Musing On G K Chesterton

I’m curious as to your reactions to G K Chesterton–his writings, philosophy, apologetics, and even controversy (anti-Semitism and racism; he was a product of his times)

I’ve read the following GKC books, and wonder if you have read them, or others?

  1. Orthodoxy (well, most of it)
  2. The Man Who Was Thursday
  3. Father Brown Mysteries
  4. The Ball and the Cross

I’ve not read

  1. Heretics
  2. The Everlasting Man
  3. What’s Wrong With the World
  4. Eugenics and Other Evils

and many more!
I’d appreciate any nuggets you may have to share. Thanks.

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Just the first, over a decade ago (and Father Brown on TV :slightly_smiling_face:).

But I found my favorite passage from it:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/19966-because-children-have-abounding-vitality-because-they-are-in-spirit

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Greetings, Randy…

I’m a huge GKC fan, and have read quite a bit of his work. He was a brilliant thinker, a delightful writer, and an indefatigable defender of the common man. He had a rapier wit and was always willing to take on the anti-Christian forces of his day – but one of the things I admire most about him was the winsomeness with which he did it. Many of his staunchest opponents (such as G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells) also admired him and considered him a friend. He embodied the injunction to be “wise as a serpent, and harmless as a dove”. We need more of his ilk in our world today.

As for accusations of anti-Semitism and racism… Well, those are slippery terms these days, and easy to run afoul of (especially if you live in a different century and don’t have the opportunity to explain yourself to unread moderns). However, I don’t find him guilty of either – “product of his times” or not. Based on my reading of him, GKC had no time for the idea of “race” itself, let alone hate anybody of a different one. (I’m not sure he hated anyone.) I think he found notions of racial superiority (or inferiority) to be ludicrous. (I can’t find the quote now, but somewhere he mocks the Nazis because there’s no such thing as a pure race in Europe…) Yes, he played fast and loose with stereotypes and generalizations (and language) that today would be considered unacceptable, but there was no malice or ill-intent: GKC generalized everybody, be they Jewish, Irish, Italian, American, French, Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, atheist, or whatever. His broad brush painted everyone at some point or other, and to criticize him for it is like criticizing an Impressionist for his lack of accuracy – an adventure in “missing the point”.

I think the thing that gets GKC in trouble the most with modern readers is that I don’t think he was much of a fan of pluralism. Or, rather, I think he didn’t believe a society could cohere without a shared ground of truth and virtue. In What’s Wrong with the World, he says that what’s wrong with the world is that we do not ask what is right. A society that does not agree on the most fundamental truths about the nature of man cannot hold together. In his time, he perceived fault lines between Jewish communities and the (at least nominally) Christian European nations in which they lived. Some called have that “anti-Semitism”, but GKC was simply observing a very real tension… one which came to a bloody fruition shortly after his death. For GKC, loyalty to place and home were an essential part of human life, and those were bound up with faith and tradition. People of different faiths or worldviews can cooperate up to a point – but ultimately over the most important questions peace will break down. When I see the state of our nation today, I have to admit he seems to be right.

As for books of his to read… The Everlasting Man is a brilliant tour de force. I dearly love Orthodoxy, although many people find his rather non-linear style to be off-putting. The Everlasting Man, on the other hand, is probably the closest thing to an extended linear argument GKC ever makes. What’s Wrong with the World is a classic, and Eugenics should put to bed notions of racism in GKC. Biologos readers should keep in mind that when GKC talks about evolution, it’s almost always in the context of the way the eugenicist scientists of his day were employing it. He wasn’t a scientist and didn’t have a grasp of the evidence for evolution. But he was the mortal enemy of the eugenicists who wielded Darwin like a sword. Tremendous Trifles is a collection of whimsical short essays, and is often what I recommend to someone first coming to GKC. Chesterton was a journalist, and the short essay/article is a form he mastered. For economics, read The Outline of Sanity. If you enjoyed The Ball and the Cross, you might like Manalive and The Flying Inn. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is also good fun. But with GKC’s long fiction, I find he tends to rush endings.

This was a bit long-winded, but GKC is one of my favorite subjects!

–Ron

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I’m enjoying him quite a bit. Thank you for your pleasant and insightful post. After puzzling through “The Man Who Was Thursday” and remaining uncertain I ever got Chesterton’s drift, I have read through “The Ball and the Cross” twice, in part because my 12 year old son wanted to read it (he hasn’t finished it, but one of his favorite illustrators, Ben Hatke, helped with a recent edition. I think he did a good job). "Ball and the Cross is about search for truth and the duel between a Catholic and an atheist, in contrast to the selfishness of a brilliant man named Lucifer. I’ve read and re read the entire works of his Father Brown series, and glean new things from him all them time. However, while he has some very good insights, I think it’s OK (and inevitable) to acknowledge some rather puzzling forays into xenophobia. Most people are not perfect, and Chesterton wrote things like this, from “The Honor of Israel Gow,”:

“You see,” said Father Brown in low but easy tone, “Scotch people before Scotland existed were a curious lot. In fact, they’re a curious lot still. But in the prehistoric times I fancy they really worshipped demons. That,” he added genially, “is why they jumped at the Puritan theology.”

He doesn’t explain his reasoning here. Many other allusions to people of various ilks (Americans, etc) imply a sweeping generalization that seems intrinsic to his world view, but also simplistic.

I think your description of “Orthodoxy” good, and would like to get more of your impression of his apologetics. He excels at empathy in certain areas, and I am glad to hear you confirm he was good at getting his opponents to like him.

My sister, a middle school teacher, still quotes him about fairy tales, though I understand this is not an exact quote:

Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.

I’m currently considering “The Everlasting Man” as my next Audible project. Thank you for your advice!

I think this quote may be on to something here. Can you expound? Thanks.

However, I"m ok with enjoying the meat and ignoring any bones, too. Thanks.

I can’t resist jumping in here - as I too appreciate Ron’s ode to Chesterton, and I think I see the point Ron was making when he wrote:

So I’ll expand what I see in that and leave Ron to correct or affirm my take as necessary.

Impressionists, as I’m sure you know, were specifically known for painting their scenes quickly … something often necessitated by the fleeting nature of their subject: perhaps a sunset or the play of light on water. So their quick strokes became a style unto themselves - being willing to expend the detail in the service of capturing the whole. Hence the quick broad oil strokes to get a scene on canvas quickly.

If one was to criticize Monet for neglecting the intricately beautiful structure of a water lily in his painting, it would be to miss the point of what such impressionists were trying to accomplish in the first place. Or put another way, it would be like criticizing a comedian for not getting the journalistic detail quite factually accurate in the humorous story used to delight an audience. The comedian was not acting as a professional journalist, but as an entertainer. [or holding it against the journalist that her story wasn’t entertaining enough.] If one wanted to become accurately informed, rather than entertained, they probably ought to seek out other sources more tailored to that purpose, and not the comic whose purpose is to entertain.

In the same way, Chesterton, (in Ron’s view if I have it correctly) was not attempting to write comprehensive treatises about various peoples, much less impossibly trying to take future conversational sensitivities into account (heck, we have trouble navigating those lingual minefields ourselves today, and we’re living in the middle of it!) Instead, he was using broad generalizations in the service of illustrating other points. So we commit the common sin of holding historic authors accountable for things that they weren’t even aiming for, and perhaps couldn’t even have been expected to know - a game of missing the point indeed! Like trying to make Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed be a botanical conjecture on the relative sizes of seeds rather than paying attention to what the parable was really about.

[Doing this to authors like Chesterton, who are not much more than a century removed from us, should give us pause to wonder how much more we do it to ancient authors or scribes from thousands of years ago.]

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I don’t think that’s a xenophobic comment about the Scots so much as an expression of Chesterton’s hatred of Calvinism.

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I’m not sure GKC thinks this is a bad thing, e.g. Ball and Cross, Napoleon of Notting Hill.

I think what GKC hates more than violence is the peace of apathy. The problem in Ball and Cross is not the atheist and Catholic deuling over differing worldviews, but the apathetic hordes who try to stop them because they are disturbing the peace.

I’ve found that a helpful biographical key to Chesterton was the fact that he went to art school instead of university. We know him as a writer, but I think he was really more of a painter or sketch artist. (He got his start in writing doing art criticism, but eventually dropped out of art school and kept writing.) A painter isn’t usually trying to reproduce the world accurately – or at least, not “accurately” in the purely material sense. A painter tries to reproduce on canvas a way of seeing the world that he experiences, so that you can experience it as well. Does van Gogh accurately depict a starry night? Does he truthfully depict one?

Chesterton doesn’t write so much as paint with words. A painter often jumps around on the canvas while he works… GKC often jumps around in his works as well. Not even his Autobiography is laid out in a linear, chronological fashion. Chesterton isn’t making arguments so much as painting a picture – and you pretty much just have to let him finish so you can admire the piece as a whole. This is one reason why he can seem hard to follow in his longer work, but also why his longer work requires multiple, patient reads before you can take in the entire scene. Chesterton thinks deeply, broadly, and intuitively. Sometimes it’s no easier to fit into his vision than it would have been to fit into his pants. Also, like a painter, Chesterton often sacrifices detail and “accuracy” to create a particular image. I think @Mervin_Bitikofer expands rightly on what I was trying to say (thanks, Mervin!).

But Chesterton wasn’t just a painter. He loved to sketch, and doodled everywhere. He draws funny illustrations of people, often with the exaggerated features of a caricature. The point of a caricature isn’t necessarily to mock or be mean… A good caricature can make the audience immediately recognize the subject, while drawing attention to specific features (which may well be disproportionately emphasized for effect). This is where Chesterton draws accusations of anti-Semitism, racism, or xenophobia. He’s not at all politically correct, and will broad-brush people for effect, to make a point, or simply to get a laugh. But he’s an utter egalitarian, and won’t treat anyone worse than he treats anyone else. (In fact, he was the butt of his own jokes probably more than anyone else.) On the other hand, his praise is painted with as broad a brush as his criticism. Chesterton loved people, and when he criticized it was because he loved. “A man’s friend likes him but leaves him as he is: his wife loves him and is always trying to turn him into somebody else… Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

As for the Israel Gow quote… It’s been a while since I’ve read that story, so I don’t have the context in my head. Perhaps Fr. Brown was just making a joke. Although @glipsnort’s theory that GKC was taking one of his many shots at Calvinism is quite plausible. Chesterton always seemed to be throwing Calvinists under the bus. However that’s because he basically equated Calvinism with determinism, and viewed it as the direct ancestor of the atheistic determinists that he was always challenging in the public square. I think where Calvinism is concerned, GKC is rather too imprecise, although there is actually a grain of truth in what he’s saying. But that’s a different discussion.

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He also isn’t a big fan of Darwinian biological evolution.

Yeah, that’s my favorite GKC quote that’s not by GKC. It is close, however. Fantasy author Neil Gaiman paraphrased a Chesterton quote at the beginning of his novel Coraline. As he tells it, he put the paraphrase in the manuscript intending to go back and find the actual wording of the quote later, but forgot to do so before sending the manuscript off. Since then, his pithy (and very Chestertonian) rendition of the thought has become very popular. I suspect what he was actually thinking of was from an essay called “The Red Angel” in Tremendous Trifles:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

I love Gaiman’s wording however, and think GKC would approve. (Gaiman’s version is actually “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”)

Gaiman, by the way, is a huge GKC fan and considers The Man Who Was Thursday as required reading for any aspiring fantasy author. He and Terry Pratchett (both atheists) dedicated their wickedly funny novel Good Omens “to the memory of G. K. Chesterton, a man who knew what was going on.”

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Exactly so. By the end of the book, the duellists in The Ball and the Cross aren’t so much fighting each other as they are a world that thinks there’s nothing worth fighting over.

For Chesterton, the true soldier doesn’t fight because he hates what’s in front of him, but because he loves what’s behind him. Chesterton doesn’t seek violence or conflict, but he loves the Truth and knows that so long as there are those who deny it, fighting to defend it will be necessary.

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Yes, I noticed that it was sort of the case in some of his quotes–but he didn’t really respond to the scientific mechanism, but more to the emotional import, in the ones I saw. I also thought he responded more to the stereotyped view of the day (prejudices again?).–sort of like William Jennings Bryan, I thought.

I have really enjoyed “Ball and the Cross”–what do you think Lucifer’s point is, in contrast to the apathetic populace? He’s (of course) the Devil, but much more manipulative than the judge and the Peacemaker, for example. I’m still trying to figure them out. It’s a rich allegory. I also struggle through the various reasons that McIan and Turnbull alternately like and decide to try to kill each other–for the sake of a lady, forsooth, at one point? Thanks.

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This is true, but I think that’s mostly because in his circles, the only time it came up was when eugenicists or positivists or social Darwinists or whomever were using evolution to support their own atheistic metaphysical claims (and to attack Chesterton’s). It was “weaponized Darwinism”, and GKC was aiming to disarm.

Here’s a quote from Orthodoxy, chap 3, “The Suicide of Thought”:

Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which, if it destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about. You cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” The philosophic evolutionist reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, “I am not; therefore I cannot think.”

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I’ve read “Good Omens” (and nearly everything else of Pratchett’s Discworld series) and had never made (or forgotten) any connection between him and Chesterton. I’m not surprised to hear it, though! Everything Pratchett wrote was “wickedly funny”.

IIRC, the “lady” is the Virgin Mary. One is a Catholic and one is an atheist.

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Oh, yeah, Sir Terry loved Chesterton. From this interview:

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton and Neil Gaiman, because he’s a mate who knows how to order the most excellent sushi.

I would probably offer up my firstborn for an invite to that party.

Oh, I don’t know if you watched the series or not, but the brief “Good Omens: Lockdown” reunion of David Tennant and Michael Sheen is full of shots of GKC volumes (and even some Belloc), including a full screen shot of the text of “The Ethics of Elfland” from Orthodoxy.

My own favorite passage from that book:

. . . If you leave off looking at books about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men then (if you have any humor or imagination, any sense of the frantic or the farcical) you will observe that the startling thing is not how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is. It is the monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation. That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that being so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock and the enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture and debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in a rococo style; camels do not paint even bad pictures, though equipped with the material of many camel’s-hair brushes. Certain modern dreamers say that ants and bees have a society superior to ours. They have, indeed, a civilization; but that very truth only reminds us that it is an inferior civilization. Who ever found an anthill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants? Who has seen a beehive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old? No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type. All other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever undomestic, either as a profligate or a monk. So that this first superficial reason for materialism is, if anything, a reason for its opposite; it is exactly where biology leaves off that all religion begins.

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He also thinks it is just bad science.

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