Few authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have held up as well and are as frequently cited as G.K. Chesterton. The April 2015 edition of The Atlantic included an article on the Catholic Church considering canonizing him.
"In his vastness and mobility, Chesterton continues to elude definition: He was a Catholic convert and an oracular man of letters, a pneumatic cultural presence, an aphorist with the production rate of a pulp novelist...Chesterton was a journalist; he was a metaphysician. He was a reactionary; he was a radical. He was a modernist, acutely alive to the rupture in consciousness that produced Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”; he was an anti-modernist (he hated Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”). He was a parochial Englishman and a post-Victorian gasbag; he was a mystic wedded to eternity. All of these cheerfully contradictory things are true, and none of them would matter in the slightest were it not for the final, resolving fact that he was a genius"The same article describes Orthodoxy (1908) as "Ontological basics retailed with a blissful, zooming frivolity, Thomas Aquinas meets Eddie Van Halen."
I took a survey of Twitter followers as to what G.K. Chesterton work I should start with and "Orthodoxy" was the only reply. John Piper recently said that Chesterton is probably the only Arminian who had a real influence on him. I have not finished its companion, Heretics (1910), so am judging this as a stand-alone work. While hailed as a work of apologetics, Chesterton repeatedly writes that is not his intention.
"I do not propose to turn this book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics; I should be glad to meet at any other time the enemies of Christianity in that more obvious arena. Here I am only giving an account of my own growth in spiritual certainty."
First, context matters. Chesterton is responding to assaults on Christianity as irrational by the liberal elites of his day. He's writing at a time when Darwin's natural selection was evolving to full-blown eugenics and Marxism was ascendent. He is writing to George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and others of his day who seemed to hold the intellectual high ground. Chesterton is out to show their logical fallacies and hold Christianity up as, at the least, a reasonable faith. The un-orthodox ideas he assails have had consequences reaching us today.
"I offer this book with the heartiest sentiments to all the jolly people who hate what I write, and regard it (very justly, for all I know), as a piece of poor clowning or a single tiresome joke."
Second, Chesterton's writes with a notoriously peculiar wit, everything rolls into a clever joke. It's as much entertainment as it is serious. You either love it or hate it. Christopher Hitchens' humor is the closest that I can compare it to, Hitchens is like the atheist answer to Chesterton.
Lastly, it is an "autobiography" of Chesterton, describing what ideas he explored before ending up in the Christian faith.
"I am The Fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne."
Chesterton begins with a defense of the doctrine of original sin. "The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums," he writes, making the point that only Christianity holds up man as sinful and untrustworthy of his own merit. He later writes that democracy draws on this idea--
"The real ground upon which Christianity and democracy are one is very much deeper...that the man should rule who does not think that he can rule...we have not got to crown the exceptional man who knows he can rule. Rather we must crown the much more exceptional man who knows he can't."
Similarly, he points to non-Christian religions as ultimately being about the worship of self. He points to Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics, who worshipped an "Inner Light" at the expense of others.
"That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners."
Materialism is more restrictive than Christianity. Chesterton writes that it's this mystery of life that keeps men sane.
"The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle....The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex...But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts."
He addresses the atheists' problem of evil. How can they say whether something is "good" or "bad" without appealing to their subjective emotions? He quotes Bernard Shaw as determining what is good and bad by his "personal happiness." He criticizes philisophers for praising acts of will, as though it frees them from the shackles of theism.
" A brilliant anarchist like Mr. John Davidson feels an irritation against ordinary morality, and therefore he invokes will—will to anything. He only wants humanity to want something. But humanity does want something. It wants ordinary morality. He rebels against the law and tells us to will something or anything. But we have willed something. We have willed the law against which he rebels."
"Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform." When you love something, you work to make it better. A true patriot loves his country for being his country, not for having specific characteristics he associates with it. " A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy...A man who loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870. But a man who loves France for being France will improve the army of 1870. This is exactly what the French have done, and France is a good instance of the working paradox. Nowhere else is patriotism more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental is your patriotism, the more practical are your politics."
Chesterton would be at home in the 21st century opposing those who call themselves "liberal and humane," in this case addressing an apparently increasingly popular idea of suicide. There are echoes of Augustine's City of God in this bit: "(Suicide) is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world... "
Chesterton notes that many criticize Christianity with contradicting criticisms.
"Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic about the world."...
"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. If it falsified human vision it must falsify it one way or another; it could not wear both green and rose-coloured spectacles."
Chapter VI is titled "The Paradoxes of Christianity." He notes that he did not read Christian apologetics, intentionally avoiding them. It was reading atheists and rationalists that drove him to Christianity because he found their claims absurd.
"It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do. They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll's atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke across my mind, 'Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.' I was in a desperate way."
He assails moral relativism. "I found that the very people who said that mankind was one church from Plato to Emerson were the very people who said that morality had changed altogether, and that what was right in one age was wrong in another." Why should he subscribe to the beliefs of the would-be enlightened who argued that their belief is superior because they were more evolved? By that logic, their own version of morality would likely be seen as incorrect and backward in the future. Chesterton finds the immutable truths and morals in Christianity to be right, and to be agreed upon universally throughout history. He found the atheist/agnostic approach logically inconsistent:
"Their chief insult to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves, and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative insistence on the two things. When considering some pagan or agnostic, we were to remember that all men had one religion; when considering some mystic or spiritualist, we were only to consider what absurd religions some men had. We could trust the ethics of Epictetus, because ethics had never changed. We must not trust the ethics of Bossuet, because ethics had changed. They changed in two hundred years, but not in two thousand."
God in created the world as a stage by which men play his drama as the actors. This makes man both haughty and humble, and dependent upon God for the direction. Chesterton finds a consistency in Christian justice that he does not find in rationalism. Christians forgive the criminal but maintain justice for the crime.
"There was room for wrath and love to run wild. There was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild."
Non-Christians also tend to argue that Christianity is bigoted and does not respect diversity. Chesterton argues that, on the contrary, it was paganism that wanted a monoculture united under Pax Romana. It was Christianity that led to the diverse divisions in Europe. Likewise, those who make statements about equality and inequality are making value judgements-- and that gets back to the idea of relativism. "Inequality, as much as equality, implies a standard of value." Observe his criticism of Nietzsche for feebly avoiding this problem by using metaphor instead:
"Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, "beyond good and evil," because he had not the courage to say, "more good than good and evil," or, "more evil than good and evil." Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, "the purer man," or "the happier man," or "the sadder man," for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says "the upper man," or "over man," a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being "higher," do not know either."
How can anyone say what ultimate end of evolution is? The evolutionist assumes the physical world is evolving toward the state he idealizes without realizing that's a subjective value. Some talk of evolution as a slow movement toward justice, which rules out a rapid movement. Chesteron rejects this idea and holds Christianity as the more logical. "For the Orthodox there can always be revolution." Heaven is at war with hell, the world is constantly being redeemed. As Christians looking outward, we seek to make the world a better place because we know the Eden we lost and the standard God sets. What use is current, subjective morality if it's always running away?
"There must be something eternal if there is to be anything sudden. Therefore for all intelligible human purposes, for altering things or for keeping things as they are, for founding a system for ever, as in China, or for altering it every month as in the early French Revolution, it is equally necessary that the vision should be a fixed vision. This is our first requirement."
Christianity answers his question on progress, just as Christianity alone argues of the evil in man.
On miracles, I quote at length as it could easily be written today:
"For some extraordinary reason, there is a fixed notion that it is more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe in them. Why, I cannot imagine, nor can anybody tell me. For some inconceivable cause a "broad" or "liberal" clergyman always means a man who wishes at least to diminish the number of miracles; it never means a man who wishes to increase that number. It always means a man who is free to disbelieve that Christ came out of His grave; it never means a man who is free to believe that his own aunt came out of her grave. It is common to find trouble in a parish because the parish priest cannot admit that St. Peter walked on water; yet how rarely do we find trouble in a parish because the clergyman says that his father walked on the Serpentine? And this is not because (as the swift secularist debater would immediately retort) miracles cannot be believed in our experience. It is not because "miracles do not happen," as in the dogma which Matthew Arnold recited with simple faith. More supernatural things are alleged to have happened in our time than would have been possible eighty years ago. Men of science believe in such marvels much more than they did: the most perplexing, and even horrible, prodigies of mind and spirit are always being unveiled in modern psychology. Things that the old science at least would frankly have rejected as miracles are hourly being asserted by the new science. The only thing which is still old-fashioned enough to reject miracles is the New Theology. But in truth this notion that it is "free" to deny miracles has nothing to do with the evidence for or against them. It is a lifeless verbal prejudice of which the original life and beginning was not in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma of materialism. The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it. Tennyson, a very typical nineteenth-century man, uttered one of the instinctive truisms of his contemporaries when he said that there was faith in their honest doubt. There was indeed. Those words have a profound and even a horrible truth. In their doubt of miracles there was a faith in a fixed and godless fate; a deep and sincere faith in the incurable routine of the cosmos. The doubts of the agnostic were only the dogmas of the monist."...
"A miracle only means the liberty of God. You may conscientiously deny either of them, but you cannot call your denial a triumph of the liberal idea. The Catholic Church believed that man and God both had a sort of spiritual freedom. Calvinism took away the freedom from man, but left it to God. Scientific materialism binds the Creator Himself; it chains up God as the Apocalypse chained the devil. It leaves nothing free in the universe. And those who assist this process are called the "liberal theologians."...
(I)f it is desirable that man should triumph over the cruelty of nature or custom, then miracles are certainly desirable.
Chesterton makes a brief argument that "all roads lead to the same place," pointing out the stark differences in worldview between Buddhism and Christianity and their incompatibility.
He responds to those who ask him "Why not take the moral truths of Christianity but reject the doctrines?" He finds it rational to believe in Christianity, it's a reasonable faith.
"(I)t is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind...For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way...There is no tradition of progress; but the whole human race has a tradition of the Fall. Amusingly enough, indeed, the very dissemination of this idea is used against its authenticity. Learned men literally say that this pre-historic calamity cannot be true because every race of mankind remembers it. I cannot keep pace with these paradoxes."
He also notes a belief because of the arc of European history.
"And in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the dark ages, was the one path across the dark ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilisations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple: it didn't. It arose in the Mediterranean civilisation in the full summer of the Roman Empire. The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast. It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top. This is the amazing thing the religion did: it turned a sunken ship into a submarine."
I like how he writes here:
"The strongest argument for the divine grace is simply its ungraciousness. The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be the very props of the people. The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. But in the modern philosophy the case is opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within."
In conclusion, he finds that Christianity alone offers "joy." He finds God in Jesus to be what no other system offers, something human:
"The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth."
I'm sure critics of his day had answers to his arguments, perhaps that's what motivated him to pen Heretics shortly thereafter. It is a thought-provoking read, although I am not a huge fan of his style. It certainly appeals to a wider audience than academic literature, however. 3.5 stars out of 5.