On Reading G.K. Chesterton

“There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking.”[1]

“I’m beginning to strongly suspect that nobody actually understands G.K. Chesterton,” a friend recently remarked. “They just like quoting him when convenient.” I had to laugh at this for I am guilty as charged. Chesterton both confounds and delights me, and I am confident that I have quoted him on numerous occasions without really understanding his meaning. He had a way with words that makes the temptation to repeat him too hard to resist! Yet, it is when he confounds me that I enjoy his writing the most. He challenges me to slow down and think. Most of all, he teaches me about the joy of existence; that existence itself is good, something so easily forgotten in the toils of daily life.

Born in 1874, G.K. Chesterton witnessed the end of an era, living as he did in the decades dividing Victorian and modern England. Edwardians were shouting “Progress! Progress!” while dismantling the institutions and ideals that their elders revered (if only with words). Like industrious mice, these reformers nibbled away at the nearest pillar that seemed to stand in their way, though it “may happen to be the pillar that holds up the whole roof” over their heads.[2] One of those was marriage.

I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself …To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it.[3

It was perhaps this prevailing belief that progress meant turning one’s back on all that came before that compelled Chesterton to focus his genius primarily on journalism. The pressing need to fight the nibbling mice would best be met by the press’s deadline. This planted Chesterton squarely in his time, making it difficult for us to recognize the names, places, and events that appear in his writing. What is astonishing about Chesterton is that his writing remains timeless despite this. He skillfully drew upon an ancient and unchanging wisdom to help him navigate the turmoil of his day.

“It is futile to talk of reform,” he wrote, “without reference to form.”[4] This statement captures one of the first principles from which Chesterton worked, namely a trust in the wisdom of the past and a belief that tradition should have a place at the table; what he called “the democracy of the dead.”[5] The road of progress is one that Chesterton himself had been down in his youth, as he confesses to “all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century.”[6]

I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it … I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.[7]

Though he would challenge his contemporaries in their obsession with progress, he was not so naive as to overlook the faults of the eras that preceded him. He took Original Sin as another given, after all.

So what does Chesterton bring to the table for us today? Besides predicting many of our current predicaments (he had an uncanny ability to see the ends towards which ideas moved), Chesterton teaches us how to analyze modern culture and thought in light of Christian truth. Most importantly, he shows us how to hold onto sanity and joy despite the stormy seas of life. He continually injects a sense of wonder back into the dull facts. Who else could find such delight in a piece of chalk that he would dedicate an essay to it? How about finding something of eternal significance in the act of lying in bed? James V. Schall put it this way: Chesterton the journalist was “the man who took the ‘daily bread’ of ordinary life and saw how it necessarily arose to the everlasting nourishment of the mind.”[8]

A note of caution: though he was widely read in his day, his prose might seem cumbersome to us busy moderns who like to get to the point and get there quickly. Joseph Pearce writes that “like his master, Aristotle, Chesterton is peripatetic; he wanders from place to place in pursuit of what is to be found there, enjoying the walk with truth so much that he’s not too concerned with how long it takes or how far it takes him.”[9] He requires us to savor the experience of getting to the point. The savoring might just be the point!

Chesterton is not Gradgrind-approved reading. Indeed, his style itself is an interrogation of a modern world that is marked by what he called a profound mental laziness and fatigue just below the surface of its bustle.[10] He writes that “most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought.”[11] We want our intellects to be taxied about quickly and efficiently, regardless of the scenes that speed past too quickly to be appreciated.

“Great,” you say to me, “so you’ve challenged me to read Chesterton. Just where do I begin?”

I would recommend Orthodoxy. Next to The Everlasting Man – the book that C.S. Lewis said baptized his intellect – Orthodoxy truly captures the essence of his thinking. And, here is a little trick to help you grow accustomed to his style: listen to an audio version as you read along.

Be patient and allow Chesterton to take you on a journey. He may wear you out with his exuberant intellect, but you will not regret it. You may even find yourself quoting him when convenient.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1300211h.html.

[2] Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce, http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/books/divorce.txt.  

[3] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16769/16769-h/16769-h.htm.

[4] Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce.

[5] Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] James V. Schall, James V. Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 10.

[9] Joseph Pearce, “Cheapening Chesterton,” The Imaginative Conservative, January 16, 2018, http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2018/01/cheapening-chesterton-joseph-pearce.html.

[10] Chesterton, Orthodoxy

[11] Ibid.

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