Today we visit a different desert. Chesterton is writing about relativism in 1905, a century before Pope Benedict warned of its dangers. The passage is from Heretics, Project Gutenberg edition. GKC’s argument is that there actually is something we can call good. It leads nowhere to speak of ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’, but rather the truth, which is always imperfectly grasped, as any scientist would tell you. Relative truth is not what we go into the desert to seek. While avoiding obvious dangers, it is good to search for the truth, to sweat and even to be crucified for it.
An enormous unspoken disappointment has fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.
Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”