Grasping Chesterton’s Thought Takes Heavy Lifting, Like Trying to Pick Him Up
by Andiew Dosa
G.K. Chesterton grew to 300 plus pounds. His body of work is equally pi‘odigious. If we were asked to literally pick up Chesterton, it would be backbreaking. If we were committed to reading all of lits writings, we would i‘un out of life tinge. If we wei’e interested in undei‘standing hint, that too would take a tenacious effort. The effort is worth it, but it, in its own way, is back breaking.
Chesterton’s non-fiction particularly (e.g., Oi tliodoxy and The Everlasting Man) is a clialleiiging read. His fertile and creative wind fiIl the pages with dozens of big examples and descriptions, peiylexing tangents, and audacious assertions. Despite that, there is a flow to lits work, but it can be more like a iiaelting ice cap infused river than a gentle biook.
His arguments ai‘e i‘icli, creative, and decidedly not pedantic. He is not shy about using repctitive or complementary or contrasting/paTadoxical arguments twat follow quickly after each other. Sometimes you feel lie has piled argument upon argument, and you are sagging under their weight oi slieei nunibei‘s.
He speaks forcefully, and he must have gotten excited—you cci feel his passion. This man was also not equivocal. It has been suggested, lie “could wax rliapsodic about newly anything.” His response to life and all it contained for hint, whether it meandered across his path or lie rode out to confront it, was with all his soul and spirit. He loved things completely, or he felt thorough going disdain for things. He engaged everything.
Without care and an undei-standing of a few habits or patterns of lits style, it is easy to get lost. He offers so much; without discipline, you can feel spun about like in a maze. The fulness and richness of his uniting reveals the dexterity of lits mind, but that mind offers so many supports and building blocks to buttress lits points, you can get bogged down. So consider the following to make your reading easier.
Go up to the first few Paragraphs. The writing is not a match to Chesterton’s, but you can see an invitation of his habits and patterns. There is a lot of repetition, but with the ideas expressed differently, to biting home the point.
Here are a few other thoughts about not losing the thread of his apology (for his faith and life):
So with that to start, take the journey with Chesterton and enjoy the wild ride he takes you on. The following is an outline of the book, with some quotes Chesterton uses to make his point, and some quotes that are just delicious. And again, remember to find the thread. Then, don’t let go.
‘Dale Ahlquist, Founder and President of the American Chesterton Society offers a few good suggestions about reading this book, in his lecture on Orthodoxy, which we include here. https://www.chesterton.org/lecture-12/ romance of the strange and secure. Thus, a man sets sail for the exotic. He discovers his home. He claims the South Seas for England, though he has landed on the beach at Brighton—where he began the voyage.
Chesterton says: “1 will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.”
II. The Maniac
III. The Suicide of Thought
IV. The Ethics of Elfland
V. The Flag of the World
VI. The Paradoxes of Christianity
VII. The Eternal Revolution
“Aristocracy is not an institution: aristocracy is a sin; generally a very venial one. It is merely the drift or slide of men into a sort of natural pomposity and praise of the powerful, which is the most easy and obvious affair in the world.”
“In short, I had spelled out slowly, as usual, the need for an equal law in Utopia; and, as usual, I found that Christianity had been there before me. The whole history of my Utopia has the same amusing sadness. I was always rushing out of my architectural study with plans for a new turret only to find it sitting up there in the sunlight, shining, and a thousand years old.”
VIII.—The Romance of Orthodoxy
“This truth is yet again true in the case of the common modern attempts to diminish or to explain away the divinity of Christ. The thing may be true or not; that I shall deal with before I end. But if the divinity is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary. That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point–and does not break.”
“Let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”
Authority and the Adventurer
“I give one instance out of a hundred; I have not myself any instinctive kinship with that enthusiasm for physical virginity, which has certainly been a note of historic Christianity. But when I look not at myself but at the world, I perceive that this enthusiasm is not only a note of Christianity, but a note of Paganism, a note of high human nature in many spheres…. With all this human experience allied with the Christian authority, I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the Church right; or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal. It takes all sorts to make a church; she does not ask me to be celibate. But the fact that I have no appreciation of the celibates, I accept like the fact that I have no ear for music. The best human experience is against me, as it is on the subject of Bach. Celibacy is one flower in my father’s garden, of which I have not been told the sweet or terrible name. But I may be told it any day.
“This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophers say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all the creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden.” And Chesterton believes that this philosophy has obvious advantages over the superficially more liberal, but in truth enslaving, philosophies of the modernist: “The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. But in the modem philosophy the case is opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within.
“And its despair is this, that it does not really believe that there is any meaning in the universe; therefore it cannot hope to find any romance; its romances will have no plots. A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land of authority. One can find no meanings in a jungle of scepticism; but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of doctrine and design.”
Chesterton makes his final point: “All the real argument about religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born upside down can tell when he comes right way up. The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality…. It is only since I have known orthodoxy that I have known mental emancipation.”
“And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say ‘enlightened’ they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything–they were quite jolly about everything else.
I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything–they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe…. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.”
In concluding, I confess an affection for Chesterton’s extraordinary ability to turn a phrase. The article may have suffered for this affection. It was difficult to leave out some much of what he said. I fell prey to the greatness of his prose. Still, it was better that we had more of his own words than an amateur’s attempts to summarize him. Thus, it is hoped that these notes will help clarify what Chesterton has offered us all, a timeless apologetic work.
AAD, April 2008