The Chester-Mugg Tradition

January-February 1988By Maclin Horton

Maclin Horton lives in Huntsville, Ala­bama, where he works as a computer programmer and reads on his lunch hour.

The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton; Volume I: Heretics, Orthodoxy, The Blatchford Con­troversies.  By G.K. Chesterton. Ig­natius. 395 pages. $12.95.

Vintage Muggeridge: Religion and Society.  Edited by Geoffrey Barlow. Eerdmans. 192 pages. $7.95.



Those who love Chesterton naturally hope that the publica­tion of his Collected Works by Ignatius Press will promote a Chestertonian revival and an im­provement in his reputation. Chesterton is presently underrat­ed outside Catholic circles; the academic literary world considers him an eccentric minor figure, and beyond these circles he is known, if at all, only for the Fa­ther Brown stories. He deserves better, but I doubt he will ever attain in non-Christian eyes any­thing like the stature he enjoys among those who agree with him.

It is, above all, his personal message that counts. He is not the architect of a great system of thought, like Aquinas; nor is he a supreme craftsman in prose, like Newman. He does not possess the purely philosophical or liter­ary greatness which makes some­one like Aquinas or Newman an indisputable classic even to the secularist who finds their ideas irritating. Chesterton’s gift is his ability to paint a fresh and star­tling vision of Christianity, and if one is hostile or indifferent to that faith, his appeal suffers.

Those who share Chester­ton’s beliefs tend to overlook his faults. Personally, I go further: I find them endearing. His logic takes reckless leaps from which it does not recover without bruises, and his prose is sometimes windy, but these failings spring from a lighthearted humility which makes him unwilling to take either himself or his work as seriously as most intellectuals take themselves. He is a painter whose eye is more often on his subject than on his canvas, and in spite of the defects of craftsman­ship, the essential excitement of the vision communicates itself.

In fairness I must admit that his critics do have a point. Consider Orthodoxy, one of his most famous books, and reprint­ed in Volume One of The Col­lected Works. Commonly consid­ered a work of Christian apolo­getics, it might more accurately be called “pre-apologetics.” It is not so much a defense of Chris­tian doctrine — does God exist? is Jesus divine? — but rather an attempt to show that Christian­ity, considered as a philosophy, gives a more convincing account of reality than its rivals. It hardly dwells on the supernatural and the transcendent, except to show that life without them is wretch­ed. It is the first great work of that modern approach which has to deal, not with a pagan but with a formerly Christian civiliza­tion. It is aimed not at those who know nothing of Christianity, but at those who believe they know all about it and have seen through it.

Though I love Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I sympathize with those who don’t respond to it. Its brilliant moments are star­tling, but its lapses are vexing, and the two are generally tangled up together, sometimes within the same paragraph. Consider the famous passage in which tradi­tion is called “the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” This is a striking idea, strikingly put, and one which effected a permanent change in my own thinking. But before the para­graph ends, Chesterton, having made his point more than ade­quately, reaches for one last metaphor and comes up with a dud: “It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are mark­ed with a cross.” The unsympathetic reader notices that there is no real analogy here, only the loosest association. Chesterton does this sort of thing often enough to invite a reader to use these over-reachings as an excuse to avoid confronting the solid truth that precedes them.

I first met Chesterton not in book-length works like Ortho­doxy but in his essays, where he is less prone to his characteristic excesses. I have long suspected that great riches remained to be found in Chesterton, and the re­maining two works in this vol­ume prove me right.

Heretics is a collection of essays on this and that, all relat­ed to the general idea that the modern world has got everything wrong. Some tackle subjects no longer of great interest to Ameri­cans, such as the “yellow press.” But each of them has some stroke of insight that makes it memorable, and the best are clas­sics. The Blatchford Controver­sies, so called because they were Chesterton’s contribution to a debate with an agnostic by that name, are four superb essays in defense of Christianity.

There is a cozy turn-of-the-century Englishness about Ches­terton’s work which may tempt some readers to see him as dated or to patronize him for being un­aware of the horrors toward which the world was moving. That would be a serious mistake. It is true that when he wrote the three works in this volume he had not seen World War I, Communism, or Fascism; nor would he live to see World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. But he suspected what was com­ing: he closes one of the Blatch­ford essays with an ominous sketch of the sort of man he thought would soon appear, the man who would say “‘I am a new kind of man. I am the super­man. I have abandoned mercy and justice.’”

Chesterton discerned such men on the horizon, but Mal­colm Muggeridge met them. Per­haps this is why we sense at once that Muggeridge is much more a man of our time than Chester­ton. He evinces a despair about the world which many of us share and which is not to be found in Chesterton, though Chesterton certainly had no illu­sions about the implications of many widespread modern ideas. In one of the essays in Heretics, he makes the sweeping but accu­rate remark that “every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.” He then skewers the notion that there can be any such thing as “progress” without a fixed idea of the good toward which prog­ress is to be measured.

This concern is a recurring note in Vintage Muggeridge. In reading these essays, speeches, and conversations, one feels that Muggeridge is taking up where Chesterton left off, with the po­lemical advantage that much “progress” has been achieved to­ward a society in which it is bad manners to define the good — with many absurd and terrible consequences.

Muggeridge emerges as a grim prophet intruding on the pathological hilarity of late West­ern civilization to tell the merry­makers that the end is near. One suspects he takes a certain plea­sure in breaking the bad news. If he were not a Christian he would probably be a bitter nihilist, but his faith transforms even his gloomiest appraisals into celestial hope. This hope is plainly visible in the jacket portrait, which is all white hair and sparkling eyes and a smile that seems to be bursting into laughter in which there is nothing sardonic. I am reminded by it of Yeats’s description of the wise old men in “Lapis Lazu­li”: “Their eyes mid many wrin­kles, their eyes, / Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”

Though Muggeridge dwells in a time suffused with an aliena­tion and world-sickness that were only being born when Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy, a gaiety deriv­ed from Christian hope connects the two men and reveals this hope as something much greater than the insipid thing which its detractors (and some of its ad­mirers) make it out to be. Far from being dissipated by the cold hand of worldly fact, it provides the only means of rendering the world tolerable, and shines the more brightly when darkness falls around it.



DOSSIER: G.K. Chesterton



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