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TAC Bookshelf: Chesterton and the Value of a Vow

Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.
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Emile Doak, TAC director of development: I had the great privilege of studying under the late Father James V. Schall, SJ, who became something of a legend in political theory over the course of his decades teaching at Georgetown. He represented the best of the Jesuit charism that that institution now so sorely lacks: wise, curious, evangelizing, and deeply, faithfully Catholic.

Father Schall often shared what he considered to be the greatest lectures. I’ve been revisiting these seminal lectures lately, from the likes of C.S. Lewis and Benedict XVI. This week was G.K. Chesterton’s “A Defence of Rash Vows.” Chesterton defends “rash” vows to make a broader point about the virtue of a vow.

But what is a vow? Chesterton writes, “The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place.” How terrifying that must be to modern man! Chesterton notes, “In modern times this terror of one’s self, of the weakness and mutability of one’s self, has perilously increased, and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind.” This was written in 1903, and it’s plainly evident that man’s mutability has only accelerated since. Ours is a culture of self-invention. Identities that are ascribed—say, mother, daughter, American, Virginian, son of God—are spurned in favor of those which are created and which can be recreated at will. Transgenderism is perhaps the most blatant example of this, but created identity echoes throughout our identity politics regime.

In this context, it’s unsurprising that vows have become largely unintelligible. Making “an appointment with oneself at some distant time or place” presupposes that one will remain the same man in that distant time or place. Instead we now accept the preposterous concept of self re-invention. Chesterton (emphasis added):

A modern man refrains from swearing to count the leaves on every third tree in Holland Walk, not because it is silly to do so (he does many sillier things), but because he has a profound conviction that before he had got to the three hundred and seventy-ninth leaf on the first tree he would be excessively tired of the subject and want to go home to tea. In other words, we fear that by that time he will be, in the common but hideously significant phrase, another man.

Men can and should change their behavior; we should continually strive for virtue. This is not the same as changing one’s identity, or becoming “another man.” It’s no surprise that the “for better or for worse” part of the marriage vow is so conveniently and consistently eschewed, explained away by the common divorce claim that “that’s not the man (or woman) I married.”

Our culture yearns for the stability and permanence inherent to vows—even those that appear “rash.” Reading Chesterton more often could be the place to start.



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