G.K. Chesterton: Rhetoric, Genius, & Holiness

He may even have waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, my friend, when he explained his dislike of G. K. Chesterton. “It’s all rhetoric,” he said, and his voice by itself comprehensively dismissed Chesterton as a writer one should read even if he hadn’t added the backhanded wave of his hand. He meant by rhetoric what others would have called “word games” and “verbal fireworks” or even “hot air”: an effect without meaning.

This left me bemused. Like the young man engaged to a woman both pretty and virtuous and more taken by her virtue than her beauty, whose friends assume that because she’s beautiful she can’t be virtuous, I had found in reading Chesterton someone who was obviously fun to read but more important to me saw deeply, a writer who uniquely showed me truths I had not seen or had not seen clearly.

That he wrote entertainingly was a bonus, as if liver tasted like filet mignon. Yet my friend, and several people I read, assumed that if he was fun to read — though some of them didn’t think he was all that much fun to read — he couldn’t be insightful.

In Chesterton I discovered a man who told me truths I needed to know. These truths were of two sorts: truths I did not see at all or truths I only intuited. In reading him I kept saying “Aha” or “So that’s it” when he showed me something I had not seen, and “Yes” and “Exactly” when he showed me clearly something I’d only seen dimly.

As an example of the first kind of insight, there was Chesterton’s line from The Catholic Church and Conversion that “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong.” Well, yes, obviously, readers may be thinking.

But a Protestant attracted to the Catholic Church, at least a theologically-minded one, tends to come to her with a list of commitments the Catholic Church must satisfy. We are thinking about changing our fundamental religious identity but only if we can keep much of what we already hold. The Church has to be right where we are (we think) right. We look at the Church the way a man looks at a job offer when he’s fairly satisfied with the job he has and thinks the new job looks like a lateral move.

I looked at the Church like that, anyway. And then reading through Chesterton’s short book, I hit this one line and stopped short. I might have said that I wanted a Church that was right where I was wrong, but I was sure I was right about the commitments the Church must satisfy. I just wasn’t sure in which religious body I should hold them. On that, I would have said, the Church might be right where I was wrong, but she must be right where I was right on everything else.

Chesterton’s insight, so simply but pungently put, stopped me short. I think it was the contrast between the sentences, the first setting me up and the second knocking me down. Certainly the effect of having read so much Chesterton helped as well, because I knew and trusted the man and because I’d seen the way he came to this insight. I suddenly realized that I wanted a Church that was right where I was wrong and that I might be wrong, absolutely and completely wrong, about a great many things I thought I had down cold. I saw that I might just not be wrong a particular points but that I might be seeing the whole thing the wrong way round. I might need, as people used to say, a radical paradigm shift.

As an example of the second kind of insight, when Chesterton showed me clearly something I’d only vaguely understood, there was his famous line, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly” from What’s Wrong With the World. I’d heard it before and thought it silly. Why do anything if you can’t do it well, I thought. The line seemed to me what my friend had dismissed as “rhetoric.”

But I was an unconscious Aristotelian and would-be Thomist, in the sense Chesterton explained so well in The Dumb Ox. I believed, or wanted to believe, in the goodness of the world as I found it — I wanted to believe, as I only saw much later, that the world as I found it had been created and created by someone who being good had made it good. I sensed all this but almost everything I had been taught — that the world was just here, the product of no one’s mind or intention, with all that implies about human action and responsibility — prevented me from seeing it clearly, even after I became a Christian.

Again Chesterton’s insight, so simply but pungently put, stopped me short. Here I think the effect was in the surprise at the end, that “badly.” It made me look again at the beginning, the “thing worth doing,” and thus at my understanding of things in general. I saw, with the deep pleasure of someone who has suddenly grasped something he’d never been able to get his hands around, that the world was a good place, a fundamentally good place.

I could offer several more examples. One learns facts and techniques and methods and insights from many writers, and from some one learns a great deal. But few writers, I think, have Chesterton’s transformative effect, at least upon readers like me. Why he leaves some very intelligent people cold is a mystery, like why some people don’t like, say, bitter ale. It’s a fallen world and some good things are open to some of us and closed to others.

Often, as with these two quotes, his insights seem obvious — after you see them. I don’t think I would have seen them as soon or felt them as strongly if I had not come to them through Chesterton. So, no, not “rhetoric.” Genius. And maybe holiness as well. That would explain why he saw so clearly the truths the rest of us come to as through a fog.

This article is a revised version of his preface to David Fagerberg’s Chesterton is Everywhere (Emmaus).

David Mills


David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for Aleteia. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.

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  • kirk

    Thanks. Some time ago I purchased a Chesterton book, and started to read it. I found to my dismay that I did not seem to grasp his hidden meanings, chalked it up to my lack of sufficient intelligence and put the book back on the shelf. Instead, I picked up books by (Blessed) John Henry Newman – at least I could understand some of it, after the 2nd or 3rd reading. Ah, well – when I finish Apologia Pro Vita Sua (for the 3rd time), maybe I can pick up Chesterton again. I’ll try to think harder next time.

  • David Mills

    Oh yeah, that’s true. My first experience was trying to read *St. Francis* and thinking “What the heck?” I think picked up at a booksale his late book *The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic* and — though a Protestant — loved it. After that I was hooked.

    For those in the same state I was in, here’s something I wrote a few years ago on reading Chesterton (and Lewis):


  • Beth

    I do love Chesterton, from the Father Brown stories to Orthodoxy to the essays . . . I was delighted to recognize the “twitch upon the thread” in _Brideshead Revisited_ from the Father Brown stories. _Orthodoxy_ has helped me understand the faith in amazing ways. It seems to me that Chesterton has simply done what art is supposed to do — instruct through delight — in both his nonfiction and his fiction.

  • Jaceczko

    I like Chesterton a lot. I don’t think “verbal fireworks” is a good characterization, though, since his prose is not really impressive like fireworks. He’s just a good, solid, mediocre Catholic apologist. Great to have, but not worth getting all worked up over, either to tear him down or to rattle a saber.

    The world needs good, solid, gimmicky Catholic apologists; the teenagers who fall for that sort of thing are going to fall for something more pernicious if they don’t fall for Chesterton!

  • Paradox

    I intend to read Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Getting an idea of how he should be read is a good place to start.

  • rentonrain

    I think Chesterton’s biography on St. Francis is a good biography, but it should not be the first biography one reads on St. Francis.