Against Chesterton

I am a huge fan of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I tell you that Orthodoxy is crap: it is lazy philosophy, it is badly structured, it is at times rambling and at other times glib. Chesterton’s one saving grace is his extraordinarily pleasant style – like Wilde, he is an absolute joy to read – and while that style comes through in Orthodoxy, it jars heavily with the content.

Like his detective Gabriel Syme, Chesterton has an ingrained tendency to contrarianism. What makes him (and Syme) interesting is that his contrarianism is turned against radical ideas. He is a contrarian in the service of orthodoxy. So far, so good – but if only he wasn’t so obvious about it!

“I used to be a die-hard atheist,” Chesterton declares (my words, of course), “until I read several books making the case for atheism, which quite turned me to Christianity.” Such a construction occurs every few pages in Orthodoxy . Once would have been clever, or even twice, but after thirty repetitions of the same format I grew to loathe it. Chesterton’s crass attempt to pass off his contrarian temperament as – what? Some special marker of genius? – rings painfully false.

In about ten pages Chesterton zooms through the recent history of Western philosophy, declaring it the “suicide of thought”, “thought turned in upon itself”. Some choice quotes:

“[the philosophy of will] came, I suppose, through Nietzsche, who preached something that is called egoism. That, indeed, was simpleminded enough; for Nietzsche denied egoism simply by preaching it. To preach anything is to give it away.”

“Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either.”

Talk about a “cheery minor poet!” Has Chesterton ever read Nietzsche? The whole section reads like a criticism of Nietzsche based off the titles of his books. But let’s pass on to the apologetics part of Orthodoxy, where it becomes painfully obvious that Chesterton is out of his depth.

“…my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. … The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism— the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say “a peasant saw a ghost,” I am told, “But peasants are so credulous.” If I ask, “Why credulous?” the only answer is—that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.”

Forget Nietzsche, has Chesterton never read David Hume? Here is Chesterton’s argument, restated in all its glory:

1)A peasant claims a miracle has occurred.
2) To deny that is to say that the peasant is untrustworthy or that miracles are a priori impossible.
3) But peasants are on the whole trustworthy.
4) If you claim miracles are a priori impossible you are arguing in a circle.
5) Therefore miracles!

This is truly awful philosophy. To set the discovery of America against the claim of ghosts as if they were somehow epistemologically equivalent – it defies refutation only because it is so difficult to see how somebody could come to believe such a thing. Does Chesterton accept every account of testimony, on the grounds that people are generally trustworthy? Does he read Herodotus and believe in giant ants? It is an epistemological argument that totally ignores non-testimonial evidence: both the evidence of our own lives, in which miracles do not happen, and the evidence (as Hume pointed out) of all the ‘miracles’ that have been debunked.

And so on. When it comes to apologetics, Chesterton is a kind of second-rate C.S.  Lewis, who is himself a very third-rate Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard in particular would never have made the mistake Chesterton makes all the way through Orthodoxy: that of confusing Christianity with Christendom.

Chesterton defends “traditional” Christianity against the corrupting influences of society. He argues that it – like Jesus – is fundamentally more radical than its radical detractors; more romantic than the romance of atheism. There’s a grain of truth here. Properly understood, Christianity is extraordinarily radical. “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world,” Chesterton writes, in reference to the eye of the needle. But would it not be a deadly ultimatum to the Church as well? Would it not boil modern orthodoxy – which, of course, is fully entrenched in tradition and society – to rags?

When Kierkegaard railed against the world, he had the good sense to include tradition in his criticism. Almost by definition, tradition is lazy. It is the great mass of people, and the way is far too straight and narrow for such a herd. Kierkegaard devised what I still think of as an infallible test for anybody who wishes to write in support of Christianity. If the bulk of the people support you, he said, be sure that you are greatly in error. If you are by turns ignored and criticized, you are heading towards the right track. However, until they fall upon you and kill you, you can never be sure you’re getting it right. Orthodoxy, of course, was very well received.

Chesterton’s largest success is making orthodoxy and tradition seem romantic, but it’s also his largest betrayal. Orthodoxy gives lazy traditionalists the sense of being great radicals without ever having to do anything particularly radical. Chesterton reaps the benefits of a contrarian temperament while criticizing contrarian temperaments; he borrows from Oscar Wilde’s style while taking lazy swipes at Oscar Wilde. He comes across, I think, as pretty ungrateful.

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4 thoughts on “Against Chesterton

  1. Ivan

    In the same vein as Kierkegaard, Terry Eagleton wrote that “If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.”

    Reply
  2. Socrates

    I might end up saying some mean phrases here, so I’ll be brief. Straw man, straw man, and straw man.

    Christianity is based on Tradition, which is why all the Churches that actually can be traced to the first century believe in it. St. Ireaneaus refers to it to reject Gnosticism. In the early Church, bishop=truth. That’s it. If a bishop said it, it was true. Latter on, when bishops disagreed, a councial settled it. Sola Scriptura is evidentially, philosophically, and historically false.

    Furthermore, Chesterton’s thought on miracles was to point out that the materialist holds a metaphysical dogma even when the the mass majority of mankind throughout history to today have denied it. Everyone is a realist in the end. Chesterton would argue (and he does argue in other works) that we should look at the evidence, and not a priori assume that the event was not a miracle, for that is true dogmatism.

    You ask if Chesterton has read Nietzsche, but I ask if you have actually read Chesterton. All Chesterton is pointing out in your quote is that Nietzsche’s prose reflects his philosophy. He actually criticizes the philosophy elsewhere. Of course, at this point I think you are either ignorant of what he actually wrote, or are being deceitful to your readers and yourself. Chesterton is hard to read, I perfectly understand. But I’m getting a hint that you just don’t want to accept what he writes, so you manipulate his words to justify it. The will forcing the intellect to do its bidding, also known as Existentialism.

    Modernism, the mess that the west has swallowed whole by now, is the defined as the denial of Tradition. Thus, instead of at least hearing out our ancestors, we dismiss them because they are old. You say traditionists tend to be lazy, and I agree. However, you also imply that all traditionalists are lazy, which is false. See, I have studied the Catholic Tradition, and have found it to be true. You claim that all tradition is false, while I claim that there is both true tradition and false tradition. Chesterton did not worship tradition. His political views were definitely not traditional at all.

    And anyway, Chesterton is popular because he is right. He thinks like St. Thomas Aquinas while writing like Oscar Wilde. I say that all readers of this article should read Chesterton for themselves, at least several times for it to sink in, and possibly look at Resources from The Chesterton Society and read more of his books (like the Everlasting Man) to get what he is saying, since the rest of his writing is just applications of the general patterns of thought presented in Orthodoxy itself.

    Christi pax,

    Socrates

    Reply
  3. Wesley Lewis

    I agree with your comments on Chesterton being a contrarian, but maybe you judge him to harshly. Chesterton didn’t create a deep analysis and rebuttal to Nietzsche because in his opinion the ideas expressed in Nietzsche’s long winded but rather poetic writings seemed rather silly. It’s also important to remember Chesterton thought of himself as a popular journalist not a theologian.
    One final point is that probably the most important thing Chesterton every said is that the modern world uses the word orthodoxy wrongly. Christianity cannot boil orthodoxy to rags because orthodoxy literally means “right teaching” or “right belief” therefore if Christianity overturns something it was never really orthodox but merely heresy pretending to be orthodox.

    Reply

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