Tuesday, July 05, 2005


One of the more rewarding benefits of being a quotehound like myself, is First Things' frequent mentions of G. K. Chesterton. A contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, he was probably the most important British Catholic intellectual since Lord Acton--certainly the most popular--and I don't offhand know of who we might name as his successor. Chesterton is supposed to be a quaint Edwardian period piece of a thinker, whose moralizing was brushed away with the rest of his age by the Second World War and the triumph of the century's major ideologies. Yet, if you open works like _Heretics_ or _Orthodoxy_, you find thoughts and observations that might have been written yesterday, about today's issues. Might have been, that is, if the quality of the writing weren't so high. When the next government-funded art atrocity hits, remember GKC's summation of artistic types:

"Poets and such persons talk about the public as if it were some enormous and abnormal monster-a huge hybrid between the cow they milk and the dragon that drinks their blood."

Or next time a relativist runs his different strokes argument at you, you can return with this:

"The modern habit of saying, "Every man has a different philosophy; this is my philosophy and it suits me"--the habit of saying this is mere weak mindedness. A cosmic philosophy is not constructed to fit a man; a cosmic philosophy is constructed to fit a cosmos. A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon."

And what more wry defense of faith has ever been penned that this:

"Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment of private judgement, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29 of May 1874 on Campden Hill, Kensington."

His genius is in his aphoristic gift. His more extended arguments do sometimes sound like mere verbal somersaults, which is probably what so exasperated H. L. Mencken about Chesterton. Yet Chesterton was every bit as pithy an aphorist as Mencken, or Shaw, or anyone else. Father Neuhaus:

Robust is the word that comes to mind at the mention of Chesterton. Some dismiss his as a "manly" or even "muscular" Christianity, but that seems not such a bad thing in this wimpish world. The better term is adventuresome. He knew that there is a wildness to God's mercy, and a wildness to being Christian in the world. It infected his view of the Church careening through history, coping with one thing after another. Recall the fine passage from Orthodoxy:

"She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. . . . To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom-that would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect."

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