Discovering G.K. Chesterton
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried” — G.K. Chesterton, 1910. Today marks the 130th birthday of the author of that quote, a man many believe to be the greatest writer and thinker of the 20th century — the very large (he stood 6’ 4,” weighed about 300 pounds), very Catholic, very brilliant Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
Born in 1874 in London, England, the giant genius lived only 62 years, the last fourteen of them as a Catholic. He converted in 1922, and during those fourteen years became the most effective defender of the Catholic faith of his era. When he died in 1936, the Vatican mourned his loss.
Poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, short story writer, playwright and humorist, G. K. Chesterton was definitely one of the most prolific writers that ever lived. Writing over a period of about 35 years, he wrote over 4,000 newspaper essays; two hundred short stories — including a popular series featuring the priest-detective, Father Brown; hundreds of poems; five plays; a hundred books and contributed to another two hundred books. When he wasn’t doing that, he edited his own newspaper, G.K.’s Weekly, debated the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow, and illustrated books for the writer Hillaire Belloc. Chesterton was also an accomplished artist.
The subjects of Chesterton’s writing covered the landscape of human thought. He apparently thought about everything, and then wrote about it, usually with a dry wit that still stings to this day. He can, and should, be quoted on subjects ranging from religion (“If there were no God, there would be no atheists”) to politics (“When a politician is in opposition he is an expert on the means to some end; and when he is in office he is an expert on the obstacles to it”) to modern art (“Savages and modern artists are alike strangely driven to create something uglier than themselves, but the artists find it harder”).
Food for the Mature Catholic Mind
I was first introduced to Chesterton many, many years ago. I think it was in high school. At the time I was too young and too stupid to appreciate the man’s genius, and quickly forgot whatever I was required to learn about him. A few weeks ago, however, while flicking television channels, I came across the tail end of one episode of an EWTN series on Chesterton hosted by Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society.
The topic of this particular episode apparently had to do with the twin evils of big government and big business. Chesterton had concluded, many decades before it became obvious to anyone else, that the concentration of power inherent in the giant bureaucracies of government and business diminished the role and importance of the family and, by extension, individual freedom.
Fascinated, I determined to learn more about the writer I ignored so many years before.
I located the American Chesterton Society on the Internet (www.chesterton.org) and contacted Mr. Ahlquist, advising him of my interest and telling him that I was thinking of doing an article on Chesterton. He offered to provide any assistance I might need, and he did. Responding to a question I asked him about what he thought Chesterton’s reaction would be to Catholic politicians who describe themselves as “practicing Catholics” while supporting and promoting things that are in direct violation of Catholic teaching, Mr. Ahlquist responded that Chesterton had little regard for “politicians who were only concerned about getting into office and staying there rather than doing anything worthwhile.”
Good Humor, Common Sense and a Gift of Prophecy
He then gave me more than I asked for. He talked of Chesterton’s views on the then very fashionable eugenics movement and its relationship to moral problems that were only beginning to take root while the great man was still alive.
“Chesterton’s prophetic writing about eugenics shows where a lot of the modern ideas about birth control, cloning and stem cell research come from. He predicted that birth control would lead to abortion and then to infanticide. He predicted that birth control would be instituted into public policy ‘applied to everybody and imposed by nobody.’ And he certainly showed that all these crazy ideas arise the farther we get away from the teachings of the Church.”
Chesterton’s entire life was a search for the truth, and that search would eventually lead him to his conversion to the Catholic faith. His life was also an ongoing battle in defense of that truth, a battle he waged in debate and in his writings. He had much to contend with. The era during which he lived witnessed the rise of atheism, socialism, communism, capitalism, moral relativism and the awful eugenics movement. He was a contemporary of many of the authors of these movements, and he recognized, early on, the inherent threat to human freedom that all these isms and movements represented. And yet he approached the battle in good humor and with a common sense that has not since been seen in this world.
As I have learned in my brief research for this article, to sum up the contribution of the “apostle of common sense” in a mere thousand words is virtually impossible. And to describe his approach to the stupidity he encountered without quoting him is pointless. So I leave the reader with one classic example of how Chesterton dealt with that stupidity — in this case atheists and moral relativists who saw no real distinction between human beings and other forms of life, while expressing disdain for Catholic dogma and tolerance for everything.
Creating dogmas, he explained, is what human beings, and only human beings, do. On the other hand, “trees have no dogmas, and turnips are also quite broadminded.”