Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

A Brain Swarming with Ideas, Not Thought

Bear with me, I’ve got a couple more posts on G.K. Chesterton to go.

T.S. Eliot said of Chesterton: “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.”

Today’s passage, from a late collection called The Well and the Shallows, is a prime example of this. It is well known that Chesterton could be fantastically irresponsible–indeed, it seems to have been something of a basic character trait of his, particularly when he had the misfortune to discourse on anything related to Protestantism. In the final essay of the aforementioned collection called “Where Is the Paradox?” he perhaps outdoes himself in a way that would have embarrassed anyone who had not forgotten how to blush.

In a purported attempt to account for the rise of the Third Reich, Chesterton unreasons himself to the conclusion that it was the result of the Reformation:

The racial pride of Hitlerism is of the Reformation by twenty tests; because it divides Christendom and makes all such divisions deeper; because it is fatalistic, like Calvinism, and makes superiority depend not upon choice but only on being of the chosen; because it is Caesaro-Papist, putting the State above the Church, as in the claim of Henry VIII; because it is immoral, being an innovator of morals touching things like Eugenics and Sterility; because it is subjective, in suiting the primal fact to the personal fancy, as in asking for a German God, or saying that the Catholic revelation does not suit the German temper; as if I were to say that the Solar System does not suit the Chestertonian taste. I do not apologise, therefore, for saying that this catastrophe in history has been due to heresy; and I cannot see that even an Anglo-Catholic supports his own claim to orthodoxy by denying it.

One does not have time to go through this in detail, for that would do it the unfortunate dignity of taking it seriously, which no thinking person can imagine it deserves. I note only in passing that Mr. Chesterton appears not to have been very good at math. Promising twenty proofs, he can come up with only five–and to do even this, he must have recourse to the fancies of his own imagination. One wishes he had taken his own remark in Orthodoxy less seriously (for it is not a serious statement): “Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.” Mathematicians and chess-players might both have helped him here, though it is true that he does not so much attack logic as pretend that it does not exist.

Instead of analysis, then, one can do little better than quote the verdict of Christopher Hitchens in his final review for The Atlantic (on two Chesterton volumes by Ian Ker):

In that closing, Chesterton missed one or two opportunities for wit and ducked a couple of openings for a tu quoque (especially on the matter of Henry VIII and church-state compromises). But he most of all sacrificed his duty to moral courage and historical truth, blaming Nazism on the wrong culprits. And this was because he put his theocratic allegiance higher than those claims, and at a time when civilization was in danger from the men of the Hitler-Vatican Concordat. Another way of phrasing it might be to say that, when the hour really struck, Chesterton could not detect a paradox when it truly reared up to confront him and his prejudices. Harsher but correct would be the verdict that his Catholicism made him morally frivolous about Hitlerism; a judgment that Professor Ker strives to avoid but is, I think, in part compelled to admit. Confrontation with GKC has been enjoyable, even if the main elements of the debate have come to seem extraordinarily archaic.

The verdict one must pass on GKC, then, is that when he was charming, he was also deeply unserious and frivolous (as with the pub revolution to set off the Distributist revolution); when he was apparently serious, he was really quite sinister (as in calling Nazism a form of Protestant heresy and Jews a species of conspicuous foreigner in England); and when he was posing as a theologian, he was doing little more than ventriloquizing John Henry Newman at his most “dogmatic.” For the time and hour in which he lived, “Chestertonianism” came to represent a minor but still important failure to meet a distinct moral challenge.

Chesterton said in Orthodoxy that reason breeds insanity; perhaps, then, his assiduous avoidance of it was a precautionary prophylactic.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.