Wednesday, June 25, 2014

More Chestertonian Wit and Wisdom

In a post some weeks back, I reproduced the first five columns on the philosophy of G.K. Chesterton that I wrote for The Open Door magazine, a Catholic magazine circulated mostly in county Kildare. I understand they have led to a Chesterton craze and it's pretty much all anybody in Kildare is talking about right now. (OK, not really.)

Here are the next five. I am restricted to 450 words for each article. Quite a challenge for someone as keyboard-happy as me.

Last week, I concluded with this enigmatic quotation from G.K. Chesterton: “The whole of life becomes so very jolly and liveable when once we have believed in original sin.” What could he have meant by that?

Well, our first step in explaining it should be to continue the quotation:

“If we believe (as some, I am told, do today) that every man is born innocent – then I can only say that to such a believer every man must appear a devil. The words of the wildest pessimist, of the wildest diabolist, seem hardly equal to expressing the vastness of that inventive villainy. By what abominable cleverness, by what hateful wit, did that sinless child contrive to twist himself into such a terror as an ordinary man? But if we realize all ordinary men to be at one ordinary disadvantage, how simple all their struggles become! The ordinary man can be considerate towards the ordinary man as one private soldier is towards another engaged against the same enemy. If once men are under original sin, how splendid they all are!”

Chesterton was faced with a timeless problem. Is the world good, or bad? Is man noble, or evil? Which view of the world is correct, optimism or pessimism?

Given his natural exuberance, and his reaction against the fashionable pessimism of his day, Chesterton’s inclination was to rush to the cause of optimism. He sought the good in everything. In his first book, The Defendant, he tried to make the human skeleton a symbol of joy rather than morbidity: “However much my face clouds with sombre vanity, or vulgar vengeance, or contemptible contempt, the bones of my skull beneath it are laughing for ever.” Famously, he urged his readers to take everyday inconveniences (like having to wait at a railway platform) in a spirit of enthusiasm rather than irritation: “An inconvenience is only an adventure, wrongly considered.”

But Chesterton’s sympathy with the suffering of humanity, and his indignation at the oppression of the poor, would never allow him to become a mere champion of the ‘power of positive thinking’. In his Autobiography, he wrote: “What could I have said, if some tyrant had twisted [my] idea of transcendental contentment into an excuse for tyranny? Suppose he had quoted at me my verses about the all-sufficiency of elementary existence and the green vision of life, had used them to prove that the poor should be content with anything, and had said, like the old oppressor, “Let them eat grass?”

The idea of original sin allowed Chesterton to proclaim the infinite goodness of life while still denouncing evil. More on this next week.


Last week we were looking at G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on original sin, which Chesterton paradoxically viewed as a ‘jolly’ doctrine. (Chesterton was very fond of paradox. Some critics believe he used paradox excessively. But there is another famous individual who used paradox an awful lot, and who has rarely been taken to task for it. You may have encountered some of this other individual’s paradoxes before. Here is one of them: “Whoever finds his life shall lose it, and whoever for my sake loses his life shall find it”.)

One of the reasons Chesterton accepted the doctrine of original sin was because he believed in fairy tales. No, I don’t mean that he literally believed that Cinderella existed or that Jack climbed up the beanstalk. But his vision of reality was deeply influenced by the stories he heard in the nursery, and he always considered them to contain a deep insight into reality.

In the following passage from his masterpiece Orthodoxy, Chesterton reflects upon the strange conditions that are so often required of the heroes and heroines in fairy tales:

If the miller's third son said to the fairy, "Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace," the other might fairly reply, "Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace." If Cinderella says, "How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?" her godmother might answer, "How is it that you are going there till twelve?" If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth. And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.

Only the sleepiest reader, surely, will fail to hear in this an echo of another story that we are all familiar with: a story involving a serpent, a tree, and a garden.

Chesterton’s belief in original sin was nothing if not personal. A newspaper once asked various writers, Chesterton included, for an essay on the theme ‘What’s wrong with the world?”. Chesterton’s contribution was two words long: “I am.” His wisdom was witty, and his wit was wise.


In the first seven instalments of this series, I have tried to outline the main themes of G.K. Chesterton’s philosophy: his insistence on the need for wonder and gratitude, his condemnation of pride and his celebration of humility, his defence of the concept of original sin, and the Christian worldview in which he unified all these different threads of thought.

At this point, I think I will step back from this rather academic analysis of his philosophy and take a closer look at G.K. Chesterton, the man.

It seems impossible to separate Chesterton’s thought from his life and personality. Of course, the same could be said of most authors and thinkers, but it seems true of Chesterton to an exceptional degree.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton breathed his last on the 14th of June 1936 and has therefore, effectively, passed out of living memory. But you might think, from hearing his admirers talk about him, that we knew him personally. A gentle light appears in our eyes and a smile plays about our lips as we tell the many famous anecdotes about him. (Perhaps the most famous is the tale of the telegram that he once sent his wife: “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?”) All these years after his death, Chesterton is loved and cherished not only as an author but as a man—in the manner, perhaps, of a beloved and eccentric uncle.

That famous line from Wordsworth, ‘The child is father of the man’, is unquestionably true of Chesterton. In his Autobiography, which is the last book he wrote (and which I am increasingly inclined to think the best book he wrote) he describes his childhood at length and leaves the reader in no doubt as to its importance for his subsequent life and work.

Chesterton, unusually amongst modern writers, came from a very happy family. As he ironically put it:

I am sorry if the landscape or the people appear disappointingly respectable and even reasonable, and deficient in all those unpleasant qualities that make a biography really popular. I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage; no pale-faced and partially poisoned mother whose suicidal instincts have cursed me with the temptations of the artistic temperament. I regret that there was nothing in the range of our family much more racy than a remote and mildly impecunious uncle; and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am.

A happy childhood, then, but not a dull one. More on this next week.


Last week, after several weeks of an introduction into the thought of G.K. Chesterton, we began to look at the man himself. And we began at the best place to begin, especially in the case of Chesterton—that is, with his childhood.

Chesterton left us a very vivid and lyrical description of his childhood years in his Autobiography. (When I first discovered Chesterton, I would have concurred with the general opinion that his great work of Christian apologetics, Orthodoxy, was the best book he wrote. But I am increasingly of the opinion that this accolade should go to the Autobiography, which he was persuaded to write very shortly before his death. It actually appeared posthumously, and we are very lucky to have it.)

In the Autobiography, this is what Chesterton says of his boyhood:

Without giving myself any airs of the adventurer or the globe-trotter, I may say I have seen something of the world; I have travelled in interesting places and talked to interesting men; I have been in political quarrels often turning into faction fights; I have talked to statesmen in the hour of the destiny of states; I have met most of the great poets and prose writers of my time; I have travelled in the track of some of the whirlwinds and earthquakes in the ends of the earth; I have lived in houses burned down in the tragic wars of Ireland; I have walked through the ruins of Polish palaces left behind by the Red Armies; I have heard talk of the secret signals of the Ku Klux Klan upon the borders of Texas; I have seen the fanatical Arabs come up from the desert to attack the Jews in Jerusalem. There are many journalists who have seen more of such things than I; but I have been a journalist and I have seen such things; there will be no difficulty in filling other chapters with such things; but they will be unmeaning, if nobody understands that they still mean less to me than Punch and Judy on Campden Hill.

Chesterton’s family background was secure, comfortable and happy. His father was ‘the head of a hereditary business of house agents and surveyors.’ The Chesterton household was not especially religious. He was “brought up among people who were Unitarians and Universalists”. But he also wrote that: “The general background of all my boyhood was agnostic. My own parents were rather exceptional, among people so intelligent, in believing at all in a personal God or in personal immortality.”

And yet Chesterton’s mature (and stoutly orthodox) Catholic faith was rooted in his boyhood vision of life. More on this next week.


For the last few weeks, we’ve gone from looking at the ideas of G.K. Chesterton to looking at his life, and seeing how his life influenced his ideas.

Chesterton insisted that the Victorian era, in which he grew up, was not a time of faith as often claimed but was in fact an era of widespread agnosticism. His own family was unusual in practicing a religion at all, although their Unitarianism was a far cry from Chesterton’s eventual orthodox Catholicism.

But there were aspects of Chesterton’s childhood that presaged his future path. One was his tenderness towards the Blessed Virgin.

A lover from his boyhood of the rather risqué poetry of Charles Algernon Swinburne, Chesterton describes how he would deliberately alter those lines of Swinburne that mocked Our Lady when he recited the poems to himself, replacing them with more respectful ones.

I cannot resist quoting in full the wonderful passage from The Well and the Shadows where Chesterton explains the Blessed Virgin’s lifelong significance to him, and the role she played in his ultimate conversion. It is one of the most affecting passages he ever wrote.

Men need an image, single, coloured and clear in outline, an image to be called up instantly in the imagination, when what is Catholic is to be distinguished from what claims to be Christian or even what in one sense is Christian.

Now I can scarcely remember a time when the image of Our Lady did not stand up in my mind quite definitely, at the mention or the thought of all these things. I was quite distant from these things, and then doubtful about these things; and then disputing with the world for them, and with myself against them; for that is the condition before conversion. But whether the figure was distant, or was dark and mysterious, or was a scandal to my contemporaries, or was a challenge to myself--I never doubted that this figure was the figure of the Faith; that she embodied, as a complete human being still only human, all that this Thing had to say to humanity.

The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her; when I tried to forget the Catholic Church, I tried to forget her; when I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and the hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her in the port of Brindisi, that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land.

Next week, we’ll look some more at how Chesterton’s boyhood influenced his eventual conversion.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for these! I am only just getting into Chesterton, and they are a very readable introduction, and of just the right length!