In Defense of Chesterton
I read with some dismay the calumny of G.K. Chesterton recently posted on this blog. It seems to me that Austin and the criticisms he quotes have completely missed what Chesterton was up to. One quoted criticism begins “Orthodoxy was a record of the process by which Chesteron had become a Christian and a statement of what he took it that Christianity meant.” If you start reading Orthodoxy looking for a reflective, autobiographical account of one man’s journey to faith, you will naturally be disappointed. Chesterton would here throw in a remark about being disappointed after reading Beowulf that it did not contain better recipes to try out at home, but it grates when anyone but GKC tries that sort of thing, so I won’t. Admittedly, Chesterton writes in a short preface to the book that Orthodoxy is an account of how “he personally” came to believe in the Christian religion, but what is perhaps Chesterton’s single most insistent theme is that long-faced sincerity should be laughed at and not indulged. At the very least, readers should follow his obvious instruction to be wary of his stated purposed after he deflates his preface by ending it with a plea to the reader to consider his creed if not convincing at least “a repeated and surprising coincidence.”
Even more bizarrely, Austin accuses Chesterton of being an irrationalist. Chesterton was in fact quite explicit about the relationship of reason and mystery. In Orthodoxy he formulates his view memorably:
“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say “if you please” to the housemaid. The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery but, because of this, his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and crystal clearness.”
I remember reading Hillary Putnam’s Many Faces of Realism for the first time in college at some point and thinking that Chesterton’s seemingly off-hand remark about causality was a particularly apt illustration of his point.
More broadly, it seems like a mistake to approach Chesterton as if he were an analytic philosopher. If he was a philosopher, he was more like Derrida, for whom the text was not a transparent medium of thought but a tool of construction or deconstruction. In fact, Chesterton was a deconstructionist. The Everlasting Man is not meant to be a work of scholarly historiography, still less an inductive demonstration from history that Christianity is true. It is a bitter—his bitterest work, maybe—and thoroughly effectively mockery of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. It is a deconstruction not of Whig history as such but the particular synthesis of Darwinism and Whig history that was relatively new in Chesterton’s time and is still believed in our time by a certain type of philosophical liberal with naive views of history (it’s amazing to me how similar the basic intellectual vocabulary of 2010 is to 1910; historians may come to view 1914-89 as an irrelevant if disastrous interlude in the development of the Western mind). Imagine the vague notions about the historical and paleo-anthropological past lying unarticulated in the head of an eager and not especially informed Dawkins enthusiast: way back when life was nasty, brutish and short and people believed a lot of stupid things, but thank goodness civilization came along and then slowly progressed into our civilization which is finally sort-of reasonable and not mean and life is at least worth living because we’re not peasants or slaves or hunter-gatherers or repressed Victorians. That’s the thought structure that The Everlasting Man is meant to expose as the sham that it is. If we believe C.S. Lewis’s much more autobiographically believable and incomparably less philosophically interesting testimony in Surprised by Joy, the book has at least in at least a few important cases succeeded in its aim.