The Chester-Mugg Tradition
The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton; Volume I: Heretics, Orthodoxy, The Blatchford Controversies
By G.K. Chesterton
Pages: 395 pages
Review Author: Maclin Horton
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.
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