G.K. Chesterton's most renowned book is a hundred years old. Orthodoxy was first published in London by John Lane Press in 1908, and it has never gone out of print—with more than two dozen publishers now offering editions of the book. Graham Greene once described it as “among the great books of the age.” Etienne Gilson declared that Chesterton had a philosophical mind of the first rank. Hugh Kenner said that the only twentieth-century author with whom Chesterton could be compared is James Joyce. And Dorothy Day was inspired to return to Christianity mainly by reading Orthodoxy. Indeed, we might say that the last century belongs to Chesterton—for in that now one-hundred-year-old book, Orthodoxy, he remarkably prophesied the ailments of both modernism and postmodernism, while adeptly commending Christianity as their double cure.
Born in 1874 to Anglican parents who were functional Unitarians, Chesterton soon saw that their acculturated kind of Christianity would not suffice as an answer to the ills of the modern world. Largely under the influence of Frances Blogg, the high church Anglican who eventually became his wife, Chesterton gradually came to identify himself as a Christian. Indeed, he began to use Catholic as a synonym for Christianity. Partly in deference to Frances, however, Chesterton was not received into the Roman Catholic Church until 1922, when he was forty-eight, fourteen years before his death in 1936.
Chesterton regarded his conversion as a progressive and not a reactionary decision—not a nostalgic, backward-gazing act. The central argument of Orthodoxy is that Christianityfinally answered his pressing questions. It challenged him to push ahead toward the consummation of all things: “The only corner where [people] in any sense look forward is the little continent where Christ has His Church.”
Though sometimes a crank and often a curmudgeon, Chesterton never turned in revulsion against the disorders of his own age. On the contrary, he sought to redress them by means of a feisty and witty, punning and alliterating kind of journalism. In a torrent of essays published in the Illustrated London News and many other newspapers—they would eventually number more than fourteen hundred—Chesterton thundered against all manner of evil, mainly the maladies that afflicted the poor: the wage slavery that wedded workers to their jobs, the prohibitionism that robbed the destitute of convivial relief from drudgery, the nanny state that wanted to manage even the cleanliness of the needy, the eugenics programs that would keep the mentally deficient from marrying. He even devised a scheme, called distributism, for reallocating land.
Many of Chesterton's books are collections of these newspaper essays: Tremendous Trifles, What's Wrong With the World, Heretics, The Defendant, Alarms and Discursions, Fancies versus Fads, All Things Considered, and so on. He also wrote remarkable studies of such nineteenth-century figures as Dickens and Browning and Blake as well as biographical accounts of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. In addition, he authored a clutch of small novels and short-story collections: The Man Who Was Thursday, The Club of Queer Trades, Manalive, The Flying Inn, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. And there are, of course, the perennially popular Father Brown stories.
Yet except for The Everlasting Man (1925) and a couple of late works such as The Well and the Shallows (1935), Chesterton rarely devoted himself to straightforward theological writing. He sought to come at things indirectly, slyly suggesting or else thunderously pronouncing about matters whose religious import was often more implicit than overt.
Orthodoxy is the notable exception to his usual pattern of writing. It is not an anthology but a carefully argued and deceptively complex work whose title indicates that its moral concerns are also theological. It is a subtle account, in fact, of his own conversion, as he moved gradually from the claims of reason to those of faith.
In the book, Chesterton treats the most serious things in the lightest manner, probing depths when he appears to be skating on surfaces. He jauntily declares, for instance, that “solemnity flows out of men naturally,” like the seepage of a fetid pool, “but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.” Chesterton was impatient with Christian apologists of his time because they were so solemn: “It is plainly not now possible (with any hope of universal appeal) to start, as our fathers did, with the fact of sin.” For Chesterton, the conviction of sin depends on an assumed metaphysical order—a transcendent hierarchy of goods, over against which one can resist vices and promote virtues. The collapse of this order is the condition and thus the curse of our age.
What tack, then, does Chesterton take to deal with such an enormous collapse in the courts of heaven? In an exceedingly shrewd ploy, Chesterton argues that our age is insane. Perhaps sensing the new vogue of psychology that would dominate the twentieth century, he declares us to be both mentally and morally unhinged. In so characterizing our age, he becomes the uncanny prophet of both modernism and postmodernism.
Chesterton attends first to our insane rationalism. His attack on rationalism is no attack on reason: “Reason itself is a matter of faith,” Chesterton observes. “It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” We assume the rationality of the world as the fundamental postulate and axiom of our very existence. That the world is rational rather than irrational is the basis of everyday life. We could not engage in the most elementary communications and relations if our words and concepts—our reason—did not have a truthful relation to reality.
Unfortunately, since the time of Descartes, we have come to believe that there is nothing but reason—reason of a largely reductive and calculating kind. Real things are said to be those that can be demonstrated either by empirical science or mathematical logic.
For Chesterton, such modernist rationalism is madness. The rationalist who ignores the limits of reason is always on the verge of becoming a maniac. The maniac is not the person who has lost his mind, Chesterton observes. “The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. . . . He [dwells] in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” The mental jail cell of modernity is, for Chesterton, the monomaniacal notion that the universe consists of nothing but matter and energy. Though Chesterton identifies such madness as “materialism,” it might be better named physicalism. As believers in the triune God who has enfleshed himself—who has become matter for our sake—Christians are unabashed materialists who repudiate the gnostic error of belittling or despising the world.
What Chesterton rejects is the deadly physicalism that attributes everything to material and efficient causes, failing to ask about formal and final causes—what ends drive beings and what purposes are those beings meant to serve? In refusing to ask such questions, physicalism attributes everything to outward forces. Its curious effect is to turn us in on ourselves, convincing us that we could not be radically other than our genetics and environment have decreed us to be. Insane rationalists are profound pessimists.
Chesterton links modern rationalism to ancient Stoicism. The Stoics were also pessimists who believed in a self-enclosed, self-repeating cosmos. Absent any belief in the transcendent God, their only recourse was to worship the god within, or what would later be called the Inner Light. For Chesterton, this is the worst form of lighting. It would give rise, in fact, to the New Age religion of our own time. Thus did Chesterton foresee both our sickness and our cure:
That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man [has] not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian [is] that a man [is] not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely [recognizes] an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.
The madness of modernist rationalism was also at work in the so-called natural religion of the Enlightenment. The worship of nature always turns out to be unnatural, says Chesterton, because Pan is the god of the cloven hoof. The physical world is dark and cruel no less than innocent and amiable. There are good reasons for being responsible stewards of the environment, but they cannot be derived from the environment itself. Chesterton insists, in fact, that no real ethics can be abstracted from the physical world. It cancels all that it seems to affirm. While democracy declares all men to be worthy, for example, and aristocracy designates some men as worthier, “nature makes no remark on the subject.” Supernatural revelation is required to take a sane view of nature:
The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity [is] this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. . . . Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth and Emerson. But nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.
Chesterton does not deny the partial validity of physicalism. We are shaped by our cultural and bodily conditions; we are indeed members of the animal species. In fact, Chesterton was not opposed to Darwin's evolutionary discoveries as such. “A personal God,” he writes, might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.” Chesterton would become the enemy of Darwinism largely because Herbert Spencer and the early capitalists had so badly abused it. They argued, viciously, for the survival of the mentally talented and the economically fit. They ignored our immense dignity as the distinctive animal. “Man is the ape upside down,” Chesterton declares. As the super-primate who is also the sub-angel, man does not look down at the ground like the other animals. We are anthropoi, the upward-looking creatures who seek transcendent beauty and truth and goodness. Not only radically dependent, we are also uniquely free:
Who ever found an ant-hill decorated with celebrated ants? Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old? No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have an explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals, following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type; man alone is ever undomestic, either a profligate or a monk.
For Chesterton, the symbol of rationalist insanity is the circle, and its sane counter-symbol is the cross. The circle is a self-enclosed thing, while the cross breaks all confines. Chesterton often links the circle with the religions of the East, especially Buddhism. He is also alarmed by the crescent moon as the central symbol of Islam, fearing that it would become the partial circle that threatens to enclose everything else. The Flying Inn is his novel-length exploration of that fear. The very form of the cross, by contrast, indicates its power to set us free from all thralldoms:
As we have taken the circle as the symbol of [physicalist] reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and health. . . . For the circle is perfect and infinite in nature; but it is fixed forever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.
If hyper-rationalism is one symptom of our cultural madness, hyper-emotionalism is the other. The former is filled with false pride, the latter with false humility. It's a false humility because, unlike lunatic rationalists who believe they know everything, mad emotivists deny that they know anything.
Modesty has settled on the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has exactly been reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part that he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.
We once had misgivings about our efforts, Chesterton adds, and were thus spurred to greater diligence. Our new emotivists, by contrast, are loath to make ethical claims of any kind. Having no high purpose, they are tempted to cease working altogether, sinking into moral lassitude or else frenetic hedonism. Such passivity, Chesterton accurately prophesies, will produce a people too intellectually meek “even to claim their inheritance.” We have become so suspicious of large truths that we are also suspicious of even the smallest. “Madness may be defined,” according to Chesterton, “as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness.” “We are on the road,” he wittily but alarmingly concludes, “to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”
Chesterton rightly discerned that Nietzsche was the ultimate exemplar of the turn to the subject that began with Kant—indeed, that he would be the philosophical father of the postmodern and irrationalist century to come. Though in 1908 Nietzsche had just recently been translated into English, Chesterton saw immediately that he would inaugurate the triumph of will over reason. With remarkable acuity, Chesterton goes to the heart of the matter: “Will, they say, creates. The ultimate authority, they say, is in will, not reason. The supreme point is not why a man demands a thing, but the fact that he does demand it. . . . They say choice itself is the divine thing.” Whereas the real was once the rational, it is now the chosen and the felt.
If objectivist reason gone mad is the perfect description of modernity, the subjectivist denial of reason is the dementia of postmodernity. François Lyotard famously defined postmodernism as the suspicion of all metanarratives: of all totalizing and exhaustive explanations, whether in the Copernican and Newtonian science of the Enlightenment or in the Christian creeds that narrate the story of the entire cosmos. The central postmodernist premise is that multiple viewpoints and multiple interests enlarge our comprehension of the finally incomprehensible universe, whereas a singular and definitive perspective denies this irreducible multiplicity of viewpoints.
As with rationalist modernism, so with irrationalist postmodernism: There is much truth in it. All our seeing is indeed subjective and culture-bound. We behold the world through the lenses of our own conceptions and assumptions. All truth is filtered and sieved, all understanding rooted in time and place and community. There is no view from nowhere, no godlike perch from which we can view the world neutrally—as if it were God's own view. But from the valid premise that there is no such thing as naked knowledge, postmodern relativists and emotivists reach invalid conclusions. They hold that we can make no comparative moral judgments, engage in no time-transcending religious arguments, allow no privileging of certain cultures—for example, cultures that dignify women over cultures that demean them, or even governments that enhance democratic freedoms over those that destroy them.
In the face of such emotivist madness, Chesterton does not call for the re-establishment of the ancien régime. On the contrary, he was a lifelong defender of the French Revolution. Despite its many horrors, including the ravages of the Jacobins, Chesterton believed that these eighteenth-century revolutionaries erred in the right direction—namely, toward the dignity and equality of every human being before God. Such radical equality is backward- no less than forward-looking. It may be located, paradoxically, in tradition, which Chesterton famously defines it as “an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”
So where can we find an answer to our twin insanities of hyper-rationalism and hyper-emotivism? Chesterton believes it is ready to hand, in our most basic convictions acquired from the fantasy books of our childhood. They reveal “the original instinct of man for adventure and romance.” Indeed, “the Ethics of Elfland,” as Chesterton calls the moral world of fairy tales, administers two indispensable tests for sanity.
The first concerns the imagination as a cure for hyper-rationalism: whether we are willing to see the world as it is, and therefore not as consisting of two separate realms—the visible and the invisible, the literal and the figurative, the necessary and the free, not even the natural and the supernatural. The cosmos invites us, instead, to discern these spheres as mysteriously, even miraculously, overlapping and intersecting. Adam and Eve failed the test of imagination because they clung to a univocal understanding of the world, as if eating the forbidden fruit had but a single and uncomplicated consequence. They were the first fundamentalists and hyper-rationalists.
Only when we immerse ourselves imaginatively in the life's complex alloy of “the familiar and the unfamiliar” can we learn to engage the world analogically and paradoxically:
You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. . . . When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or [why] fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked why her mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o'clock. We must understand that it is magic. It is not a “law” because we do not know its general formula.
For Chesterton, magic is a synonym for wonder and surprise and miracle: the mysterious and complex transformation of one thing into another, especially sinners into saints. Only Christians have doctrines sufficiently subtle and intricate to encompass such transformations, whether they occur in nature or in history. Far from being a threat to faith, science requires dogma: “The complication of our modern world proves the truth of the creed more perfectly than any of the plain problems of the ages of faith.” Christian tradition constitutes a careful elaboration of doctrines that treat the largest no less than the smallest concerns.
The second of the tests administered by the Ethics of Elfland is the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy,” Chesterton's proposed cure for our insane emotivism. This doctrine deals with the drastic if on which everything hangs, the singular decision that determines everything else. Again, the world's lasting myths and fairy tales get it right: “A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten and cities perish. A lamp is lit and love flies away. A flower is plucked and human lives are lost. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” That the stipulation required for finding joy seems inconsequential is precisely its point. If it were something burdensome, it wouldn't be the gospel. This is the test that no one should fail. Our maddened emotivists, it follows, must be taught the cruciality but also the peculiarity of decision.
The decisive liberty, Chesterton declares, is “the liberty to bind myself.” Discipline and fidelity, oaths and obligations, are the means of joy. The making and keeping of promises, especially in marriage, provides the key to happiness. “Love is not blind,” Chesterton keenly observes. “Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” In gladly embraced limits, not in the will to power, lies the only liberty: “You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump: You may be freeing him from being a camel. . . . The artist loves his limitations: They constitute the thing he is doing.”
In his chapter “The Paradoxes of Christianity,” Chesterton demonstrates that the Christian gospel sanely balances these seeming contraries of gift and requirement, grace and ethics. Their delicate equilibrium serves to differentiate the suicide from the martyr—for the suicide is one who has given up on life; the martyr is one whose strong desire to live takes “the form of a readiness to die.”
Not only martyrs but all Christians live within these drastic opposites: meekness and daring, love and wrath. Christians are happy pessimists, says Chesterton, and they do what is unthinkable to the pagan: They love the unlovable and pardon the unpardonable. The soldier of the cross, he argues, “must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”
The past century belongs to Chesterton because he was one of its most astute analysts. Orthodoxy remains his most prophetic book because he foresaw both the insane modernist rationalism and the lunatic postmodern emotivism that would engulf us. Yet Chesterton remained a happy pessimist because he was a Christian humanist. And his influence is alive and well after a century because he discerned one thing above all else: that humanity is a monstrosity, a wild and not a tame species.
Jean-Paul Sartre was oddly if unwittingly right. We have broken out of the closed circle of our animality. We do not fit seamlessly into the world; we stick out like a spike. But rather than constituting a futile and “sorry project,” as Sartre famously said, we are monsters in the precise sense of the Old French word monstre: a horror, a wonder, a marvel, a thing of God's own making and remaking.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.