In what may be the final “new” essay to appear since his passing, the late Christopher Hitchens takes on G. K. Chesterton in the March 2012 issue of the  Atlantic . Ostensibly a review of Ian Ker’s recent biography of the man, it’s basically an attempt at a demolition job on a figure he deems “charming and sinister,” with high prose and low blows. While Hitchens obviously finds fault with Chesterton’s sometimes-whimsical defenses of religion, he is (perhaps a bit more surprisingly) furiously critical of Chesterton’s politics, and of his economic theory of distributism in particular:

The initial founders of the Distributist League could fit into one hall in the Strand, and could not at once decide upon a unifying name. An early suggestion was “The Cow and Acres,” which sounded to GKC rather too much like a pub. Another was “The League of the Little People,” which with its air of plaintive populism also retained the aura of a fairy glen. It was later generally agreed that the only genuine disagreement concerned the question of whether a true Distributist should also be a Roman Catholic.

To Chesterton’s bucolic conservatism, and his view that a certain kind of revolution was necessary to keep the counterrevolution in action, was to be added a working alliance with Roman Catholic conservatism. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, this was actually an unpromising initiative [ . . . ] the moth-eaten fringe of absurdity always hung around his political reflections, as it did his vastly draped and histrionic form.


Of his broader project to re-articulate orthodoxy, Hitchens writes:
The more that attempts were made to codify truth, the more elusive truth became. Chesterton became part of a forgettable rear-guard operation against the age of uncertainty, which has now definitively become our age. It seems that there are no rules, golden or otherwise, even natural or otherwise, by which we can define our place in the universe or the cosmos. Those who claim to know the most are convicted of claiming to know the unknowable. There is a paradox, if you like.

Certainly not a view of Chesterton (or of “our age”) that I find compelling, although (readers beware) there’s far more infuriating stuff in the full version, including what one critic terms the reductio ad hitlerum fallacy. But I suppose it’s always refreshing to have your heroes’ mythology challenged, especially when the final verdict leads to a retrenchment of your initial position.

Read Hitchens’ essay in its entirety here . And for a well-done negative assessment of the piece, see Robert Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing .

Articles by Matthew Cantirino

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