Gilbert Keith Chesterton, KC*SG (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936) better known as G.K. Chesterton, was an English writer,lay theologian, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, literary and art critic, biographer, and Christian apologist. Chesterton is often referred to as the "prince of paradox."Time magazine, in a review of a biography of Chesterton, observed of his writing style: "Whenever possible Chesterton made his points with popular sayings, proverbs, allegories—first carefully turning them inside out."
Born in Campden Hill in Kensington, London, Chesterton was educated at St Paul's School. He attended the Slade School of Art in order to become an illustrator. The Slade is a department of University College London, where he also took classes in literature, but he did not complete a degree in either subject. In 1896 Chesterton began working for the London publisher Redway, and T. Fisher Unwin, where he remained until 1902. During this period he also undertook his first journalistic work as a freelance art and literary critic. In 1901 he married Frances Blogg, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life. In 1902 the Daily News gave him a weekly opinion column, followed in 1905 by a weekly column in The Illustrated London News, for which he continued to write for the next thirty years.
Chesterton was baptized at the age of one month into the Church of England, though his family themselves were irregularly practising Unitarians. According to Chesterton, as a young man he became fascinated with the occult and, along with his brother Cecil, experimented with Ouija boards.
Chesterton credited his wife Frances with leading him back to Anglicanism, though he began to see Anglicanism as a "pale imitation". He entered full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1922.
Chesterton early showed a great interest in and talent for art. He had planned to become an artist and his writing shows a vision that clothed abstract ideas in concrete and memorable images. Even his fiction seemed to be carefully concealed parables. Father Brown is perpetually correcting the incorrect vision of the bewildered folks at the scene of the crime and wandering off at the end with the criminal to exercise his priestly role of recognition and repentance. For example, in the story "The Flying Stars", Father Brown entreats the character Flambeau to give up his life of crime: "There is still youth and honour and humour in you; don't fancy they will last in that trade. Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down. The kind man drinks and turns cruel; the frank man kills and lies about it. Many a man I've known started like you to be an honest outlaw, a merry robber of the rich, and ended stamped into slime."
Chesterton was a large man, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and weighing around 286 pounds (130 kg). His girth gave rise to a famous anecdote. During the First World War a lady in London asked why he was not "out at the Front"; he replied, "If you go round to the side, you will see that I am." On another occasion he remarked to his friend George Bernard Shaw: "To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England". Shaw retorted, "To look at you, anyone would think you have caused it".P. G. Wodehouse once described a very loud crash as "a sound like Chesterton falling onto a sheet of tin".
Chesterton usually wore a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand, and a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He had a tendency to forget where he was supposed to be going and miss the train that was supposed to take him there. It is reported that on several occasions he sent a telegram to his wife Frances from some distant (and incorrect) location, writing such things as "Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" to which she would reply, "Home". Because of these instances of absent-mindedness and of Chesterton being extremely clumsy as a child, there has been speculation that Chesterton had undiagnosed developmental coordination disorder.
Chesterton wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer. He was a columnist for the Daily News, the Illustrated London News, and his own paper, G. K.'s Weekly; he also wrote articles for the Encyclopædia Britannica, including the entry on Charles Dickens and part of the entry on Humour in the 14th edition (1929). His best-known character is the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared only in short stories, while The Man Who Was Thursday is arguably his best-known novel. He was a convinced Christian long before he was received into the Catholic Church, and Christian themes and symbolism appear in much of his writing. In the United States, his writings on distributism were popularized through The American Review, published by Seward Collins in New York.
Of his nonfiction, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906) has received some of the broadest-based praise. According to Ian Ker (The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845–1961, 2003), "In Chesterton's eyes Dickens belongs to Merry, not Puritan, England" ; Ker treats Chesterton's thought in Chapter 4 of that book as largely growing out of his true appreciation of Dickens, a somewhat shop-soiled property in the view of other literary opinions of the time.
Chesterton's writings consistently displayed wit and a sense of humour. He employed paradox, while making serious comments on the world, government, politics, economics, philosophy, theology and many other topics.
Chesterton's writing has been seen by some analysts as combining two earlier strands in English literature. Dickens' approach is one of these. Another is represented by Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, whom Chesterton knew well: satirists and social commentators following in the tradition of Samuel Butler, vigorously wielding paradox as a weapon against complacent acceptance of the conventional view of things.
Chesterton's style and thinking were all his own, however, and his conclusions were often opposed to those of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. In his book Heretics, Chesterton has this to say of Wilde: "The same lesson [of the pessimistic pleasure-seeker] was taught by the very powerful and very desolate philosophy of Oscar Wilde. It is the carpe diem religion; but the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may; its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw." More briefly, and with a closer approximation of Wilde's own style, he writes in Orthodoxy concerning the necessity of making symbolic sacrifices for the gift of creation: "Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde."
Chesterton and Shaw were famous friends and enjoyed their arguments and discussions. Although rarely in agreement, they both maintained good will toward and respect for each other. However, in his writing, Chesterton expressed himself very plainly on where they differed and why. In Heretics he writes of Shaw:
After belabouring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr. Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense, that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being with two legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake. If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.
Shaw represented the new school of thought, modernism, which was rising at the time. Chesterton's views, on the other hand, became increasingly more focused towards the Church. In Orthodoxy he writes: "The worship of will is the negation of will... If Mr. Bernard Shaw comes up to me and says, 'Will something', that is tantamount to saying, 'I do not mind what you will', and that is tantamount to saying, 'I have no will in the matter.' You cannot admire will in general, because the essence of will is that it is particular."
This style of argumentation is what Chesterton refers to as using 'Uncommon Sense' — that is, that the thinkers and popular philosophers of the day, though very clever, were saying things that were nonsensical. This is illustrated again in Orthodoxy: "Thus when Mr. H. G. Wells says (as he did somewhere), 'All chairs are quite different', he utters not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them 'all chairs'." Or, again from Orthodoxy:
The wild worship of lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void. Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing and Nirvana. They are both helpless — one because he must not grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything. The Tolstoyan's will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite's will is quite equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads. The result is — well, some things are not hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads.
Another contemporary and friend from schooldays was Edmund Bentley, inventor of the clerihew. Chesterton himself wrote clerihews and illustrated his friend's first published collection of poetry, Biography for Beginners (1905), which popularized the clerihew form. Chesterton was also godfather to Bentley's son, Nicolas, and opened his novel The Man Who Was Thursday with a poem written to Bentley.
Chesterton faced accusations of anti-Semitism during his lifetime, as well as posthumously. In a work of 1917, titled A Short History of England, Chesterton considers the year of 1290, when, by royal decree, Edward I expelled Jews from England, a policy that remained in place until 1655. In writing of the official expulsion and banishment of 1290, Chesterton writes that Edward I was a "just and conscientious" monarch, never more truly representative of his people than when he expelled the Jews, "as powerful as they are unpopular". Chesterton writes Jews were "capitalists of their age" so that when Edward "flung the alien financiers out of the land", he acted as "knight errant", and "tender father of his people". In The New Jerusalem, Chesterton made it clear that he believed that there was a "Jewish Problem" in Europe, in the sense that he believed that Jewish culture (though not Jewish ethnicity) separated itself from the nationalities of Europe. He suggested the formation of a Jewish homeland as a solution, and was later invited to Palestine by Jewish Zionists who saw him as an ally in their cause.
In his 1989 biography of Chesterton, Gilbert: The Man who was G.K. Chesterton, Michael Coren quoted the Wiener Library as having said that they had never thought of Chesterton "as a man who was seriously anti-semitic". In 2010, the then director of the Wiener Library denied that either the library or anyone authorised to speak on its behalf had ever issued such statement. In September 2013, following a discussion of the issue on Twitter, Coren stated that the disputed quotation had come from a 1985 conversation with a librarian whom he did not name. Although he did not explicitly withdraw his attribution of the quotation to the Wiener Library, neither did he provide any justification for regarding the unnamed librarian's opinions as being those of the library's.
Chesterton, like Belloc, openly expressed his abhorrence of Hitler's rule almost as soon as it started.
George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton.
Chesterton is often associated with his close friend, the poet and essayist Hilaire Belloc. George Bernard Shaw coined the name Chesterbelloc for their partnership, and this stuck. Though they were very different men, they shared many beliefs; Chesterton eventually joined Belloc in the Catholic faith, and both voiced criticisms of capitalism and socialism. They instead espoused a third way: distributism.G. K.'s Weekly, which occupied much of Chesterton's energy in the last 15 years of his life, was the successor to Belloc's New Witness, taken over from Cecil Chesterton, Gilbert's brother, who died in World War I.
Chesterton's The Everlasting Man contributed to C. S. Lewis's conversion to Christianity. In a letter to Sheldon Vanauken (14 December 1950)[page needed] Lewis calls the book "the best popular apologetic I know", and to Rhonda Bodle he wrote (31 December 1947)[page needed] "the [very] best popular defence of the full Christian position I know is GK Chesterton's The Everlasting Man". The book was also cited in a list of 10 books that "most shaped his vocational attitude and philosophy of life".
Chesterton was a very early and outspoken critic of eugenics. Eugenics and Other Evils represents one of the first book length oppositions to the Eugenics movement that began to gain momentum in England during the early 1900s.
Chesterton's 1906 biography of Charles Dickens was largely responsible for creating a popular revival for Dickens's work as well as a serious reconsideration of Dickens by scholars.
Etienne Gilson praised Chesterton's Aquinas volume as follows: "I consider it as being, without possible comparison, the best book ever written on Saint Thomas... the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called 'wit' of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame."
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, author of seventy books, identified Chesterton as the stylist who had the greatest impact on his own writing, stating in his autobiography Treasure in Clay "The greatest influence in writing was G. K. Chesterton who never used a useless word, who saw the value of a paradox, and avoided what was trite."
Canadian Media Guru Marshall McLuhan was heavily influenced by Chesterton; McLuhan said the book What's Wrong with the World changed his life in terms of ideas and religion.
Argentine author and essayist Jorge Luis Borges cited Chesterton as a major influence on his own fiction. In an interview with Richard Burgin during the late 1960s, Borges said, "Chesterton knew how to make the most of a detective story."
Chesterton's fence is the principle that you should never take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up. The paraphrased quotation, was ascribed to Chesterton by John F. Kennedy in a 1945 notebook. The correct quotation is from Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”: "In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."
In 1931, the BBC, who believed Chesterton would be "a tremendous success at the microphone", invited him to give a series of radio talks.
Chesterton accepted, tentatively at first. However, from 1932 until his death, he delivered over 40 talks per year. His talks were scripted, but he was allowed (and encouraged) to improvise. It was remarked that his talks had an intimate character to them, in part because they were spoken to his wife and secretary, who were allowed to sit with him during his broadcasts.
The talks were very popular. A BBC official remarked, after Chesterton's death, that "in another year or so, he would have become the dominating voice from Broadcasting House."
The American Chesterton Society was founded in 1996 to explore and promote his writings:
In 2012, a crater on the planet Mercury was named Chesterton after the author.
A fictionalized GK Chesterton is the central character in the Young Chesterton Chronicles, a series of young adult adventure novels written by John McNichol, and published by Sophia Institute Press and Bezalel Books.
Chesterton's wrote the hymn O God of Earth and Altar which was printed in The Commonwealth and then included in the English Hymnal in 1906. Several lines of the hymn are sung in the beginning of the song Revelations by the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden on their 1983 album Piece of Mind. Lead singer Bruce Dickinson in an interview stated "I have a fondness for hymns. I love some of the ritual, the beautiful words, Jerusalem and there was another one, with words by G.K. Chesterton O God of Earth and Altar - very fire and brimstone: 'Bow down and hear our cry'. I used that for an Iron Maiden song, Revelations. In my strange and clumsy way I was trying to say look its all the same stuff."
^Douglas 1974: "Like his friend Ronald Knox he was both entertainer and Christian apologist. The world never fails to appreciate the combination when it is well done; even evangelicals sometimes give the impression of bestowing a waiver on deviations if a man is enough of a genius."