Quodlibets: The Wisdom of Chesterton

Michael Ffinch’s new biography of Gilbert Keith Chesterton (G.K. Chesterton; London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson; 344 pp.) begins by noting that C. S. Lewis had predicted Chesterton would be rediscovered fifty years after his death and that June 14, 1986 brought us to that point. In an obvious sense, Chesterton, like England in Orthodoxy, can only be rediscovered, since he has never been lost. There is a brisk secondhand trade in his books, many of his nearly one hundred titles have remained in print, and there is a thriving Chesterton Society with its own review. It is nonetheless true that Chesterton — together with dozens of other giants of pre-conciliar times — remains all but unknown to Catholics brought up in the past twenty years. But whether it occasions discovery or rediscovery, Ffinch’s book will be welcomed by all.

Ffinch has made use of the Chesterton Papers in the custody of Dorothy Collins, gives us a generous selection of unfamiliar photographs, but does not after all provide a great deal of new information about his subject. The strength of the book lies rather in the author’s evaluations of Chesterton, both the man and the work. The result is what might be called an uncritical biography. Ffinch is obviously a fan of Chesterton, as was Maisie Ward, his first biographer, and this seems only fitting. After all, with the exception of his book on George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton himself wrote only on men with whom he felt a profound sympathy.

The most important thing about Chesterton was his Catholicism, and it comes almost as a shock to be reminded of the fact that he was forty-eight years old when he came into the Church in 1922. But of course he had been a Catholic in spirit long before that. Orthodoxy was published in 1908. Chesterton’s wife, Frances, was a devout Anglo-Catholic and it was under her influence that he became the same. Ffinch rightly singles out The Everlasting Man (1925) as Chesterton’s religious masterpiece.

But every aspect of this enormous and prolific genius is treated: his drawing, his poetry, his journalism, his novels, the Father Brown stories (Ffinch reluctantly admits that the last two collections of these detective stories fall far below the standard set in the earlier ones), his politics, his economics (Distributism well presented), his literary appreciation, his debating skills. St. Francis of Assisi (1923) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1933) are given deserved praise, although, in connection with the latter, the reader is startled to read of “Dom Etienne Gilson, the great Benedictine Thomist scholar.”

I would make two criticisms of Ffinch’s book. First, and less important, his reliance on Cecil Chesterton’s widow for the account of Gilbert and Frances’s wedding night, while it provides a dramatic end to Part One — ” ‘And then his whole world went crash. The woman he worshipped,’ whom earlier in the day he had vowed he would worship with his body, ‘shrank from his touch and screamed when he embraced her.’ ” — seems unwise. Ada Chesterton never liked Frances, but, what is more important, the account presupposes that Gilbert would have told his brother such intimate facts about his marriage — facts which must strike anyone as improbable in the extreme. Happily absent from this account is any groundless speculation about latent homosexuality. There is rather information about innocent crushes on young women as Chesterton grew older.

The greatest defect of the book lies in its treatment of Chesterton’s supposed anti-Semitism. That Chesterton despised some Jews is true enough, but we know who they were and why he despised them. Not only did he have close Jewish friends throughout his life, he was a Zionist. He considered Jews to be a people who deserved their own country. When he denied that a Jew could become an Englishman this is no more racist than would be the denial that he himself could become an Irishman. That it would be absurd to say that a Jew cannot be an American suggests something about Chesterton’s conception of England. One can disagree with Chesterton, one can acknowledge that, like everyone else, he sometimes said regrettable things under the pressure of events, but it is both anachronistic and condescending to speak as if Chesterton knew of and approved the horrors of a later time.

How astounded Chesterton would have been by priests who seek to accommodate Catholicism to the worst practices of the day, and theologians who debunk faith, vying with skeptics and agnostics in the denial of the Creed. To apologize for the faith, to water it down, would have been wholly alien to his outlook. Writing to Maurice Baring about the attractions of Catholicism, Chesterton said this: “Another quality that impresses me is the power of being decisive first and being proved right afterwards. This is exactly the quality a supernatural power would have.” He cites the condemnation of spiritualism as an example. The contemporary reader is likely to think of Humanae Vitae. Paul VI’s prophetic words about the future dissolution of sexual morality are now verified all about us. As George Gilder said in a recent issue of Crisis [reviewing Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Family and Nation, June], the moral doctrine of the Church more and more appears as the condition for the survival of society.

Chesterton reminds us of a time when the faith was vigorous, when Catholics stood in judgment on the modern world, and were listened to. More importantly, he stands for all those other heroes of an earlier time whose faith permeated every aspect of their lives, their thought and writing. Let us hope that C. S. Lewis was right and that we are on the eve of a resurgence of interest in this robust and rollicking Catholic who wrote this sonnet on his conversion:

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white,
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead.
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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