“We cannot enjoy thoroughly even a pas-de-quatre at a subscription dance unless we believe that the stars are dancing to the same tune.” ~ G.K. Chesterton, Heretics
An acquaintance once compared Christopher Hitchens, one of the most famous foes of the Faith, to G.K. Chesterton, one of the greatest defenders of it. Hitchens claimed that he wasn’t so much of an atheist as he was an anti-theist, famously pronouncing that religion poisons everything. In contrast, Chesterton wrote that the more he considered Christianity, the more he “found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.” Still, in this person’s mind, the two were similar: both were wizards with words who enjoyed witty banter, complex prose, big ideas, and strong drink. Both were also journalists and sharp cultural critics.
For me, the differences that separate the two giant personalities run deep and wide, extending far beyond their different opinions on God’s existence. In fact, when one considers the dissimilarities, any surface likeness dissolves away in flash. It is the difference between the “pessimistic pleasure-seeker” whose revelry is meant to drown out the silence of a meaningless universe and the one who enjoys the moment because there is something in it that will last forever. This is because, as Chesterton wrote in his book Heretics, “man cannot love mortal things” such as words, banter, ideas, good drinks, and friendship. “He can only love immortal things for an instant.” Hitchens had no use for immortality. Both his revelry and his criticism had definite undertones of despair and loss.
Chesterton was able to find genuine enjoyment in the things of this world because he believed that there was an immortal Joy that filled and transcended them – that the delight he experienced in them, though possibly fleeting, pointed beyond itself to something permanent.
Hitchens could not truly enjoy anything. Joy for Hitchens could be little more than a rush of endorphins that occur because they conferred some sort of survival value at some evolutionary moment in the past. Any meaning beyond this must be an illusion fobbed off on him by his genes, an evolutionary sleight-of-hand to make the banality of existence bearable. Given another scenario, a different set of initial conditions and so on, the meaning he found could very well have been different but he would feel that it was true, regardless.
In such a scenario, joy becomes merely a medicine to take the edge off the inescapable despair of living in a world that is ultimately meaningless. And Hitchens’s despair is palpable, especially when he is in a critical mood. Like Hitchens, Chesterton was critical of the politics of his day, but he criticized as one who sought to rescue some lost treasure in the hearts of men – some immortal relic of a better nature. Eden for Hitchens was a lie and he argued with mere brutes, nothing more. His criticism had a sharp edge that was as despairing as it was merciless. He reveled in destroying what he saw as culture’s sacred cows – those persons or things it held up as ideals. Deep down, Hitchens must have known that his criticism was ultimately futile in his ideal-less world. I imagine such knowledge only fed his bitterness.
Hitchens embodied what Chesterton called “the negative spirit” that haunts modern ethics. A moral system that cannot aim beyond this world to a transcendent, permanent ideal, “can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow breaches of law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill. It can only point to imperfection. It has no perfection to point to.” Chesterton might note that a man like Hitchens was only good, “from a withering knowledge of evil.” Such knowledge of evil will eat away at our hearts when we have no wholesome perfection to focus upon.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9
It’s not that joy isn’t at times fleeting and thus poignantly painful. Chesterton writes, “It is true enough, of course, that a pungent happiness comes chiefly in certain passing moments; but it is not true that we should think of them as passing, or enjoy them simply ‘for those moments’ sake.’ To do this is to rationalize the happiness, and therefore to destroy it. Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized.”
The novelist H.P. Lovecraft wrote that “it is good to be a cynic—it is better to be a contented cat — and it is best not to exist at all.” Hitchens was too intelligent to be a contented cat. All that was left to him was cynicism and a devouring knowledge of darkness. I think Chesterton would have felt a deep pity for him, not unlike what he felt for another hedonist, Oscar Wilde.
Chesterton wrote that such a man,
“… feasts because life is not joyful; he revels because he is not glad. ‘Drink,’ he says, ‘for you know not whence you come nor why. Drink, for you know not when you go nor where. Drink, because the stars are cruel and the world as idle as a humming-top. Drink, because there is nothing worth trusting, nothing worth fighting for. Drink, because all things are lapsed in a base equality and an evil peace.’ So he stands offering us the cup in his hand.”
Beneath the hedonism, the “eat, drink, and be merry”-ism, and even the passionate criticism of a man like Hitchens, there was an everpresent emptiness.
Eat, drink, and being merry all become something less than eating, drinking, and merriment when they point to nothing beyond themselves. They are merely medicinal; a “self-conscious snatching at a rare delight”.
” … at the high altar of Christianity stands another figure, in whose hand also is the cup of the vine. ‘Drink’ he says ‘for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this my blood of the new testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where.’” ~G.K.Chesterton
 G.K Chesterton, Orthodoxy, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16769/16769-h/16769-h.htm
 G.K. Chesterton Heretics: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/470/470-h/470-h.htm
 Chesterton, Heretics, Ibid.