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Chapter Two


Chesterton on Wonder and the Theory of Thanks



In the previous chapter we have seen that a distinguishing trait of Arendt’s thought was the directing of the thaumadzein—or wonder—of the ancients into the realm of human affairs itself, a realm which had hitherto been considered to be beneath the dignity of the philosopher’s attentions. In this chapter we shall see that the wonder at Being—together with the response of gratitude and need to accept a sense of limits—was also one of the most fundamental elements of Chesterton’s philosophical world-view. For Chesterton too this meant accepting and not denying the strangeness, the shocking and unexpected aspects of reality. Unlike Arendt, however, Chesterton expresses these concerns within an explicitly theocentric perspective. I shall now consider Chesterton’s critique of what he perceives to be the dominant intellectual currents of his time together with his hope to reawaken the spirit of wonder in order to counter these trends. For Chesterton, one of the main delusions which can befall the solitary thinker—driven by a ruthless and maniacal logic—is the belief that the outside world is created by the self.  In combating this illusion, Chesterton defends philosophical realism—the belief that the objects of thought have a real existence independent of the thoughts of the inquirer. Idealist thinkers, in this account, fail to do justice to the otherness (or strangeness) of nature for its origin is not recognized as situated outside the self and so such theorists lose the element of surprise at the sheer unexpectedness of existence. In contrast to the thought of the idealists, and against materialist reductionists who would deny that there is any Creator to whom we can express our gratitude, I present Chesterton’s realist perspective—which he ultimately understands in terms of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas—and which affirms the unexpected, undeserved, and objective nature of existence to which the appropriate response is the expression of gratitude and the development of a sense of limits. Such a Christian realism is for Chesterton the prerequisite to achieving an agenda of radical social and political reform.



Recovering the Sense of Wonder


Despite the obvious differences in both background and experience, together with the contrasting styles and contents of their literary works, both Arendt and Chesterton were propelled into their respective writing careers by the experience of evil, the struggle with introspection, and the need to face reality. To be sure, Chesterton’s own experience of evil was very different to Arendt’s encounter with Nazism and occurred while he was a student at the Slade School of Art in London during the mid-1890s. At that time, the Slade was dominated by the philosophy of Impressionism which, in Chesterton’s understanding, was a form of skepticism and subjectivism. It was in such a climate that he came to have doubts about the reality of existence itself. In this atmosphere “of unreality and sterile isolation,” as he describes it in his Autobiography (1936), he began to feel “an overpowering impulse to record or draw horrible ideas and images; plunging deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide . . . . I dug quite low enough to discover the devil; and even in some way to recognise the devil.”[1] Chesterton recoiled from this encounter with evil—the reality of which he never doubted—and pulled himself out of his morbid state by inventing his own “rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory” based on the gratitude for there being any existence at all.[2] Cutting his studies short—he did not obtain a degree—Chesterton broke through his morbid state of mind and embarked on a literary rather than an artistic career, which was fuelled by a conscious rebellion against the skeptical and nihilistic fashions of his day. Developing this “theory of thanks” he sought to reawaken the sense of wonder at the miraculous and mysterious fact of existence: “Of one thing I am certain, that the age needs, first and foremost to be startled; to be taught the nature of wonder.”[3] 


By 1905 and the publication of Heretics, a collection of essays which examined the ‘negative spirit’ underlying the works of various popular intellectuals and novelists, Chesterton had come to understand his ‘makeshift mystical theory’ to be but a pale copy of orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy (1908) was written to explain his spiritual journey and opened with Chesterton recounting the idea for a story he had once thought of writing. The romance in question concerns an English yachtsman who had set out to discover a new and exotic country but who, due to a slight navigational error, returns to the shores of England, which he believes to be an undiscovered South Sea island, and so lands “(armed to the teeth and talking by signs) . . . to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton.”[4] The story represents what Chesterton considered to be the main problem for philosophy: “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?”[5] Chesterton admits that he was that yachtsman who discovered England, or rather, he had himself set out to formulate a new and progressive heresy of his own only to find that he had rediscovered Christian orthodoxy: “I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth.  And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it.”[6]


Henceforth, for Chesterton the wonder at sheer existence, at the fact that there is something and not nothing, would issue in the recognition of God the Creator—that supreme Being upon whom all being was contingent: 


Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are.  Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing. As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightning, sudden, blinding, and divine. Until we picture nonentity we underrate the victory of God, and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war. It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until we know nothing.[7]


Chesterton’s answer to the intellectual retreat from recognizing the existence of an objective reality took the form of a reaffirmation of the child’s sense of astonishment at the surrounding world. This wonder at the sheer fact that there is something and not nothing is the red thread which runs through all of Chesterton’s voluminous writings. It is reflected in the fact that he could write about anything—even the most trivial of subjects—because against the backdrop of nothing, everything was interesting. In the context of his study Chaucer (1932), Chesterton provides one of the most succinct and vivid statements of thaumadzein—of wonder at Being—and of the appropriate human response of gratitude:


There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and under all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude.[8]


Thus Chesterton believed that in the course of his work as a public intellectual he should do all he could to undermine the modern tendency to take things for granted, for that “is taking them without gratitude; that is, emphatically as not granted.”[9] In the light of the shocked amazement that ‘there is an is,’ it is the essence of human happiness to express gratitude for the miracle of Being. Thus, Chesterton declares, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”[10] 


Regaining this child-like sense of wonder, against all the social pressures of indifference to reality, would become the central theme of all of Chesterton’s various literary work which stemmed from his revolt against skepticism and relativism. Chesterton regained his child-like sense of wonder, his appreciation of the actuality and goodness of everyday existence, through his own struggle with the fin-de-siècle pessimists and, as Margaret Canovan has pointed out, he was “one of the twice-born, his own innocence and spontaneity something gratefully recovered from his youthful crisis.”[11] And so, if Chesterton distanced himself from such pessimists, his own position, which was marked by his firm belief in the reality of spiritual evil, was equally opposed to the ‘vulgar optimists’ of his time who believed this earth and our life on it to be the ‘best of all possible worlds’ untouched by sin or human tragedy. 


As Arendt would claim for herself, Chesterton had located his own turn towards reality between the poles of optimism and pessimism—the ‘optimist’ and the ‘pessimist’ are  constantly recurring characters in Chesterton’s work.[12] So Arendt’s phrase ‘reckless optimism and reckless despair’ also describes the fundamental intellectual atmosphere against which Chesterton had himself reacted: “The heresies that have attacked human happiness in my time have all been variations of either presumption or despair; which in the controversies of modern culture are called optimism and pessimism.”[13] Both are sins against hope and undermine the need for repentance, forgiveness, and the possibility for new beginnings.[14]   


Towards the end of his Autobiography, after spelling out his own sense of gratitude for an undeserved gift of Creation, Chesterton points to the second core element of his world-view, which was to defend the dignity of the downtrodden: “It was my instinct to defend liberty in small nations and poor families; that is, to defend the rights of man as including the rights of property; especially the property of the poor.”[15] And like Arendt, Chesterton associates wonder with the reaction of horror at evil and so he maintains that a firm grasp of reality is intimately entwined with the power to resist existing social arrangements. For example, Chesterton writes that Dickens “encounters evil with that beautiful surprise which, as it is the beginning of all real pleasure, is also the beginning of all righteous indignation. He enters the workhouse just as Oliver Twist enters it, as a little child.”[16] And for Chesterton, of course, the defining aspect of the child was the capacity for wonder.[17] Preserving the element of surprise—an intrinsic part of wonder—seems to have been essential for Chesterton in facing up to and resisting evil: “From the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise. He must have the faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment. It is not enough that he should think injustice distressing; he must think injustice absurd, an anomaly in existence, a matter less for tears than for shattering laughter.”[18] The capacities for both wonder and horror are present in the balanced mind which embraces both aspects of truth which are isolated in the minds of the optimist and pessimist and which thereby lead to mere acquiescence or despair. Christianity, with its teaching of both the goodness of Creation and the evil of the Fall embraces both dimensions of reality.


The trouble with both optimists and pessimists in Chesterton’s account is that they take an aspect of truth and treat it as the whole truth. What is needed, according to Chesterton, is not a compromise between the two positions but both attitudes at the same time: “For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is not the old acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralise each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent.”[19]


So for Chesterton the experience of wonder at, and gratitude for, sheer existence did not lead to a resigned inactivity, the cultivation of a private ‘spirituality’ content with ‘letting things be.’ The problem with the sensibilities of optimism and pessimism was that they were not conducive to political resistance to the present state of affairs: “The optimist will say that reform is needless. The pessimist will say that reform is hopeless.”[20] In contrast to outlooks which would consider the world so good that nothing need be done, or so bad that nothing can be done, Chesterton’s social critique was a form of ‘connected criticism’[21] based on a fundamental sense of love of the world. Chesterton is most explicit about this in the chapter entitled ‘The Flag of the World’ in Orthodoxy. Both optimism and pessimism fail because they represent a kind of alienation from the world as it is:


The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. If a man came to this world from some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view. But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.[22]


Our initial attitude should not be one of criticism or approval but rather a sense of loyalty or ‘cosmic patriotism’: “The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.”[23] This links to Chesterton’s belief that any radical criticism of the world must be based on its prior affirmation: we need to love a thing before it can be made loveable. Chesterton asks us to imagine ourselves in Pimlico. If we merely disapproved of Pimlico, we should either commit suicide or move to Chelsea. If we merely approved of it, then Pimlico would stay as it was and that would be terrible. We need to approach Pimlico with an unreasonable, transcendent devotion:


If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things; but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is ugly without it. . . . If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. . . . This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilisation and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they loved her.[24]


It should be clear by now that Chesterton’s aim to rekindle the ancient thaumazein represented not just the need for a sense of wonder at existence, at the universe and the earth in and upon which we find ourselves, but of a wonder at the humanly established world as well. As Arendt would later claim to do, Chesterton directed his sense of wonder into the realm of human affairs too, hence his countless essays on such objects as cheese, lamp-posts, or the contents of his pockets etc., objects which are easily overlooked, but which, against the background of nothingness, are themselves miraculous: “To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other, are equally of the gold of fairy-tales.”[25]


Populism and the Spirit of Wonder


As Chesterton recounts in his Autobiography, an awareness of a sense of limits was a fundamental element of his whole perception of existence: “All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks even larger seen through a window.”[26] Chesterton believed that such a sense of limits was intrinsic to the child’s wondrous vision of the world and deployed Robert Louis Stevenson’s and his own love of toy theatres to this affect.[27] Chesterton relished in discounting the image created by libertarian idealists who celebrated the supposedly limitless freedom of childhood which was cruelly crushed by the artificial restrictions of the adult world. The child, Chesterton protests, absolutely loves the restriction of limitation for it is the essence of play: “It is plain on the face of the facts that the child is positively in love with limits. He uses his imagination to invent imaginary limits. The nurse and the governess have never told him that it is his moral duty to step on alternate paving-stones. He deliberately deprives this world of half its paving-stones, in order to exult in a challenge that he has offered himself.”[28]


Gratitude for the wondrous fact that things exist implies the response of self restraint: “we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”[29] If the spirit of wonder was inscribed in the philosophy of the fairy-tales of childhood, as Chesterton revealed in ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ chapter of Orthodoxy, so too was the principle of limitation.[30] Human happiness depends upon our acceptance of certain limits of the human condition and this was another truth which Chesterton thought was clearly expressed in fairy-tales. Life in Elfland is not marked by lawlessness but by the principle of a sanction which Chesterton terms the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy.”[31] Happiness depends on our not doing something which we could at any moment do: “The note of the fairy utterance always is, ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word “cow”’; or ‘You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always rests upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.”[32]


Chesterton’s sense of the wonder of reality and his awareness of the importance of the principle of limitation is reflected in his fondness for the distinctness of things. Chesterton—who believed Aristotle to have been the greatest of pagan philosophers and Aquinas the greatest in Christendom[33]—shares with Arendt a keenness for making distinctions between things:


A fine distinction is like a fine painting or a fine poem or anything else fine; a triumph of the human mind. In these days when large-mindedness is supposed to consist of confusing everything with everything else, of saying that a man is the same as a woman and religion the same as irreligion, and the unnatural as good as the natural and all the rest of it, it is well to keep in mind the great power of distinction; by which man becomes in the true sense distinguished.[34]


As Lawrence Clipper notes, Chesterton was repelled by modern modes of thought which remove the clear outlines and boundaries which separate and distinguish one thing’s identity from another. It is on such grounds that Chesterton rejects the evolutionary determinism which dissolves the species barriers in such a way that creatures are no longer regarded as distinct and nameable but as insignificant parts in an overall process.[35] This emphasis on the distinctions between things often appears in a religious framework through Chesterton’s critique of a pantheism which would lead to the smoothing away of the distinctions between nature and God, body and spirit, animal and man, a theme we shall take up in Chapter Six. It is also manifest in Chesterton’s stress on the importance of private property and the limits of boundary fences together with the distinction between father-mother-child in the family which we shall examine in Chapter Four. Here it can be pointed out that it is reflected in the distinctions between people as unique individuals, each with their own destinies. Chesterton had a deep sense of what Arendt referred to as “the human condition of plurality, . . . the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”[36] Chesterton’s words on Robert Browning are (as is so often) simultaneously autobiographical and reveal his own profound awareness of human ‘plurality’, or dignity:


The sense of the absolute sanctity of human difference was the deepest of all his senses. He was hungrily interested in all human things, but it would have been quite impossible to have said of him that he loved humanity. He did not love humanity but men. His sense of the difference between one man and another would have made the thought of melting them into a lump called humanity simply loathsome and prosaic. It would have been like playing four hundred beautiful airs at once. The mixture would not combine all, it would lose all. Browning believed that to every man that ever lived upon this earth had been given a definite and peculiar confidence of God.[37]


Chesterton’s sense of wonder at the human world is directly linked to his defense of the common life against the abstract schemes devised by intellectuals and other members of the establishment. Indeed, unlike so many other liberals, socialists, progressives, or conservatives, Chesterton did have a fundamental faith that the beliefs and opinions of everyday people were likely to be more sane than those of their supposed ‘betters’. As Anthony Wright points out, for example, the Fabian socialists distrusted and had little understanding of the needs of ordinary working people. Indeed, Beatrice Webb’s diary entry of 1894 reads: “we have little faith in the ‘average sensual man’, we do not believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances, we do not think he can prescribe his remedies.”[38] Thus “Mrs. Sidney Webb,” says Chesterton, “settles things by the simple process of ordering about the citizens of a state, as she might the servants in a kitchen.”[39]


Rooted in his sense of wonder at the world, Chesterton’s radical populist outlook embodied his reaction to the fact that workers and the poor remained ‘invisible’ as fellow human beings in the eyes of the privileged. As the character of the Trades Unionist John Braintree declares in Chesterton’s novel The Return of Don Quixote (1927) after hearing that there were no men in the aristocratic household at which he was visiting: “There is a man in the next room, there is a man in the passage; there is a man in the garden; there is a man at the front door; there is a man in the stables; there is a man in the kitchen; there is a man in the cellar. What sort of palace of lies have you built for yourselves when you see all these around you every day and do not even know that they are men? Why do we strike? Because you forget our very existence when we do not strike.”[40]


And the philanthropists were no better—to them the poor were to be pitted as if they were unfortunate animals and administered to for their own good. Neither the rich man nor the philanthropist would recognize the dignity of the poor as human beings—such a recognition being for Chesterton the prerequisite for securing radical and egalitarian social change. Chesterton, who was one of the most radically democratic English writers of the twentieth century, maintained that not pity but solidarity was the mark of the true democratic sentiment:


Democracy is not philanthropy; it is not even altruism or social reform.  Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man; democracy is founded on reverence for the common man, or, if you will, even on fear of him. It does not champion man because man is so miserable, but because man is so sublime. It does not object so much to the ordinary man being a slave as to his not being a king, for its dream is always the dream of the First Roman republic, a nation of kings.[41]


For Chesterton, a primary role of the artist (and thinker) was to express in a more sublime manner the everyday truths about the human condition formed amongst ordinary men and maintained in popular opinion rather than devised in the solitary mind of the intellectual. That is, to portray the ordinary as what it in fact is—extraordinary. It was in this ability, according to Chesterton, where Charles Dickens displayed one aspect of his greatness:


Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted.  Dickens wanted what the people wanted. And with this was connected that other fact which must never be forgotten, and which I have more than once insisted on, that Dickens and his school had a hilarious faith in democracy and thought of the service of it as a sacred priesthood. Hence there was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it. . . . Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to the people. He approached the people like a deity and poured out his riches and his blood.[42]


By contrast, the distance which the progressive intellectual placed between himself and the common life was an attitude which destroyed any possibility of real reform:


What cuts this spirit off from Christian common sense is the fact that the delusion, like most insane delusions, is merely egotistical. It is simply the pleasure of thinking extravagantly well of oneself, and unlimited indulgence in that pleasure is far more weakening than any indulgence in drink or dissipation. But so completely does it construct an unreal cosmos round the ego, that criticism of the world cannot be felt even for worldly purposes.[43]


If such haughty disdain for the common life paralyses radical reform, the real danger is that the delusions of the philosopher may be imposed on a recalcitrant populace who remain—albeit often unconsciously—loyal to common sense and the Christian affirmation of existence.  To counter these trends Chesterton hoped to reawaken the sense of wonder by looking upon the world and its heritage anew. Indeed, Chesterton believed that the contemporary turning away from the traditions of the past was itself a form of solipsism centered on the avoidance of concrete realities external to the self which could act as a limit to the projection of current wishes into the blank sheet of the future. The flight from the past combined with a worship of the future, typical of ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’ intellectuals, was a form of temporal solipsism:


The future is a blank wall on which every man can write his own name as large as he likes; the past I find already covered with illegible scribbles, such as Plato, Isaiah, Shakespeare, Michael Angelo, Napoleon. I can make the future as narrow as myself; the past is obliged to be as broad and turbulent as humanity. And the upshot of this modern attitude is really this: that men invent new ideals because they dare not invent old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.[44]


To turn one’s back on tradition was thus a double form of solipsism. Not only would the variety of the past be excluded but also the plurality of the future as it became a mere projective fiction of the present. The future-orientation of modernity is thus self-defeating:  “To-morrow is the Gorgon; a man must only see it mirrored in the shining shield of yesterday.  If he sees it directly he is turned to stone.”[45]


Thus while Chesterton considered himself to be a radical he also saw himself as a defender of tradition.  Gratitude, which was for Chesterton the reasonable response to wonder, was something not just directed to God for the act of Creation but towards humans for their own enduring innovations. Chesterton thought that we ought to be grateful for having the opportunity to take part in a tradition of thought and understanding, hence his remarks on Chaucer: “He was a great poet of gratitude; he was grateful to God; but he was also grateful to Gower. He was grateful to the everlasting Romance of the Rose; he was still more grateful to Ovid and grateful to Virgil and grateful to Petrarch and Boccaccio. He is always eager to show us over his little library and tell us where all his tales come from. He is prouder of having read the books than of having written the poems.”[46]


There is an important point to grasp here for Chesterton is all too often considered and dismissed as a mere conservative ‘traditionalist’. But Chesterton, it must be understood, had no wish to return to the past. This is in fact a strange accusation to level against an author who begins his two major religious-philosophical works with calls to see the familiar in a new light as if it was being seen for the very first time.[47] Indeed Chesterton’s perspective would entail a new way of looking upon tradition itself. Overturning both progressive modernist and reactionary conservative views, Chesterton emphasized the radical democratic nature of tradition:


Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. 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. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.  We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.[48]



And by tradition Chesterton meant popular tradition and not the way that the past has been handed on by economic, political or intellectual elites—these Chesterton considered to be the enemies of tradition.[49] For Chesterton, the mind of the ‘progressive’ intellectual—who he attacked for expressing the world-view of the wealthy and not the poor—is essentially devoid of wonder and therefore unable to appreciate the extraordinary nature of the ordinary. Such a pride reflected a lack of openness to external reality and truth as disclosed to the senses, as strange and misleading as those appearances often were: “Pride consists in a man making his personality the only test, instead of making the truth the test.”[50] Openness to such a reality was the central lesson which Chesterton hoped we could learn—a humility centered in the wonder of the world and the happiness derived from ordinary life:


Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to something outside. So long as they have this they have as the great minds have always declared, a something which is present in childhood and which can still preserve and invigorate manhood. The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and despair.[51]


Here is the danger of the individual becoming his own ideal—rather than centered on some external object of praise—which Arendt had recognized as an important theme for Chesterton and with whom she shared a distaste for those modern social practices such as advertisement which were based on the principle of ‘self-praise’, as well as for the fastidiousness of the progressive mind which turns away from the “simple universal things” of the common life.[52] 


Chesterton’s perspective of wonder and gratitude and his embrace of Christian orthodoxy was intimately connected with his own sense of the desirability of ordinary existence and the concomitant dislike of priggish intellectuals who would deliberately court the unusual and the exotic, knowing that this would distance themselves from the common lot of human kind. Chesterton, by contrast, was happy to accept that he was an ordinary man: “I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term; which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and chivalry as laws rightly controlling them, and the rest of the normal traditions of our race and religion.”[53] 



‘The Maniac’


In coming to recognize reality as a gift which elicits the response of gratitude, Chesterton found himself to be deeply at odds with what he perceived to be the dominant theories of the intellectual establishment. Chesterton found the sciences promoting a reductionist materialism and the arts engulfed by an ‘atmosphere’ of idealism with both camps positively hostile to the Judeo-Christian heritage which understood existence as a miraculous gift of God’s Creation. Materialists understood nature as mere matter in motion subject to its own inexorable laws and denied the supernatural dimension of reality—the existence of a Creator to whom we could express our gratitude. Philosophical idealism, by contrast, through which an individual came to perceive the world as the creation of their own minds, led to the denial of a natural reality that could be the object of wonder.


Chesterton described his youthful experiences of solipsism and encounter with evil in the chapter of his Autobiography entitled ‘How To Be A Lunatic’ and he did indeed think that the cultural crises of modernity represented a general mental rather than moral breakdown. A central element of this mental failure, according to Chesterton, was in terms of this recognition of reality as such. Chesterton believed that a cultural climate dominated by the alternatives of materialism and idealism would not be conducive to a sane outlook on life—a firm grip on reality—and outlined his opposition to this situation in the chapter of Orthodoxy entitled ‘The Maniac’. 


Chesterton found that what was for him a very plain and obvious fact—the existence of sin—was being systematically denied, not only by atheists but also by liberal theologians and so he decides to confront the opposition on its own secularized ground. Chesterton thus proposes to judge the theories in question, not as they would have been judged in the past (as to whether they would lead to a man losing his soul) but “by whether they tend to make a man lose his wits.” Modern thinkers may well “deny Hell, but not as yet, Hanwell.”[54] Employing his favorite tool of the reductio absurdum, Chesterton maintained that certain modern theories would indeed ultimately lead to the madhouse—Hanwell.


Chesterton was fully aware that in an increasingly maniacal world the most sane may end up as the certified inhabitants of an insane asylum. He was after all a prominent campaigner against the loss of liberty by those deemed by medical ‘experts’ to be ‘feeble minded’ and was in a constant state of war against all those who would worship success or maintain that those amongst the poor who did not strive for money or adopt modern habits and beliefs must be literally mad.  In his fiction, Chesterton frequently appears to foretell a time when psychiatry will become a tool to incarcerate those defined as ‘enemies of the state’ on the grounds that they must, by definition, be mad. But Chesterton also cautioned those of his time who would see some kind of higher consciousness in the real process of going mad—a romanticized perspective which would indeed gain currency amongst those radicals of the 1960s and 1970s who endorsed the ‘anti-psychiatry’ of R. D. Laing, or indeed amongst the poststructuralists of the present day influenced by the ‘schizoanalysis’ of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guartarri.[55] “It is true,” writes Chesterton, “that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity as in itself attractive. But a moment’s thought will show that if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else’s disease.”[56]


Some may think that Chesterton is indulging in a mere rhetorical attack by labeling theories which he doesn’t like as ‘mad’. Yet such a casual dismissal would betray a profound lack of awareness of the interactions between psychology and social theory in the twentieth century. Indeed Chesterton’s chapter on ‘The Maniac’ is remarkable for its anticipation of a body of recent work in which states of psychic disturbance such as narcissism (or ‘borderline’ personality) and schizophrenia are used as metaphors for a critical understanding of modern society.[57] Admittedly, much of this work has been informed by a psychoanalytic perspective for which Chesterton—and indeed Arendt—had very little regard indeed.[58] Yet in terms of identifying a tendency to confuse inner and outer worlds, to project one’s phantasies onto others and culture in general, retreating from the ‘reality principle’ into what psychoanalysts refer to as the ‘oceanic’ state of primary narcissism, there are clear parallels between orthodox psychoanalysis and a Chestertonian perspective. For example, in a recent provocative article written from a perspective influenced by the work of Melanie Klein, the psychoanalytical sociologist Ian Craib attempts to grasp the issue of the anti-realism raised amongst strong forms of  ‘social constructionism’ through a metaphor which (no doubt unconsciously) hits the precise point which Chesterton was himself trying to make about abstracted forms of idealism: “[I]f certain varieties of what is known as ‘social constructionism’ were to grow arms and legs (not to mention a head and a body) and walk into a psychoanalyst’s consulting room, they would be diagnosed as suffering from a manic psychosis.”[59]


None of this, of course, is meant to be ‘realistic’ in a clinical sense. Chesterton’s own analysis of the maniacal currents underlying modernity was concerned, as John Coates points out, with “ideological madness.” In his literary works Chesterton devises “a range of characters who, not intended to be realistic, symbolise types of cultural and intellectual lunacy.”[60] The point being to expose “the mental pressures which through false logic or ideological bombardment bring about breakdown or depression. This can only be done through the non-realistic mode of making the mad argue, defend, justify and extrapolate, when, in reality they might be more likely to retreat into silence.”[61]


At the root of insanity, says Chesterton, is not the poetic power of the imagination but the human capacity for reason: it is the mathematician or chess-player and not the poet or dreamer who is in the greatest peril of succumbing to the pitfall of mania. Madness is a form of pure rationality which knows no bounds or limits:


If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worse of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go along with good judgement. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections.  Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.[62]


Chesterton had no wish to denigrate reason, in fact he wished to rescue it for the modern world: “The whole modern world is at war with reason; and the tower already reels.”[63] Chesterton understood that the root of the problem was not in reason itself—he was no romantic irrationalist—but in reason freed from the limits of mystery and common sense. Such an untempered logic was for Chesterton tantamount to madness. But this logical comprehensiveness united with a constricted common sense is not confined to the maniacal theories of ‘mad scientists’; it represented a real danger in the social and political world. When transferred to the political realm such reasoning leads to tyranny: the solitary view of the monomaniac is imposed without any recognition of the different views of others, i.e. without respect to common sense, which for Chesterton represents a form of practical wisdom formed through living life in common with others.[64] For the purposes of a comparative study with Arendt, it is very interesting to note that, as is revealed in this passage from Chesterton’s 1906 study of Dickens, one possible manifestation of such insane tyranny which results from a relentless single-track logic is a racially-driven imperialism:


The Lunatic is the man who lives in a small world but thinks it is a large one: he is the man who lives in a tenth of the truth, and thinks it is the whole. The madman cannot conceive any cosmos outside a certain tale or conspiracy or vision. Hence the more clearly we see the world divided into Saxons and non-Saxons, into our splendid selves and the rest, the more certain we may be that we are slowly and quietly going mad. The more plain and satisfying our state appears, the more we may know that we are living in an unreal world.  For the real world is not satisfying. The more clear become the colours and facts of Anglo-Saxon superiority, the more surely we may know we are in a dream. For the real world is not clear or plain. The real world is full of bracing bewilderments and brutal surprises. Comfort is the blessing and the curse of the English, and of Americans of the Pogrom type also. With them it is a loud comfort, a wild comfort, a screaming and capering comfort; but comfort at bottom still. For there is but an inch of difference between the cushioned chamber and the padded cell.[65]


The parallels between this passage and Arendt’s analysis of the totalitarian flight from reality together with the concomitant construction of an ideological ‘fictitious world’ driven by a ruthless logicality and which provides a comforting escape from the contradictions of existence are clear.[66]


The maniac has an over-inflated sense of the powers of his own reason, every event can be integrated into his paranoid and truncated vision. Likewise, the scientific materialist, for example, believes that the world in its entirety can be explained by reason alone. But human reason alone cannot explain the world; existence is ultimately a mystery and this, Chesterton maintains, should be cause for more wonder not less.[67] Reason and necessity are not rejected out of hand by Chesterton: “if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters.[68] But the mind of the materialist cannot grasp that the facts of existence themselves are ultimately contingent and not necessary. The materialists believed the world could be reduced to the logical consistency of necessary physical laws: “They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three.  But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.”[69] The constant conjunction of events does not explain why they happen, materialists who think that it does are indulging in sheer superstition according to Chesterton. 


The repetitions which were observable in nature were miraculous, it may be that they are not necessary but due to a heavenly encore: “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.”[70] Existence, for Chesterton, was not the product of necessary physical forces but contingent on the will of its Creator. Repetition was not driven by necessity, events were still miraculous. The child has not yet grown weary of wonders, and it is in fairy-tales where we can find preserved the awe at existence which refuses to succumb to sheer monotony: “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”[71]


Against the determinism of materialist perspectives being applied in the realm of human affairs, Chesterton emphasized the importance of choice in the present moment. Connected to Chesterton’s emphasis on the reality of human dependence on the will of God-the-Creator is his belief that human life is best seen in terms of a story: our existence is precarious and depends on our actions. Thus human life is comparable to popular fiction because it is exciting, and, like a magazine serial the end is open: “You cannot finish a sum how you like.  But you can finish a story how you like.”[72] A constant theme in Chesterton’s work is the contrast between fatalism and freedom, often depicted in terms of eastern and western forms of religious life. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton states his case that Christianity—because of its insistence on free will—demands a view of life as story:


To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science or plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man ‘damned’: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.[73]


Chesterton’s emphasis on theological free will brought him into conflict with social reformers whose aim was to replace a moral understanding of crime with a materialist and ‘non-judgmental’ medical approach.[74] For Chesterton, such a ‘progressive’ view removed the element of free will and thus undermined the concept of existence as a story replacing it with a conceptual understanding of human beings as automata, thus freely initiated action gives way to pre-determined behavior.[75] Those who thought that blaming ‘the environment’ rather than sin would somehow lead to a more ‘enlightened’ treatment of prisoners, for example, were mistaken: “The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He  must not say to the sinner, ‘Go and sin no more,’ because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.”[76]


The narrow vision of the materialist may be thoroughly prosaic yet if he cannot encompass the fullness and complexity of the universe he does at least accept that it exists. Chesterton was far more troubled by another instance of reason untempered by the limits of common sense—the idealist who denies the actuality of an objective reality. This ‘maniacal’ doubt that our assertions actually refer to a reality objectively existing independent of our thoughts, says Chesterton, is what the whole of religious authority was geared to preventing: “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”[77] How can one think if there is nothing real to think about? Reason requires the limits of mystery and common sense: “Christianity does appeal to a solid truth outside itself; to something which is in that sense external as well as eternal. It does declare that things are really there; or in other words that things are really things. In this Christianity is at one with common sense; but all religious history shows that this common sense perishes except where there is Christianity to preserve it”.[78]


Thus Chesterton is in agreement with Eric Voegelin who viewed “the decline of reason as the consequence of religious retrogression.”[79] Indeed, like Voegelin who viewed “the essence of modernity as the growth of gnosticism,”[80] Chesterton sees modernity as the spread of ideas associated with Christian heresy. In the words of Voegelin: “Gnosticism as a counterexistential dream world can perhaps be made intelligible as the extreme expression of an experience which is universally human, that is, of a horror of existence and a desire to escape from it.”[81] In this dream world constructed by the gnostic the “non-recognition of reality is the first principle,” morality is taken to be itself a form of immorality with the net effect that this counter-world has the “weird, ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum.”[82]


There are indeed certain modern intellectuals, according to Chesterton, who, far from having a wonder at and sense of praise for being, actually appear to possess a horror of natural existence itself: 


They are ready to talk of existence itself as the product of purely evil forces. They never mention animals except as perpetually tearing each other in pieces; but a month in the country would cure that. They have a real giddy horror of stars and seas, as a man has on the edge of a hopelessly high precipice. They sometimes instinctively shrink from clay, fungoids, and the fresh young of animals with a quivering gesture that reveals the fundamental pessimist. Life itself, crude, uncultivated life, is horrible to them.[83]


Indeed, as Voegelin says, this horror of existence can lead to the denial of reality. This is precisely the case with the worst sort of modern ‘Maniac’ identified by Chesterton (Mani-ac, for “there are a good many Manicheans among the Moderns”[84]). The worst form of mania is not materialism but an extreme idealism akin to the pure spirituality of the Manichean: 


There is a sceptic far more terrible than he who believes that everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the sceptic who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the existence of angels and devils, but the existence of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself. He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible fancy has something decidedly attractive to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day. . . .[85]


This solipsistic nightmare that existence does not have its source outside the self but is a human creation is expressed through the character of Gabriel Gale in one of Chesterton’s short stories in The Poet and The Lunatics (1929): “I also dreamed that I had dreamed of the whole creation. I had given myself the stars as a gift; I had handed myself the sun and moon. I had been behind and at the beginning of all things; and without me nothing was made that was made. Anybody who has been in that centre of the cosmos knows that it is to be in hell.”[86] One of Chesterton’s main concerns was to convey his belief that humans are not the creators of being; that their own particular happiness requires the recognition of their reality as dependent creatures and lies in the gratitude that the acknowledgement of this gift of existence implies. Gabriel Gale again:


Man is a creature; all his happiness consists in being a creature; or, as the Great Voice commanded us, in becoming a child. All his fun is in having a gift or a present; which the child, with profound understanding, values because it is a ‘surprise’. But surprise implies that a thing comes from outside ourselves; and gratitude that it comes from someone other that ourselves. It is thrust through the letter-box; it is thrown in at the window; it is thrown over the wall. Those limits are the lines of the very plan of human pleasure.[87]


In Chesterton’s outlook the real problem to be faced was not the materialist maniac who could not appreciate the diverseness of the universe and the paradoxes of existence. Far more troubling was a cultural setting in which an idealism which simply refused to accept the reality of material existence was becoming increasingly widespread: “Instead of the materialist who said that the soul did not exist, we shall have the new mystic who says that the body does not exist.”[88] Chesterton had been aware of this “great march of mental destruction” in his early works but, according to Coates, his late concern with the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas was part of a desire to provide a more thorough philosophical defense of the actuality of phenomena so as to combat this spreading subjectivism.[89] In Aquinas, Chesterton recognized that disposition of mind which he had so desired to express, and which was “filled and soaked as with sunshine, with the warmth and wonder of created things.”[90] Contra the materialists who maintained that the mind merely reflects an external world or the idealists who believe the world is merely the creation of the mind, it is the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas which embraces the elements of truth which both contain and which only become maniacal in isolation:


The mind is not merely receptive, in the sense that it absorbs sensations like so much blotting paper; on that sort of softness has been based all that cowardly materialism, which conceives man as wholly servile to his environment. On the other hand, the mind is not purely creative, in the sense that it paints on the windows and then mistakes them for a landscape outside. But the mind is active, and its activity consists in following, so far as the will chooses to follow, the light outside that does really shine upon real landscapes. That is what gives the indefinably virile and even adventurous quality to this view of life; as compared with that which holds that material influences pour in upon an utterly helpless mind, or that which holds that psychological influences pour out and create an entirely baseless phantasmagoria. In other words, the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meaning is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is very truly a marriage, because it is fruitful; the only philosophy now in the world that is really fruitful. It produces practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact.[91]


For Chesterton it was Christianity that preserved reason by subjecting it to the limits of mystery and the common sense of community and tradition. In The Everlasting Man (1925), Chesterton recounts that in the ancient world the pagans had sought knowledge through both mythology and philosophy, the former being the preserve of the common people while the  latter was the concern of an educated minority. But the birth of Christ brought both the shepherds and the wise men to Bethlehem: Christianity represented the reconciliation of mythology with philosophy, or in other words, imagination with reason. “It met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story.”[92] In its very nature, the story transcends the solitary vision of the thinker and integrates the capacity for unanticipated beginning, in other words plurality and action: “The true story of the world must be told by somebody to somebody else. By the very nature of a story it cannot be left to occur to anybody. A story has proportions, variations, surprises, particular dispositions, which cannot be worked out by rule in the abstract, like a sum.”[93] Without the Christian reconciliation of mythology and philosophy the human mind would have remained split: “one lobe of it dreaming impossible dreams and the other repeating invariable calculations.”[94] Christianity is the key that fits the lock and opens the door into freedom: “We accept it; and the ground is solid under our feet and the road is open before us. It does not imprison us in a dream of destiny or a consciousness of the universal delusion. It opens to us not only incredible heavens, but what seems to some an equally incredible earth, and makes it credible.”[95]



Realism and Relativism


Chesterton’s philosophical realism must be distinguished from, on the one hand, literary realism and, on the other, political realism in the sense of accepting the world as it has come to be and working within the existing political framework. Both these forms of ‘realism’—literary and political—were rejected by Chesterton. In ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ chapter of Orthodoxy, for example, Chesterton reveals his own wonder at Being and commitment to ontological realism through his childhood discovery of the philosophy of fairy tales—an obvious dig at literary realism—and begins with a thundering rejection of political realism: 


They said I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. . . . No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact.  It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.[96]


Indeed for Chesterton the existing parliamentary system was nothing other than a sham fight designed to exclude the interests of working people and to maintain the functioning of a plutocratic system which was divorced from everyday experience, operating in a fantasy world of commercial abstractions.[97] Chesterton’s sense of reality, as we shall see in Chapter Four, pitted him firmly against what is usually referred to as the ‘real world’—the existing socio-political and scientific establishment. Philosophically Chesterton was a realist; politically he was a democratic idealist.[98] The party political system, Chesterton maintained, grants people the vote but not the opportunity to determine what they are going to vote about. They merely have the prospect of choosing between the alternative schemes offered by the political elites and this did not bode well for the future of democracy:


[I]f the dangerous comfort and self-flattery of modern England continues much longer there will be less democratic value in an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much alike that he would not mind choosing from them blindfold—and then for a great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.[99]


In contrast to literary and political ‘realism’, by ‘philosophical realism’ we mean the assertion that the objects of philosophical inquiry have a real existence independent of the thoughts of the inquirer. This may sound like a common sense position and indeed both Chesterton and later adherents to ontological realism regard it as a common sense philosophy. Yet it precisely such common sense perspectives as philosophical realism, according to Chesterton, which are in danger of being eclipsed by the modern culture of skepticism: “We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.”[100] Like more recent philosophers who have been influenced by realism, Chesterton wishes to draw the focus of our attention away from epistemology and towards ontology: “For the amazing thing about the universe is that it exists; not that we can discuss its existence.”[101]


From Chesterton’s perspective of philosophical realism, of course, the recognition of the objective existence of reality is paramount. Chesterton would reject the notorious and solipsistic claim of present day post-structuralists that ‘there is nothing outside the text’, that words only refer to other words and not to things in themselves. For Chesterton, tangible ‘things’—nature, people, worldly objects and events—are emphatically not reducible to what we may care to say about them. Thus he maintains that “even literature, in the last resort, can express something other than its own unhappy self.”[102] Yet Chesterton was no naive adherent of a ‘correspondence theory of truth’ which would obliterate the tension between reality and language—he was deeply aware of the limited nature of human capacities. In fact Chesterton explicitly rejects “the assumption of the perfection of language”: “For the truth is, that language is not a scientific thing at all, but wholly an artistic thing, a thing invented by hunters, and killers, and such artists, long before science was dreamed of. The truth is simply that—that the tongue is not a reliable instrument, like a theodolite or a camera. The tongue is most truly an unruly member, as the wise saint has called it, a thing poetic and dangerous, like music or fire.”[103]


As we have seen, Chesterton maintains that reality is something we did not make and thus comes as a complete surprise. That reality is literally stranger than fiction—something we make up merely to please ourselves—was an early insight of Chesterton and which he found confirmed by his study of Aquinas:


That strangeness of things, which is the light of all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness, or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. . . . In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lie in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind.  The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream. This is for the poet the strangeness of stones and trees and solid things; they are strange because they are solid.[104]


But it is in the nature of this reality in which the facts of being appear as strange—a situation which can easily lead to skepticism: “For instance, they are largely in a state of change, from being one thing to being another. . . .”[105] But the doubts which arise from the strange facts of being do not lead Aquinas away from the first commitment to reality:


The deceitfulness of things which has had so sad an effect on so many sages, has almost a contrary effect on this sage. If things deceive us it is by being more real than they seem. As ends in themselves they always deceive us; but as things tending to a greater end, they are even more real than we think them. If they seem to have a relative unreality (so to speak) it is because they are potential and not actual; they are unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks. They have it in them to be more real than they are. And there is an upper world of what the Schoolmen called Fruition, or Fulfilment, in which all this relative relativity becomes actuality; in which the trees burst into flower or the rockets into flame.[106]


Chesterton rejects the strong form of relativism with which anti-realism is linked. Yet he also relished public debate and does seems willing to concede an element of epistemological relativism—he does not wish to suppress difference of opinion per se, as revealed in his approving comments on Robert Browning:


He held that it is necessary to listen to all sides of a question in order to discover the truth of it. But he held that there was a truth to discover. He held that justice was a mystery, but not, like the decadents, that justice was a delusion. He held, in other words, the true Browning doctrine, that in a dispute every one was to a certain extent right; not the decadent doctrine that in so mad a place as the world, every one must be by the nature of things wrong.[107]


The mistake Chesterton could see relativist intellectuals of his own time making was the separation diversity of opinion from a commitment to a common existing reality. As we have seen, the value of diversity of opinion was that it could reveal better knowledge of a common object. But this diversity of opinion must not be elevated to the ultimate reality—to do so is to live in a subjectivist fictional world.[108] Thus the fact of diversity does not mean that all opinions are necessarily equally valid: “That there are many beliefs does not destroy the fact that there was one well-founded belief. I believe (merely upon authority) that the world is round. That there may be tribes who believe it to be triangular or oblong does not alter the fact that it is certainly some shape, and therefore not any other shape.”[109]


By contrast, the relativism which obscures the difference between the transitive and intransitive objects of knowledge[110] elevates the diversity of opinion to the ultimate reality and locks the inquirer into a prison of his own making in which nothing can be known: “When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what anyone says.”[111] And thus change becomes seen as the ultimate reality: “Liberalism has been degraded into liberality. Men have tried to turn ‘revolutionise’ from a transitive to an intransitive verb.”[112] And sheer change, change for the sake of change, with no ulterior purpose is, according to Chesterton, as monotonous a groove as anyone could entrap themselves within. Radicals were once wise enough to have enduring ideals, says Chesterton, but now they are constantly changing their minds and “there is not enough time and tradition in Radicalism to pull anything down.”[113] One wild philosophy follows another and the net result is that the industrial and political establishment remains undisturbed.


Chesterton knew the power of choice: “What is needed everywhere, in art as much as in ethics, in poetry as much as in politics, is choice; a creative power in the will as well as in the mind.”[114] Choice is a defining part of what it means to act. But choice is inherently an act of self-limitation and is incompatible with the relativist position that different things or opinions cannot be said to be better or worse than any another but are equally valid and ‘just different’; choice necessarily depends on the assessment that one thing is better than all the others. In fact, to say that to say that they no opinion is any better or any worse than any other is not to say that they are different but to say that for all practical purposes they are the same! Thus relativism and the belief that reality is merely a fiction leads not to the celebration of ‘difference’ as these theorists maintain but to a universal indifference in which we each inhabit a universe of one: “To the impressionist artist of our time we are not blind men groping after an elephant and naming it a tree or a serpent. We are maniacs, isolated in separate cells, and dreaming of trees and serpents without reason and without result.”[115] 


In this chapter I have attempted to show that the fundamental principle behind Chesterton’s philosophical perspective was the sense of wonder at the fact of existence. Reality was a surprise, but a pleasant surprise notwithstanding the reality of evil. As such gratitude was due, but gratitude to an impersonal nature was meaningless. The miraculous aspect of Being implied that there was a will behind the world, someone to whom we could be thankful. Wonder for Chesterton was not just a case of wonder at Being but at human beings together with the everyday objects and institutions of the human world. Politically, this translates into a distrust of both capitalists and utopian reformers who, propelled by a relentless reason which did not accept the limits of mystery or common sense, would look down upon ordinary existence and seek to remake the world in their own image. Neither materialism nor idealism could offer any solution to this problem as both tended to reduce the strangeness of the world to a mere reflection of the human mind—the rationalist reduced it to reason while the romantic reduced it to the imagination. Christianity, by contrast, had synthesized philosophy with mythology—reason was tempered by both a sense of mystery and common sense and that, for Chesterton, was the root of sanity. Much to Chesterton’s alarm however, the modern world was turning away from any grasp of reality and was becoming seduced by visions of limitless possibility. Genuine happiness, by contrast would be that which allowed us to face adversity with laughter and accept the realities of sorrow and tragedy which are inherent in the human condition: “Pessimism is a thing which is learnt from books, as sorrow is a thing learnt from life. Sorrow can never be pessimistic, for it is founded upon the value of things.”[116] Accepting the inevitability of sorrow should not be confused with an indifference to social and political injustice. Indeed Chesterton believed that the striving for an illusionary perfection would court disaster and he was constantly warning of the potential for oppression in the utopian schemes of humanitarian progressives who could only love humanity in the abstract. This chapter should have made it clear that this should not be mistaken for a conventional Right-wing rejection of Left-wing phantasies about the limitless malleability of the human condition, for Chesterton was simultaneously engaged in an equally rigorous campaign against both the inequalities generated by industrial capitalism and its ideological apologists. Having now considered both Arendt and Chesterton’s sense of wonder at the world, in the next part of the thesis we shall turn our attention to their social and political analyses of modernity. What we shall find is a common concern with the erosion of limits, a concomitant critique of social processes which undermine a sense of reality, together with a defense of those institutions, such as private property, which provide a sense of stability to human life against the sheer flux of change.[117]



[1] G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography, (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1937 [1936]), p. 93.

[2] Ibid., pp. 93-4.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Surprise [1903],’ The Man Who Was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. Chesterton, arranged and introduced by A. L. Maycock (London: Dennis Dobson, 1963), p. 160. This collection is an indispensable aid to the researcher on Chesterton.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: The Bodley Head, 1927 [1908]), p. 12.

[5] Ibid., p. 13.

[6] Ibid., p. 17.

[7] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Mr. Bernard Shaw,’ Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1928 [1905]), pp. 58-9.

[8] As quoted in Stephen R. L. Clark, ‘Substance: or Chesterton’s Abyss of Light,’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume  LXIX (1995), p. 3.

[9] G. K. Chesterton, Irish Impressions (London: W. Collins Sons and Co., 1919), p. 21.

[10] G. K. Chesterton, A Short History of England (London: Chatto and Windus, 1917), pp. 58-9.

[11] Margaret Canovan, G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), p. 37. Canovan is undoubtedly correct in pointing out that Chesterton’s vigor in combating the various ‘fads’ of the time was no doubt all the more pronounced because he was refuting positions which he had himself once entertained. 

[12] See for example Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 117-145; Autobiography, pp. 320-343.

[13] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Autobiography [1923],’ The Man Who Was Orthodox, p. 170.  Compare Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1979 [1951]), pp. vii-viii.

[14] Chesterton, Autobiography, p. 330.

[15] Ibid., p. 342.

[16] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Oliver Twist,’ Appreciations and Criticisms of The Works of Charles Dickens (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1911), p. 48.

[17] “The most childlike thing about a child is his curiosity and his appetite and his power of wonder at the world.”  G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America (Hodder and Stoughton, 1922), p. 280. See also Orthodoxy, pp. 93-6.

[18] G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens (London: Methuen and Co., 1907 [1906]), pp. 6-7.

[19] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p.128.

[20] Chesterton, Charles Dickens, p. 270.

[21] I borrow the term from Michael Walzer, The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (London: Peter Halban, 1989).

[22] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 118.

[23] Ibid., p. 119.

[24] Ibid., pp. 120-1.

[25] G. K. Chesterton, ‘On Sandals and Simplicity,’ Heretics, pp. 135-6. Or as Chesterton, stained with the ink of his day’s writing, stated in a letter to his fiancée Frances Blogg: “I Like the Cyclostyle ink; it is so inky. I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fierceness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud.  It is just the same with people. . . . When we call a man ‘manly’ or a woman ‘womanly’ we touch the deepest philosophy.” As quoted in David W. Fagerberg, The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), p. 23. The letter was originally published in Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945 [1944]), p. 97.

[26] Chesterton, Autobiography, p. 32.

[27] See G. K. Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927), pp. 37-57; Autobiography, pp. 31-56; ‘The Toy Theatre,’ Tremendous Trifles (London: Methuen and Co., 1927 [1909]), pp. 145-51.

[28] Chesterton, Autobiography, p. 108.

[29] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 116.

[30] See Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 79-115; ‘Fairy Tales,’ All Things Considered (London: Methuen and Co., 1908), pp. 253-8.

[31] Ibid., p. 97.

[32] Ibid.

[33] See G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1933), pp. 73-111.

[34] G. K. Chesterton, ‘A Man of Distinction [1930],’ The Man Who Was Orthodox, p. 106.

[35] Lawrence Clipper, G. K. Chesterton (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974), p. 92.

[36] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989 [1958]), p. 7.

[37] G. K. Chesterton, Robert Browning (London: Macmillan and Co., 1911 [1903]), p. 187. See Clark, ‘Substance,’ p. 11: “The recognition of Being demands that we also notice beings, the real things that are always more than words can say.  How can we love—or even recognize—Being Itself, when we do not love or recognize, the beings alongside us?”

[38] As quoted in Anthony W. Wright, G. D. H. Cole and Socialist Democracy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), p. 55.

[39] G. K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1913 [1912]), p. 91. Or in Arendtian terms, Beatrice Webb considers the state as the household writ large.

[40] As quoted in Clark, ‘Substance,’ p. 11. See also G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Invisible Man,’ The Father Brown Stories (London: Cassell and Co., 1966 [1929]), pp. 64-77.

[41] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Slum Novelists and the Slums,’ Heretics, p. 270. Compare Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin, 1995 [1963]), pp.88-9.

[42] Chesterton, Charles Dickens, p. 106.

[43] Chesterton, Irish Impressions, pp. 221-2. See also G. K. ‘The Three Kinds of Men,’ Alarms and Discursions (London: Methuen and Co., 1931 [1910]), pp. 147-53.

[44] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (London: Cassell and Co., 1912 [1910]), pp. 27-8.

[45] Ibid., p. 29.

[46] G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (London: Faber and Faber, 1934 [1932]), p. 30. Note also Chesterton’s thoughts on education which he understood as a passing on of the cultural heritage combined with a development of a critical understanding of present institutions—a perspective which he would pit against both ‘progressive’ doctrines of ‘self-expression’ and ‘conservative’ notions of commercial relevance. See Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, pp. 183-254; ‘On Business Education,’ All Is Grist: A Book of Essays (London: Methuen and Co., 1931), pp. 17-21; ‘On Education,’ All I Survey: A Book of Essays (London: Methuen and Co., 1933 [1934]), pp. 160-4.

[47] See Chesterton Orthodoxy, pp.  11-19; The Everlasting Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947 [1925]), pp. 9-22. As we shall see in Chapter Four, neither should Chesterton be considered a romantic medievalist who wished to reinstate some past ‘golden age’.

[48] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 83-4.

[49] Chesterton rejected the common assumption that aristocratic elites represented the epitome of tradition. In fact Chesterton saw aristocracy as riddled by fads and fashions.

[50] G. K. Chesterton, ‘If I had only One Sermon to Preach,’ The Common Man (London: Sheed and Ward, 1950), p. 254.

[51] Ibid., pp. 252-3.

[52] See my Introduction, pp. 9-10. Arendt too seems to link a turning away from reality by the wealthy progressive with a  tendency to snobbery. See her letter to Mary McCarthy dated December 21st 1968 where she writes: “The trouble with the New Left and the old liberals is the old one—complete unwillingness to face facts, abstract talk, often snobbish and nearly always blind to anybody else’s interest . . . .” Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975, edited and with an introduction by Carol Brightman (London: Secker and Warburg 1995), p. 230.

[53] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Obstinate Orthodoxy,’ The Thing (London: Sheed and Ward, 1929), p. 51.

[54] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 23. Hanwell being the name of a London insane asylum.

[55] See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guartarri, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Viking, 1972); R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967).

[56] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 23. For confirmation of Chesterton’s point the reader is referred to the analysis of psychotic states of mind in chapter 6 of Stephen Frosh’s Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and The Self (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 152-179.

[57] For a good overview of this literature see Frosh, Identity Crisis, passim. There are some very striking similarities between the positions of Chesterton and Christopher Lasch in particular. Chesterton however had no time for the new theories of psychoanalysis, bluntly dismissing Freud as a “fraud”. That Lasch moved away from psychoanalysis to a closer identification with populist and Christian traditions of thought towards the end of his life brings these two social critics even closer.

[58] See Dean R. Rapp, ‘G. K. Chesterton’s Criticism of Psychoanalysis,’ The Chesterton Review Vol. XV No. 3 (August, 1989), pp. 341-53.

[59] Ian Craib, ‘Social Constructionism as a Social Psychosis,’ Sociology Vol. 31 No. 1 (February, 1997), p. 1. As we shall see, Chesterton was particularly disturbed by the maniacal tendencies of idealists who had lost touch with the objective nature of reality, seeing it instead as a construction of their own minds. There are obvious parallels to be drawn to the strong forms of anti-realist ‘social construction’ theories which we shall encounter in the conclusion to this thesis.

[60] John D. Coates, Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis (Hull: Hull University Press, 1984), p. 212.

[61] Ibid., p. 213.

[62] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 30. One wonders if Arendt had ever read this passage: if she had, she would certainly have endorsed it.  See for example her assessment of the political and military ‘problem solvers’ of the Vietnam war who had “lost their minds because they trusted the calculating powers of their brains at the expense of  the mind’s capacity for experience and its ability to learn from it . . . .” Hannah Arendt, ‘Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers [1971],’ Crises of the Republic (Harmondswoth: Penguin, 1972), p. 36.

[63] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 54-5.

[64] Margaret Canovan, ‘Chesterton and Hannah Arendt,’ The Chesterton Review Vol. VII No. 2 (Spring, 1981), pp. 141-2.

[65] Chesterton, Charles Dickens, p. 152.

[66] Of course, Arendt understood the rise of Nazism as an unprecedented phenomena whereas Chesterton considered it to be the latest manifestation of the ‘Prussianism’ which he loathed.

[67] See G. K  Chesterton, ‘The Book of Job,’ G.K.C. As M.C.  Being a Collection of Thirty-Seven Introductions, selected and edited by J. P. de Fonseka (London: Methuen and Co., 1929), pp. 34-52.

[68] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 87.

[69] Ibid., p. 88.

[70] Ibid., p. 107.

[71] Ibid., p. 94.

[72] Ibid., p. 252.

[73] Ibid., pp. 250-1.

[74] For the suggestion that such a ‘humanitarian’ approach would actually be more inhumane in practice see G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett, Fancies Versus Fads (London: Methuen and Co., 1930 [1923]), pp. 86-92. Arendt also objected to such a non-judgmental ‘scientific’ approach to social reform, but not because it merely reflected a mistaken understanding of the human condition—Arendt lived to see the horrors that could occur when individuals are defined as determined rather than free beings. See Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, pp. 80-1.

[75] Both Arendt and Chesterton shared a clear dislike of behavioral psychology which depicts human beings as passive responders to the ‘positive’ and ‘negative reinforcements’ of the environment.

[76] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 43.

[77] Ibid., p. 56.

[78] Chesterton, Everlasting Man, pp. 156-7.

[79] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 24.

[80] Ibid., p. 126.

[81] Ibid., p. 167.

[82] Ibid., pp. 168, 170.

[83] G. K. Chesterton, ‘What is Right With the World [1910],’ The Apostle and the Wild Ducks and other essays, edited by Dorothy E. Collins (London: Paul Elek, 1975), pp. 164-5. See also Chesterton’s poem ‘The Modern Manichee [1932],’ The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (London: Methuen and Co., 1948 [1927]), pp. 7-8.

[84] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 124.

[85] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 43-44.

[86] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Crime of Gabriel Gale,’ The Poet and The Lunatics: Episodes in The Life of Gabriel Gale (London: Darwen Finlayson, 1962 [1929]), p. 91.

[87] Ibid.

[88] G. K. Chesterton, ‘A Century of Emancipation,’ The Well and the Shallows (London: Sheed and Ward, 1937 [1935]), p. 194. Considering the remarks made by some of the more extreme anti-realist theorists of the ‘social construction of nature’ (to be discussed in the concluding chapter of this thesis), Chesterton’s remark was indeed prophetic.

[89] Coates, Chesterton, p. 233

[90] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 140.

[91] Ibid., pp. 220-1.

[92] Chesterton, Everlasting Man, p. 287.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid., p. 288.

[95] Ibid., pp. 288-9.

[96] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 79-80.

[97] For Chesterton’s thoughts on the undemocratic nature of the parliamentary system see his letters of January/February 1911 to the editor of the Nation, reproduced in Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, pp. 271-4.

[98] The lack of such an ideal in contemporary social and political thought was the starting point for What’s Wrong with the World, p. 7: “The only way to discuss social evil is to get at once to the social ideal.  We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book ‘What’s Wrong with the World,’ but the rather wild title refers only to one point. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.”  

[99] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Voter and the Two Votes,’ A Miscellany of Men (London: Methuen and Co., 1930 [1912]), p. 45.

[100] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 54.

[101] G. K. Chesterton, ‘Wonder and the Wooden Post,’ The Coloured Lands (London: Sheed and Ward, 1938), p. 160.

[102] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Mystagogue,’ A Miscellany of Men, p. 98.  See also G. K. Chesterton, ‘Demagogues and Mystagogues,’ All Things Considered (London: Methuen and Co., 1920), pp. 237-43.  

[103] G. K. Chesterton, G. F. Watts (London: Duckworth, 1904), p. 91.

[104] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 219.

[105] Ibid., p. 200.

[106] Ibid., pp. 215-6.

[107] Chesterton, Robert Browning, p. 175

[108] See G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Sectarian of Society,’ A Miscellany of Men, pp. 114-20.

[109] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Angry Author: His Farewell,’ A Miscellany of Men, p. 174. See also ‘The Error of Impartiality,’ All Things Considered, pp. 209-13.

[110] Following Roy Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy (London: Verso, 1989), by ‘intransitive objects of knowledge’ I am referring to the objectively existing structures and entities of reality and by ‘transitive objects of knowledge’ I mean the theories and concepts used to understand that reality. This issue will be discussed in the conclusion to this thesis.

[111] G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, pp. 6-7.

[112] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 71.

[113] Ibid., p. 195.

[114] G. K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (London: Chatto and Windus, 1920), p. 158.

[115] Chesterton, Robert Browning, p. 176.

[116] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Lesson [1903],’ The Man Who Was Orthodox, p. 173.




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