G. K. Chesterton on Religion and Society

G. K. Chesterton on Religion and Society

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was a high profile public intellectual of the early twentieth century. He was a journalist, author, public speaker and activist. Like today’s TV personalities, he kept popping up everywhere. He was portly, witty and eccentric, a famous character of his time. He wrote novels, essays and short stories, quasi-theology, detective stories (he wrote the famous Father Brown series, churning them out whenever G. K.’s Weekly was running short of money, which was quite often), and was a respected literary critic – his book on Dickens is still highly regarded. Bernard Shaw, not a man given to praise, called him a man of colossal genius. He was perhaps best known at the time, and since, as a feisty champion of religion in a time of rising secularisation.

I would like to set down here some of G. K. Chesterton’s thoughts on religious issues and how they relate to broader social concerns. I have concentrated on a few major themes in his voluminous writings; and for convenience have extracted his views mainly from Ian Ker’s long and very detailed biography, which contains great chunks from his letters and papers, and  extended quotes from his writings.[1] [I have given the name and date of the original work in square brackets where necessary. The reader is referred to Ker for the full details, also for original page numbers in Chesterton’s books.]

Original Sin

In Heretics (1905), Chesterton calls the doctrine of original sin the “permanent possibility of selfishness…arising from the mere fact of having a self – almost the first thing to be believed in”. This could be called “the doctrine of the equality of men” (p.151).

There is a close connection then between Chesterton’s conception of original sin and his legendary faith in the common people and popular culture, which he constantly defended against the onslaughts of elitism and modernism. We are all equal in the fact of our original sin, the high as well as the low. However, because Christ had redeemed humanity by his death on the cross, the essential value and worth of the individual had been revealed to all. In contrast to the intellectuals, with their contempt for “the masses” and mass culture, and in contrast to the great man or hero theories of Carlyle, Nietzsche and others who worshipped power, Chesterton  argued that the real heroes were ordinary people, “common men at their best”. Christ had celebrated the poor, the disadvantaged, the thief on the cross who repented, the humble. Chesterton admired Dickens for finding everybody interesting and encouraging “anybody to be anything”, an essentially Christian attitude (despite Dickens’ lack of religious belief). However Chesterton did not subscribe to the Victorian Doctrine of Progress. Partly because of original sin, he had no faith that education was a panacea for society’s ills or that humans were perfectible (p.165) [Charles Dickens, 1906].

In his major work Orthodoxy (1908), Chesterton again attacked the visionary intellectuals, whether liberal, utopian socialist or dogmatic Marxists, all holding a vision of “progress”, one that took no account of original sin. The trouble with modern intellectuals (he said) was that, for them, “the vision of heaven is always changing”. Progress meant “changing the world to suit the vision”, not “always changing the vision”, so that ultimately their vision of reality stayed the same. The true revolution was the Christian one, which meant that human reality was changed through the transformation of people’s hearts and souls. To the Christian “there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan”. So reality changed but the Christian vision remained fixed, a “composite”, “a definite picture composed of …elements in their best proportion and relation”. This picture was fixed by God’s mind, for only such a mind could place “the exact proportions of a composite happiness” (p.223)

Finally Chesterton related his concept of progress to something similar to John Henry Newman’s famous theology of development. For spiritual progress, one needed to be “revolutionary not conservative”. By leaving things as they are –t he crude conservative creed – you leave them open to a torrent of change.  To preserve essentials and identity, there had to be change, reform, revolution. As Ker says: “Chesterton’s ‘theory of progress’ demands, then, a constant vigilance, for it has to deal with original sin, which means that the constant danger is ‘not in man’s environment, but in man’. This is why the only political system Chesterton can trust is democracy” (p.223).  Democracy, as Chesterton said, was “profoundly Christian in this practical sense – that it is an attempt to get at the opinion of those who would be too modest to offer it. It is a mystical adventure; it is especially trusting those who do not trust themselves. That enigma is strictly peculiar to Christendom” (p.223; also for above quotes). The passages above illustrate Chesterton’s constant use of paradox, a methodology that he defended passionately, but which infuriated contemporaries.  Whilst it certainly hindered his development of a coherent body of thought, paradox could offer sparkling panoramas and valuable insights.

In Orthodoxy, for instance, he includes original sin as one of the unattractive but convincing creeds of a truth-telling Christian church: “All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive”. Thus with original sin, it is the “primary paradox of Christianity… that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality” (p.228). Chesterton here is not being pessimistic, rather the opposite. Original sin is central to the human condition; but Christianity, in raising the prospect of emancipation from sin, offers a philosophy of wonder, laughter and joy, the joy that comes from experiencing a sense of meaning and purpose in the universe. Chesterton had no time for theologians who questioned the doctrine of original sin.

Free Will and Determinism

Chesterton’s position on free will – a key creed of Christianity, but under attack from determinist philosophers – was that it was best understood as “a sacred mystery”. Christianity allowed for “apparent contradictions” like free will, leaving it as a sacred mystery, whereas determinism “makes the theory of causation quite clear” but left the determinist unable rationally to say “please pass the mustard” to his predetermined neighbour at the table (p.215) [Orthodoxy].

This reference to the folly of determinism harks back to Chesterton’s celebrated controversy with the socialist Robert Blatchford in 1903-04. Blatchford had written a series of anti-Christian articles for the Clarion. Chesterton replied and the debate raged on for almost two years, Blatchford defending evolutionary science and determinism, Chesterton religion and free will. Chesterton described Christianity as mystical yet eminently practical, more complex and paradoxical than religions like Islam, which in the end made it more resilient and adaptable. Blatchford had held that the doctrine of free will was contradictory because (as Ker summarises Chesterton) “if man is created by God then man can only act as God created him to act; but then so is determinism, which denies free will in theory and yet assumes it exists in practice. The difference is that, unlike the determinist, the Christian ‘puts the contradiction into his philosophy’. And yet paradoxically the ‘mystery by its darkness enlightens all things’. On the other hand, the determinist ‘makes the matter of the will logical and lucid: and in the light of that lucidity all things are darkened”. Chesterton insists that it is not a choice between ‘mysticism and rationality’ but between ‘mysticism and madness. For mysticism, and mysticism alone, has kept men sane from the beginning of the world. All the straight roads of logic lead to some Bedlam…’. Christianity as a religion of mystery ‘accepts the contradictions’ of this world and can therefore ‘laugh and walk easily through the world’ “(Ker, p.119, quotes from Daily News, etc).

Chesterton was sharply critical of intellectuals who used (and thus abused) their intellectual freedom to set up theories that fatalistically portrayed humans as bound by iron laws of necessity. Historians, for example, proclaimed iron laws of causation that left little or no room for free will. They were certain that “history has been simply and solely a chain of causation”, which led to “a complete fatalism”, the opposite of a “liberating force”: “It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will” (p.214) [Orthodoxy].

In A Miscellany of Men (1912) Chesterton contrasted the medieval period with later eras. Medieval Catholicism (he said) believed in free will, whereas seventeenth-century Calvinism and nineteenth-century science (he had Darwinism in mind) “darkened this liberty with a sense of doom”.  The result was that modern society had “lost the idea of repentance” and criminals were now seen as “a separate and incurable kind of people”.  By contrast the church sought not to avenge, or punish, but to forgive criminals and sinners. It was “the only institution that ever attempted to create a machinery of pardon”. Medieval Catholics believed that “Man was free, not because there was no God, but because it needed a God to set him free. By authority he was free….The mediaeval Christian insisted that God gave man a charter” (p.304).[2]

Chesterton admired Aquinas, writing a brilliant book on him in 1933. It was an appropriate year, for the rise of Hitler signalled a victory for the forces of irrationalism, whereas Aquinas was a famous defender of reason, as also was Chesterton. Unfortunately – in Chesterton’s view – the enlightened tradition of St Thomas had been fatally undermined by Luther and the Reformation. Luther had been an Augustinian monk in Germany “who may be said to have had a single and special talent for emphasis; for emphasis and nothing except emphasis; for emphasis with the quality of earthquake”. That emphasis was the Augustinian emphasis on “the impotence of man before God, the omniscience of God about the destiny of man, the need for holy fear and the humiliation of intellectual pride, more than the opposite and corresponding truths of free will or human dignity or good works”. Luther called for an emotional and elemental religion and the destruction of scholastic philosophies:  “Man could say nothing to God, nothing from God, nothing about God, except an almost inarticulate cry for mercy and for the supernatural help of Christ, in a world where all natural things were useless. Reason was useless. Man could not move himself an inch any more than a stone. Man could not trust what was in his head any more than a turnip”. Chesterton decried Luther as “one of those great elemental barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world”. One of those changes was a terminal threat to the doctrine of free will, and thus to the whole idea of human liberty (pp. 689-690) [Aquinas].

Sense of Wonder

Chesterton gave great importance to the sense of wonder as an essential ingredient in Christian faith. The ideas of wonder, mystery, humour and the grotesque permeate his writings. They are his antidote to prevailing materialism and misguided idealism.

He put his idea of wonder in the mouth of the protagonist of his short story of 1929 The Poet and the Lunatics. This poet, as Ker says, “stands out as a figure of Chestertonian sanity in a mad world”.  The poet is just himself, accepting his limitations (contrasting with the ideas of illimitable liberty that then flourished), celebrating the small, real things of life, the practicalities of life, over and against the grandiose visions of the age. He has a sense of wonder, wonder about the very existence of things in this world, wonder about life itself, God’s gift. In this sense of wonder “the main object of a man’s life was to see a thing as if he had never seen it before”. This was the way to happiness, seeing life as “a gift or present”, a surprise, implying that “a thing came from outside ourselves; and gratitude that it comes from someone other than ourselves”. For the poet, “everything has a halo… which makes it sacred” (p.597). Elsewhere, Chesterton related this sense to “the dream of all democracy, the seeing of all things as wonderful” (p.331).

In his Autobiography, he tells us that his earliest childhood memories were of a pervasive sense of wonder. To him as a child (and children generally) “anything in [life] was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world” (p.9). Later, during the 1890s, while he was studying art at the Slade School, part of University College, London University, Chesterton suffered a psychological crisis, brought on, he always said, by the prevailing culture of Decadence and Pessimism. [3] As he says in his Autobiography, after suffering “the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism”, he had” a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this nightmare… With little help from philosophy and no real help from religion [I invented] a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own… [that]even mere existence…was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent compared to nothing… no man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything.“ Religion and art were meant “to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy” (pp34-35). Ker suggests that Chesterton was to some extent indebted for such ideas to Walt Whitman, Robert Browning and Robert Louis Stevenson, writers he imbibed avidly. He particularly admired Browning’s The Ring and the Book, “the great epic of the enormous importance of small things”, which exhorted readers to look at the world with new eyes. Browning was “passionately interested in and in love with existence” (p.114) [Robert Browning].

In an article collected in his book The Defendant (1901), Chesterton again championed the sense of wonder, the sense that ordinary people had (or supposedly had in Chesterton’s romanticised vision) as against the fashionable anomie of the intellectual elite of the time: “The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility [of] tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves”. Again he invoked a “simple sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at their exuberant independence of our intellectual standards and our trivial definitions” (p.84). In Heretics (1905), he again championed the ordinary person’s sense of wonder: “To the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sun is really a sun; to the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sea is really a sea. When he looks at all the faces in the street, he does not only realize that men are alive, he realizes with a dramatic pleasure that they are not dead” (p.151). It was Dickens’s genius that he had this sense of the infinite variety, strangeness and wonder of life. So also with William Blake, another of Chesterton’s heroes.

Chesterton had a great love for the Irish. He thought them not only unjustly exploited by the English (part of his anti-imperial creed), but they exemplified his ideal of the small scale peasant proprietor; and, going with this, they had preserved a sense of wonder and faith. In his Irish Impressions (1919) he fastened on to this sense of wonder, even if it was to do with a front door: “Even one’s own front door, released by one’s own latchkey, should not only open inward on things familiar, but outward on things unknown. Even one’s own domestic fireside should be wild as well as domesticated… all the most dramatic things happen at home, from being born to being dead” (pp.402-403).

Chesterton was aware that a philosophy of wonder standing on its own was not only inadequate, but could lead into senseless mysticism (he certainly had a mystic tendency). After his conversion, he wrote in an article for a Catholic periodical (1923) that the optimism of wonder was only a half-truth that needed to be taken into “the culture of the Catholic Church” where it could be “balanced by other truths”. Otherwise it could become “an orgy of anarchy or a stagnation of slavery” (p.484); or as he said in his autobiography, turn into solipsism and “political Quietism” (p.482).

Limitation

Closely related to wonder is Chesterton’s central theme of limitation. Humans needed limitations in order to appreciate the beauty and wonder of life. It was necessary in art as well as religion. As he said in Tremendous Trifles (1909), to “love anything is to love its boundaries [since] boundaries are the most beautiful things in the world” (p.253); or as he said in 1920 limitations were “the frame that creates the picture” (p.426).  Again, in What’s Wrong with the World (1910), he argued that while the joy of God was unlimited creation, “the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits. Man’s pleasure, therefore, is to possess conditions, but also to be partly possessed by them; to be half-controlled by the flute he plays or by the field he digs. The excitement is to get the utmost out of given conditions; the conditions will stretch, but not indefinitely”. He gave an example from sexual love. A ferocious opponent of sexual freedom and doctrines of free love that floated around at the time, he insisted on the need for sex to be limited, the need for marital fidelity, because of “the earthquake consequences that Nature has attached to sex”. He was referring to the importance of family life and unity; but also to the need for all pleasures to be constrained, since “in anything worth having… there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive or endure” (pp.267-268).

In The Uses of Diversity (1920) he declared limitations to be vital to humanity. He compared the God of Pantheism to the Christian God. Our God was limited by comparison, but by being limited the Christian God was set free. For Christians, “God is not bound down and limited by being merely everything; He is also at liberty to be something” (p.426).

Chesterton linked limitation to definition and dogma, both essential to clear thought. He criticised contemporary thought as being far too vague and limitless. Definitions helped to clarify and test ideas: “If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word”. He had no time for the critics of the day, the modernists who had jettisoned more rigorous traditional criticism. He ridiculed critics who were unable “to translate beauty into words [saying] it is untranslatable – that is, unutterable, indefinable, indescribable, impalpable, ineffable, and all the rest of it… They can explain nothing because they have found nothing, and they have found nothing because there is nothing to be found” (p.306) [A Miscellany of Men, 1912].

Dogma

Chesterton’s emphasis upon limitation and respect for detail led him to defend dogma as essential to the Christian religion. He lived in an age when dogma was dismissed as a blockage in the religious system. “Dogmatic” had become a term of abuse. Chesterton, in his usual contradictory way, set out to reverse this, to rehabilitate a term – dogma – that had once been respected.

In an article of 1909, he attacked what he saw as the tendency of movements such as Catholic Modernism to abandon rigour in theology for a wishy washy “liberalism”. (One can imagine the indignant response to this of the Catholic Modernist George Tyrrell). Chesterton wrote: “The dogma of the Church limits thought about as much as the dogma of the solar system limits physical science. It is not an arrest of thought, but a fertile basis and constant provocation of thought” (p.239).  In his writings he constantly defended dogma, as he did limitation and definition, as liberating not constraining thought, by setting what he called “creative limits”, as against formlessness or chaos (p.418).

He once said: “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human” (p.149) [Heretics, 1905]. After his conversion he predictably defended what many attacked in Catholicism, its complexity of doctrine, defined elaborately over more than a thousand years. Chesterton here was reacting against those who wanted Christianity to be “simplified” into belief in God’s love for the world, and little else. This was a doctrine that would simply fade into futility in the face of the real challenges of a complex and increasingly secular world. In The Everlasting Man (1925) Chesterton insisted that the purity of the Christian creed was “preserved by dogmatic definitions and exclusions. It could not possibly have been preserved by anything else”. Rigour went with liberation, something that the theological liberals couldn’t understand. Free will, for example, encouraged personal freedom. “If dogma is incredible,” he wrote “it is because it is incredibly liberal. If it is irrational, it can only be in giving us more assurance of freedom than is justified by reason” (pp.526-527).

In The Resurrection of Rome (1930) he said that the great councils of the church, “those vast and yet subtle collaborations for thrashing out a thousand thoughts to find the true thought of the Church” were founded on fine distinctions.  He went on: “It is the fact that many a man would be dead today, if his doctors had not debated fine shades about doctoring. It is also a fact that European civilization would be dead today, if its doctors of divinity had not debated fine points about doctrine” (p.658).

Ritual

In early life GK had been drawn to Anglo- Catholicism, then a powerful force within the Church of England. He felt this way partly because it was ritualistic, arguing for and largely succeeding in obtaining in many parishes a return to traditional, pre-Reformation ritual and ceremony, with its colour and pageantry and emotional impact, a contrast to the austerity and simplicity of most Protestant worship. Anglo-Catholics tended to regard themselves as martyrs in this cause as they had been branded Papists and persecuted in the heated “ritualist” controversies in the second half of the nineteenth century.[4]  Chesterton was definitely on their side.

He agreed with Yeats that ceremony went with innocence, but there was more to it than that. Ceremony and ritual took people out of themselves. He put this into his usual paradox. The essence of ritual was “the concealment of the personality combined with the exaggeration of the person. The man performing a rite seeks to be at once invisible and conspicuous. It is part of that divine madness which all creatures wonder at in Man, that he alone parades this pomp of obliteration and anonymity… it is the noble conception of making Man something other than and more than himself when he stands at the limit of human beings” (p.304) [A Miscellany of Man, 1912].

Elsewhere he declared that ritual was not something artificial (as critics claimed) but perfectly natural and normal: “The old ceremonial gestures of the human body are necessary to the health of the human soul… a man actually can think with his muscles; he can pray with his muscles; he can love with his muscles and lament with his muscles. All religion that is without that gesture, all Puritan or purely Intellectualist religion that rages at ritual, is raging at human nature (p.665) [All is Grist, 1931]. Ritual could go beyond words, especially when worshippers in the face of “sacred riddles” felt at a loss for words: “in the presence of… sacred riddles about which we can say nothing it is often more decent merely to do something” (p.253).

Mysticism

Given that the world is itself mystical, Chesterton saw no problem in accepting mysticism. In fact mysticism, he said in a striking phrase in Orthodoxy, keeps people sane: “As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity… [one] can understand everything by the help of what [one] does not understand… The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid” (p.215).  (This is unfortunately typical of his style, especially in works such as Orthodoxy – insight struggles against opaqueness).

In an essay on the mystic William Blake (1910) Chesterton said that far from being vague the mystic like Blake “does not bring doubts or riddles: the doubt and riddles exist already… the ‘mystery’ of life [was] the plainest part of it”. Blake, the mystic, brought “the brightness of colour and clearness of shape” with his incomparable drawings: “the highest dogma of the spiritual is to affirm the material”. Blake saw God, not as “vague and diaphanous” but solid, a person and a fact, not the “impersonal God of the Pantheists”. The ideal was more actual than the real. Imagination did not mean for Blake “something shadowy or fantastic, but rather something clear-cut, definite, and unalterable… images; the eternal images of things” (pp. 275-276).

Secularisation

There has been much historical debate about the timing of the onset of secularisation and the decline of traditional religion in Britain. Older histories took this decline back as far as the Reformation or the Enlightenment. More recent histories focus on the twentieth century, recognising – to varying extents, and with varying timings – much inbuilt resilience of the churches. As an example, the revisionist Calum Brown dates the eclipse of religion essentially from the “swinging sixties”.[5]  The distinguished Oxford historian Simon Green argues that the “agonised abandonment of a long-domesticated protestant, Christian tradition” took place between 1920 and 1960.[6]

On Chesterton, one is struck by how early he was making statements about the decay of Christianity in Britain. He sees a progressive decline across his life. Although he always has some optimism that things can be reversed, he warns constantly about the power of factors such as aggressive nationalism, and new ideologies based upon power and greed, to replace religion in people’s lives. Of course all this is embedded within his idiosyncratic religious framework. Especially after his conversion, his basic themes are that Catholicism, despite its failings historically, is old but vibrant, reflecting essential truths about God and the human condition; whilst Protestantism, even from its birth-time, was flawed and rigid.

We find him at the onset of the Boer War (1899) – a war he vigorously opposed, along with a group of young Liberals writing in the radical weekly The Speaker – referring to a general lack of morals and belief. As he wrote in his Autobiography: “…for most men about this time Imperialism, or at least patriotism, was a substitute for religion. Men believed in the British Empire precisely because they had nothing else to believe in” (p61). In Heretics (1905), he again complained of a general lack of opinions, and argued that it was “ a fundamental point of view, a philosophy or religion which is needed… We need a right view of the human lot, a right view of the human society”. For this we needed a “clear idealism… a definite image of good”.  It was those without opinions who were the most bigoted, the most fanatical. Bigotry “may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions… the appalling frenzy of the indifferent”.  Chesterton went on to observe that in fact everyone had some general view of existence “whether we like it or not; it alters, or, to speak more accurately, it creates and involves everything we say or do…[In that sense] religion is exactly the thing which cannot be left out – because it includes everything” (p.147). Instead people were turning to all sorts of alternatives. They professed no beliefs, but in fact these “alternatives” – ranging from scepticism and scientism to vegetarianism and nature worship – were dogmas. The “modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas” (p.148).

In 1911, during one of his verbal duels with Bernard Shaw, he learnt that Shaw had been criticised for being blasphemous. Chesterton replied that one could only be blasphemous in a Christian country, which England was not (p.295). By 1925, in The Everlasting Man, he was speaking of living in a post-Christian age, one in fact that had turned against religion in “an atmosphere of negation and hostility”. Post-Christians, he said, “still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith…. They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being Anti-Christians”. They were not “far enough away not to hate [Christianity, nor]near enough to love it… while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian… the worst judge of all is a man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic”(p.516).

In his Autobiography he recalls how he had early in life turned away from his Unitarian background, feeling that even the many people of goodwill who were involved in good causes seemed to lack “a fundamental principle of morals and metaphysics”. He “began to piece together the fragments of the old religious scheme; mainly by the various gaps that denoted its disappearance”.  He sought an explanation for the malaise of the time, the erosion of traditional belief, in the current culture of pessimism and power-worship, and also in Darwinian slogans of “survival of the fittest”. (He failed to note that many religious thinkers, Benjamin Kidd being only one, sought to reinforce Christianity from Darwinian ideas, or at least to try to reconcile science and religion).  Chesterton says: “ Men who believed ardently in altruism were yet troubled by the necessity of believing with even more religious reverence in Darwinism, and even in the deductions from Darwinism about a ruthless struggle as the rule of life. Men who naturally accepted the moral equality of mankind yet did so, in a manner, shrinkingly, under the gigantic shadow of the Superman of Nietzsche and Shaw. Their hearts were in the right place; but their heads were emphatically in the wrong place, being generally poked or plunged into vast volumes of materialism and scepticism, crabbed, barren, servile and without any light of liberty or of hope” (p.211).

At other times, he blamed paganism, with its natural fleshly temptations. Nationalism, as we have seen, he regarded as a substitute for religion, and later, in the 1930s Nazism and Communism. Such ideas were to become almost clichés in intellectual circles. Chesterton was an early opponent of Hitlerism, with its racism and eugenics. He began talking, after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, of a phenomenon he labelled Prussianism. It had arisen with the decay of German Protestantism, which had “long been dissolving in the acids of… scepticism; in the laboratories of the Prussian professors… And the more they evaporated and left a void, the more the void was filled up with new and boiling elements; with tribalism, with militarism, with imperialism and (in short) with that very type of patriotism that we call Prussianism”. All this “new and naked nationalism had come to many men as a substitute for their dead religion” (p.698).

Chesterton however retained a persistent optimism that Christianity at its core – which he located in the Catholic Church – was alive and kicking. Historically, despite persecution and indifference, it had survived. He spoke of the Catholic Church as an old religion that refused to grow old (p.483). In The Everlasting Man he said: “The Faith is always converting the age, not as an old religion but as a new religion”. There had been attempts in the nineteenth century – as with the Oxford Movement or the French Catholic Revival – to reform, or in GK’s view “dilute”, Christian doctrine, but “again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine”. Christianity “has survived its own weakness and even its own surrender… the Church grows younger as the world grows old”, refusing to go along with “the tide of apparent progress” because it is alive: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it” (p.529).

GK’s historical view of Protestantism is interesting if predictably negative; and it went against much contemporary comment that saw Protestantism – especially in the United States (pentacostalism, etc) – as the only vital religious force around. Chesterton rather saw the Protestant churches as “fossils”, with no inner life. In The Well and the Shadows (1935), he observed that those churches  – the churches of the Reformation – were clearly dying: “but in a much deeper sense, they have long been dead…[they had] really died almost as soon as they were born”. In spite of all that was “deservedly unpopular” about the Catholic church, the “incredible clumsiness of the Reformers” had resulted in their miserable failure. He was thinking of Luther and Calvin, on whom he had written commentaries: “They waged an insane war against everything in the old faith that is most normal and sympathetic to human nature; such as prayers for the dead or the gracious image of a Mother of Men. They hardened and fixed themselves upon fads which anybody could see would pass like fashions… Calvin was logical, but used his logic for a scheme which humanity manifestly would not long find endurable” (p.707).

Kerr remarks: “Unkindly, Chesterton suggests that perhaps ‘the most successful’ of the Reformers were the founders of the Church of England, ‘who really had no ideas to offer at all’: ‘They at least did not exasperate human nature; but even they showed the same blindness, in binding themselves instantly to the Divine Right of Kings, which was almost immediately to break down’”. At the beginning of his revolt against Rome (Chesterton argued), Henry VIII was “a Catholic in everything except that he was not a Catholic… And in that instant of refusal, his religion became a different religion… In that instant it began to change; and it has not stopped changing yet” (pp.707-708). Chesterton had as a young man been attracted to Anglo-Catholicism (although not an Anglican). As he says in this essay, and elsewhere, it was when the Anglican Church, from the late twenties onwards, lost out in a battle with the state over issues such as Prayer Book reform, and then began to approve or consider social policies such as divorce, contraception, even eugenics, that he rose up in open revolt. (One of his targets was Dean Inge, who championed eugenics). The problem, for Chesterton, was the fact that the Anglican Church had become a state church at the time of the Reformation, a state church in which illogically “God holds his authority from Caesar, instead of Caesar holding it from God” (p.709). A number of devoted Anglican divines, it can be said, had expressed similar concerns to these of Chesterton, seeing church establishment as a weakening force within the church, even advocating disestablishment.

Secular Issues: Capitalism, Socialism and Eugenics

Chesterton was well known for his searching critiques of capitalism, socialism and eugenics. He did this from a populist basis, championing popular culture against the sneers of the elites with their contempt for (or was it fear of) the masses; while contending against cultural currents of the time such as Nietschean pessimism and Supermanism. One of his perennial foes in such matters was Bernard Shaw (also, paradoxically a lifelong personal friend, if a polar opposite – the obese enjoyer of English beef and beer against the skinny, abstemious vegetarian).

Chesterton made a typical attack upon capitalism and English intellectuals in his 1917 book of essays Utopia of Usurers. The intellectuals of the day, including exponents of the great ideologies such as capitalism and socialism, failed to realise that society was the sum of a multitude of individuals (even English liberalism was forgetting this). They “find it easy to realise an individual, but very hard to realise that the great masses consist of individuals”. Every serious religion or philosophy of life must have “some trace of the doctrine of the equality of men” but capitalism “really depends on some religion of inequality”. The modern state was tending towards the “Servile State” (a phrase he borrowed from his good friend Hilaire Belloc whose book The Servile State came out in 1912).  Capitalist control over the proletariat was achieved in many ways, from the payment of slave wages  (only slowly being redressed by social reform, which capitalists and their capitalist press blocked at every chance) to eugenics (breeding of the more useful and elimination of the weaker) and to imprisonment laws that targeted the poor or rebellious.

History had also been rewritten to demonise the ordinary people (when they were allowed into the picture). Many decades before historians such as Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson or Eric Hobsbawm, with their “history from below”, Chesterton called for a Working-Man’s History of England.  This would demolish the current Whig version, which held that England “had emerged slowly from a semi-barbarism in which all power and wealth were in the hands of Kings and a few nobles; that the King’s power was broken first and then in due time that of the nobles, that this piece-meal waking improvement was brought about by one class after another waking up to a sense of citizenship.. until we practically became a democracy… there is not one word of truth in it from beginning to end”. He argued that power and wealth had in fact been more popularly distributed in the Middle Ages, a model for his own programme of “distributism”,  a cause to which he devoted many years of his life (without success, it goes without saying).  He went on to argue that the extension of the franchise was really the result of a power deal between the aristocracy and the emerging middle classes: “The Great Reform Bill [1832] was passed in order to seal an alliance between the landed aristocrats and the rich manufacturers of the north” as well as “to prevent the English populace getting any political power in the general excitement after the French Revolution”. Further extensions to the vote were also the result of political manoeuvrings, while “the solid and real thing that was going on was the steady despoiling of the poor of all power or wealth, until they find themselves to-day upon the threshold of slavery” (pp.383-385).

Anti-capitalist sentiments are threaded throughout his writings. A passage in The Well and the Shallows (1935) encapsulates much of this. Capitalism had destroyed the family, “broken up households, and encourages divorces, and treated the old domestic virtues with more open contempt… forced a moral feud and a commercial competition between the sexes…destroyed the influence of the parent in favour of the influence of the employer… driven men from their homes to look for jobs… forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families…[and had] encouraged for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers”.  Communism did exactly the same, but as Ker says: “Chesterton thought that if he had to choose between the two he would choose Communism: ‘Better Bolshevist battles and the Brave New World than the ancient house of man rotted away silently by such worms of secret sensuality and individual appetite’” (p.713). This view was to cut less ice in later generations, when more details of Stalinist repression emerged, as people became more conditioned to commercial advertising, and as less restrictive attitudes developed about sex, marriage and traditional moral codes.

Capitalism and socialism were inextricably tangled together in Chesterton’s analyses. Both, he thought, involved indefensible interventions and control over ordinary peoples’ lives. Both aimed to place the ordinary wage-earner under the same kind of “centralised, impersonal, and monotonous…unification and regimentation” (p.559). Early in life he had been attracted to socialism, as were many intellectuals and others, when charismatic activists flourished such as William Morris and Bernard Shaw. As Ker points out, GK was drawn to socialism during the 1890s, when he encountered young socialists in his debating circles. As he wrote to one of them: “those early Christians were the only true socialists…for democracy is an essentially spiritual idea, a contradiction of the modern materialism which would encourage the brute-tendency to an aristocracy of the physically ‘fittest’” (p.23). In 1893 he was struck by the themes in the best-selling Merrie England , written by the socialist editor of the Clarion Robert Blatchford (the man with whom he was later to have a protracted feud ). As Ker notes, Blatchford was influenced by William Morris, who had been inspired by “idealised pre-industrial societies in which workers could be artists and craftsmen”: “It is quite possible that the book influenced Chesterton’s own later idealization of the Middle Ages. Be that as it may, it certainly confirmed Chesterton in his Socialism” (p.24). However Chesterton’s was essentially a Christian Socialism, and his enthusiasm for it soon waned.

Within two years he was warning that contemporary socialism had little in common with Christ’s teachings p.42). Whereas Christ taught humility, socialists like Shaw were arrogant, and seemed to know almost by osmosis what people at large wanted, without actually consulting them. They were also joyless, well-intentioned but joyless, whereas Christianity – in Chesterton’s philosophy – was based upon joy, joy at salvation, a sense of the wonder of God’s universe. Socialism by contrast was mechanistic and authoritarian, a matter of social engineering. Fabians like the Webbs sprang to mind. In 1908 Chesterton wrote an article called “Why I am not a Socialist”. He was fully aware of the injustices of the present system that was the target of the socialists: “To say that I do not like the present state of wealth and poverty is merely to say I am not a devil in human form. No one but Satan or Beelzebub could like the present state of wealth and poverty”. What Chesterton objected to in the socialist utopia was, as we have seen, its mechanistic approach. We would have state ownership of property replacing capitalist ownership. There would be no real democracy because the socialists did not have his strong belief in “the mass of the common people”: “Caught in the trap of a terrible industrial machinery, harried by a shameful economic cruelty, surrounded with an ugliness and desolation never endured before among men, stunted by a stupid and provincial irreligion, the poor are still by far the sanest, jolliest, and most reliable part of the community… [they despised]the whole smell and sentiment and general ideal of Socialism”. What they were attached to was “the privacy of homes, the control of one’s own children, the minding of one’s own business… [the] opposite to the tone of most Socialists”.  In a swipe at his favourite foes, Chesterton declared that ordinary people had no time for the type of socialism preached by “a handful of decorative artists and Oxford dons and journalists and Countesses on the Spree” (pp.234-235).

Eugenics

Chesterton was a noted opponent of eugenics, which began flourishing from the late nineteenth century under the aegis of the statistician Francis Galton, with his analysis of “hereditary genius”, and the rise of the “new biology” of that time, which seemed to give a new genetic basis for the controlled breeding of humans.[7] Bodies such as the Eugenics Society, and many geneticists, favoured punitive measures against the “feebleminded” – a very loosely defined concept : measures such as sterilization or segregation. I have covered such issues in an essay focussing on eugenic, medical and practitioner discourse, and will quote some introductory remarks here:

During the 1920s in Britain there was a robust debate between sterilizationists and segregationists, between those who favoured sweeping sexual sterilization of the mentally deficient and those who advocated their comprehensive sexual segregation in custodial institutions. Although the debate often widened to include the congenitally “unfit” generally, sweeping up the insane, mentally disordered and anti-social “misfits”, the main focus was upon the intellectually disadvantaged. They were viewed, in the hereditarian/geneticist language of the day, to be the product of defective germ plasm, genetically flawed, and were widely believed to be “swarming” in numbers, posing a threat to the racial health of western societies. Terms such as “vermin” were used. Pest control seemed in order.[8]

Believing as he did in the essential soundness of ordinary folk, including the unfortunates, Chesterton passionately opposed such attitudes and policies. His hard-hitting tract Eugenics and other Evils (1922) became a classic. In it he attacked such champions of eugenics as Nietzsche, Yeats, W. R. Inge (“The Dismal Dean”), and of course Bernard Shaw. These were a sample of intellectuals with contempt for the masses of humanity. They were not only judging people before they were born, but even wanting to prevent them being born. They believed, as Nietzsche frankly said, in the breeding of a higher race and the annihilation of life’s “failures”.

Chesterton was in essence asking for Christian charity towards all. God’s love was directed towards the poor and afflicted, those in need of care and sympathy, as well as towards the “normal” or the well off – in fact the Bible was harsher towards the rich and powerful. Chesterton asked on what supposedly scientific grounds people were relegated to categories such as the “imbeciles” or “morons” of the IQ tests of the day, or the mentally ill, rightly hitting on the flaws that underlay many such tests or categorisations. He said, for instance, of the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913: “It is, and quite simply and literally, a Bill for incarcerating as madmen those whom no doctor will consent to call mad. It is enough if some doctor or other may happen to call them weak-minded”.  It was “to prevent any persons whom those propagandists do not happen to think intelligent from having any wife or children. Every tramp who is sulky, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can quite easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs”.

He saw all this as part of the authoritarian tendencies of the “scientism” of the age, an age which no longer burnt witches, but was increasingly punitive towards the poor, expanding the whole concept of criminality (even to include the right to strike, or household negligence) and cracking down on the pleasures of the people such as drinking and smoking (what would he say of today’s laws on smoking and workplace health and safety regulations?). He saw capitalism as in league with eugenics. The great goal was to produce a plentiful supply of suitable workers, and the smallest number of unwanted humans who were nothing but a source of wastage within the system.

He made a very modern point in highlighting the impersonal and jargonesque language used by eugenists and other social engineers. Such language emptied out the emotional dimension of the issues being discussed or proposed. Here he foreshadowed Orwell’s attack on “Newspeak” in Nineteen Eighty Four. Eugenists, Chesterton said, were “as passive in their statements as they are active in their experiments”.  Instead of saying it was necessary to kill off the old (for example), they spoke of “euthanasia” or of remedying “the burden of longevity”. They wanted to eliminate the “disabled”, even when they were highly intelligent, because of the cost to the state.  They would have prevented consumptives from coming into the world, thus weeding out geniuses such as Keats and others: “they have discovered how to combine the hardening of the heart with a sympathetic softening of the head”.

This was the new religion, the religion of science: “that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics” (above quotes pp.460-465). Chesterton had been pursuing this theme for many years. We find an attack upon eugenics in his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World. We also find there his ultimate source of optimism about the world, but only if humans have the will to tackle their challenges. They needed to embrace the ideals of democracy and Christianity, both being dreams that were unfulfilled. As he said of the Christian ideal, it had “not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried” (p.267).

Concluding Comment

It is clear that Chesterton offered many original insights across a range of topics, including those discussed above. Whether he is, as Ian Ker claims, a worthy successor to the great Victorian sages Newman, Carlyle, Arnold and Ruskin is problematic. I personally doubt it. He never gives us a completely thought out, tightly and coherently argued body of ideas, such as Newman does, for example. (He is perhaps closer to the prophetic Carlyle, whose works are also unsystematic). Chesterton’s major works such as Orthodoxy or The Everlasting Man are flawed, in my opinion, by his relentless use of paradox. Although he defended paradox elaborately, humorously and often, it ultimately seems to hinder rather than clarify his arguments. One constantly wonders, just how justified is this strange juxtaposition of concepts? Would it really stand up to rigorous scrutiny? T. S. Eliot complained that GK’s style was “exasperating to the last point of endurance.” I frequently feel the same when reading him.

Having said that, his big books inspired a religious readership world-wide. Even today, when he is no longer a household name, he has a large band of followers, especially among Catholic Americans (his ideas are frequently discussed on Catholic TV channels in the United States). He gave fresh insights into the nature of faith, Christ and the Gospels. His studies of figures such as Aquinas and Luther were penetrating and original. Especially after he converted to Catholicism in 1922, he overturned conventional views on Catholicism, Anglicanism and Protestantism. As he himself suggested, his upbringing in an atmosphere of Unitarianism/pantheism may have made him less susceptible to the usual English prejudices on these subjects.

Many of his campaigns, most notably that for “distributism” or more equal distribution of property, were failures. At the same time he memorably championed popular culture against the disdainful cultural elitists of the day, and also protested strongly against the ideologies of pessimism and power- worship that flourished in his time, culminating in the totalitarianism and total warfare of the twentieth century. He had his blind-spots, which were shared, it should be said, by many at the time:  women, Jews, Buddhism, Islam and Italian Fascism.[9] These were areas where his deeply embedded values seem to blinker him from genuine historical understanding. Despite his massive reading, he was not deeply informed in some of these discourses. In reality he was a lazy researcher, relying on his prodigious memory. (This sometimes let him down, notoriously in his study of Dickens. Critics were quick to detect misquotes from the works. It did not worry Chesterton in the least, as he professed to have no regard for his own prowess or his legacy).

As a personality he was lovable but strange, probably partly autistic, and certainly in many ways unworldly (he took cabs everywhere, to his wife Frances’s dismay as their income was not high, and would leave his taxi with the meter running all afternoon outside his office). When cogitating some issue or other, he was known to stand still in the middle of Fleet Street traffic until he had arranged his thoughts. He was notoriously forgetful. He tells the classic story in his autobiography of an occasion when he was scheduled to give a talk. He telegraphed his wife in London: “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” (p.139). Some versions add “why am I here?”

Despite these flaws (if they are flaws), he emerges from Ian Ker’s massive and meticulously researched biography as a remarkable Renaissance figure. He was also impressively brave. As I wrote in a recent review of Ker’s book: “He was a truly heroic figure, warring against the modernist currents of his age, including aestheticism, art-for-art’s sake and decadence. When many Christians were timid, he doughtily championed his faith, pugnaciously taking the fight to the secular enemy”. He predictably admired Don Quixote, but where Quixote tilted at windmills with his lance, Chesterton used his famous umbrella.


[1] Ian Ker, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012) [hereafter Ker]. Page numbers in the text refer to this source unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Chesterton throughout his work uses the term “man”, as was the common usage of the day, to mean humanity at large, male and female.

[3] The prevailing milieu at Slade has been well captured by Pat Barker in her novel Life Class (2007). Chesterton was taught by the renowned Henry Tonks, a perfectionist and hard taskmaster, who features in Barker’s novel.   

[4] For a readable account of these controversies, see Alec Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution (Penguin, 1961), ch, 4. Among the outward and visible manifestations of ritualism Vidler lists such things as altar lights, vestments, wafer bread in communion, making the sign of the cross, incense, genuflections, surpliced choirs, much singing and chanting, use of holy water, confession to priests; and more broadly, churches adorned in the medieval style (linked to the Gothic Revival in architecture), and the revival of religious communities (including women communities, we might add). Vidler comments: “It must be emphasized that Ritualism was not merely a matter of external rites and ceremonies. It was felt to symbolize and safeguard deep doctrinal convictions, especially the presence of Christ in the eucharist. The strength of Ritualism lay in its devout sacramentalism and its encouragement of a disciplined and winning spirituality that seemed to be lacking in ordinary, conventional Anglicanism” (p.160).On the other hand, as he points out, it ran counter to deep Protestant conservatism in church attitudes in England, and deep-seated fears of “popery” and the spread of Catholicism in Britain (not unconnected with the influx of Irish immigrants).

[5] Calum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain (London, 2001), and other works.

[6] S. J. D. Green, The Passing of Protestant England: Secularisation and Social Change, c.1920-1960 (Cambridge University Press, 2011). See Green generally on this subject.

[7] For a discussion of eugenics see essays 15-17 in my book Darwin’s Coat-Tails (2007); also Edwin Black, War Against  the Weak (New York, London, 2003).

[8] Darwin’s Coat-Tails, p.269.

[9] The iconoclastic, and lately lamented, Christopher Hitchens labelled Chesterton  a “reactionary” who embraced “bucolic conservatism”: “Chesterton became part of a forgettable rear-guard operation against the age of uncertainty, which has now definitely become our age”: The Atlantic (March 2012), pp.79, 81. (Hitchens wrote this article on his death-bed in hospital).

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