A few months ago I noted Christopher Hitchens’ posthumous essay on G.K. Chesterton. It wasn’t a very complimentary essay, which was, considering the principals, not surprising. In any case, the whole affair left a rather bad taste in my mouth, and so today — Chesterton’s birthday — I thought I would restore the balance by posting something nice about him.
In fact, I have decided to set aside the next couple of weeks, until the anniversary of his death on June 14, for a Chesterton mini-festival — if you can imagine anything about Chesterton being mini. There won’t be much to it: just a few posts here and there, and some thoughts on a few of Chesterton’s books that I have read over the past few months.
To start things off, let’s hear something in praise of the man. The following appraisal appeared in the Observer in 1927, and was written by J.C. Squire; it is reproduced in the General Editors’ Introduction to volume 10C of Ignatius Press’ Collected Works (which is where I found it). It does what Hitchens’ essay did not do: it demonstrates a good, rounded understanding of the man. To wit:
His greatest distinction lies in the hold he has upon the fundamentals of human life, considered both in its social and its metaphysical aspects. In an age of new questions he has reiterated old answers; in an age of skepticism he has laughed at the laughers with a hilarity less hollow than theirs; in an age which tends to excuse baseness, even when it does not explain it away he has flown the banners of honour, fidelity, and generosity; in an age of mass-regimentation he has stood for the sanctities of the individual’s soul. And above all — a fact in whose presence all his levities, quibbles, occasional injustices, easy assumptions, and prejudices pale into insignificance — living in a period when the value of life itself has been widely questioned (and, by that very fact, impoverished) he has maintained that “it is something to have been,” showing the world the spectacle of one man enjoying the thousand miracles of the day, though the sword of Damocles hang over his head as it hangs over the heads of us all. There lies his “optimism” not in any shallow Panglossian delusions, either about the present or about the future. In point of fact this self-proclaimed optimist habitually maintains that society has gone most of the way to the dogs, and will probably complete the course. “Earth will grow worse ere men redeem it, And wars more evil ere all wars cease.”
That last sentiment notwithstanding, I am feeling better already. More anon.