G. K. Chesterton: An Appreciation

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I have not tested by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that G.K. Chesterton died on the 14th of June, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire; and was buried according to the formularies of the Catholic Church in the Catholic cemetery there.

That paragraph, like so much else in my thinking, prayer, faith and writing, owes a giant debt to the colossal genius who was Chesterton (it’s reworked from the opening line of his Autobiography, just as “colossal genius who was Chesterton” is a tip of the hat to The Man Who was Thursday, his greatest—and weirdest—novel).

Chesterton’s appreciation for tradition (which he called “the democracy of the dead”) was one of the things that shook my brain loose from much of the twaddle of contemporary thought and made me see things in the clear light of common sense.  He pointed out that Tradition was not something covered in cobwebs but was rather something that was rooted in the experience of a thousand previous generations of men and women who were quite as smart and full of prayer as my generation of clever people suckled on TV—perhaps even a bit more!  He insisted that people be given a vote in how we order our lives, even when they happen to be dead.  And he pointed out how much of our lives are, in fact, ordered by and dependent on simple human trust.

Chesterton is immensely quotable and full of images and ideas stick in the mind and heart.  More than that, he is simply one of the best and deepest thinkers who ever lived, all while being one of the most compulsively readable writers in English.  My own introduction to him came at a deeply providential hour in my life.  As a very young Christian, I had just had my first taste of the destructive power of Calvinism and its cold diagrammatic god that might or might not love you depending on whether he felt like capriciously damning you.  I had no tools for dealing with the icy logic of Calvinism when I happened across Chesterton’s sane and humane Orthodoxy, where he put into words what I had felt but could not articulate about philosophies and theologies you couldn’t argue with, yet knew to be inhuman and evil nonetheless:

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason…. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument.

Chesterton’s genius lay in the fact that he was a deeply Catholic thinker and, more than that, a deeply Catholic man.  He did not enter the Church until 1922, but he thought as a Catholic long before then.  His astonishing output of books, magazine articles, poetry, mysteries, literary criticism, and plays reveals the mind, heart, and soul of what Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, calls a “complete thinker”.  He was as at home (and as profound and funny) talking about theology as he was dealing with politics, the works of Dickens, the American Experiment, or the latest kook insisting on vegetarianism.  He could, he said, find his way to a discussion of the deepest truths of the Faith beginning with anything from pork to pyrotechnics, because he deeply believed in (and was profoundly grateful for) the fact that everything in this world is a gift of a loving Creator who is also Father.

Chesterton has been called the “Laughing Prophet”, and with good reason.  He is one of the most consistently funny writers in English.  But he is also one of the most insightful.  Reading his writing from a century ago, one is struck again and again by how much of the 20th Century he foresaw—and by how blind his trendier contemporaries were to the outcome of their fashionable philosophies. 

Chesterton is also a profoundly humble man.  He enjoys no joke so much as one at his own expense.  And he has a brilliant ability to see what is good, even in thinking and deeds of people with whom he deeply disagrees.  He had the knack of being friends with a whole host of leading lights of his day, even as he carries on disputes with them in which he reduces their arguments to dust.

I think the reason for this is as simple as it is rare: he was a holy man, which is to say he was a happy man.  He loved God and he loved people, particularly children and the common man.  He understood that, at the end of the day, everything boiled down to these two greatest commandments.  That’s the biggest debt I owe him: he taught me that what lies behind all the struggles and trouble of this life is a God who is glad.

Santo subito.