The Fallacy of Success

by G. K. Chesterton

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G. K. Chesterton (1874–1943) published his essay “The Fallacy of Success” in 1909 as part of the collection All Things Considered. It provides a scathing criticism of the growing market for books offering advice on how to be successful. Precursors to the modern self-help genre, these works often held up the lives of millionaires, especially self-made millionaires, as models by which anyone could earn wealth and acclaim. Chesterton asserts that these books are at best useless and at worst exploitative. Through biting sarcasm, biblical allusions, and varied rhetorical appeals, Chesterton crafts a compelling argument that frames the pursuit of success as not only foolish but also immoral.

Summary of the Essay

Chesterton begins his essay by discrediting books about success as “the silliest ever known among men.” In his view, such books are about nothing, because success itself is an intangible abstraction. Those who write about success equate it with other concepts, such as wealth or acclaim. Chesterton dismisses this equation of wealth with success and puts forward his own definition: A person or thing is successful merely by existing as itself. The problem with books professing to contain the secrets of success is that their advice is too generic to be truly useful.

In Chesterton’s view, there are two ways to be successful at something:

  • People can put in the effort to be good at something, or
  • They can cheat.

In either case, the path to success is narrow and specific. A book is useful if it teaches someone how to acquire skills or cheat effectively. However, Chesterton mockingly asserts that books about success do no such thing. They offer generic platitudes that amount to “games are won by winners.” In order to emphasize his point, Chesterton quotes from a popular article called “The Instinct That Makes People Rich.” Combining his sarcastic wit with appeals to logos, Chesterton dismantles the author’s inspirational diction and highlights the absurdity and pointlessness of the advice.

The essay then transitions into a discussion of how the correlation of success with money has led to an unhealthy societal worship of the wealthy. Chesterton posits that people worship the things that they don’t understand and exult in mysteries of perceived divinity. Self-help authors do not understand how the wealthy obtained their wealth; if they did, they themselves would be wealthy. Instead, they take pleasure in pretending to pass along the so-called secrets of success to a similarly wealth-revering readership.

To further discredit self-styled success gurus, Chesterton quotes the same article. He highlights a section where the author positions the mythical King Midas as an example of success, because Midas turned everything he touched into gold. However, the moral of Midas’s story is actually that unrestrained pursuit of worldly wealth is foolish: Midas comes to view his “golden touch” as a curse when it prevents him from eating and from holding his loved ones. For anyone to venerate Midas as a success story speaks to their foolishness and fundamental misunderstanding of the myth.

Building on his argument, Chesterton shifts to a different aspect of the Midas myth. Though in the eyes of his subjects Midas is a successful and powerful king, he has a shameful secret known only to his barber: he has “the ears of an ass.” Chesterton extends these secret shames to all wealthy people, implying that those who have obtained worldly riches hide their metaphorical donkey ears in order to appear more powerful. He concedes that the wealthy and powerful have accomplished some form of success. However, the tendency of self-help writers to act as though the rich and powerful are infallible...

(This entire section contains 837 words.)

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contributes to the immoral glorification of wealth and greed.

As he closes his arguments, Chesterton calls on Christian theology to emphasize the immorality of a society that has become obsessed with the pursuit of wealth. In his eyes, books promoting methods of obtaining material success encourage pride and greed, two of the seven deadly sins. Such books teach people that worldly possessions are the ultimate form of success and encourage people to disdain honest, humble work in favor of unchecked—and typically unrealized—ambition. Chesterton notes the generational differences in terms of how success is viewed. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, honest work was promoted as the means by which people could advance themselves. By contrast, the modern era encourages people to allow their vices to lead them toward material gain by falsely conflating avarice with success.

Chesterton was a highly respected writer, debater, and journalist who frequently condemned the impact of materialism on contemporary culture. He combined his personal commitment to rationalism, his admiration for Catholic doctrine, and his renowned wit into scathing sociopolitical criticisms. He called on readers to see past appearances and glimpse the reality of a situation, as he does in “The Fallacy of Success” by debunking the grandeur promised by self-help authors. His condemnation of the near-religious zeal with which people regard the wealthy is further explored in his essay “The Worship of the Wealthy,” also published in All Things Considered.