Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wisdom and Innocence (and Charity, and Truth, and...)

There is a bumper sticker that reads: God, please save me from your followers. Just as the disciples of the Deity often present the most considerable obstacle to knowing Him, a like argument can may be made for the earnest devotees of Gilbert Kieth Chesterton. This is most unfortunate, since we merely aim to be grateful to one who has offered us spiritual strength, and may have even led us to God. To his fans, Chesterton is a brilliant writer whose (almost) every line demonstrates his profundity. We discover that he had an epigram for everything: one which conveys an essential truth in a way that is always witty and seldom inconsiderate. We laugh at his jokes and groan at his puns, and we are always edified. As Pearce's writing attests, if we try to write, we betray the master's influence, what with our semi-colons, alliteration, and attempted paradoxes.

But it would be a mistake to allow poor imitation to ruin one of "the giants of twentieth-century literature". The most obvious place to begin a study of such a giant is with the man's own books; I would recommend The Everlasting Man. But another splendid place to start is Joseph Pearce's well-written and thoroughly researched biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of GK Chesterton. Pearce maintains a good balance between telling the tale of Chesterton and providing selections from his writings—poetry, essays, books, novels—which are integral to understanding the man, and which greatly increase one's admiration of him. As might be expected from Pearce, who has since penned a number of similar works on Catholic literary figures, focus is placed on Chesterton's relationships with members of the literary world. Much is made, for instance, of his friendships with Hilaire Belloc and Fr. Ronald Knox, but also of those with George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, with whom he frequently disagreed. We also learn about the ways in which C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Sayers, and George Orwell—among others—were influenced by him.

The charity with which Chesterton conducted himself, even while arguing, is not only the primary reason he was capable of maintaining friendships with so many different personalities, it is a major attraction of his writings today. He also gives the Faith an intellectual respectability of which his fellow Catholics ought to be aware, but which its opponents rarely fathom. To Shaw, for instance, Chesterton was not simply a delightful companion; he was also a worthy opponent.

Pearce readily demonstrates Chestertonian charity towards his subject, to the point where we might suspect that he is overly reluctant to criticize him. He nonetheless pronounces against a book if he believes it was written poorly, or against a point if he believes it was wrongly made. For instance, when speaking of The Resurrection of Rome "The prose wanders off in all directions, following endless theological or historical tangents"; and Four Faultless Felons was "completely forgettable and not worthy of the author." After letting Shaw and Chesterton argue it out over the pacifism of the former, Pearce concedes that: "With the wisdom of hindsight it is difficult to side with Chesterton against Shaw on the issue of the First World War."

One is left to conclude that Chesterton is criticized so infrequently because he rarely deserves more than his self-deprecating wit already provided. Often, he deserved much less. We find ourselves siding with Etienne Gilson: "Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable."

It is difficult to say which offers the greater appeal: his depth of thought or his charity towards others. Thankfully, we need not choose: Chesterton's large frame left ample room for both. In a world that has forgotten both how to think and how to love, Pearce offers welcome insight into a man who could do much to help us remember.


troutsky said...

Nicely written, I remain committed to checking him out when time permits. Where is Chesterton on "distributive justice"?

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Where is Chesterton on "distributive justice"?

He and Hilaire Belloc were big advocates of Distributism. The details are vague to me, but the general idea is that both Capitalism and Socialism are flawed, the former for concentrating property in the hands of a few, the latter for rejecting the principle of private property altogether.

I hesitate to recommend something I haven't read, but you might start here.