Defiling Our Beloved G.K. Chesterton

I’ve just never liked G.K. Chesterton — which, among the conservative Christians with whom I sometimes (though, as an Episcopalian, not often) travel, is almost enough to make me a Bad Person. Yet by the time I’ve unraveled one of those Chestertonian paradoxes, not only do I have a headache, but I also don’t feel that I’ve come away with a single lasting idea.  I would like to think that there was a philosopher like Chesterton who made Christianity seem sane and every modern outlook seem ridiculous. Yet I could never see how Chesterton lived up to this promise.

Lo, I finally found someone who shares my views on Chesterton (and expresses them better than I ever could)!  Here is the late English historian Maurice Cowling writing about Chesterton in his cantankerous, three-volume Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern Engand:

About Chesterton’s Christian polemic, there was no despair. There was, however, contortion, and the question we have to ask is, given that he could not assume the truth of Christianity [because in Chesterton’s view one always has a free choice among equally fantastic assumptions], did not feel it appropriate to make plain statements and wished to avoid the seriousness of the High Victorians, in what ways did he justify it?

I agree completely. Chesterton fanatics sometimes talk as if his wonderfulness just can’ t be doubted. For some reason, he makes a lot of people feel that it would just be not in the right spirit to subject him to critical examination.  But there’s no reason not to do so. Just because Chesterton makes you feel good doesn’t mean that he’s sound.

Orthodoxy was a record of the process by which Chesteron had become a Christian and a statement of what he took it that Christianity meant.  Not all parts were equally impressive.  The first four or so chapters in places were painful while the autobiography was fragmentary and unsatisfactory, and did not describe the difference between being ‘ten minutes in advance of the trust’ and being ‘eighteen hundred years behind it.’

It’s true: As a record of how Chesterton came to Christianity, Orthodoxy is completely unpersuasive. Every sentence conjures up the Chesterton persona. An actual person who doubts and discovers, and changes his thinking as a result, never emerges.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton’s chief tactical point was that the main Christian dogmas were more liberal in their implications than the self-consciously liberal dogmas by which they were assualted. . . . This was not put very well.  But it was connected with a harder idea — that of Christianity as the “slash of the sword” which would destroy natural religion, the Arnoldian compromise, and the Inner Light, and establish that the world was a good deal less “regular” than it looked.  It was to a world where “life” was “unreasonable” and superstition abounding, and where “earthquakes of emotion” could be unloosed about a word that Christian vigilance was presented as the response.

In other words, Chesterton is an irrationalist. His seeks to paralyze the intellect in order to make room for awe.  Admittedly, there can be no religion without awe (at least I think that’s right). Still, if Cowling is right, Chesterton opposes the traditions of natural theology and faith seeking understanding. His Christianity tries to keep reason permanently cabined.

It is difficult to be fair to Orthodoxy, or to know whether its glibness or its whimsy was the more offensive. . . .  Chesterton had little talent for philosophical, theological or theoretical statement. All he had — though he had this to the point of genius — was a talent for compressing long arguments into short paradoxes which left the reader to suggest the application  for himself.  This talent was remarkable, and was obvious throughout his writing.  It was at its best in The Thing.  Its limitations were most obvious in The Everlasting Man where the attempt at a philosophy failed because it was beyond his capability.  . . . [T] structure of th[at] book crack[ed] under the strain of its own weightlessness.

Ouch! This is a curmedgeonly assessment, to be sure, but it rings true.  All those Chesterton lovers experience themselves as having completed a long and thrilling philosophical adventure. But it rarely seems that they can remember the itinerary. What makes Christianity in the end so much more satisfying? The answer never sounds very convincing when Chesterton himself isn’t saying it. He creates the feeling of philosophical achievement without the reality. 

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44 thoughts on “Defiling Our Beloved G.K. Chesterton

  1. A side note, almost unworthy of mention: What turned me off to Chesterton (and as a child I loved the Father Brown stories) was his rather extreme anti-semitism.


    • @Winston, Yes, but not just that. As Orwell pointed out, Chesterton had to prove – over and over again – that Catholics are superior to everyone else, which is why so many of the Father Brown stories are bent out of shape by bigotry.


  2. Adam Gopnik had a good piece on Chesterton in the New Yorker back in 2008; it’s behind a paywall, but the abstract is here. Sample:

    A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normal bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts time-servers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post office alone provides! Glorifying the post office beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you’re new to mail.

    Gopnik also discusses Chesterton’s anti-Semitism.


  3. Strange thing: I have always liked C.S. Lewis; and it is clear from Mere Christianity and other sources that Chesterton was a big influence on Lewsi; but I have never liked Chesterton. I guess transitive properties do not hold in cases like this.


  4. Googling around, it seems that the Gopnik essay is the cutting edge of Chesterton criticism. Pub Ed’s excerpt of the essay I think is spot on.

    I have nothing to say about Chesterton’s alleged anti-semitism, since I haven’t read any of the relevant texts. You can find plenty of arguments out there pro and con. I would just add that, for better or worse, for jewish and gentile writers alike, the “jewish question” in Chesterton’s day was a live question about which all writers were expected to have opinions. It is not surprising that about 97% of those opinions offend us today, since for us very premise that there should be public discussion of it at all makes us squirm. There are plenty of other beloved figures of that era who also had offensive views — Churchill, for example.


  5. Chesterton was a first-rate writer. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t at some point think, “Damn, I wish I’d written The Man Who Was Thursday.”

    Only I’d have subtitled it “A Farce.”


  6. I’m surprised no one has brought up TS Eliot’s line on Chesterton: “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas. I see no evidence that it thinks.”

    It’s incredibly frustrating to try to read Chesterton as if he’s a philosopher, but I can (and do) read him for his brilliant imagination. You quote Cowling as saying, “All he had — though he had this to the point of genius — was a talent for compressing long arguments into short paradoxes which left the reader to suggest the application for himself.” That’s enough for me, really.


    • @William Brafford, I very much agree. Although I’m a great fan of Chesterton’s writing, I find almost nothing in his politics or religion that I agree with. Jorge Luis Borges was an admirer of Chesterton’s, but felt that Chesterton’s intent in writing and his effect were quite dissimilar (to paraphrase, Chesterton intended to write fairy tales where the moral centre is exalted, but inadvertently wrote horrific stories – labyrinths with no centres).


  7. I grew up in an evangelical, conservative home and first approached Chesterton with great excited, with the anticipation of the kind of awe you describe. The reading experience was very airy, though I remember feeling a bit guilty, chastising myself that I must be missing something.

    Andrew, I would love to hear your thoughts on Walter Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, which has much fluffier exterior, but seems to have a more solid center, though it ends with a sort of 1980s version of a Chestertonian paradox.


  8. The difference in Eliot and Chesterton is one of literary taste, not necessarily soundness of logic. It doesn’t make anyone less of a Christian because they can’t enjoy Chesterton. Tastes vary. I don’t like Eliot’s theories of poetry or his dismissal of Shelley, Blake, and Swinburne, but I still recognize that he was a great thinker, just not to my own tastes. I think the argument that Chesterton was some kind of reactionary incapable of profound thought is just wrong. Is there any better defense of the Sermon on the Mount than when Chesterton says “It is certainly not the morality of another age, but it might be of another world.”


  9. Re: John – The first time I read Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, I was a little bewildered and unimpressed – but it grows on you. Percy never struck me as an incredible writer, but he managed to combine both the types of pithy sayings for which Chesterton is famous with, as you say, a strong center. Lost in the Cosmos seems to have a set of pretty cogent thoughts on the limits of rationality, the relationship of mind and body, and semiotics, among other topics. It’s a pretty underappreciated book.


  10. Chesterton strikes me as someone literary folks would read when they want to be reassured that they reached the proper conclusion but not someone that folks would be moved by if they didn’t already buy into everything.

    Sort of like Lee Strobel except with a high school reading level.


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  14. Austin
    I think people like Chesterton, even find him lovable, not because they think he’s a philosopher who makes sense of Christianity, but because he’s a wonderful person and writer who tries, despite his equally wonderful flaws, to make sense of it, and in doing so encourages others. That’s why he has lasted, a writer with a big heart and a big sense of humour, unlike his friend Belloc.


    • @M Moran,
      Belloc survives. THe reason Belloc has dimmed is that it is more difficult for non-Catholics to enjoy someone so militant. Also, his histories, while full of genuinely valuable insight are also riddled with errors.

      I like Belloc even more than Chesterton because I enjoy his fighting spirit, his willingness to make enemies for his cause, and well, while Chesterton sparkles like fireworks, occasionally Belloc’s prose shines like the aurora borealis.


  15. Just wanted to note that several commenters mentioned Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker pieces. While he’s a very charming writer, I’m not sure that he states as explicitly as he might his own apparent bias against Christianity; I felt, for example, that his piece on C. S. Lewis was weighted too heavily toward a kind of subtle suggestion that Lewis was a bit of a sexual pervert, whatever his other struggles and complexities and remarkable abilities might have been…the impression a casual reader might have taken from the piece was that everything about Lewis was a bit compromised, including the subconscious motives behind his belief in Christianity. I have long felt Lewis was glib in certain ways, and too reliant on rhetorical sleight of hand rather than substance in his apologetics, but these are entirely different types of criticism–ones that might also, perhaps, be leveled against Chesterton.


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  17. I’d recommend two studies of Chesterton as a thinker:

    Kenner, Hugh. Paradox in Chesterton. Introd. by Herbert Marshall McLuhan. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1947.

    and more recently,

    Wills, Garry. Chesterton. Revised Edition. New York: Random House, 2001.


  18. If you’re interested in argumentative apologetics without the rhetorical flourishes, I’d suggest anything by Richard Swinburne, of Oxford University.

    His writing style–argumentative and clear– couldn’t be any more different than Chesterton’s.

    Chesterton, you might say, tries to show the goodness and beauty of Christianity. Swinburne tries to show its truth.

    See any of the books listed at his Web site:


  19. I feel compelled to ask why so many think of Chesterton as a writer of ideas (failed or otherwise,) rather than as an artist. No one here has mentioned, for instance, Chesterton’s literary-visual genius: his skill at “painting” sunsets, his use of color, the dreamlike imagery that often saturates his stories. His best work is brilliant as art, regardless of it’s philosophical qualities.

    And what of his work as a critic? The same aesthetic bent that compromised his apologetics gave him a natural insight into literature and the arts.


    • @jordan, He’s also got a knack for synthesis and explanation. I remember reading his book on Aquinas and being somewhat impressed by the prose and the interesting ideas it inspired. Then I read Aquinas and wondered how he’d managed to explain him so clearly and succinctly in so few pages. Not too many Aquinas scholars have pulled that trick off.


      • @Rufus F.,

        Here’s what the Thomist Etienne Gilson had to say about Chesterton:

        “Etienne Gilson . . . [w]hen St. Thomas appeared . . . said to a friend of mine ‘Chesterton makes one despair. I have been studying St. Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book.’ After Gilbert’s death, asked to give an appreciation, he returned to the same topic—‘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. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a “clever” book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called “wit” of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. He has guessed all that which they had tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas. Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to the others, he apologized for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty. That is all they can see of him.’” (Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943 619 – 20)


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  21. I’m glad I’m not the only one who, while not going so far as to say that the Emperor has no clothes, at least thinks you can see his boxers in places through them.


  22. Seems an odd way of demonstrating that he doesn’t understand Chesterton’s purpose. There are people who want to take GKC down a few notches, but they never quite seem to figure out how.


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  25. So the book Orthodoxy fails entirely to be a certain thing it never tried to be: A set of syllogisms comprising a coherent and entirely logical philosophical argument. And I needed this article to tell me that…


  26. YES, YES, the emperor has never been more naked.
    Orthodoxy is unbearable. Circular reasoning, florid as heck, and so empty. Christians should hide him in a closet because he does a disservice to the faith.


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