Our Chesterton
February 19, 2002

by Joe Sobran

     In 1961 a young writer named Garry Wills 
published his first book, an excellent study of the 
works of G.K. Chesterton. It was soon out of print 
and hard to find. I luckily came across it in a 
used book store. Now, I am happy to say, it has 
finally been reissued in paperback (Doubleday/ 
Image).

     Chesterton (18741936) was a popular English 
writer of that versatile, unclassifiable sort who 
are called "men of letters." He wrote essays, 
novels, poems, detective stories, literary 
criticism, political tracts, and religious 
apologetics. It has been said of him that he never 
wrote his masterpiece, because no genre could give 
full expression to his wild genius.

     I'd prefer to say that his genius could take 
many forms. No matter what genre he used, he 
touched -- and still touches -- the reader with a 
rare immediacy. You feel his personality at once. 
You not only trust him; you feel that he trusts 
you. He is the humblest, the most human, the most 
genial of geniuses.

     Chesterton's literary criticism is superb 
because he approaches every author with lively 
sympathy, looking for the secret of his appeal. 
When you read him on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake, 
Dickens, Browning, Stevenson, or Shaw, you feel 
that each author has found in Chesterton his most 
appreciative reader ever.

     Even his sharp wit rarely wounds. After 
visiting this country, he noted its shortcomings in 
a kindly epigram: "The real American is all right. 
It is the ideal American who is all wrong." These 
are words we should take to heart, especially when 
we are tempted to national self-righteousness.

     Chesterton was prophetic about the evils of 
the twentieth century: "The old tyrants invoked the 
past. The new tyrants will invoke the future." 
Again: "Most men now are not so much rushing to 
extremes as sliding to extremes; and even reaching 
the most violent extremes by being almost entirely 
passive."

     He also perceived a special danger of our own 
time, "anarchy from above": "A government may grow 
anarchic as much as a people." People cling to 
government because they want law and order; they 
fail to see the peril of a lawless government that 
produces social disorder.

     Then there are his miscellaneous insights. 
"The morality of a great writer is not the morality 
he teaches, but the morality he takes for granted." 
"There is more simplicity in a man who eats caviar 
on impulse than in a man who eats grape-nuts on 
principle." "The madman is not the man who has lost 
his reason. The madman is the man who has lost 
everything except his reason."

     One of my own favorite Chesterton books is 
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE WORLD (available, like most 
of his works, from Ignatius Press, San Francisco).

     There he insists on the need for clarity of 
principle: "It is not merely true that a creed 
unites men. Nay, a difference of creed unites men 
-- so long as it is a clear difference. A boundary 
unites.... It is exactly the same with politics. 
Our political vagueness divides men, it does not 
fuse them. Men will walk along the edge of a chasm 
in clear weather, but they will edge miles away 
from it in a fog. So a Tory can walk up to the very 
edge of Socialism, *if he knows what is Socialism.* 
But if he is told that Socialism is a spirit, a 
sublime atmosphere, a noble, indefinable tendency, 
why, then he keeps out of its way; and quite right 
too. One can meet an assertion with argument; but 
healthy bigotry is the only way in which one can 
meet a tendency."

     He similarly observes that "men usually 
quarrel because they do not know how to argue." And 
Chesterton loved nothing more than a good argument, 
because he saw it as a way of reaching not only 
truth but friendship. This is why his tone is 
always chivalrous, even when he says of an opponent 
that "Mr. Blatchford is not only an early 
Christian; he is the only early Christian who ought 
really to have been eaten by lions." Mr. Blatchford 
must have laughed at that as heartily as anyone 
else.

     Today Chesterton is not among the best known 
of authors. But among those who do know him, he is 
one of the best loved.

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