books book reviews

Essays by G. K. Chesterton

reviewed by T. Nelson


The Common Man

by G. K. Chesterton
Sheed and Ward, 1950, 279 pages

G.K. Chesterton's essays aren't for everybody. By today's standards they're long and meandering. Sometimes they just drop off at the end, discuss British people and places that may be unfamiliar, or seem to be about trivia or nothing at all. But those who've grown up reading Twitter and blogs may be shocked to see what really good writing and civil criticism look like.

Here are couple of typical sentences:

“You can have an education that teaches atheism because atheism is true, and it can be, from its own point of view, a complete education. But you cannot have an education claiming to teach all truth, and then refusing to discuss whether atheism is true.” (The New Case for Catholic Schools)

When he gets worked up about something, his tone changes. Here's what he says about the idea, drilled into all Catholics, that one should not take the Lord's name in vain:

“Take, if you will, the name wildly, take it jestingly, take it brutally and angrily, take it childishly, take it wrongly; but do not take it in vain. Use a sanctity for some strange or new purpose and justify that use; use a sanctity for some doubtful and experimental purpose and stake your act on your success; use a sanctity for some base and hateful purpose and abide the end. But do not use a sanctity for no purpose at all; do not talk about Christ when you might as well talk about Mr. Perks; do not use patriotism and honour and the Communion of Saints as stopgaps in a halting speech. This is the sin of frivolity.” (The Frivolous Man)

Some of the essays are about philosophy or literature. But his favorite topic was religion. These days, one can only admire the skill and wit of a writer who can bash modernism and atheism so cleverly that even atheists have to admit that the 300-pound guy with the pince-nez and funny hat has a point.

Chesterton's trademark was the sentence with a clever logic twist that manages to convey insight without the nasty snarkiness of so many of today's newspaper columnists. Some of the essays here are also in In Defense of Sanity (reviewed at right). This collection consists entirely of his later, more mature essays, written after the Great War.

jul 20, 2015


In Defense of Sanity
The best essays of G. K. Chesterton

Ignatus, 2011, 387 pages

Everybody, it seems, is running around quoting G.K. Chesterton these days, which means we are supposed to read him, even those of us who had it up to here with him and his Victorian optimism back in school.

I can see why they quote him: his writing is witty and full of sound bites (which a news reporter once said to me about my speech—something I took to be a veiled threat). For example, in “Of Certain Modern Writers”, he says:

“They say they wish to be as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves.”

Chesterton was a conservative and Christian, and unquestionably a spectacularly good writer. You might call him a prose Kipling, or an anti-H. L. Mencken—optimistic, leisurely, and unironic, expansive and positive about humanity and its prospects. And who wouldn't be, coming of age in a time of progress, when cars and radio were still new, ocean liners were still unsinkable, and the unpleasantness of 1857 and on the Crimea were long forgotten? Most of his early articles are about nothing in particular—a guy running after his hat, or the importance of cheese in England—pretty pictures for sure, but reflecting his view that the small things were the most important. God, he probably thought, is in the details. It must have seemed that his orderly and happy world would last forever.

But it didn't. It was about to be smashed to pieces. The War did more than kill off a generation. It created an unbridgeable cultural gulf. That gap shows up clearly here: the contrast between the leisurely and apolitical pre-war Chesterton and the critical post-Depression Chesterton is stark. Like his earlier ones, his later articles, while we're reading them, still seem to be about mostly nothing. But some time afterward we suddenly realize we learned something.

jul 03, 2015