G. K. Chesterton' s The Fallacy of Success: Summary & Themes

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  • 0:00 The Fallacy Of Success
  • 0:42 False Promises
  • 1:44 Defining Success
  • 2:34 The Industrious Apprentice
  • 3:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

G. K. Chesterton's essay ''The Fallacy of Success'' attacks self-help books that claim to teach the secret to getting rich. In this lesson, you'll learn the major ideas that Chesterton uses to prove his point.

The Fallacy of Success

If you've walked down the aisle in any bookstore, you've seen rows of titles promising to teach you the secret of success. These books promise nearly instant gratification if you only learn the insider tricks of highly successful people. TV and talk radio carry the same content: promises of a quick path to wealth and fame. While this might seem like a contemporary trend, the writer G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay titled ''The Fallacy of Success'', which debunked these self-help books and he did it in 1909. His thoughts, over 100 years old, still sound remarkably fresh and current.

False Promises

Chesterton, who was known as the Prince of Paradox, begins his essay by presenting the paradoxical quality of books that purport to carry the secret of success. He calls them ''...more dull than the dullest religious tract'' and at the same time ''...more wild than the wildest romances of chivalry''. He means that these books are works of wild imagination, while at the same time boring because they don't actually say anything. Self-help books on success contain phrases that are meant to sound like exciting revelations even if they're just empty expressions. Chesterton goes on to quote entire paragraphs from some of the popular titles of his time, books that promise to teach the reader the secrets that gave the richest men, like Cornelius Vanderbilt, their millions. Instead, as Chesterton proves, these books teach nothing more than the idea that rich people have an instinct for gathering wealth. They recognize opportunity and seize it. Chesterton claims that the idea of an instinct for wealth is a false one. He calls it by another name: greed.

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