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.

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G.K. Chesterton on Hot Weather


“I prefer a more grey and gracious haze”

“The hot weather, which has been almost coincident with the new reign, might serve, perhaps as another omen, if I were one who likes omens—or like hot weather. Unfortunately, I am one of those heretics who tend (during a strong summer) to the somewhat hasty opinion of certain early Christians, that Apollo is a devil. Or if he is a beneficent deity, he is one of a highly searching and even ruthless sort; a flaming fact, picking out and emphasing other facts; making the world all too realistic. The chief gift of hot weather to me is the somewhat unpopular benefit called a conviction of sin. All the rest of the year I am untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. But in hot weather I “feel” untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. Sitting in a garden-chair in a fresh breeze under a brisk grey and silver sky, I feel a frightfully strenuous fellow: sitting on the same garden-chair in strong sunshine, it begins slowly to dawn on me that I am doing nothing. In neither case, of course, do I get out of the chair. But I resent that noontide glare of photographic detail by the ruthless light of which I can quite clearly see myself sitting in the chair. I prefer a more grey and gracious haze, something more in the Celtic-twilight style, through which I can only faintly trace my own contours, vast but vague in the dusk and distance.”

~G.K. Chesterton: “Illustrated London News,” June 11, 1910.

“The Methuselahite” by G.K. Chesterton


Young Soldier of World War II, Portsmouth, England

The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it. ~G.K. Chesterton 

by G.K. Chesterton from All Things Considered, 1915

I saw in a newspaper paragraph the other day the following entertaining and deeply philosophical incident. A man was enlisting as a soldier at Portsmouth, and some form was put before him to be filled up, common, I suppose, to all such cases, in which was, among other things, an inquiry about what was his religion. With an equal and ceremonial gravity the man wrote down the word “Methuselahite.” Whoever looks over such papers must, I should imagine, have seen some rum religions in his time; unless the Army is going to the dogs. But with all his specialist knowledge he could not “place” Methuselahism among what Bossuet called the variations of Protestantism. He felt a fervid curiosity about the tenets and tendencies of the sect; and he asked the soldier what it meant. The soldier replied that it was his religion “to live as long as he could.”

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“The True Vanity of Vanities” by G.K. Chesterton


“This is, I suppose, the whole subtlety of the sin of pride; all other sins attack men when they are weak and weary; but this attacks when men are happy and valuable and nearer to all the virtues. And when it attacks most easily the results are vilest.” 

By G.K. Chesterton, from The Apostle and the Wild Ducks (a collection of essays edited by Dorothy E. Collins and published in 1975)

“It will not, I imagine, be disputed that the one black and inexcusable kind of pride is the pride of the man who has something to be proud of. It is true that you often do hear people saying, as they say other idle and unmeaning things while they are really watching a bird fly or expecting the dinnerbell, that such and such a person is vain, but has some right to be. But you do not find these people actually regarded with anything short of the most delightful loathing; whereas the nice old donkeys who are vain without any earthly ground for vanity at all, are not only universally and rightly beloved, but are made Cabinet Ministers and Bishops, and covered with a continual admiration. And this popular feeling is right. The universal objection to the people who are proud of genuine calibre is not any mere jealousy of them; it is not a paltry or panic-stricken resentment of their admitted superiority. It is, like a great many other things which ordinary people feel in a flash and could not possibly defend, entirely philosophical. The instinct of the human soul perceives that a fool may be permitted to praise himself, but that a wise man ought to praise God. A man who really has a head with brains in it ought to know that this head has been gratuitously clapped on top of him like a new hat. A man who by genius can make masterpieces ought to know that he cannot make genius. A man whose thoughts are as high as the stars ought to know that they roll almost as regardless of his power. A man who possesses great powers ought to know that he does not really possess them.

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G.K. Chesterton on the True Mystic


Detail from William Blake, “The Prophecy”

“A verbal accident has confused the mystical with the mysterious. Mysticism is generally felt vaguely to be itself vague—a thing of clouds and curtains, of darkness or concealing vapours, of bewildering conspiracies or impenetrable symbols. Some quacks have indeed dealt in such things: but no true mystic ever loved darkness rather than light. No pure mystic ever loved mere mystery. The mystic does not bring doubts or riddles: the doubts and riddles exist already. We all feel the riddle of the earth without anyone to point it out. The mystery of life is the plainest part of it. The clouds and curtains of darkness, the confounding vapours, these are the daily weather of this world. Whatever else we have grown accustomed to, we have grown accustomed to the unaccountable. Every stone or flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key; with every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story which we are certain to misunderstand. The mystic is not the man who makes mysteries but the man who destroys them. The mystic is one who offers an explanation which may be true or false, but which is always comprehensible—by which I mean, not that it is always comprehended, but that it always can be comprehended, because there is always something to comprehend. The man whose meaning remains mysterious fails, I think, as a mystic … ”

~G.K. Chesterton, William Blake, 1910

“The Mortal Answers” a Poem by G.K. Chesterton


Arthur Rackham, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” 

“The Mortal Answers” by G.K. Chesterton

“⁠. . . . . . Come away—
With the fairies, hand in hand,
For the world is more full of weeping
⁠Than you can understand.”  ~W. B. Yeats.


FROM the Wood of the Old Wives’ Fables
⁠They glittered out of the grey,
And with all the Armies of Elf-land
⁠I strove like a beast at bay;

With only a right arm wearied,
⁠Only a red sword worn,
And the pride of the House of Adam
⁠That holdeth the stars in scorn.

For they came with chains of flowers
⁠And lilies lances free,
There in the quiet greenwood
⁠To take my grief from me.

And I said, “Now all is shaken
⁠When heavily hangs the brow,
When the hope of the years is taken
⁠The last star sunken. Now—

“Hear, you chattering cricket,
⁠Hear, you spawn of the sod,
The strange strong cry in the darkness
⁠Of one man praising God,

“That out of the night and nothing
⁠With travail of birth he came
To stand one hour in the sunlight
⁠Only to say her name.

“Falls through her hair the sunshine
⁠In showers; it touches, see,
Her high bright cheeks in turning;
⁠Ah, Elfin Company,

“The world is hot and cruel,
⁠We are weary of heart and hand,
But the world is more full of glory:
⁠Than you can understand.”

“The Divine Detective” by G.K. Chesterton


Notre Dame Cathedral

“The Church is the only thing that ever attempted by system to pursue and discover crimes, not in order to avenge, but in order to forgive them.”

“The Divine Detective” an essay by G.K. Chesterton, 1909

“Every person of sound education enjoys detective stories, and there are even several points on which they have a hearty superiority to most modern books. A detective story generally describes six living men discussing how it is that a man is dead. A modern philosophic story generally describes six dead men discussing how any man can possibly be alive. But those who have enjoyed the roman policier must have noted one thing, that when the murderer is caught he is hardly ever hanged. “That,” says Sherlock Holmes, “is the advantage of being a private detective”; after he has caught he can set free. The Christian Church can best be defined as an enormous private detective, correcting that official detective—the State. This, indeed, is one of the injustices done to historic Christianity; injustices which arise from looking at complex exceptions and not at the large and simple fact. We are constantly being told that theologians used racks and thumbscrews, and so they did. Theologians used racks and thumbscrews just as they used thimbles and three-legged stools, because everybody else used them. Christianity no more created the mediaeval tortures than it did the Chinese tortures; it inherited them from any empire as heathen as the Chinese.

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“The Nightmare” by G.K. Chesterton


Arthur Rackham, Peter Pan 

“Man, the central pillar of the world must be upright and straight; around him all the trees and beasts and elements and devils may crook and curl like smoke if they choose. All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul.”

(Originally appeared in The Daily News, Oct. 16, 1909, and in Alarms and Discursions, NY: Dodd, Mead. 1911)

A SUNSET of copper and gold had just broken down and gone to pieces in the west, and grey colours were crawling over everything in earth and heaven; also a wind was growing, a wind that laid a cold finger upon flesh and spirit. The bushes at the back of my garden began to whisper like conspirators; and then to wave like wild hands in signal. I was trying to read by the last light that died on the lawn a long poem of the decadent period, a poem about the old gods of Babylon and Egypt, about their blazing and obscene temples, their cruel and colossal faces.

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“The Philosophy of Gratitude” by G.K. Chesterton


“When existence destroys the flower it is not sufficient for us to say that we admired it. The question is not whether we admired the flower; the question is whether we could in the primal darkness of nonentity have imagined a flower, and then by the spasm of divine creation, made it.”

“The Philosophy of Gratitude”

by G.K. Chesterton

This uncollected Chesterton article first appeared in The Daily News, June 20, 1903.

Chesterton: “I received a little while ago a letter, to which no name or address was attached, which touched me beyond expression. A great deal of it was too personal to treat of here, and for this reason especially I regret the concealment of its origin. But the more generally discussable part concerned itself chiefly with a query as to my meaning when I said in this paper something to this effect: “No one can be miserable who has known anything worth being miserable about.” The remark was written as remarks in daily papers ought, in my opinion, to be written, in a wild moment; but it happens, nevertheless, to be more or less true. What I meant was that our attitude towards existence, if we have suffered deprivation, must always be conditioned by the fact that deprivation implies that existence has given us something of immense value. To say that we have lost in the lottery of existence is to say that we have gained: for existence gives us our money beforehand. It is quite impossible to imagine ourselves as really calling, as Huxley expressed it, the Cosmos to the bar.

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“Fairy Tales” by G.K. Chesterton


Arthur Rackham, Cinderella

Not only can these fairy-tales be enjoyed because they are moral, but morality can be enjoyed because it puts us in fairyland, in a world at once of wonder and of war.

by G.K. Chesterton, from All Things Considered, 1915

“Some solemn and superficial people (for nearly all very superficial people are solemn) have declared that the fairy-tales are immoral; they base this upon some accidental circumstances or regrettable incidents in the war between giants and boys, some cases in which the latter indulged in unsympathetic deceptions or even in practical jokes. The objection, however, is not only false, but very much the reverse of the facts. The fairy-tales are at root not only moral in the sense of being innocent, but moral in the sense of being didactic, moral in the sense of being moralising. It is all very well to talk of the freedom of fairyland, but there was precious little freedom in fairyland by the best official accounts. Mr. W.B. Yeats and other sensitive modern souls, feeling that modern life is about as black a slavery as ever oppressed mankind (they are right enough there), have especially described elfland as a place of utter ease and abandonment—a place where the soul can turn every way at will like the wind. Science denounces the idea of a capricious God; but Mr. Yeats’s school suggests that in that world every one is a capricious god. Mr. Yeats himself has said a hundred times in that sad and splendid literary style which makes him the first of all poets now writing in English (I will not say of all English poets, for Irishmen are familiar with the practice of physical assault), he has, I say, called up a hundred times the picture of the terrible freedom of the fairies, who typify the ultimate anarchy of art—

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