Friday, September 19, 2014

Readings for Next Week's Meeting


First, an apology. This blog has been terribly neglected. We have a Facebook page which is so much easier to post on that the temptation is to put any Chestertonian thoughts on that rather than here.

Secondly, an apology. The next meeting of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland is a week from tomorrow, Saturday 19th September, in the Central Catholic Library in Merrion Square, Dublin city centre.

Although I announced this already on the Facebook page, I know that it's terribly short notice here.

Given the short notice, I've kept the readings this time short. Not that you have to read them ahead of time. We'll go through them at the meeting. Here they are.

Dickens and Christmas. From Charles Dickens (1906)
 Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England. Like Chaucer he loved story within story, every man telling a tale. Like Chaucer he saw something openly comic in men's motley trades. Sam Weller would have been a great gain to the Canterbury Pilgrimage and told an admirable story. Rosetti's Damozel would have been a great bore, regarded as too fast by the Prioress and too priggish by the Wife of Bath. It is said that in the somewhat sickly Victorian revival of feudalism which was called "Young England," a nobleman hired a hermit to live in his grounds. It is also said that the hermit struck for more beer. Whether this anecdote be true or not, it is always told as showing a collapse from the ideal of the Middle Ages to the level of the present day. But in the mere act of striking for beer the holy man was very much more "medieval" than the fool who employed him.
It would be hard to find a better example of this than Dickens's great defence of Christmas. In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the old European festival. Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday. He had himself the most babyish ideas about the past. He supposed the Middle Ages to have consisted of tournaments and torture-chambers, he supposed himself to be a brisk man of the manufacturing age, almost a Utilitarian. But for all that he defended the mediæval feast which was going out against the Utilitarianism which was coming in. He could only see all that was bad in mediævalism. But he fought for all that was good in it. And he was all the more really in sympathy with the old strength and simplicity because he only knew that it was good and did not know that it was old. He cared as little for mediævalism as the mediævals did. He cared as much as they did for lustiness and virile laughter and sad tales of good lovers and pleasant tales of good livers. He would have been very much bored by Ruskin and Walter Pater if they had explained to him the strange sunset tints of Lippi and Botticelli. He had no pleasure in looking on the dying Middle Ages. But he looked on the living Middle Ages, on a piece of the old uproarious superstition still unbroken; and he hailed it like a new religion. The Dickens character ate pudding to an extent at which the modern mediævalists turned pale. They would do every kind of honour to an old observance, except observing it. They would pay to a Church feast every sort of compliment except feasting.

And (as I have said) as were his unconscious relations to our European past, so were his unconscious relations to England. He imagined himself to be, if anything, a sort of cosmopolitan; at any rate to be a champion of the charms and merits of continental lands against the arrogance of our island. But he was in truth very much more a champion of the old and genuine England against that comparatively cosmopolitan England which we have all lived to see. And here again the supreme example is Christmas. Christmas is, as I have said, one of numberless old European feasts of which the essence is the combination of religion with merry-making. But among those feasts it is also especially and distinctively English in the style of its merry-making and even in the style of its religion. For the character of Christmas (as distinct, for instance, from the continental Easter) lies chiefly in two things; first on the terrestrial side the note of comfort rather than the note of brightness; and on the spiritual side, Christian charity rather than Christian ecstasy. And comfort is, like charity, a very English instinct. Nay, comfort is, like charity, an English merit; though our comfort may and does degenerate into materialism, just as our charity may and does degenerate into laxity and make-believe.

This ideal of comfort belongs peculiarly to England; it belongs peculiarly to Christmas; above all, it belongs pre-eminently to Dickens. And it is astonishingly misunderstood. It is misunderstood by the continent of Europe; it is, if possible, still more misunderstood by the English of to-day. On the Continent the restaurateurs provide us with raw beef, as if we were savages; yet old English cooking takes as much care as French. And in England has arisen a parvenu patriotism which represents the English as everything but English; as a blend of Chinese stoicism, Latin militarism, Prussian rigidity, and American bad taste. And so England, whose fault is gentility and whose virtue is geniality, England with her tradition of the great gay gentlemen of Elizabeth, is represented to the four quarters of the world (as in Mr. Kipling's religious poems) in the enormous image of a solemn cad. And because it is very difficult to be comfortable in the suburbs, the suburbs have voted that comfort is a gross and material thing. Comfort, especially this vision of Christmas comfort, is the reverse of a gross or material thing. It is far more poetical, properly speaking, than the Garden of Epicurus. It is far more artistic than the Palace of Art. It is more artistic because it is based upon a contrast, a contrast between the fire and wine within the house and the winter and the roaring rains without. It is far more poetical, because there is in it a note of defence, almost of war; a note of being besieged by the snow and hail; of making merry in the belly of a fort. The man who said that an Englishman's house is his castle said much more than he meant. The Englishman thinks of his house as something fortified and provisioned, and his very surliness is at root romantic. And this sense would naturally be strongest in wild winter nights, when the lowered portcullis and the lifted drawbridge do not merely bar people out, but bar people in. The Englishman's house is most sacred, not merely when the King cannot enter it, but when the Englishman cannot get out of it.

This comfort, then, is an abstract thing, a principle. The English poor shut all their doors and windows till their rooms reek like the Black Hole. They are suffering for an idea. Mere animal hedonism would not dream, as we English do, of winter feasts and little rooms, but of eating fruit in large and idle gardens. Mere sensuality would desire to please all its senses. But to our good dreams this dark and dangerous background is essential; the highest pleasure we can imagine is a defiant pleasure, a happiness that stands at bay. The word "comfort" is not indeed the right word, it conveys too much of the slander of mere sense; the true word is "cosiness," a word not translatable. One, at least, of the essentials of it is smallness, smallness in preference to largeness, smallness for smallness' sake. The merry-maker wants a pleasant parlour, he would not give twopence for a pleasant continent. In our difficult time, of course, a fight for mere space has become necessary. Instead of being greedy for ale and Christmas pudding we are greedy for mere air, an equally sensual appetite. In abnormal conditions this is wise; and the illimitable veldt is an excellent thing for nervous people. But our fathers were large and healthy enough to make a thing humane, and not worry about whether it was hygienic. They were big enough to get into small rooms.

Of this quite deliberate and artistic quality in the close Christmas chamber, the standing evidence is Dickens in Italy. He created these dim firelit tales like little dim red jewels, as an artistic necessity, in the centre of an endless summer. Amid the white cities of Tuscany he hungered for something romantic, and wrote about a rainy Christmas. Amid the pictures of the Uffizi he starved for something beautiful, and fed his memory on London fog. His feeling for the fog was especially poignant and typical. In the first of his Christmas tales, the popular "Christmas Carol," he suggested the very soul of it in one simile, when he spoke of the dense air, suggesting that "Nature was brewing on a large scale." This sense of the thick atmosphere as something to eat or drink, something not only solid but satisfactory, may seem almost insane, but it is no exaggeration of Dickens's emotion. We speak of a fog "that you could cut with a knife." Dickens would have liked the phrase as suggesting that the fog was a colossal cake. He liked even more his own phrase of the Titanic brewery, and no dream would have given him a wilder pleasure than to grope his way to some such tremendous vats and drink the ale of the giants.

There is a current prejudice against fogs, and Dickens, perhaps, is their only poet. Considered hygienically, no doubt this may be more or less excusable. But, considered poetically, fog is not undeserving, it has a real significance. We have in our great cities abolished the clean and sane darkness of the country. We have outlawed night and sent her wandering in wild meadows; we have lit eternal watch-fires against her return. We have made a new cosmos, and as a consequence our own sun and stars. And as a consequence also, and most justly, we have made our own darkness. Just as every lamp is a warm human moon, so every fog is a rich human nightfall. If it were not for this mystic accident we should never see darkness, and he who has never seen darkness has never seen the sun. Fog for us is the chief form of that outward pressure which compresses mere luxury into real comfort. It makes the world small, in the same spirit as in that common and happy cry that the world is small, meaning that it is full of friends. The first man that emerges out of the mist with a light, is for us Prometheus, a saviour bringing fire to men. He is that greatest and best of all men, greater than the heroes, better than the saints, Man Friday. Every rumble of a cart, every cry in the distance, marks the heart of humanity beating undaunted in the darkness. It is wholly human; man toiling in his own cloud. If real darkness is like the embrace of God, this is the dark embrace of man.

In such a sacred cloud the tale called "The Christmas Carol" begins, the first and most typical of all his Christmas tales. It is not irrelevant to dilate upon the geniality of this darkness, because it is characteristic of Dickens that his atmospheres are more important than his stories. The Christmas atmosphere is more important than Scrooge, or the ghosts either; in a sense, the background is more important than the figures. The same thing may be noticed in his dealings with that other atmosphere (besides that of good humour) which he excelled in creating, an atmosphere of mystery and wrong, such as that which gathers round Mrs. Clennam, rigid in her chair, or old Miss Havisham, ironically robed as a bride. Here again the atmosphere altogether eclipses the story, which often seems disappointing in comparison. The secrecy is sensational; the secret is tame. The surface of the thing seems more awful than the core of it. It seems almost as if these grisly figures, Mrs. Chadband and Mrs. Clennam, Miss Havisham, and Miss Flite, Nemo and Sally Brass, were keeping something back from the author as well as from the reader. When the book closes we do not know their real secret. They soothed the optimistic Dickens with something less terrible than the truth. The dark house of Arthur Clennam's childhood really depresses us; it is a true glimpse into that quiet street in hell, where live the children of that unique dispensation which theologians call Calvinism and Christians devil-worship. But some stranger crime had really been done there, some more monstrous blasphemy or human sacrifice than the suppression of some silly document advantageous to the silly Dorrits. Something worse than a common tale of jilting lay behind the masquerade and madness of the awful Miss Havisham. Something worse was whispered by the misshapen Quilp to the sinister Sally in that wild, wet summer-house by the river, something worse than the clumsy plot against the clumsy Kit. These dark pictures seem almost as if they were literally visions; things, that is, that Dickens saw but did not understand.
Popular Fiction (from The Defendant 1901)

One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy’s novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that a modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.
In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.

To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys’ literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personæ, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac. In the East the professional story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I wish sincerely that anyone had the moral courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is not probable that all the tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of original artistic workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can never be too long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the last halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the true romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood; there is no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine. These two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.

Equality and Difference (from Charles Dickens, 1906) (Incidentally, I think this is one of the most profound arguments that Chesterton ever made!)

In one sense things can only be equal if they are entirely different. Thus, for instance, people talk with a quite astonishing gravity about the inequality or equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly be any inequality between a lock and a key. Wherever there is no element of variety, wherever all the items literally have an identical aim, there is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman is only inferior to man in the matter of being not so manly; she is inferior in nothing else. Man is inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman; there is no other reason. And the same applies in some degree to all genuine differences. It is a great mistake to suppose that love unites and unifies men. Love diversifies them, because love is directed towards individuality. The thing that really unites men and makes them like to each other is hatred. Thus, for instance, the more we love Germany the more pleased we shall be that Germany should be something different from ourselves, should keep her own ritual and conviviality and we ours. But the more we hate Germany the more we shall copy German guns and German fortifications in order to be armed against Germany. The more modern nations detest each other the more meekly they follow each other; for all competition is in its nature only a furious plagiarism. As competition means always similarity, it is equally true that similarity always means inequality. If everything is trying to be green, some things will be greener than others; but there is an immortal and indestructible equality between green and red.
The Perils of Prophecy from the Illustrated London News, 12th August 1911

I wonder where this profound modern conviction arose that our descendants are all going to be off their heads. We were used to the notion that the human race would some day be tipped into the sun, to the New Deluge theory that men would all be drowned. But where did our sociological reasoners and romancers get this idea that they will all be cracked? For no other phrase will fit the predictions that are very common in essays and novels just now. The study of natural history in its simplest form might presumably lead us to suppose that our sons and daughters will be men and women, and not sphinxes and minotaurs; and that men and women will be interested in the usual things — chiefly in each other. Sex, self-defence, the peril of childbed, the peril of battle, will always dwarf everything else. Births, deaths, and marriages will always be on the front page. Special conveniences, striking inventions will grow till they have fitted into the framework of these gigantic things, and then they will stop growing. But to hear the social prophets talk, one would think these inventions and conveniences would grow vaster and vaster in a sort of void, and would swallow up everything, including the humanity that made them.

For instance, I heard the other day a quite sober and scientific lecture about Aviation. The lecturer said calmly, in a kind of parenthesis, that one could not actually fix the period when flying would be the ordinary mode of daily movement; but it was pretty certain to come. Now this is just as if, when railways were invented, some railway director had written that we should all end by dining and sleeping all our lives in the train, but he could not as yet make public the date when the new arrangement would begin. Obviously, the aeroplane will increase till it fills a particular place in civilisation, as the railway-train has increased; then it will stop, as the railway-train has stopped. If an early railway speculator had prophesied that railways would become a million times more general and necessary than most people supposed, he would have been right. But if had prophesied that these moving houses would soon be the only houses left, he would have been in error. If he had said that St. Paul’s Cathedral and the General Post Office would some day go by on wheels with a piston-rod, he would have been under a misapprehension. Steam has had its epoch of wealth and power, about as long as it is likely to have it. And strangely enough, there are still dining-rooms that are not dining-cars, and bedrooms (I am glad to say) that are not wagons de lit. If the first projector of automobiles had said that they would not always be confined to projectors, nor even exclusively to the very rich, he would have been right. But if he had said that by 1911 every man would motor downstairs to breakfast in the morning and motor upstairs to bed at night, motor round the library to choose a book, and motor across the drawing-room to ring a bell, then it would be possible by this time to detect in his prediction a faint trace of exaggeration. And in the same way, of course, a man who says that aviation will become much more important than it is, is probably right. But a man who says that it will become a normal human habit is not only mad himself, but evidently believes that he can bequeath his mental malady to his descendants.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

More of my Open Door articles on Chesterton

My weekly articles on the life and ideas of Our Author continue to appear in The Open Door magazine, which is distributed in county Kildare. I published the first five of them on this blog and also on my Irish Papist blog. The next five of them can be read on my Irish Papist blog now. I will probably publish them here, too, but I'm too lazy at the moment. (When I cut and paste in Blogger, I lose all the italics and have to add them piecemeal. It's, like, such a drag, dude.)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Gilbert in the Workplace

I'm always trying to promote Chesterton. This is an article I wrote last month for my workplace's staff bulletin. (I work in University College Dublin library.) I wasn't sure if they would carry it, since Chesterton is a Catholic writer and it might be seen as controversial. But, fair play to them, they did.

Why You Should Read G.K. Chesterton
By Maolsheachlann O’Ceallaigh 
(Published in the Social Bulletin of University College Dublin Library, April 2014)

In 2010, I started the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, along with UCD philosophy tutor Angelo Bottone. I had becoming hooked on the works of Chesterton a few years before, and as there were Chesterton Societies in many other countries, but not in Ireland, I decided I would take matters into my own hands.

Who was G.K. Chesterton? Well, most of you know already, I’m sure. He was an English author who died in 1936. He was a novelist, a journalist, an essayist, a poet, a wit, a religious writer, and a social activist. He advocated the social and economic philosophy Distributism, which was intended as a ‘third way’ between communism and capitalism. It promoted small farms, small businesses and self-employment, and has often been reduced to the slogan ‘three acres and a cow’.

Considering the nature of this bulletin, I will not emphasise his role as a religious writer. But I will say that I truly believe Chesterton is an author who can appeal to people of every religious belief and none. He has many atheist and agnostic fans. He is also a writer who can appeal to people across the whole political spectrum. If you think he is a harrumphing reactionary, I appeal to you to dip in and see if this is really the case. At the very least, you will find that Chesterton is willing to argue everything, to go down to brass tacks and first principles in every matter. Although, with characteristic wit, he insisted: “The purpose of opening the mind, as with opening the mouth, is to close it again on something solid.”

So that’s why you shouldn’t not read him. Why should you read him? 

Because he is one of the funniest writers who ever wrote, for a start. Here was a man who, on a lecture tour of America, quipped that the Americans had a holiday to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgim Fathers, and that the English should have a holiday celebrating their departure. He described the Irish spirit of egalitarianism as: “One man is just as good as another, and a good deal better besides.” He called marriage a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline. He is up there with Oscar Wilde, G.B. Shaw (his friend and sparring partner) and Mark Twain when it comes to the production of quotable witticisms.

You should read him because reading Chesterton is an intellectual adventure. He jumped into every debate that was current during his long years a writer—many of which are still relevant, many of which are timeless. Even if you furiously disagree with him, you will certainly find your brain being taken for a spin. And you should read him for ninety -eight other reasons I don’t have room for.

I will leave some of my collections of Chesterton’s Illustrated London News articles in the James Joyce staff room. They are the ideal length for coffee break reading, and they are on every subject imaginable. Try him out. Open your mind and close it on something solid—and tasty, too!

An Open Door into Chesterton...I Hope!

Some weeks ago, the editor of The Open Door magazine (a local Catholic magazine distributed free of charge in the Kildare area) wrote to me and suggested I contribute a weekly column on G.K. Chesterton. I very eagerly agreed. The catch was that each article could only be 450 words in length. As readers of this blog will know, economy with words is not my strong-point-- or at least, not characteristic of my writing style.

But I've been writing these articles for six weeks now and I have found that it's actually a very enjoyable challenge. I've become a stickler-- I won't go a single word over 450 and I find myself striving to achieve that exact word-count!

I decided to write a week-by-week exposition of Chesterton's thought. Now that it's a few weeks in, I thought I might publish the first five articles here. The Open Door is only available (in paper format) in a certain area so I didn't think it was unreasonable to make the articles available to other readers. My hope is that whenever the series is finished it will be a nice little capsule course on Chesterton's philosophy. Anyway, I hope you like it so far.

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton, parts one to five.

Almost eighty years ago, in 1936, a man by the name of Gilbert Keith Chesterton breathed his last. Reportedly, his final words were: “The issue is now clear. It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side”. The side that Chesterton chose was Christianity, and (later in life) Roman Catholicism in particular.

He was a journalist, a novelist, a poet, a controversialist, a wit, and quite possibly a saint. (The cause for his sainthood was opened this year.) His image is familiar even now—the tall, fat man in the cape and the battered hat. Tales of his absent-mindedness and eccentricity are also legion. (He was known to stop the traffic as he stopped dead halfway across the road, struck by some brilliant thought.)

We need Chesterton today. Why? Because many of the ideologies and evils that Catholics face in the twenty-first century—abortion, euthanasia, pornography, religious indifference, the erosion of the family, and a hundred others—were also current in Chesterton’s day. And Chesterton argued against them tirelessly, leaving an armoury of arguments and witticisms that will serve us well in our own efforts to defend eternal Truth.

This is the first of a regular feature in which I will be presenting ideas and argument from the thought of G.K. Chesterton to the readers of The Open Door.

The very title of this magazine suggests to me a famous passage from Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. It’s a good place to start because it takes us straight into the deepest and most abiding of all Chesterton’s themes; that is, the importance of wonder and gratitude.

Chesterton writes: “When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

To Chesterton the great question is: why do we ever lose that child-like sense of wonder at the sheer marvel of existence? Why do we take the wonders of the world for granted—or rather (as Chesterton put) not for granted, since we forget or even deny that they were granted to us in the first place?

A man whose eyes are opened to the fact that life is a wonderful gift—that we live ‘best of all impossible worlds’, as Chesterton put it—- is already well on the way to accepting and worshipping an all-powerful and benevolent God. We will go deeper into Chesterton’s insights into this subject next week.


Last week, we began our journey into the thought of G.K. Chesterton, the great Catholic writer and apologist who died in 1936, by looking at the idea that was probably the most fundamental to his life and work; the idea of wonder and gratitude.

Chesterton’s aphorisms and witticisms are as plentiful as blackberries in September, but one of my very favourite (in fact, I had it put onto a tee-shirt!) is: “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”

He believed that many of our modern maladies came from the simple inability to regard the world, God’s gift, with the proper astonishment and gratitude. In this he was like Gregory of Nyssa, a saint and bishop of the fourth century, who wrote: “Only wonder understands.”

With his matchless insight, Chesterton took this idea of grateful wonder and used it to illuminate many other aspects of Christian teaching. For instance, when he was studying the penny Catechism before his conversion to Catholicism at the age of 48, he came across these words: ‘The two sins against hope are presumption and despair.’ To Chesterton, this was a confirmation of what he had always felt. Presumption sees the world without gratitude, because it feels no sense of unworthiness before all the blessings God has bestowed on us. Despair has lost the simple wonder of being alive, the marvel at existence itself.

In his youth, Chesterton was confronted with the fashionable philosophy of decadence. Decadent poets and novelists wrote about their boredom, cynicism and their escape into sensual pleasures. In a poem about his youth, Chesterton wrote: “Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung; the world was very old indeed when you and I were young.” The young Chesterton (who was not even a Christian yet, let alone a Catholic) rebelled against this fashionable apathy, proclaiming the pure joy of being alive and the beauty of common things, from the very start of his literary career.

In our own day, we can see how forgetting the wondrousness of existence leads to some very sinister results. Unborn babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome and other genetic disorders are routinely aborted, on the spuriously compassionate grounds that their lives will not be worth living. People who are suffering debilitating illness, or who simply feel they have nothing left to live for, feel compelled to seek out euthanasia—- and, in some countries, society and the medical authorities more or less push them in this direction.

In the face of all this, we must proclaim the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton: “You should not look a gift universe in the mouth”.


In last week’s article, I wrote about G.K. Chesterton’s proclamation of the wonder of existence itself, and how he urged his readers to develop a fitting gratitude for being alive. Of course, this gratitude isn’t for God’s sake. This gratitude is for our own sake.

Isn’t it the case that people who are really happy—- a man in love, or a football fan watching his team play well, or an art lover looking at a beautiful picture—- are naturally inclined to give praise? They cheer, or they write love poems, or they rhapsodise about the thing they admire.

Some people like to make fun of the idea of an eternity spent praising God, which is what Christians look forward to. They wonder why God would be so egotistical as to want this. They overlook the fact that happy people naturally want to praise and give thanks. And the supreme happiness would make us overflow with this urge.

We can also see, from everyday life, how people who are never grateful are never happy. “She’s never happy”, is what we say about someone who’s never pleased, no matter how much people do for her.

In Chesterton’s view, none of us are grateful enough. He wrote: “We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is...All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

In Chesterton’s novel Manalive, the hero Innocent Smith puts this belief into very practical action. When someone tells Innocent he doesn’t feel life is worth living, Innocent obligingly points a pistol at him and offers to release him from his misery. His would-be victim, of course, quickly changes his mind. This procedure, however, is not recommended to readers of The Open Door.

A better approach might be to quote Chesterton’s moving poem, By the Babe Unborn, in which an unborn baby imagines a wonderland of tall trees and green grass—the world that everyone who is already born inhabits. It last words are:

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.


In the opening instalments of this series, I introduced readers of The Open Door to some of G.K. Chesterton’s most fundamental ideas—namely, the importance of wonder and gratitude. Now I am going to move on to a subject which is hardly less central to his thought, and which is closely related to the themes of wonder and gratitude. That is, the evil of pride and the importance of humility.

This, of course, will hardly be news to Christians. That pride is the worst of all sins is a commonplace in the Christian tradition. And we are well familiar with the notion that ‘he who humbles himself shall be exalted’. So why do we need Chesterton to tell us this all over again?

Well, as the great Samuel Johnson said, “Men more frequently need to be reminded than informed”. But even aside from that fact, Chesterton’s championing of pride and his denunciation of humility are important because of their exceptonal vividness. His gift was to impress upon his readers the great ugliness and futility of pride, and the profound beauty and joyousness of humility.

We should note in passing that he lived up to his own words. Everyone who knew Chesterton commented upon his humility. He was a very fat man who often made fun of his own fatness. He joked that he was more chivalrous than most men, since when he gave up his seat on a tram, he made room for three ladies rather than one.

But his humility went deeper than making fun of his figure. He was a man of tremendous literary talent who might have concentrated on carving out a reputation amongst the greatest authors of all time. His friends urged him to devote less energy to journalism and to concentrate on writing masterpieces. But he never did. He was not interested in the posthumous reputation of G.K. Chesterton. He was interested in fighting the evils of his day, and in jumping feet-first into every debate that was going.

Chesterton attacked pride because he knew it led to misery. “Pride is a weakness in the character”, he wrote. “It dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.” He put it even more stridently when he wrote: “The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and of despair. “

Next week, we’ll journey further into Chesterton’s thoughts on pride and humility.


Last week, we started looking at the themes of pride and humility in the philosophy of G.K. Chesterton. We saw how powerfully Chesterton wrote against the sin of pride, and the way it drains all the laughter and joy and surprise out of human life. Let us now turn, gratefully, from the subject of pride to the subject of humility.

Chesterton never tired of proclaiming that the Christian virtues were not something negative, not the mere absence of something, but the very definite and overflowing presence of something. “The chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell.”

And, of all the Christian virtues, Chesterton assigned a very high place to humility. One of his most famous aphorisms is: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

Of all the many praises of humility that Chesterton wrote, perhaps this passage from Orthodoxy is the most eloquent: “if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything — even pride.”

Chesterton’s views on humility must not be understood. He had no time, for instance, for the misguided sort of humility which sees the human race itself as contemptible. “One can hardly think too little of one’s self”, he wrote. “One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.” As a Christian, of course, Chesterton believed that man was created in God’s image—so he had no time for the ‘humility’ of the scientific materialist, who sees the human race as nothing but a freak occurrence in an obscure planet lost in the vast tracts of the cosmos.

How are we to think so highly of our souls, but so little of our selves? The answer, of course, is the idea of original sin. Chesterton once wrote: “The whole of life becomes so very jolly and livable when once we have believed in original sin.”

What could he have meant by that? Well, I’ll tell you next week!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Not Quite Right

I don't know about you, but the first subject I usually look up in an encyclopedia or an index is G.K. Chesterton. So when I came across an edition of the Hutchinson Enyclopeda (a single-volume encyclopedia) from 1992, that's exactly what I did, and this is what I found:

Chesterton, G(ilbert) K(eith) 1874-1936. English novelist, essayist and satirical poet, author of a series of novels featuring the naive priest-detective 'Father Brown'. Other novels include The Napoleon of Notting Hill 1904 and The Man Who Knew Too Much 1922.

Born in London, he studied art but quickly turned to journalism. Like Hilaire Belloc, he was initially a Socialist sympathizer and joined the Catholic Church 1922.

How many errors can you spot in those five lines? (Admittedly, one of them is more an infelicity of expresssion than an error.)