G.K. Chesterton on the Fallacy of Success: The Curse of the Midas Touch

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What is the curse of the Midas touch?

“There is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey.” G.K. Chesterton (On the Fallacy of Success).

What is success? We all seem to have some idea of what it is. And if we don’t, there are thousands of people out there who will teach you. There are thousands of online courses, tens of thousands of YouTube gurus, and millions of books out there that promise to lead you to success in 5 simple steps.  

People with the “Midas touch” are universally praised and revered. They can use every opportunity to make money. They are able to turn everything they touch into gold. And yet, as G.K. Chesterton says, the Greeks have enshrined the “instinct that makes people rich” in the most telling myth about King Midas.

Midas, the affluent ruler of Phrygia, lived in a lavish palace with his beautiful daughter and was leading a life of extravagance. Despite his immense wealth, Midas was fixated on the pursuit of gold, believing it to be the ultimate source of happiness.

His avarice was such that he spent his days counting his golden coins, and occasionally he would even “bathe” in golden coins.

One day, a satyr by the name of Silenus was passing through Midas’s famous rose garden. He was so tired after days of feasting with his patron Bacchus that he lay down on the ground in total exhaustion to take a nap. Midas found him there, invited him in, and took care of him.

After several days, he took him back to Bacchus, the god of wine and pleasure. Bacchus was so glad to see Silenus that he promised to fulfill any one wish of Midas. After some consideration, Midas blurted: “I want to turn everything I touch into gold.” Bacchus advised him to think twice before making such a wish, but Midas didn’t listen.

The next day, Midas started touching everything in his castle. First, a small table turned into gold. Then, he touched a chair, a carpet, the floor – everything! Midas was ecstatic. Finally, his dream came true. He could have anything he wanted. He kept running around and touching everything he saw.

Finally, he sank down on his golden chair exhausted. He reached out for some grapes, but the moment he started chewing, he nearly broke his teeth – the grape became golden in his hand. He leaned over to enjoy the smell of a rose on his table, but as soon as he touched it, it turned into gold between his fingers and lost its fragrance.

Slowly, Midas started to realize what had happened to him. He touched a slice of bread, and it turned into gold. He touched a glass of water, and it turned into gold. Suddenly, fear gripped his soul. “What have I done!” he muttered and lay down on his couch. The pillow under his cheek turned into gold as well.

He jumped up in dismay and frustration and saw his daughter entering the hall. In desperation, he stretched out his arms and gave her a hug, and she turned into a golden statue. He recoiled in fear and realized that his gold-making gift turned into a curse. But it was too late.

By the time we realize that there’s more to life than gold, it’s often too late. We have turned everything into gold, and there’s nothing left. When there’s nothing in our lives besides gold, we painfully realize that we wanted something else all along. But what?

Chesterton writes,

“I know that I cannot turn everything I touch to gold; but then I also know that I have never tried, having a preference for other substances, such as grass and good wine.”

C.S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory,

“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him…”

The substances of life are many. By committing ourselves to the pursuit of gold we often end up sacrificing everything else. It’s impossible to have a relationship with a golden statue. We need a real friend over a pint of beer, a real family to laugh together over a meal, a real book to enjoy.

By turning everything into gold we have expunged Life out of everything and have painfully realized that we have nothing. We want something real – like grass or good wine. Something we can’t find now because we can’t see anything but gold.

We can’t enjoy flowers – they lose their fragrance the moment we touch them. We can’t enjoy people – whoever we touch, turns into a golden statue. What we thought was a blessing became a curse. The curse of the Midas touch.

Was the Curse of the “Midas Touch” Ever Reversed?

The ending of the Midas’s story is no less telling. He went to Bacchus again and pleaded with him to take this “gift” away. Bacchus told him to go wash himself in the river Pactolus. When he did so, everything he turned into gold became normal again. A happy ending? Not really.

Sometime later, Midas and the mountain god Tmolus were asked to judge a musical contest between the god of music Apollo and satyr Marsyas. Apollo’s lyre sounded so irresistible that Tmolus picked Apollo as the winner. But Midas chose the satyr. As a curse, Apollo gave him the ears of a donkey as a sign of not being able to hear real Music.

When we give our lives to the pursuit of the artificial, we cannot hear the real. We lose our ability to hear the Music from the infinite realm because we are preoccupied with the stuff of the earth. By turning everything into objects of gain we become spiritually deaf – and grow the ears of a donkey.   

The old fables of mankind are, indeed, unfathomably wise… But we must not have King Midas represented as an example of success; he was a failure of an unusually painful kind. G.K. Chesterton (The Fallacy of Success).


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