For some months now, I've been writing a short weekly article ever week for The Open Door, a local magazine distributed in Kildare, West Dublin and Meath. (Although I came across some copies of it in my own local church. It gets around, apparently.)
This is the third quintet of articles that I've reproduced here. You can find the first five here and the second five here.
The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton
Last week, we saw how Chesterton’s boyhood reverence for the Blessed Virgin Mary prefigured his reception, decades later, into the Catholic Church. That is the mystical side of the matter. But it was Chesterton’s intellect, just as much as his intuition, that led him into the Church, and we see this foreshadowed in his early life as well.
To understand the ideas of G.K. Chesterton, we need to appreciate his commitment to—indeed, his voracious hunger for—debate and discussion. This fondness for arguing began in his childhood. Specifically, it began when he was presented with a little brother, Cecil.
This is how Chesterton himself describes the event: “It is reported of me that when I was told that I possessed a brother, I said ; "That's all right, now I shall always have an audience." If I did say this, I was in error. My brother was by no means disposed to be merely an audience, and frequently forced the function of an audience upon me. ...We argued throughout our boyhood and youth until we became the pest of our whole social circle. We shouted at each other across the table, on the subject of Parnell or Puritanism or Charles the First's head, until our nearest and dearest fled at our approach, and we had a desert around us. And though it is not a matter of undiluted pleasure to recall having been so horrible a nuisance, I am rather glad in other ways that we did so early thrash out our own thoughts on almost all the subjects in the world. I am also glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarrelled.”
Cecil Chesterton died in the First World War, but he had converted to Catholicism six years before that. Gilbert did not follow suit until 1922. But it is certain that it was their shared commitment to reason that brought them to the same destination.
As Chesterton wrote: “Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves…The Catholic Church carries a sort of map…which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel. There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years.”
Next week, we will continue looking at Chesterton’s story
For the past few weeks, we have been looking at the early life of G.K. Chesterton, and examining the influence this had upon his conversion to Catholicism, much later in life. We have seen how his boyhood reverence for the Virgin Mary and his never-ending debate with his younger brother predisposed him towards both the mystical and rational aspects of the Faith.
Let us move forward in time, then, to Chesterton’s years in art school.
Chesterton attended the Slade Art school but he left without a degree. A friend who knew him from boyhood said that his drawing style (for he was quite an accomplished cartoonist) was fully formed by the time he got to the Slade, and that his training there made no difference to it at all.
During this time, however, an inner drama was taking place which would be influence Chesterton for the rest of his life. This was the era of Decadent poets and Impressionist painters. The whole atmosphere of the time, coupled with his own fertile imagination, threw Chesterton into a mood of intense scepticism. He wondered if reality itself might not be as insubstantial, as lacking in solidity, as the blurry forms on an Impressionist’s canvas.
This is how he described the experience: “At a very early age I had thought my way back to thought itself. It is a very dreadful thing to do; for it may lead to thinking that there is nothing but thought. At this time I did not very clearly distinguish between dreaming and waking; not only as a mood but as a metaphysical doubt, I felt as if everything might be a dream. It was as if I had myself projected the universe from within, with its trees and stars; and that is so near to the notion of being God that it is manifestly even nearer to going mad. Yet I was not mad, in any medical or physical sense; I was simply carrying the scepticism of my time as far as it would go.’
Chesterton’s doubts about reality were accompanied by a profound sense of evil. He wrote: “There is something truly menacing in the thought of how quickly I could imagine the maddest, when I had never committed the mildest crime. Something may have been due to the atmosphere of the Decadents, and their perpetual hints of the luxurious horrors of paganism; but I am not disposed to dwell much on that defence; I suspect I manufactured most of my morbidities for myself.“
How did his passage through this strange mental fog eventually help Chesterton attain the sunlit uplands of Catholic faith? We’ll answer that question next week.
Last week, we saw that Chesterton’s faith in God—which, later in his life, led him to the Catholic Church—owed a lot to a rather dark period in his young manhood. At this time, he fell into an abyss of doubt and of scepticism, even doubting the reality of the world around him. It also involved a phase of experimentation with the ‘planchette’, or ouija board—which he always regarded as a genuine brush with the demonic.
“In truth, the story of what was called my Optimism was rather odd. When I had been for some time in these, the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism, I had a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this nightmare. But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing…I hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks. I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived at all; not, like Henley for my unconquerable soul (for I have never been so optimistic about my own soul as all that) but for my own soul and my own body, even if they could be conquered.”
The Swinburne referred to is the poet Charles Algernon Swinburne, whose poem ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ thanked ‘whatever gods may be’ that ‘dead man rise up never’ and ‘no man lives forever’. Henley is the Imperialist poet whose poem ‘Invictus’ also thanks ‘whatever gods may be’ that he remains ‘the master of my fate’ and ‘the captain of my soul’. Two wonderful poems, but one written to express a poisonous despair, and the other written to express a deadening pride.
Chesterton continues: “The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy….When I did begin to write, I was full of a new and fiery resolution to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age.”
And so he did, in early books like The Defendant, whose very title expresses the young Chesterton’s eagerness to defend life’s simple goodness from cynics and from sour sophisticates. Of course, his pilgrim’s progress to the Catholic faith was only beginning.
In previous weeks, we have been looking at the life of G.K. Chesterton, and the ‘steps on his pilgrim journey’ towards his eventual conversion to Catholicism at the age of 48.
Perhaps the most important factor in Chesterton’s embrace of Christianity—and, subsequently, Catholicism—was his wife, Frances.
Frances Chesterton, who had the unfortunate maiden name Frances Blogg (an incentive to marry if ever there was one), always features very prominently in biographies and studies of her husband. This, of course, need not necessarily have been the case. Many famous men (and women) can be understood without reference to their spouses. Chesterton is not one of them.
When he met Frances, Chesterton was a young man spreading his wings in journalism and beginning to move amongst ‘intellectual’ circles. Frances was the daughter of a family who lived in Bedsford Park, which Chesterton described as ‘a colony for artists who were almost aliens; a refuge for persecuted poets and painters’.
Amidst this world of bohemianism, however, Frances was decidedly not a bohemian. As Chesterton put it in his autobiography: “She practised gardening; in that curious Cockney culture she would have been quite ready to practise farming; and on the same perverse principle, she actually practised a religion. This was something utterly unaccountable both to me and to the whole fussy culture in which she lived. Any number of people proclaimed religions, chiefly oriental religions, analysed or argued about them; but that anybody could regard religion as a practical thing like gardening was something quite new to me and, to her neighbours, new and incomprehensible. She had been, by an accident, brought up in the school of an Anglo-Catholic convent; and to all that agnostic or mystic world, practising a religion was much more puzzling than professing it.”
Humour aside, we see here an important principle in Chesterton’s thought. He did not play with religious ideas. He took them seriously. He was a staunch defender of dogma. As he put it: “There are two things, and two things only, for the human mind -- a dogma and a prejudice.” He called heresy by its name. He celebrated orthodoxy.
When his own pilgrimage took him to the Catholic faith, Frances did not follow at first. Indeed, she cried at his confirmation, and many of Gilbert’s friends believed he delayed his conversion because he didn’t want to act apart from her. (Being an incredibly impractical man, he was notoriously reliant upon Frances. She even tied his laces.) But the story ends happily. Frances converted to the Catholic faith four years after Chesterton—very much, as she insisted, on her own steam and not simply following her husband.
In recent weeks, we’ve been looking at the life of G.K. Chesterton, as an aid to understanding his ideas. We’ve seen how his upbringing, in a Unitarian household in the Victorian era, influenced his view of the world. We saw how, later on, the sceptical and pessimistic atmosphere of the period in which he attained manhood made him a defender of optimism and gratitude. Last week, we examined the most important relationship of his life, which was his marriage to Frances Blogg.
But there are other important figures in Chesterton’s life, some of them so important that we can’t really examine his life and thoughts without mentioning them. In this series I will mention two more; Hilaire Belloc and George Bernard Shaw.
It’s possible that some readers of The Open Door may not have heard of Hilaire Belloc. Like Chesterton, he was something of a literary Jack-of-all-Trades, producing a great mass of journalism, fiction, history and biography. Like Chesterton, he was a defender of the traditions and tastes of ordinary people—such as drinking beer and bringing up their own children-- against all forms of modernism. Unlike Chesterton, he was a cradle Catholic. Long before Chesterton converted to Catholicism, Belloc was making the case for Catholicism to an English public that had largely passed from anti-Catholic Protestantism to anti-Christian agnosticism.
Belloc’s influence on Chesterton is important. Chesterton, though well-read in every subject, was rather timid about his grasp of history. The only pure history book he wrote, A Short History of the English People, was written reluctantly, and after much badgering from a publisher. And when Chesterton did write about history—English history, at least—he usually drew heavily on the theories of Belloc.
What were these ideas? The main one was the modern English capitalism was the child of the Reformation. Belloc and Chesterton believed that Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries had led to a massive land-grab and wealth-grab, which permanently skewed English history in favour of a small wealthy class. The ordinary Englishman owned no property and had to work for somebody else.
Belloc and Chesterton were the leading lights in a movement—Distributism—that sought to correct this. ‘Three acres and a cow’ was their slogan, since that (or something like it) was what they wanted every citizen to own. They were influenced by Catholic social teaching , especially Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which rejected both socialism and unfettered capitalism. Distributism never achieved much in any tangible way, but there are still Distributists today.
Chesterton and Belloc, together, were nicknamed ‘the Chesterbelloc’ by George Bernard Shaw. Next week, we’ll look at the long-running friendly debate between Shaw and Chesterton.