The Optimistic Pessimism of G.K. Chesterton

September 2012By Chene Richard Heady

Chene Richard Heady is Associate Professor of English at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. His articles have been published in Touch­stone, Renascence, The Cath­olic Digest, and other periodicals.

The Collected Works of G.K. Ches­ter­ton, Volume 36: The Illustrated London News, 1932-1934.  . Ignatius Press. 613 pages. $29.95 (paperback)/$39.95 (hardcover).

G.K. Chesterton was so prolific an author that, more than seventy-five years after his death, he is still making contributions to world literature. Last year Ignatius Press published the thirty-sixth volume of his Collected Works, which contains six hundred pages of essays written for the Illustrated London News between 1932 and 1934, most of which have never previously appeared in book form.

While Chesterton wrote some fine novels and poems, he was most masterful, and most consistent, in his work as an essayist. His place in the literary canon rises and falls in more or less direct correlation to the variable fortunes of the essay as a genre. Not coincidentally, as “creative nonfiction” has come to be a literary genre held in popular and critical esteem over the past twenty years, Chesterton’s literary reputation has begun to be rehabilitated. He now receives more serious scholarly attention than at any point since the time of his death.

As an essayist, Chesterton is best known for his penchant for paradox. Hugh Kenner pointed out long ago that, in Chesterton’s hands, paradox is not a mere rhetorical trick but, rather, a literary structuring device that is also a mode of thought. Ches­terton’s essays often throw out two apparently unrelated topics or contradictory insights — one trivial and one sublime, one profane and one sacred, one absurd and one profound — and climax in the moment when they have been brought into an unexpected and startling juxtaposition. Through his paradoxes, Chesterton resists the modern tendency to cordon off knowledge and experience. Current Western thought attempts to control and understand human existence by splitting and subdividing it into manageable fragments (this is the very structure of the modern research university); Ches­terton, by contrast, forces us to see life whole.

To parse just one paradox from the present volume, Chesterton notes that conservatives typically defend established custom against would-be reformers on the grounds that established custom reflects human nature, and “you can’t change human nature.” But now that we live in a world in which capitalism is an established custom, most conservatives are also capitalists. Pure capitalism — a straightforward survival-of-the-fittest economics that disregards communal welfare — is, as Ches­terton points out, “in flat contradiction” to the traditional “moral theory” of all cultures and religions. Thus, “by a queer irony, the Conservative who thought he was a traditionalist was defending the most modern of innovations against all the old traditions of mankind.” The paradox here derives, as it so often does in Chesterton’s work, from the modern tendency to intellectual com­partmentalization. Since “conservative” is primarily a political term, people dub both ideas and themselves “conservative” without reference to the separate discipline of history — the only meaningful determiner of which practices are traditional and which aren’t. Hence, in Chesterton’s time as in ours, we witness the disheartening spectacle of a faddish and ahistorical conservatism. Such paradoxes, as Chester­ton elsewhere protests, truly belong to a culture blind to its own ironies, not to the author who points them out. While under the test of paradox much of modern culture becomes a joke, under the same test the truths of faith stand forth more starkly than before. The idea that the infinite God became a five-pound baby is the pro­foundest paradox of all, and one to which Chesterton often returns.

Second to his use of paradox, Chesterton is best known as an essayist for his comic, often sardonic, literary voice. For instance, he frequently mocks sociologists and psychologists for their pretense of scientific objectivity, observing that the social sciences could be truly objective only if their practitioners were (impossibly) able to stand outside and above humanity, peering down and taking notes, like a child peering into an ant farm. Since in the case of psychology “the thing which is being studied is also the thing which is studying it; and it is not a question of a man studying a bird, but of a man studying a man,” the professional psychologist is in a doubly absurd position. He both pretends that he can objectively analyze the whole of which he is a part, and ignores whatever he has learned about humanity by being part of this whole. Thus, psychology has paradoxically “destroyed all our knowledge of human nature.” One of the perennial sources of comedy is that we’re never as far apart from others as we fancy; for Chesterton, this is both a great joke and a metaphysical insight.

Part of Chesterton’s charm as a writer, how he managed to be heard and continues to be heard by many who differ from him immensely with regard to philosophy, politics, and religion, is that he always applies this insight consistently to himself; he never places himself above and outside humanity. If he finds the age absurd, he can’t fully avoid being a man of his age. Chesterton is famous for his self-deprecating humor, and his essays are full of jabs at his own slovenliness, impracticality, abstraction, and immense weight. George Bernard Shaw complained that there was no good joke he could make about Chesterton that Chesterton had not already made about himself.

Chesterton laments that “it is the curse upon all critics that they must write in prose. It is the specially blighting and blasting curse upon some of them, that they have to write in philosophical or psychological or generally analytic prose.” The critic — including Chesterton himself — cannot capture the power of “the actual sound of the poetry or the power of poetic images,” and so hovers around “secondary things” relevant to the background, materials, and reception of the work, leaving the true mystery or “magic” untapped. Chesterton can write a style of criticism that, unlike most, points toward (rather than away from) the power and mystery of narrative and story — but he doesn’t dare to suggest that he himself can explain them.

The examples presented here show that Chesterton’s characteristic literary merits are on display in the essays collected in this volume. Chesterton’s late work — from about 1930 to his death in 1936 — has been severely underrated and also possesses virtues uniquely its own. While Chesterton’s Edwardian writings are universally praised by his admirers, his cultural commentary from the 1920s sometimes loses his usual nuance and poise and collapses into a kind of repetitive screed. But in the present volume we have the essays of a man in his late fifties and, as Chesterton explains, by his fifties a man is chastened by the knowledge that neither his hopes nor his fears are destined to succeed; he has seen seemingly immortal traditions fade and seemingly inevitable “progress” collapse. “Between fourteen and forty, a man sees a great tide coming in and another ebbing away; and associates the first with the future and the second with the past. But by the time he is fifty, he has generally begun to realise what is meant by ebb and flow, and by the turn of the tide.”

This late-period Chesterton astutely sees the modern age as one in which it is difficult for the Christian wholly to accept or denounce any prominent political or intellectual movement. For the world in which we live operates at a double (or perhaps, in our own times, a triple or quadruple) remove from Christianity. Chesterton penetratingly observes of the Bright Young Things of the 1930s that “they are not the first generation of rebels to be Pagans. They are the first generation of rebels not to be Pagans.” Western culture had ceased to be meaningfully Christian before the Victorian era — what remained were the pagan virtues, a sense of the goodness of the world, the mystery of existence, and the sacredness of basic human ties, such as home and family. He notes that though contemporary thinkers often cast themselves as rebels against the faith, it is chronologically impossible for most of them to have rebelled against Christianity, a religion that never had a hold on them in the first place. The true cultural narrative of Europe and America in the twentieth century is not the decline of Christianity but the collapse of higher paganism, which ushered in a demystified, materialist epoch in which both Christianity and the common human virtues are so sidelined that they often fail even to be attacked.

In this milieu, false beliefs wage relentless war on one another and kill one another (and themselves) off so quickly that the would-be intellectual crusader can only with difficulty interrupt to land a blow of his own. In an analogy only Ches­terton could imagine, he envisions that once upon a time St. George heroically “burst in” to deliver a damsel from a dragon. But, noticing something amiss, the saint had the good sense to have “felt the pulse” and “taken the temperature” of the dragon before attacking him. Realizing that “the foe of mankind” was expiring, the saint didn’t have the heart to thrust him through with a lance, but instead just felt rather awkward about having “tactlessly” interrupted the dragon’s death­bed scene. One could think of a hundred contemporary examples of the phenomenon Chesterton describes. My favorite: For all their bile, the New Atheist polemics against Christianity depend on, and to some degree revive, the dying belief that truth is objective; for this, they were roundly attacked by atheists of a more postmodern stripe, who insist that Western science is itself subjective, culturally determined, and offensively imperialistic in its pretensions. How can one watch this fight without rooting for both sides? How can one interrupt to strike a blow against either?

Chesterton himself reflects in the present volume on the difficult position into which atheism has been forced by the rising epistemological skepticism of his time (and ours). “If there are no really reliable standards of the relation of the mind to the world, he [the skeptic] cannot possibly settle what may or may not have happened in the world…. If there is no such thing as reason, he cannot denounce Scripture students as unreasonable. Having set out with the simple and childlike ideal of pulling down the sky, he has, in fact, done nothing except continually cut away the ground from under his own feet.” In what is only a superficial paradox, since most scientists no longer believe that science can describe reality in an objective, universally valid manner, atheistic scientism is also increasingly intolerant of debate. Ches­terton witnesses specifically the circular reasoning that first defines the aims and methods of the biological sciences in terms of an atheistic mod­el of evolution and then dismisses out of hand all “argument[s] from Design” on the grounds that they are, by definition, unscientific. In the end, he predicts, those who preach the loudest about “intellectual liberty” will themselves undo its very foun­dations, as they still possess strong convictions but have lost belief in reason and argument as means of conveying those convictions to others. Already by 1934 Chesterton is expositing the irony that “it is emphatically those who believe in progress, and rather especially those who do not believe in anything else, who…have found that their practical progress is incompatible with theoretical liberty; and most of all with the liberty of theories.” Henceforth, free thought will be defended only by the ardently religious — since only those who believe in God, and in a mankind created in God’s image, still believe in man’s capacity to reach truth through free debate and intellectual exchange.

By the 1930s Chesterton feels that there is no clear party he can root for in the political and cultural conflicts of his times. He ardently opposes both fascism and communism — but credits each system with having enough sense to recognize the folly of the other. He can’t even simply root for the democratic capitalism of the British Empire as he has always despised empires and distrusts capitalism as anti-democratic. If democracy is a means by which the community expresses its collective interests and values in order to govern itself, then “capitalism is not democracy; and is admittedly, by trend and savour, rather against democracy.” So, what hope does Chesterton have, as he approaches the end of his life in an era in which, like our own, it is difficult to see any promising signs on the cultural horizon?

Chesterton half-seriously suggests that we might consider “send[ing] out missionaries to convert” youthful skeptics “to Paganism.” It’s a great joke, but it’s not just a joke. Recall that Chesterton defines paganism in the best sense as an intuition of the goodness of the world, an acceptance of mystery as a fundamental aspect of existence, and a reverence for the sacredness of basic human ties, such as home and family. Higher paganism provides a preliminary context in which the Gospel message can be understood, a sort of precursor to evangelization. The nobler forms of paganism have been a preamble of faith for many throughout the ages; many who have sought to understand the centrality of family have ended up honoring the Holy Family. This sort of paganism might presently be on the rise. To give just a few examples, the environmentalists are seeking, not always wisely, to understand creation in terms other than those of mere utility. Ron Paul and Wendell Berry are old men who, at their best, preach an old message — subsidi­arity and communitarian­ism — and each has an enormous following among hipster college students. Whatever their faults, they deserve credit for converting many in the avant garde to a noble paganism. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, the new converts to paganism will be ready to listen to an even older man whose political philosophy is also considerably more sophisticated and insightful: Pope Benedict XVI. The very problems of our culture may be driving people to rediscover the pagan virtues preliminary to faith.

Particularly, Chesterton thinks it’s reasonable to hope that the death of the state will be the birth of the family. He asserts that the pretensions of all states must ultimately fail, whether due to war or, in his time and ours, economic collapse. The majority of modern thought exalts the state at the expense of the family, treating the family as a problem that has to be redefined continually and managed by the benevolent bureaucrats of the more powerful and wiser state. But the experience of politically and economically turbulent times reveals that the family is, and must remain, the more fundamental entity. A man “cannot really refer the daily domestic problems of his life to a State that may be turned upside-down every twenty-four hours. He must, in fact, fall back on that primal and prehistoric institution; the fact that he has a mate and they have a child; and the three must get on together somehow, under whatever law or lawlessness they are supposed to be living.”

Chesterton has been much praised and much blamed for his alleged “optimism.” Whatever optimism the late Chesterton possessed amounts to a belief that creation and its Creator are good — not a belief that the majority of people would always choose rightly or that any merely human structure (even the government of his own country) would endure. His “optimistic” hopes were that false philosophies would, in the end, do even more damage to one another than to the Church, and that, as state institutions collapse, people might begin to recover their basic communal structures — particularly family, corner bar or restaurant, and church — for lack of any others that truly function. In a nation in recession, in a global political climate increasingly hostile to faith, there is much to be learned from the pessimistic optimism of Chesterton’s late work, and we can be grateful to Ignatius Press for this new volume.

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Thank you for this wonderfully insightful essay on the essays and thought of Chesterton. His TONE is so friendly and approaches a person with reverence, does it not? I must say, this essay soothes me like Paul Ryan's love of America in his Republican National Convention Speech which helped me to remember the greatness of the past and the hope to be found in the future. Wonderful thoughts by which simplicity illustrates truth and its depths! Posted by: JDow
September 14, 2012 09:07 AM EDT
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