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”

Orthodoxy

If it is difficult to review a book that is nonfiction and follows a less-than-linear outline, then it is doubly difficult to review such a book from the Christian apologetics genre.  And, naturally, one must explain a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.

G. K. Chesterton‘s Orthodoxy is an account of how he came to hold Christian orthodox beliefs.  By the term “orthodoxy” (the lowercase ‘o’), he is not referring to a branch or denomination of the Church, but rather “. . . the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.”

I happened to read Orthodoxy during or just after my 20th cent. Brit. History course, which included references to H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other people of letters.  There was not one mention of Chesterton, despite his friendship with both Wells and Shaw; he does not fit neatly into the agenda presented in such a history course.  And this, even though Orthodoxy does not pose as an opposing argument to atheism or “unorthodoxy” – Chesterton’s focus seems more to explain than proselytize.

In this very fact, Orthodoxy is made more persuasive than it might otherwise have been.  I think it is best read as simply one man’s reasons for his Christian faith, and as such there is a lot that even non-Christians can gain from reading it.  Apart from answering the question of “Why do you believe?”, Chesterton expresses some powerful points of his philosophy in really excellent writing, using his classic humorous wit and analogies.  His style does read like a rambling college lecture, but in a good way, especially for those of us who dread the typical “boring lecture” format of nonfiction.

Interestingly, Chesterton, like C. S. Lewis, did not embrace Christianity until adulthood.  His answer to “why believe?” is based greatly on his own experience and reasoning, which may or may not convince non-Christians (but again, the book is more an autobiography than anything else).  Personally, I felt like I should have read this a long time ago, not only because it is a Christian classic, but because it earned that status.  Chesterton gives a fascinating perspective on topics like logic, reason, and miracles – topics that are not always easy to dissect.  This is the sort of book I would re-read every year to fully analyze, but even on the first reading, I found that so much of my own Christian “philosophy” had already been put into solidified words in Orthodoxy.

The Apostles’ Creed

I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
    And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
    I believe in the Holy Ghost: The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins: The Resurrection of the body: And the Life everlasting. Amen.