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By Aidan Mackey
IHS PressCopyright © 2015 Aidan Mackey
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G. K. Chesterton
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A Biographical Note
G.K. Chesterton was born in1874 into the family of the well-known Estate Agents, Chesterton & Company in Kensington, London. In view of his future role of defender of small family businesses, it seems ironic that the firm is today a very large international affair, which would not at all meet with his approval.
The Chesterton household was not, as is often assumed, a religious one. There was some vague attachment to Unitarianism, but church-going was not the norm, although Gilbert was baptised in St George's Anglican church, in Camden Hill. It was, therefore, natural that when he later began to seek answers to his questions about the meaning of life, he first went not to the churches but to the Ethical and Debating Societies which then abounded.
Despite this, he was from the first instinctively religious, and among his childhood drawings, many of which have survived, are two of great interest. One shows a monk, complete with tonsure and Bible, carrying a crucifix aloft as he is pursued by armed men. In the background a figure kneels before another crucifix, seemingly a wayside shrine. The other drawing is of Christ crucified, surrounded by ministering angels.
What is striking in both is the depiction of the crucifix, for at that time only Catholics were likely to show Christ on the cross rather than the cross alone. It would seem that very early in life, for both were drawn when he was only seven years old, Chesterton had somehow come into contact with Catholicism, probably at secondhand through his reading. At odds with that attitude is a poem writ ten a couple of years later, heavily influenced by Laytoun's Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers. One verse, retaining the young G.K.C.'s spelling, runs
Drive the trembling Papists backwards
Drive away the Tory's hord
Let them tell thier hous of villains
They have felt the Campbell's sword.
He was, clearly, reading voraciously from the start, and throughout his life retained an astonishingly accurate memory for things he had read many years earlier. His formal education began in 1881 at Colet Court Preparatory School, then in January 1887 he transferred to St. Paul's which was then, as now, one of our great public schools. It was at that time situated in Hammersmith but is now in Barnes, south of the river Thames. He later enrolled at the Slade School of Art, at University College, London.
His first public appearance in print was in 1892 whilst still at school, when The Speaker published his poem, The Song of Labour. In 1900 he published a book of comic verse, Greybeards at Play, and one of serious verse, The Wild Knight, and from that time the flow of his immense output hardly ceased.
In 1901, he married Frances, whose French surname, de Blogue, had been anglicised to Blogg, and after several years in London they made their permanent home in the little Buckinghamshire town of Beaconsfield, near Windsor. The only major sadness in their union was that Frances, despite undergoing an operation, was unable to bear children, but their love for the young caused them to fill their home and lives with the children of friends, and very many of them have testified to the warmth and joy of their household.
In 1914, soon after the outbreak of war, G.K.C. fell desperately ill and lay for three months in a coma. In 1916 he took over editorship of The New Witness, the weekly journal, founded by his brother Cecil, who was then in the trenches. In 1918, Cecil died in a field hospital, and Gilbert carried on the paper for the rest of his life, reluctantly allowing it to be re-named G.K.'s Weekly. The journal was a great drain on his energies and finances, and many of the Father Brown detective stories were written to fund it.
Some people have deplored this burden, saying that without it he could have written many more books, such as the studies he planned of Shakespeare, Napoleon and Savonarola. This seems to me to be a mistaken view, because the paper was central to his thinking and provided a platform from which some of his best work issued. He cared nothing for fame either in his time or in the future. He was a propagandist; an agitator standing in the market-place and reaching out to the ordinary men and women he so unaffectedly loved. To ask him to change course and reign as a purely literary celebrity would amount to asking him not to be Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
In the first years of the twentieth century he moved from his early agnosticism to Christianity and in 1922 entered the Roman Catholic Church, but had for years been so close to it that many supposed him to be already within its portals. In fact he had described himself as one standing in the church porch, showing others the way in.
In the later part of his life, the 1920's and 1930's, as well as producing some of his finest and most mature work, he travelled widely and visited Poland, Palestine, Spain, Canada, and twice made lecture tours of the United States. In the 1930's he made a number of radio broadcasts and was an immediate success. A letter from a B.B.C. official said, "The building rings with your praises!. ... you bring something very rare to the microphone. ... you will have a vast public by Christmas ..." Only a couple of the broadcasts still survive, but they demonstrate his impressive ability to merge profundity with wit and entertainment.
He died in Beaconsfield in June 1936, and his grave there is marked by a headstone carved by Eric Gill. He loved the town, and its people so loved him that his funeral procession was re-routed by the police so that the crowd could pay him their final respects.
To many people it may seem a little odd that a writer who thought of himself as being merely a journalist, and who died in the 1930's, should now be the subject of a strong worldwide revival. The truth is that G.K. Chesterton was one of the deepest and most lucid thinkers that England has ever produced. His thought and writing are full of vivid illumination and profound common sense, cutting through the jargon and cant of the day and throwing light into hitherto dark places, so that the reader constantly thinks, "Of course, how obvious! Why hadn't I thought of that before?"
It was this extraordinary capacity for illumination which made his influence so deep and wide-ranging. A striking example occurred when, in an article in the Illustrated London News in October 1910, he remarked that the principal weakness of the then burgeoning Indian Nationalism was that
"... it seems to be not very Indian and not very national. It is all about Herbert Spencer and Heaven knows what. When all is said there is a ... distinction between a people asking for its own ancient life and a people asking for things that have been wholly invented by somebody else. Suppose an Indian said: 'I heartily wish India had always been free from white men and all their works. Every system has its sins and we prefer our own. There would have been dynastic wars: but I prefer dying in battle to dying in hospital. There would have been despotism; but I prefer one king whom I hardly ever see to a hundred kings regulating my diet and my children....' Suppose an Indian said that, I should call him an Indian Nationalist, or, at least, an authentic Indian, and I think it would be very hard to answer him. But the Indian Nationalist whose works I have read simply say, with ever-increasing excitability, 'Give me a ballot-box; provide me with a Ministerial dispatch-box. Hand me over the Lord Chancellor's wig. I have a heaven-born claim to introduce a Budget. My soul is starved if I am excluded from the editorship of the Daily Mail,' or words to that effect. Now this, I think, is not so difficult to answer. ... The right of a people to express itself, to be itself in arts and action, seems to me a genuine right. If there is such a thing in India, it has a right to be Indian. But Herbert Spencer is not Indian; 'Sociology' is not Indian: all this pedantic clatter about culture and science is not Indian. I often wish it were not English either. But this is our first abstract difficulty, that we cannot feel certain that the Indian Nationalist is national."
This penetrating analysis so impressed Mohandas Gandhi, the future ruler of India, that he immediately translated the article into Gujarati and used it as the basis of his own writing and of his future campaigns. It is, therefore, a fact that this piece of "journalism" helped to shape the course of Indian history, as so many of G.K.C.'s writings have influenced other thinkers.
Of Chesterton's little, quickly-written book on the philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Thomist scholar, Etienne Gilson, wrote:
"I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement ... The few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years studying Aquinas and who have, perhaps, published two or three volumes on the subject cannot fail to perceive that the so-called wit of Chesterton has put them all to shame. He has guessed all that which they tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that they were more or less clumsily trying to express in academic formulas. Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever lived ..."
Dorothy L. Sayers, an important apologist for traditional Christianity, wrote in a private letter that she had been a typical sullen teenage agnostic until she started to read Chesterton. Many years later, in an introduction to G.K.C.'s last play, The Surprise, she commented that to young people Chesterton
"was a kind of Christian liberator. ... It was stimulating to be told that Christianity was not a dull thing, but a gay thing, not a stick-in-the-mud thing but an adventurous thing, not an unintelligent thing but a wise thing, and indeed a shrewd thing — for while it was frequently admitted to be as harmless as the dove, it had almost ceased to be credited with the wisdom of the serpent. Above all, it was refreshing to see Christian polemic conducted with offensive rather than defensive weapons."
Fritz Schumacher, founder-philosopher of the new conservationist and decentralist movement, acknowledged his debt to the inspiration of Chesterton's thought and the social philosophy of Distributism. Indeed, his famous book, Small is Beautiful, grew from an essay which he originally named Chestertonian Economics.
C.S. Lewis paid high tribute to G.K.C.'s study of Chaucer, and of The Everlasting Man he wrote that it gave him for the first time the outline of Christianity set out in a form that made rational sense to him, and that it was one of the major steps on his journey from Atheism to Christianity. He relates, in Surprised by Joy, the closest he got to an autobiography, how he first discovered G.K.C. while in a military hospital in France in 1918:
"It was here that I first read a volume of Chesterton's essays. I had never heard of him and had no idea what he stood for, nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. ... I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humour was of the kind I like best — not 'jokes' embedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure) a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the 'bloom' on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton is frivolous or 'paradoxical' I have to work hard to feel even pity. Sympathy is out of the question. Moreover, strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness. ... In reading Chesterton, as in reading [George] MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."
This was far from being the only tribute paid to Chesterton by Lewis, who was always magnanimous in his acknowledgement of the influence of other writers. In The Spectator in 1946, he commented on G.K.C.'s epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, "Does not the central theme of the Ballad — the highly paradoxical message which Alfred received from the Virgin — embody the feeling, and the only possible feeling, with which in any age almost defeated men take up such arms as are left them and win? ... Hence in those quaking days just after the fall of France, a young friend of mine (just about to enter the R.A.F.) and I found ourselves quoting to one another stanza after stanza of the Ballad. There was nothing else to say."
But the most important tribute paid by that great man came in between those two. In 1925 he read G.K.C.'s The Everlasting Man, which had been published in September of that year, and its effect was tremendous:
"For the first time [I] saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived to be not too badly shaken. You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive 'apart from his Christianity.' Now, I verily believe, I thought — I didn't of course say, words would have revealed the nonsense — that Christianity was very sensible "apart from its Christianity."
And so Lewis became one more important thinker to respond to Chesterton's Christian influence.
How did Chesterton come to impress so greatly these major scholars in fields which he entered humbly, as a self-confessed amateur? The answer, I believe, is to be found chiefly in two characteristics of his mind and work. Firstly, a penetrating insight, uncluttered by preconceived ideas, which took him unerringly to the heart of the subject, which was followed by an exposition so lucid and free from pomposity or jargon that the reader immediately sees the rightness of the judgement or comment and, indeed, accepts it as mere common sense which he should have discovered earlier for himself.
A good example of this is to be found in Orthodoxy, when he disposes of the popular misconception of a lunatic as someone who has lost his reason:
"Everyone who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. 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 judgement. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. ... 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. The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense, satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or, if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity, for the world denied Christ's ... We may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a local 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. 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."
Then Chesterton goes on to advocate an appeal from the tiny, though complete, cosmos of monomania to the largeness and sense of proportion and humility and humour of the actual world. That approach to the tragedy and problem of insanity, and the response which Chesterton goes on to suggest, have actually been used successfully by some psychiatrists since then. Once it has been pointed out to us we can all see the truth and wisdom of what he says about the wild exaggeration of a closed circle of of logic and its treatment, and many of his readers somehow feel that, given a little more time, they themselves would have arrived at the conclusion to which they have been so entertainingly led. But the fact remains that we did not do so until he brought his clear vision to bear on it.
Excerpted from G.K. Chesterton by Aidan Mackey. Copyright © 2015 Aidan Mackey. Excerpted by permission of IHS Press.
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