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Aidan Nichols OP

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Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vii
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ix
1. An Overview of Chesterton’s Life . . . . . . . . . . . 3
2. Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis . .  . . 29
3. The Discovery of Metaphysical Realism. . . . . .  . . 57
4. The Role of Paradox . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89
5. The God of Joy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
6. Man in the Image of God. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121
7. Chesterton’s Christology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
8. Chesterton as Theological Ethicist . . . . . . . . . 163
9. Chesterton and the Church . . . . . . . . . . . .  . 185
Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . 207
Biographical Note: Aidan Nichols, O.P. . . . . . . .  . 211

Biographical Note
Aidan Nichols, O.P.

Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., of Blackfriars, Cambridge, is a lecturer in Cambridge niversity and the most prolific writer of theology in the English language. He has published on countless topics, especially in systematic, sacramental, and ecumenical theology, and was awarded the title Sacrae Theologiae Magister by the Dominican order in 2003. His books include important studies of St. Thomas Aquinas; modern thinkers, including Hans Urs von Balthasar; and the theology of Pope Benedict XVI. He has written on the liturgical “reform of the reform” and on “re-energising the Church in Culture,” as well as on the arts and iconography. The present book is based on a series of lectures given as the John Paul II Memorial Lecturer at the University of Oxford — the first Catholic Lectureship created in the university since the Reformation.


This study has a straightforward form. The book falls, in effect, into two halves. The first opens by offering an overview of Chesterton’s life, an overview that already identifies some salient intellectual themes. Chapter 2, on the Edwardian writers who were his earliest controversial opponents, chiefly explores materials found in his first major work, Heretics. Chapter 3 centres on Orthodoxy, which Chesterton intended to be read with Heretics in one’s other hand,z though it also ranges more widely in detailing Chesterton’s “discovery of metaphysical realism,” his version of Catholic Christianity’s philosophia perennis. Chapter 4 investigates the most distinctive of Chesterton’s imaginative and argumentative strategies, the paradox.

Then in the second half of this enquiry, I consider five theological themes: Chesterton’s argument for the existence of God, his theological anthropology, his Christology, his moral theology, and his ecclesiology — or, more widely, his overall sense of the Catholic Church and her faith. Alison Milbank’s study of Chesterton and Tolkien as theologians reached me too late for me to profit from it in the present study. I am delighted to see, however, that she looks in this direction for light. I hope that, in the wake of her more ambitious work, this small book will help to encourage theological interest in Chesterton, and indeed, the interest of Chestertonians in

Aidan Nichols, O. P.
Blackfriars, Cambridge,
Ash Wednesday, 2008


It is not customary to consider G. K. Chesterton a theologian, although his sympathy with theologians is unmistakable. In Christendom in Dublin he registered his annoyance with the “
tired and tiresome voice of the general scepticism” which “talks with eternal reiteration about the quarrels of theologians.” One would suppose that nobody had ever quarreled except theologians;

or that theologians had never done anything else. But if there be one thing morally certain, it is that the world will quarrel much more without theology than it ever did with theology.1

Chesterton considered this self-evident, since “people left without any common theory, or attempt at a theory, will be able to quarrel about absolutely anything whatever; including all the things on which men have hitherto agreed.2 Modern thinkers can and do take up ultimate positions which all past theologians would have termed “anarchical and abnormal.” It is hard to dislodge these positions precisely because they are ultimate: “They are out of sight and hearing, for the purpose of anything so sociable as a quarrel. Men do not agree enough to disagree.3 How, for example, can one reason with someone who denies the validity of reason? Or what is the point of proving unjust someone who does not believe in justice? “It is idle to offer ocular demonstration to the really consistent sceptic, who cannot believe his eyes.4

Once remove the old arena of theological quarrels, and you will throw open the whole world to the most horrible, the most hopeless, the most endless, the most truly interminable quarrels; the untheological quarrels.5

So winning a statement should not go without its theological reward.

Chesterton’s Theological Help

That is one reason for writing this book. Moreover, Chesterton has not only praised theologians; he has helped them. In the face of an agnosticism that has set its face against Christianity, he is attractive, indeed persuasive. As he put it with characteristic winningness in his study of William Blake:

You cannot take the region called the unknown and calmly say that though you know nothing about it, you know that all its gates are locked. That was the whole fallacy of Herbert Spencer and Huxley when they talked about the unknowable instead of about the unknown. An agnostic like Huxley must concede the possibility of a gnostic like Blake. We do not know enough about the unknown to know that it is unknowable.6

And since Chesterton was never afraid of risk-taking with his readership, he would go further:

When Blake lived at Felpham angels appear to have been as native to the Sussex trees as birds. His patriarchs walked on the Sussex Downs as easily as if they were in the desert.

Should we simply say, then, asks Chesterton, that Blake was mad?
He replies: “
Surely we cannot take an open question like the supernatural and shut it with a bang, turning the key of the madhouse on all the mystics of history.7

In “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” Father Brown is made to declare, “I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable.” The Byronic young American Paul T. Tarrant asks, “That’s what you call a paradox, isn’t it?

It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,” replied Father Brown. “It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr. Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr. Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawingroom and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible, it’s only incredible.8

Chesterton may not have considered himself a theologian. But he knew that theology was thought applied to religion, and as Stratford Caldecott remarks, “Very few have applied thought to religion as effectively as he.”9

Chesterton and the English Contribution to Catholicity

Another reason, and a more autobiographical one for writing this book, is bound up with my own most recent excuse for returning to Chesterton. In a recent book, I selected him as one of half a dozen or so “sages” or “critics of the culture” who might help to relaunch the mission of a Christian intelligentsia in contemporary English society. In The Realm: An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England, I confessed my admiration for Chesterton’s approach to apologetics: how Christianity satisfies at one and the same time our deep conviction that we are at home in the world — and yet do not really belong to it.10 I suggested that Orthodoxy remains for the English the best introduction to Gospel religion.11

Chesterton also has much to offer the wider cause of reconstructing English identity, since his prescription in the 1920s is as pertinent now as it was then: “What is wanted for the cause of England today is an Englishman with enough imagination to love his country from the outside as well as the inside.12

Chesterton disliked homogenization. “Nations can love each other as men and women love each other, not because they are alike but because they are different.13 He wanted a cultural-theological vindication of “the spirit of England”: “to make England attractive as a nationality, and even as a small nationality.14 I am inclined to trust his judgments owing to his sympathy with culture both low and high, and to the assurance and congeniality with which he moved among the classics of the English literary canon. Let us add, too, in the latter connection, his generosity of spirit, as in this encomium on Thomas Hardy:

People talk of the pessimism of Hardy as ruthless, and in its artistic method it was ruthless, often at the expense of reason and probability. But if he changed spiritually, it was always toward feeling less of the ruthlessness and more of the ruth. I should be very much surprised to learn that Hardy, especially in later life, was really a pessimist at all. His theory, as a theory, is not very clear or complete; but I am sure he did not become more clear or more complete, in the sense of more convinced of a dogma of despair.15

If England can make any specific contribution to catholicity, it is probably along the lines of the literary expression of humaneness. Such humaneness of spirit has its foundation in the enduring good sense of a post-lapsarian humanity that, in the formulations of Trent over against the Reformers, may be wounded, but is not for that reason a “dead duck.” There is something living here on which grace can build. Chesterton praised the “richness and humanity of the unconscious tradition” of the age into which he was born, despite the “cheapness and narrowness of its conscious formulae.16 He saw in that dull monarch George V, who occupied the throne for the last quarter-century of Chesterton’s adult life, someone who represented the “protection of the patient and unrecorded virtues of mankind.17 Chesterton did not rule out the possibility “in the incalculable time before us” that:

there may return to the mystical institution of the Crown something of that immemorial legend which linked it with religion, and made one baron, alone of all the barony, mysteriously responsible to God for the people.18

In England today, among people of sensibility, the chief substitutes for religion are “spirituality” and aestheticism. Chesterton had long since seen through them. He isolated the religiose but fundamentally agnostic panacea that now goes by the convenient name, at once vague and benign, of “spirituality,” and which Matthew Arnold called “culture”: “the disinterested play of the mind through the sifting of the best books and authors.19 To preserve a Church as a “vessel to contain the spiritual ideas of the age, whatever those ideas may be,20 could be considered the work of the culture-vultures “trying to establish and endow Agnosticism.” But, declares Chesterton:

[I]t is fairer and truer to say that unconsciously [Arnold] was
trying to restore Paganism: for this State Ritualism without
theology, and without much belief, actually was the practice
of the ancient world.

Regarding aestheticism, Chesterton also identified — in John Ruskin — the habit of mind that decides to “accept Catholic art but not Catholic ethics.22 The phenomenally well-attended National Gallery exhibition Seeing Salvation did not, one supposes, find an ecclesial correlative in a greatly increased rate of conversion to the Catholic Church, even though that Church was the inspiration of the vast majority of the artworks involved. Again, as Chesterton remarks:

In the matter of religion (which was the key of this age as of
every other) [Ruskin] did not, like Carlyle, set up the romance
of the great Puritans as a rival to the romance of the
Catholic Church. Rather, he set up and worshipped all the
arts and trophies of the Catholic Church as a rival to the
Church itself.

To link Chesterton so strongly to an analysis of the soul of England may not be the best way to commend this book to non-English readers. Yet Chesterton is a quintessentially English author, and, moreover, the catholicity of the Church is incomplete until all the nations have made their contribution to it. In that sense, it is Chesterton’s very Englishness that makes him of greatest interest to Catholics in America and elsewhere. And while we are still thinking of Chesterton from the viewpoint of the England — or the wider Christian world — of the early twenty-first century, I do not suppose many people will query the “prophetic” character of Chesterton’s comment — made in 1911! — to the effect that Mohammed “created a very big thing, which we have still to deal with.24

No doubt we shall contend with this “very big thing” — if disproportionate fears of terrorism do not prevent us — in a gentlemanly and sensible fashion. As Chesterton put it in his Autobiography, “sleepy sanity” is a typical English trait.25 Sometimes, however, we need a wake-up call — of the kind given by the Victorian giants on whom he wrote so well: Ruskin, Carlyle, Morris, Newman, and the rest. The remainder of this book seeks to show that “Chesterton’s theology” is just that.


1. Christendom in Dublin (London, 1932), 41-42.

2. Ibid., 42.

3. Christendom in Dublin, 43.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. William Blake (London, 1910), 74.

7. Ibid., 73.

8. The Complete Father Brown Stories (London, 1992, 2006), 431.

9. S. Caldecott, “Was Chesterton a Theologian?” The Chesterton
XXIV.4 (1998): 465.

10. A. Nichols, O. P., The Realm: An Unfashionable Essay on the
Conversion of England
(Oxford, 2008), 110-118.

11. Orthodoxy, of course, abounds in paradoxes, and Chesterton
himself has left an essay, reprinted in the posthumous collection
The Glass Walking-stick, where he roundly declares that “the English
people have a peculiar appetite for paradox.

12. What I saw in America (London, 1922), 284.

13. Ibid., 285.

14. Ibid.

15. Come to Think of It (London, 1930), 129.

16. The Victorian Age in Literature (London, 1911), 31.

17. Come to Think of It, 242.

18. Ibid.

19. The Victorian Age in Literature, 73.

20. Ibid., 76.

21. The Victorian Age in Literature, 77.

22. Ibid., 69.

23. Ibid., 62-63.

24. Ibid., 44.

25. Autobiography (London, 1936), 35-36.

Chapter 1
An Overview of Chesterton’s Life

G. K. Chesterton was born in 1874, in west central London, between Holland Park and Kensington Palace Gardens, the elder son of an estate agent whose family had long been established in that business. Like many middle-class people, adequately supplied with servants, and funded by family firms that more or less ran themselves,
his father and mother had a good deal of leisure time which they devoted to artistic or quasi-artistic pastimes, including watercolor painting, toy theatres, photography, collecting medieval illuminations and stained glass, and the study and memorization of English literature.
26 They were Liberals with a capital L in politics and a small l in religion, occasionally attending a Unitarian chapel in the vicinity. Chesterton’s younger brother Cecil would sum up their creed as “the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, the non-eternity of evil, the final salvation of souls”: all amounting to what he termed “a vague but noble theo-philanthropy.27 At least it was a creed of a sort. The Chestertons’ household may have coincided with, but did not exemplify, what Chesterton called “the precise moment when a middle-class man still had children and servants to control but no longer had creeds or guilds or kings or priests to control him”; such a man was thus “an anarchist to those above him, but still an authoritarian to those below.28

Through no fault of his educators, Chesterton’s schooling was erratic. But as an adult he believed strongly in the prolongation of childhood, and he never regretted that he had been a backward child. He attended St Paul’s School at a time when it enjoyed undoubted academic excellence, yet he was noted for inattention, slovenliness of personal appearance, and incompetence at sport, although because he was taller than most other boys as well as — at this juncture — still slim, he escaped bullying. The ongoing informal education he received from his father, who took him to museums and galleries, and explored with him the literary classics, counted for more than his lessons. Where Chesterton came alive at school was as chairman of the St. Paul’s Junior Debating Club and contributor to its short-lived but professionally produced magazine, The Debater, in whose pages his originality of thought and expression, and gifts of versification — all typified by remarkable energy and exuberance — became apparent for the first time. The mediocrity of his form reports stood in sharp contrast to the judgment given his mother by the High Master of the school in 1894: “Six foot of genius. Cherish him, Mrs Chesterton, cherish him.29

Chesterton’s gift for friendship, which would later metamorphose into the capacity to capture the goodwill of a far wider range of people than is the lot of most of us, had also emerged by this time, the best-known of his close companions being Edmund
Clerihew Bentley, inventor of the minor genre known by his middle name. “
The people of Spain think Cervantes/ Equal to half-adozen Dantes,/ An opinion resented most bitterly/ By the people of Italy.” Unlike his friends, however, Chesterton did not attend Oxford or Cambridge. He had shown minimal academic as distinct from intellectual ability. Instead, following his own inclination and with parental encouragement, he attended drawing classes and subsequently the Slade School of Fine Art, at that period a department of University College, London, where Chesterton also took some non-examined courses in English and French and, for a short while, Latin. After a year, he was asked to leave, since his teachers considered they had failed to teach him anything beyond the skills of decorative and grotesque drawing skills he already possessed.

Crisis and Reaction

Chesterton’s experience of the Slade is nonetheless important for his biography and also for the history of his opinions. Influenced by some of its students and, one can speculate, depressed by the loss of his buddies who were either still enrolled at school or, in due course, went up to the historic universities, he began to feel, by his own account (see his “notebooks”30 and Autobiography, for instance), a distinct attraction toward evil.31 He gravitated toward nihilism as a general philosophy of life and began to dabble in occultist spiritualism. Spiritualism was becoming fashionable, especially among the metropolitan elite, but Chesterton’s taste of it, and conversations with students whom he took, at any rate, to be diabolists, was salutary.32 His agnosticism remained, but it acquired a pro-Christian coloration. For instance, at some point in this period he jotted down about Christmas Day,

Good news: but if you ask me what it is, I know not;/ It is a track of feet in the snow, It is a lantern showing a path, It is a door set open.33

At the Slade Chesterton also acquired an extremely hostile attitude to the painterly mode called Impressionism, a hostility that not only later defined much of his attitude to art at large but was formative for the development of his realism in metaphysics. Consider his 1907 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. As Gabriel Syme, fleeing from the agents of Sunday, dives into a patch of woodland, the play of light and shade on the leaves causes him to muse:

Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sunsplashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing the modern people called Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.34

The identification of Impressionism as a symptom of cultural and, especially, epistemological decadence also finds expression in, for example, his 1910 study of William Blake. Seeking to express how for Blake lucidity and decisiveness of outline were the chief desiderata in draftsmanship, Chesterton risks the anachronism of writing that “the thing he hated most in art was the thing which we now call Impressionism — the substitution of atmosphere for shape, the sacrifice of form to tint, the cloudland of the mere colorist.” Incidentally, that same work ascribes the presence of occasional bizarre phrases, sometimes obsessively repeated, in Blake’s poetry to his commerce with spirits — not all of which were necessarily benign. Chesterton’s Slade experience provides the likely context for such assessments as the following:

It was exactly because [Blake] was unnaturally exposed to a hail of forces that were more than natural that some breaches were made in his mental continuity, some damage was done to his mind.35

More widely, Chesterton’s dip into the waters of fin-de-siècle aestheticism gave him an aversion to any version of “art for art’s sake,” an aesthetic, he thought, that licensed a willful departure from the real — both in the sense of showing a lack of respect for given natural forms and in the sense of departure from moral norms themselves warranted by humanity’s good sense. That is a motif of his first published work, Greybeards at Play, a collection of comic verse subsidized by his father.W. H. Auden thought it some of the best of its kind in English.

I had a rather funny dream,
Intense, that is, and mystic;
I dreamed that, with one leap and yell,
The world became artistic.
The Shopmen, when their souls were still,
Declined to open shops —
And cooks recorded frames of mind
In sad and subtle chops.
The stars were weary of routine:
The trees in the plantation
Were growing every fruit at once,
In search of a sensation.
The moon went for a moonlight stroll,
And tried to be a bard,
And gazed enraptured at itself:
I left it trying hard.
The sea had nothing but a mood
Of “vague ironic gloom,”
With which t’explain its presence in
My upstairs drawing room.
The sun had read a little book
That struck him with a notion:
He drowned himself and all his fires
Deep in the hissing ocean.
Then all was dark, lawless, and lost:
I heard great devilish wings:
I knew that Art had won,
and snapt The Covenant of Things.

The slogan “art for art’s sake” retained its power to elicit from Chesterton occasional expressions of impatience. Thus, in his survey book The Victorian Age in Literature he remarks near the outset:

It is quite needless here to go into the old “art for art’s sake” business, or explain at length why individual artists cannot be reviewed without reference to their traditions or creeds. It is enough to say that with other creeds they would have been, for literary purposes, other individuals.37

Professional (and Confessional) Beginnings

Given his allergy to mediums and ouija boards, it was ironic that Chesterton’s first job on leaving the Slade was for a small Bloomsbury publisher specializing in spiritualism and the occult. He soon got through a backlog of manuscripts submitted, sending them back to, as he put it, “addresses, which I should imagine, must be private asylums.38 After a few months of this he was able to get a post with a mainstream publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, later taken over by Ernest Benn. Chesterton’s courtship of his future wife, Frances Bloggs, the first dogmatico-sacramental Christian he appears to have met (she was annglo-Catholic), and the launching of his career as a reviewer in London journals began now, in 1896. By the end of 1900 he was selling articles to London papers on a regular basis.

At this stage — the closing years of the nineteenth century — Chesterton’s mind had three comparatively settled components. The first, to which he owed in part his reading of the American poet Walt Whitman, but far more to the spontaneous experience of his own childhood, was piety toward the cosmos. “I put great faith in the healing power of the great winds and the sun. ‘Nature,’ as Walt Whitman says, ‘and her primal sanities.’39 The cosmic environment of human living would remain one of Chesterton’s distinctive preoccupations. (It should be added that Whitman’s intoxication with the physical universe of skies and grass also extended to human comradeship, as did that of Chesterton.)

The second component was Socialism, which later yielded to Distributism, notably under the influence of Hilaire Belloc, who was as opposed to Socialism as he was to Capitalism. In his autobiography, Chesterton explains that he became a Socialist only because it was intolerable not to be, granted the chaotic consequences of over-industrialization and the increasing penury, with the agrarian depression lasting from the mid 1870s to the mid 1890s, of the rural proletariat.

The third and last component was an increasing sympathy with Christian theism. Such theism was as yet doctrinally unformulated. Its starting-point was what Chesterton registered as a need to give thanks for membership in the cosmos. As he would later put it in Orthodoxy, birth itself seemed a birthday present. To whom could one give thanks if not a God? His theism included admiration for the Jesus of the Gospels. It also sought to find a strong affinity between the teaching of Jesus and contemporary Socialism, notably through the role in each of compassion, an assault
on covetousness, and what St. Paul had called “
bearing one another’s burdens,” which Chesterton interpreted in terms of political economy to mean “leveling, silencing, and reducing one’s own chances, for the [sake of the] chance of your weaker brethren.” These three elements of self-abnegation were, wrote Chesterton, the “three fountains of collectivist passion,” common to Socialists and the New Testament alike.40

Thaxted and Merry England

The Chestertons’ marriage would be solemnized by the most famous Socialist Anglo-Catholic clergyman in England, Conrad Noel, the vicar of Thaxted in north Essex. Noel’s 1906 Church Socialist League, a much more radicalized version of two previous left-wing High Anglican bodies, the 1877 Guild of St. Matthew and the 1889 Christian Social Union, advocated a revolutionary overthrow of the existing political, social, and economic order in England by bringing land, heavy industry, and transport into public ownership by all available means, not excluding a general strike or armed insurrection. Noel was a “little Englander” who despised the British Empire as arrogant, parasitical, greedy, and cosmopolitan. Although he supported the First World War as a righteous struggle against German militarism, he also approved of the war-time Easter Rising in Ireland: in his church the Sinn Fein tricolor and the Red Flag were displayed alongside the Cross of St. George. His socialism acknowledged as its closest political neighbor the Marxian “Social Democratic Federation,” whose most famous supporter had been the Romantic poet and designerWilliam Morris. Like Morris, Noel wanted to combine socialist revolution with a revival of native English traditions in arts and crafts, and — especially stressed by Noel — song and dance, which in Thaxted became para-liturgical: forms of festivity following on the elaborate Sarum-rite Eucharists, Corpus Christi processions, and other ceremonies celebrated in the parish church, whose patron, the eccentricFrances Maynard, Countess of Warwick, kept at bay the strongly disapproving bishops of Chelmsford. Although Chesterton began early to have doubts about the interrelatedness of Socialism and Christianity, Noel’s influence on him can hardly be overestimated. Chesterton would follow Noel, albeit less “folkloristically,” in drawing attention to what Noel’s biographer Reg Groves calls

fragmentary survivals of a past way of life and culture that had once been rooted in popular life; regional and local in inspiration, and so [it might be hoped] ultimately universal in its more profound expressions.41

Both men — Noel and Chesterton — sought a unified cultural vision on religious foundations. “My own work,” remarked Noel toward the end of his life:

though poor in languages and scholarship, has been to synthesize and develop the work of many original thinkers and make it more of a unity . . . I believe we hold in the kind of Thaxted theology, philosophy and politics, something that is a development and yet enshrines a huge amount of the truth without which our age must perish.42

And he went on to say that the Church’s goal is

revolutionary and political (in a wide sense) but ever so much more. It holds all values of redemption, and has its outlook on drama, on amusements, on crafts and trades, on music, on dancing, on every kind of human activity and expressions. Its task is therefore infinitely more difficult and complex than that of cruder, narrower parties like the Communists or the Labour folk . . . I think it holds in embryo in the Gospels, and in greater detail in its best thinking and most living tradition the secret of life for men.43

Noel’s synthesis of Socialism and Anglo-Catholicism would be mirrored in Chesterton’s synthesis of Distributism and Catholicism, first Anglo- and later Roman. The common factors were, at first, the inspiration, both social and aesthetic, of Morris, and later, the role of classical Christian doctrine and morals. But even
as Chesterton began to approach the latter, he started to part from the former, as his notebooks bear witness.

Mr. William Morris . . . in his News from Nowhere gives a beautiful picture of a land ruled by Love, and rightly grounds the give-and-take camaraderie of his ideal stateupon an assumed improvement in human nature. But he does not tell us how such an improvement is to be effected, and Christ did . . . When we compare the spiritual attitudes of two thinkers, one of whom is considering whether social history has been sufficiently a course of improvement to warrant him in believing that it will culminate in universal altruism, while the other is considering whether he loves people enough to walk down tomorrow to the marketplace and distribute everything but his staff and his scrip, it will not be denied that the latter is likely to undergo certain deep and acute emotional experiences, which will be quite unknown to the former.44

In an admiring yet also critical essay on Morris, Chesterton lauded him in these words:

Poet of the childhood of nations, craftsman in the new honesties of art, prophet of a merrier and wiser life, his fullblooded enthusiasm will be remembered when human life has once more assumed flamboyant colours and proved that this awful greenish grey of the aesthetic twilight in which we now live is, in spite of all the pessimists, not the greyness of death, but the greyness of dawn.45

That generous tribute was paid in 1902. But six years later Chesterton took his definitive leave of Socialism in an article entitled “Why I Am Not a Socialist,” published in the distinctly avant-garde journal The New Age. In the summary offered by Chesterton’s biographer Michael Ffinch, with citations from the original:

Just as imperialism had been foisted upon [the “mass of the common people”] by the interests of commerce and international banking, so socialism would be imposed on them by the interests of intellectuals, “decorative artists and Oxford dons and journalists and Countesses on the spree.”46

It is difficult not to think that by “
decorative artists” Chesterton has in mind Morris, just as the “Countesses” necessarily conjures up Noel’s patron, the wife of the Earl of Warwick. Not surprisingly, the second of the two Russian revolutions of 1917 would complete the process of Chesterton’s disenchantment, though without extinguishing his own brand of radicalism. By 1922 he was writing the following: “Those who will not even admit the Capitalist problem deserve to get the Bolshevist solution. All things considered, I cannot say anything worse of them than that.47 This reaction was not uncommon. A lifelong Anglican Distributist, Maurice Reckitt, commented wryly:

[T]he catastrophic achievements of a militant Marxism in eastern Europe were suggesting that the word “revolutionary,” which Church socialists had been accustomed to employ with a somewhat light-hearted vagueness, would require in future to be used more circumspectly.48

In the early
Notebooks entry on Morris and Christ, Chesterton added that the “Galilaean programme” at least makes more provision than does Socialism for what he calls the “real triad of Christian virtues”: humility, activity, and cheerfulness. If upon hearing those words, dogmatic theologians cannot help feel a sense of anti-climax, they need to recall that this text comes from the period before Chesterton discovered doctrinal Christianity. The first clear evidence for Chesterton’s adherence to a dogmatic confession was prompted by a manifesto of rationalism, God and My Neighbour, in which its author, Robert Blatchford, editor of the journal The Clarion, set out his reasons for not being a Christian. Chesterton’s response, published a few months later as a contribution to a counterblast, The Doubts of Democracy, anticipates the line of argument of his mature apologetics, and notably the second Christological section of that two-part work, The Everlasting Man, which dates from 1925.49

How, then, did that discovery of doctrinal Christianity come about? Like all momentous shifts in outlook, it probably had its conditioning factors, of which the influence and example of his fiancée, later wife, was surely chief (he would dedicate The Ballad of the White Horse to the woman who “brought the cross to me”), and that of Noel a good second — as the Autobiography can testify. 50 But at root his conversion was the dawning of an intellectual conviction of which Chesterton gives a celebrated account at the opening of his 1908 masterpiece, Orthodoxy. The world-view he was developing in personal reaction to the contemporary intelligentsia turned out to be, in key essentials, the same as the ancient faith of the Church. Or, as he had already put it in the essay “The Doubts of Democracy”: “If I gave each of my reasons for being a Christian, a vast number of them would be Mr. Blatchford’s reasons for not being one.51

In the course of writing in 1904 a study of contemporary intellectual trends, under the title
Heretics, where Blatchford continued to figure, Chesterton found there were a number of Blatchfords of differing kinds. He judged that the reasons for which Christianity was thus attacked from all sides were in many respects contradictory. This was so, he thought, not only in the negative sense of the objectors cancelling each other out but also in the positive sense that their opposite objections pointed to something uniquely balanced and fitting to the human condition in evangelical and catholic orthodoxy — and what a later generation would call “orthopraxy”: right practice.

Political Engagements

Chesterton’s conversion to a full-blooded Christianity coincided with the journalistic enterprise which made his name in Britain, and that was his campaign against the Second Boer War, a war which pitted the British Empire for reasons commercial and strategic against the two small Afrikaaaner republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, whose white population later in the twentieth century (but not at its opening) would become associated with the notorious system of social relations called “apartheid.” Opposition to the Boer War was rife on the radical wing of the Liberal Party, to which at this time Chesterton adhered, but it failed to capture the party as a whole. Indeed, many of the party members — the “Liberal Imperialists” — made common cause with the Conservatives in supporting the war, while the Liberal leader in the Commons, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, abstained at the crucial vote. Chesterton argued for nations with coherent internal cultures over against cosmopolitan empires which deracinated rulers and ruled. In What I Saw in America (1922) he would write: “The objection to spreading anything all over the world is that, among other things, you have to spread it very thin.52 Moreover, he suspected — not without reason — the invisible hand of high finance pulling the strings of government behind the scenes. Yet uppermost in the mind of Lord Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister, was the loss to imperial prestige if British paramountcy in South Africa were successfully defied.53

The Boer crisis brought Chesterton together with a pugnacious fellow-writer, Hilaire Belloc, as classical a stylist as Chesterton was romantic, a Catholic by birth, an historian (of a sort) by his Oxford training, and for a while a Liberal member of Parliament. In the 1910 election, Belloc, angered by what he saw as the Party’s turn to a “Welfare State” that was halfway to a “Servile State,” stood as an Independent candidate and won. Later, under the administration of David Lloyd George, notorious for what the later twentieth century would call “sleaze,” Belloc would abandon with disgust not only the Liberal Party but also modern Parliamentarianism as a whole — and draw Chesterton with him. Though Shaw’s term for Belloc and Chesterton jointly, “the Chesterbelloc,” hardly does justice to the differences of form and content in their writing, it serves to draw attention to a collaboration. (Their literal collaboration consisted in Chesterton’s illustrations for a number of Belloc’s books.) Chesterton relied on Belloc for, notably, historical knowledge. He was conscious of his lack of background in the older Universities, though hardly apologetic for it; he considered the education Oxford and Cambridge offered undergraduates to be largely a lamentable collusion in the self-indulgent lifestyle of pampered young men: “
[I]t is not a working way of managing education to be entirely content with the mere fact that you have given the luckiest boys the jolliest time.54

Chesterton was not a pacifist, as his broadsides against the Russian novelist and popular philosopher Leo Tolstoy made plain.

Nothing is baser in our time than the idea that we can have special enthusiasms for things, so long as they are secure, without pledging ourselves to uphold them if they are ever in peril.55

He accepted the necessity of the First World War: the world had to be made safe from Prussian militarism. He did not volunteer; by 1914 his girth was already alarming. A lady on a London street who interrogated him with the words, “Why are you not out at the Front?” was met by his celebrated riposte: “Madame, if you go round to my side, you will see that I am.

The War brought great grief to Chesterton nonetheless. The death of his brother Cecil in a fever hospital in northern France (“trench fever” was a frequent killer in the grim fighting conditions of the Western Front) robbed him of his only surviving sibling. In due course, a curious exchange of gifts took place. Gilbert took over Cecil’s journalistic enterprise as editor of what would later become G.K.’s Weekly. Cecil passed on his (Roman) Catholic faith. Not, however, quite yet.

Literary Output: the Anglican Phase

By the summer of 1922, when Chesterton was received into the Catholic Church by the priest whom he would immortalise as the fictional detective Father Brown, Chesterton was a major — if controversial — literary figure in England. In addition to some hundreds of articles in newspapers and magazines, many of which remain uncollected, he had published studies of the artists William Blake and George Frederick Watts; of the writers Robert Browning, George Bernard Shaw, and Dickens; as well as a general survey of Victorian literature — all books full of incisive, not to mention provocative, judgments. He had written a short history of England, five fantastic novels,56 the first sets of Father Brown stories, five books of poetry, and at least a dozen collections of essays, 57 as well as two works crucial for understanding his theological outlook: Heretics and Orthodoxy, to whose examination I shall be devoting the lion’s share of the next two chapters of this book. Chesterton’s studies of other creative artists can be ransacked for their insights, including theological, and are not treated as sober historical introductions to their subjects. This is as Chesterton wished. Of his study, Robert Browning, he wrote:

I will not say I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views of God and religion (highly developed), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity.58

The tone here is deliberately self-mocking (T. S. Eliot, for example, thought Chesterton was without rival as a critic of Dicken ). In fact, the Browning book led to an invitation to become the first occupant of the Chair of English Literature at the “redbrick” University of Birmingham. Had he accepted, Chesterton would have met the young J.R.R. Tolkien. But perhaps it was as well for academe that he declined: the boundary-lines defining subject-matter were necessarily porous to one who thought that, as Chesterton put it in his study of Watts: There is no detail from buttons to kangaroos, that does not enter into the gay confusion of philosophy. There is no fact of life, from the death of a donkey to the General Post Office, which has not its place to dance and sing in, in the glorious Carnival of theology.59

One reviewer of the Browning book singled out for praise what I believe to be the heart of Chesterton’s wider imaginative achievement, namely, his success in giving the reader “the wild joy of looking upon the world once more for the first time.60 It is hard to think of much if anything from Chesterton’s Anglican period which he needed to jettison on finding a spiritual home elsewhere. All aspects of his copious literary production in the years before 1922 are germane to his standing as a Christian thinker in the Catholic tradition. In succeeding chapters, they are liberally drawn upon in presenting the philosophical and theological themes Chesterton chose to treat — and treat so well that one could imagine some future Pope declaring him a Doctor of the Church.61

Conversion to Rome

Before looking into that imaginative achievement in the body of this book, we need to complete this overview by a retrospect on the (Roman) Catholic period of Chesterton’s life. Chesterton’s move from Anglo-Catholicism to the Church of Rome was motivated by concern for legitimate authority. After all, this had been the nub of the issue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his time: where and how was divine authority to be accessed in historical society? As early as 1909, when the third of Chesterton’s novelistic fantasia, The Ball and the Cross, was published, with a Highland Catholic as its quasi-hero, rumours had circulated that Chesterton was to convert to the Church of Rome. Shortly after The Ball and the Cross appeared, Chesterton discussed his spiritual concerns with two Catholic priests who struck up a conversation with him at Coventry railway station, saying, “It’s a matter that is giving me a great deal of agony of mind.62a The likely effects of such a move on his non-Catholic wife served as a strong deterrent to Chesterton’s conversion.

In the last weeks of 1914 Chesterton had suffered a serious stress-induced illness, provoked by his gruelling schedule of evidence of corruption in public life.) It was an unhappy period, characterised by some atypically acerbic journalism and a sharpening of his remarks about the nefarious activities, real or imaginary, of Jewish financiers based on the high-level skulduggery of the “Marconi Affair” (1911-1913), of which a very full account is given in the biography of Chesterton by Alzina Stone Dale. 62b In this severe medical crisis (for a while he was thought unlikely to recover) his wife Frances was reconciled to summoning Father John O’Connor to receive Chesterton into the Catholic Church by administration of the last sacraments in the event that his condition worsened.63 In fact Chesterton recovered, and it took another eight years before he steeled himself to make the move without his wife.

Various factors were in play in the temptation to “pope.” As Adam Schwartz suggests, Chesterton’s visit to the Holy Land in 1919-1920 as a special orrespondent for the Daily Telegraph may have “heightened his sensibility to Christianity’s historicity and the consequent importance of tradition.64 Again, the Anglican Communion’s 1920 Lambeth Conference struck him as flawed by a tendency to doctrinal minimalism, and thus by an openness to accommodation with Modernism.65 By contrast, the constancy of the Roman teaching office increasingly stood out. Here was a firm accommodation with Modernism.66 By contrast, the constancy of the Roman teaching office increasingly stood out. Here was a firm
point of reference in a changing world and Church. He would write in his study of Chaucer:

The Church is not a movement or a mood or a direction, but the balance of many movements and moods, and membership of it consists of accepting the ultimate arbitrament which strikes the balance between them.67

But above all the sacramental authority of the Catholic Church to renew baptismal rebirth by absolution from sins occupied the forefront of his mind. It meant for him spiritual resurrection. As he put it in the sestet of the sonnet he wrote on his reception into the Church:

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

Six months later he explained his decision in intellectually wider terms to his fellow-convert, the writer Maurice Baring, who seems to have been, one can note in passing, the original of Horne Fisher, the hero of a novel of high politics Chesterton had just published, The Man Who Knew Too Much.69 As Chesterton wrote to Baring:

That there has always been [in the Church of England] a High Church Party is true; that there has always been an Anglo-Catholic Party may be true, but I am not so sure of it . . . But there is one matter arising from that which I do think important. Even the High Church Party, even the Anglo-Catholic Party only confronts a particular heresy called Protestantism upon particular points . . . If [High Anglicanism] is not the heresy of an age, at least it is only the anti-heresy of an age. But since I have been a Catholic, I am conscious of being in a much vaster arsenal, full of arms against countless other potential enemies. The Church, as the Church and not merely as ordinary opinion, has something to say to philosophies which the merely High Church has never had occasion to think about.70

He would take such thoughts further in The Catholic Church and Conversion, published following his wife’s reception into the Faith in 1926.

Literary Output: the Catholic Phase

In the remaining years of his life (he died on 14 June 1936), Chesterton himself had many things to say about some of those philosophies. He remained much in demand as a public speaker, even if his capacity to turn up at the right place at the right time was notoriously deficient — witness the celebrated telegram to his wife: “Am in Market Harborough, where ought I to be?” He made a speaking tour of the United States in 1930-1931, repeating the success he had achieved in an earlier visit in 1920, where he risked such remarks as these in Chicago: “I do not plan to go farther west than Chicago, for having seen Jerusalem and Chicago, I think I shall have touched the extremes of civilization.71 He also spent three months in Rome, staying with his wife, Frances, and his secretary (later, literary executor) Dorothy Collins, at the celebrated Hotel Hassler, at the top of the Spanish Steps. The visit included meetings with Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. He was more impressed with the latter than he expected, though he concluded his account of modern Italy confessing that “by every instinct of my blood, I . . . prefer English liberty to Latin discipline.72

His literary output during this post-conversion period did not diminish. From his Catholic period, we have studies of Chaucer, the Scots novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and the early nineteenth- century social critic William Cobbett; hagiography — his books on Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas; some twenty essay collections; an autobiography (to be posthumously published), two plays, more poems and Father Brown stories, and the principal theological work of his life, The Everlasting Man. Again, there are hundreds of uncollected magazine articles, above all from his relaunching of The New Witness as G. K.’s Weekly, in an effort to render viable a paper which had languished since his brother’s death at the end of the last Western Front campaign of the First World War. In the 1930s he gained a new audience through BBC radio, his high-pitched but beautifully modulated voice well-suited to this medium.73

Typical themes of Chesterton’s maturity were the imaginative and argumentative defence of historic Christianity in its dogmas, practices, and saints, Distributism (in 1926
G. K.’s Weekly became the official mouthpiece of the Distributive League, and Chesterton the League’s President 74), and, most fundamental of all, the thesis that man was not merely an animal who had evolved from a primitive life-form but a special creation, in the image of God.

Though not all Chesterton’s biographers approve, his own Autobiography ends, in fact, with the affirmation that his reception into the Catholic Church was absolutely decisive for him: “[T]his overwhelming conviction that there is one key which can unlock all doors brings back to me my first glimpse of the glorious gift of the senses; and the sensational experience of sensation . . .75 Chesterton had sought to recapture this “glimpse” in Orthodoxy and elsewhere, and he registers, in the book’s closing words, a curious correspondence between a figure in his father’s toy-theatre and the Peter whose vicar is the pope of Rome.

[T]here starts up again before me, standing sharp and clear in shape as of old, the figure of a man who crosses a bridge and who carries a key; as I saw him when I first looked into fairyland through the window of my father’s peep-show. But I know that he who is called Pontifex, the Builder of the Bridge, is called also Claviger, the Bearer of the Key; and that such keys were given him to bind and loose when he was a poor fisher in a far province, beside a small and almost secret sea.76

Still, other Christians, beyond the confines of the Catholic Church, can appreciate what I am calling in this book Chesterton’s theology since, as Dorothy L. Sayers, herself an Anglican, wrote of him in her preface to The Surprise:

To the young people of my generation, G. K. C. was a kind of Christian liberator. Like a beneficent bomb, he blew out of the Church a quantity of stained glass of a very bad period, and let in gusts of fresh air, in which the dead leaves of doctrine danced with all the energy and indecorum of Our Lady’s Tumbler.77

In his copy, given him by the author, of Sir Oliver Lodge’s The Substance of Faith Allied with Science: A Catechism for Parents and Teachers, by the side of the question, “What is the duty of man?” Chesterton pencilled in his own answer: “To love God mystically and his neighbour as himself.78 Let that, then, be his epitaph.


26. Toy theatres figured large in Chesterton’s childhood: it is instructive
that in his study of Stevenson he ascribes to the Scots novelist’s own childhood love for them the origin of the “
special style or spirit” of his work in its clarity of form and characterization. “In that little pasteboard play, there might be something of the pantomime, but there was nothing of the dissolving view” (Robert Louis Stevenson [London, 1927], 50).

27. Cited in M. Ffinch, G. K. Chesterton (London, 1986), 13.

28. Autobiography, 21.

29. Cited in M. Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London, 1945), 42.

30. A miscellaneous collection of documents now in the G. K. Chesterton Archives in the Manuscripts Department of the British Library.

31. See W. Oddie, “Chesterton at the Fin de siècle: Orthodoxy and
the Perception of Evil,”
The Chesterton Review XXV.3 (1999),

32. In his 1913 play Magic he “plainly stated that calling up powers,
thrones, and dominations was an ancient and perilous sin,” A. S.
The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (Grand
Rapids, Michigan, 1982), 35.

33. Cited in M. Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 62.

34. The Man Who Was Thursday (London, 1907, 1944), 131. For an
analysis of Chesterton’s attitude to Impressionism, see J. D.
Coates, Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis (Hull, 1984),

35. William Blake, 94.

36.“On the Disastrous Spread of Aestheticism in All Classes,” in J.
Sullivan, ed.,
G. K. Chesterton, Greybeards at Play, and other
Comic Verse
(London, 1974), 42-47.

37. The Victorian Age in Literature, 8-9.

38. Cited in M. Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 67.

39. Cited in M. Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 110.

40. Ibid., 71-72.

41. R. Groves, Conrad Noel and the Thaxted Movement: An Adventure
in Christian Socialism
(London, 1967), 120.

42. Ibid., p. 321.

43. Ibid, p. 322.

44. Cited in M. Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 74.

45. “William Morris,” in Twelve Types: A Book of Essays (London,
1902), 30.

46. M. Ffinch, G. K. Chesterton, 157, with an internal citation from
“Why I Am Not a Socialist,” published in
The New Age for 4 January

47. What I Saw in America, p. 127.

48. M. Reckitt, Maurice to Temple: A Century of the Social Movement
in the Church of England
(London 1946), p. 167.

49. Crucial sections of the essay are anthologised in M. Ward, Gilbert
Keith Chesterton
, 172-176.

50. Autobiography, 159-163.

51. M. Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 172.

52. What I Saw in America, 244-245.

53. A. Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (London, 1999, 2000), pp.

54. All Things Considered (London, 1908), 97.

55. The Glass Walking-stick and Other Essays, ed. D. Collins (London,
1955), 71.

56. The classic study is I. Boyd, The Novels of G. K. Chesterton: A
Study in Art and Propaganda
(London, 1975).

57. For an account of the variety of Chesterton’s approach to essay
writing, against the background of a history of the essay form and
with some subtly analysed examples of how Chesterton gained
his effects, see J. D. Coates,
G. K. Chesterton as Controversialist,
Essayist, Novelist, and Critic
(Lewiston, New York, 2002), 117-

58. Autobiography, 95.

59. G. F. Watts (London, 1904; 1975), p. 75

60. Cited in M. Ffinch, G. K. Chesterton, 111.

61. That assumes Chesterton could be acknowledged as an example
of Christian holiness of life, something not obviously impossible.
The genres of his writing are, of course, atypical of the great Doctors
— but much the same could be said of, for example, Thérèse
of Lisieux, declared
doctor ecclesiae by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

62a. Cited in M. Ffinch, G. K. Chesterton, 183.

62b. A. S. Dale, The Outline of Sanity, 168-183.

63. M. Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 330.

64. A. Schwartz, The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham
Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones
2005), 78. The Jerusalem stay bore fruit in
The New Jerusalem
(London, 1920).

65. See I. Boyd, C. S. B., “Chesterton’s Anglican Reaction to Modernism,”
in A. Nichols, O. P., ed.,
Chesterton and the Modernist
(Saskatoon, 1990), 5-36.

66. See I. Boyd, C. S. B., “Chesterton’s Anglican Reaction to Modernism,”
in A. Nichols, O. P., ed.,
Chesterton and the Modernist
(Saskatoon, 1990), 5-36.

67. Chaucer: A Study (London, 1932), 341.

68. Collected Poems (London, 1933), 387.

69. The Man Who Knew Too Much (London, 1922). For the plausible
identification of Horne Fisher with Baring, see I. Boyd,
Novels of G. K. Chesterton
, 79-83.

70. Cited in M. Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 390.

71. Cited A. S. Dale, The Outline of Sanity, 225.

72. The Resurrection of Rome (London, 1930), 283.

73. A. S. Dale, The Outline of Sanity, 288.

74. Some major articles of Chesterton on distributism from G. K.’s
were published in 1926 as The Outline of Sanity — which
should not be confused, of course, with the biography of the same
title by A. S. Dale in the previous footnote.

75. Autobiography, 355.

76. Autobiography, 355.

77. D. L. Sayers, Preface, The Surprise (London, 1952).

78. O. Lodge, The Substance of Faith Allied with science: A Catechism for Parents and Teachers (London, 1907), 129. I thank Mr. Stratford Caldecott of the Chesterton Library in Oxford for showing me this item in the collection of Chesterton’s own holdings.

The above extract is reproduced with the kind permission of the uk publisher of this book, Darton, Longman and Todd.

Copyright © Aidan Nichols 2009

Version: 16th September 2009

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