A few days ago a good friend of mine reminded me of a mildly amusing incident of some middling illustrative power. It happened late one night in Rome. The two of us (for he was my roommate at the time) were drinking cheap brandy in our room at the Christian Brothers monastery on the outskirts of the city, and writing.During our three month stay in the Eternal City we had agreed to each write a biweekly column for our college newspaper about our experiences. Usually we procrastinated until the last minute, and leant heavily on the truth that cheap brandy can give one wings. Tuesday evenings (the eve of our deadline) were long, exhausting, intoxicating, and richly creative: for when one is in Rome, it is easy to write.
On this particular night I was pleased as punch, for I had struck upon what I thought an extraordinarily clever idea, and in a furious burst of creative energy, I wrote it down. And then, after that short but exhausting stint of concentrated composition, I paused and picked up a nearby book, which happened to be by G.K. Chesterton. I opened it at random in the hope of some mental refreshment before putting the finishing touches on my piece for the week.
And then I cursed, rather emphatically. For, there, on the page, was precisely the same clever idea that I had so proudly hit upon, but there it was expressed with infinitely greater wit, clarity, and weight. I felt like the bold adventurer who, after countless months at sea, thought that at long last he’d discovered the new continent he had set out in search of, only to find a fellow countryman lounging serenely on the beach. I was deflated.
But in time I got used to the feeling. Truth be told, I cannot recall ever having come up with a good idea that I have not later found in a much improved form in the writings of Chesterton, or realized was actually subconsciously stolen from him in the first place. Even the metaphor I just used, about the adventurer, is one of his. It is as if Chesterton exists in large part to take the wind out of the sails of self-important young writers who think they’ve set upon clever and original ideas. They may be clever, but they aren’t original. Chesterton has already planted his flag.
But why all this talk about Chesterton? Because, quite simply, his writings remain one of the most potent cures for the madnesses that plague our age – and this encompasses all the various madnesses that we at LifeSiteNews specialize in. Indeed, if everybody had kept on reading Chesterton, perhaps we’d never have found ourselves in the mess we’re in now, and LifeSiteNews wouldn’t have to exist. Instead of writing articles about how very progressive scientists are proposing that we kill our grandmothers, I’d be a travel writer, or a wine connoisseur. Life would be grand.
Sadly, Chesterton is no longer particularly well known. But in his day he was a giant, in both a metaphorical and a literal sense (he quite famously weighed some 300 pounds, and walked about with a cape and a sword-cane). But fortunately he is making a comeback, which may well be the best news you’ve heard this year. Ignatius Press is already well into producing the Collected Works of Chesterton (a monolithic project), and his books are selling.
It is impossible to write a brief introduction to the work of “the jolly journalist,” as Chesterton called himself, though obviously an introduction, and a brief one, is what is called for. It is also nearly impossible to justify precisely why, amongst all the thousands of exceptional writers in the last century, I have chosen to highlight Chesterton in particular, without simply putting on the table in front of you his collected works and telling you to read. The only problem, of course, is that if the collected works of Chesterton were put on the table in front of you, the table would collapse under the weight, and possibly even crash through to the floor below. For he wrote close to 100 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. And he died when he was only 62.
Dale Ahlquist, the president of the American Chesterton Society and a good friend of mine (indeed, his son Julian is the friend I alluded to at the beginning of this column), is fond of saying that “G.K. Chesterton was the best writer of the 20th century,” and that Chesterton “said something about everything and he said it better than anybody else.” And that’s perfectly true. But if you are of the skeptical temperament and think that’s mere hyperbole, go ask Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis (who was converted to Christianity in part by Chesterton’s writing), William F. Buckley or Etienne Gilson, amongst others. They all agree. Gilson, the famous Thomist philosopher, said, “Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed. He was deep because he was right.” Philosophers, as you may imagine, are not particularly fond of heaping praise on the intellectual capacities of journalists (as Chesterton was), and so you see how extraordinary a compliment this is.
Chesterton was prophetic in his insights, and devastating in his critiques of the errors of modernism. “The next great heresy,” he wrote, in the 1920s, “is going to be simply an attack on morality, and especially on sexual morality. … The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow, but much more in Manhattan.”
He wrote books and essays on eugenics, birth control, marriage, education, family, faith, and just about everything else that is important: and they are all still just as pertinent today as they were when he first penned them. Chesterton’s two great principles were faith and the family, and he defended them from the attacks of modernism with more passion, wit, wisdom and good sense than anyone else.
Of the family, he famously wrote, “When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.” And of the faith, he even more famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
His was a curious and contradictory voice in the midst of the age of pessimism, proclaiming the unutterable goodness of life, of the mere act of existing. One of my absolute favorite quotations by him also bears some of the responsibility for my gathering the courage to propose to my wife, and it is this: “We are to regard existence as a raid or great adventure; it is to be judged, therefore, not by what calamities it encounters, but by what flag it follows and what high town it assaults. The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive; one is always in danger of one’s life. But anyone who shrinks from that is a traitor to the great scheme and experiment of being.”
But, before I conclude and set my dear reader loose upon Chesterton, it would do some good to issue a warning: Many people have a tough time with Chesterton at first. He can be difficult, not in the way that modern, scientific writers are difficult (i.e. by using a multiplicity of impressive sounding but empty and often misleading words), but because he manages to pack so much truth and insight into such tiny spaces, and he expects his readers to have some basic acquaintance with Western history and ideas. His writing is heavy, but only because it bears the weight of much truth. So, if you get frustrated at first, do not worry. There is frequently an acclimatization period, and many current devoted fans of Chesterton will admit to having gone through it. That middle period is merely the uncomfortable feeling of the depressurization chamber, as we leave the vacuums of our own petty minds, and enter the rich atmosphere of Chesterton’s. But once you come through the other side, you have entered a living, teeming world of almost endless intellectual and spiritual refreshment.
(John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Some recommended introductory reading:
Dale Ahlquist has written two excellent books for those who have never before encountered Chesterton or who wish to learn more about him. In large part Dale merely weaves together the best quotations by Chesterton and guides the reader through his worldview. The two books are: Common Sense 101 – Lessons from Chesterton and G.K. Chesterton – The Apostle of Common Sense. They can be purchased at: http://chesterton.org/acs/aboutchesterton.htm
Introductory essays about Chesterton:
G.K. Chesterton Common Sense Apostle & Cigar Smoking Mystic
“Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him?”
Recommended writings by Chesterton (Warning: Don’t attempt to read them on the computer screen. Print them out, kick back, and enjoy):
A Piece of Chalk
A Defence of Rash Vows
The Extraordinary Cabman
Quotations of G. K. Chesterton