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G. K. Chesterton on the Lunacy of Self-Esteem

November 9, AD2016 4 Comments


As a devout Catholic father of two kids in public schools, I have often found myself at odds with an educational curriculum that presents to kids as “fact” a worldview I consider not only incorrect but in many areas downright propagandist, even insidious. Let’s call this worldview the “cult of self-esteem”.

Twice-Weekly “Self-Love-Ins”

For example, when my now college-aged daughter was in grade school, we went many rounds on the subject of “self-esteem.” Twice a week, her school set aside useful instruction in math, English and history to turn the kids over to a contracted “motivational speaker” who earned his fat government grant filling their wide-open minds with thoughts of their own importance, their specialness, and their entitlement to all the good things life has to offer by simple virtue of drawing breath. No effort or pesky “proving yourself” required. The world was their oyster, and anybody who tried to steal their pearl by asking anything more of them than gross physical existence should go to jail as a “robber of self-esteem.”

In fairness, I must confess I never attended one of those public school self-love-ins personally, so I can’t 100% attest to what, word for word, was said to the children. But I can truthfully say that the paragraph above ably describes the message my daughter took in from those sessions and brought home to argue about with me.

In the wake of those classes, she was gradually convinced to abandon any concept of accountability or humility her mother and I had labored to instill in her.  For a while there, the simplest behavioral expectations we placed on her, like ordering her to clean her room or saying “no” to any demand, became proof in her mind, not that she should learn to take responsibility or endure limits, but that we were terrible parents.

The Cult of Self-Esteem

My daughter’s attitude mellowed considerably over the years, as the realistic demands of middle school, high school, then young adulthood launched a barrage of mocking stones at her glass house (such harsh realities as “No job, no money; no money, no car”). But even now, in her early twenties, she still appears convinced on a deep level that life is “all about her” — a self-absorbed assumption shared by such a significant percentage of her generation (now labeled the “millennials”) that a whole industry has been spawned to help employers deal with their disruptive and demanding “me-me-me!” entry into the workforce.

To my mind, this postmodern “cult of self-esteem”, still very much in vogue today, not only in our public schools (and colleges) but in Western Culture in general, strikingly echoes the serpent’s lie to our first parents in the Garden of Eden — “You will be like gods.” All limitations are unreasonable. Your own will is the only authority. Good and evil, right and wrong, are yours to decide.

And yet, most people, even if they agree with my critical assessment of the “cult” aspect of the self-esteem movement, will hesitate to cast self-esteem aside altogether as an essential virtue. The indoctrination has been too deep and successful. “How will we succeed in life,” they ask, “if we don’t believe in ourselves?”

G. K. Chesterton on the Lunacy of Self-Esteem

More than 100 years ago, G. K. Chesterton addressed this sad human tendency toward self-worship in his book Orthodoxy, and with insight and good humor stood it where it belongs — on its head:

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.” …

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.” (op. cit., p.18; reformatted for convenience.—ed.)

Our Self-Esteem Culture

Complete self-confidence, the forbidden fruit the entrenched, Post-Modern cult of self-esteem bids us make our daily bread, is, plainly and simply, sin. Specifically, it is the sin of pride, the very sin that brought down Satan and, in their ambition to “be like Gods,” our first parents, as well. It is the sin which, in G. K. Chesterton’s wise estimation, lies at the root of all madness … a madness that has come to define our culture.

Unplanned pregnancy? Your body, your choice! Not ready for marriage? Shack up! Not ready to be a parent? Use contraception! Don’t like the gender you were born with? Switch! This list could go on and on.

Standing in the long shadow of many decades of indoctrination by the self-esteem industry, we have become a People who believe without reservation in ourselves, but who doubt the existence of God, Heaven, Hell, revealed truth, or objective goods and evils. Back to back, shoulder to shoulder, and ego to fat, greedy ego, we have banded together to forge grossly materialistic, largely atheistic, postmodern American and European societies, crafted in the mad image of our selfish ambitions.

Self-Esteem vs. “God-Esteem”

Is there a solution? Is the restoration of individual and cultural sanity possible?

The whole of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is a worthy response to that question. The abridged answer is mounting a concentrated effort to reverse the more destructive accepted norms of our time. The pursuit of both individual and cultural sanity, in Chesterton’s view, calls for a stark and intentional course reversal, demanding we learn to fundamentally doubt ourselves while maintaining supreme confidence in God, the author of all reality, and His revealed Truth as entrusted to His Church.

Imagine what the world would be like, just one generation from today, if we were to set math and English and history aside twice a week to teach that in public schools?

God-esteem 101 — Count me in! All I need now is a grant …

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Felix Whelan is both a Catholic convert and a revert, having entered the faith in the '80s, fallen away, and found his way "home to Rome" in 2010. In addition to his essays published on Catholic Stand, he writes novels, poetry, non-fiction, and even (co-authored with his lovely wife, Carol Ann) vegan and vegetarian cookbooks.

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