Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Man for All Seasons

Why everybody loves G. K. Chesterton

Andrew Ferguson


Why does everyone love him so? Well, not everyone, of course. Here’s what I mean: “Today Chesterton is not among the best known of authors,” wrote the right-wing anarcho-capitalist Joseph Sobran. “But among those who do know him, he is one of the best loved.” And those who do love him are as likely to be on the left as on the right, among vegans and carnivores, bohos and ultramontanes, theocrats, agnostics, and Bible burners alike. Almost everyone.

Sobran, a gifted and prolific crank, is a case in point. From the first rank of Chestertonians we might pluck any number of prominent writers who could otherwise be counted on to disagree about everything but in which direction the sun will set this evening. The atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens lists him among his favorite writers, while George Weigel, the conservative Catholic apologist, devoted a chapter of his Letters to a Young Catholic to a series of gently annotated Chesterton quotes. Garry Wills, the liberal Catholic historian, was moved to write a book-length appreciation of him: “For the big things in him I still feel a kind of awe.” And Alan Watts, the pantheist popularizer of Zen Buddhism and, before his death in 1973, one of the world’s foremost apostles of free love and psychotropic drugs, considered Chesterton perhaps the only orthodox Christian worth admiring, for his “gâité d’esprit” and his understanding that “real religion is the transformation of anxiety into laughter.”

This transideological admiration for Chesterton doesn’t necessarily count in his favor. It can mean one of two things: Either he is a writer vastly misunderstood by at least half his admirers, or he’s a writer whose work seduces readers with its creamy English charm alone, since its philosophical and political substance is too flimsy to contend with. Ian Ker makes clear in his new biography of Chesterton that he thinks at least part of this second proposition is correct: Chesterton has not been taken seriously enough, Ker contends, as a “major English writer,” an artist and a thinker both, heir to Carlyle and Newman. In amassing material for his biography Ker was surprised, he writes, to discover the dearth of critical literature on his subject. With his own book and a new selection of Chesterton’s work—The Everyman Chesterton, edited by Ker—he hopes to fill the need, and assumes there is one.

Both books show that the peculiarly English charm was an indispensable part of Chesterton’s appeal. The charm can be diverting; it is unavoidable in any case. Chesterton is a funny writer who doesn’t tell jokes; the humor bubbles up organically, from the nature of the material and from the attitudes the author strikes. He made a virtue of self-deprecation, one of the few Christian apologists to do so. (Why deprecate, after all, when you can flagellate?) He never troubles the reader with an argument when an aphorism will do, and he is always playful, even as he lays traps for the unsuspecting.

To take one example from The Everyman Chesterton: In his introduction to Orthodoxy, his most popular nonfiction book and the only one that Ker includes in its entirety, Chesterton grouses about “the charge of being flippant. Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things. . . . I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. . . . It is as easy as lying, because it is lying.” Has any writer ever tossed a fatter pitch to his critics? For the book that follows, with its lighthearted treatment of the nature of man and God, is easy to characterize as sheer flippancy, with one clever paradox piled upon another still-cleverer paradox—a dazzling feat of ironymongering. Yet such an admission, offered by the monger at the outset, makes it harder to sustain the indictment. Even people disinclined to like him will find it difficult to dislike a writer so self-aware, or to dismiss him too quickly. He knew how to make make his reader want to stick around.

Chesterton published Orthodoxy in 1908, and it set the trajectory and tone for much of the career that followed. Chesterton was thirty-four and already established as a controversialist with a bias for tradition, attending but not quite at home in the Anglican church. He was born to unmoneyed and unconventional parents at the crescendo of the Victorian era. In his autobiography, published in 1936, just after his death, he recalls his mother remonstrating his father when he came home to announce that he had joined the local parish vestry. “Oh, Edward, don’t!” she said. “You will be so respectable! We never have been respectable yet; don’t let’s begin now.”

Avoiding the most fashionable forms of respectability became a central theme of his life and work. He failed to finish college and went into publishing, at last making a living from books and lectures and a series of weekly newspapers that he edited, wrote for, and occasionally founded. By the time of his adulthood, the country’s literate classes were already deep into the great post-Victorian inversion, according to which the quickest path to respectability lay in a theatrically courageous rejection of the centuries-old canons of British respectability. The dazzling careers of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells were testimony to the success of this method: Both were admired and enriched by an aspiring middle class titillated by their embrace of sexual freedom, secularism, pacifism, and a few isms we now recognize as less savory.

Along with Wells and Shaw, Chesterton contended with such antiestablishment establishmentarians as Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, the Webbs, a small army of eugenicists, and more Anglican divines than you could shake a crosier at. He remained friendly with most of them, and sometimes more than friendly: The reciprocal and highly public admiration he cultivated with Shaw, his opposite in every way, would make Alphonse and Gaston look like the Bickering Bickersons.

His geniality helped him survive for much of his career as a party of one. His main target, polemically and personally, was materialism, philosophical and economic. He saw the totalitarian danger implicit in the desacralization of the world, to use Mircea Eliade’s unlovely phrase for the fading away of religious belief. The culprits were the Moderns, particularly in Science—the capitalization is a sure mark of ironic scorn—and most particularly in Darwinism. The weapon the Moderns wielded was as popular among the intellectuals of his day as among our own: the belief that the truest way to explain a human being and his behavior was to reduce him to his constituent parts, buzzing neurons and involuntary impulses and biological imperatives buried deep in the history of the species, as if the whole of the person was not superior to the sum of the parts, and could not be qualitatively different from the parts.

Sometimes a Liberal, sometimes a Tory, Chesterton never found a permanent home in politics. In most political philosophy he resisted the age-old tendency of favoring the abstract over the concrete, the general over the particular, the masses over a man. This was a mistake common among all classes and institutions, among churches and country estates alike. In a typical bit of light verse he disdained “the villas and the chapels where / I learned with little labour / The way to love my fellow man / and hate my next-door neighbour.”

He rejected capitalism because it inevitably concentrated capital, or property, in “big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth.” Socialism was worse, for it concentrated property “in the hands of even fewer people,” those lucky enough to run the government. And communism was hopeless, operating on the theory that one could best reform “the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.” He offered a magpie concoction of his own, which he called Distributism. I’ve never understood what the word was supposed to mean, and, to judge by his discussion of it here, Ker isn’t too sure, either. It involved a sharp limit on technological innovation and a radical dispersal of power and property, undertaken and enforced by . . . whom? That was a problem Chesterton never quite resolved.

But it’s Chesterton’s way of delivering his thoughts, slippery as they sometimes were, that likely explains the passion and variety of his admirers. In his essays, the sentences hum along at a pace that never slackens till the final punch line. So many of his sentences are so densely packed that they might easily serve as the summary statement of a long train of argument—the boffo finish. Instead, you find these little depth charges embedded in long paragraphs, one right alongside the other. “To admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.” “To preach egoism is to practice altruism”; “Nietzsche denied egoism simply by preaching it.” “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. He is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Some readers find it irritating after a while, all this unrelieved cleverness. The form it takes can begin to seem like trickery. The paradoxes and ironies and reverse parallelisms are snapped in half and both halves laid end to end: One statement marches right up to a semicolon or full stop; then the restatement marches right down the other side. “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.” The tics are less noticeable in the fiction, a meager helping of which Ker offers in his Everyman collection—just a selection of the short stories starring his patented sleuth, Father Brown, and no novels, nothing from The Man Who Was Thursday or The Napoleon of Notting Hill. It’s not a great loss. Sixteen Father Browns is plenty.

The glibness in Chesterton’s essays was greatly aided by competent schooling and vast reading, staggering by our own standards but fairly common for a well-educated gentleman in turn-of-the-century England. Whether it was Hindu birthing practices or the flora of Pago Pago, Chesterton knew just enough of his subjects to make plausible and sweeping assertions—but not so much that he hampered himself with qualifiers, contradictions, exceptions, or any other complications. The story goes that when he was contracted to write a biography of Saint Thomas Aquinas—one of his great underrated books, generously excerpted by Ker in his Everyman—he sat down, began dictating, and had finished half the book before he dispatched his secretary to the library to gather research on his subject.

It’s possible that the love Chestertonians feel for their man tells us more about him than about them. They can take what they want from him and leave the rest because there is so much to take. A comparison with the last century’s other great Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, is instructive. Lewis cited Chesterton as his inspiration, but Lewis meant business in a way that Chesterton did not. Chesterton made his point by paradox and indirection. Lewis’s apologetic works (as distinct from his fiction or criticism) are filled with argument, sequences of hard claims made without irony or vagueness. There’s large learning behind it, no more paradox than what’s called for, and never whimsy. To the genial unbeliever—the leaner, the person not inclined to take all this talk of God and sin too seriously—Lewis must seem a forbidding figure in light of the Chestertonian twinkle. Lewis asks to be accepted or rejected on his own terms. Chesterton is too much fun to reject outright.

I don’t mean to suggest he shouldn’t be taken seriously. For all the whimsy, he took himself seriously, and his work, too, the more so the older he got. I know many Chestertonians—fans of the light verse, the novels, and the familiar essays—who find his later apologetics, like the Aquinas book, hard to take. By the time of his death in 1936, he had done the most transgressive thing he could do in nominally Protestant, post-Christian England, where respectable philosophers were about to follow modern skepticism all the way into the arid reaches of logical positivism. He became Roman Catholic in 1922. He defended his decision with the usual gentle belligerence and, of course, table-turning irony. It was the Moderns, he insisted, who were doing what they accused Catholics of doing, abandoning intellectual curiosity and openness of mind for an “imaginative bondage” that ruled too many ideas and experiences out of court to give a compelling, much less satisfying, account of life. As a Catholic, by contrast, he could feast on “living ideas,” in “an active, fruitful, progressive and even adventurous life of the intellect.”

Centuries from now, he wrote, “Catholicism will not be a tradition. It will still be a nuisance and a new and dangerous thing.” It was his crowning paradox, not merely written down but lived out.

Ker’s biography shows great industry but not much imagination. Presumably he wanted to do justice to Chesterton’s charm as a writer and not stray too far from the texts. So paragraph after paragraph consists of partial sentences and fragments lifted straight from the essays and books and strung together to make new, very un-Chestertonian paraphrases. Readers may conclude that they should just go back to the originals and eliminate the middleman. But this is Ker’s imperfect solution to the problems that dog anyone brave enough to undertake biographies of writers, whose lives, even those of busy controversialists such as Chesterton, are played out mostly in their heads and on the page. Ker has done a service arranging the material of Chesterton’s life in chronological order and in one place, easily accessible to all the right-wingers, pinkos, pagans, theocrats, and atheists who love him as one of their own.

Andrew Ferguson is the author of Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College (Simon & Schuster, 2011) and a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.

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