A truth-telling thing

March 20, 2008

Orthodoxy ( 1908 )
G.K. Chesterton (Harold Shaw, 1994)
186 p. Third reading.

I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.

Spiritual autobiographies are as varied as the voices that speak them, for perhaps no genre of literature is more intensely personal: St. Augustine is passionate and lyrical, Teresa of Avila is frank and cluttered; John Henry Newman is eloquent and poised. There has never been anyone quite like Chesterton, so we should not be surprised to find that there is no book quite like Orthodoxy.

The book came on the heels of Heretics, in which he had critiqued all and sundry of his contemporaries for their false beliefs and inadequate rules of life. Someone suggested that, instead of saying what he thought wrong, Chesterton really ought to tell everyone what he thought right. Professing himself “only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation”, he set to work.

Orthodoxy is one of Chesterton’s most tightly argued books (which doesn’t prevent its still being generously sprawling and digressive) in which he describes, step by step, how he came to his own principles for living, only to discover, to his astonishment, that they bore an uncanny resemblance to orthodox Christianity:

The whole history of my Utopia has the same amusing sadness. I was always rushing out of my architectural study with plans for a new turret only to find it sitting up there in the sunlight, shining, and a thousand years old. For me, in the ancient and partly in the modern sense, God answered the prayer, “Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings.”

Chesterton’s basic intuitions were these: the world requires an explanation, for it is not logically necessary that it be as it is; the world is like a work of art, and has a meaning; we ought to be thankful for the gift of life; we should feel at home in the universe while still being astonished by its beauties and by the mystery of being itself. “We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.” We must be able to affirm that the world is good, yet still retain the capacity for action and reform of its evils. All sanity is balanced, and any sane philosophy must be the same.

He found modernity profoundly out of sympathy with his intuitions. The materialists assert necessity, the illusion of freedom of the will, and the meaninglessness of nature. Optimists, wanting to see the good in things, are too inclined to whitewash and excuse even the bad, while pessimists fail in that primary loyalty which we ought to give to life itself. Above all he found the ideas and explanations current among his secular contemporaries far too simple to be adequate. Most people had one leading idea — progress, necessity, pragmatism, the goodness of man, the blackness of existence — but nothing to balance it. He found among them a veritable passion for a complete and simple explanation, but to secure it they were willing to overlook many — too many — things. “We have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.” It is not that they were unreasonable, but that they were too reasonable. Chesterton compares this way of thinking to a species of insanity: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Such explanations are characterized by “a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction”. They are, perhaps, self-consistent, but they are small. A man may not live inside them.

Rather than optimism or pessimism, Chesterton felt that our basic attitude towards life ought to be more like patriotism. We must not idolize the world, for then we excuse its faults, or should we settle for a stoic acceptance of evil, for then we have no motive for reform. We should love the world enough to fight for it, or, in cases where it is corrupt, to fight against it. There was a profound difference in his view between a suicide and a martyr, for the former kills himself to quench the world, while the latter dies for love of it. It came as a shock to him to remember that the Church made precisely the same distinction between the suicide and the martyr. It was the first point of correspondence he saw between his own thoughts and those of Christian tradition.

A second conjunction arose when he thought of the Christian doctrine of Creation. God made the world as something separate from himself, as an artist makes something. He also did what an artist cannot do: he gave it the freedom to be itself and develop in its own way. The world was made good, but has since gone awry. Consequently, the world is to be loved, but reformed. We should not look inward with resignation, but act outwardly, with confidence and love. We should wonder at the world, for it is an expression of the freedom and goodness of the Creator, and we should feel welcome in it, for we too are part of the picture. In all this, Chesterton saw point after point of harmony with his own thought. In its proclamation of the original goodness of being, original sin, the preeminence of mind and freedom, final judgement, the possibility of failure and ultimate damnation, and fixed moral standards, he saw in orthodoxy “the natural fountain of revolution and reform”.

Moreover, Christianity avoids the trap of being overly simple. In fact, it is quite complex, and one indication of that complexity is the many, and sometimes contradictory, criticisms made of it. It is alleged to be gloomy and depressing, and also superficially happy and naive; or it is weak and effeminate, but also blood-thirsty and war-like; or it is sexually repressive, and also encourages far too many children; or it is devoted to a sickly poverty and ascetism, and also bloated with ritual pomp and circumstance. That the Church could generate such a variety of inconsistent complaints was certainly odd, and the thought crossed Chesterton’s mind that perhaps it was the Church that was sane, while we, in various ways, were not. And the more he thought about it, the more plausible it seemed:

…it was certainly odd that the modern world charged Christianity at once with bodily austerity and with artistic pomp. But then it was also odd, very odd, that the modern world itself combined extreme bodily luxury with an extreme absence of artistic pomp. The modern man thought Becket’s robes too rich and his meals too poor. But then the modern man was really exceptional in history; no man before ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes.

In fact, the Christian world-view is subtle and balanced, but, he says, its balance is of a particular kind. “Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite.” Christianity achieves its balance not by compromise, but by encouraging everything human to thrive: it is “love and wrath both burning”. It teaches us not to settle for partial goods but to hunger and thirst after complete fulfillment, and not to shrug at our sins but to repent with ashes on our heads. A balance of such dynamic forces is necessarily a delicate balance, and this accounts for the Church’s sometimes stern proscriptions, for it knows that if certain passions or principles are given reign at the expense of others, the balance will be upset. These proscriptions, therefore, are at the service of a larger liberty, and the balancing act is part of the romance of orthodoxy.

In his closing pages, Chesterton takes up one last question from his sceptical reader: even if it is true that one finds sanity and strength in elements of the Christian creed, why be a Christian? Why not simply take the parts that appeal and leave the rest? In answer, Chesterton first notes that he is a rationalist, and likes to have reasons to support his intuitions. But his primary reason for accepting the authority of the Church is that “the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one… It has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.” The large truth told by this truth-telling thing is that in this world, where all is a mixture of joy and sorrow, it is joy that is primary, and sorrow a sad interlude. This is in contrast to the modern view, in which our lives strive for a certain amount of earthly happiness, but float over a dark abyss that will eventually swallow them. As in the pagan world, modernity’s universe is cold and ruthless at its heart. Such a world can never satisfy us; the Christian gospel revives a world that fits our deeper intuitions:

Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.

Nothing I have written here can do justice to the sheer energy and wit of this book, nor can I possibly mention all of the intriguing suggestions and half-pertinent excursions it contains. It is a perceptively written book, and if it were neater and more sober it would be more famous than it is, but, for better or worse, Chesterton was not able to resist infusing his writing with the extra energy of humour. If you have not yet read it, then this, its centenary year, would be a fine opportunity.


Orthodoxy is swarming with memorable images and ideas, and I will be reproducing many excerpts at The Hebdomadal Chesterton over the coming months. Here, however, are a few shorter gems:

[Interpreting nature]
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

[A recipe for sanity]
The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.

It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.

[A complex creed]
When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.

[“Liberal” Christianity]
The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it.

[Disordered humility]
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed…The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

[Cultivating simplicity of spirit]
Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.

One Response to “A truth-telling thing”

  1. […] Posts Merry Christmas from All Manner of ThingChesterton and the New YorkerA truth-telling thingEnter freely, and of your own […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: