And the Return to Common Sense
GILBERT Keith Chesterton, otherwise known as G. K. Chesterton, was a towering figure in the first half of the twentieth century. He was a journalist, a theologian, a philosopher, a poet, a novelist, among many other things. What does he have to say about the need to return to common sense, to battle the moral ills of our day?
In Orthodoxy he said this was the gigantic secret of the Christian: joy. The Man Who Was Thursday, the novel Chesterton wrote, in which he explored the meaning of his own suffering.
My attraction to Chesterton began, I was home-educated all my life, and I think if there was one author I owe my education to, it would be Chesterton, his joy, if anyone, if any author, any character in history, I know just in his own person and in his writings, the way he carried himself, just -- he encapsulated how wonderful, what a happy thing it is to be a Christian.
Standing at six foot four inches and weighing 300 pounds, Chesterton was a big man, the same man who cleverly remarked, that the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried. Well, his contribution to society was much bigger than himself.
G.K. Chesterton was born in England in the late 19th century, and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922, just 14 years before his death.
Chesterton was a prolific writer, with hundreds of books or stories, and over 4,000 essays, all marked by his style of great wit and humor. But Chesterton didn't just write; he debated with the greatest intellectuals of his time, like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. He argued passionately against 20th century ills, like materialism, scientific determinism, moral relativism. He defended the common man and common sense. He defended the poor, the family, beauty, Christianity, and the Catholic faith.
"Chesterton said that we live in an age of uncommon nonsense, and that is so true, so many people say in the news -- you see, they are talking around things, in the news media, the news corporations are able to talk complete lies -- you need the most basic common sense to think through things. Chesterton was a man of great common sense, and he had a huge command of the English language; he was able to express himself very well. He uses a lot of paradoxes, one of the ways he uses common sense, to point out hidden truths."
Some people may know him by his popular priest-detective series, "Father Brown" or by the book that contributed to C.S. Lewis' conversion to Christianity, The Everlasting Man. Or sadly, like most, they've never heard of Chesterton at all.
"I believe that Chesterton represents a tradition of renewal for the Church in the modern world. The mission of our Chesterton Institute was expressed by T.S. Eliot, a great admirer of Chesterton, and at the time of Chesterton's death, Eliot wrote, that it was important to continue in our day the work that Chesterton began in his. So the Chesterton Institute seeks to continue that work."
Now I know many other writers spoke against the same things Chesterton spoke about, --against-- moral relativism, secularism, social injusticies. Now why specifically him?
Perhaps the importance of Chesterton would be better understood, if we thought of a writer who continued Chesterton's work. C.S. Lewis regarded himself as a disciple of Chesterton. Chesterton believed that what people needed more than anything, was to recover a sense of wonder, that is, to discover the presence of God in the world from which God seemed to be absent. He said that to find God means finding good. And finding the good in people is to find God. He said this requires a special kind of insight. Chesterton once wrote that he gave a little child a gift of a picture book. Here was his advice to the child. He said, "Don't believe in anything that can't be told in colored pictures, through the imagination."
So a lot of Chesterton's writing is this indirect evangelization, He tells a story; he writes a poem, and in that he hides Christian truth. This year, in 2008, is the 100th anniversary of the writing of one of Chesterton's best novels, The Man Who Was Thursday. This gives you perhaps a good illustration of how Chesterton sought to evangelize a culture through literature.
Can you talk about why he is so hard to read, for young people, to be attracted to him once again. It takes a bit of an effort to understand him, and yet he is so badly needed, his way of thinking, his way of reasoning, so what do you suggest for our generation?
I suggest that the best way to read Chesterton is to submerge yourself in Chesterton. The difficulty we have when we hear someone who is speaking with an English accent; you adjust your hearing, slightly, and then you catch on, and when you do, you find that Chesterton is deep, but he's funny. Chesterton believed that the deepest truths are told through jokes. Chesterton said, "The opposite of being funny is not being serious; the opposite of being funny is being not funny." That is, that you can be serious and humorous at the same time.
Left to right: George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton is often called the apostle of common sense. Those who read him and see the truths behind his words -- well, what do they have to say?
"I think for me, there's not one specific point but I know that when I went to the university, my parents always encouraged me to seek books that were truthful, continuing to learn about the faith, and beauty, and all that kind of thing, I think I picked up a book of Chesterton at one point, and just started reading it and opening it up randomly, and I was just kind of blown away by what I was reading, it was ... he was putting things that I had learned about truth, about the faith, in words that I had never heard put before. And I was actually laughing out loud as I was reading it, To me it was quite unusual to read something that is so true and religious and yet makes you laugh at the same time.
"Other Christians love his writings just as well, and people that just love literature, but... what was it about him? He was a happy man; that is a counter-cultural thing, and he has this quote, I know this from Peter Kreeft, from some of his talks, and one of the things Peter Kreeft quotes a lot about Chesterton is that he said: "Paganism was a big thing; Christianity was bigger, and everything since has been comparatively small."
The Greek world had some good, noble things about it, and Christianity was sort of the definitive thing, and what's come since is this modern dullness, and what Chesterton talked about a lot is that people return to hedonism, you know, that kind of paganism, that is supposed to satisfy everything, and life is actually boring.
So people these days are often bored and not happy, and Chesterton was happy and was delighted with simple things; very simple things."
He wrote an entire essay, named "A Piece of Chalk," in 2,000 words. I just couldn't imagine you could write something as captivating with such wisdom at the same time that he weaves into the whole thing, about a piece of chalk, and I think towards the end he says something along the lines of "I would have written more, about all the other things you find in your pocket, such as the pocket knife, but the time of great epics is passed." The pocket knife could be an epic experience. A piece of chalk was an epic thing, as big, if not bigger, than the grandest of mountains.
When you read his writings, you get the sense of the wonder of a child, almost of the mischieviousness of a child, and at the same time, I think he was given a great gift of wisdom, like the wisdom of Solomon, I think, among the greatest philosophers and theologians that the world has ever known.
Well, why is he not popular, if he has such a response to all these things?
"I think, from my standpoint, there are two reasons. One is that we live in a world that has become very, very specialized. Most people do not understand the concept of a broad, liberal arts education. You go to school and you study your specific trade or specialization, you become an expert in that, so the world has become very compartmentalized. Chesterton was never compartmentalized; he wrote about everything.
Because of that, our modern world does not know what to do with him. And he wrote so much; just an absolute prolific writer. I think the other thing is that he argued against materialism, he argued against consumerism, he argued against so many things that are happening to the family, he argued against atheism, and he argued so well that our modern world, quite frankly, does not have the tools and is incapable of challenging him, because to argue with Chesterton is to lose.
So our modern world does not like to lose, when it comes to these supposed advances in every sphere of life. And Chesterton puts the brakes on. We need a perspective here, an eternal perspective, and we need to see the truth. I don't think our modern world can handle that, and they don't know what to do with him, because he put everything so well.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton Website: Leicester, England. --- G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton Quotations
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NEVER in the history of Western civilization, have Christians of all backgrounds faced such persecution for trying to help people see the humanity of the unborn, honouring the sanctity of marriage, and attempting to protect youth from the media's normalization of sex, drugs, and violence. We fear the worst is to come. Christians have got to cooperate like never before, and it will be easier if we understand each other.
Here we lay Catholicism at the feet of our Evangelical friends. We are not trying to gloss over differences, but our hope is that all Christians will love one another, as He has loved us (Jn 13:34). We are not apologists. We are simply a Catholic couple responding to Jesus' prayer "that they may all be one, as you Father, are in me and I am in you." (Jn 17:21) "Let us not give up meeting together... let us encourage one another." (Heb 10:25), "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Mat 18:20).
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