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Our Chesterton

February 19, 2002

In 1961 a young writer named Garry Wills published his first book, an excellent study of the works of G.K. Chesterton. It was soon out of print and hard to find. I luckily came across it in a used book store. Now, I am happy to say, it has finally been reissued in paperback (Doubleday/Image).

Chesterton (1874–1936) was a popular English writer of that versatile, unclassifiable sort who are called “men of letters.” He wrote essays, novels, poems, detective stories, literary criticism, political tracts, and religious apologetics. It has been said of him that he never wrote his masterpiece, because no genre could give full expression to his wild genius.

I’d prefer to say that his genius could take many forms. No matter what genre he used, he touched — and still touches — the reader with a rare immediacy. You feel his personality at once. You not only trust him; you feel that he trusts you. He is the humblest, the most human, the most genial of geniuses.

Chesterton’s literary criticism is superb because he approaches every author with lively sympathy, looking for the secret of his appeal. When you read him on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake, Dickens, Browning, Stevenson, or Shaw, you feel that each author has found in Chesterton his most appreciative reader ever.

Even his sharp wit rarely wounds. After visiting this country, he noted its shortcomings in a kindly epigram: “The real American is all right. It is the ideal American who is all wrong.” These are words we should take to heart, especially when we are tempted to national self-righteousness.

Chesterton was prophetic about the evils of the twentieth century: “The old tyrants invoked the past. The new tyrants will invoke the future.” Again: “Most men now are not so much rushing to extremes as sliding to extremes; and even reaching the most violent extremes by being almost entirely passive.”

He also perceived a special danger of our own time, “anarchy from above”: “A government may grow anarchic as much as a people.” People cling to government because they want law and order; they fail to see the peril of a lawless government that produces social disorder.

Then there are his miscellaneous insights. “The morality of a great writer is not the morality he teaches, but the morality he takes for granted.” “There is more simplicity in a man who eats caviar on impulse than in a man who eats grape-nuts on principle.” “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

One of my own favorite Chesterton books is What’s Wrong with the World (available, like most of his works, from Ignatius Press, San Francisco).

[Breaker quote: A loving 
and lovable genius]There he insists on the need for clarity of principle: “It is not merely true that a creed unites men. Nay, a difference of creed unites men — so long as it is a clear difference. A boundary unites.... It is exactly the same with politics. Our political vagueness divides men, it does not fuse them. Men will walk along the edge of a chasm in clear weather, but they will edge miles away from it in a fog. So a Tory can walk up to the very edge of Socialism, if he knows what is Socialism. But if he is told that Socialism is a spirit, a sublime atmosphere, a noble, indefinable tendency, why, then he keeps out of its way; and quite right too. One can meet an assertion with argument; but healthy bigotry is the only way in which one can meet a tendency.”

He similarly observes that “men usually quarrel because they do not know how to argue.” And Chesterton loved nothing more than a good argument, because he saw it as a way of reaching not only truth but friendship. This is why his tone is always chivalrous, even when he says of an opponent that “Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian; he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions.” Mr. Blatchford must have laughed at that as heartily as anyone else.

Today Chesterton is not among the best known of authors. But among those who do know him, he is one of the best loved.

Joseph Sobran

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