Sources returnpage

Chesterton, G K

Category: Philosopher

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (1874 –1936) better known as G.K. Chesterton, was principally an English writer. He wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays.

He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist,  debater, and mystery writer. He was a columnist for the Daily News, the Illustrated London News, and his own paper, G. K.'s Weekly. He also wrote articles for the Encyclopædia Britannica, including the entry on Charles Dickens and part of the entry on Humour in the 14th edition (1929).

His best-known character is the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared only in short stories, while The Man Who Was Thursday is arguably his best-known novel.  He not only showed a great interest in, but a real talent for, art and planned initially to become an artist.

He had a wonderful sense of humour.  Even when writing a critique of something [or somebody] he spiced it with humour.  You would have to have been a humourless soul to have been offended by anything he said and what he said was often extremely controversial.  His aim appears to have been to perpetually challenge, a sort of funny Nietzsche.

Even George Bernard Shaw, whom Chesterton constantly had little digs about – the  "friendly enemy"  - said of him, "He was a man of colossal genius," of course he may have been joking too but I suspect not.

 

Chesterton routinely referred to himself as an "orthodox" Christian, and came to identify this position more and more with Catholicism, eventually converting to Roman Catholicism from High Church Anglicanism.  This does not sound too promising, but he wasn't orthodox at all.  According to Chesterton, as a young man he became fascinated with the occult and, along with his brother Cecil, experimented with Ouija boards. It was only as he got older that he theoretically became more orthodox.

I think Chesterton at heart wanted to be a philosopher, but hadn't the academic skills to become one.  So he contented himself with being a philosopher in all but name in all the articles he wrote, the lectures he gave and even the fiction he wrote.  In his fiction book Father Brown for example, it is Father Brown who voices Chesterton's views:

There is still youth and honour and humour in you; don't fancy they will last in that trade. Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down. The kind man drinks and turns cruel; the frank man kills and lies about it. Many a man I've known started like you to be an honest outlaw, a merry robber of the rich, and ended stamped into slime.

 

If you read any of his books or articles the effect is to make you sit up and say – 'hang on a minute that can't be right' – but he did this deliberately, there are contradictions in what he says even within an article or paragraph almost as if he wanted to put both points of view.  His subject matter was deadly serious, but his approach was 'softly softly', and the combination of confrontation with humour is very effective.  Perhaps more effective than poor Nietzsche, who realised the value in challenging beliefs.

Chesterton also used what he called 'Uncommon Sense'  to question the views of the thinkers and popular philosophers of the day, who though very clever, were saying things that Chesterton believed were nonsensical.   Clever men but not wise men.

 

Where did his inspiration come from?  He had a very poorly heart.   He was a very large man - 6 feet 4 inches high and weighing around 21 stone.  He also smoked cigars – a lot. 

Chesterton once said to  George Bernard Shaw: "To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England". Shaw retorted, "To look at you, anyone would think you have caused it".

Chesterton died of congestive heart failure on the morning of 14 June 1936, [aged 62] at his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."

 

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.