On May 29, 1874—140 years ago today—Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London. He wrote on just about every topic imaginable and in all kinds of genres, from biographies to literary criticism, from detective stories to poetry, from fantasy to Christian apologetics.This time of year, his words frequently show up in commencement addresses to help a speaker express wisdom for life’s journey. Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, spoke with Joseph Slife about G.K. Chesterton’s legacy.
You often refer to G.K. Chesterton as the “apostle of common sense.” Explain that. Chesterton will shock us with things that we already know. When I say common sense, that’s what I’m referring to: the truths that we do hold in common, but we forget about them, we neglect them, we ignore them. Chesterton reminds us of them, and that’s why there’s something refreshing about it. When he gives us one of these encapsulated truths, we immediately recognize it to be true, and our jaws sort of drop open.
When reading Chesterton one gets the sense that he is often commenting on contemporary culture, not the culture of 75 or 100 years ago. How do you account for the fact that his works remain so insightful and so applicable to today? I think the reason why he’s timely is because he’s timeless. When he appeals to common sense, common sense is something that not only goes across geographical boundaries, it goes against temporal boundaries, too.
Much of his work has stood the test of time, and perhaps none quite so much as his book Orthodoxy. For the uninitiated, talk about that book and why it continues to be regularly read and quoted now more than 100 years after its publication. Orthodoxy is how he came to discover the Christian faith. It also gets to many universal truths, which is why it has such a wide appeal, because he talks about the dilemma of trying to feel at home in the world and yet in awe of it. To hate the world enough to change it, but love it enough to think it worth changing. He gets at several universal truths of why we have a loyalty to our home and to our country, why we have this yearning for God, and how he found that it was really only fulfilled in the Christian understanding of God. He takes on a lot of the modern philosophies in the book and shows how they really are logically insufficient. They always lead to really crazy ideas. He says, if you take any one to their logical conclusion, you end up in the mad house. You end up in the clean, well-lit prison of one idea. Chesterton is a master of paradox, and his whole point is that paradox is really the way we understand a complicated truth, just as the Bible is full of paradoxes with “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and “a virgin shall give birth,” and “the dead shall rise,” these are all truths that go against our expectation. The ultimate paradox, as Chesterton points out, is Jesus, who is fully God and fully man—two truths that just seem to contradict each other, and, yet, they’re both true.
Despite what I said about Orthodoxy continuing to be read and re-read by many, Chesterton really is not all that well known. I was an English major in college and I don’t recall ever being assigned to read anything by Chesterton. While he was alive, everyone knew who Chesterton was. He was actually being taught in colleges and universities during his lifetime. He died in 1936. World War II comes along. You have just a really big break in philosophical outlook toward the world, of academic approach to literature and philosophy, that just didn’t leave any place for Chesterton. A whole generation got cheated out of learning who he was. And also, he has the problem that he doesn’t quite fit into any department of the university comfortably because he’s too philosophical for the literary people and too literary for the philosophical people. So those who have discovered him really for the most part in the last 25 years have done it on their own. … But now he’s starting to just seep back into the colleges and universities, mostly because students are discovering him, and then they want to do senior theses or a dissertation on Chesterton. So he’s making that comeback in the academic world, as well.
Listen to more of Joseph Slife and Dale Ahlquist’s conversation about G.K. Chesterton on The World and Everything in It: