Tag Archives: GK 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.

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

I previously read The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) and The Everlasting Man (1925) by G.K. Chesterton, so I was interested in Orthodoxy (1908), his description of Christianity. Chesterton falls short of the St. Augustine’s Confessions (400) and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (1952). Additionally, and oddly, his description of Buddhism is odd, and as this was repeated two decaldes later in Everlasting, I wonder if he relied on some treasured, if incorrect, source. Yet the book is thought provoking, and was not a waste of time.

Confessions is the psychological autobiography of a rich kid finding himself, and finding God. Mere Christianity is an easy to read introduction to very common Christian ideas. Orthodoxy is neither of these. Very little about Chesterton or his life is discussed, but the tone of elevated and somewhat archaic. It feels like a document from another civilization, with rhetorical techniques that seem both clever and artificial.

The best parts of the work are those that tease Chesterton’s later work, The Everlasting Man. There’s some really funny lines about the press, showing that fake news and the quality of news media as the hobbies of the rich were also true a century ago.

This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny may think it liberty by comparison. People out of Portland Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty.

Unexpectedly, Chesterton also includes what appears to be an extended defense of the existence of ghosts, noting that the “scientific” conditions demanded by skeptics would fail to include many aspects of human society

The question of whether miracles ever occur is a question of common sense and of ordinary historical imagination: not of any final physical experiment. One may here surely dismiss that quite brainless piece of pedantry which talks about the need for “scientific conditions” in connection with alleged spiritual phenomena. If we are asking whether a dead soul can communicate with a living it is ludicrous to insist that it shall be under conditions in which no two living souls in their senses would seriously communicate with each other. The fact that ghosts prefer darkness no more disproves the existence of ghosts than the fact that lovers prefer darkness disproves the existence of love. If you choose to say, “I will believe that Miss Brown called her fiance a periwinkle or, any other endearing term, if she will repeat the word before seventeen psychologists,” then I shall reply, “Very well, if those are your conditions, you will never get the truth, for she certainly will not say it.” It is just as unscientific as it is unphilosophical to be surprised that in an unsympathetic atmosphere certain extraordinary sympathies do not arise. It is as if I said that I could not tell if there was a fog because the air was not clear enough; or as if I insisted on perfect sunlight in order to see a solar eclipse.

The exact same logic can be used ot defend the existence of “grey aliens” of course… who share many aspects with elves, or demons. This intersection between religion and the paranormal is a hidden theme of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (2015). Similar themes appear in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (1945) and Michael Heiser’s The Facade, and the first half of Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites (1967).

Near the end of the book there is a comparison of Buddhist and Christian art. Or there would be one if it was accurate. Chesterton argues that Christian saints are always shown with their eyes open, and that in “Chinese temples,” the saints are always shown with their eyes closed

Even when I thought, with most other well-informed, though unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike, there was one thing about them that always perplexed me; I mean the startling difference in their type of religious art. I do not mean in its technical style of representation, but in the things that it was manifestly meant to represent. No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.

I’ve been in Chinese Buddhist temples, and this is simply incorrect. Buddhist and Catholic sculpture, in particular, often use the same trick of having the statue looking forward and down, so the viewer must kneel and look up to see the statue’s eyes. For example, consider Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy, an amalgamation of a traditional figure in Chinese religion with a historical disciple of the Buddha. The emotional impact to a Chinese Buddhist of looking up at Guanyin’s (the Goddess of Mercy’s) compassionate eyes must be similar to kneeling and looking up at the eyes of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Worse for Chesterton’s argument, just as Mary is often the character of dramatic performances (from nativity plays to more involved medieval passion plays), so is Guanyin. The extension of her many arms, to help every creature, is performed yearly in front of an audience of hundreds of millions on Chinese television (with her eyes open, of course).

Chesterton, attempting to show a difference between Christianity, raises a deeper question: why are non-Christian traditions so like shadows of Christian ideas?  One answer is that it is the devil mocking Christ. Another it is the King of the Universe making straight the way of the LORD. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argued that such non-Christian depictions of Christian themes are simplified hagiophanies, appearances of the holy, “good dreams” whispered by the Holy Spirit.


Yet that comment about “tradition” brings up another point, and one Chesterton does not spend enough time on. Tradition is the democracy of the living and the dead. In the same way a federal government with checks and powers aggregates different factions to promote the general welfare, preventing any one from being a tyranny, tradition is a block on the tyranny of the age.

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the
tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with
the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined 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. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

So, Orthodoxy is an odd book. In some ways its as inaccessible as Confessions and as impersonal as Mere Christianity. But it is thought provoking. I didn’t expect my review to tough on both UFOs and political philosophy, though here we are. It’d recommend Chesterton’s other books first, and C.S. Lewis before them, but Orthodoxy should be preserved, lest it is forgotten.

I listened to Orthodoxy on unadbridged audible.

Impressions of “The Man Who Was Thursday,” by G.K. Chesteron

The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is not out of date, but the Introduction of the Woodsworth Edition (1995) a friend lent me is. Thursday begins at a hipster gathering in London, where the protagonist is annoyed at an anarchist wannabe. “Fantastic though they may be,” begins the 1990s introduction, “but anarchists, assassins, and spies played a chilling role in the history of the early 20th century.” Given the deadly shootings, mass arrests, and mass rapes at riots caused by antifa and Islamist trouble makers, perhaps someone in the 2090s will be equally naïve.

The Man Who Was Thursday is a short page-turner. Every chapter ends wither at a cliff-hanger or a shocking revelation. It’s also really funny in the dry British sense (“He has a face that grows on one. It has already grown on him, and I am sure one day it will grow on me.”) and an interesting allegory. I can’t describe it much without giving too much away, but the title refers to the “Supreme Anarchist Council,” a secret society where the duly-elected delegates are given code-names.

Two consecutive chapters, “The Criminals Chase the Police” and “The World in Anarchy,” reminded me of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931). The allegorical and supernatural nature, the quick writing, the insanity of what should be peaceful rural life, brought back the best of that story. I wonder if there was a genre of “being chased through small tranquil towns” that has since vanished.

This is the first fiction I’ve read by G.K. Chesterton (I earlier read his popular history of the world, The Everlasting Man (1925)). It evokes later C.S. Lewis books, like The Screwtape Letters (1942) and The Great Divorce (1945).

The introduction to the edition I read was poor. So was the postscript, written by the author but not intended for inclusion in the book, is not in keeping with the tone of the work. Skip both.