Tag: G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton and The Man Who Was Thursday

Note: This post was originally published at Thermidor on March 6, 2017, but since it recently shut down I’ve decided to republish my articles here. I plan to post one per week until they’re all back up, with only light editing.

What’s there to say about G. K. Chesterton? He’s a contender for the most-quoted man on the Right; spend some time in any broadly Right-wing community, Conservative, Reactionary, or even just moderate Christian, and it won’t be long before someone quotes one of his famous aphorisms or anecdotes. Though not a particularly rigorous thinker, and a bit light for those used to reading the Joseph de Maistres and Julius Evolas of the world, he’s among the best authors who’ve written primarily for popular audiences.

One thing that makes his work especially impressive is that, besides his innumerable essays, he wrote several deservedly popular novels. After burning myself out a bit on his non-fiction, I recently decided to revisit some of his novels, beginning with The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. It’s about poet Gabriel Syme, recruited by Scotland Yard and tasked with infiltrating a cabal of anarchists. It’s a classic setup for a spy or detective story, aside from the poet protagonist, and up until the final chapter plays out much as one would expect of a Chestertonian detective novel.…

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The Man Who Was Thursday, Thermidor Magazine, and Expanded Horizons

I have a new post, a review of G. K. Chesterton’s classic novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, but in a first for me, it’s not posted here. You can find it over at Thermidor Magazine. In my previous post I think it came across that, though I like Chesterton, I’m not a big fan of his non-fiction. I’m more enthusiastic, though, about his novel.

In any case, Everything is Oll Korrect! is still and will always be my home base, as it were. I’ve even declined offers of posting elsewhere in the past because I like having all of my work in one place, but recently I’ve reconsidered that somewhat. In the past couple years I feel like I’ve expanded my web log’s purpose a bit beyond being simply a bibliophile’s journal. It’s still primarily that, but I also want, and to some extent have succeeded, in encouraging people to appreciate beauty and the arts. Occasional contributions at Thermidor, whose editor-in-chief has similar goals to my own, seems like a good way to further that cause.

Now, updates are a bit slow around here as it is, so dividing my work may slow it down even more. I’ll continue to announce it here at Everything when I do publish elsewhere, but I’ll also see if I can do something to pick up the pace of updates here. Perhaps reviewing more movies or other pieces of pop culture. We’ll see.

Finally, while you’re at Thermidor, be sure to take a look around; despite being a fairly new site, there are already several excellent articles to peruse. Here are a few of my favourites:

Enemies and Strangers,” by Nathan Duffy, on the friend/enemy distinction, immigration, and Christianity.

Up in Smoke,” by Jonathan, presenting a case against the legalisation of marijuana.

The Liberty of the Slaves,” by Doug Smythe, on the idealisation of liberty.

David Brooks: Pundit of the Last Men,” by P. T. Carlo, one of a few recent articles on the shallowness of American Conservatism.…

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The Everlasting Man

Honestly, in a way, it feels superfluous to review G. K. Chesterton’s non-fiction. It seems that most everyone who might be interested in his work has already read something, and as I’ve said elsewhere, he’s nothing if not consistent. If you’ve read one of Chesterton’s books, you already know exactly what to expect from the others, and if you’ve read my review of either Heretics or Orthodoxy, you already know what I think of them.

That’s not really a major criticism. I remember someone on a forum I used to frequent criticising AC/DC for making the same album thirteen times, and the first reply was, “Yeah, but it was a damn good album.” That said, unless you absolutely love Chesterton’s style, as many people do, he can start to get tedious – and I’ve read a lot of his work at this point without even really intending to. He’s so ubiquitous in the Conservative milieu I grew up in and am still around, especially among Catholics, that it just seems natural to return to his books regularly. I’ve read at least nine of them, six of those non-fiction. At this point, he’s the author I’ve read the most of, and he’s not even in my top ten favourite authors.

He is, though, probably the best author who wrote primarily for a popular audience. Though not particularly rigorous, he is a clear thinker, often perceptive, well-read, and always entertaining.…

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G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

Last year, I read G.K. Chesterton’s book Heretics, and just got around to reading the follow-up, Orthodoxy. The earlier volume focuses on criticising modern ideas, essentially “bursting the bubbles of ‘clever sillies,'” as I put it in my last review. Here, he attempts to state his own philosophy in positive terms, and most of the book goes through various ideas that lead him to become a Christian. This isn’t in the form of a Catechism or series of logical proofs like the Summa Theologica or De Romano Pontifice, though. Rather, it’s more of a series of loosely connected observations. As he says, I think accurately, “the evidence in my case… is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts… a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.” In other words, people aren’t convinced of something because of a powerful proof, but because a number of seemingly disparate observations all point in the same direction.

Unfortunately, though there is some very good material here, it’s a weaker volume than its predecessor. Most of the book is fine, of course, but applying common sense to modern “heresies” is easier than building up a positive case, and the latter requires a more rigorous, traditional sort of approach to philosophy, which isn’t Chesterton’s strong suit. As a result, though the book is still well worth reading, there are a few major arguments that are surprisingly weak.

Let’s start with some of the strong points. Those on the Right today will likely have seen the argument that Progressivism is, in a sense, a “Christian heresy,” and Chesterton makes a broadly similar point about modernity:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone… For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race— because he is so human.

I’m not sure who Mr. Blatchford is, due to Chesterton’s understandable but annoying habit of not explaining his references, but one senses that he was on the farthest end of a contemporary holiness spiral. Progressives are certainly anti-Christian, as they often claim to be, but Chesterton is correct in this early observation that they attempt to be “holier than Jesus,” so to speak, and try to take certain Christian virtues without the underlying reason behind them. It may be an interesting research project to see who was the first to make this connection between Progressivism or Liberalism and Christianity, but Chesterton is the first that I’m aware of.

Speaking of early observations of modern trends, Chesterton also noticed that Liberals like to appeal to The Current Year as if it’s a decisive argument. He writes, “An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another.” He then makes the obvious point that a dogma is either true or it is not, regardless of what the calendar says. Just because one idea is newer than another or even arose from another does not mean that it has meaningfully progressed, in the sense of improved, in any way. As he says in a later discussion, in a comparison to Darwinian evolution, some men “think that so long as they were passing from the ape they were going to the angel. But you can pass from the ape and go to the devil.”

All good so far, and becoming of the Apostle of Common Sense. Then, we get this discussion:

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common… The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe)… is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well.…

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Heretics (75 Books LXV)

Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton, is another book that I read back in college but decided to revisit recently since I’ll also be reading its follow-up, Orthodoxy, in the near future. That may have been unnecessary, though, because as enlightening and entertaining as Chesterton is, one always knows what to expect from him in his essays, and if you’ve read, say, Tremendous Trifles, What’s Wrong with the World, or any of his other non-fiction work, you know what you’re in for. Here, he goes through a set of erroneous modern ideas put forward by various prominent people, such as Rudyard Kipling or H.G. Wells, and demonstrates why they’re wrong typically by way of a paradox and with several asides.

For example, while discussing Thomas Carlyle’s arguments for aristocracy, he writes:

Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle’s pathetic belief (or any one else’s pathetic belief) in “the wise few.” There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob… And no oligarchies in the world’s history have ever come off so badly in practical affairs as the very proud oligarchies— the oligarchy of Poland, the oligarchy of Venice. And the armies that have most swiftly and suddenly broken their enemies in pieces have been the religious armies— the Moslem Armies, for instance, or the Puritan Armies. And a religious army may, by its nature, be defined as an army in which every man is taught not to exalt but to abase himself. Many modern Englishmen talk of themselves as the sturdy descendants of their sturdy Puritan fathers. As a fact, they would run away from a cow. If you asked one of their Puritan fathers, if you asked Bunyan, for instance, whether he was sturdy, he would have answered, with tears, that he was as weak as water. And because of this he would have borne tortures.

I recall an acquaintance criticising Chesterton for not being “rigorous” is his writing, and since I’ve also written about some “higher class” philosophers this year, perhaps it’s worth pointing out that he’s known as the “Apostle of Common Sense” for good reason. He wrote for a general audience, and addressed that audience perfectly. His reasoning is (almost) always sound, and he’s obviously well-read, but those expecting in-depth Socratic dialogues or Thomistic systematization will be disappointed. Chesterton’s strength, though, is bursting the bubbles of “clever sillies,” that is, the type of person who is genuinely intelligent and well-read, but has reasoned himself into something nonsensical. I don’t recall the context, but I once saw an idea criticised as something “only a philosophy grad student could believe.”

As much as I enjoy Chesterton’s writing, there are a couple small things that bother me. He’s rather too “democratic” minded at times, as in the passage above. Also, he can be a little self-indulgent, getting to his points via roundabout paths, and reveling almost too much in his own paradoxes. Which, now that I think about it, is also a complaint brought against Mencius Moldbug, though Moldbug is more systematic. In any case, neither of these are major problems, and the latter just makes his essays a little more monotonous if one reads a lot of them at once, since they all have basically the same style and structure.

As I said, I will move on to the follow-up book Orthodoxy soon, but honestly I prefer Chesterton’s fiction over his essays, even though he seems better-known for the latter. His epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse is one of my favourite books, and I’d also highly recommend The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man who was Thursday to anyone. If you haven’t read Chesterton before, I’d start with one either Ballad or Napoleon, then pick a collection of essays, because he’s one of the few authors whose fiction and non-fiction are mutually enlightening.…

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