"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Posts tagged ‘Orthodoxy’

Chesterton on Polygamy

I never could join the young men of my time in feeling what they called the general sentiment of revolt. I should have resisted, let us hope, any rules that were evil, and with these and their definition I shall deal in another chapter. But I did not feel disposed to resist any rule merely because it was mysterious. Estates are sometimes held by foolish forms, the breaking of a stick or the payment of a peppercorn: I was willing to hold the huge estate of earth and heaven by any such feudal fantasy. It could not well be wilder than the fact that I was allowed to hold it at all. At this stage I give only one ethical instance to show my meaning. I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself. To be allowed, like Endymion, to make love to the moon and then to complain that Jupiter kept his own moons in a harem seemed to me (bred on fairy tales like Endymion’s) a vulgar anti-climax. Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. Polygamy is a lack of the realization of sex; it is like a man plucking five pears in mere absence of mind.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

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Chesterton on the Bible

Before I post a wrap-up of the Thirty-Day Book Project–which, incidentally, took sixty-two days–I will offer this short but worthy paragraph from the end of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Day 14: Favorite book by your favorite writer

In April of 2006, near the end of my second year of graduate school, I read G. K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy for the first time.  When I began reading it I was an atheist when I started it.  By the time I finished, I was a Christian.  I can even pinpoint the section at which my conversion occurred: it’s in chapter six.

Obviously this book had tremendous personal meaning for me then and still does.  Given that, I doubt that I could explain, or even begin to explain, why I found it to be so great and why I still do so.  Orthodoxy is many things, including many that don’t seem to make sense: a work of Christian apologetics that barely mentions Jesus Christ or the Bible, a philosophy book that isn’t deathly boring, a series of riotous jokes with a life-changing message, and a rambling trip through scores of different topics that is also a unified whole.

I could try to write more, but will not.  If there is any book in history that speaks for itself and requires no introduction, Orthodoxy is the one.  So with that said, I will simply present a few of my favorite passages.

Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

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It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity as in itself attractive. But a moment’s thought will show that if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else’s disease. A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see the picture. And similarly even the wildest poetry of insanity can only be enjoyed by the sane. To the insane man his insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who thinks himself a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken. A man who thinks he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a bit of glass. It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes him dull, and which makes him mad. It is only because we see the irony of his idea that we think him even amusing; it is only because he does not see the irony of his idea that he is put in Hanwell at all. In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

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And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally true that maniacs are commonly great reasoners. When I was engaged in a controversy with the CLARION on the matter of free will, that able writer Mr. R. B. Suthers said that free will was lunacy, because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic would be causeless. I do not dwell here upon the disastrous lapse in determinist logic. Obviously if any actions, even a lunatic’s, can be causeless, determinism is done for. If the chain of causation can be broken for a madman, it can be broken for a man. But my purpose is to point out something more practical. It was natural, perhaps, that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about free will. But it was certainly remarkable that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about lunatics. Mr. Suthers evidently did not know anything about lunatics. The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

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This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

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In fairyland we avoid the word “law”; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm’s Law. But Grimm’s Law is far less intellectual than Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.

Yet more Chesterton on Chesterton

I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?

To show that a faith or a philosophy is true from every standpoint would be too big an undertaking even for a much bigger book than this; it is necessary to follow one path of argument; and this is the path that I here propose to follow. I wish to set forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance. For the very word “romance” has in it the mystery and ancient meaning of Rome. Any one setting out to dispute anything ought always to begin by saying what he does not dispute. Beyond stating what he proposes to prove he should always state what he does not propose to prove. The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. It is THIS achievement of my creed that I shall chiefly pursue in these pages.

But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England. I do not see how this book can avoid being egotistical; and I do not quite see (to tell the truth) how it can avoid being dull. Dulness will, however, free me from the charge which I most lament; the charge of being flippant. Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying. The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth. I find myself under the same intolerable bondage. I never in my life said anything merely because I thought it funny; though of course, I have had ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny because I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t. One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively the more extraordinary truths. And I offer this book with the heartiest sentiments to all the jolly people who hate what I write, and regard it (very justly, for all I know), as a piece of poor clowning or a single tiresome joke.

For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me. I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last. It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. No one can think my case more ludicrous than I think it myself; no reader can accuse me here of trying to make a fool of him: I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne. I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. I did strain my voice with a painfully juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths. And I was punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 4)

(Continued from part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

Part 3 dealt with Chesterton’s religion.  Before going on to other topics, we must say a little bit more about this one.  We’ve already noted that Chesterton had a rational faith in Christianity.  He found that Christianity corresponded with all the basic facts that he could observe in the world around him.  He was excellent with logic and had a keen ability to reduce an argument to its fundamentals and then point out it flaws.  In this way he sliced through the arguments of lesser thinkers like a hot knife through butter.  One of Chesterton’s two top influences was Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval monk whose philosophy treatises gave the logical underpinnings for Christian dogma.

But if Chesterton was sure and thorough in providing reasons for his beliefs, he also knew that strict logic alone was not the answer to human existence.  He lived at a time–the late 19th and early 20th century–when doubt and skepticism were rampant in the intellectual world.  Bold, brainy men were promoting Marxism, Freudianism, social Darwinism, postmodernism, and more other -isms than anyone could count.  Chesterton was aware of them all and tackled them one by one.  However, he didn’t just crush their results but investigated their philosophical underpinning.  Beneath each one he found the same rotten foundation, namely an absolute rejection of tradition and religion coupled with total dedication to materialist thinking.  If so many bad ideas emerged from the same source, it was reasonable to conclude that the source itself had a problem.  As he put it:

Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity.

Having thus identified the problem, Chesterton offered a solution with an -ism of his own.

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.

Here, in one masterful stroke, Chesterton defeats the charge that religion is irrational.  Strict, dogmatic adherence to logic while excluding all else is illogical.  True rationality means acknowledging that the world is just slightly too complicated to be squeezed into a strict logical scheme.  In this way, Chesterton married rational faith to mysticism, and the creative tension that results from these two underpins everything that Chesterton believed.
In these quotes, both taken from the first chapter of Orthodoxy, we see Chesterton defending “religion”, and one might get the impression that he was a fan of all religions as long as they opposed the destructive force of materialism.  This would be entirely wrong.  The abstract concept of “religious tolerance”, the notion that all religions are fundamentally alike, was among his favorite targets for attack.

We talk much about “respecting” this or that person’s religion; but the way to respect a religion is to treat it as a religion: to ask what are its tenets and what are their consequences. But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance. The old religious authorities, at least, defined a heresy before they condemned it, and read a book before they burned it. But we are always saying to a Mormon or a Moslem–”Never mind about your religion, come to my arms.” To which he naturally replies–”But I do mind about my religion, and I advise you to mind your eye.”

And  he also noted:

Historians seem to have completely forgotten the two facts– first, that men act from ideas; and second, that it might, therefore, be as well to discover which ideas.

Recall that Chesterton was a big fan of common sense.  That all religions are the same, or close to the same, or the same in their major points, or that they teach the same morals, is obviously nonsense.  Different religions teach vastly different things: different theologies, but different morals as well.  Chesterton was not afraid to right about religion.  He looked carefully at what the various religions believed and responded to them.  In some cases he was not afraid to label ridiculous claims as such.  If Christian Scientists insisted that all disease was purely spiritual and thus shouldn’t be treated with medicine, that’s crazy and Chesterton said as much.  If Mormons claimed that God favored polygamy until the year 1890 and then changed His mind, that’s absurd and Chesterton said so.  He also didn’t hesitate to connect the dots between religious beliefs and visible results.  If Hinduism caused millions to suffer under the caste system or Islam produced a large number of violent fanatics, he made the connection bluntly.

In addition, Chesterton had strong opinions about the correct interpretation of Christianity.  Some churches he opposed.  Calvinism was one another of his favorite targets; he viewed Calvinist belief in an all-powerful God and a helpless humanity as cruel and dehumanizing.  He was keenly aware of Christian history and knew exactly when, where, and why each tenet of Orthodox Christianity came from.  He also understood their implications.  Just as he could draw the lines between other religions and their results social effects, he also knew why the unique aspects of western society were inexorably woven together with Christian beliefs.  Hence Chesterton’s religious standpoint was inseparable from his social, political, economic, and even artistic mores.

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 3)

(Continued from part 1 and part 2.)

Let’s begin by reviewing two main points.  First, Chesterton wrote an enormous amount of stuff covering almost any topic that you could name.  Second, Chesterton’s goal was to help the reader see what was unseen, not because it was hidden, but rather because it was obvious.  That leads us to the next question: what, exactly, did Chesterton want us to see?

We note in passing that Chesterton’s writing is stupendously entertaining.  Sometimes it’s funny, other times flashy, other times dramatic, or romantic, or intriguing–he could do it all.  But while he was always entertaining, he was never merely entertaining.  Everything that he wrote had a purpose.  Even the more farcical stories and poems always contained a bit of meaning carefully hidden in a corner somewhere.  In the lingo that we teach kids in language arts classes, every Chesterton work has a theme.  To be perfectly precise, most of his works have a plethora of themes, but all have at least one.  Chesterton was a man of strong beliefs who wrote to convince other people.

Chesterton’s strongest belief was Christianity.  He was a self-described orthodox Christian and most people associate him with the Catholic Church, though he was actually a member of the Church of England for most of his life before converting to Catholicism in 1922.  One cannot talk sensibly about Chesterton without talking about his religion.

There are now and always have been a lot of silly explanations offered for religious beliefs by the enemies of Christianity, as for instance that Christians are mentally ill, or seek an imaginary God as a substitute father figure, or are victims of childhood indoctrination, or so forth.  Chesteron serves as a one-man rebuttal to all of these.  Anyone reading his work can see that he was clearly in robust mental health and he had a fine father figure in the form of his father.  Most significantly he was not raised to be a strong Christian.  In his teenage years he experimented with the occult and wrestled with violence, depression, and suicidal thoughts.  Only in adulthood did he come to understand and accept the tenets of Christianity.  His most famous book, Orthodoxy, charts this remarkable transformation.

Because of how he arrived at it, Chesterton had an extrordinarily broad and deep understanding of what Christianity meant.  His massive intellect allowed him to swat aside the simpler objections with ease.  For instance, responding to Marxist claims that religion is the opiate of the masses, Chesterton compared the Irish to English.  The Irish were obviously poorer and more religious, yet obviously not dull or drugged.  If either nation met that description it would be the English.  Chesterton offered up countless rebuttals of this kind to mealy-mouthed skeptical arguments.  His faith was a rational faith.  He studied history, science, literature, arts, scripture, psychology, and every other relevant field in great depth, and perceived that no matter where he looked, the facts were pointing him towards Christianity.  As he explained it:

The first answer is simply to say that I am a rationalist. I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions. If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual convenience to me to believe that he fell; and I find, for some odd psychological reason, that I can deal better with a man’s exercise of freewill if I believe that he has got it. But I am in this matter yet more definitely a rationalist. I do not propose to turn this book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics; I should be glad to meet at any other time the enemies of Christianity in that more obvious arena. Here I am only giving an account of my own growth in spiritual certainty. But I may pause to remark that the more I saw of the merely abstract arguments against the Christian cosmology the less I thought of them. I mean that having found the moral atmosphere of the Incarnation to be common sense, I then looked at the established intellectual arguments against the Incarnation and found them to be common nonsense.

That being true, Chesterton’s faith was based on more than a large collection of factoids, even if it was a very large collection.  He saw orthodox Christianity as a unified system that accounted for all aspects of human experience: moral, ethical, aesthetic, and historical.  To him the system’s unity proved its truth, along with the fact that it offered him abundant life and possibilities for growth.  As he explained in his best known and most quoted paragraph:

I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me tomorrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One free morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven. Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more. But imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture to-morrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare to-morrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see some truth that he has never seen before. There is one only other parallel to this position; and that is the parallel of the life in which we all began. When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say “My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell.” No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine, to whom this book is dedicated.

That explains Chesterton’s Christianity with crystal clarity.  Christianity offered him exactly what scripture says it offers: a new life, a second birth, a chance to experience anew the joys and childhood without giving up on the joys of adulthood.  These things convinced Chesterton to become a committed, lifelong Christian.  As we’ll see, Chesterton wrote on a great many other topics and was equally passionate about those others, but nothing that he wrote can be separated from his religion.  It was the trunk from which all the other branches grew.

Who is G. K. Chesterton?

I talk about somebody named G. K. Chesterton quite a bit, in case you haven’t noticed.  I don’t just talk about him on my blog.  I talk about him in real life, too.  As a result, several of my friends and relatives are wondering who this  guy is.  Perhaps you are too.  Thus I will now do my humble best to introduce Chesterton.  This will take several posts; I can’t say in advance exactly how many.

Many people, when they’re young, pick up on a certain author and decide that he (or she) is all that and that they’ll plan their life around the writings of that author.  My brother went in for Orson Scott Card during his high school years, though it would be unfair to call it an obsession.  Ayn Rand is a popular choice among teenagers in some circles.  Joseph Heller still gets converts once in a while, as do Robert Jordan and others.  I knew a girl in college who obsessed over Jacqueline Carey.  The movie Little Miss Sunshine features a teenage character who takes a vow of silence because of Friedrich Nietzsche.  As a college student, I, of course, knew better.  Life is too complex for any one author to capture it all.  True intellectualism and wisdom comes only from plunging into the works of many different authors, comparing and contrasting, filtering out the worthiness of each, etc…  It was only after leaving college, in my second year of graduate school, that I discovered my author.

In addition to being an author, G. K. Chesteron was an editor and publisher at several different newspapers, a speaker, an artist, and an activist.  He is rarely remembered for those things any more, however.  These days, those who remember Chesterton remember his writing.

What can I say about his writing?  For most authors it’s possible to at least give a broad categorization of their writing.  Shakespeare was a playwright, Dickens a novelist, Thomas Paine a pamphleteer.  Chesterton is tough to categorize because he wrote so much.  Ignatius Press is currently publishing his complete works.  They’ve been at it for over a decade and they’re nowhere close to done.  When finished, Chesterton’s work will fill over fifty large volumes, most of which will contain multiple entire books.

If I had to describe his output, I’d have to begin by splitting it into fiction and non-fiction.  He wrote massive amounts of both.  Within fiction, he wrote prose, plays, and poetry.  Within non-fiction, he wrote books, essays, newspaper columns, speeches, and more.  Within prose, he wrote both novels and short stories, as well as some works that lie on the border between novel and short story, not to mention fables and fairy tales.  His novels and stories cover every genre from mystery to fantasy to science fiction to literary fiction, and many simply can’t be fitted into a single genre.  And so forth.  You see why categorization is difficult.

Perhaps I should try a different angle of attack, that of biography.  Chesterton was born in London in 1874 and died in 1936.  Though he traveled a great deal, he always remained an Englishman.  You can listen to him in this video and hear that he sounded extremely British:

While he was born into a middle-class family, various circumstances lead to him flirting with poverty through his adult life, especially after he married in 1901.  (His wife was named Frances Blogg Chesterton, thus making him the first author to have a blogg.)  He chose to make writing his career and he had no choice but to earn money by writing.  This is, perhaps, the only thread that ties all of Chesterton’s writing together and separated him from his contemporaries.  He had to be commercially successful in order to support his family.  Unlike James Joyce, he could not devote decades to writing a single book.  Unlike Martin Heidegger, he couldn’t write things that were only comprehensible to a small circle of academics.  Unlike Friedrich Nietzsche, he did not have the luxury of going insane.

As I see it, this commercial pressure influence Chesterton in three important ways.  First, as already noted, he had to write enormous amounts of material.  Second, he had to write plainly and directly, in ways that a popular audience could understand.  Third, his writing had to have actual appeal to ordinary people.  He could not afford to be a snob or to treat people with contempt.  This did not mean that he always caved to popular opinion or sucked up to common prejudices–far from it, as we’ll soon see.  But it did mean that when he took a stance, he needed to put forth a sound basis for that stance, and he always did so with verve and flair.

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