Tuesday, April 10, 2018

My Five Favourite Chesterton Quotations

G.K. Chesterton is an eminently quotable writer. He's so quotable that some of his most famous quotations are things he never said. The most notorious example is "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything". This is very similar to several things Chesterton did write, and it's certainly something he might have said. But it's somewhat bizarre that, out of the millions of words that Chesterton did write, his most quoted line should be something he didn't.

On the other hand, Chesterton often loosely quoted from other authors, so I can't imagine this fact would bother him too much.

But what about the quotations which are bona fide Chesterton? There are tons of them, and one often finds them cropping up in the most unlikely places.

Although Chesterton was a voluminous writer in terms of his overall output, he was concise in another sense-- his books are usually quite short, and his writing tends towards compression. In a nuthshell....he was very good at putting things in a nutshell. It's no wonder people remember his aphorisms, and draw on them at need.

Here are the five quotations I find myself turning to again.

The first comes from Chesterton's very first book of published prose, The Defendant. Chesterton's style is mature and recognisable from the start. In the introduction the book, he describes a phenomenon which he would spend his entire life fighting against. It's a phenomenon which I see everywhere, both in the world around me and within my own soul, and which is perpetually draining life of everything good:

There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall. It is a strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon, have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.

This tendency is everywhere. I see it most of all, myself, in the widespread disdain for the ordinary, the mundane, and the familiar. I've never understood why ordinary life is considered so dull that we have to spend our lives watching movies about mob bosses and 

My second quotation is from one of Chesterton's many published work on Charles Dickens. It's a much shorter passage, and its appeal is harder to explain:

But Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England.

That last sentence is the purest poetry, shot through with Chesterton's distinctive sense of gusto and romance. "All the white roads of England" is an impossibly romantic phrase.

My third selection is from What's Wrong with the World, a book in which Chesterton sets forth his vision of a healthy social order. While discussing the concept of marriage and monogramy

The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender. In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor. It is then that the Institution upholds a man and helps him on to the firmer ground ahead

I've observed the truth of this theory over and over again. I think it's the tendency at the heart of progressivism. It's the ennui which constantly craves newness, without realizing that constant novelty only deepens ennui. Chesterton's mention of pleasure is a big part of why I love this quotation so much. In fact, this tendency seems especially active in pleasures; there's a strange discipline required even to enjoy something, even your favourite things.

My fourth favourite Chesterton quotation is from his masterpiece of apologetics, Orthodoxy, and I think it identifies a universal law of human happiness:

The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.

It's extraordinary how these two yearnings seem to run through all human history. In our era, we have "something that is strange" in abundance, since technology and institutions and culture changes around us at a dizzying pace. But do we have "something that is secure"? I'm rather frightened we don't.

(Incidentally, I think this formula explains the appeal of Star Trek. The Enterprise is "boldly going where no man has gone before", but within the hull of the ship there is an extraordinarily stable and tight-knit community.)

So what's my single favourite Chesterton quotation? Well, I've quoted it only a couple of blog posts ago, but it's always worth quoting again. It's Chesterton's meditation upon the Nativity from The Everlasting Man.

This passage seems to X-ray my inner soul, especially this line: "It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within." All my life I've been fascinated by the idea of the inner chamber, the hidden room, the secret panel. The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books as a child, and the moment when Lucy walks through the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is another example. All in all, I think this passage evokes the particularity of Christianity, the thing that distinguishes it from every other religion and philosophy, as well as any other:

It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over some-thing more human than humanity.


  1. Somebody gave me WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE WORLD last Christmas. It's strange reading the pieces against women's suffrage amidst all the women's protests and wearing of black dresses and 'me too's going on.

    1. I'd say he was ambivalent about women's suffrage rather than opposed. But yes, it does come as quite a surprise!