Wit and Wisdom in Chesterton’s Heretics

This year’s reading is off to a good start, not so much in terms of speed (work and other activities have put the brakes on that) but in terms of content.  I’ve just finished G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics, a light book for heavy hearts of little-‘o’ orthodox Christians who happen to be classic literature nerds.  Since I fall under that category, I found Heretics to be a bracing read and surprisingly relevant for the current times.  Chesterton is a hit-and-miss author for me; this book was definitely a “hit.”

Shaw, Belloc e Chesterton
George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton.

Heretics (1905) comes under one of my favorite niche genres – authors writing about other authors.  In this series of essays, Chesterton critiques such literary luminaries as Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, as well as others who have since fallen out of readership.  Imperialism, Nietzsche’s Superman, human progress, and other topics of the day are covered here, many of which are still relevant a little over a century later, albeit in other guises.  Chesterton’s overarching theme is that religion, specifically Christianity, is essential to contemporary dialogue, not a thing to be flippantly attacked or dismissed as irrelevant.

A non-Catholic myself, I still found encouragement in his defense of Christianity in the modern world.  I am not sure how non-Christians would find it; probably they would pick holes in Chesterton’s turns of phrase, which to me are devices to get you to think, not to necessarily persuade or convince.  In any case, this book shows off Chestertons’s signature style, often pithy and delightfully humorous, and I think anyone who can appreciate a Mark Twainian repartee could get some chuckles out of it.

These are some quotes I particularly liked:

The case of the general talk of “progress” is, indeed, an extreme one. As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative . . . Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. – “On the Negative Spirit”

The man who is misunderstood has always this advantage over his enemies, that they do not know his weak point or his plan of campaign. – “Mr. Bernard Shaw”

Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves. – “Mr. Bernard Shaw”

There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle. – “On Sandals and Simplicity”

All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. – “Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson.”  I may print this one and hang it up on my office wall…

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. – “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family.”

Democracy is not philanthropy; it is not even altruism or social reform. Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man; democracy is founded on reverence for the common man, or, if you will, even on fear of him. It does not champion man because man is so miserable, but because man is so sublime. – “Slum Novelists and the Slums”

Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. – “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy”