GK CHESTERTON died 85 years ago on 14th JUNE, 1936.
The Wise Men
Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain,
That we may lose the way. (GK Chesterton)
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in Kensington, London, the son of Marie Louise, née Grosjean, and Edward Chesterton (1841–1922). He was baptised into the Church of England, though his family themselves were irregularly practising Unitarians. (1)
His intellectual curiosity led him to dabble in different beliefs, including the occult, Spiritualism and atheism. His later perspective on the human condition was reflected in his observation that “all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit into the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world.” (2)
His comment on the anti-Catholic accounts he absorbed as a young man and which he unquestioningly (at least initially) accepted could be applicable in every way today:
“As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind-the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. I was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated that it was too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. “ (3)
“One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool’s paradise. This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent. Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask on a black world. The state of the Christian could not be at once so comfortable that he was a coward to cling to it, and so uncomfortable that he was a fool to stand it.” (4)…..
“Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Lion did. The Quakers (we were told) were the only valid Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes. What could it all mean?”(5)
In modern times, today, as well as in Chesterton’s day, Christianity has been attacked for forcing the family and marriage onto us – forcing women into servitude in the home; but then, in our time, marriage is suddenly elevated into the most desirable thing for all humanity when Christianity is criticised for denying marriage because “love is love.” Again, the Catholic custom of simplicity, penance and fasting, (cast as repressive and morbid) is suddenly taken up as a discovery that is good for mental and physical health, while the Catholic richness, pomp and ceremony is criticised.
Chesterton stated that he wished to be quite fair to the critics of Catholicism and he did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong. “I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed. Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing, but that thing must be very strange and solitary. There are men who are misers, and also spendthrifts, but they are rare. There are men sensual and also ascetic, but they are rare. But if this mass of mad contradictions really existed, Quakerish and bloodthirsty, too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere yet pandering preposterously to the lust of the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge, a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, if this evil existed, then there was in this evil something extreme and unique. For I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such exceptional corruption. Christianity (theoretically speaking) was in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals. They gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness. Such a paradox of evil rose to the stature of the supernatural. It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope. An historic institution which never went right, is really quite as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong. The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was that Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell. Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist.“
And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation … would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.….
It was odd, Chesterton observed, “that the modern world charged Christianity with bodily luxury and with artistic pomp. But then it was also odd, very odd, that the modern world itself combined extreme bodily luxury with an extreme absence of artistic pomp.“
“The modern man thought Beckett’s robes too rich and his meals too poor. But then the modern man was really exceptional in history; no man before ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes. The modern man found the Church too simple in exactly where modern life is too complex; he found the Church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy. The man who disliked the plain fasts and feasts was mad on entrees. The man who disliked vestments wore a pair of preposterous trousers.” (6)
Chesterton married Frances Blogg in 1901, a marriage which lasted for the rest of his life. He credited Frances with leading him back to Anglicanism, though he later considered Anglicanism to be a ‘pale imitation’. (7) He entered full communion with the Catholic Church in 1922. He described the reaction to his conversion as follows:
“In some muddled way people have confused the natural remarks of converts, about having found moral peace, with some idea of their having found mental rest, in the sense of mental inaction. They might as well say that a man who has completely recovered his health, after an attack of palsy or St Vitus’ Dance, signalises his healthy state by sitting absolutely still like a stone. Recovering his health means recovering his power of moving in the right way, as distinct from the wrong way; but he will probably move a great deal more than before. To become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think.” (7A)
The Wikipedia entry described Chesterton as “a large man, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and weighing around 20 stone 6 pounds (130 kg; 286 lb). His girth gave rise to an anecdote during the First World War, when a lady in London asked why he was not “out at the Front”; he replied, “If you go round to the side, you will see that I am.”
On another occasion he remarked to his friend George Bernard Shaw, “To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England.” Shaw retorted, “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.”
Chesterton usually wore a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand, and a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He had a tendency to forget where he was supposed to be going and [would] miss the train that was supposed to take him there. It is reported that on several occasions he sent a telegram to his wife Frances from an incorrect location, writing such things as “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” to which she would reply, ‘Home.” (9)
His journey to Catholicism is set out in his spiritual autobiography “Orthodoxy”, where he said that he had attempted “in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it my philosophy, for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.” (10)
Dale Ahlquist observed, in the forward to Chesterton’s commentary on his conversion, “The Catholic Church and Conversion” :
“He defended the Catholic Church for a long time before joining it. He admitted that he was standing at the door ushering others in without having entered it himself. His friend and philosophical opponent George Bernard Shaw used to make fun of what he called Chesterton’s ‘Roman Catholic hobby.’ When Chesterton actually did become Catholic in 1922, however, Shaw fired off a letter saying ‘Gilbert! This is going too far!’” (11)
The imagery of his journey of discovery of the faith was whimsically set out as a literal journey of exciting exploration in his endeavours to illustrate the complexities of the Creed that had fascinated him and enlivened and enriched his life:
“I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas…There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have, in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace oneself up to discover New South Wales and then realise, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really Old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? …..
[T]his is the path that I here propose to follow. I wish to set forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance. For the very word ‘Romance’ has within it the mystery and ancient meaning of Rome…..
[N]early all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. It is this achievement of my creed that I shall chiefly pursue in these pages. But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in the yacht. I discovered England.” (12)
He pondered on the criticisms of Catholicism where the priests darken and embitter the world, saying that “I look at the world and simply discover that they don’t. Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.” (13)
The perennial unfashionableness of being Catholic was highlighted by his awareness of the “ever ancient, ever new” character of Catholicism, with its complexities – its retrograde and revolutionary ideas in any given age:
“It would be very undesirable that modern men should accept Catholicism merely as a novelty; but it is a novelty. It does act upon its existing environment with the peculiar force and freshness of a novelty. Even those who denounce it generally denounce it as a novelty; as an innovation and not merely as a survival. They talk of the ‘advanced party in the Church of England; they talk of the ‘aggression’ of the Church of Rome. When they talk of an Extremist they are as likely to mean a Ritualist as a Socialist. Given any normal, respectable Protestant family, Anglican or Puritan, in England or America, we shall find that Catholicism is actually for practical purposes treated as a new religion, that is, a revolution. It is not a survival. It is not in that sense an antiquity. It does not necessarily owe anything to tradition. In places where tradition can do nothing for it, in places where all the tradition is against it, it is intruding on its own merits; not as a tradition, but a truth.” (14)
“A century or two hence Spiritualism may be a tradition and Socialism may be a tradition and Christian Science may be a tradition. But Catholicism will not be a tradition. It will still be a nuisance and a new and dangerous thing.” (15)
At a time when the British Empire required adherence to a particular flavour of patriotism, the Church of England reflecting the nationalism of faith, and when the more sinister tones of patriotism in protestant Germany were identifying the Lutheran church with the state, Chesterton commented:
“I have at last begun to realise what the worthy liberal or Socialist of Balham or Battersea really means when he says he is an Internationalist and that humanity should be preferred to the narrowness of nations. It dawned on me quite suddenly, after I had talked to such a man for many hours, that of course he had really been brought up to believe that God’s Englishmen were the Chosen Race.,… And when I realised that, I realised the whole story. That was why they were excited by the exceedingly dull theory of the Internationalist. That was why the brotherhood of nations, which to me was a truism, to them was a trumpet. That was why it seemed such a thrilling paradox to say that we must love foreigners; it had in it the divine paradox that we must love enemies… It was the marvel of discovering that foreigners had hands, let alone hearts. There was in that excitement a sort of stifled cry: ‘Look! Frenchmen also have two legs! See! Germans have noses in the same place as we!’
Now a Catholic, especially a born Catholic, can never understand that attitude, because from the first his religion is rooted in the unity of the race of Adam, the one and only Chosen Race. He is loyal to his own country; indeed he is generally ardently loyal to it, such local affections being in other ways very natural to his religious life, with its shrines and relics. But just as the relic follows upon the religion, so the local loyalty follows on the universal brotherhood of all men. The Catholic says, ‘Of course we must love all men; but what do all men love? They love their lands, their lawful boundaries, the memories of their fathers. That is the justification of being national, that it is normal.’ But the Protestant patriot never really thought of any patriotism except his own. In that sense Protestantism is patriotism. But unfortunately it is only patriotism. It starts with it and never gets beyond it.” (16)
Unapologetically (maybe he could, as an ex-protestant) he described different versions of the faith in terms that resonate with us in today’s “woke” culture with its “virtue-signalling”:
“Protestants are Catholics gone wrong; that is what is really meant by saying they are Christians. Sometimes they have gone really wrong; but not often have they gone ahead with their own particular wrong. Thus a Calvinist is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of the Sovereignty of God. But when he makes it mean that God wishes particular people to be damned, we may say with all restraint that he has become a rather morbid Catholic. In point of fact, he is a diseased Catholic; and the disease left to itself would be death or madness. But, as a matter of fact, the disease did not last long, and is itself now practically dead. But every step he takes back towards humanity is a step towards Catholicism. Thus a Quaker is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of gentle simplicity and truth. But when he made it mean that it is a lie to say ‘you’ and an act of idolatry to take off your hat to a lady, it is not too much to say that whether or not he had a hat off, he certainly had a tile loose. But as a matter of fact he himself found it necessary to dispense with the eccentricity (and the hat) and to leave the straight road that would have led him to a lunatic asylum. Only every step he takes towards common sense is a step towards Catholicism. In so far as he was right he was a Catholic; and in so far as he was wrong he has not himself been able to remain a Protestant.
“To us therefore, it is henceforth impossible to think of a Quaker as a figure at the beginning of a new Quaker history or the Calvinist as the founder of a new Calvinist world. It is quite obvious that they are simply characters in our own Catholic history, only characters who caused a great deal of trouble by trying to do something that we could do better and that they did not really do at all.
“Now some may suppose that this can be maintained of the older sects like Calvinists and Quakers, but cannot be maintained of modern movements like those of Socialists or Spiritualists. But they will be quite wrong. The covering or continental character of the Church applies just as much to modern manias as to the old religious manias; it applies quite as much to Materialists or Spiritualists as to Puritans. In all of them you find that some Catholic dogma is first, taken for granted; then exaggerated into an error; and then generally reacted against and rejected as an error, bringing the individual in question a few steps back again on the homeward road. And this is almost always the mark of such as heretic; that while he will wildly question any other Catholic dogma, he never dreams of questioning his own favourite Catholic dogma and does not even seem to know that it can be questioned. It never occurred to the Calvinist that anybody might use his liberty to deny or limit the divine omnipotence, or to the Quaker that anyone could question the supremacy of simplicity. That is exactly the situation of the Socialist. Bolshevism and every shade of any such theory of brotherhood is based upon one unfathomably mystical Catholic dogma: the equality of men. The Communists stake everything on the equality of man, as the Calvinists stake everything on the omnipotence of God. They ride it to death as the others rode their dogma to death, turning their horse into a nightmare. But it never seems to occur to them that some people do not believe in the Catholic dogma of the mystical equality of men. Yet there are many, even among Christians, who are so heretical as to question it. The Socialists get into a great tangle when they try to apply it; they compromise with their own ideals; they modify their own doctrine; and so find themselves, like the Quakers and the Calvinists, after all their extreme extravagances, a day’s march nearer Rome.”
“In short, the story of these sects is not one of straight lines striking outwards and onwards, though if it were they would all be striking in different directions. It is a pattern of curves continually returning into the continent and common life of their and our civilisation; and the summary of that civilisation and central sanity is the philosophy of the Catholic Church….. To us, Christian Scientists are simply people with one idea, which they have never learnt to balance and combine with all the other ideas. That is why the wealthy businessman so often becomes a Christian Scientist. He is not used to ideas and one idea goes to his head, like one glass of wine to a starving man. But the Catholic Church is used to living with ideas and walks among all those very dangerous wild beasts with the poise and the lifted head of the lion-tamer. The Christian Scientist can go on monotonously repeating his one idea and remain a Christian Scientist. But if ever he really goes on to any other ideas, he will be so much nearer to being a Catholic. When the convert has once seen the world like that, with one balance of ideas and a number of other ideas that have left it and lost their balance, he does not in fact experience any of the inconveniences that he might reasonably have feared before that silent but stunning revelation. He is not worried by being told that there is something in Spiritualism or something in Christian Science. He knows that there is something in everything. But he is moved by the more impressive fact that he finds everything in something.” (17).
In keeping with his eclectic ideas, Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were both advocates of Distributism, as an alternative to the heartless and soulless application of Capitalism. As a policy, it was based on the principles of Catholic social teaching, as expounded by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) and Pope Pius XI in Quadrogesimo anno (1931), in which laissez-faire capitalism and state socialism are viewed as equally exploitative. The model put forward was of cooperatives and member-owned mutual organisations, small businesses, coupled with anti-trust regulation. The Basque regions of Spain and France saw the creation of the Mondragon Corporation, by a Jesuit priest, Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, in 1956, which is now the seventh largest Spanish company in terms of asset turnover and the leading business group in the Basque Country. At the end of 2016 it employed 74,117 people in 257 companies in four areas: finance, industry, retail and knowledge. By 2019, 81,507 people were employed. (18).
(1) Unitarianism was a Protestant theological movement that defined God as one entity and not a Trinity. They placed emphasis on reason in interpreting Scripture and freedom of conscience.
(2 – 6 and 10 – 13) GK Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”, Sam Torode Books Arts, Nashville Tennessee, Centennial Edition.
7) Wikipedia.(7A) GK Chesterton, “The Catholic Church and Conversion”, (“Conversion”), Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1926/1990, at pp. 105-106. (9 and 18) Wikipedia
(14 – 17) Conversion