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."
Chesterton married Frances Blogg in 1901; the marriage lasted the rest of his life. Chesterton credited Frances with leading him back to Anglicanism, though he later considered Anglicanism to be a "pale imitation". He entered full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1922.
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 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 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 contained 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.
In 1931, the BBC invited Chesterton to give a series of radio talks. He accepted, tentatively at first. However, from 1932 until his death, Chesterton delivered over 40 talks per year. He was allowed (and encouraged) to improvise on the scripts. This allowed his talks to maintain an intimate character, as did the decision to allow his wife and secretary 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."
Death and veneration
Telegram sent by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (future Pius XII) on behalf of Pope Pius XI to the people of England following the death of Chesterton.
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."
Title page of the 1909 edition of Orthodoxy, first published in the previous year.
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.
Charges of Anti-Semitism
Chesterton faced accusations of anti-Semitism during his lifetime, as well as posthumously. An early supporter of Captain Dreyfus, by 1906 he had turned into an anti-dreyfusard. From the early 20th century, both his fictional and non-fictional work included charicatures of Jews, stereotyping them as greedy, cowardly, disloyal and communists.
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 argued that he was quite in favor of a Jew becoming Prime Minister or Lord Chancellor, under the condition, though, that "every Jew must be dressed like an Arab [...] The point applies to any Jew, and to our own recovery of healthier relations with him. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land." 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. Later he grew out of the notion of Palestine as a Jewish homeland, and suggested somewhere in Africa instead.
Chesterton, like Belloc, openly expressed his abhorrence of Hitler's rule almost as soon as it started.
In The Truth about the Tribes Chesterton blasted German race theories writing "the essence of Nazi Nationalism is to preserve the purity of a race in a continent where all races are impure."
The historian Simon Mayers points out that Chesterton wrote in works such as The Crank, The Heresy of Race, and The Barbarian as Bore against the concept of racial superiority and critiqued pseudo-scientific race theories saying they were akin to a new religion. In The Truth About the Tribes he wrote "The curse of race religion is that it makes each separate man the sacred image which he worships. His own bones are the sacred relics; his own blood is the blood of St. Januarius."
Mayers records that despite "his hostility towards Nazi antisemitism...[its unfortunate that he made] claims that 'Hitlerism' was a form of Judaism, and that the Jews were partly responsible for race theory." In The Judaism of Hitler Chesterton wrote "Hitlerism is almost entirely of Jewish origin." In A Queer Choice He maintained that the only possible source of "the Hitlerites" idea of "a Chosen Race" was "from the Jews." In The Crank he went on to say "If there is one outstanding quality in Hitlerism it is its Hebraism" and "the new Nordic Man has all the worst faults of the worst Jews: jealousy, greed, the mania of conspiracy, and above all, the belief in a Chosen Race."
Mayers also shows that Chesterton didn't just portray Jews as culturally and religiously distinct, but racially as well. Chesterton wrote The Feud of the Foreigner in 1920 saying that the Jew "is a foreigner far more remote from us than is a Bavarian from a Frenchman; he is divided by the same type of division as that between us and a Chinaman or a Hindoo. He not only is not, but never was, of the same race."
In The Everlasting Man Chesterton indicated that he believed the myths that throughout the ages Jews had ritually killed Christian children to harvest their blood or body parts for black magic though "not of course by any representative of the religion of Judaism, but by individual and irresponsible diabolists who did happen to be Jews."
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.
In Eugenics and Other Evils Chesterton attacked eugenics as Britain was moving towards passage of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913. Some backing the ideas of eugenics called for the government to sterilize people deemed "mentally defective", this view did not gain popularity but the idea of segregating them from the rest of society and thereby preventing them from reproducing did gain traction. These ideas disgusted Chesterton who wrote "It is not only openly said, it is eagerly urged that the aim of the measure is to prevent any person whom these propagandists do not happen to think intelligent from having any wife or children." He blasted the proposed wording for such measures as being so vague as to apply to anyone, including "Every tramp who is sulk, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can quite easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs. That is the situation; and that is the point...we are already under the Eugenist State; and nothing remains to us but rebellion."
He derided such ideas as founded on nonsense "as if one had a right to dragoon and enslave one's fellow citizens as a kind of chemical experiment".
Chesterton also mocked the idea that poverty was a result of bad breeding "[it is a] strange new disposition to regard the poor as a race; as if they were a colony of Japs or Chinese coolies. ...The poor are not a race or even a type. It is senseless to talk about breeding them; for they are not a breed. They are, in cold fact, what Dickens describes: 'a dustbin of individual accidents,' of damaged dignity, and often of damaged gentility."
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) "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.
G. K. Chesterton with wife Frances.
Chesterton's novel The Man Who Was Thursday inspired the Irish Republican leader Michael Collins with the idea: "If you didn't seem to be hiding nobody hunted you out." Collins's favorite work of Chesterton was The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and he was "almost fanatically attached to it", according to his friend Sir William Darling who cemented their friendship in their mutual appreciation of Chesterton's work.
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." Chesterton wrote the introduction for Sheen's book God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy; A Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of Saint Thomas.
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 reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. The quotation is from Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, 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."
Dale Ahlquist founded the American Chesterton Society in 1996 to explore and promote his writings.
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 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."
^The Blunders of Our Parties, Illustrated London News, 1924-04-19.
^Ker, Ian (2011). G. K, Chesterton: A Biography. Oxford University Press, p. 485.