This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the publication
of Gilbert Keith Chesterton's Orthodoxy. It is a book at
once light and heavy, serious and comic, difficult and easy.
Chesterton was not a Catholic when he wrote Orthodoxy -
that event was still some years in the future - but in it he
produced one of the most effective works of apologetics of the
Chesterton's argument for Christianity is in part an argument by
elimination - no other account of human life makes sense - and
in part a delightful use of the reductio ad absurdum. The
use of this logical device is a delicate matter. Who wants to be
told that his argument is absurd? Now all of Chesterton's
opponents revered him - George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, a host
of others - largely, I think, because the paradoxical upshot of
a Chestertonian analysis was to show his opponent that his
argument was at odds with what he and everyone else knows. It
was not a matter of succumbing to Chesterton, but rather one of
regaining common sense.
Books about conversion are at their best when they are personal.
St. Augustine set the standard, and Chesterton in Orthodoxy
is recounting his own odyssey from confused modern to
committed Christian. He was a huge man; there was always, it
seemed, a pencil in his hand - he had trained as an artist - and
a glass of wine within reach. Perhaps the single most striking
thing about Chesterton was his capacity for wonder, the wonder
out of which philosophy can come, when it is wedded to common
Chesterton was first and foremost a journalist, but of a kind
that has all but ceased to exist. In everything he wrote there
is the stamp of his own mind, his own voice. Far from making his
work subjective, this seems to be the key to its objectivity.
Like many uncommonly brilliant men, Chesterton was enamored of
the common man, of common sense. Of what everybody already
knows. He had an exuberant confidence in ordinary people and
thus in democracy. "Democracy" has long since become an
equivocal term and the changes in journalism - the 'media', as
we say, seemingly suggesting a seance - have had a lot to do
with the trivialization of self-governance. Was Chesterton
unaware of the way in which modern culture has a way of
eclipsing common sense and purveying opinions which are at once
perverse and difficult to detect? Hardly. We might say that
Chesterton was ahead of the wave in recognizing the corrupting
effect of newspapers.
That is why he and we and everybody else have to - this is a
Chestertonian paradox - learn what we already know. Much of his
writing consists of clearing away the confusion in which the
common man may easily find himself.
The bulk of what he wrote has a dashed-off character, as if he
were seated across the table from us and thinking aloud. His
little book on Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Dumb Ox, has won
the admiration of Thomistic scholars, and yet almost no
scholarship went into it. Maisie Ward's account of how this book
was written almost defies belief. He dictated the first half
before asking his secretary to get him some books about Thomas.
He leafed through these and dictated the rest of the book. The
center of his presentation is the way in which Thomas confronted
Latin Averroism and saved the relationship of faith and reason.
The book is an amazing tour de force. No scholar could
have written it. Every scholar should read it.
In Orthodoxy Chesterton likens what happened to him to a
man who sets off from England in search of new lands, thinks he
has found one and storms ashore to plant the flag only to find
that he has landed in England. He has come home. Profound
discoveries, he suggests, are always a matter of discovering
home, recovering what we already in some sense know. A century
later, the book continues to be read. Ignatius Press is bringing
out the complete works of Chesterton. There are societies
devoted to his thought. It is well known that anyone who writes
mystery stories is okay - Chesterton wrote the marvelous Father
Brown stories. He was also a poet - his Lepanto is a
How can we account for the range and depth of this genius?
Perhaps by noting that he never attended a university.