In Defense of Chesterton

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10 Responses

  1. I quoted this passage in the comments to Austin’s post, but so late that most probably missed it:

    “Etienne Gilson . . . [w]hen St. Thomas appeared . . . said to a friend of mine ‘Chesterton makes one despair. I have been studying St. Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book.’ After Gilbert’s death, asked to give an appreciation, he returned to the same topic—‘I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a “clever” book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called “wit” of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. He has guessed all that which they had tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas. Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to the others, he apologized for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty. That is all they can see of him.’”

    – Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943 619 – 20)Report

  2. Pederson says:

    Great post, David. I’ve always held Chesterton to be a paradigm for the postmodern faithful. The foibles of pure rationalism are made clearer by hardly any other writer (Hamann comes close). I’m not as sure as you, though, that The Everlasting Man is Chesterton’s bitterest work; I think that The Utopia of Usurers might merit that title more, although it’s not quite as ironic and satirical as the former.Report

  3. valdemar says:

    Presumably reasons of space prevented you from explaining that Chesterton’s virulent anti-Semitism and paeans of praise for fascism were also products of his superior Christian insight. Silly old HG Wells, in marked contrast, was put on a Nazi blacklist. Go figure, as they say.Report

    • David Schaengold in reply to valdemar says:

      @valdemar, I’ve never found anything Chesterton wrote to be even mildly anti-Semitic, even the quotes so laboriously pulled out of context, but I can understand why people might think so based on particular passages if they weren’t familiar with his work as a whole. To say that he was “virulently” anti-Semitic, or that he wrote “paeans of praise for fascism,” on the other hand, is ridiculous.Report

      • John Henry in reply to David Schaengold says:

        @David Schaengold, Right. This is ignorance wrapped in presumption masquerading as familiarity. Chesterton died in 1936, and had even at that point voiced harsh criticisms of the Nazis and their theories of racial superiority. His anti-semitism, such as it was, was commonplace and mild by the standards of early twentieth century England. As Douthat observed when Gopnik’s (rather sloppy) piece came out:

        But the whole point of the “in the context of his times” argument is precisely that by the standards of the ’20s and ’30s, it was morally impressive for a political writer to reject both fascism and communism, to praise Zionism, and to speak out forcefully against Nazi anti-Semitism – and not in its eliminationist phase, but in its very earliest stages. (Chesterton died in 1936.) This does not excuse Chesterton’s anti-Semitism by any means, but it makes him an odd target, out of all the writers and thinkers of that period, to single out for particular opprobrium. Here I think Gopnik is indulging the chauvinism of hindsight: The assumption that everyone who partook of the attitudes that helped make the Holocaust possible should be judged and condemned on the basis of what we know now, rather than what they knew then. It’s the Goldhagen approach to assigning culpability, in which even people who opposed Hitler – even people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died fighting him – are to be judged, and harshly, if they failed to live up the standards that Western society only adopted after the Holocaust provided a terrible example of where these thoughts and impulses can lead.

      • Mark in reply to David Schaengold says:

        What is your opinion of Chesterton’s treatment of the Jewish character in Manalive?Report

    • James Kabala in reply to valdemar says:

      @valdemar, Wells’s views were far closer to fascism than Chesterton’s. It isn’t just Jonah Goldberg who says that; honest leftists I know have spoken very harshly of Wells. If Chesterton have lived beyond 1936, he might well have ended up on that list as well.Report

  4. TimC says:

    Wow, accussed of being a Nazi in the second comment. I didn’t realize there was such a dearth of reasonable Anti- Chestertonian arguments out there. I’m not much surprised but I’d have thought it would take a little longer before Godwin’s law kicked in.Report