In The Secret of Father Brown, Chesterton’s detective-priest is prevailed upon (much against his better judgment) to explain his methodology.
Father Brown describes how he employs neither “occult” methods of “second sight” (a suggestion that appals him) nor Sherlock Holmes-style “scientific” deduction that looks at human behaviour only from the outside:
getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect: in what they would call a dry impartial light, in what I should call a dead and dehumanized light.
Instead, Father Brown explains, he solves crimes by understanding them from the inside; and even then, not as an act of imagination by which he seeks to “reconstruct the psychology” of the criminal, but as a “religious exercise” in which he seeks to understand better his own potential for such behaviour:
I don’t try to get outside the man. I try to get inside the murderer. . . . Indeed it’s much more than that, don’t you see? I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer.
At this point, I think Chesterton gives us a large clue as his own motivations in writing the Father Brown stories:
“Oh,” said Mr. Chace, regarding him with a long, grim face, and added:”And that is what you call a religious exercise.”
“Yes,” said Father Brown; “that is what I call a religious exercise.”
Father Brown continues with what is one of Chesterton’s most celebrated passages:
No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.
It’s hard to imagine what our public discourse would look like if politicians and the media (and the rest of us) really absorbed what Chesterton is saying here. Much easier to keep treating “criminals” as if they were “apes in a forest ten thousand miles away” than to say (and really mean) “there but for the grace of God.”
We’re all scientists now, in the sense that Father Brown is talking about when he says earlier:
When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbour; probably his poorer neighbour.
Today, our news reports and public debates are full of “types”. Not just “criminals”, but “problem families” and “benefit claimants” and “scroungers” and “immigrants” and “asylum seekers” and so on. And still we never mean ourselves, but always our neighbour; and still it’s probably our poorer neighbour (with some exceptions, such as “bankers”).