Wit and Wisdom in Chesterton's Heretics

This year's reading is off to a good start, not so much in terms of speed (work and other activities have put the brakes on that) but in terms of content.  I've just finished G. K. Chesterton's Heretics, a light book for heavy hearts of little-'o' orthodox Christians who happen to be classic literature nerds.  Since I fall under that category, I found Heretics to be a bracing read and surprisingly relevant for the current times.  Chesterton is a hit-and-miss author for me; this book was definitely a "hit."

Shaw, Belloc e Chesterton
George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton.
Heretics (1905) comes under one of my favorite niche genres - authors writing about other authors.  In this series of essays, Chesterton critiques such literary luminaries as Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, as well as others who have since fallen out of readership.  Imperialism, Nietzsche's Superman, human progress, and other topics of the day are covered here, many of which are still relevant a little over a century later, albeit in other guises.  Chesterton's overarching theme is that religion, specifically Christianity, is essential to contemporary dialogue, not a thing to be flippantly attacked or dismissed as irrelevant.

A non-Catholic myself, I still found encouragement in his defense of Christianity in the modern world.  I am not sure how non-Christians would find it; probably they would pick holes in Chesterton's turns of phrase, which to me are devices to get you to think, not to necessarily persuade or convince.  In any case, this book shows off Chestertons's signature style, often pithy and delightfully humorous, and I think anyone who can appreciate a Mark Twainian repartee could get some chuckles out of it.

These are some quotes I particularly liked:

The case of the general talk of "progress" is, indeed, an extreme one. As enunciated today, "progress" is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative . . . Nobody has any business to use the word "progress" unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. - "On the Negative Spirit"

The man who is misunderstood has always this advantage over his enemies, that they do not know his weak point or his plan of campaign. - "Mr. Bernard Shaw"

Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves. - "Mr. Bernard Shaw"

There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle. - "On Sandals and Simplicity"

All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. - "Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson."  I may print this one and hang it up on my office wall...

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. - "On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family."

Democracy is not philanthropy; it is not even altruism or social reform. Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man; democracy is founded on reverence for the common man, or, if you will, even on fear of him. It does not champion man because man is so miserable, but because man is so sublime. - "Slum Novelists and the Slums"

Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. - "Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy"

Comments

  1. I'd second you on that printing and hanging of the criminals/heroes quote. One of GKC's thoughts that sticks with me is that "progress" is rather meaningless. Without a destination, and end-goal, movement in one direction can just as easily be regress. That is, if the goal isn't DEFINED, you can't say you're moving towards anything.

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    1. Exactly... and without a moral code, you can't properly define the end-goal, especially vague platitudes as "happiness" or "harmony."

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  2. I'm so encouraged by your review. I read Orthodoxy and found it difficult but this one sounds right up my alley. Chesterton's mind is unique and I believe you have to read a number of books to get to know him. Only then does his style of communicating become more familiar.

    He was wonderful friends with George Bernard Shaw and it amazes me that Chesterton, a devout Catholic, would be able to have such a great relationship with a man who was an atheist. They had lively debates and when Chesterton died, Shaw said: "The world is not thankful enough for G.K. Chesterton." I love that they could have such extreme differences of opinion on subjects that were important to them both and still be friends.

    Great review, Marian! :-)

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    1. That's a wonderful quote from Shaw. I think they'd both be appalled at the state of public "debate" nowadays and the way people abuse each other on the internet. In college I took a 20th-Century British history class, and while Shaw and Wells were both brought up, I don't recall any mention of Chesterton. This kind of omission is a real shame...it gives the impression of ideas unfolding in a vacuum, as opposed to the actual dialogue that was going on.

      Orthodoxy was challenging for me, too. I'll be re-reading it next and will attempt to properly review it this time!

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  3. i would love this book. i look for essays on other authors by authors: i just found a volume of literary essays by Gorky at the library book sale... yum. great excerpt/quotes... if i recall, "progress" the concept was invented by a Frenchman sometime in the 18th C.

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    1. What a find - library sales are so much fun! :) I have yet to read Gorky, but I'm sure I will at some point.

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  4. I also love it when authors write about other authors and philosophers. I am a non believer but I am somewhat fascinated by musings on religion, even when I disagree with them. Thus, I think that I would like this.

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  5. Hi Marian,
    I am very excited to have found your little corner on the internet, you've a lovely site! Pardon my uninvited intrusion, but I wanted to tell you how much I've enjoyed reading some of your posts and reviews this morning. I too have mixed feelings with some of Chesterton's writing. As a Sherlock Holmes fan I find Chesterton's Father Brown series just as enjoyable, but in a lighter more playful way. Have you ever read Father Brown stories? They are marvelous. Have a captivating rest of the week, and I hope you won't mind if I drop in and comment from time to time?

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    1. Father Brown has been on my reading list for a while, but I haven't read it yet (saving it for a rainy day!). If it's anything like his other mysteries, "The Club of Queer Trades," I think I'll enjoy it!

      Always great to meet other like-minded readers - thanks for stopping by, and hope to see you around!

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