. I spent a good while figuring out where one of the quotes ended.

Same here. No actual quotes or other indication of quoted text, but context was enough to figure out when the quote began and ended.

sorry about that, but it appears in italic for me. with quotes: "The days of idealism and superstition are over. We live in a time of science and hard common sense..."

For those interested, you don't have to flip through the images to read. All Things Considered is free on the kindle store.

Or download ebook here: http://openlibrary.org/books/OL13992463M/All_things_consider...

It's like Chesterton is describing every other marketing post on HN.


I wonder if Chesterton ever read Dale Carnegie :)

Haha well put, I've read both and Chesterton is good for having a deep understanding of how humans behave and I come away feeling smarter and more interested in the world. I enjoy Carnegie at the same time and get a rush of optimism after reading, but they are more general tactics.

What's even more amazing is that writing from these authors from the early 1900s and 1930s is clearer and stronger writing than a lot of stuff today - well at least compared to blogs.

That's not strange/amazing/weird. They passed through filter of time. For every Chesterton/Carnegie there are thousand really bad contemporary writers, prostitutes aspiring to be writers etc.

If you lived in their time, you'd probably say same about people from 1850. And saying all those news articles are pretty mundane and bad. And that the thing people scribble on walls are very rude.

Technology changes, people don't.

    That's not strange/amazing/weird.
    They passed through filter of time.
    For every Chesterton/Carnegie
    there are thousand really bad contemporary writers,
    prostitutes aspiring to be writers etc.
Indeed, the subject of the article was the abundance of such writers at the time.

Yes I do completely agree with you there, they are just the ones that floated to the top, and I'm sure many writers of today will end up being revered like we do with Chesterton and Carnegie. I guess my hope would be that we were more inundated with this type of reading everyday than what we currently are inundated with

Wow. The good old fat catholic Chesterton (though not fully catholic in 1909, but 95%).


"The world has become an idolator of this god called money." - Pope Francis

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact