Appeared in 1986, Vol. 12, Nos. 3, 4 Download the PDF here.
Every book has a history and the history of my life is the history of a book: Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. In responding to this invitation to write an appreciation of Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s famous work of apologetics, I find it impossible to do so without turning back to my youth. I have read this Christian classic some eighteen times prior to committing myself to this public tribute to its genius. When I was a boy I often haunted second-hand bookstores. One day I pulled out of a shelf a book called Orthodoxy. I had never heard of the author despite my being a student at a Catholic parochial school but I was intrigued by the title. I still own that copy, red cover stamped in gold, old when I bought it. It is laced with my youthful comments. Fortunately they and that book are far from where I write. Just yesterday I finished reading the work again, now for the first time in two decades or more. I approach this writing assignment with reverence.
Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy some twenty years before he became a Catholic in answer to a dare by Mr. G. S. Street who, having read the earliest Heretics, insisted that he would take G.K.C. seriously only if he stopped attacking other mens’ heresies long enough to define his own orthodoxy. Chesterton picked up the glove cheerfully for, like Dr. Johnson, he quipped, “My doxy is orthodoxy.” It was written thus as an occasional piece of prose to answer a concrete challenge in 1906 and has lived well into the declining years of this century.
Beyond question Orthodoxy has been the most important work in apologetics in the last eighty years, with the possible exception of his The Everlasting Man. The judgment is not only my own: it was that of T. S. Eliot as well. Orthodoxy has been translated into scores of languages and has run through a bewildering procession of editions in English, some of them pivoted. The author soon came to be known as the pre-eminent defender and champion of Catholic orthodoxy and for a time he enjoyed the status of a kind of seer in all things religious. With the general confusion following upon Vatican II, Chesterton and his thought went underground. No longer encouraged reading in Catholic schools and universities, Orthodoxy continues to be read by young and old alike. His vision of the real still remains a keel for thousands of men and women who sail today close-hauled against the gales of a new modernism.
How well does Orthodoxy hold up today, almost eighty years since its first publication? The question must be asked because the Catholic sensibility, if there indeed is such a thing anymore, has shifted radically since 1908, some twenty years before he submitted formally to Rome. What he then believed is summed up, he tells us, in The Apostles Creed. The ad hoc reference to theological opponents are missed today by all except professional historians of Edwardian journalism. Nobody nowadays knows who G. S. Street was or heard of that “Mr. McCabe” who thought Chesterton “a slave because [he] was not allowed to believe in determinism.” Everyone knows something about H.G. Wells but there are not ten men living, I would wager, who ever read a line of “Blatchford’s view of heredity and environment”, and there are certainly not more than twenty in all the world who ever heard of that worthy man unless he read about him in connection with Chesterton and their once famous debate.
Distinguished columnists and television commentators do not debate religious issues in our time and when they are touched upon by professional ecumenists they always are couched in terms of agreement and never of disagreement. We need a powerful and vivid historical imagination to reach back to Edwardian England and the aura of its public controversy: polemical yet gentlemanly. The very period to us has about it all the distant glamour of horse’s hoofs on city streets, the novelty of the electric light, of gentlemen wrapped in splendid capes descending from handsome cabs into the swirling fog of the London of Sherlock Holmes. Such was the world of the young G.K. Chesterton when he penned Orthodoxy and that world is more distant from the modern educated sensibility than the Rome of the Caesars. The journalist – and Chesterton always gloried in being simply a journalist – was a splendid amateur who tried his hand at everything, including religion which, of course, includes everything else. He and his fellow craftsmen wrote essays both popular and formal which were then published in books snatched up by a highly literate middle class whose principal past-time was reading and ruminating on the state of the cosmos. The level of literacy was high. Style was often polished: we need only think of Max Beerbohm and Hilaire Belloc. Even men of letters who never ran down a story in their lives took pride in calling themselves journalists. After all, they all wrote in newspapers that welcomed their essays. In those years a man could make a living simply being a man of letters. In a world still comfortably small, they all knew one another and they sensed the pulse of the larger world which constituted their audience.
Religious controversy was rarely the prerogative of professional theologians and it was a mark of the shrewdness of the age that religion was thought to be utterly too important to leave it to specialists. Chesterton was already a highly respected literary critic, poet, and cartoonist before he penned Orthodoxy. Not a university man, he was educated at Slade’s School in the visual arts. Already known as the maker of monsters and the delight of little people who marvelled at his gnomes, fairies, and knights, Orthodoxy was probably crayoned into existence before it was set down in prose.
I know a man who makes his living by discovering lost cities who, when questioned why he chose such an odd career, answers that he is being faithful to the dreams of a little boy he once knew: himself. So it was with the sketcher of ghoulies and ghosties, of castles and dragons and witches, alchemists and knights. Orthodoxy was the work of a monstrously odd human being. I use these words with reverence and if there be any levity in them he would not object. He always preferred things that flew to those that settled like rocks in a well. God for this man could never have been the Germanic “ground of being” or anything quite so heavy. He might have answered that such a God reminded him of the seat of his pants. Orthodoxy, therefore, is not severely dated. It was the work of a head of gigantic genius – “Oh, Great Head” wrote Hilaire Belloc in a panegyric upon Chesterton’s death in 1936 -screwed on the neck of a child. The man never forgot the boy and since there is something of the boy in all of us at all times he speaks to what is perennially human. Students today, when they know him, adore him. The Christian imagination is just the imagination itself, confirmed and sanctified by the Word of God who answers the call of the word of the heart.
Nonetheless, Orthodoxy can be rough going for a man bent on cool and objective evaluation. The lightening of the thunder of his prose not only overwhelms the critical stance bent on spotting flaws in the reasoning, but the very paradoxes themselves dazzle the intelligence which finally surrenders all distance as it is carried forward through a fun-house of fallacy exposed and truth triumphant. Orthodoxy is Christianity turned into a ferris wheel. Somebody else might have written in a fit of revelation, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead”, but only G.K.C. could have added, “We will have the dead at our counsels … these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.” Or-“to us Trinitarians … God Himself is a society . .. this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside …[it] bewilders the intellect [but] utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.”
The juxtaposition of “desert, dreadful suns, dry places” with “wine and an open English fireside” flanked with “the lonely God” opposed to the Trinitarian “society” is vintage Chesterton. I can think of no better way of describing the technique than in terms of the Thomistic analogy of proper proportionality. This analogy consists of balancing one proportion against a second one and then in affirming that the first is to itself “as is” the second to itself. No univocal or formal similarity is located in any of the four terms and the emergent analogy consists, thus, of a proportion between proportions, a likeness discovered in a difference rather than the mingling of a likeness with a difference. Creatures are alike, says St. Thomas, precisely in that through which they differ, being. Paradoxically, the more intensely I am myself, the more I mirror you, not by copying you but by refracting you. Germany and France would get along better, says Chesterton, if they stopped copying each other and settled down to living their own lives. This kind of analogy, as Marshall McLuhan (a keen Chestertonian) pointed out, is totally unvisualizable although all four terms are themselves captured by the visual imagination. Intelligence spots the analogy. Before Chester–ton, Gerard Manley Hopkins employed the technique in his poetry. Both of them, however, used artistically a structure already operative in the real: each thing is to its existence or being as is every other thing to its being. Existence – as I once insisted in a book by the same title – is paradoxical. Chesterton grasped this truth with amazing vividness and logical precision.
Linked to his use of analogy was his employment of what Hilaire Belloc called parallel argumentation in his incisive The Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters. When Chesterton begins an argument against an opponent with “this is as though” or its equivalent, he then follows up with a parallel from ordinary life which usually devastates his target. Thus the atheist who attacks Christianity for destroying life often glories in denying the immortal life of the soul. Chesterton won’t let him get away with it: if he glories in life he ought to mourn its loss with death; he cannot affirm the one and gloat in the other. The attack against Christianity on all fronts collapses, G.K.C. asserts, because it always involves an assault, implicit or otherwise, against common sense and the logic built thereon. It would be wise for the student of Chesterton to study the interplay of logic and imagination in Orthodoxy. The imagery is always vivid, often wild; but the logic is always implacable. Indeed I have heard one very respectable literary critic, herself a Catholic, grumble against Chesterton because he is too logical, too contrived. His very wit sometimes gets in the way of readers who want him to lapse into a romanticized optimism on the one hand or a dazzling fireworks of dialectical virtuosity on the other. He sometimes leans in the one direction and sometimes in the other, but – as he says in Orthodoxy of a weightier issue – he keeps his balance as might a tightrope walker. Swaying one way and then the other is often the only way to avoid falling into a pit.
These techniques – analogy and parallel argumentation – must be distinguished from the strategy of Orthodoxy. Divided into nine chapters, the first four sketch the author’s youthful affirmation of the mystery and the beauty of human existence and the last five demonstrate how Christianity answers that affirmation. We all remember his English yachtsman who sets off to discover the South Seas and through a miscalculation “discovered England”. Were this discovery of the Faith a key unlocking some peculiarly idiosyncratic personality it would perhaps contain some residual interest for the student of conversion. But this is not quite the case. Although Chesterton couches these chapters in very personal terms, he is really describing a transcendent answer to the psychology of sanity. Christianity meets the longing of every normal human being. In the last analysis the only solid argument against Christianity is that it might be too good to be true. But Chesterton sweeps around this Maurrasian alternative by insisting that the coincidences are too overwhelming to be mere coincidences. He uses here Newman’s argument from “the convergence” of probabilities. In every way the Faith meets the human heart, responds to the unarticulated hunches of the normal man. His praeambula fidei are written on the scroll of the human soul In truth his introduction is “In Defence of Everything Else”:
The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing.
Aiming at the normal man, Chesterton is constrained to talk about his contrary. In “The Maniac” he delineates, with a precision often lacking in the best of therapists, the psychology of insanity. Not any breakdown of logic but its morbid totalitarianism is the mark of the ill man. Even an absent minded stare or the thumbing of fingers on a table take on a sinister import to the paranoid for whom the whole world is a conspiracy. Blocking out the imagination and every trace of mystery, forgetting that life is sloppy and lacks the tidy tightness of mathematics, the logical but insane mind explains everything but explains it all too completely. In so doing honour and charity are stifled and “the dumb certainties of experience . . . we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.” But the materialists of his own time (and, we might add, of our own) proceed as do mad men in their explanation of the universe.
The enemies of the Faith argue “as though” they were crazy. Let the reader note the parallelism discussed earlier. Their determinism is so complete that even that decent modicum of determinism that sanity finds in our world is rendered trivial as it wastes away within a theory that leads equally “to cruelty as it is certain to lead to cowardice.” If the criminal was forced by an inexorable nature to do what he did, there is no reason for us to treat him badly, but then again there is no reason why we should not treat him badly. If there be no reason to act against the tide, there is no reason to praise heroism and denounce pusilanimity. But the normal man does both and he often does both in the teeth of dominant prejudices preaching the contrary. Orthodoxy is as much a defence of the normal man as it is of the normal religion, the religion of Christ. If determinism reflects the insanity of logic gone wild, then idealism is even more guilty in its sin against the human spirit. The man “who believes in himself’- Sartre before Sartre? – and who reduces all being to mere objectivity capable of being manipulated by its human master is well on the way to raging madness. “The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother’s face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell.” But-adds Chesterton -“he did believe in himself.” That such philosophers usually do not end as did Nietzsche, kissing a cow, can be laid down – I presume here to gloss the text – to their being men at bottom despite their theories. Human nature, a very tough business indeed, often keeps the preachers of insanity out of the lunatic asylum. “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.” If the circle of the East – that East so loathed by Chesterton – is “the symbol of reason and madness, we may well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health.” Let the reader note how the master of paradox continues:
As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.
In the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” we encounter a Chesterton who set his mark as a philosopher. In this chapter David Hume and Thomas Aquinas meet in almost a shotgun marriage. Convinced from his childhood that all existence is a weird novelty, that nothing really must repeat itself, that the wisdom of the very young and they alone really sense the magic of repetition in nature as they call on puppets to “do it again” without any of the tedium adults often sense in the recurrence of all things in nature, that only the little ones of the race of men really marvel at the sun’s coming up in the morning when we can imagine it dancing to a cosmic tune of his own making. Chesterton fingered the mystery of existence.
Being can only be affirmed. It can never be domesticated in a concept or pressed into the Procrustean Bed of a scientific law. Without any evidence that Chesterton had ever read Hume, we find the same kind of argumentation in both. Ideas, especially mathematical ideas, necessarily follow one another with an iron and formal rigidity and “laws” made up of ideas simply cannot be thought or imagined to be other than they are. But there is no compelling reason why any one thing should follow another in reality. This is pure Hume and it is pure Chesterton. There is an abyss between a “true law” and the “fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occuring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike.” “We believe [emphasis mine] in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities.” Hume had insisted that the future repetition of the events of nature depended on a”beliep’ based on custom: things have always happened this way in the past and I assume that when one billiard ball strikes a second one that the second ball will begin to move down the green. Continues Orthodoxy, “It is the argument for unalterable law … that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it.” And we bet on it because “a miracle . . . is an exception.”
Children in elfland don’t make the bet because the marvel of existence to them is as fresh as is the novelty of creation’s first day. In truth, both are the same. If Jack in the Box pops up, the child laughs with the same joy the child would experience were Jack to take a walk away from the box or turn into a turtle.
Neither Chesterton nor Hume denied the normal workings of causality in the world but both refused to reduce our knowledge of them to a scientific necessity guaranteed merely by our inability to think the matter otherwise. We cannot think a mathematical demonstration otherwise but can think – and the child can imagine – every matter of fact as being other than it is. Hume wrote in a letter: ” . . . I have never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a Cause: I have only maintain’d that our Certainty of the Falsehood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration: but from another Source.”1
I cannot state with certainty that this strange coincidence between Hume and Chesterton has never been pointed out. I am not an expert in Chestertonian literature but I must assert that I have never seen the curious identity mentioned by anyone. But there it is almost to an identical language! But there has lived in our time one man, himself an avid reader of Chesterton, who wrote of Hume: “The doctrine of David Hume was an existential reaction against abstract metaphysical dreaming. There exist, in concrete reality, such elements as cannot possibly be deduced a priori by any method of analytical reasoning … There is nothing surprising in the fact that, from a given idea, another idea happens to follow, but physical causality is entirely different from abstract causality.”2 The words are those of Etienne Gilson. Both Hume and Chesterton fingered the truth that being in the sense of factual existence simply cannot be predicted infallibly and it cannot even be taken for granted when it is given. For Hume everything was a miracle and therefore there were no miracles. For Chesterton everything was a miracle of one kind or another: recurring miracles are no less miracles for recurring than exceptional miracles. The former looks to God’s creative act in every action in the universe and the latter to his occasional suspension of natural laws which are just as dependent on Him and His Will as are their suspensions. St. Thomas Aquinas looms behind Chesterton’s “Ethics of Elf land” more powerfully than does David Hume but there is no evidence that G.K.C. read Aquinas anymore than Hume at that time in his life. Although he never praised originality for its own sake, his reasoning about physical causality in Orthodoxy is totally his own. Ultimately the intuitions and hints of elfland are confirmed because the most evanescent of things in the world, such as a drop of water falling from an insufficiently shut faucet, depend on God’s creative fiat and that fiat is the Divine Liberty. I am here and now, but I do not have to be: let me thank the Lord for being upon arising every morning! The repetition in nature is not a mere recurrence. It is a “theatrical encore.”
Like bubbles bursting out of a bottle of champagne just uncorked, Chesterton’s argument advances. The sense of the need to salvage the goodness of existence from some primordial catastrophe, suggested in Robinson Crusoe where the list of items saved from the shipwreck is the most poetic thing in the book, adumbrates the awful mystery of original sin, the only doctrine that “needs not be proved” because it is evident. The possibility of failure, moral and otherwise, is the spice making life an adventure and here, once again, the Christian insistence on an ultimate failure, hell makes it all the more important that we win in the end, otherwise the race would not have been a race and man would have been robbed of his liberty. The argument for the existence of hell from the structure of liberty, probably the only rational argument thereon, is stressed heavily by Chesterton. “My happiness hung on a condition.” The refusal of the suicide to face a world which he murders in killing himself, contradicts the child’s delight in the simple truth that the beauty of things resides not in himself but in being itself. Both in turn point to the Christian rejection of pantheism and to its harshness towards the ultimate despair of the suicide, his body run through with a stake at the crossroads. The juxtaposition of fast and feast are hallmarks of sanity. The fixity of doctrine is a fence keeping playing children from tumbling over a precipice, in truth keeps them playing because otherwise they would tremble in a corner of a field that had ceased to be a playing field.
In every instance the Faith meets and exults the common and normal Human Thing. In every case what is not of this world makes it liveable and loveable. In such fashion Chesterton hammers home his thesis. He insists, before confronting Christianity on its own terms that he is the English yachtsman who discovered England. He might have written that Christianity discovered him as its Author made him be. In no writer of my acquaintance is there verified more powerfully that ancient dictum of Tertullian: anima naturaliter christiana. The only real complaint that can be laid against Chesterton is that he is so normal that he seems odd. Frequently attacked for having romanticized the “ordinary man” and the poor of England, Chesterton did lay himself open from time to time to the criticism of having projected upon ordinary folk a wisdom that was really of his own making. He had none of that direct experience of mowing hay with peasants, of sailing with men born to the sea, of serving in an army as a recruit as did his friend Hilaire Belloc whose appreciation of men free and poor was salted with irony and altogether without illusion. But in defense of Chesterton’s insistence on finding in the poor of England a repository of popular wisdom we can say that he gave to that popular wisdom a golden tongue, that he made the dumb speak as they would have spoken only could they have done so.
The chapter “The Paradoxes of Christianity” form a kind of baroque centre to Orthodoxy. The tactic he hit upon here consisted in noting how the enemies of Christianity seem always to be attacking the Faith of Europe from opposite points of view. Noting, as so few writers on matters religious see today, that the chief glory of Christianity – he meant Catholicism but at that moment he did not quite know it, not then – does not consist in its being simple. (I presume he would have abominated the puritanical simplicity and the awareness of contemporary liturgy). There may be simple Christians but their religion is amazingly complex. It is so complex that it can even include simplicity of manners and spirit within itself, provided that the latter behave themselves. “If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right . . . a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.” The bewildering and often apparently conflicting facets of Christianity have given birth to attacks from every conceivable angle. But, insists G.K.C., these attacks tend to cancel themselves. Christianity is accused of being gloomy by some and then it is berated by others for being too jolly. The Faith is called a negation of the joys of paganism and then is damned for being altogether too pagan. “The Quakers (we are told) were the only characteristic Christians and yet Christianity was accused, rightly so, of `always producing wars’. ” Claiming universality and catholicity, Christianity was also called a narrow sect that “practically stopped with Europe.” Exulting women to the heavens, Christianity also – it was claimed – reduced them to slavery. You cannot, Chesterton hammers home, have it both ways. Christianity might be wrong off at the end but Christianity cannot be wrong for the reasons advanced against her because each one of these reasons is contradicted by another one advanced with equal force against her claims. The modem polemic against Christianity does not march forward in one line attempting to crush what to modernity seems her impossible claims. The modern polemics advance from several sides of the field and they collide with one another before even reaching their target. Halfbacks, fullbacks, and no backs at all fall all over one another and the opposing quarterback nimbly dances in for a touchdown. He doesn’t even have to throw a pass.
The polemic deepens in that our author notes that these conflicting enemies of the Church are often guilty themselves of the same sins they hurl against the Faith. We Christians are forever being denounced for not doing what we do all the time and do more fiercely than the advocates of the “doing.” “It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once … been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children.” “Any one might say, `Neither swagger nor grovel’; and it would have been a limit. But to say, `Here you can swagger and there you can grovel’ – that was the emancipation.”
Again Chesterton’s metaphysics seem to urge on us the following proposition: sanity is found in proportion but proportion is not a “happy medium”; proportion is an equilibrium achieved by throwing into tension opposites that otherwise would harden into opposition. Chestertonian paradox is not the reverse of the Hegelian dialectic and hence its ape. An opposition to every dialectic is a contradiction and therefore falls within the dialectic presumably opposed. Where modernity says “yes”, Chesterton does not say “no”; and where modernity says “no,” Chesterton does not say “yes”. (This was to emerge much later on in his life with his Distributist politics). And his “yes” and “no” are not an amalgam or a contradiction of two contradictions: they form a tension in which affirmation and negation are transcended by being absorbed, but absorbed altogether whole and entire. The lion lies down with the lamb but he does not become lamblike. Chivalry at the service of the weak does not make for weakness but for a strength hitherto unknown to this world. Hence Chesterton’s love of the medieval knight. The hair shirt and the gold and crimson of Becket: this is paradox and this is tension, “for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold.” Sanity is not a tranquilizer but is found rather in the tension of opposite drives in man which become fully themselves only when hammered into a juxtaposition with their contraries. Where lines clash they form a cross and then they are free to expand into infinity: the image runs wild through Orthodoxy. And this writer is haunted always by the analogy with St. Thomas Aquinas’ analogy of being.
More than once in Orthodoxy and in other works as well Chesterton tells us that the loadstone, at least philosophically, for his affirmation of the Christian Thing is the doctrine of creation. Glossing his text from the angle of my own bias as a Thomistic metaphysician, I must point out that the doctrine itself is often not thought through to its more astonishing conclusions. The Creator plus His creation do not make two. You need a commensurability for the plus sign. But here there is none. Since God is Being Itself, esse purum, esse tantum, there can be no more esse than He is. He cannot be added to. Were God to “make Being be” rather than making “beings be”, He would create Himself and this last is a patent contradiction. He causes beings (entia) to exist that prior to this act were absolutely nothing at all, not Platonic essences floating in a void commanding His attention because the attention of The Lord God is commanded by nothing at all. To take creation seriously is to assert that between God and His creation there is no commensurability whatsoever, between “To Be” and “that which is” there is an infinite void and even this void is only a human way of expressing the inexpressable. To say there is an infinite distance is to say there is none at all. Thus creation is not a breaking of God into little pieces each of which forms part of a divine mosaic. Nor is creation that Eastern sucking of the life out of the finite by absorbing it into some kind of a cosmic transcendence. Creation is total novelty and hence Chesterton could say, as he once did, that he could demonstrate his allegiance to being by taking his point of departure from a telephone post. We do God no service by reducing Him to a Whiteheadean “process” because whatever there be of being in all process and becoming, in the clash and shove of the world, He already is, but in a super-eminent fashion. In adding nothing to the Being of God, creatures are pre-eminently themselves but their very being is a “being God-like.” Chesterton’s paradox was never commentary on Aquinas’ analogy but is certainly a confirmation. I have known men who came to Chesterton through Aquinas. Personally I came to Aquinas through Chesterton. Their vision of existence is bigger than both of them because it is reality. And, Chesterton teaches us, this is sanity and sanity is romance and romance is orthodoxy. “The Paradoxes of Christianity” end with what might well be the most astonishingly brilliant passage in all English letters:
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy: It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticismo. She swerved left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
Very little is written about the Person of Christ in Orthodoxy. Not five full pages out of some two hundred and ninety eight. Chesterton was always reticent in speaking about Our Lord. Attenuated somewhat in his The Everlasting Man – after all, the book is about Christ – his attitude towards Our Saviour was marked by awe and by shyness. Faithful to his own principle of proportion achieved in balance, in tension, Chesterton seemed frightened that he might violate The First Commandment by reducing the
Lord of Existence to some kind of human category, some idol fashioned by ourselves. In line with this hesitating, Chesterton tells us that Christ never seems to do what we expect He will do. Our anticipation of certain actions attributed to Him by the Gospels is simply due to our having read them so often that we anticipate mechanically what will follow. But if we came to the holy writ as though we had never read it before, when we anticipate thunder from Our Lord we often get the meek Jesus of popular devotion. But when we expect forgiveness and understanding we see Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. We find Him laying it down that He came not to bring peace but a sword and to set father against son. Romano Guardini in his monumental The Lord stated as a principle of scriptural criticism that although Christ is fully a man in His Human Nature, that nature is united hypostatically to the Verbum of God, The Second Person of The Blessed Trinity. He is a Divine Person. Hence he is beyond all typology. We all know that but often we forget when we attempt to turn Him into a pacifist or a chauvinist, a mystic or a moralist, a revolutionary or a reactionary. Unlike many writers today – and not all of them are theologians of “Liberation” – Chesterton is full of awe before His Creator. His adoration turns this wizard of words silent, dumb. We are often told that the fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the wisdom of Chesterton was full as well of mirth. He suggests, almost regretfully, that Christ hid His Mirth from the world. On this note he ends Orthodoxy.
Much more could be written about this book which many praise as the high mark of apologetics in the English language in this century. Others give the palm to The Everlasting Man. It does not matter. They stand together as a witness to The Truth of God and to His Church. Upon his death, Chesterton’s widow received a telegram from Pope Pius XI calling him “Defender of the Faith.” I don’t know if even the Pope got the irony: the only time the title had been given was by a predecessor of his – to Henry VIII. Chesterton would have savored the irony. He sheathed his sword some fifty years ago but it remains today a holy weapon to be drawn from its scabbard by all men who glory in The Catholic Name.
1 David Hume, Letters, ed. J.Y.T. Greig (Oxford University Press, 1932), I, p. 187.
2Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, 1952, p. 121.