Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Chestertonian Life

Over the course of the past week, and over the course of the next week, there has been and will be much talk about how Chesterton lived his life. Though this is an excellent subject, a perhaps more worthy question for his devotees to ask is how they are to live their lives like Chesterton.

In my original post for this project, I suggested that Chesterton stood largely for the triumvirate of faith, sense and family. It would be helpful, I think, to discuss exactly what each of these things implies, for they are so much more than just their names.


As near to our hearts as faith is (I speak generally, of course; I do not assume that all of our readers are Catholic, or even especially Christian), there is much to be said of it in relation to the Chestertonian ouevre. A golden thread can be found running throughout his entire body of work, and it is a thread of gratitude. Those of you who have read Orthodoxy are well aware of just how important the idea of proper gratitude was to Gilbert, and of how important it, too, should be to us. Gratitude is not merely a courteous gesture to one who has granted us a boon, but also an act of loyalty. Gratitude and loyalty are the cornerstones of faith.

For all of his varied themes, it is easy to see how essentially delighted Gilbert is with most everything about which he has written. "The Battle of Lepanto" is not merely a chronicle of that epoch-making event, but a hymn of thanks, as if to thank God there was a Lepanto, that there was a Don John of Austria, and that there were Turks there to be fought. He has referred to this battle as being the stuff of "the true romance," which is to say, a thing both mythic and real. The parallels to his praise of Christianity for the same reason should be well-known.

In being thankful for the world, and for the stories and people that are its essence, there is a necessary loyalty to these same things that must be maintained. Again we may take Orthodoxy as our primer, here. He speaks of the world as being not just a place where we are stuck by chance and for no particular reason, and which we may as well just leave if it doesn't suit us, but rather as our family's ancestral fortress, with flags flying, battlements armed, and an enemy at the gate. We must be loyal to life, because it is the only thing we can be said to "have" that both matters significantly and is not actually ours. Suicide is the ultimate act of treason.

But there is more to be loyal to than simply the world. One of Gilbert's most famous essays - "A Defence of Rash Vows" - is one of the most important pieces of work we might read to gain an understanding of the principle. For a long time I held what follows to be the most deliciously perfect statement in all of Gilbert's work:
The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that himself should not keep the appointment
I have since transferred my idolatry to the beginning of an essay about Fielding's Tom Jones, but there is still much to consider in the line above. The loyalty that binds a man to a course of action that he himself has determined, with consequences that he himself will impose, and the point of which may be largely lost on other people - if not ignored outright - is a very precious thing. Grim Prussian types would perhaps call it the Will, or the Self-Will, or some such lifeless thing. Chestertonians can call it "being a man."


I use the word "sense" rather than "reason" or even "intelligence" for a number of reasons, most of which are possibly frivolous. For one thing, it is evocative of the idea of "common sense," as it should be, but the minute nature of "faith, sense and family" does not allow for such a lopsided inclusion. What is more, however, I have used the word because I don't mean reason or intelligence. The cruellest monsters of human history have had this trait in abundance; their knowledge was too knowledgable, and their reason too rational.

No, I use the word "sense" because I want to imply that beautiful and delicate marriage between reason and emotion (or sensibility/sensitivity, if you wish to more fully grasp the genesis). And it must be a marriage, after all. No other union could produce such wonderful results, and no two subjects could be simultaneously so meritorious together and so terrible in isolation. Gilbert wrote memorably (Orthodoxy again, I'm afraid) that an excess of reason is the cause of insanity; the madman exists at a center of most exquisite logic, but it is the utterly impregnable nature of his reasoning that makes it worthless. There is no way to argue against the idea that all the world is engaged in some conspiracy against him, or that he really is the secret King of Siam. In the other hand, of course, lies clenched the excess of feeling that makes men foolish rather than cruel or insane; libertines, that is, rather than lunatics. In any event, there is a fine line to be walked between a man who is too weepy to function and a man who sheds no tears, and it takes the balancing of both reason and feeling to do it.

And so, we find "sense." Gilbert's devotion to this miraculous marriage can be found in all sorts of places, and was in particular vital in informing his distributism. Even while the real problems of economics were being rationally addressed, so too were the real victims of economics being addressed as real people, about whom compassion and consideration were necessary for the formation of worthy policy. "Sense" is that curious conclusion that informs the often fantastic results of his more fanciful works, such as his play, The Surprise. Because of this, the moral of a Chesterton story really is moral, and this is highly refreshing.


About the family there is much to be said, and so it may perhaps be unsatisfying that I have little to say about it.

Gilbert's love of family bordered almost on idolatry, though in his case it would be an idolatry of the Holy Family, and the worship is arguably well-deserved. References to the power and primacy of the family are scattered across his works as a farmer might scatter seeds, and with as much of an effect. The family, says he, is the oldest, smallest, and most powerful state. Marriage is that cleaving-together that fulfills the prerogative of the divine creative Fiat, and brings forth man again. Children are the heart and soul of this entire world. For a man cruelly denied a family of his own, Gilbert was certainly well-up on the value thereof.

But at least, for all that, he was surrounded by friends who loved him, and the children of such friends. He was a man old in wisdom and love, and discovered many truths through conjecture that most of the race only grasp through the accident of practice. Speaking as a mere student - and an exceedingly solitary one, at that - I can not hold myself up as able to offer competent commentary on this subject, and it is for this reason that my remarks have been so brief and general. I can only recommend a reading of What's Wrong with the World or Brave New Family to appreciate the full depth of Gilbert's work in this field.

The End?

In closing, then, we may return once more to "A Defence of Rash Vows." Though the essay is a largely jovial one, with many sly turns of language and pleasant expressions, there is to it a very heartfelt exhortation to remember what man once was, and could very easily be again with a little hard work and fortitude. The essay's conclusion is almost a Dies Irae:
All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in backways and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame will rise from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a man is burning his ships.

Part two of this examination will appear next Saturday, in which I will explain to you just how one might put these principles into practical effect, and the results of such an extravagant experiment.

And of course, be sure to show up on Monday, for our second week of Chestertonian excess. I will be kicking things off with a look at the marvelous history of Gilbert in the countryside on Monday, and the rest of the C&F crew will have material for your consideration as well, of course, including treatments of the phenomenon of Father Brown, Gilbert's Distributism, and his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Have a lovely weekend.

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