Friday, May 9, 2014

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

Some weeks ago, the editor of The Open Door magazine (a local Catholic magazine distributed free of charge in the Kildare area) wrote to me and suggested I contribute a weekly column on G.K. Chesterton. I very eagerly agreed. The catch was that each article could only be 450 words in length. As readers of this blog will know, economy with words is not my strong-point-- or at least, not characteristic of my writing style.

But I've been writing these articles for six weeks now and I have found that it's actually a very enjoyable challenge. I've become a stickler-- I won't go a single word over 450 and I find myself striving to achieve that exact word-count!

I decided to write a week-by-week exposition of Chesterton's thought. Now that it's a few weeks in, I thought I might publish the first five articles on Irish Papist. I don't publish my Catholic Voice articles here, since I like the idea of keeping them unique to print. But The Open Door is only available (in paper format) in a certain area so I didn't think it was unreasonable to make the articles available to other readers. My hope is that whenever the series is finished it will be a nice little capsule course on Chesterton's philosophy. Anyway, I hope you like it so far.

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton, parts one to five.

Almost eighty years ago, in 1936, a man by the name of Gilbert Keith Chesterton breathed his last. Reportedly, his final words were: “The issue is now clear. It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side”. The side that Chesterton chose was Christianity, and (later in life) Roman Catholicism in particular.

He was a journalist, a novelist, a poet, a controversialist, a wit, and quite possibly a saint. (The cause for his sainthood was opened this year.) His image is familiar even now—the tall, fat man in the cape and the battered hat. Tales of his absent-mindedness and eccentricity are also legion. (He was known to stop the traffic as he stopped dead halfway across the road, struck by some brilliant thought.)

We need Chesterton today. Why? Because many of the ideologies and evils that Catholics face in the twenty-first century—abortion, euthanasia, pornography, religious indifference, the erosion of the family, and a hundred others—were also current in Chesterton’s day. And Chesterton argued against them tirelessly, leaving an armoury of arguments and witticisms that will serve us well in our own efforts to defend eternal Truth.

This is the first of a regular feature in which I will be presenting ideas and argument from the thought of G.K. Chesterton to the readers of The Open Door.

The very title of this magazine suggests to me a famous passage from Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. It’s a good place to start because it takes us straight into the deepest and most abiding of all Chesterton’s themes; that is, the importance of wonder and gratitude.

Chesterton writes: “When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

To Chesterton the great question is: why do we ever lose that child-like sense of wonder at the sheer marvel of existence? Why do we take the wonders of the world for granted—or rather (as Chesterton put) not for granted, since we forget or even deny that they were granted to us in the first place?

A man whose eyes are opened to the fact that life is a wonderful gift—that we live ‘best of all impossible worlds’, as Chesterton put it—- is already well on the way to accepting and worshipping an all-powerful and benevolent God. We will go deeper into Chesterton’s insights into this subject next week.


Last week, we began our journey into the thought of G.K. Chesterton, the great Catholic writer and apologist who died in 1936, by looking at the idea that was probably the most fundamental to his life and work; the idea of wonder and gratitude.

Chesterton’s aphorisms and witticisms are as plentiful as blackberries in September, but one of my very favourite (in fact, I had it put onto a tee-shirt!) is: “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”

He believed that many of our modern maladies came from the simple inability to regard the world, God’s gift, with the proper astonishment and gratitude. In this he was like Gregory of Nyssa, a saint and bishop of the fourth century, who wrote: “Only wonder understands.”

With his matchless insight, Chesterton took this idea of grateful wonder and used it to illuminate many other aspects of Christian teaching. For instance, when he was studying the penny Catechism before his conversion to Catholicism at the age of 48, he came across these words: ‘The two sins against hope are presumption and despair.’ To Chesterton, this was a confirmation of what he had always felt. Presumption sees the world without gratitude, because it feels no sense of unworthiness before all the blessings God has bestowed on us. Despair has lost the simple wonder of being alive, the marvel at existence itself.

In his youth, Chesterton was confronted with the fashionable philosophy of decadence. Decadent poets and novelists wrote about their boredom, cynicism and their escape into sensual pleasures. In a poem about his youth, Chesterton wrote: “Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung; the world was very old indeed when you and I were young.” The young Chesterton (who was not even a Christian yet, let alone a Catholic) rebelled against this fashionable apathy, proclaiming the pure joy of being alive and the beauty of common things, from the very start of his literary career.

In our own day, we can see how forgetting the wondrousness of existence leads to some very sinister results. Unborn babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome and other genetic disorders are routinely aborted, on the spuriously compassionate grounds that their lives will not be worth living. People who are suffering debilitating illness, or who simply feel they have nothing left to live for, feel compelled to seek out euthanasia—- and, in some countries, society and the medical authorities more or less push them in this direction.

In the face of all this, we must proclaim the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton: “You should not look a gift universe in the mouth”.


In last week’s article, I wrote about G.K. Chesterton’s proclamation of the wonder of existence itself, and how he urged his readers to develop a fitting gratitude for being alive. Of course, this gratitude isn’t for God’s sake. This gratitude is for our own sake.

Isn’t it the case that people who are really happy—- a man in love, or a football fan watching his team play well, or an art lover looking at a beautiful picture—- are naturally inclined to give praise? They cheer, or they write love poems, or they rhapsodise about the thing they admire.

Some people like to make fun of the idea of an eternity spent praising God, which is what Christians look forward to. They wonder why God would be so egotistical as to want this. They overlook the fact that happy people naturally want to praise and give thanks. And the supreme happiness would make us overflow with this urge.

We can also see, from everyday life, how people who are never grateful are never happy. “She’s never happy”, is what we say about someone who’s never pleased, no matter how much people do for her.

In Chesterton’s view, none of us are grateful enough. He wrote: “We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is...All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

In Chesterton’s novel Manalive, the hero Innocent Smith puts this belief into very practical action. When someone tells Innocent he doesn’t feel life is worth living, Innocent obligingly points a pistol at him and offers to release him from his misery. His would-be victim, of course, quickly changes his mind. This procedure, however, is not recommended to readers of The Open Door.

A better approach might be to quote Chesterton’s moving poem, By the Babe Unborn, in which an unborn baby imagines a wonderland of tall trees and green grass—the world that everyone who is already born inhabits. It last words are:

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.


In the opening instalments of this series, I introduced readers of The Open Door to some of G.K. Chesterton’s most fundamental ideas—namely, the importance of wonder and gratitude. Now I am going to move on to a subject which is hardly less central to his thought, and which is closely related to the themes of wonder and gratitude. That is, the evil of pride and the importance of humility.

This, of course, will hardly be news to Christians. That pride is the worst of all sins is a commonplace in the Christian tradition. And we are well familiar with the notion that ‘he who humbles himself shall be exalted’. So why do we need Chesterton to tell us this all over again?

Well, as the great Samuel Johnson said, “Men more frequently need to be reminded than informed”. But even aside from that fact, Chesterton’s championing of pride and his denunciation of humility are important because of their exceptonal vividness. His gift was to impress upon his readers the great ugliness and futility of pride, and the profound beauty and joyousness of humility.

We should note in passing that he lived up to his own words. Everyone who knew Chesterton commented upon his humility. He was a very fat man who often made fun of his own fatness. He joked that he was more chivalrous than most men, since when he gave up his seat on a tram, he made room for three ladies rather than one.

But his humility went deeper than making fun of his figure. He was a man of tremendous literary talent who might have concentrated on carving out a reputation amongst the greatest authors of all time. His friends urged him to devote less energy to journalism and to concentrate on writing masterpieces. But he never did. He was not interested in the posthumous reputation of G.K. Chesterton. He was interested in fighting the evils of his day, and in jumping feet-first into every debate that was going.

Chesterton attacked pride because he knew it led to misery. “Pride is a weakness in the character”, he wrote. “It dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.” He put it even more stridently when he wrote: “The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and of despair. “

Next week, we’ll journey further into Chesterton’s thoughts on pride and humility.


Last week, we started looking at the themes of pride and humility in the philosophy of G.K. Chesterton. We saw how powerfully Chesterton wrote against the sin of pride, and the way it drains all the laughter and joy and surprise out of human life. Let us now turn, gratefully, from the subject of pride to the subject of humility.

Chesterton never tired of proclaiming that the Christian virtues were not something negative, not the mere absence of something, but the very definite and overflowing presence of something. “The chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell.”

And, of all the Christian virtues, Chesterton assigned a very high place to humility. One of his most famous aphorisms is: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

Of all the many praises of humility that Chesterton wrote, perhaps this passage from Orthodoxy is the most eloquent: “if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything — even pride.”

Chesterton’s views on humility must not be understood. He had no time, for instance, for the misguided sort of humility which sees the human race itself as contemptible. “One can hardly think too little of one’s self”, he wrote. “One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.” As a Christian, of course, Chesterton believed that man was created in God’s image—so he had no time for the ‘humility’ of the scientific materialist, who sees the human race as nothing but a freak occurrence in an obscure planet lost in the vast tracts of the cosmos.

How are we to think so highly of our souls, but so little of our selves? The answer, of course, is the idea of original sin. Chesterton once wrote: “The whole of life becomes so very jolly and livable when once we have believed in original sin.”

What could he have meant by that? Well, I’ll tell you next week!

1 comment:

  1. I just realised I read these on the Chesterton blog. Still, nice to read them again.