G.K. CHESTERTON: COMMON SENSE APOSTLE & CIGAR SMOKING MYSTIC
Dale Ahlquist, author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and president of the American Chesterton Society, reflects on the robust, timeless faith of the rotund, timely G.K. Chesterton.
There comes a time in the life of any artist, any writer or poet, when he reaches the end of his abilities, when he finds himself wrestling all night with an angel. It is the moment when he tries to think the thought which thought cannot think, to visualize the invisible and describe the indescribable. He can arrive early or late at that moment in his career, but it changes everything. It is an encounter with the Absolute. It means either an end or a beginning. Either the artist limps away with discouragement at not being able to rise above himself, his creativity exhausted and extinguished. Or else, when grappling with the angel, the artist grabs hold and refuses to let go until he is given a blessing, and with it a new name and a new vision. At that moment filled with eternity, his art and his words pass from one realm into another. They become immortal.
A Giant Shadow Cast by an Illuminating Mind
Anyone who has ventured across the great shadow of Gilbert Keith Chesterton has discovered that Chesterton's angel was no match for him. The wrestling match is a hard one to imagine, but perhaps what happened was the giant artist and apologist finally sat on the angel’s head, and the angel was only too happy to give that special blessing which enabled G.K. Chesterton to rise forever above mere art or polemics. Chesterton’s poetic prose (and poetic poetry) overflows with eternal truth. His defense of Christianity bursts with logic and insight. His words are as wise and wonderful, as vital and as far-reaching today as when they were first written.
Chesterton could take on any subject and get to its essence, exposing the hidden core, and illuminate it with heavenly light. Any essay by Chesterton on any subject is not only pertinent, but transcendent. He can write about losing a piece of chalk, and point to a profound eternal truth: in this case, that white is a color; it is not the absence of color. Virtue is not merely the absence of vice; it is something pure and positive. Chastity is not merely abstention from sexual wrong, "it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc."
G.K. Chesterton was a master of every literary genre he tried—poetry, fiction, theology, philosophy, history, literary criticism—yet he considered himself nothing more than a mere journalist. But his chalk dust provides more content than most of today's newspaper essays, which rival even television in terms of vapidity. The typical essay, the op-ed piece, the supposedly well-carved, well-polished idea offered by our current critics is, more often than not, often trite, pointless, banal. It is no wonder that today's readers don't read because today's writers cannot even find anything to write about.
"There is Only One Subject!"
The world, you would think, should be full of subjects, but today’s journalists seem to be groping in the dust and in the dark. There is a reason, however, why they aim so low and still miss. They are avoiding something. Chesterton, who wrote about everything, said "There is only one subject." But most columnists and criers haven't figured out what that subject is. Consider the subjects to which we are subjected, the yawning range of yawns: Public Access. Recovering Prairies. Playing Survival. Surviving Playtime. Inclusive Language. Intrusive Non-Language. Deconstructed Dialects. Designer Dogs. De-neutered Dolls. Deadbeat Dads. Deadend Kids. Drug-dealing Doctors. Disgruntled Doctors. Disgruntled Drug-dealers. Even though they don't promise much, they still promise more than they deliver.
The points they make are so small and so insignificant that it hardly matters that they are wrong—which they usually are—and trying to take them on in meaningful debate would seem to be a waste of time and effort. But avoiding the debate is to play into their hands, because avoiding the argument is a way of avoiding the truth. Their arguments as they stand are a conscious and studied avoidance of the truth, words calculated not to deceive so much as to distract.
They avoid the truth because they avoid God. When Chesterton said, "There is only one subject," he was of course referring to that subject that today's wordsmiths go out of their way to avoid: God. Avoiding God as a subject leaves one with very little else to talk about. In fact, with nothing else to talk about. Which is why it all seems so insipid. Because it is.
But pursuing God rather than avoiding God opens up the whole creation and sheds light on every other subject, every other care, every other concern under the sun.
However, the danger of pursuing God is where it leads. To God—and nothing else. All those other concerns which seemed so important, so momentous, simply drop out of sight.
A Cigar-Smoking, Wine-Drinking Mystic
Thus, the avoidance of God leaves us with nothing else to talk about. The pursuit of God leaves us…with nothing else to talk about.
But the former is vanity; the latter is mysticism.
Chesterton says that the mystic "passes through the moment when…there is nothing but God." That is not a conclusion that one can reach merely by reading books, even books about the saints. Chesterton was able to write with authority about profound ideas, to write with an insider’s understanding of mysticism because he clearly passed through that moment when there was nothing but God.
As we said, the image of Chesterton wrestling with an angel is a striking one, but all the more striking because it is true. The three-hundred pound, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking journalist was nothing less than a mystic. A paradox, you say? Well, Chesterton specialized in paradoxes.
The paradox about mysticism is that it is not mysterious. The real mystic is down to earth. Chesterton says the real mystic reveals mysteries; he does not conceal them. Mysticism, he says, is simply a transcendent form of common sense. Both appeal to realities that we all know to be real even if we cannot prove them. Both appeal to something basic and fundamental. Common sense is about what we have in common. The ultimate thing we have in common is our Creator. Thus, common sense is a religious truth. At the other end of the spectrum, mysticism is about facing the ultimate, undiluted truth, which is God. So reality begins and ends with God, who is beginningless and endless. Everything in between is the glory of his creation, which glorifies the Creator.
G.K. Chesterton understood this, and this explains why he was so persistently right, and why we can read him today with such enormous benefit.
It is no exaggeration to say that Chesterton dealt with all the problems that plague modern society, and he provided the antidote. But the most amazing thing about his medicine is how sweet it is to swallow. Chesterton is the most quotable writer of the twentieth century. But there is reason he turns a phrase so well. It rings because it has the ring of truth. As the great Thomistic philosopher Etienne Gilson said, "Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed. He was deep because he was right."
A Taste of G.K.’s Greatness
Chesterton’s quotations are condensed depth and rightness. They go to the heart of the matter and stick in the mind:
I should think that the worst moment for the atheist comes when he is really thankful—and yet has nobody to thank. Every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things.
It is a very common phrase of modern intellectualism to say that the morality of one age can be entirely different to the morality of another. And like a great many other phrases of modernintellectualism, it means literally nothing at all.
The decline of the strong middle class…has left the other extremes of society further from each other than they were. When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights.
Some new scientists are only interested in the beastly side of men. Instead of making the ape and tiger mere accessories to the man, they make man a mere accessory, a mere afterthought to the ape and tiger. Instead of employing the hippopotamus to illustrate their philosophy, they employ the hippopotamus to make their philosophy, and the great fat books he writes you and I, please God, will never read.
The essence of medical cure is that a man is a patient. But the essence of moral cure is that the patient must be impatient. Nothing can be done unless he hates his own sin more that he loves his own pleasure.
The fact that a chaotic and ill-educated time cannot clearly grasp that truth does not alter the fact that it always will be the truth. Our generation, in a dirty, pessimistic period, has blasphemously underrated the beauty of life and cravenly overrated its dangers. As for our own society, if it proceeds at its present rate of progress and improvement, no trace or memory of it will be left at all.
It is possible to get quite drunk on Chesterton quotations. They come in endless supply, and one doesn’t ever know when to stop. Each marvelous thought opens up whole worlds: the world that is and the world that should be.
So, how did he do it? How did he see our modern dilemmas so well and see also the solution to them? Because he saw the truth first and the lie afterwards. The lie is the problem, whether it is an open attack on the truth or a mere distraction. We tend to see the lies and the distractions first as we grope towards the truth.
For Chesterton the truth is recognizable by the fact that it is attacked from all sides and attacked for opposite reasons. Liars hate the truth so much that they don’t mind contradicting themselves.
The Kingdom Called "The Family"
There are two central truths that Chesterton defends: the Family and the Faith. All of modern society is waging a war on these two truths. The attack on the family is an attack on life itself, and the attack on the faith is an attack on the Creator of life.
Chesterton argues that the family is the basic unit of society, like the cell is to the body. If you break apart the cell into smaller parts you destroy the body. Thus, if we emphasize individual rights, we always undermine the family, and we end up giving control to an outside and unnatural force: the State. He says the only people who have a standard by which to criticize the state are those to whom the family is sacred. The family is like a little kingdom that creates and loves its own citizens. "The first things must be the very fountains of life, love and birth and babyhood; and these are always covered fountains, flowing in the quiet courts of the home."
Chesterton says he has more sympathy with the "ordinary jolly burglar" than with the cynical architect of the modern state, who "instead of stealing decently for his family, wants to steal the very idea of a family from his fellow-men." That is exactly what has happened. The very idea of family has been stolen. There are enemies of the family who are trying to destroy it merely by redefining it, calling for homosexual marriage, calling for non-marriage, calling anybody living with anybody doing anything they want a family. The major victims in this assault on the family are the children, who have been abused, neglected, or worst of all, snuffed out.
Chesterton recognizes a triune attack on the family: divorce, feminism and sexual immorality. Divorce is the most obvious attack, but ironically because it is so obvious it has become the most ignored. We have resigned ourselves to accept divorce almost nonchalantly, as if it were something normal. Marriage has lost its meaning because the vow has lost its meaning. Divorce is only half the problem of divorce. The other half of it is re-marriage. Chesterton points out that if the marriage vow can be conveniently broken and then made again with someone else, it sort of takes the romantic element out of the vow, emptying the vow of its importance. This is what Chesterton calls the "superstition" of divorce: the notion that vows suddenly mean something in a second marriage when they evidently did not mean anything in a first marriage. "The most obvious effect of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage."
While divorce literally rips apart the family, feminism and sexual immorality are more subtle enemies that undermine the family both from the inside and the outside.
Feminist Weakness vs. Feminine Power
The basic problem of feminism is the misconception that men and women are equal. It may come as a shock to some people, but there is in fact a difference between men and women. Chesterton says, "The difference between man and woman accounts for almost everything important that has happened. We must realize that when we try to make man and woman alike."
He says that of the two sexes, the woman is in the more powerful position. The woman controls the home, that fundamental unit of society. If you control the home, you control society. Chesterton says, "When I think of the power of woman, my knees knock under me." Ironically, the feminists, by giving up their power in the home, gave up all their power. When they moved into the workplace, most women certainly became like most men in that they became wage slaves, but they did not gain anything, and they certainly did not gain power. It was a distinct step downward. "What is called the economic independence of women is the same as what is called the economic wage-slavery of men."
Feminists lost the privilege of raising their children to a day-care industry or a public school. Or they did something even worse: they killed their children.
No Birth, No Control, No Progress
Chesterton spoke out eloquently against birth control, first of all attacking the dishonesty of the very term itself. It is called birth control, when in fact it isn’t birth and it isn’t control. In one of his many prophetic utterances Chesterton says, "I might inform those humanitarians who have a nightmare of new and needless babies (for some humanitarians have that sort of horror of humanity) that if the recent decline in the birth-rate were continued for a certain time, it might end in there being no babies at all; which would console them very much."
He warned that the birth control would lead to abortion and it would be considered a sign of "progress." Progress is a meaningless term that is praised by a secular society. You cannot have actual progress until you define your goal or your ideal; then you can determine whether or not you are moving closer to achieving it. But the world considers a thing "progressive" not by what it is moving towards but by what it is moving away from. If a tradition is destroyed, it is called "progress." Progress is a slippery word that keeps changing its shape. In his prophetic book Eugenics and Other Evils, Chesterton says that evil always takes advantage of ambiguity. "Evil always wins through the strength of its splendid dupes…and there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin."
Feminism is certainly an example of the disastrous alliance between innocence and evil. Feminists complain of real wrongs against women, but then make an alliance with an evil that is much worse. They glorify something called "choice" (another ambiguous word) and convince themselves that killing babies has something to do with dignity. The feminists are "splendid dupes," who have given up the freedom and power they had in the home to become wage slaves in the workplace, and who have given up God’s most sacred gifts of birth and motherhood while claiming they are exercising "reproductive freedom."
The Clear Danger of Ambiguous Education
Another ambiguous word is "Education." It is held up as an ideal, but like "progress," the word has become
meaningless, and another way to dupe people. Chesterton says, "A great curse has fallen upon modern life with the discovery of the vastness of the word Education." The public school has replaced the primary functions of the family. It has separated children from their parents. And it has separated children from the truth. Education, says Chesterton is supposed to be simply truth in the state of transmission, passing what has been learned from one generation to the next. "It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest children, the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby.
But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself." Amazingly, he said that in 1910, in his unnervingly relevant book, What’s Wrong with the World. He warned that the state would have unimaginable power if it controlled education. He also warned that while we were debating about the theoretical merits of birth control, it would be imposed into a practical program before we were even aware of it, and it would be "applied to everybody and imposed by nobody."
Birth control, of course, paves the way to sexual immorality, which is another destructive force against the family. In 1926, Chesterton warned that the next great heresy would be an attack on morality, especially sexual morality. "The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow, but much more in Manhattan." Indeed, Soviet Communism collapsed under its own official weight (as Chesterton predicted it would) and really did not turn out to be the ultimate threat to free world. But the sex industry, under the mantle of Capitalism, is a silent, slippery beast that slithers in the dark and has its tentacles everywhere and is destroying our society.
Nothing in our entertainment industry honors marriage and the family. It always mocks what is good and dresses up evil and calls it good. "The world," says Chesterton, "has abandoned morality plays; and can only be truly earnest over immorality plays."
Enslaved to Entertainment and Employment
A big part of the problem is that entertainment is an "industry." We have lost the ability to entertain ourselves. We have become passive. Chesterton says that a society is in decay when it employs "a professional to dance for them, a professional to fight for them, and a professional to rule them." When we don’t do basic things for ourselves, it means we have lost our freedom. We have even lost that fundamental freedom of thinking for ourselves.
The entertainment industry is only one element of the whole industrial machine that has ground up the family in its so-called wheels of progress. One of the most neglected of ideas of Chesterton (along with all his other neglected ideas) is Distributism. Distributism simply is another defense of the family. It is the idea that families should be self-sufficient and not be dependent either on the feds or on a factory. Wage slavery should not be confused with freedom. A wage-slave is still a slave. The opposite of employment, says Chesterton, is not unemployment; it is independence.
The point is that all these forces conspire against the family, attacking it from all sides, and sometimes for opposite reasons: divorce, feminism, immorality, big government, big business. Everything in the modern world—our entertainment, our literature, our newspapers—tries to cover up the basic truth that Chesterton defends, that the "real habitation of Liberty is the home." Chesterton defends self-employment and self-sufficiency because he believes it is the best way to protect the family. "If individuals have any hope of protecting their freedom, they must protect their family life."
The Religion of Irreligion
The attack on the family is directly connected to the attack on the Faith. That is because the family is directly connected to the Holy Family. Every father is Joseph: a craftsman, a protector, a provider. Every mother is Mary: a servant, a model, an intercessor. Every child is Jesus: a visitor from heaven, entrusted for a time to his parents. Marriage is a sacrament. It is reveals a religious truth: that love is unconditional and that love is life-giving.
The attack on the family is above all an attack on a religious truth. And it is an attack on the religion that has revealed this truth: the Roman Catholic Church. Defending the faith means defending the family. But it also means defending the faith, its precepts, its practices, its purity. The attacks come from all sides and are both subtle and overt. Chesterton says, "What is really working in the world today is Anti-Catholicism and nothing else."
What we are fighting is a new and false religion, much more powerful but much less noble than that against which our civilization strove in the Crusades. But in the clearest minds it may almost be called a religion of irreligion. It trusts itself utterly to the anarchy of the unknown; and, unless civilization can sober it with a shock of disappointment, it will be for ever inexhaustible in novelties of perversion and pride.
This "religion of irreligion" is the most subtle of all the attacks on the Church, the idea that it doesn’t matter what you believe, and therefore it is best to not even talk about it. Chesterton says religious freedom is supposed to mean that we are free to discuss our religion. In practice, however, it means that we are barely allowed to mention it. We have ironically reached the point where all we can talk about is the weather, and we call that free speech and "the complete liberality of all creeds."
Chesterton says, "The opponents of Christianity would believe anything except Christianity." We have indeed seen the most bizarre sects and cults taken seriously while the Church is ridiculed.
One Holy, Whole Catholic Church
He also recognizes that every Protestant "sect" is indeed a "section" of the wholeness of the Catholic Church. Every heresy has taken some part of the truth and discarded the rest. Thus, the Lutherans became obsessed with "faith alone," Calvinists with the sovereignty of God, Baptists with the Bible, Seventh Day Adventists with the Sabbath, and so on. Meanwhile they stand outside the Church and throw stones from all sides. The Catholic Church is attacked for being too austere or too gaudy, too material or too spiritual, too worldly or too otherworldly, too complicated or too simplistic. Catholics are criticized for being celibate but also for having too many babies, criticized for being unfair to women but also because "only women" go to Mass.
The modernists complain that the Catholic Church is dead, and complain even louder that it has so much power and influence. The secularists admire Italian art while despising Italian religion. The world rebukes Catholics for their sins, and worse still, for confessing their sins. Protestants say Catholics don’t take the Bible seriously and then criticize them for being so literal about the Eucharist. Yet, as Chesterton points out, they take off their hats in churches even while denying that Christ is present on the altar.
Ultimately every attack on the Church is an attack on the priesthood and the Eucharist. Every attack on the Church is an attack on Christ, God who came in the flesh, and who founded a Church and who held up the bread and the cup and said, "This is my body. This is my blood."
Chesterton says there is only the Catholic Church and its enemies. Long before his conversion he said that if every man lived a thousand years, "every man would end up either in utter pessimistic skepticism or as member of the Catholic creed." He knew that everyone outside of the Church is either moving toward it or away from it. Just like everyone outside of heaven. We are making our choice for or against God.
Chesterton defended the Church even when he was still an outsider. Ironically, today we sometimes have to defend the Church against insiders, against Catholics who would undermine their own faith. Chesterton says there have been times in the Church’s history when it has been too much wedded to the world. But when it has been wedded to the world, he says, it has always found itself widowed by the world.
When Chesterton died in 1936, Pope Pius XI called him a Defender of the Faith. He is still a defender of the faith, an apologist for right reason and divine revelation, as his words are still effective weapons against the attacks that come from all sides. He flings his opponents off with ease. He is still a maker of converts, turning his enemies into friends, his opponents into allies, wrestling with angels and refusing to let go.
(Originally published as "G.K. Chesterton: Oversized Apologist in an UnderFaithed World" in Envoy magazine, volume 7.3.)