Tag Archives: Chesterton

Impressions of “Heretics,” by G.K. Chesterton

Heretics is not, as I expected, an overview of the great Heresies of the past. It is instead effectively a series of magazine articles G.K. Chesterton wrote against contemporary writers a century ago. As such it’s slightly less organized than Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, meaning it is the least enjoyable book by him I have ever read.

The meaning of “Heretics” is hidden until the end, where Chesterton notes that Britain contains blasphemy (hate speech) laws that are used against the poor, but not anti-heresy laws that could be used against the rich.

Everything in our age has, when carefully examined, this fundamentally undemocratic quality. … But the modern laws are almost always laws made to affect the governed class, but not the governing. We have public-house licensing laws, but not sumptuary laws. That is to say, we have laws against the festivity and hospitality of the poor, but no laws against the festivity and hospitality of the rich. We have laws against blasphemy—that is, against a kind of coarse and offensive speaking in which nobody but a rough and obscure man would be likely to indulge. But we have no laws against heresy—that is, against the intellectual poisoning of the whole people, in which only a prosperous and prominent man would be likely to be successful.

Thus the book is not against blasphemy, or hate speech, but against poisonous intellectuals. It makes some good points, but there are… issues with the writing quality.

An example is useful here. The entirety of Heretics is captured by this passage, which is the opening fourth of a longer paragraph

The idea that there is something English in the repression of one’s feelings is one of those ideas which no Englishman ever heard of until England began to be governed exclusively by Scotchmen, Americans, and Jews. At the best, the idea is a generalization from the Duke of Wellington—who was an Irishman. At the worst, it is a part of that silly Teutonism which knows as little about England as it does about anthropology, but which is always talking about Vikings. As a matter of fact, the Vikings did not repress their feelings in the least. They cried like babies and kissed each other like girls; in short, they acted in that respect like Achilles and all strong heroes the children of the gods. And though the English nationality has probably not much more to do with the Vikings than the French nationality or the Irish nationality, the English have certainly been the children of the Vikings in the matter of tears and kisses. It is not merely true that all the most typically English men of letters, like Shakespeare and Dickens, Richardson and Thackeray, were sentimentalists. It is also true that all the most typically English men of action were sentimentalists, if possible, more sentimental. In the great Elizabethan age, when the English nation was finally hammered out, in the great eighteenth century when the British Empire was being built up everywhere, where in all these times, where was this symbolic stoical Englishman who dresses in drab and black and represses his feelings?…

You can see all fo the book, good and bad in this passage

1. Original ideas, such as that the British stiff upper life is foreign to Britain

“The idea that there is something English in the repression of one’s feelings is one of those ideas which no Englishman ever heard of”

2. An opposition to imperialism and globalism

Until England began to be governed exclusively by Scotchmen, Americans, and Jews

3. A delight in the surprise negation — which, because Chesterton uses it all the time, gradually becomes less surprising

At the best, the idea is a generalization from the Duke of Wellington—who was an Irishman.

4. A witty conversationsism, hints of the brilliant apologetics that C.S. Lewis would write a few decades later

At the worst, it is a part of that silly Teutonism which knows as little about England as it does about anthropology, but which is always talking about Vikings.

5. Did I mention Chesterton liked the surprise negation?

They cried like babies and kissed each other like girls; in short, they acted in that respect like Achilles and all strong heroes the children of the gods.

6. A repetition that reminds me of St. Augustine’s Confessions, and which is not entirely out of fashion.

And though the English nationality has probably not much more to do with the Vikings than the French nationality or the Irish nationality, the English have certainly been the children of the Vikings in the matter of tears and kisses.

7. Repetition, again, even of the original ideas

In the great Elizabethan age, when the English nation was finally hammered out, in the great eighteenth century when the British Empire was being built up everywhere, where in all these times, where was this symbolic stoical Englishman who dresses in drab and black and represses his feelings?

(And the paragraph is only one-fourth finished!)

So Heretics makes some excellent points. But they are buried in repetition, interlaced with comments on contemporary political events, and marred by verbal tics.

I listened to Heretics in the Audible edition.

Review of “The Everlasting Man,” by G.K. Chesterton

The other day I finished The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is often compared to C.S. Lewis, and of Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man is closest in tone to Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Indeed, I wonder if Lewis’ title is a play of Chesterton’s. For while Lewis considers what it would mean for man as a species to end, Chesterton concerns himself with a unique event in the history of man: the emergence of Christianity.

Chesterton is a Catholic author, but his argument here is effectively secular: before Christianity there were mythologies in the sense of epic stories about the gods, and there were philosophies that provided an outline of the universe and a moral framework, but no mythic philosophy. Plato may have talked about Forms, in other words, while the priests sacrificed to Zeus, but no serious attempt was to combine these concepts. Thus, the New Testament is truly new, the “good news” really is news, because while dictatorship, democracy, art, puns, cosmology, and all the rest reach beyond history, the combinations of the roles of the Priest and the Philosopher have a definite beginning, in first century Palestine

Chesterton admirably surveys eastern religions to argue for the universalism of the novelty of the New Testament. Here I think he succeeds. Hindus is a world of interweaving mythologies, not a moral system. Likewise, Buddhism or Confucianism are philosophies, but not religions. “Buddhism” is more religious than Confucianism,” but Chesterton emphasizes the Buddhist importance of letting go of attachments, and presents it as a personal philosophy that may be applicable regardless of the structure of the supernatural world. That is, a Buddhist who truly believed that everything was an illusion would also conclude that any fires of purgatory or fields of paradise were themselves part of a wheel of existence, a wheel that continues beyond mortal life. (Chesterton does not address “Salvation Vehicle” Buddhism, but would presumably argue that by adopting myth, it left behind philosophy.)

Several times Chesterton refers to the Jews as keeping the “Secret” of monotheism, and it is with the Jews that he could face the strongest counter-argument. Chesterton explicitly disregards Moses as a mythic figure because the Hebrew Bible repeatedly emphasizes that Moses was a man, not a divine being. Likewise, though Chesterton does not mention the Book of Job, I imagine he would exclude that Hebrew work because God only appears as a whirlwind, and Yamm and Leviathan only appear as allusions.

But it is in Genesis that the uniqueness of Christianity, with regards to Judaism, is most questionable. Because the LORD indeed walked the earth, he scolded Adam and Eve, he ate meat and drank milk with Abraham and Sarah. The strongest argument against that is that Genesis is speaking figuratively when it refers to the Divine on earth, while the New Testament speaks literally. But why should this be so? I suspect Chesterton is influenced by the mainline Jewish interpretation of Genesis, but the same devout critics who doubt God physically walked on Earth three-thousand years ago doubt He walked on earth two-thousand years ago, as well.

Even if you ultimately disagree with Chesterton, he’s well worth reading. He also contrasts events in such a way to give them a whole new dimension. The pagan god Ba’al is an old rival to the LORD among the Hebrews, of course, but it was the Grace of Ba’al who brought his elephants to trample the Romans. Both the Jews and the Romans were horrified at the sacrifice of children to the Phoenician gods. Of course, it would be the high priests and the civilian governor of those civilizations that would execute a greater sacrifice still.

I listened to The Everlasting Man on Audible.