The Amazing Life of a Big Man: G. K. Chesterton

John ArmstrongRoman Catholicism

G.K. Chesterton 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-orthodoxy 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.