‘Anything is magnificent compared with nothing’
We could learn a lot from Chesterton’s thoughtful war on the eugenic elitism and lazy atheism that reduced everything, even humans, to mere matter.
Ian Ker’s GK Chesterton: A Biography is a most thorough and satisfying account of the unique and beloved English journalist and author. Those whose knowledge of GKC is confined to the great man’s own words might tend to regard him as a somewhat otherworldly figure. In Ker’s biography we find Chesterton’s words balanced and grounded in the details of his everyday life, to such an extent that one review has even accused Ker’s book of making Chesterton ‘sound boring’. Notwithstanding his friendship or acquaintance with various literary luminaries, from Shaw and Wells, to Henry and William James, WB Yeats, Kipling, Russell and a host of other contemporaries, beyond his writing GKC did not lead the most exciting life.
We are talking, after all, about a man who elevated the ordinary and commonplace to a mystical stature; who, besides his acclaimed work on Dickens, St Thomas Aquinas, his Father Brown detective stories, well-known novels and revered apologetic works, also wrote articles about lying in bed, a piece of chalk, and ‘what I found in my pocket’. For the sympathetic reader, the details of travel, adventures abroad, and daily life at home should prove no more burdensome than similar accounts from good friends and relatives. The challenge in writing the biography of such a ‘larger than life’ character is surely to provide enough ‘life’ to bring him back down to human size.
To be in sympathy with GKC is no simple accomplishment. While Chesterton fans extol his virtues without reservation, the unfortunate reality is that many who encounter his work are unimpressed by it. Many simply do not ‘get’ Chesterton, and by some sort of unspoken truce, agree with us fanatics never to speak of him again. Yet the truce is sometimes broken, and individuals with no sympathy for the man try haplessly to reduce him to some rather prosaic characteristic. Attempts to describe him as ‘amusing’ or ‘witty’, or to focus on an element like paradox, miss the point as much as Christopher Hitchens’ disappointing effort to portray Chesterton as a ‘sinister’ and ‘morally frivolous’ reactionary.
Chesterton may have been amusing, witty and prone to deploy paradox, but these attributes must be seen as accidental, as by-products of a much deeper and more significant effort. As GKC replied to a query about his use of paradox:
I never use paradox. The statements I make are wearisome and obvious common sense. I have even been driven to the tedium of reading through my own books, and have been unable to find any paradox. In fact, the thing is quite tragic, and some day I shall hope to write an epic called ‘Paradox Lost’.
The driving force behind his ‘wearisome and obvious common sense’ was a period of intense internal struggle that can only be described as mystical in its conclusion. Ker quotes from Chesterton’s Autobiography to depict the ‘psychological and spiritual crisis’ that established the living heart of Chesterton’s unique philosophy:
After having been for some time in ‘the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism’, he had ‘a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this nightmare’. And he came, ‘with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion’, to invent ‘a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own’, namely, that ‘even mere existence…was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent compared with nothing.’
This ‘mystical theory’ was more than just words, and certainly not an affected or fabricated approach to life. Ker underscores the significance of Chesterton’s perspective in the context of a decadent nihilism or pessimism among Chesterton’s contemporaries. Chesterton rejected the elitist intellectual and moral scepticism of his peers, but not before he envisaged their logical conclusion in the form of pure scepticism – the rejection of any and all knowledge claims. ‘Dull atheists came and explained to me that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm horror of detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind.’
It was typical of Chesterton to take so seriously the philosophical tenets put forward by his peers, and on their own terms to find them wanting. He realised that the sceptics who embraced atheism and materialism were insufficiently sceptical. He recapitulated his critique of pure scepticism many years later in his analysis of the great medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas, stating that he did not ‘deal at all with what many now think the main metaphysical question; whether we can prove that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real’. Instead, he explains, Aquinas ‘recognised instantly…that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative, or else never answer any question, never ask any question, never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask’.
But Chesterton did not replace scepticism with another theory. He describes his change in far more profound terms. As he wrote to his friend Bentley in the wake of the crisis:
Inwardly speaking, I have had a funny time. A meaningless fit of depression, taking the form of certain absurd psychological worries, came upon me, and instead of dismissing it and talking to people, I had it out and went very far into the abysses, indeed. The result was that I found that things, when examined, necessarily spelt such a mystically satisfactory state of mind, that without getting back to earth, I saw lots that made me certain it is all right. The vision is fading into common day now, and I am glad. The frame of mind was the reverse of gloomy, but it would not do for long. It is embarrassing, talking with God face to face, as a man speaketh to his friend.
Having found the answer to his great doubt, Chesterton returned to it repeatedly, to puncture the complacent, dreary and flawed intellectual follies of his age. His insight, more than any theory or style, underpins his work. His mysticism is the genius that shines through in so much of his writing, acting as an anchor or a bulwark against the truly weird and sinister fads of his generation, from eugenic elitism to socialist utopianism. These ideologies were easily outmatched by a man who sought a far more profound goal: to make people ‘turn back and wonder at the simplicities they had learned to ignore’.
While Chesterton’s theology and philosophy continued to grow, his formative mystical experience remained a philosophers’ stone, transforming the ordinary, the common and the mundane with awe and delight at the gift of existence. As he asks at the beginning of Orthodoxy: ‘How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?’
His mystical theory informed his intellect, leading him to insights and observations seemingly beyond the scope of his knowledge and study. Ker describes at length Chesterton’s major work on St Thomas Aquinas which, to the dismay of at least one expert, Chesterton dictated in two sittings, stopping only at the half-way point to order reference materials. The expert in question, Étienne Gilson, remarked that ‘Chesterton makes one despair. I have been studying St Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book.’ Gilson later described Chesterton’s book as being ‘without possible comparison the best book ever written on St Thomas’.
Many of Chesterton’s depictions of Aquinas could apply equally well to himself, as he describes a mind ‘which is filled and soaked as with sunshine with the warmth of the wonder of created things’ and ‘avid in his acceptance of Things; in his hunger and thirst for Things’. The philosophical realism of Aquinas seems to consolidate Chesterton’s own ‘makeshift mystical theory’, a fact not lost on Ker, who describes Aquinas’ mind, as ‘perceived by Chesterton, as ‘highly congenial to his own in its insistence on the fact of being, in its commitment not only to reason but also to common sense’. Like Aquinas, Chesterton was ‘so unmistakably thinking about things and not being misled by the indirect influence of words’.
To ‘get’ Chesterton requires of a reader that he likewise grasp to some degree the real Things behind the words. It demands, perhaps, a willingness to appreciate the ‘strangeness of things’ and to savour the freshness and immediacy of being, instead of taking refuge within pre-conceived ideas, intellectual fads, and our favoured ideologies. The Chesterton fanatic finds in his words the gleam of something more true than the words themselves. His writing stands the test of time because, unlike the changing errors of each age, the existence that inspired him is eternal.
Chesterton fanatics are indebted to Ian Ker for this exhaustive chronicle of the life and times of our hero. Not only is it a boon to those who already love the man’s work, but it is, perhaps, a more accessible and historically informed means by which the unfamiliar reader may become acquainted with Chesterton’s unique work. As for those who simply don’t ‘get’ Chesterton, in Ker’s biography they will find the true gravity of the dangerous convictions that darkened Chesterton’s age, and the seriousness and integrity of the man who sought to combat the nascent terrors that went on by their scars to define the twentieth century.
Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia.
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