Ethics and Heretics

Lest the last two days’ posts give the impression that progress may not be possible, it’s important to tack on a note on heretics, who have been a powerful force for progress throughout history.

This is also an excellent opportunity to direct your attention to Maria Popova’s treatment of the “imperfect, . . . brilliant, . . . truth-see[ing]” G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics at her site, Brain Pickings.

She quotes Chesterton writing (in 1905) that “The word ‘orthodoxy’ not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong.” And though it would take much to convince me that power and privilege — in some form, held by some group(s) — will ever be totally removed from the human experience, I’m also prepared to endorse Chesterton’s view: when it comes to “orthodoxy” today, particularly as relates to upholding the status quo, to be orthodox is often to be in the wrong.

Sometimes that’s worth the compromise. Some people dedicate their lives to maintaining enough stability to allow society as a whole to evolve, and that’s laudable. And there are lunatics who would see all of society and its systems torn down either for fun or for some utopian delusion.

But then there are heretics — the sometimes loyal, sometimes not-so-loyal, almost always lonely opposition — who dare to question the conventional wisdom and the soporifics we sell ourselves as The Way Things Are.

These people exist in public and in private, and across the political spectrum. They are those who say this can’t be all there is, or this is not who we are, or I don’t think this is what we are about. That’s thankless work, and the world they call into being rarely comes into being in precisely the way they advocate.

But to completely ignore or try to silence their testimony is not only to ignore pearls of real truth, but to join a long line of less-than-illustrious figures.

Quick: can you name Galileo’s or Joan of Arc’s chief prosecutors?

Now, would you join them?