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Higgins on Chesterton

Now up on the homepage is Michael Higgins's "Larger than Legend: Saving Chesterton from the Chestertonians," which laments the simplification of GKC's thought by some of his most ardent admirers. He was called the Prince of Paradox for a reason. Or rather, for a couple of reasons. For Chesterton, the paradox wasn't just a rhetorical device (though of course it was that tooand that too often in some of his later work). He was a paradoxical thinker. Higgins writes:

[Chesterton's] biographies of Blake, Dickens, Robert Browning, and others amply demonstrate his ability to weave a big tapestryof work, life, and legacythat introduces us afresh to figures we thought we already knew. But Chestertons true mtier, his genius really, was to probe, prod, and prognosticate. His analysis of the unchecked damage inflicted by market capitalism and Socialist statism looks impressively prophetic after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the global economic collapse that continues to afflict us. In The Well and the Shallows Chesterton makes clear the reasons for his detestation of capitalism: it undermines the family unit, corrupts domestic values, corrodes morality, usurps the right order of relationships by making the employer more important than the parent, and encourages "for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers."

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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Anyone, Chesterton's biographies mentioned above are available on Kindle for a buck or two. I downloaded "William Blake."

That's a very good piece on GKC. His reputation, IMO, has sort of replicated George Orwell's. A man of the right in his day (as Orwell was of the left), GKC was too independent and (as he would say) sane to hew to the smelly orthodoxies on his side of the aisle. The phrase "smelly orthodoxies," of course, comes from Orwell, who was similarly too swayed by facts and too disrespectful toward the ideology to be comfortable for his associates.When they died they left behind, respectively, Chestertonians on both the right and the left and Orwellians on both the left and the right. Subsequently, the left was too mentally lazy to absorb what they had to offer. But the right enthusiastically, although without any intellectual rigor, re-baptized both of them and slammed them into the Procrustean bed of right-wing ideology.In the marvelous unlikelihood that either would be elected to the House as a Republican these days, he would be primaried by a tea partier in the first available election. But as long as they are safely dead, conservative pundits will raise their (selected) thoughts for consideration.With slight amendments and adjustments, the foregoing could also be said about Albert Camus. One would then have covered all the 20th Century political thinkers most worth thinking about.

Chesterton was overrated. His work does not hold up. Some (much? most?) of it is embarrassing now. (Does anyone still read him?)

Gerelyn locuta est; causa finita est.

I don't agree with Douthat very often, but I did agree with his criticism of Gopnik in The Atlantic:'s the Gopnik article, subscribers only: And here's a little video of Chesterton at Holy Cross. Note the slam of "Mohammedans" at the end. His prejudices were wide-ranging.

Tom Blackburn, have you forgotten to consider Raymond Aron, Maritain, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, etc?Whatever Chesterton's merits, and they are not few, he's not in the league of the people I've mentioned when it comes to 20th century political thinkers.

Bernard, I gave some thought to Maritain, but the last time I picked up Man and the State I didn't finish. Aron might qualify as a fourth, at least for not staying safely orthodox. I thought about Hannah Arendt, too. But then I thought, no.

P.S. (sorry) But unlike Gerelyn's, my word is far from final.

Gerelyn loquens steered me to the Douthat article, for which: gratias ei ago.

I have not read Chesterton for some years but he is very popular among some undergraduates here at Notre Dame.I believe there is a student inspired discussion group dedicated to his writings.

I only like reading poems and stories (maybe memoirs if they're not too deep), so I tried reading Chesterton's Father Brown stories. I found them charmless.I also have a colleague, who discovered I was fallen away and is trying to get me to Catholic up by e-mailing me quotations from Chesterton. Just this week he sent me: "Original sin is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." Wasn't sure if that was some sort of threat or observation on the Boston bombing or what. He always sends these things without further comment. So I am inclined to dislike Chesterton, but appreciate Mr. Higgins' refresher. Maybe I should read GKC's life of Blake, whom I number among my many personal patron saints.

I have not read much Chesterton. But I have heard very good things regarding his books on Thomas Aquinas and on Charles Dickens. Has anyone read either of these works?

Farther Imbelli, I just (inspired by Higgins) started rereading his Aquinas. It is a sort of bookend to his book on Francis of Assisi. Each is short and tells you as much about GKC as about the subject. But I recall Aquinas as being a model of popularization; Chesterton always wore his learning lightly. I've never read his Dickens, but Orwell -- who disdained the Catholic renaissance authors of his time but made slight allowances for Chesterton -- thought it was excellent.

I'm not sure what's wrong with "popularizing." (Caution: Tangential rant follows.)My medieval lit prof hated John Gardner for "popularizing" the Middle Ages, particularly his bio of Chaucer. But so long as a reader understands there is no new academic ground being broken and that the book is written for the layman, isn't there a place for these types of works? (My scientific knowledge would be far poorer without the popular science I learn on my favorite TV show, "Secrets of the Dead.") Why should the academics get to hog some fundamental knowledge about Chaucer? My guess is that somebody who runs a liquor store, tells dirty stories to his customers, and knows how to run a successful tax dodge probably innately understands Chaucer better than most academics. And if I were writing a book about Chaucer, I would put that in there.

Jean, It may interest you to know that a million years ago Marquette University offered a graduate course (journalism) titled "Popularization" and may still. The main text was Lincoln Barrett's "The World and Dr. Einstein." There are tons of examples of scientific popularization that could be used for the purpose today, but back then there weren't so many. When I read Shakespeare I marvel at what the liquor store owners of his day laughed at, but there were no medieval lit professors like yours around to tell them it was over their heads.

Here's an extensive bibliography of Chesterton works online, including addresses. Everything from "Orthodoxy" to "The Oracle of the Dog" :-) Great site.

"I tried reading Chestertons Father Brown stories. I found them charmless."I couldn't agree more.

My question is: how did the English educational system of their day manage to produce thinkers such as Chesterton and his friend GBS who were serious yet funny and civil at the same time? What did the Victorians do that we don't?

They repressed, Ann. They repressed and sublimated. It wasn't all bad, apparently.

Jean --Hmm. Are you saying that humor depends on repression and sublimation? Could be -- humor releases what's been closeted away but in a socially acceptable, civil form? Intriguing.

Sure. Laughter relieves tension, doesn't it? And how can you have tension if you're not neatly packed up and on your best behavior most of the time? Thousands of sociologists and psychologists have also noted the close connection between humor and tragedy. A guy falls down, breaks his back, and it's a tragedy. Put a red nose on him and a bottle of Dixie Belle gin in his hand, and it's a comedy.

Yes, that accounts for a lot of laughter, but what about the comic -- does relief of tension account for his/her production of the comic? I suspect there are several motives involved in some case. For instance, some humor is meant to *cause* tension or pain. Mean jokes (see satire) are often funny *because* they're both true to life *and* funny. That's why they're often particularly mean. Sigh. I wonder if "the comic" is one of those pesky transcendental terms, one of those ultimate family resemblance terms.

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