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The genius and grace of G K Chesterton


RICHARD Ingrams – who used to edit Private Eye in the days when it was a lively satirical magazine rather than the Remainer rag it is now – has just published a book called The Sins of G K Chesterton in which he draws attention to GKC’s alleged anti-Semitism. Well, by doing this, Ingrams has almost certainly scuppered the old boy’s chances of becoming a saint following a campaign to canonise him begun in 1986 by Cardinal Emmett Carter, Archbishop of Toronto.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton had a mind that was almost too big for his huge body and he once said, ‘My height is six feet three inches, but my weight has never been accurately calculated.’

He was born in London where he attended St Paul’s School and studied art at the Slade. From the start he was a prolific essayist and journalist for magazines such as The Bookman, The Illustrated London News and The Speaker. From 1925 he published his own magazine, G.K.’s Weekly. His first books were collections of poetry: The Wild Knight (1900)and Greybeards at Play in the same year. In 1904 he published the brilliantly original and surreal anti-imperial satire The Napoleon of Notting Hill. He was married to Frances Blogg, to whom he was deeply devoted.

Chesterton produced perceptive studies of Browning, Dickens and Stevenson. While still an Anglican, he published in 1909 Orthodoxy – a persuasive and highly entertaining defence of the Christian faith. In 1911 he introduced his eccentric fictional detective in The Innocence of Father Brown. In 1922 he became a Roman Catholic and produced studies of St Thomas Aquinas and St Francis of Assisi. His hilarious Autobiography was published posthumously in 1936. 

A man with strong family ties, Chesterton has fond recollections of his grandfather, but they are not just fond recollections, they are moving spiritual insights:

‘People were criticising the General Thanksgiving in the Prayer Book and remarking that a good many people have very little reason to be thankful for their creation. And the old man, who was then so old that he hardly ever spoke at all, said suddenly out of his silence, “I should thank God for my creation even if I knew I was a lost soul”.’

Still in connection with his grandfather, he finds a gentle way to rebuke humbug:

‘A solemn friend of my grandfather used to go for walks on Sunday carrying the Prayer Book, without the least intention of going to church. And he calmly defended it with uplifted hand“I do it, Chessie, as an example to others”.’

It is the sheer ebullience with which he exposes humbug that is so impressive:

‘Socialists are inconsistent in saying that a peasant has no right to his private ownership of a field, but a peasantry has a right to an oilfield.’

Or again: ‘A sort of Theosophist said to me, “Good and evil, truth and falsehood, folly and wisdom are only aspects of the same upward movement of the universe.” Even at that stage it occurred to me to ask, “Supposing there is no difference between good and bad, or between false and true, what is the difference between up and down?”’

And, ‘A whole generation has been taught to talk nonsense at the top of its voice about having a right to life and a right to experience and a right to happiness. The lucid thinkers who talk like this generally wind up their assertion of all these extraordinary rights by saying that there is no such thing as right and wrong.’

Disconcertingly, he could switch from wit to sage in an instant. Even more disconcertingly, he could be wit and sage at the same time:

Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.

Or again:

We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press . . . It is not we who silence the press. It is the press that silences us.

Here’s one that might well be a motto for TCW: ‘A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.’

‘No use in being so open-minded that your brains fall out.’

Challenged by sceptics who said religion is no longer believable in a scientific world, he replied, An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but it is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays but cannot be believed on Tuesdays.’

In her biography of Chesterton, Maisie Ward relates how in 1932 he asked Dorothy Collins to go to London and ‘Get me some books.’ She asked him, ‘What books?’ And he replied, ‘I don’t know.’

So she wrote to their mutual friend Father O’Connor and from him got a list of classic and more recent books on the great philosopher and theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Chesterton flipped them rapidly through, which is, says Dorothy, the only way she ever saw him read anything, and then dictated to her his book about Aquinas without ever referring to them again.

Etienne Gilson, who has given two of the most famous of philosophical lecture series – the Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen and the William James Lectures at Harvard – said: ‘Chesterton makes me despair. I have been studying St Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book. 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.’

Genius aided and abetted by grace, no doubt.

Chesterton succeeded brilliantly in his aim to offer a popular understanding of Aquinas, that is of the most profound philosophy ever written. And the result is exciting. To start at the beginning:

Perhaps it would be best to say, There is an IS. That is as much monkish credulity as St Thomas asks of us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little. And yet upon this sharp pinpoint of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have never been successfully overthrown the whole cosmic system of Christendom.’

There is an IS. That is, there is something. And, if there is something, how does it come about that there is something? Nothing that we can point to in the world is the author of its own existence. There must be a Creator, Something – or rather Someone – who is not dependent or contingent in this way. Aquinas was re-phrasing Aristotle’s doctrine of the Unmoved Mover in the service of Christian apologetics.

‘Oh yes,’ he wrote, ‘mankind is always at the crossroads; but at the crossroads there is, thank God, the Cross.’

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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