G.K. Chesterton is a fascinating character. I hadn’t known a whole lot about him until quite recently. He’s quite popular with Classical educators, and a good many of his quotes came up this year so I decided to read some of his works. He has written a whole range of things, and I have only read Heretics and now Orthodoxy, so I cannot claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of him.
He lived in the late 19th and early 20th century in England. He was baptized in the Church of England, but converted to Catholicism when he was older. He had initially wanted to be an illustrator and went to art school, but did not complete his degree. He dressed in a fairly eccentric way, was absent minded when travelling and was rather large. Yet when writing he is full of a sort of mad energy and razor sharp wit.
Orthodoxy is really the second of two novels written by Chesterton. He remarks that he writes this one, Orthodoxy, because he was accused of simply destroying his opponents propositions without advancing a position of his own in Heretics. I read them in chronological order (that is, I read Heretics first) but one does not have to do so to enjoy reading them. Heretics reads like a list of important literary persons of the time with Chesterton’s critical commentary on their philosophies. Orthodoxy on the other hand, sets forth G.K. Chesterton’s own unique journey into Christianity.
The bulk of the book consists of Chesterton laying out various ideas that he encountered or had himself and then explaining how they developed or changed in his consciousness and led him to a particular insight. In the end, he discovers that all of these insights that he thinks of as uniquely his were first discovered by Christianity.
One of his first intriguing accounts deals with a discussion of ‘The Maniac’ or madman. This figure is used to critique a certain species of rationalism that has no proper first principles and so ‘begins to reason at the wrong end.’ Chesterton adroitly observes that, ‘If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.’
He goes on to critique what he calls the ‘Suicide of Thought’. This is a thought provoking chapter that is very applicable to today. He notes that: ‘A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed… The new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn… the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.’ This makes it impossible to have rational discussion or logical progress. Even skepticism or rebellion is not really possible without something one believes in. ‘The modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything’ and later ‘They stand at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads. The result is – well, some things are not hard to calculate. They stand at the crossroads.’
He mocks a revisionist view of history; ‘It has the same strange method of the reverent skeptic. It discredits supernatural stories that have some foundation, simply by telling natural stories that have no foundation.’ On tradition, he says: ‘Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about… Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.’ Or still later, ‘An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed in Tuesdays.’
He critiques other views of religion, calling the idea of a god within the most horrible religion. ‘That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.’ This self-worship turns into a very selfish religion of petty altruistic gestures rather than daring to dream big and do great good. But, ‘All the same, it will be as well if Jones does not worship the sun and moon. If he does… we end where the pagan nature worship ended. Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties. Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality… The theory that everything was good had become an orgy of everything that was bad.’
His notes about critics of Christianity ring true today; he notes that he was quite confused about the allegations people made about Christianity. It is too gloomy; but also a pleasant, pie in the sky fiction. It is a nightmare and a fool’s paradise. It is uglier than Nature; but it is designed to hide the ugliness of nature. It entered a pitch black world and somehow darkened it. It loves reproduction too much; it hates reproduction too much. It was full of unmanly cowardice, and inspired bloodthirsty warriors. Christianity is only one religion among many and can’t be true; yet every man woman and child share a universal moral religion. What is universal ought to guide us; and yet what is universal in the past is barbaric and ought to be ignored. It was ‘the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask on a black world.’ ‘This began to be alarming. It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.’
When Chesterton reflects on these, he begins to wonder if Christianity is right. He compares Christianity to a man who is said by some to be too short and others too tall; it might be that the man is the right size but his accusers are themselves out of proportion. Or, ‘The modern man thought Becket’s robes too rich and his meals too poor. But then the modern man was really exceptional in history; no man before ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes.’
He then wonders about modern progress narratives that paint Christianity as a thing of the past. He discovers, ‘We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal; it is easier.’ So it is not so much a matter of progress (actually making improvement towards a particular goal) as it is moving the goal around to suit us and calling it progress. He worries about evolution’s impact on morality; ‘That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger.’ True progress towards ‘Utopia’, Chesterton feels, requires continual revolutions grounded in religious ideals; for things are not naturally getting better nor are they so grand or unchanging now that we ought to preserve things as conservatives would have.
And nothing is sufficient to progress towards Utopia except Christianity. Chesterton looks at other societies, for instance the caste system in India, and says, ‘No Christian, not even the most ignorant or perverse, ever suggested that a baronet was better than a butcher in that sacred sense. No Christianity, however ignorant or extravagant, ever suggested that a duke would not be damned.’ He critiques other systems, especially socialism, as fostering a sort of caste system and benevolent aristocracy determined to take care of the masses.
Chesterton goes on to describe what he calls ‘The Romance of Orthodoxy.’ Here, he shows that Christianity is truly ordered, rational, freeing and liberal, unlike the shallow ‘freethinkers’ and ‘liberals’ of his time. Christianity is focused on choices, on the crossroads as it were, which makes it more exciting, or romantic, especially because we have free will. And men who dislike orthodoxy, or right belief, ‘Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church.’
Lastly, Chesterton ties up loose ends by explaining why he would adopt the religion and not just the individual truths he has discovered. He notes that the evidence for Christianity is not so much ‘this or that alleged demonstration; it is an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts.’ He points out how different man is from the beasts; ‘That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton… elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in a roccoco style; camels do not paint even bad pictures, though equipped with many camel’s hair brushes… Who ever found an ant-hill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants? Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old? No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm… So that this first superficial reason for materialism is, if anything, a reason for its opposite; it is exactly where biology leaves off that all religion begins.’ Religion is necessary for a proper view of things.
In the end, for Chesterton, Christianity has to be accepted as a whole. ‘This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.’ He closes what he calls his ‘chaotic volume’ (which it certainly feels like at times) with a beautiful reflection on Jesus.
- Endless, witty insights
- Very quotable!
- Thought provoking, original apologetic work
- Feels scattered or “chaotic” as Chesterton himself admits