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G.K. Chesterton’s Guide to Reality

Carl Olson

Like countless others, I have been deeply influenced over the years by the writings of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). I discovered him when I was a young Evangelical Protestant, restless in my realization that I was missing a thing or two when it came to Christianity. And I first really started to “get him” when I read Orthodoxy (1908) and recognized, in his description of paradox and orthodoxy, a thinker with an uncanny sense of reality—that is, of what really is.

Although Chesterton is remembered for his joyful and jocular personality, as a young man without any strong religious ties he became fascinated with the occult and, along with his brother Cecil, experimented with Ouija boards. In the words of the literary critic Simon Leys, Chesterton

experienced a terrifying confrontation with evil—evil not as an external menace, but as a presence in the mind, a spiritual reality generated from within himself. At that moment, he had the intuition generated from within himself which he was to explore all his life and would finally sum up near the end of his career in his masterly book on Thomas Aquinas: Christianity had reversed the old Platonic belief that matter is evil and immaterial spirits are good. In fact, the opposite is true: having created the world: having created the world, God looked on all things and saw that they were good.

Chesterton knew something about madness; he had been to the edge of the abyss and had stared deep into the darkness. But rather than succumb, he emerged with a clarity and sureness of vision that was surely a grace. In his wonderful book on St. Thomas Aquinas—written in 1933, just three years before his death—Chesterton wrote:

There are no bad things, but only bad uses of things. If you will, there are no bad things but only bad thoughts; and especially bad intentions. . . . But it is possible to have bad intentions about good things; and good things, like the world and the flesh have been twisted by a bad intention called the devil. But he cannot make things bad; they remain as on the first day of creation. The work of heaven alone was material; the making of a material world. The work of hell is entirely spiritual.

Chesterton took reality seriously—and that meant he took good and evil seriously. He recognized the spiritual battle that rages around and within us, and how each of us must choose between good and evil, light and dark, love and despair. He was an early and outspoken critic of eugenics, which had grown in popularity in England and America during the early 1900s, and of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany. This was not due to some ideological stance on his part but because of his metaphysical insight and anthropological sensibilities. He denounced “this new and naked nationalism [that] has come to many modern men as a substitute for their dead religion.”

Chesterton had a remarkable nose for sniffing out tyranny because he understood human nature so well. It is no surprise, then, that he believed—he knew!—that the great falsehood of the modern age consists of denying the truth about sex and marriage. In his book St. Francis of Assisi (1923), Chesterton observed that sex

cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago (emphasis added).

One of Chesterton’s earliest essays, “The Defence of Rash Vows,” contains a remarkably prescient passage about those who glibly spoke of “free love” and scoffed at the necessity of marriage vows:

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words—“free-love”—as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.

It is the nature of love to bind itself.

Is this not, in so many ways, a summary of salvation history, of the covenants, and the very life, teaching, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ himself? Chesterton saw that two options exist: love given freely and completely, which leads to life, or love given “freely” and without commitment, leading to death:

Thus in love the free-lovers say: “Let us have the splendor of offering ourselves without the peril of committing ourselves; let us see whether one cannot commit suicide an unlimited number of times.”

And so, almost a century ago, in a 1926 column, Chesterton argued that the “next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality.” And the roots of this heresy, he said,

are as deep as nature itself, whose flower is the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye and the pride of life. I say that the man who cannot see this cannot see the signs of the times; cannot see even the sky-signs in the street that are the new sort of signs in heaven. The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow but Manhattan…

The modern world, in so many ways, has not just railed against heaven but has sought to create heaven on earth, through baubles and comforts and sophisticated distractions. We are told that we can make our own reality, that we must follow our passions, that we shall ascend to the peaks of material progress.

On one hand, then, we continually encounter and battle crass materialism; on the other hand, we meet the dissatisfied seekers who know there must be more to life but refuse to believe that truth can really be known or that dogma can provide answers. As Chesterton wrote in Heretics (1905) of the novelist George Moore, who left the Catholic Church: his “real quarrel with life is that it is not a dream that can be molded by the dreamer. It is not the dogma of the reality of the other world that troubles him, but the dogma of the reality of this world.”

Chesterton is a good guide to reality—for those who have the love and the stomach for such a thing.

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