Weekly Book Pick Chesterton for the Common Man



by Dale Ahlquist

Ignatius Press, 2003 183 pages, $13.95

To order: (800) 651-1531 or www.ignatius.com

Somewhere in William Words-worth's canon is the line, “Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour; England hath need of thee.” Dale Ahlquist seems to be saying something similar about Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

“Apostle of common sense” is an apt phrase to sum up the literary giant, for Chesterton mounted an enduring crusade to show his fellow Brits that they really did possess that most uncommon of virtues: They only had to use it. Such an apostle is needed now — and not only in England.

To help us understand Chesterton's thought, Ahlquist indicts our own time in a way his subject would have commended. “To save seventy-five cents on a six-month supply of toilet paper,” Ahlquist writes, “we drive across town to the Discount Super Store, which is owned by some multinational corporation, while the corner shop, which is owned by our neighbor, goes out of business.”

We likewise suffer when we follow the example of the modernist philosophers who fail (or refuse) to follow their premises to their logical conclusions. For in this way we sabotage our own efforts to arrive at the truth. Chesterton arrived at the truth because he followed the arguments to their logical end. Ultimately, the most reasonable conclusion to his thinking about things was his baptism as a Catholic.

“Chesterton says that modern thinkers will not follow new ideas to their logical end; nor will they trace traditional ideas back to their beginnings,” Ahlquist relates in a chapter about The Thing , Chesterton's apologia on being a Catholic. “If they followed the new notions forward it would lead them to nonsense or utter chaos. If they followed their better instincts backward, it would lead them to Rome. So they refuse to follow either one and remain suspended between two logical alternatives and try to tell themselves that they are merely avoiding extremes.”

It was more than common sense that led Chesterton to embrace Christianity. In an outline of Orthodoxy , which Ahlquist argues is one of the best books of the 20th century, he describes Chesterton's mystical appreciation for the paradoxes one finds in life — paradoxes that rationalist thinkers feel compelled to explain but which the common man accepts in a way that lead him to faith.

Those who have already sampled Chesterton's oeuvre might wonder why they should spend time reading about the man and his works rather than return to the works themselves. Why not read both? Ahlquist provides a road map through 13 of Chesterton's representative works. He pulls out the most memorable quotes (he quotes copiously, in fact, and is heavy on synopses) and shows what a keen observer Chesterton was of his times and of human nature. And he makes a good case for why the man whose work helped convert C.S. Lewis should be read in every secondary and tertiary school in this country.

Reading Chesterton can be like listening to a complex symphony, one that requires great attention yet lets one's spirit soar. But not everyone — alas, not even some college students — is able to read Chesterton as he ought to be read.

Ahlquist's dissertation can serve as a guide for college professors who want to introduce their students to this genius. And, for the rest of us, it's not only a reminder of the need for common sense — but also a demonstration of the way to exercise it.

John Burger is the Register's news editor.