Orthodoxy is Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s ((1874 -1936) spiritual biography. His purpose in writing this book was to ‘attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.’ It was not meant to be an ecclesiastical discourse but a ‘slovenly autobiography.’
For me, Orthodoxy was a mind-bending book, full of mental pictures, paradoxes and metaphors. It was a mentally challenging read for me and made me feel quite dense at times but on the last page Chesterton actually wrote, ‘As I close this chaotic volume…’ which made me feel I was a lesser idiot than I thought I was.
The man was brilliant and original. He debated the great minds of his day and often left them defeated. In spite of this, he earned their respect and was counted as a friend.
Described as an eccentric 300-pound scatter-brained Victorian journalist, and a ‘kindly and gallant cherub,’ Chesterton would double up in laughter at personal insults from his opponents. His command of the English language was supreme and his memory prodigious, but for such a brilliant man he had a deep humility.
Orthodoxy is one of the most quotable books I’ve ever read, so I will let these extracts speak rather than try to summarise what Chesterton said – which I couldn’t do anyhow.
‘Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. 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.
If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the the things that go with good judgement…
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 list his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.’
One of Chesterton’s opponents was George Bernard Shaw. He described Shaw as someone who had an heroically large and generous heart; but it wasn’t in the right place, and this was typical of the society of their time.
‘But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place…
A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this had been exactly reversed…
The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility, made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful of his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.’
Chesterton’s ideas are controversial; his thoughts on suicide, for example, would be objectionable today, but his focus was not so much on the individual as on his/her underlying dogma.
(He had struggled with depression himself. See his poem, ‘A Ballad of Suicide.’)
He said of suicide that,
‘…it is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; so far as he is concerned he wipes out the world…’
A lady I know emigrated to Australia from Germany when she was in her teens in the late 1950’s. She later discovered a horde of nihilistic literature her parents had brought with them. They had swallowed the Nazi philosophy that once you got to a certain age you had passed your use by date, and for the sake of sparing others the burden of looking after you, your duty was to exit this life.
That’s the underlying nihilistic dogma I think Chesterton was addressing.
And death isn’t confined to the person who commits suicide. It ripples out and affects their family, their friends, their community.
I’ve never forgotten how a friend of mine described finding his mother after she had gassed herself in her car. Hurt, confusion and distress was the ripple effect on his life, and as far as I know, the ripples never disappeared. It was a senseless act that he could not come to terms with or begin to understand.
‘A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.’
‘Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the 12th century, but is not credible in the 20th. You might as well believe that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays but not on Tuesdays…
What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.’
Although Orthodoxy was written in 1909, it hasn’t lost its relevance for the present. It is a book that could be read many times and still be fresh. The conclusion Chesterton came to in his searching was that the riddles of God prove more satisfying than the answers proposed without God.
‘The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy.’
‘And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.’
In my edition of the book, Philip Yancey’s introduction explains that Chesterton looked at a different aspect of the question, ‘If there is a loving God why do people suffer?’
‘Christians look for ways to explain the origin of suffering. Should atheists have an equal obligation to explain the origin of pleasure in a world of randomness & meaninglessness?’
‘It is the custom in passing romance and journalism to talk of men suffering under old tyrannies. But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty years before.’
“SERIOUSNESS is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good TIMES leading article than a good joke in PUNCH. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”
‘Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.’
One of the ideas probed by Chesterton in his spiritual journey was that of the belief that Christianity belongs to the Dark Ages; an idea promulgated every time there’s a push to get rid of a ‘traditional’ viewpoint.
‘Here I did not satisfy myself with reading modern generalisations; I read a little history. And in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple: it didn’t. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire. The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast. It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top. This is the amazing thing the religion did: it turned a sunken ship into a submarine.
(How the Irish Saved Civilisation by Thomas Cahill is an interesting tangent to this argument, too.)
‘If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag. But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new. She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch. In a word, the most absurd thing that could be said of the Church is the thing we have all heard said of it. How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.’
G.K. Chesterton was a prolific writer and wrote around eighty books, four thousand essays, about two-hundred short stories, as well as a few hundred poems.
His Father Brown detective stories are his most accessible books if you are just starting out and are enjoyable for anyone who likes detective fiction. Some of my children loved The Man Called Thursday when they were about 13 or 14 years old; a couple of them didn’t. I’ve enjoyed his poetry and some of his essays best.
Orthodoxy was a similar experience to reading C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man – dense and challenging but great soul food.
‘A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.’
Some interesting links:
Joy Clarkson recorded a series of podcasts on Orthodoxy in 2019 on Speaking With Joy (Thanks to Cate for mentioning this)
The first link above has a wide range of Chesterton resources & a podcast on YouTube.
Some of Chesterton’s Poetry
Tremendous Trifles – these short essays are a great introduction to Chesterton’s non-fiction
G.K. Chesterton’s Works Online has an exhaustive list of his work that is available free online.
A physical copy of Orthodoxy is here.