When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.
G.K. Chesterton, from Orthodoxy
The term “bigger than life” is now cliché but it is in no way ironic when applied to G.K. Chesterton who was born on this day, May 29th in 1874. It begins with his stature (6’4” and over 300 pounds), but even that great frame is dwarfed by his intellect and imagination. His writings seem endless, and every sentence is packed with wit and nuance with a saturation that makes skimming impossible. His masterpiece was simply titled Orthodoxy.
John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:
Chesterton was not a great philosopher like Aquinas or a sublime poet like Dante. His fiction lacks the polish of Austen or the passion of either of the Brontë sisters. He’s decidedly second-rate compared to Plato or Shakespeare, but that’s an amazing thing to be.
Chesterton is here as our ambassador to the Great Conversation. He’s bright enough to sit at the High Table with the Masters and witty enough to explain them to us who sit below.
In the meantime, his work is a delight.
Rare is the man or woman who reads Homer for fun, but once you start reading Chesterton it’s hard to stop. He could explain Shakespeare or Aquinas in new ways so interesting that scholars would pause to consider and amateurs would learn. Chesterton sometimes got details wrong, yet he often captured the essential nature of a writer or problem.
Chesterton does not argue so much as live on a page . . . and he is always jolly. Reading Chesterton is simply jollification, and nobody in this book does “jolly” better. As a result, G. K. Chesterton is a genius we can enjoy and an eccentric who can see what less wild men might miss.
Does study bring you joy?
L E A R N M O R E
When people read Orthodoxy for the first time, they generally discover that their pens run out of ink from underlining almost every sentence in the book. The relentless and irresistible quotable quotes also make for a rather disjointed reading experience. So they finish the book and, in spite of it being almost entirely underlined, they wonder, What was that about, anyway? Then they reread the book and are quite bewildered to discover it is an entirely different work, giving them the odd sensation of reading it for the first time, in spite of the obvious evidence of their very own underlinings from the previous read. The third time is generally the charm, as Chesterton’s thesis suddenly bursts through his dazzling rhetoric and imaginative arguments.
Fresh is a fitting word. Orthodoxy is a lively, creative, and unique approach to defending the Christian faith. Yet Chesterton insists that it is not a book of apologetics; he claims it’s simply his account of how he came to embrace Christianity for himself. His journey, however, is not typical, for he did not study the arguments in favor of but rather the arguments against Christianity. He did not study classic Christian philosophy but rather a variety of modern anti-Christian philosophies. He thought he was forming a new heresy, but when he put on the finishing touches, he found it was orthodoxy. He thought he’d come up with a new religion and was embarrassed to discover that someone else had come up with it almost two thousand years earlier.
The heart of the book is found, first, in the coherent morality of fairy tales, or the “Ethics of Elfland,” where logic is still logical and still capable of teaching science a few lessons. Then he hands us the surprising and seemingly contradictory truths of the faith, the “Paradoxes of Christianity,” where logic gets put to the test.
It is a theme throughout Chesterton’s writings that faith does not contradict reason, but reason often appears to contradict itself. Reason requires faith as a starting point. As he says elsewhere, “You cannot prove your first statement. Otherwise it would not be your first statement.”
And, a lush portrait of the faith, which always has attracted both the strongest of devotion and the fiercest of opposition wherever it appears, is known as the “Romance of Orthodoxy.”
In preceding chapters, Chesterton has examined the narrowness of modern philosophies, each “sharpened to a narrow point,” ending in madness, or what he calls “the clean well-lit prison of one idea.” In chapters following he will show how in art, literature, politics, and worship, Christianity not only provides satisfaction but sanity.
Chesterton is defending not only the Christian church but also the essence of Western society, a product of Hebrew monotheism, Greek philosophy, and Roman civilization, all brought together when Christ steps onto history’s stage. Chesterton draws a striking contrast between East and West, summed up in differences between the circle and the cross, the symbols representing Buddhism and Christianity.
The circle is centripetal, spinning inward toward madness and self-destruction, like a snake eating its own tail; the cross is centrifugal, spreading its arms to the four winds, “a signpost for free travelers.”
The other principle Chesterton defends in Orthodoxy is the value of solid tradition against the flakiness of fads and fashions. The modern world is obsessed with being modern. Therefore, old things that were carefully created for a purpose are suddenly discarded thoughtlessly with no sense of their importance. Then, of course, the new things that replace them are quickly discarded as well.
Thus, the modern world is a mess. Chesterton saw it coming. He also saw the solution. As with any prophet, his warnings are timely, but so are his exhortations. He is encouraging, not discouraging. We know he’s right when he tells us we must hate the world enough to change it, yet love it enough to think it worth changing.
Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society and one of the world’s leading experts on G. K. Chesterton. He created and hosts the EWTN television series G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, publishes Gilbert Magazine, and is a frequent guest lecturer at various universities.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).