"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton on self-esteem

THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

-G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy

Well, that settles that.  The very idea that one can achieve success by thinking highly of oneself is rather absurd.  The idea that we can assist our children by telling them that whatever they’re doing is right is equally absurd.  When you look back on it, you realize how absurd it is.  Obviously a child who thinks that he’s very good at everything is not going to put a great deal of effort into difficult tasks, or think cautiously about how to proceed when starting something, or work well with teammates.  All of those things require a child to being with a certain amount of humility.

I believe that the self-esteem movement is in the process of collapsing.  Studies keep showing that children with high self-esteem get bad grades, bully, and fail at higher rates.  Adults with high self-esteem are more likely to be in jail and less likely to have full-time jobs.  Self-esteem is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.  The real question, though, is why did we let the movement happen at all when Chesterton told us a century ago that it was a bad idea?

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Comments on: "Chesterton on self-esteem" (2)

  1. Melpomene said:

    Have you read The Club of Queer Trades? That is another one of my favorites. And he speaks again there on the pit-falls of self-esteem.

  2. I have read that one, but it was some years back and I don’t remember it too well.

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