On Ghost Stories

“I CAN claim to be tolerably detached on the subject of ghost stories. I do not depend upon them in any way; not even in the sordid professional way, in which I have at some periods depended on murder stories. I do not much mind whether they are true or not. I am not, like a Spiritualist, a man whose religion may said to consist entirely of ghosts. But I am not like a Materialist, a man whose whole philosophy is exploded and blasted and blown to pieces by the most feeble and timid intrusion of the most thin and third-rate ghost. I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. But I am not at all certain that they succeeded even in that; and I suspect that their greatest successes were elsewhere. For it is my experience that the village idiot is very much less credulous than the town lunatic. On the other hand, when the merely skeptical school asks us to believe that every sort of ghost has been a turnip ghost, I think such skeptics rather exaggerate the variety and vivacity and theatrical talent of turnips.”

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, May 30, 1936.

"They will become again a religious people"

"IF we ever get the English back on to the English land they will become again a religious people, if all goes well, a superstitious people. The absence from modern life of both the higher and the lower forms of faith is largely due to a divorce from nature and the trees and clouds. If we have no more turnip ghosts it is chiefly from the lack of turnips."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Heretics.

"The Two-Headed Giant"

"THEN Redlegs said suddenly, “I should very much like to see a Two-Headed Giant. Lend me a sword.” Then they all roared with laughter and told him how silly he was to think that he could kill the Two-Headed Giant when they couldn’t even kill the One-Headed Giant. But he went off all the same, with his head in the air, and he found the Two-Headed Giant on the great hills where it is always Sunset. And then he found out a funny thing. The Two-Headed Giant did not rush at him and tear him to pieces as he had expected. It certainly did scream and shout and bellow and blare and with its two heads together. But the two heads were, as a matter of fact, screaming and shouting and bellowing and blaring in an odd way. They were screaming and shouting and bellowing and blaring at EACH OTHER.

"One head said, “You are a Pro-Boer”; the other said, with bitter humour, “You’re another”; in fact, the argument might have gone on for ever, growing more savage and brilliant every moment, but it was cut short by Redlegs, who took out the great sword he had borrowed from one of the Knights and poked it sharply into the Giant and killed him. The huge creature sprawled and writhed like a continent in an earthquake; and one wild head lifted itself for a moment in death and said to the other, “You are beneath my notice”. Then it died happy. Redlegs went on along the road that had been guarded by the Two-Headed Giant, until he came to the Castle of the Princess. After a few words of explanation, I need hardly say they were MARRIED."

~From "The Disadvantage of Having Two Heads," printed in The Coloured Lands: Fairy Stories, Comic Verse and Fantastic Pictures, by G.K. Chesterton.


"You can make nothing. You can only destroy."

“DO you see this lantern?” cried Syme in a terrible voice. “Do you see the cross carved on it, and the flame inside? You did not make it. You did not light it. Better men than you, men who could believe and obey, twisted the entrails of iron and preserved the legend of fire. There is not a street you walk on, there is not a thread you wear, that was not made as this lantern was, by denying your philosophy of dirt and rats. You can make nothing. You can only destroy. You will destroy mankind; you will destroy the world. Let that suffice you. Yet this one old Christian lantern you shall not destroy. It shall go where your empire of apes will never have the wit to find it.”

~G.K. Chesterton:  The Man Who Was Thursday, A Nightmare.

"I do not see ghosts"

"WE have all met the man who says that some odd things have happened to him, but that he does not really believe that they were supernatural. My own position is the opposite of this. I believe in the supernatural as a matter of intellect and reason, not as a matter of personal experience. I do not see ghosts; I only see their inherent probability."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Tremendous Trifles.


The Joy of Dullness

"IT is a dogma imposed on all, by the dogmatic secularism of the modern system, that Youth needs, must have, and cannot possibly be happy without, a riot of dances, plays, or entertainments. We all know the practical truth embodied in this; and yet I am so doubtful about the fashionable assumption that I think it very nearly untrue. I have no objections to dances, plays and masquerades: on the contrary, I enjoy them enormously; but then I am not what is commonly called a Youth. And from what I remember of being young, and what I have read of the real reminiscences of youth, I incline to think that youth never shows its glorious vividness and vitality so much as when transfiguring what might be called monotony.... Youth is much more capable of amusing itself than is now supposed, and in much less mortal need of being amused."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, May 3, 1930.

"Man is the moral center of this world"

“NO; that argument about man looking mean and trivial in the face of the physical universe has never terrified me at all, because it is a merely sentimental argument, and not a rational one in any sense or degree. But if we are seriously debating whether a man is the moral center of this world, then he is no more morally dwarfed by the fact that his is not the largest star than by the fact that he is not the largest mammal. Unless it can be maintained a priori that Providence must put the largest soul in the largest body, and must make the physical and moral center the same, “the vertigo of the infinite” has no more spiritual value than the vertigo of a ladder or the vertigo of a balloon."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, Feb. 19, 1910.


"The universe is a single jewel"

"FOR the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one."
~G.K. Chesterton:  Orthodoxy.


"The current cult of pleasure"

"A great deal of the current cult of pleasure, of luxury, of liberty in love, and all the rest of it, appears to me to be perfectly childish; and childish in the literal sense that it is greedy without any grasp of consequences."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, May 18, 1929.

"Dissolution of free thought"

"WHAT we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought: it is the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought. It is vain for bishops and pious big wigs to discuss what things will happen if wild scepticism runs its course. It has run its course. It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves. You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Orthodoxy.


"Man is not merely an evolution"

"THE matter here is one of history and not of philosophy so that it need only be noted that 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. That he has a backbone or other parts upon a similar pattern to birds and fishes is an obvious fact, whatever be the meaning of the fact. But if we attempt to regard him, as it were, as a quadruped standing on his hind legs, we shall find what follows far more fantastic and subversive than if he were standing on his head."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Everlasting Man.

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"The rhinoceros"

“IT is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy.


"The sceptic’s ultimate skepticism"

"I will not engage in verbal controversy with the sceptic, because long experience has taught me that the sceptic’s ultimate skepticism is about the use of his own words and the reliability of his own intelligence."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News.


"Everybody speaks and nobody hears"

“THERE are any number of phrases which everybody speaks and nobody hears. There are any number of phrases which when they were used the first time may have meant something, and which are now used for the millionth time because they mean nothing."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, Aug. 31, 1929.

"Stranger than fiction"

"TRUTH must necessarily be stranger than fiction; for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it."

~G.K. Chesterton:  The Club of Queer Trades.

Six mysterious adventures of Basil and Rupert Grant, who encounter what seem to be strange, unexplainable crimes, all of which turn out to have even stranger explanations. With hilarious illustrations by Chesterton.

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"Things that the people do care about"

“OUT of Parliament the politician persuades the people that he really wants what they want. Inside Parliament the politician persuades the people that they really want what he wants. But what is really intolerable, what is really atrocious, is certainly this – that politicians should venture not merely to deceive the people about the things that the people do care about, but should insolently attempt to oppress the people in the things that the people do care about. The greatest miracle is the fact that politicians are tolerated.”

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, Dec. 22, 1906.


Poem: The Secret People

SMILE at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

The fine French kings came over in a flutter of flags and dames.
We liked their smiles and battles, but we never could say their names.
The blood ran red to Bosworth and the high French lords went down;
There was naught but a naked people under a naked crown.
And the eyes of the King's Servants turned terribly every way,
And the gold of the King's Servants rose higher every day.
They burnt the homes of the shaven men, that had been quaint and kind,
Till there was no bed in a monk's house, nor food that man could find.
The inns of God where no man paid, that were the wall of the weak.
The King's Servants ate them all. And still we did not speak.

And the face of the King's Servants grew greater than the King:
He tricked them, and they trapped him, and stood round him in a ring.
The new grave lords closed round him, that had eaten the abbey's fruits,
And the men of the new religion, with their bibles in their boots,
We saw their shoulders moving, to menace or discuss,
And some were pure and some were vile; but none took heed of us.
We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale;
And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.

A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people's reign:
And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and scorned us never again.
Weak if we be for ever, could none condemn us then;
Men called us serfs and drudges; men knew that we were men.
In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains,
We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains,
We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
And the man who seemed to be more than a man we strained against and broke;
And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.

Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.
Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:
We only know the last sad squires rode slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land: and still it is not we.

They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia's wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God's scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

~G.K. Chesterton


"The love of humanity"

"THOSE thinkers who cannot believe in any gods often assert that the love of humanity would be in itself sufficient for them; and so, perhaps, it would, if they had it."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Tremendous Trifles.

"So little discussion about the nature of men"

"WHEN the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that everyone ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what anyone says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating. Never has there been so little discussion about the nature of men as now, when, for the first time, anyone can discuss it."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Heretics.

"The best critic"

"NOBODY supposes that the best critic of music is the man who talks coldly about music. But there is an idea that a man is a correct judge of religion because he looks down on religions."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Illustrated London News, Oct. 10, 1908.

"A living fountain of facts"

"WHEN your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smell sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence; when the rose smelt sweet you did not say, 'My father is a rude, barbaric symbol enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truth that flowers smell.' No, you believed your father because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you the truth to-morrow, as well as to-day."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Orthodoxy.

"The courage to live"

"IT is awful to think that this world which so many poets have praised has even for a time been depicted as a mantrap into which we may just have the manhood to jump. Think of all those ages through which men have had the courage to die, and then remember that we have actually fallen to talking about having the courage to live."

~G.K. Chesterton:  George Bernard Shaw.


"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

"THERE was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman—she understands. To say what she understands is beyond me; save only this, that it is not a solemnity. Rather it is a towering levity, an uproarious amateurishness of the universe, such as we felt when we were little, and would as soon sing as garden, as soon paint as run. To smatter the tongues of men and angels, to dabble in the dreadful sciences, to juggle with pillars and pyramids and toss up the planets like balls, this is that inner audacity and indifference which the human soul, like a conjurer catching oranges, must keep up forever. This is that insanely frivolous thing we call sanity. And the elegant female, drooping her ringlets over her water-colors, knew it and acted on it. She was juggling with frantic and flaming suns. She was maintaining the bold equilibrium of inferiorities which is the most mysterious of superiorities and perhaps the most unattainable. She was maintaining the prime truth of woman, the universal mother: that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

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


"Don John of Austria Has set his people free!"

VIVAT Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labor under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

~G.K. Chesterton:  From Lepanto.


"A monk and not a troubadour?"

"FOR most people there is a fascinating inconsistency in the position of St. Francis. He expressed in loftier and bolder language than any earthly thinker the conception that laughter is as divine as tears. He called his monks the mountebanks of God. He never forgot to take pleasure in a bird as it flashed past him, or a drop of water as it fell from his finger; he was perhaps the happiest of the sons of men. Yet this man undoubtedly founded his whole polity on the negation of what we think of the most imperious necessities; in his three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience he denied to himself, and those he loved most, property, love, and liberty. Why was it that the most large-hearted and poetic spirits in that age found their most congenial atmosphere in these awful renunciations? Why did he who loved where all men were blind, seek to blind himself where all men loved? Why was he a monk and not a troubadour? We have a suspicion that if these questions were answered we should suddenly find that much of the enigma of this sullen time of ours was answered also."

~G.K. Chesterton:  Twelve Types.


"But for some strange mercy we should not even exist"

"FOR THAT is the full and final spirit in which we should turn to St. Francis; in the spirit of thanks for what he has done. He was above all things a great giver; and he cared chiefly for the best kind of giving which is called thanksgiving. If another great man wrote a grammar of assent, he may well be said to have written a grammar of acceptance; a grammar of gratitude. He understood down to its very depths the theory of thanks; and its depths are a bottomless abyss. He knew that the praise of God stands on its strongest ground when it stands on nothing. He knew that we can best measure the towering miracle of the mere fact of existence if we realise that but for some strange mercy we should not even exist. And something of that larger truth is repeated in a lesser form in our own relations with so mighty a maker of history. He also is a giver of things we could not have even thought of for ourselves; he also is too great for anything but gratitude. From him came a whole awakening of the world and a dawn in which all shapes and colours could be seen anew."

~G.K. Chesterton: St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis in Ecstasy, by Giovanni Bellini.
Oil on panel, 1480-85; Frick Collection, New York.


"The true patriot"

"OF all the tests by which the good citizen and strong reformer can be distinguished from the vague faddist or the inhuman sceptic, I know no better test than this -- that the unreal reformer sees in front of him one certain future, the future of his fad; while the real reformer sees before him ten or twenty futures among which his country must choose, and may in some dreadful hour choose the wrong one. The true patriot is always doubtful of victory; because he knows that he is dealing with a living thing; a thing with free will. To be certain of free will is to be uncertain of success."

~G.K. Chesterton: Introduction to American Notes by Charles Dickens.