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Obiter Dicta


In The Press

Thomas International Center
March 2008


Ralph McInerny





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 modern era.

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 sense.

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 masterpiece.

How can we account for the range and depth of this genius? Perhaps by noting that he never attended a university.


Ralph McInerny