If You Only Know G.K. Chesterton by His Clever Quips, You’re Missing Out
Today, Gilbert Keith Chesterton is primarily known for his memorable quotes. Yet those quips are but a drop of dew on the enormous garden of his written work as an author and journalist. Chesterton wrote books on nearly any subject imaginable, as well as thousands of essays. His look was that of a real-life caricature: he was a giant of a man at 6’4”, 300 lbs., had a mustache, wore a cape and carried a swordstick. On that giant man were some tiny glasses that rested on his nose. Yet his size and girth feel rather proportionate to his intellect and personality. G.K. was a gregarious, friendly man; possessor of a sharp wit; absent-minded in daily life; astute with important ideas; a man who could look at the world with wonder.
Chesterton was born in London, England in 1874 to loving parents and one brother; in his autobiography, Gilbert illustrated his relationship with his brother as his competitor for an audience. He went to the Slade School of Art, taking classes in illustration and literature. Gilbert didn’t finish a degree in either discipline, however. He started writing in 1895 and never looked back. That may seem like an odd lead-in for a career in writing, but Chesterton only shifted his medium. Instead of creating with ink and paint, he crafted sentences and arguments. He met his future wife, Frances, in 1898 and they married in 1901. The couple wished for a large family, but they tragically were unable to have children. They still filled their home with visits from friends, hosted parties, and entertained their friends’ children.
From Dabbling in the Occult to Faithful Son of the Church
His religious upbringing was mixed—on one hand, his parents were mildly active Unitarians; on the other hand, he dabbled in the occult as a young man. Once he married Frances, he joined her as a professing high Anglican. When Chesterton finally converted to Catholicism in 1922, some were shocked that he converted—England was not terribly friendly to Catholics, even then—and others were shocked that he wasn’t already a Catholic. His reasoning was a very human one, and it showed his ability to see straight through to the heart of an issue. In words from his autobiography, one of the principal reasons Gilbert became Catholic was “to get rid of my sins… sin confessed and adequately repented is actually abolished… the sinner does really begin again as if he had never sinned.” (pg. 340)
The Catholic world certainly appreciated his considerable gifts. Pope Pius XI called him a gifted defender of the faith. World-renowned Thomist Fr. Etienne Gilson, O.P. praised G.K.’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas as the best that had ever been written. Yet his reputation as an author, thinker, and debater drew praise from the secular world in addition to the Catholic world. Both the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Charles Dickens and the poet T.S. Eliot pointed to Chesterton as the greatest critic of Dickens. The Encyclopedia Britannica agreed: Chesterton was asked to write the article on Charles Dickens for the 14th edition (1929). Ernest Hemingway called Chesterton a classic, and playwright George Bernard Shaw noted him as “a man of colossal genius.” Shaw was a frequent opponent in debates—both in print and in person—as well as a close friend of Chesterton’s.
His Continuing Legacy as a Cultural Influencer
So how does someone so renowned in his day get reduced to a few memorable quotes? That is slowly changing. There’s a canonically-approved lay apostolate, the Society of G.K. Chesterton dedicated to promoting Chesterton’s canonization, as well as his thought and writing as a model for lay spirituality. Chapters have sprung up not only in the United States and England, but around the world. In 2013, the cause for his canonization was opened by G.K.’s home diocese of Northampton (England). The enthusiastic Chesterton expert and advocate, Dale Ahlquist, urged the bishop to open the cause based on Chesterton’s life of heroic virtue and having been the inspiration behind an untold number of conversions. The local bishop recently concluded the investigation into Gilbert’s life and virtue, and decided not to open the cause for his canonization. That certainly doesn’t prevent the Catholic world from looking to him as an example for intellectual integrity, a simple holiness, and a steadfast devotion to the Truth. Stratford Caldecott highlighted this, marking Gilbert as “deeply devout and much loved by everyone who knew him – even his enemies in debate – he seems to have been exemplary in his kindness, as well as blessed by a supernatural intelligence that shone through his voluminous writings. He was not infallible (saints don’t need to be that), but he was surely holy, and if he is not in heaven there seems to be very little hope for the rest of us.”
His Library of Works
Chesterton is a difficult writer to classify. Instead of sticking to one discipline, he wrote on everything. And he did it well! Chesterton was a literary critic, journalist, poet, playwright, and novelist. His columns covered politics, history, economics, philosophy, and theology. He wrote over a hundred books and innumerable essays as a journalist. No matter the medium, one of the distinguishing features of his writing was its clarity: he was able to offer his thoughts on a topic in a way that tied the details and overarching themes together.
Orthodoxy is a signature work of Chesterton’s. It was published in 1908 and explains why he made the Christian faith his own. In the introduction to the book, Gilbert laid out the position that the Christian faith is “the best root of energy and sound ethics.” He takes up that investigation into truth, sin, and redemption.
Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man as a response to H.G. Wells’ secular work The Outline of History. One of those who read the book was a young atheist named C.S. Lewis—who found intellectual sense of Christianity within the pages of this book. He later called it “the best popular apologetic I know” and “the best popular defense of the full Christian position.”
Let’s not forget the artist in Chesterton: he was fond of reading and writing poetry. Two of his more famous poems are “The Donkey” and “Lepanto”. The latter tells the story of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and the former is a short poem that should be read every year on Palm Sunday.
Chesterton was neither a fan of socialism—being a contemporary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution—nor was he a fan of capitalism. His economic theory of distributism was based on the principle that “the universal habit of humanity has been to produce and consume as part of the same process; largely conducted by the same people in the same place.” Problems arise when things are made/grown only to be sold; not to be produced for the sake of enjoying something good. This system of thought isn’t an idyllic nostalgia for centuries past, however. Chesterton points out a key point that applies to any academic discipline: “we must understand things in their simplicity before we can explain or correct their complexity.”
On this list, the most widely known works of Chesterton are the Father Brown detective stories. Interestingly, Chesterton wrote over two dozen of these short stories as an Anglican. The inspiration for Fr. Brown was Fr. John O’Connor, who ended up receiving Gilbert into the Catholic Church in 1922. When Gilbert first met Fr. O’Connor, the priest was conversing with two Cambridge students on subjects of every kind. The topic of crime came up, and Chesterton was taken somewhat aback that Fr. O’Connor corrected him on some facts of the matter. This fascinated Chesterton so much that he took Fr. O’Connor’s intellectual acumen and plopped it into a “Suffolk dumpling from East Anglia” (Autobiography, pg. 334). The Father Brown stories are short, clever, and always contain a spiritual lesson. Fr. Brown never finishes a story without attending to at least one soul in need of healing. He tracked “down the guilty, but not in order to condemn them, rather to pardon them.” (Dale Ahlquist, Knight of the Holy Ghost, pg. 151)
Chesterton wrote full fiction novels as well, the most well-known being The Man Who Was Thursday, The Ball and the Cross, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
Why We Need His Wit and Wisdom Now
G.K. Chesterton is worth reading for any number of reasons: the quality of his writing, the wit imbued with wisdom, and his grasp of the faith. In the modern secular culture, Chesterton is worth reading because he’s the antidote for our times. Dale Ahlquist describes G.K’s words from the early 20th century speaking to us right now. American culture is angry and divided, nowhere more evident than on social media. Religion is relativized as a merely private endeavor. Enter Chesterton, who “describes the enemy without fear, describes the truth in precision, error with howling laughter, and the battle with almost raucous joy” (Knight of the Holy Ghost, pg. xi). Look what people of our time could learn from Chesterton! Disagreement without vitriol; clarity of truth instead of ambiguity. These are ideals that all esteem, but few practice.
One of the great features of Chesterton’s writing is his ability to sift through an argument to find the underlying themes. These themes were usually of a philosophical or spiritual nature, and frequently dealt with the deep question of what it means to be human. This characterized his newspaper columns and essays. This ability was the great strength of Fr. Brown. The underlying reason why Chesterton had such a gift for this was his Christian (and later Catholic) lens. Everything he saw in the world he saw through the lens of his faith. His faith led him to have a childlike wonder at the world, and see life as an undeserved gift from God. Gratitude and joy comprised the Christian lens with which he saw the world.
This desperately needs to be modeled in our time: Christians need to find their lens again. American culture grows more and more secular by the day. Too many Christians have made peace with the world by adopting its values at the expense of Christian values. That is not the solution to the difficult times we live in! G.K. showed us that truth did not have to be adapted to fit the times. Adhering to the truth of the Catholic faith will never be easy. It is no less true in our day than in his: “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”