G.K. Chesterton was an imposing giant of a man, standing 6’4” and weighing almost 300 pounds. He was also a giant of a man intellectually and spiritually. His interests ranged very widely and the output of his mind was beyond incredible. His work includes some 4,000 essays, several hundred poems and around 200 short stories. On top of that he authored more than a hundred books. And for more than four decades he wrote a weekly column in from one to four different journals. These columns appeared along with a constant production of stories, plays, reviews, novels and commentaries. And he was in constant demand as a speaker, drawing large crowds wherever he went.
Chesterton was a prodigious intellectual for sure. But he was not your ordinary intellectual. He wrote and spoke in a way that often appealed to ordinary people and he relished the opportunity to speak to the common man. He claimed that he was nothing more than a simple journalist. One wonders what such a simple journalist would look like in today’s context if this is what he really was. He wrote on philosophy, literary criticism, biography and apologetics. He produced critiques of Browning, Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Chaucer and wrote biographies of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi. He died in 1936, at the age of 62, yet never before published work is still being published every year. Now study centers around the world reflect on his work and magazines and Web sites exist for the sole purpose of keeping alive his vision and ideals.
Chesterton was the quintessential absent-minded man. He would often forget where he was and even where he lived. He would become so engrossed in a book he would walk off with it and the shop owner would send a bill to his wife. His writing, however, is amazing. He employs metaphors and paradox with ease and brilliance. “I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it on something solid.” He possessed an incredible sense of humor and was totally self-deprecating. His interests were broad and his writing covered whatever topics came to his mind.
Chesterton was opinionated if he was anything at all. He disliked socialism deeply but the excesses of capitalism troubled him. I am in debt to his thought on many fronts but none more than here. He feared socialism because it destroyed personal freedom and liberty. Of capitalism he said the problem was “not too many capitalists, but actually too few capitalists.” He saw too many of the poor not participating in the fruits of capitalism. Along with several of his friends he touted what has been called “distributism.” This is not a well-developed political philosophy but it espoused widespread ownership of the means of production (especially of the land) and a less materialistic way of living. The development of this way of thinking reflects the views of late 19th Century Catholic social thought and is kept alive by a few serious political and social thinkers today.
Chesterton had little or no use for either progressives (liberals we would call them today) or conservatives. He observed, “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” He added that, “When a politician is in opposition he is an expert on the means to some end; and when he is in office he is an expert on the obstacles to it.” In an interview given in Cleveland, on a visit to the U.S., he said, “It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged . . . . al government is an ugly necessity.”
Chesterton admired both democracy and tradition. “Democracy means government by the uneducated while aristocracy means government by the badly educated.” And in one of my favorite quotes he said: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” He rightly claimed, “You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”
Chesterton became, over time, a serious and thoughtful Christian. Baptized in the Church of England and trained in agnosticism he tried spiritualism for a time. He then moved to paganism and pantheism. On a lecture trip he met a Roman Catholic priest in Scotland who made a deep impression on him. Over the next decade-plus he made his way into the Catholic Church, giving his confession to this same priest. He eventually came to write a book (he planned to title it Heresies) that was titled Orthodoxy. It is this book that explained his own reason for embracing the teaching of the Apostles’ Creed. It is a masterful work and full of great surprise and depth. He soon realized that it was also a tad provocative and said, “I had begun to discover that, in all the welter of inconsistent and incompatible heresies, the one and only really unpardonable heresy was orthodoxy.” He suggested that a certain fanaticism filled his time, “a fanatical hatred of morality, especially Christian morality.” Orthodoxy was published a full ten years before Chesterton entered the Roman Catholic Church at age 48. After years of thought, debate and study Chesterton, the great and unusual man, became a devout Christian.
In The Everlasting Man Chesterton concluded, “These are the days in which Christians are expected to praise every creed but their own. A dead thing can go with the stream, but only living things can go against it.” He became, and remains, a great advocate that we become “living things” who resist the dead in our continual quest for the truth.
Note: The Trinity Forum has recently produced a booklet that is made up of excerpts of The Everlasting Man, titled: The Strangest Story in the World. The Foreword, written by Alonzo L. McDonald, forms the basis for much of what I’ve written above. Though I think the booklet is helpful there really is no better way to engage with Chesterton than to read him whole. The best place to start, at least with his religious work, is with Orthodoxy. Then read The Everlasting Man.
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As a very young Christian, I read The Everlasting Man and it made a lasting impression on me. It is one of the most influential books in my life.
A couple of years back, I recommended this book to a college student and she found it impenetrable. The rich vocabulary, long and complex sentences and cultural references were so different from 21st century communication styles that she just couldn’t handle it. That’s a shame. There is so much in Chesterton that today’s generation would love. The present-day tendency to speak and think in short sound bytes makes it hard for us to communicate with believers from previous generations.
Chesterton’s essays are also very interesting, especially those that mention Americans. In one essay (I don’t remember which one) he talks about a group of American Christians who came to his office. He opened up a box of cigars and offered them a smoke. They backed away in horror, because use of tobacco was one of their deadly sins. His conclusion: If these guys think that smoking a cigar is a sin, they have no idea what sin really is. Very interesting.
I think Chesterton was one of the greatest intellectuals of the last century. Here is one of the best examples of Catholic social thinking and apologetics.
The church today needs contemporary Chestertons who can satirically whip heresy while promoting a biblical imagination.
I have always loved the sheer brilliance and wit of Chesterton. I suspect he was fun to be around and the life of the party.
This leads to another tension or challenge I have not resolved as a Christian. How does one hold in balance respectable discourse and prophetic satire? It seems people gravitate to either a shallow surrender of niceities or mean-spirited ad hominems.
If our culture goes from one pendulum swing to another, it seems we are in the ad nauseum civilized-tolerant-stand for everyting and therefore stand for nothing discourse. Chesterton would have none of that!
Chesterton had no problem employing redicule and satire as forms of arguments even if modern Christians are shy or embarrassed with such rhetorical forms of speech.
The truth is we all say we want to be like Jesus but deep down, we really are put off and embarrassed by him. The real Jesus is simply too brash and controversial for our personal likes and comfortability.
Jesus uses arguments that hit fast and hard, utilizes proposterous exxageration, hilarious comparisions, and would pummel some with his words (when was the last time you called someone out as Satan? :–) One thing is for sure, Jesus was no verbal pacifist.
Maybe in the end for those who are fearless enough to go down this road is when does our biting satire and arguments lift up God or simply our own egos? I also suspect we also need to be much more subversive in our humour and apologetics. Sometimes people “not getting” it may be the place where paradox, irony, and satire stand as they are and don’t need our help.
Simply put, there is a time for dialogue and there is a time for confrontation and Godly wisdom knows the difference!
And there is always the danger that if we are not careful, strong language or winning an argument becomes more important as another example of missing the real point of the whole conversation. If the satirist is not careful (and definitely humble), one will find oneself killing ants with a baseball bat!
A Chesterton fan? I KNEW I liked you!
I found reading C.S. Lewis a good “bridge” to Chesterton. Not intentionally, but in retrospect. The vocabulary, grammar and writing style of Lewis was something like halfway between Chesterton and more modern writers.
I also find it very helpful to read through Chesterton’s writing twice or even three times. It’s amazing how his books “open up” in this way, revealing greater depths and more subtle connections with every read.
Not only Chesterton’s books (this can be a good exercise with any unfamiliar work), but maybe especially with his books.
And Joe S.,
The essay you’re describing is On American Morals, and can be found here:
Thanks, Joe H.