Religion and the New Science

"I HAVE NEVER been able to understand why men of science, or men of any sort, should have such a special affection for Disorganised Religion. They would hardly utter cries of hope and joy over the prospect of Disorganised Biology or Disorganised Botany. They would hardly wish to see the whole universe of astronomy disorganised, with no relations, no records, no responsibilities for the fulfillment of this or that function, no reliance on the regularity of this or that law."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, April 12, 1930.

"The appreciation of being"

“GREAT TRUTHS can only be forgotten and can never be falsified.”
-- Illustrated London News, Sept. 30, 1933.

"SEEING TRUTH must mean the appreciation of being by some mind capable of appreciating it. But in a general sense there has entered that primeval world of pure actuality, the division and dilemma that brings the ultimate sort of war into the world; the everlasting duel between Yes and No. This is the dilemma that many sceptics have darkened the universe and dissolved the mind solely in order to escape. They are those who maintain that there is something that is both Yes and No. I do not know whether they pronounce it Yo."
-- St. Thomas Aquinas, VII. 'The Permanent Philosophy.'

~G.K. Chesterton 

"An atheistic literary style"

“AN INTERESTING ESSAY might be written on the possession of an atheistic literary style. There is such a thing. The mark of it is that wherever anything is named or described, such words are chosen as suggest that the thing has not got a soul in it. Thus they will not talk of love or passion, which imply a purpose and a desire. They talk of the “relations” of the sexes, as if they were simply related to each other in a certain way, like a chair and a table. Thus they will not talk of the waging of war (which implies a will), but of the outbreak of war – as if it were a sort of boil. Thus they will not talk of masters paying more or less wages, which faintly suggests some moral responsibility in the masters: they will talk of the rise and fall of wages, as if the thing were automatic, like the tides of the sea. Thus they will not call progress an attempt to improve, but a tendency to improve. And thus, above all, they will not call the sympathy between oppressed nations sympathy; they will call it solidarity. For that suggests brick and coke, and clay and mud, and all the things they are fond of.”

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, Dec. 7, 1912.

Ballade of Kindness to Motorists

O MOTORISTS, motorists, run away and play,
I pardon you. Such exercise resigned,
When would a statesman see the woods in May?
How could a banker woo the western wind?
When you have knocked a dog down I have pined,
When you have kicked the dust up I have sneezed,
These things cone from your absence—well, of Mind—
But when you get a puncture I am pleased.

I love to see you sweating there all day
About some beastly hole you cannot find;
While your poor tenants pass you in a dray,
Or your sad clerks bike by you at a grind,
I am not really cruel or unkind;
I would not wish you mortally diseased,
Or deaf or dumb or dead or mad or blind,
But when you get a puncture I am pleased.

What slave that dare not smile when chairs give way?
When smart boots slip, having been lately shined?
When curates cannon with the coffee tray?
When trolleys take policemen from behind?
When kings come forth in public, having dined,
And palace steps are a trifle greased?—
The joke may not be morbidly refined,
But when you get a puncture I am pleased.


Prince of the Car of Progress Undefined,
On to your Perfections unappeased!
Leave your dead past with its dead children lined;
But when you get a puncture I am pleased.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Coloured Lands.


"The modern world is..."

“THE modern world is a crowd of very rapid racing cars all brought to a standstill and stuck in a block of traffic.”

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, May 29, 1926.

London traffic jam (1901)

"War is a dreadful thing"

"WAR is a dreadful thing; but it does prove two points sharply and unanswerably -- numbers and an unnatural valour. One does discover the two urgent matters; how many rebels there are alive, and how many are ready to be dead."

~G.K. Chesterton:  What's Wrong with the World.


On German Responsibility

“IF the German Emperor was not responsible for war, or if he is anyhow now responsible for government, the proper inference is plain enough—that we should turn our attention to those Germans who now are responsible for government, and consider how far they were formerly responsible for war…. It might be held that it was not so much William Hohenzollern as the Deutscher Kaiser who followed the armies across Belgium and waited in a white uniform at Nancy for the triumph that never came. But it was certainly Herr Scheidemann, as well as a mere member of the Reichstag, who followed the armies into Belgium to whitewash with hypocritical sophistries the most wicked oppression of modern history. It was certainly not necessary for an irresponsible professor of Socialism to go entirely out of his way to excuse and eulogise the chief act of Prussianism. He was not acting as a Socialist, and he was certainly not acting as a Pacifist. But, above all, if he was really acting as democrat, the fact is far from reassuring about the spirit and future of German democracy. If he was really representing those whom he was supposed to represent, we can only deduce that German popular feeling was then, and probably is now, as ambitious and aggressive as German autocratic or aristocratic feeling. If he does not trouble about representing anybody, it is useless to refer us to an improved popular sentiment which he is supposed to represent. The menace to mankind seems to remain the same, whether he was a democrat then or whether he is an oligarch now. But, in any case, I imagine nobody will say that Scheidemann was a medieval, or that he merely professed to be the voice of God. Scheidemann was a modern, and modestly professed to be the voice of Humanity. And the highly practical fact we have to face, if we are not to involve the world in another hideous calamity, is the very simple fact that it is just as easy to massacre men in the name of Man as to burn churches in the name of God. It is as feasible to decree inhumanity in humanitarian language as to decree sacrilege in sacred language. What the deeds of these men will be may remain to be seen. Since they thought such things as the invasion of Belgium consistent with Socialism in opposition, I cannot conceive why they should not think them consistent with Socialism in power.”

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, May 10, 1919.

"His vices were his virtues"

"MEN DID WICKED THINGS in all parts of the world, including the most Christian parts of the world. But they seldom thought they were behaving like Christians. A man broke treaties, trampled on enemies, or betrayed friends, because he was ready to be contemned; he did not expect to be respected. The notion of his being actually admired as a strong man, merely because he behaved like a selfish man, is a notion so new that I can myself remember it rising steadily, like a new religion, in the late Victorian time. I can myself recall the transition in literary fashions from the dull but decent morality of Macaulay to the picturesque but barbarous mysticism of Carlyle. The school of Macaulay would balance the virtues and vices of William Rufus or Warren Hastings; but for the school of Carlyle his vices were his virtues. These great men of letters had long been dead when the process began to penetrate everywhere; but the forms it took everywhere were the more clearly the fashion because they were both variegated and vulgar. We had the praise of the colonial and commercial expansionist, of the imaginative imperial financier—a kind of pawnbroker who not only received stolen goods, but bribed the policeman to steal them. We had plays and novels about the strong-minded employer of labour, who seemed to think himself astonishingly virile because he could manage to starve a man in a siege, when he would never venture to hit him in a fight."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, Dec. 15, 1917.


"The internationalist and the imperialist"

"THE internationalist and the imperialist are not only similar men, but even the same men. There is no country which the Imperialist may not claim to conquer in order to convert. There is no country which the Internationalist may not claim to convert in order to conquer. Whether it is called international law or imperial law, it is the very soul and essence of all lawlessness. Against all such amorphous anarchy stands that great and positive creation of Christendom, the nation, with its standards of liberty and loyalty, with its limits of reason and proportion."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, Oct. 5, 1918.

"If St. John the Baptist had wished to avoid being beheaded"

"THE HISTORICAL CASE for the Resurrection is that everybody else, except the Apostles, had every possible motive to declare what they had done with the body, if anything had been done with it. The Apostles might have hidden it in order to announce a sham miracle, but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham. In the case of the Apostles' testimony, the general circumstances suggest that it is true. In the case of the Arabian tale, the general circumstances avow and proclaim that it is false. For we are told in the book itself that all the stories were told by a woman merely to amuse the king and distract his attention from the idea of cutting off her head. A romancer in this personal situation is not very likely to confine herself strictly to humdrum accuracy, and it would be impossible more plainly to warn the reader that all the tales are taradiddles. In the one case, then, we have witnesses who not only think the thing true, but do veritably think it is as true as death, or truer than death. They therefore prefer death to the denial of its truth. In the other case we have a story-teller who, in trying to avoid death, has every motive to tell lies. If St. John the Baptist had wished to avoid being beheaded, and had saved his life by inventing a long string of Messianic or Early Christian legends on the spur of the moment, in order to hold the attention of King Herod, I should not regard any "resurrection myth" he might tell as a strong historical argument for the Resurrection. But, as the Apostles were killed as St. John was killed, I think their evidence cannot be identified by sound scholarship as a portion of the Arabian Nights."

~G.K. Chesterton:  As I Was Saying, X. 'About Beliefs'.

St. John the Baptist, by Pietro Bernini.
Marble, 1612-15; Sant'Andrea della Valle, Rome.

"To decree inhumanity in humanitarian language"

"IT IS just as easy to massacre men in the name of Man as to burn churches in the name of God. It is as feasible to decree inhumanity in humanitarian language as to decree sacrilege in sacred language."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, May 10, 1919.


"The only defensible war"

"IT IS NOT the point to put wild and visionary questions about whether the world has been vastly improved by the War; whether Utopia or the New Jerusalem have come out of the War; to ask in that apocalyptic fashion what has come out of the War. We have come out of the War, and come out alive; England and Europe have come out of the War, with all their sins on their heads, confused, corrupted, degraded; but not dead. The only defensible war is a war of defence. And a war of defence, by its very definition and nature, is one from which a man comes back battered and bleeding and only boasting that he is not dead."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Autobiography.

"The Barbarian"

"The Barbarian is very little affected by the flag under which he marches to slay and spoil. For practical purposes the Barbarian is the man who does not believe in chivalry in war or charity in peace; and, above all, who does not believe in modesty in anything."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, July 31, 1920.

“The war upon life, the denial of nature”

“THE Church was not a Manichean movement if only because it was not a movement at all. It was not even merely an ascetical movement, because it was not a movement at all. It would be nearer the truth to call it the tamer of asceticism than the mere leader or loosener of it. It was a thing having its own theory of asceticism, its own type of asceticism, but most conspicuous at the moment as the moderator of other theories and types. This is the only sense that can be made, for instance, of the story of St. Augustine. As long as he was a mere man of the world, a mere man drifting with his time, he actually was a Manichean. It really was quite modern and fashionable to be a Manichean. But when he became a Catholic, the people he instantly turned on and rent in pieces were the Manicheans. The Catholic way of putting it is that he left off being a pessimist to become an ascetic. But as the pessimists interpreted asceticism, it ought to be said that he left off being an ascetic to become a saint. The war upon life, the denial of nature, were exactly the things he had already found in the heathen world outside the Church, and had to renounce when he entered the Church. The very fact that St. Augustine remains a somewhat sterner or sadder figure than St. Francis or St. Teresa only accentuates the dilemma. Face to face with the gravest or even grimmest of Catholics, we can still ask, 'Why did Catholicism make war on Manichees, if Catholicism was Manichean?'"

~G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man.

Polyptych of St. Augustine, St. Augustine, by Piero Dello Francesca.
Tempera on panel, c. 1465; Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.

"Life is so short"

"PESSIMISM says that life is so short that it gives nobody a chance; religion says that life is so short that it gives everybody his final chance."

~G.K. Chesterton: Introduction to Nicholas Nickleby.


"It is not enough of a city"

“THE modern city is ugly not because it is a city but because it is not enough of a city, because it is a jungle, because it is confused and anarchic, and surging with selfish and materialistic energies.”

~G.K. Chesterton:  Lunacy and Letters.

"The ultimate question"

"Mr. H. G. Wells has confessed to being a prophet; and in this matter he was a prophet at his own expense. It is curious that his first fairy-tale was a complete answer to his last book of history. The Time Machine destroyed in advance all comfortable conclusions founded on the mere relativity of time. In that sublime nightmare the hero saw trees shoot up like green rockets, and vegetation spread visibly like a green conflagration, or the sun shoot across the sky from east to west with the swiftness of a meteor. Yet in his sense these things were quite as natural when they went swiftly; and in our sense they are quite as supernatural when they go slowly. The ultimate question is why they go at all; and anybody who really understands that question will know that it always has been and always will be a religious question; or at any rate a philosophical or metaphysical question. And most certainly he will not think the question answered by some substitution of gradual for abrupt change; or, in other words by a merely relative question of the same story being spun out or rattled rapidly through, as can be done with any story at a cinema by turning a handle."

~G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man.

"The nameless gradation in Nature"

“EVOLUTIONISTS cannot drive us, because of the nameless gradation in Nature, to deny the personality of God, for a personal God might as well work by gradations as in any other way.”

~G.K. Chesterton:  Lunacy and Letters.


"If evolution simply means..."

"IF evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Orthodoxy.

"The old tyranny of money"

"MEANWHILE, as the Malthusian attack on democratic hopes slowly stiffened and strengthened all the reactionary resistance to reform in this country, other forces were already in the field. I may remark in passing that Malthus, and his sophistry against all social reform, did not stand alone. It was one of a whole class of scientific excuses invented by the rich as reasons for denying justice to the poor, especially when the old superstitious glamour about kings and nobles had faded in the nineteenth century. One was talking about the Iron Laws of Political Economy, and pretending that somebody had proved somewhere, with figures on a slate, that injustice is incurable. Another was a mass of brutal nonsense about Darwinism and a struggle for life, in which the devil must catch the hindmost. As a fact it was struggle for wealth, in which the devil generally catches the foremost. They all had the character of an attempt to twist the new tool of science to make it a weapon for the old tyranny of money."

~G.K. Chesterton:
Social Reform vs Birth Control

"The agony of agnosticism"

"AND unfortunately doubt and caution are the last things commonly encouraged by the loose evolutionism of current culture. For that culture is full of curiosity; and the one thing that it cannot endure is the agony of agnosticism. It was in the Darwinian age that the word first became known and the thing first became impossible."

~G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man.


"A third mystery"

"NO philosopher denies that a mystery still attaches to the two great transitions: the origin of the universe itself and the origin of the principle of life itself. Most philosophers have the enlightenment to add that a third mystery attaches to the origin of man himself. In other words, a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable when there came into the world what we call reason and what we call will. Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution."

~G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man.


"The essence of the Thomist common sense"

THAT strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrary of that false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream. This is for the poet the strangeness of stones and trees and solid things; they are strange because they are solid. I am putting it first in the poetical manner, and indeed it needs much more technical subtlety to put it in the philosophical manner. According to Aquinas, the object becomes a part of the mind; nay, according to Aquinas, the mind actually becomes the object. But, as one commentator acutely puts it, it only becomes the object and does not create the object. In other words, the object is an object; it can and does exist outside the mind, or in the absence of the mind. And therefore it enlarges the mind of which it becomes a part. The mind conquers a new province like an emperor; but only because the mind has answered the bell like a servant. The mind has opened the doors and windows, because it is the natural activity of what is inside the house to find out what is outside the house. If the mind is sufficient to itself, it is insufficient for itself. For this feeding upon fact is itself; as an organ it has an object which is objective; this eating of the strange strong meat of reality.

Note how this view avoids both pitfalls; the alternative abysses of impotence. The mind is not merely receptive, in the sense that it absorbs sensations like so much blotting-paper; on that sort of softness has been based all that cowardly materialism, which conceives man as wholly servile to his environment. On the other hand, the mind is not purely creative, in the sense that it paints pictures on the windows and then mistakes them for a landscape outside. But the mind is active, and its activity consists in following, so far as the will chooses to follow, the light outside that does really shine upon real landscapes. That is what gives the indefinably virile and even adventurous quality to this view of life; as compared with that which holds that material inferences pour in upon an utterly helpless mind, or that which holds that psychological influences pour out and create an entirely baseless phantasmagoria. In other words, the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is very truly a marriage, because it is fruitful; the only philosophy now in the world that really is fruitful. It produces practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact.

M. Maritain has used an admirable metaphor, in his book Theonas, when he says that the external fact fertilises the internal intelligence, as the bee fertilises the flower. Anyhow, upon that marriage, or whatever it may be called, the whole system of St. Thomas is founded; God made Man so that he was capable of coming in contact with reality; and those whom God hath joined, let no man put asunder

~G.K. Chesterton:  St. Thomas Aquinas, VIII.


"The legitimate short cuts to the love of God"

"Mary and the Convert is the most personal of topics, because conversion is something more personal and less corporate than communion; and involves isolated feelings as an introduction to collective feelings. But also because the cult of Mary is in a rather peculiar sense a personal cult; over and above that greater sense that must always attach to the worship of a personal God. God is God, Maker of all things visible and invisible; the Mother of God is in a rather special sense connected with things visible; since she is of this earth, and through her bodily being God was revealed to the senses.  In the presence of God, we must remember what is invisible, even in the sense of what is merely intellectual; the abstractions and the absolute laws of thought; the love of truth, and the respect for right reason and honourable logic in things, which God himself has respected.  For, as St. Thomas Aquinas insists, God himself does not contradict the law of contradiction. But Our Lady, reminding us especially of God Incarnate, does in some degree gather up and embody all those elements of the heart and the higher instincts, which are the legitimate short cuts to the love of God."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Well and the Shallows.

Madonna of the Magnificat (Madonna del Magnificat), by Sandro Botticelli.
Tempera on panel, 1480-81; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


On the Renaissance

IN ROME a man feels suddenly the paradox of the Renaissance. It was a Christian miracle if it called up a Pagan god.  It was in itself a Christian notion that, if the dead could return, they would not be shadows from Hades, but human beings from Heaven or Hell. But as a fact, of course, the god who rose again was not pagan. He could not be, since he was carved by Christians, even by bad and blasphemous Christians.  Something that had not been in heathen antiquity had entered the very blood and bones of the human race; and it entered equally into the stone and clay of all that the human race could make.  Without it, even the worst of men would now have felt suddenly cold and strange, like fishes, or, rather, like fossils. To be a Greek god was as impossible as to be a fossil, though both might be beautiful mouldings or even beautiful models in stone. To be completely heathen was no longer to be completely human.

The examples are obvious.  Many people must have pointed out that Michelangelo was really more like Michael the Angel than Apollo the Archer.  It was not for nothing that his very name is Hebrew and Greek as well as Italian.  Every one must have noticed that there is, in some mysterious way, more colour in the monochrome marbles and bronzes of the Renaissance than in many of the cold, clay-like pigments that were called colours in the pagan houses of Pompeii.  Even where the work is materially a matter of light and shade, it is not something put down in black and white: the light is richer and the shadow glows.  Of course, a great part of the problem here is connected with modern religious controversies. Because modern pagans wanted to go back to paganism, in the sense of destroying Christianity, they said that the sixteenth-century artists wanted it too, though there was not one of them that would not have drawn a sword or dagger and destroyed the critic who told him that he wanted to destroy the Cross.  Benvenuto Cellini would have been as prompt as Giotto; for the Christian Church is not made for good men, but for men.

The difficulty of history is that historians seldom see the simple things, or even the obvious things, because they are too simple and obvious. It is sometimes said of the pictures of the Renaissance artists, especially of the pictures of Rubens, that we ought to stand far back in order to take in the whole stupendous design, and not be annoyed because some detail is technically careless or emotionally coarse.  It is probably true of more than one Renaissance picture of the Resurrection; and it is certainly true of that general Resurrection that is called the Renaissance. There has been too much bickering over bits of the astonishing business; too much casuistry about whether this or that painter in this or that point surrendered to heathenism, or merely to human nature. The whole story consists of two staggering truths.  First, that these men did really raise the dead.  They did call up all heathenism, which might seem about as safe as calling up all hell. And, second, that they did really in a manner convert and christen the dead; that they did baptize all that bodily manifestation and materialization into the body of Christ.  Even when it had been and was no more, it did become something that it had not been. They paraded before the world a wild hypothetical pageant of what old Greece and Rome would have been if they had not been pagan. To do this with any dead society is an amazing achievement. To copy the old body in any case is amazing; to copy the old body, and also put in a new soul, is amazing beyond praise, beyond question, and certainly beyond quibbling.  The fact is so familiar that it has ceased to amaze; the only chance of conveying it would be to take some fantastic parallel in modern and ancient things. We should be mildly surprised to hear that the English in Egypt had reconstructed for themselves the ancient Egyptian civilization; that all the proclamations of Lord Lloyd had been carved on obelisks in Egyptian hieroglyphics; that Lord Cromer had been preserved on the premises in the form of a mummy; or that Lord Kitchener at Cairo had religiously gone the round of worshipping a series of stuffed cats. But we should be surprised, with something less of mildness, if we were told that all this was done in such a way as to cause no embarrassment, or even amusement, to the English gentlemen who were doing it; and who managed to do it without the least sense that their code of manners was altered, or that their religion, when they had any, was suffering neglect.  Just as it would be a remarkable thing for men to become ancient Egyptians and yet remain modern Englishmen, so it was a remarkable thing when these men became ancient Greeks and yet remained medieval Christians.

There are many morals to the story; but one must be manifest in the mere word I have used.  If the medieval religion had really been such a silly superstition as some of its simpler enemies represent, it quite certainly would have been swallowed up for ever in such an earthquake of enlightenment as the great Renaissance. The fact that the vision of a superb and many-sided human culture did not disturb the fundamental ideas of these late medieval Christians has a simple explanation:  that the ideas are true. The application of these true ideas in medieval times had been very much hampered by local ignorance and feudal prejudice. But the truths were so true that they would have survived, in really thinking men, through ten Renaissances and twenty Revivals of Learning.  We see this vividly in the intensely intellectual character of the religious conviction in men like Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci.  Nobody knew better than they that Christianity is really wiser, and even wider, than Paganism; that Aquinas was not only better but broader than Aristotle. Not from such men came the clumsy denials of the deep dogmas of the Faith.  Michelangelo was not the man to dispute that the truly divine humanity would be crucified; nor could Raphael be reckoned on for a breezy protest against the respect felt for the Madonna. But if the whole thing had been a dirty asceticism of the desert, the mere monkey tricks of the Manichees, it would have fallen like filthy rags from men who had seen the grace of the Greek athletes. If it had been only a worship of dolls with tinsel crowns, it would have looked a paltry and pygmy affair in the presence of the great head of Jupiter.  But the real men of the Renaissance knew that, as a matter of fact, there was much more humanity in the rules for the brethren gathered by St. Francis than in the rules for the boys beaten before the altar of Diana; and that, as a matter of fact, the Church had a much more logical idea about the exact position of Jesus in Heaven than the heathens had ever had about the exact position of Jupiter on Olympus. It was the intellectual value of the creed that preserved it through any revolution of aesthetic values, just as it preserves it still amid the wildest changes in aesthetic taste to-day. Michelangelo went on being a Christian then, just as Mr. Eric Gill goes on being a Christian now, because a man may be original without being separated from the origins; and because a man may be able to think, even if he can also draw.

I would not be provocative, but I think this rather neglected truth is due to these great artists, when so many people imagine them to have been Pagans and some can even imagine them as Puritans. It seems clear to me that those despised medieval superstitions, suited only for barbarians like Dante and St. Francis, were exactly the ideas that did remain rooted in the most civilized centres of the world, when they were disputed in the more barbarous provinces. When we consider how exciting the destructive quest of the intellect really is (though it is generally people totally devoid of intellect who say so), it is really rather remarkable that there was comparatively so little of it in these great adventurers, who were devoted to the creative quest of the imagination. When we consider how wild they often were in the matter of morals (though it is generally the sort of moderns who have no morals at all who darkly denounce the immorality of these later men of the medieval decline) it is really rather remarkable that they kept as much as they did of the faith from which the morals grew--or ought to have grown.  When we consider that it really is a fact (though the first fool in the street will tell you so) that scepticism had begun to appear here and there even among priests and bishops, it is really singular, upon the balance, that it had not appeared more among painters and sculptors. We may talk, as they sometimes may have talked, about reviving the gods of Greece.  But Moses is Moses and David is David, and a Pagan would have stood puzzled before them.

~G.K. Chesterton:  All is Grist, Essay XXV.

Pietà, by Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Marble, 1499; Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican.

"Love is not blind"

"LOVE is not blind; that is the last thing it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy.


"Dickens...refused to love all opinions"

"I HAVE heard that in some debating clubs there is a rule that the members may discuss anything except religion and politics. I cannot imagine what they do discuss; but it is quite evident that they have ruled out the only two subjects which are either important or amusing. The thing is a part of a certain modern tendency to avoid things because they lead to warmth; whereas, obvious]y, we ought, even in a social sense, to seek those things specially. The warmth of the discussion is as much a part of hospitality as the warmth of the fire. And it is singularly suggestive that in English literature the two things have died together. The very people who would blame Dickens for his sentimental hospitality are the very people who would also blame him for his narrow political conviction. The very people who would mock him for his narrow radicalism are those who would mock him for his broad fireside. Real conviction and real charity are much nearer than people suppose. Dickens was capable of loving all men; but he refused to love all opinions. The modern humanitarian can love all opinions, but he cannot love all men; he seems, sometimes, in the ecstasy of his humanitarianism, even to hate them all. He can love all opinions, including the opinion that men are unlovable."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, Ch. XVII, "Hard Times."

Charles Dickens


"We have lost our way"

“THE FALSE optimism, the modern happiness, tires us because it tells us we fit into this world. The true happiness is that we don’t fit. We come from somewhere else. We have lost our way.”

~G.K. Chesterton:  Tremendous Trifles.


A Song of Gifts to God

WHEN the first Christmas presents came, the straw where Christ was rolled
Smelt sweeter than their frankincense, burnt brighter than their gold,
And a wise man said, "We will not give; the thanks would be but cold."

"Nay," said the next, "To all new gifts, to this gift or another,
Bends the high gratitude of God; even as He now, my brother,
Who had a Father for all time, yet thanks Him for a Mother.

"Yet scarce for Him this yellow stone or prickly-smells and sparse.
Who holds the gold heart of the sun that fed these timber bars,
Nor any scentless lily lives for One that smells the stars."

Then spake the third of the Wise Men; the wisest of the three:
"We may not with the widest lives enlarge His liberty,
Whose wings are wider than the world. It is not He, but we.

"We say not He has more to gain, but we have more to lose.
Less gold shall go astray, we say, less gold, if thus we choose,
Go to make harlots of the Greeks and hucksters of the Jews.

"Less clouds before colossal feet redden in the under-light,
To the blind gods from Babylon less incense burn to-night,
To the high beasts of Babylon, whose mouths make mock of right."

Babe of the thousand birthdays, we that are young yet grey,
White with the centuries, still can find no better thing to say,
We that with sects and whims and wars have wasted Christmas Day.

Light Thou Thy censer to Thyself, for all our fires are dim,
Stamp Thou Thine image on our coin, for Caesar's face grows dim,
And a dumb devil of pride and greed has taken hold of him.

We bring Thee back great Christendom, churches and towns and towers.
And if our hands are glad, O God, to cast them down like flowers,
'Tis not that they enrich Thine hands, but they are saved from ours.

~G.K. Chesterton

Poem: How far is it to Bethlehem?


How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?

Can we see the little Child?
Is He within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?

May we stroke the creatures there
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
Jesus asleep?

If we touch His tiny hand
Will He awake?
Will He know we’ve come so far
Just for His sake?

Great kings have precious gifts
And we have naught
Little smiles and little tears
Are all we have brought.

For all weary children
Mary must weep
Here, on His bed of straw
Sleep, children, sleep.

God in His mother’s arms
Babes in the byre
Sleep, as they sleep who find
Their heart’s desire.

~Frances A. Chesterton

"How far is it to Bethlehem?" at ACS
At Amazon
A Brief Introduction to G.K. Chesterton’s Beloved Wife,
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In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton
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Anti-Religious Thought in the Eighteenth Century

THE ECLIPSE of Christian theology during the rationalist advance of the eighteenth century is one of the most interesting of historical episodes. In order to see it clearly, we must first realize that it was an episode and that it is now historical. It may be stating it too strongly to say that it is now dead; it is perhaps enough to say that it is now distant and yet distinct; that it is divided from our own time as much as any period of the past. Neither reason nor faith will ever die; for men would die if deprived of either. The wildest mystic uses his reason at some stage; if it be only by reasoning against reason. The most incisive sceptic has dogmas of his own; though when he is a very incisive sceptic, he has often forgotten what they are. Faith and reason are in this sense co-eternal; but as the words are popularly used, as loose labels for particular periods, the one is now almost as remote as the other. What was called the Age of Reason has vanished as completely as what are called the Ages of Faith.

It is essential to see this fact first, because if we do not see its limitations we do not see its outline. It has nothing to do with which period we prefer, or even which we think right. A rationalist is quite entitled to look back to the eighteenth century as a golden age of good sense, as the medievalist looks back to the thirteenth century as a golden age of good faith. But he must look back, and look back across an abyss. We may like or dislike the atmosphere of the modern world, with its intense interest in anything that is called psychological, and in much that is called psychical. We may think that speculation has gone more deep or that it has grown more morbid. We may like or dislike the religions of faith-healing or spirit-rapping; or a hundred other manifestations of the same mood, in fields quite remote from the supernatural or even the spiritual. We may like or dislike, for instance, that vast modern belief in "the power of suggestion" expressed in advertising or publicity and educational methods of all sorts. We may like or dislike the appeal to the non-rational element; the perpetual talk about the Sub-conscious Mind or the Race Memory or the Herd Instinct. We may deplore or we may admire all these developments. But we must fix it in our minds as a historical fact that to any one of the great 'Infidels' or Freethinkers of the eighteenth century, this whole modern world of ours would seem a mere madhouse. He might almost be driven, in pursuit of the reasonable, to take refuge in a monastery.

We are dealing therefore with an episode and even an interlude; though the man who likes it has as much right to say that it was an hour of happy daylight between the storms as a Christian has to say it of primitive Christianity or medieval Christendom. From about the time that Dryden died a Catholic to about the time that Newman began to write a little less like a Protestant, there was a period during which the spirit of philosophy filling men's minds was not positively Protestant any more than it was positively Catholic. It was rationalist even in Protestants and Catholics; in a Catholic like Pope or a Protestant like Paley. But it can be seen at the clearest when the last clinging traditions or presences were dropped; when the most stolid specimen of the Protestant middle classes is found busily scribbling sneers in the footnotes and even the index of a great history of the Fall of Rome; when a brilliant pupil going forth out of the Jesuit seminary turns back over his shoulder the terrible face of Voltaire.

In order to exhibit the essential quality, let us first compare the period with that which preceded it. Touching its historical causes, no man with a sense of human complexity will offer anything but contributory causes. But I think there are contributory causes that have been strangely overlooked. On the face of it, it refers back to the Renaissance, which refers back to the old pagan world. On the face of it, it also refers back to the Reformation, though chiefly in its negative aspect or branch in the old Christian world. But both these things are connected with a third, that has not, I think, been adequately realized. And that is a feeling which can only be called futility. It arose out of the disproportion between the dangers and agonies of the religious wars and the really unreasonable compromise in which they ended; cujus regio ejus religio: which may be translated, "Let every State establish its State Church", but which did mean in the Renaissance epoch, "Let the Prince do what he likes."

The seventeenth century ended with a note of interrogation. Pope, the poet of reason, whom some thought too reasonable to be poetical, was once compared to a question mark, because he was a crooked little thing that asked questions. The seventeenth century was not little, but it was in some ways crooked, in the sense of crabbed. But anyhow it began with the ferocious controversies of the Puritans and it ended with a question. It was an open question, but it was also an open wound. It was not only that the end of the seventeenth century was of all epochs the most inconclusive. It was also, it must be remembered, inconclusive upon a point which people had always hoped to see concluded. To use the literal sense of the word 'conclude', they expected the wound to close. We naturally tend to miss this point today. We have had nearly four hundred years of divided Christianity and have grown used to it; and it is the Reunion of Christendom that we think of as the extraordinary event. But they still thought the Disunion of Christendom an extraordinary event. Neither side had ever really expected it to remain in a state of Disunion. All their traditions for a thousand years were of some sort of union coming out of controversy, ever since a united religion had spread all over a united Roman Empire. From a Protestant standpoint, the natural thing was for Protestantism to conquer Europe as Christianity had conquered Europe. In that case the success of the counter-Reformation would be only the last leap of a dying flame like the last stand of Julian the Apostate. From a Catholic standpoint the natural thing was for Catholicism to reconquer Europe, as it had more than once reconquered Europe; in that case the Protestant would be like the Albigensians: a passing element ultimately reabsorbed. But neither of these natural things happened. Prussia and the other Protestant principalities fought against Austria as the heir of the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years War. They fought each other to a standstill. It was utterly and obviously hopeless to make Austria Protestant or Prussia Roman Catholic. And from the moment when that fact was realized the nature of the whole world was changed. The rock had been cloven and would not close up again, and in the crack or chasm a new sort of strange and prickly weed began to grow. The open wound festered.

We have all heard it said that the Renaissance was produced or precipitated by the Fall of Constantinople. It is true in a sense perhaps more subtle than is meant. It was not merely that it let loose the scholars from the Byzantine Court. It was also that it let loose the sceptical thoughts of the scholars, and of a good many other people when they saw this last turn of the tide in the interminable strife between Christ and Mahomet. The war between Islam and Christendom had been inconclusive. The war between the Reformation and the counter-Reformation was inconclusive. And I for one fancy that the former fact had a good deal to do with the full sceptical expansion of the eighteenth century. When men saw the Crescent and the Cross tossed up alternately as a juggler tosses balls, it was difficult for many not to think that one might be about as good or bad as the other when they saw the Protestant and the Catholic go up and down on the seesaw of the Thirty Years War. Many were disposed to suspect that it was six to one and half-a-dozen to the other. This addition involved an immense subtraction; and two religions came to much less than one. Many began to think that, as they could not both be true, they might both be false. When that thought had crossed the mind the reign of the rationalist had begun.

The thought, as an individual thought, had of course begun long before. It is, in fact, as old as the world; and it is quite obviously as old as the Renaissance. In that sense the father of the modern world is Montaigne; that detached and distinguished intelligence which, as Stevenson said, saw that men would soon find as much to quarrel with in the Bible as they had in the Church. Erasmus and Rabelais and even Cervantes had their part; but in these giants there was still a great gusto of subconscious conviction, still Christian; they mocked at the lives of men, but not at the life of man. But Montaigne was something more revolutionary than a revolutionist; he was a relativist. He would have told Cervantes that his knight was not far wrong in thinking puppets were men, since men are really puppets. He would have said that windmills were as much giants as anything else; and that giants would be dwarfs if set beside taller giants. This doubt, some would say this poison in its original purity, did begin to work under the surface of society from the time of Montaigne onwards and worked more and more towards the surface as the war of religions grew more and more inconclusive. There went with it a spirit that may truly be called humane. But we must always remember that even its refreshing humanity had a negative as well as a positive side. When people are no longer in the mood to be heroic, after all, it is only human to be humane. Some men were really tolerant, but others were merely tired. When people are tired of the subject, they generally agree to differ.

But against this clear mood, as against a quiet evening sky, there stood up the stark and dreadful outlines of the old dogmatic and militant institutions. Institutions are machines; they go on working under any sky and against any mood. And the clue to the next phase is the revolt against their revolting incongruity. The engines of war, the engines of torture, that had belonged to the violent crises of the old creeds, remained rigid and repellent; all the more mysterious for being old and sometimes even all the more hideous for being idle. Men in that mellow mood of doubt had no way of understanding the fanaticism and the martyrdom of their fathers. They knew nothing of medieval history or of what a united Christendon had once meant to men. They were like children horrified at the sight of a battlefield.

Take the determining example of the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was Spy Fever. It produced the sort of horrors such fevers produce; to some extent even in modern wars. The Spaniards had reconquered Spain from Islam with a glowing endurance and defiance as great as any virtue ever shown by man; but they had the darker side of such warfare; they were always struggling to deracinate a Jewish plot which they believed to be always selling them to the enemy. Of this dark tale of perverted patriotism the humanitarians knew nothing. All they knew was that the Inquisition was still going on. And suddenly the great Voltaire rose up and shattered it with a hammer of savage laughter. It may seem strange to compare Voltaire to a child. But it is true that though he was right in hating and destroying it, he never knew what it was that he had destroyed.

There was born in that hour a certain spirit, which the Christian spirit should be large enough to cover and understand. In relation to many things it was healthy, though in relation to some things it was shallow. We may be allowed to associate it with the jolly uncle who does not believe in ghosts. It had an honourable expression in the squires and parsons who put down the persecution of witches. The uncle is not always just to Spiritualists; but he is rather a comfort on a dark night. The squire did not know all there is to know about diabolism, but he did stop many diabolical fears of diabolism. And if we are to understand history, that is humanity, we must sympathize with this breezy interlude in which it seemed natural for humanity to be humane.

The mention of the squire is not irrelevant; there was in that humanity something of unconscious aristocracy. One of the respects in which the rational epoch was immeasurably superior to our own was in the radiant patience with which it would follow a train of thought. But it is only fair to say that in this logic there was something of leisure, and indeed we must not forget how much of the first rational reform of the age came from above. It was a time of despots who were also deists or even, like Frederick the Great, practically atheists. But Frederick was sometimes humanitarian if he was never human. Joseph of Austria, offending his people by renouncing religious persecution, was very like a squire offending the village by repressing witch-burning. But in considering the virtues of the age, we must not forget that it had a very fine ideal of honourable poverty; the Stoic idea of Jefferson and Robespierre. It also believed in hard work, and worked very hard in the details of reform. A man like Bentham toiled with ceaseless tenacity in attacking abuse after abuse. But people hardly realized that his utilitarianism was creating the new troubles of Capitalism, any more than that Frederick of Prussia was making the problem of modern militarism.

Perhaps the perfect moment of every mortal thing is short, even of mortal things dealing with immortal, as was the best moment of the Early Church or the Middle Ages. Anyhow the best moment of rationalism was very short. Things always overlap, and Bentham and Jefferson inherited from something that had already passed its prime. Not for long did man remain in that state of really sane and sunny negation. For instance, having covered the period with the great name of Voltaire, I may well be expected to add the name of Rousseau. But even in passing from one name to the other, we feel a fine shade of change which is not mere progression. The rationalist movement is tinged with the romantic movement, which is to lead men back as well as forward. They are asked to believe in the General Will, that is the soul of the people; a mystery. By the time the French Revolution is passed, it is elemental that things are loose that have not been rationalized. Danton has said, "It is treason to the people to take away the dream". Napoleon has been crowned, like Charlemagne, by a Pope. And when the dregs of Diderot's bitterness were reached; when they dragged the Goddess of Reason in triumph through Notre Dame, the smouldering Gothic images could look down on that orgy more serenely then than when Voltaire began to write; awaiting their hour. The age was ended when these men thought it was beginning. Their own mystical maenad frenzy was enough to prove it: the goddess of Reason was dead.

One word may be added, to link up the age with many other ages. It will be noted that it is not true, as many suppose, that the rational attack on Christianity came from the modern discoveries in material science. It had already come, in a sense it had already come and gone, before these discoveries really began. They were pursued persistently partly through a tradition that already existed. But men were not rationalistic because they were scientists. Rather they became scientists because they were rationalists. Here as everywhere the soul of man went first, even when it denied itself.

~G.K. Chesterton: From The Spice of Life and Other Essays.
Originally a contribution to An Outline of Christianity; the Story of our Civilization. Vol. IV. Christianity and Modern Thought, 1926. The Waverley Book Co., London.)

"The Higher Culture...is quite fleeting"

"THE Higher Culture to which I was referring is a quite fleeting and fundamentally caddish sort of culture, filling up the gap which everyone has felt since we gave up real religion and real politics; since we gave up thinking about God and fighting about man."

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, May 12, 1906.


Poem: Here is the Little Door

HERE is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold,
Gold that was never bought nor sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about his head;
All for the Child who stirs not in his sleep.
But holy slumber holds with ass and sheep.

Bend low about his bed, for each he has a gift;
See how his eyes awake, lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, he gives a keen-edged sword
(Defend with it Thy little Lord!),
For incense, smoke of battle red.
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for his children terrible and sweet,
Touched by such tiny hands and
Oh such tiny feet.

~Frances Chesterton

"Seven swords were in her heart"

ONE instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly—
But she was a queen of men.

Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart—
But one was in her hand.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Ballad of the White Horse, Bk. VI

Mater Dolorosa, by Titian. Oil on marble, 1553-1554;
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

In October

WHERE are they gone that did delight in honour
Abrupt and absolute as an epic ends,
What light of the Last Things, like death at morning,
Crowns the true lovers and the tragic friends?

Young priests with eager faces bright as eagles,
Poor scholars of the harp-string, strict and strong,
All the huge thirst of things irrevocable
And all the intolerant innocence that died young.

The dark largesse of the last gesture flinging
The glove in challenge or gold in sacrifice—
Where are they gone that had delight in honour,
That the world grows so greedy and so wise?

Vow and averted head and high refusal
Clean as the chasm where the dawn burns white,
Where shall they go that have delight in honour
When all men honour nothing but delight?

Out of the infinite came Finality,
Freedom that makes unfathomably sure,
For only a wind of all the widest windows
Can close with such a clang that iron door:

The doors that cannot shut shall never open
Nor men make windows when they make not walls,
Though emptiness extend its endless prison
In the white nightmare of its lengthening halls.

Shall they not rise and seek beyond the mountains
That which unsays not and is not forsworn?
Where should they wander and in what other Eden
Find the lost happiness of the hope forlorn,

Look in what other face for understanding,
But hers who bore the Child that brought the Sword,
Hang in what other house, trophy and tribute,
The broken heart and the unbroken word?

This month of luminous and golden ruin
Lit long ago the galleys and the guns.
Here is there nothing but such loitering rhyme
As down the blank of barren paper runs,
As I write now, O Lady of Last Assurance,
Light in the laurels, sunrise of the dead,
Wind of the ships and lightning of Lepanto,
In honour of Thee, to whom all honour is fled.

~G.K. Chesterton

Madonna of the Rose Garden, by Stefan Lochner.
Oil on panel, c. 1440; Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne.


Poetry in Action

IF I were asked why I think our whole industrial society is cursed with sterility and stamped with the mark of the slave, I could give a great many answers, but one will serve for the moment: because it cannot create a custom. It can only create a fashion. Now a fashion is simply something that has failed to be a custom. It is changed as a fashion because it is a failure as a custom. The rich, who are the most restless of mankind, do one thing after another and prove in the very process that they cannot create anything that is good enough to last. Their succession of fashions is in itself a succession of failures. For when men have made really dignified and humane things they have always desired that they should remain or, at least, that some relic of them should remain.

We have statues of all schools of statuary and buildings of all periods of architecture. But fashion, in the feverish sense that exists today, is a totally different thing, a merely destructive thing; indeed, an entirely negative thing. It is as if a man were perpetually carving a statue and smashing it as soon as he carved it; as if he were always clumsily fumbling with the day and had never modelled it to his liking. It is as if people began to dig up the foundations of a house before they had finished putting the roof on. This is not activity or energy or efficiency; it is certainly not efficiency, for it never achieves its effect; it never regards it as either effective or effectual. It is simply instability and discontent; and one of the marks of it is that it cannot create a custom. It cannot, for instance, create a ceremonial, still less a legend. It can sometimes attempt a rag or a practical joke; it can attempt that very dismal sort of dinner that the millionaires in America call a Freak. But the thing cannot be repeated; even the stupidest millionaire could not stand that.

When the traveller visits a place like Spain, the first thing that strikes him is a change from this atmosphere of hard and barren frivolity to the atmosphere of grave and solemn festivity. The Spaniards still have customs rather than fashions; and their customs come natural to them. They do not need to be changed, because to fresher minds they are always fresh. This is particularly true, for instance, about the sort of ceremonial that everywhere gathers round childhood. In such places it is not only children who understand childhood. Grown-up people understand it so thoroughly that they themselves become what the wise call childlike and the foolish call childish. It can be seen in a hundred things that make a system of communication between two generations. But it can be seen in this above all; that the grown-up people are still capable of inventing a ceremony, as children invent a game. The ceremonies vary, not only from place to place, but from century to century. They are not all old, as antiquaries like things to be old; for antiquaries only like things to be antiquated. Just as these living peasantries renew their fields and farms, so they renew their habitations and habits. Just as they restore their churches, by putting new patches on to old buildings, so they renew their games and jokes, putting in many elements in one place which are not found in another.

What is called the Seville procession exists in many different places besides Seville. But as it is done in many different places, so it is done in many different ways. There are often elements that are in their nature new, that are unexpected in the sense that nobody could possibly expect them. I have heard it said that, sometimes, a man will rush out into the path of the procession and pour out a stream of absurdly spontaneous poetry, like an improvisation on a musical instrument; and that sometimes somebody else (also rather abruptly moved by the Muse) will answer him from a window with appropriate poetical repartees. But the point is that the old framework allows of these new things, just as the old orchard bears fresh fruit or the old garden fresh flowers. These old civilizations give us the sensation of being always at the beginning of things; whereas mere modern innovation gives us the sensation, even in its novelty, of drawing nearer and nearer to the end.

There is one custom in Spain, and probably in other southern countries, which might be a model of the popular instinct for poetry in action. It is what corresponds to our idea of Santa Claus, who is, of course, St Nicolas, and in the North the patron of children and the giver of gifts at Christmas. In the South this function is performed by the Three Kings, and the gifts are given at the Epiphany. It is in a sense more logical, which, perhaps, is why it is common among the Latins. The Wise Men are in any case bringing gifts to the Holy Child, and they bring them at the same time to the human children. But there is in connexion with it an excellent example of how people who retain this popular instinct can actually act a poem.

The mysterious Kings arrive at the end of the holiday, which again is really very reasonable. It is much better that the games and dances and dramas, which are fugitive, should come first and the children be left with the presents, or permanent possessions, at the end. But it is also the occasion of a process very mystical and moving to the imagination. The Kings are conceived as coming nearer and nearer every day; and, if there are images of these sacred figures, they are moved from place to place every night. That alone is strangely thrilling, either considered as a child’s game or as a mystic’s meditation on the mysteries of time and space. On the last night of all, when the strange travellers through time are supposed to arrive, the children carefully put out water and green stuff for the camels and the horses of that superhuman cavalcade out of the depths of the East. Even the touch of putting water, so necessary to purely Eastern animals, is enough to suggest that reach of the imagination to the ends of the earth.

Now, that is only one example, out of hundreds that can be collected in any valley or countryside, of something which people in simpler times had the power to create; a complete and concrete drama perfectly plain and unfathomably profound. What I want to know about modern civilization, which in many ways cares so much for beauty, which in some ways cares far too much for beauty, is why it cannot produce these beautiful things. I do not want it to copy Spain and the Three Kings, or to copy Scandinavia and St Nicolas, or to copy any particular local ritual. But why can it never invent anything of its own? I have long paused for a reply.

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, 1926. (This essay collected in The Glass Walking Stick.)

The Protestant Superstitions

THAT delightful guessing game, which has long caused innocent merriment in so many Catholic families, the game of guessing at exactly which line of an article say on Landscape or Latin Elegiacs, we shall find the Dean of St. Paul's introducing the Antidote to Antichrist; or the Popish Plot Revealed--that most familiar of our Catholic parlour games happened to be entertaining me some time ago, as a sort of substitute for a crossword puzzle, when I found I had hit on a very lucky example.  I wrote above about "Catholic families," and had almost, by force of associations written "Catholic firesides." And I imagine that the Dean really does think that even in this weather we keep the home-fires burning, like the fire of Vesta, in permanent expectation of relighting the fires of Smithfield.  Anyhow, this sort of guessing game or crossword puzzle is seldom disappointing. The Dean must by this time have tried quite a hundred ways of leading up to his beloved topic; and even concealing it, like a masked battery, until he can let loose the cannonade in a perfect tornado of temper. Then the crossword puzzle is no longer a puzzle, though the crosswords are apparent and appropriate enough; especially those devoted to the great historical process of crossing out the Cross.

In the case of this particular article, it was only towards the end of it that the real subject was allowed to leap out from an ambush upon the reader.  I think it was a general article on Superstition; and, being a journalistic article of the modern type, it was of course devoted to discussing superstition without defining superstition.  In an article of that enlightened sort, it seemed enough for the writer to suggest that superstition is anything that he does not happen to like. Some of the things are also things that I do not happen to like.  But such a writer is not reasonable even when he is right.  A man ought to have some more philosophical objection to stories of ill luck than merely calling them credulity; as certainly as a man ought to have some more philosophical objection to Mass than to call it Magic.  It is hardly a final refutation of Spiritualists to prove that they believe in Spirits; any more than a refutation of Deists to prove that they believe in Deity.  Creed and credence and credulity are words of the same origin and can be juggled backwards and forwards to any extent. But when a man assumes the absurdity of anything that anybody else believes, we wish first to know what he believes; on what principle he believes; and, above all, upon what principle he disbelieves. There is no trace of anything so rational in the Dean's piece of metaphysical journalism.  If he had stopped to define his terms, or in other words to tell us what he was talking about, such an abstract analysis would of course have filled up some space in the article. There might have been no room for the Alarum Against the Pope.

The Dean of St. Paul's got to business, in a paragraph in the second half of his article, in which he unveiled to his readers all the horrors of a quotation from Newman; a very shocking and shameful passage in which the degraded apostate says that he is happy in his religion, and in being surrounded by the things of his religion; that he likes to have objects that have been blessed by the holy and beloved, that there is a sense of being protected by prayers, sacramentals and so on; and that happiness of this sort satisfies the soul.  The Dean, having given us this one ghastly glimpse of the Cardinal's spiritual condition, drops the curtain with a groan and says it is Paganism. How different from the Christian orthodoxy of Plotinus!

Now it was exactly that little glimpse that interested me in this matter; not so much a glimpse into the soul of the Cardinal as into the mind of the Dean.  I suddenly seemed to see, in much simpler form than I had yet realised, the real issue between him and us. And the curious thing about the issue is this; that what he thinks about us is exactly what we think about him.  What I for one feel most strongly, in considering a case like that of the Dean and his quotation from the Cardinal, is that the Dean is a man of distinguished intelligence and culture, that he is always interesting, that he is sometimes even just, or at least justified or justifiable; but that he is first and last the champion of a Superstition; the man who is really and truly defending a Superstition, as it would be understood by people who could define a Superstition. What makes it all the more amusing is that it is in a rather special sense a Pagan Superstition.  But what makes it most intensely interesting, so far as I am concerned, is that the Dean is devoted to what may be called par excellence a superstitious Superstition. I mean that it is in a special sense a LOCAL superstition.

Dean Inge is a superstitious person because he is worshipping a relic; a relic in the sense of a remnant.  He is idolatrously adoring the broken fragment of something; simply because that something happens to have lingered out of the past in the place called England; in the rather battered form called Protestant Christianity.  It is as if a local patriot were to venerate the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham only because she was in Walsingham and without even remembering that she was in Heaven.  It is still more as if he venerated a fragment chipped from the toe of the statue and forgot where it came from and ignored Our Lady altogether. I do not think it superstitious to respect the chip in relation to the statue, or the statue in relation to the saint, or the saint in relation to the scheme of theology and philosophy.  But I do think it superstitious to venerate, or even to accept, the fragment because it happens to be there.  And Dean Inge does accept the fragment called Protestantism because it happens to be there.

Let us for a moment consider the whole matter as philosophers should; in a universal air above all local superstitions like the Dean's.  It is quite obvious that there are three or four philosophies or views of life possible to reasonable men; and to a great extent these are embodied in the great religions or in the wide field of irreligion.

There is the atheist, the materialist or monist or whatever he calls himself, who believes that all is ultimately material, and all that is material is mechanical.  That is emphatically a view of life; not a very bright or breezy view, but one into which it is quite possible to fit many facts of existence.  Then there is the normal man with the natural religion, which accepts the general idea that the world has a design and therefore a designer; but feels the Architect of the Universe to be inscrutable and remote, as remote from men as from microbes.  That sort of theism is perfectly sane; and is really the ancient basis of the solid if somewhat stagnant sanity of Islam.

There is again the man who feels the burden of life so bitterly that he wishes to renounce all desire and all division, and rejoin a sort of spiritual unity and peace from which (as he thinks) our separate selves should never have broken away.  That is the mood answered by buddhism and by many metaphysicians and mystics. Then there is a fourth sort of man, sometimes called a mystic and perhaps more properly to be called a poet; in practice he can very often be called a pagan.  His position is this; it is a twilight world and we know not where it ends. If we do not know enough for monotheism, neither do we know enough for monism.  There may be a borderland and a world beyond; but we can only catch hints of it as they come; we may meet a nymph in the forest; we may see the fairies on the mountains.  We do not know enough about the natural to DENY the preternatural.  That was, in ancient times, the healthiest aspect of Paganism.  That is, in modern times, the rational part of Spiritualism.  All these are possible as general views of life; and there is a fourth that is at least equally possible, though certainly more positive.

The whole point of this last position might be expressed in the line of M. Cammaerts's beautiful little poem about bluebells; LE CIEL EST TOMBE PAR TERRE.  Heaven has DESCENDED into the world of matter; the supreme spiritual power is now operating by the machinery of matter, dealing miraculously with the bodies and souls of men.  It blesses all the five senses; as the senses of the baby are blessed at a Catholic christening.  It blesses even material gifts and keepsakes, as with relics or rosaries.  It works through water or oil or bread or wine.  Now that sort of mystical materialism may please or displease the Dean, or anybody else.  But I cannot for the life of me understand why the Dean, or anybody else, does not SEE that the Incarnation is as much a part of that idea as the Mass; and that the Mass is as much a part of that idea as the Incarnation. A Puritan may think it blasphemous that God should become a wafer.  A Moslem thinks it blasphemous that God should become a workman in Galilee.  And he is perfectly right, from his point of view; and given his primary principle.  But if the Moslem has a principle, the Protestant has only a prejudice.  That is, he has only a fragment; a relic; a superstition.  If it be profane that the miraculous should descend to the plane of matter, then certainly Catholicism is profane; and Protestantism is profane; and Christianity is profane.  Of all human creeds or concepts, in that sense, Christianity is the most utterly profane.  But why a man should accept a Creator who was a carpenter, and then worry about holy water, why he should accept a local Protestant tradition that God was born in some particular place mentioned in the Bible, merely because the Bible had been left lying about in England, and then say it is incredible that a blessing should linger on the bones of a saint, why he should accept the first and most stupendous part of the story of Heaven on Earth, and then furiously deny a few small but obvious deductions from it--that is a thing I do not understand; I never could understand; I have come to the conclusion that I shall never understand.

I can only attribute it to Superstition.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Thing.

"Fundamentalists are funny enough"

“THE fundamentalists are funny enough, and the funniest thing about them is their name. For, whatever else the fundamentalist is, he is not fundamental. He is content with the bare letter of Scripture—the translation of a translation, coming down to him by the tradition of a tradition—without venturing to ask for its original authority.”

~G.K. Chesterton: All is Grist.

On Newspaper Proprietors

“THE modern newspaper proprietor is much more progressive than the Nation supposes; in fact he is a product of the progress the Nation supports. He is generally an uneducated man; but for all that he is an outcome of modern education. Most outcomes of modern education are uneducated men. Our education is uneducation; its whole tendency is to unteach people the traditions of their fathers.”

~G.K. Chesterton: from The New Witness.

Read the complete article here: On Newspaper Proprietors


Protestantism: A Problem Novel

I HAVE been looking at the little book on Protestantism which Dean Inge has contributed to the sixpenny series of Sir Ernest Benn; and though I suppose it has already been adequately criticised, it may be well to jot down a few notes on it before it is entirely forgotten.  The book, which is called "Protestantism," obviously ought to be called "Catholicism."  What the Dean has to say about any real thing recognisable as Protestantism is extraordinarily patchy, contradictory and inconclusive.  It is only what he has to say about Catholicism that is clear, consistent and to the point. It is warmed and quickened by the human and hearty motive of hatred; and it makes everything else in the book look timid and tortuous by comparison. I am not going to annotate the work considered as history.  There are some curious, if not conscious, falsifications of fact, especially in the form of suppressions of fact.  He begins by interpreting Protestantism as a mere "inwardness and sincerity" in religion; which none of the Protestant reformers would have admitted to be Protestantism, and which any number of Catholic reformers have made the very heart and soul of their reforms inside Catholicism.  It might be suggested that self-examination is now more often urged and practised among Catholics than among Protestants.  But whether or no the champions of sincerity examine themselves, they might well examine their statements. Some of the statements here might especially be the subject of second thoughts.  It is really a startling suppression and falsification to say that Henry the Eighth had only a few household troops; so that his people must have favoured his policy, or they would have risen against it.  It seems enough to reply that they did rise against it.  And BECAUSE Henry had only a few household troops, he brought in bands of ferocious mercenaries from abroad to put down the religious revolt of his own people.  It is an effort of charity to concede even complete candour to the story-teller, who can actually use such an argument, and then keep silent upon such a sequel. Or again, it is outrageously misleading to suggest that the Catholic victims of Tudor and other tyranny were justly executed as traitors and not as martyrs to a religion.  Every persecutor alleges social and secular necessity; so did Caiaphas and Annas; so did Nero and Diocletian; from the first the Christians were suppressed as enemies of the Empire; to the last the heretics were handed over to the secular arm with secular justifications.  But when, in point of plain fact, a man can be hanged, drawn and quartered merely for saying Mass, or sometimes for helping somebody who has said Mass, it is simply raving nonsense to say that a religion is not being persecuted. To mention only one of many minor falsifications of this kind, it is quite true to say that Milton was in many ways more of a Humanist than a Puritan; but it is quite false to suggest that the Milton family was a typical Puritan family, in its taste for music and letters. The very simple explanation is that the Milton family was largely a Catholic family; and it was the celebrated John who specially separated himself from its creed but retained its culture. Countless other details as definitely false could be quoted; but I am much more interested in the general scope of the work--which allows itself to be so curiously pointless about Protestantism, merely in order to make a point against Catholicism.

Here is the Dean's attempt at a definition.  "What is the main function of Protestantism?  It is essentially an attempt to check the tendency to corruption and degradation which attacks every institutional religion." So far, so good.  In that case St. Charles Borromeo, for instance, was obviously a leading Protestant.  St. Dominic and St. Francis, who purged the congested conventionalism of much of the monasticism around them, were obviously leading Protestants.  The Jesuits who sifted legend by the learning of Bollandism, were obviously leading Protestants. But most living Protestant leaders are not leading Protestants. If degradation drags down EVERY institutional religion, it has presumably dragged down Protestant institutional religion. Protestants might possibly appear to purge Protestantism; but so did Catholics appear to purge Catholicism.  Plainly this definition is perfectly useless as a DISTINCTION between Protestantism and Catholicism. For it is not a description of any belief or system or body of thought; but simply of a good intention, which all men of all Churches would profess and a few men in some Churches practise--especially in ours. But the Dean not only proves that modern Protestant institutions ought to be corrupt, he says that their primitive founders ought to be repudiated. He distinctly holds that we cannot follow Luther and Calvin.

Very well--let us go on and see whom we are to follow. I will take one typical passage towards the end of the book. The Dean first remarks, "The Roman Church has declared that there can be no reconciliation between Rome and modern Liberalism or Progress." One would like to see the encyclical or decree in which this declaration was made.  Liberalism might mean many things, from the special thing which Newman denounced and defined to the intention of voting at a by-election for Sir John Simon. Progress generally means something which the Pope has never, so far as I know, found it necessary to deny; but which the Dean himself has repeatedly and most furiously denied.  He then goes on: "Protestantism is entirely free from this uncompromising preference for the Dark Ages."  "The Dark Ages," of course, is cant and claptrap; we need take no notice of that.  But we may perhaps notice, not without interest and amusement, that about twenty-five lines before, the Dean himself has described the popular Protestantism of America as if it were a barbarism and belated obscurantism. From which one may infer that the Dark Ages are still going on, exactly where there is Protestantism to preserve them. And considering that he says at least five times that the appeal of Protestants to the letter of Scripture is narrow and superstitious, it surely seems a little astonishing that he should sum up by declaring Protestantism, as such, to be "ENTIRELY free" from this sort of darkness.  Then, on top of all this welter of wordy contradictions, we have this marvellous and mysterious conclusion: "It is in this direction that Protestants may look for the beginning of what may really be a new Reformation, a resumption of the unfinished work of Sir Thomas More, Giordano Bruno and Erasmus."

In short, Protestants may look forward to a Reformation modelled on the work of two Catholics and one obscure mystic, who was not a Protestant and of whose tenets they and the world know practically nothing. One hardly knows where to begin, in criticising this very new Reformation, two-thirds of which was apparently started by men of the Old Religion. We might meekly suggest that, if it be regrettable that the work of Sir Thomas More was "unfinished," some portion of the blame may perhaps attach to the movement that cut off his head. Is it possible, I wonder, that what the Dean really means is that we want a new Reformation to undo all the harm that was done by the old Reformation?  In this we certainly have no reason to quarrel with him.  We should be delighted also to have a new Reformation, of ourselves as well as of Protestants and other people; though it is only fair to say that Catholics did, within an incredibly short space of time, contrive to make something very like a new Reformation; which is commonly called the Counter-Reformation. St. Vincent de Paul and St. Francis of Sales have at least as good a right to call themselves inheritors of the courtesy and charity of More as has the present Dean of St. Paul's. But putting that seventeenth century reform on one side, there is surely something rather stupendous about the reform that the Dean proposes for the twentieth century, and the patron saints he selects for it out of the sixteenth century.

For this, it seems, is how we stand.  We are not to follow Luther and Calvin.  But we are to follow More and Erasmus. And that, if you please, is the true Protestantism and the promise of a second Reformation.  We are to copy the views and virtues of the men who found they could remain under the Pope, and especially of one who actually died for the supremacy of the Pope. We are to throw away practically every rag of thought or theory that was held by the people who did not remain under the supremacy of the Pope. And we are to bind up all these views in a little popular pamphlet with an orange cover and call them "Protestantism." The truth is that Dean Inge had an impossible title and an impossible task. He had to present Protestantism as Progress; when he is far too acute and cultivated a man not to suspect that it was (as it was) a relapse into barbarism and a break away from all that was central in civilisation.  Even by the test of the Humanist, it made religion inhuman.  Even by the test of the liberal, it substituted literalism for liberalism.  Even if the goal had been mere Modernism, it led its followers to it by a long, dreary and straggling detour, a wandering in the wilderness, that did not even discover Modernism till it had first discovered Mormonism. Even if the goal had been logical scepticism, Voltaire could reach it more rapidly from the school of the Jesuits than the poor Protestant provincial brought up among the Jezreelites. Every mental process, even the process of going wrong, is clearer in the Catholic atmosphere.  Protestantism has done nothing for Dean Inge, except give him a Deanery which rather hampers his mental activity. It has done nothing for his real talent or scholarship or sense of ideas.  It has not in history defended any of the ideas he defends, or helped any of the liberties in which he hopes. But it has done one thing:  it has hurt something he hates. It has done some temporary or apparent harm to the heritage of St. Peter. It once made something that looked like a little crack in the wall of Rome.  And because of THAT, the Dean can pardon anything to the Protestants--even Protestantism.

For this is the strange passion of his life; and he toils through all these pages of doubts and distinctions only for the moment when he can liberate his soul in one wild roar of monomaniac absurdity: "Let the innocent Dreyfus die in prison; let the Irishman who has committed a treacherous murder be told to leave 'politics' out of his confession; let the lucrative imposture of Lourdes..." That is the way to talk!  It is so tiring, pretending to talk sense.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Thing, Ch. 12.