A Year with G.K. Chesterton: 365 Days of Wisdom, Wit, and Wonder editd by Kevin Belmonte (Thomas Nelson, 2012)
How can you go wrong with Chesterton? How could I pass up the opportunity to receive a free copy of this collection of a year's worth of his wisdom? So I didn't, despite my complaints about overflowing bookshelves and not enough time to read.
Since I had an obligation to review the book for its publisher, I couldn't really spread the readings out over 365 days—not that I would have exercised that much self-control anyway. Still, it was a delight, mostly. The selections themselves are fully delightful, mostly unknown to me, and interspersed with quotations from the Bible and quotations about Chesterton. My only quarrel with the book is the lack of sources. Who can read a good quotation and not want to see it in context? Many times Belmonte tells us the origins of a particular selection, but as many times he does not, which I found very frustrating.
Google came to the rescue. Many of Chesterton's writings are in the public domain and available online. This made finding the context of most of the passages easy, and should have saved much time in providing samples for this review, since all I had to do was copy them. Alas, I'm not sure that there was any savings at all, since finding the context inevitably meant I spent more time reading than I would have spent typing.
Be that as it may, here are a few treasures, mostly from the book, but some encountered through my online meanderings. Remembering the Golden Rule, I have provided the sources.
I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald. (From Chesterton's introduction to Greville MacDonald's book, George MadDonald and His Wife. Those who similarly love the writings of George MacDonald will appreciate the whole essay, which is available online from the American Chesterton Society.)
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. (Orthodoxy)
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. (Orthodoxy)
The present importance of the book of Job cannot be expressed adequately even by saying that it is the most interesting of ancient books. We may almost say of the book of Job that it is the most interesting of modern books. In truth, of course, neither of the two phrases covers the matter, because fundamental human religion and fundamental human irreligion are both at once old and new; philosophy is either eternal or it is not philosophy. The modern habit of saying” This is my opinion, but I may be wrong” is entirely irrational. If I say that it may be wrong, I say that is not my opinion. The modern habit of saying “Every man has a different philosophy; this is my philosophy and it suits me”—the habit of saying this is mere weak-mindedness. A cosmic philosophy is not constructed to fit a man; a cosmic philosophy is constructed to fit a cosmos. A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon. (Introduction to the Book of Job)
Intangible falsehood, based upon no authority, is of all things the most difficult to fight. (From the New York Times, 1921)
[W]hite is a color. It is not a mere absence of color; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a color. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen. Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colors; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white. (A Piece of Chalk)
For doctors as doctors, [Chesterton] said, he had profound respect; but he would knock their heads off if they undertook to make themselves advisers of the community. The doctor was to be called upon extraordinary occasions to deal with abnormal situations. Suppose [Mr. Chesterton] were to precipitate himself into the audience and break his leg. A doctor would set the leg. He would be doing his work as a doctor, but the modern idea seemed to be that he was to take charge of unbroken legs, to say when they were to be used to walk, and when they were to be used to dance.
"Take a policeman. He is there to punish crime," Mr. Chesterton continued. "When you and I indulge in murder, he takes charge of us and deals with us according to law. But just imagine what you would say if told that the policeman was there to encourage virtue. What would happen if you and I were always followed by a policeman, and we heard his voice over our shoulder telling us when to do this and not to do that?"
(From a Chesterton lecture, reported in the journal, Modern Medicine, 1921.)
The great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. (What's Wrong with the World)
Painting the town red is a delightful thing until it is done... But when it is done, when you have painted the town red, an extraordinary thing happens. You cannot see any red at all. I can see, as in a sort of vision, the successful artist standing in the midst of that frightful city, hung on all sides with the scarlet of his shame. And then, when everything is red, he will long for a red rose in a green hedge and long in vain; he will dream of a red leaf and be unable even to imagine it. He has desecrated the divine colour, and he can no longer see it, though it is all around. I see him, a single black figure against the red-hot hell that he has kindled, where spires and turrets stand up like immobile flames: he is stiffened in a sort of agony of prayer. Then the mercy of Heaven is loosened, and I see one or two flakes of snow very slowly begin to fall. (The Red Town)
[T]hey had forgotten journalism. They had forgotten that there exists in the modern world, perhaps for the first time in history, a class of peole whose interest is not that things should happen well or happen badly, should happen successfully or happen unsuccessfully, should happen to the advantage of this party orthe advantage of that party, but whose interest simply is that things should happen. (The Ball and the Cross)
It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that the moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters "Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe," or "Mr. Jones of Worthing, Not Dead Yet." They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not dissolved. Hence the complete picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority. (The Ball and the Cross)
A young mother remarked to me, "I don't want to teach my child any religion. I don't want to influence him; I want him to choose for himself when he grows up." That is a very ordinary example of a current argument, which is frequently repeated and yet never really applied. Of course the mother was always influencing the child. Of course the mother might just as well have said: "I hope he will choose his own friends when he grows up, so I won't introduce him to any Aunts or Uncles." The grown-up person cannot in any case escape from the responsibility of influencing the child, not even if she accepts the enormous responsibility of not influencing the child. The mother can bring up the child without choosing a religion for him, but not without choosing an environment for him. If she chooses to leave out the religion, she is choosing the environment—and an infernally dismal, unnatural environment too. The mother can bring up the child alone on a solitary island in the middle of a large lake, lest the child should be influenced by superstitions and social traditions. But the mother is choosing the island and the lake and the loneliness, and is just as responsible for doing so as if she had chosen the sect of the Mennonites or the theology of the Mormons. (in the Illustrated London News, 1928)
I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act. ... If I had ever talked all the mean materialism about living nations and dying nations, I should say that England was certainly dying. But I do not believe that a nation dies save by suicide. To the very last, every problem is a problem of the will; and if we will we can be whole. But it involves facing our own failures as well as counting our successes; it means not depending entirely on commerce and colonies; it means balancing our mercantile morals with more peasant religion and peasant equality; it means ceasing to be content to rule the sea, and making some sort of effort to return to the land. (A Visit to Holland)
My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. (Orthodoxy)
To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings. To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance. Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important. (Heretics)
We talk much about "respecting" this or that person’s religion; but the way to respect a religion is to treat it as a religion: to ask what are its tenets and what are their consequences. But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance. The old religious authorities, at least, defined a heresy before they condemned it, and read a book before they burned it. (In the Illustrated London News, 1911)
Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle's pathetic belief (or anyone else's pathetic belief) in "the wise few." There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob. (Heretics)
When you undertake legislation for the poor, try and realise that you are legislating for men, and not for some far removed race of people whom you have never seen. Try and think about the laws which you approve, and the course of action to which you agree, and then think whether you would like it to return suddenly upon you with truncheon and battle-axe! Realise, in a word, the fundamental unity and fraternity of men in all legislation. (From a sermon given at St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, 1904)
We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be. (What's Wrong with the World)
There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man fee great. (Charles Dickens)
We do not need to get good laws to restrain bad people. We need to get good people to restrain bad laws. (All Things Considered)
Insofar as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. Insofar as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. (Orthodoxy)
Christmas is, quite apart from all its really important elements, the central and supreme example of concentration and fixity; because it is not a movable feast. Many excessive schools of lunatics have tried in vain to move it, and even to move it away. In spite of all sorts of intellectual irritations and pedantic explaining away, human beings will almost certainly go on observing this winter feast in some fashion. If it is for them only a winter feast, they will be found celebrating it with winter sports. If it is for them only a heathen feast, they will keep it as the heathens do. But the great majority of them will go on observing forms that cannot be so explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly they will wake up and discover why. (On Christmas)
There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are a modern Christian Englishman, you hail (of course) with the same explosion of gaiety the appearance of the English Sunday. But I say that whatever the day is that is to you festive or symbolic, it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before. And all the old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. Especially it ought to be observed in connection with what are called the Christmas numbers of magazines. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be still lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favour the editors being tied up in brown paper. Whether the leg or arm of an editor should ever be allowed to protrude I leave to individual choice. (All Things Considered)
[T]hough we may do a horrid thing in a horrid situation, we must be quite certain that we actually and already are in that situation. Thus, all sane moralists admit that one may sometimes tell a lie; but no sane moralist would approve of telling a little boy to practise telling lies, in case he might one day have to tell a justifiable one. Thus, morality has often justified shooting a robber or a burglar. But it would not justify going into the village Sunday school and shooting all the little boys who looked as if they might grow up into burglars. The need may arise; but the need must have arisen. It seems to me quite clear that if you step across this limit you step off a precipice. (All Things Considered)
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. (Tremendous Trifles)