Dale Ahlquist, G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 183 pp., $13.95, Paperback.
Dale Ahlquist, Common Sense 101:
Lessons from G.K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 316
pp., $16.95, Paperback.
Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.
In a wild chase in Chesterton’s anarchist nightmare The Man Who Was Thursday, the mysterious Sunday escapes by cab, fire engine, elephant, and balloon from conspirators bearing the names of the other days of the week before finally revealing to them who he is. “I am the Sabbath,” he says; “I am the peace of God.” One pursuer reacts fiercely, refusing reconciliation; another expresses gratitude, but desires understanding; a third thinks it silly; another is happy and content; a fifth is not happy and demands an explanation of his adventures; and the sixth day wants to know why he was hurt so much. Sunday does not explain anything. “Sunday said nothing, but only sat with his mighty chin upon his hand, and gazed at the distance,” at last adding only “I have heard your complaints, in order.” Soon, Sunday is transformed: “the great face of Sunday, which wore a strange smile[,]… grew to an awful size, … larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black.” From the darkness one of the pursuers hears, not an answer, but “a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’”
No one can describe God completely or know His mind perfectly. Ultimately, we must recognize our inadequacy and, like Job, accept His will, for He is the Creator from whom we receive all not as a matter of right but gratuitously. Our task is to give ourselves to Him completely. To do this, though, we must know, love, and serve Him. We must attempt to describe Him and to know His mind, even though the results must be imperfect, so that we can love and serve Him more perfectly. We necessarily meet riddles, paradoxes, and questions beyond our ability to resolve: God is a mystery of unfathomable depth. In this sense, Chesterton’s works are gloriously failed attempts to know and explain God and His creation, especially man. And in doing so, Chesterton consistently shows us something he says God “concealed.” The “one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth,” Chesterton says in Orthodoxy: “His mirth.”
Dale Ahlquist calls Chesterton the Apostle of Common Sense. Chesterton is also the Apostle of Mirth. Chesterton saw the humor in creation and life, and it permeates his writing. Simply put, Chesterton is deadly serious and fun to read.
Chesterton himself filled the whole sky. At six feet four inches and three hundred pounds, he filled it physically. Writing a hundred books, thousands of essays, poetry, plays, fairy tales, literary criticism, biography, newspaper columns, autobiography, mystery stories, and more, he also filled it metaphorically. Chesterton is immense – corporally and in the corpus of his work. Reading all he wrote is itself a colossal endeavor, but a complete plumbing of its depths is perhaps impossible, for he wrote perceptively about everything. Ahlquist revels in the attempt. “An ocean of words poured out of his pen,” he writes in Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton. “I have simply immersed myself in that ocean.”
Common Sense 101 is unlike any other Chesterton book I have read. Although I hesitate to say it, Common Sense 101 is a systematic presentation of Chesterton’s thought. I hesitate because the term “systematic” incorrectly implies a formality that detracts from Ahlquist’s playfully serious approach. “This is not a book about Chesterton,” writes Ahlquist, but “a book about everything else from a Chestertonian perspective.” Ahlquist “tries to get inside of him and inhabit him like a large house so that we can see the world through the windows he provides,” but we also meet the character who is the man of the house. Suffused with Chesterton’s and Ahlquist’s humor, Common Sense 101 brings Chesterton to life better than some biographies I have read. Ahlquist has fallen in love with Chesterton, and he is inviting the reader to do so also.
Chesterton was a controversialist. “Always focused on the larger picture and on eternal truths,” says Ahlquist, Chesterton shied from nothing, able to “expound, it seems on any subject,” and “proud of defending the common man and common sense.” And always with great mirth, laughing at his own jokes. “If a man may not laugh at his own jokes, at whose jokes may he laugh?” asks Chesterton. “May not an architect pray in his own cathedral?” After all, he says, “Joking is undignified; that is why it is so good for one’s soul.”
Ahlquist has employed his apparently encyclopedic familiarity with Chesterton’s writings to draw together snippets illustrating Chesterton’s substance and wit into chapters on different topics that together provide his worldview, a Catholic worldview.
After a colorful introduction to Chesterton, the second chapter addresses the wonder of creation. “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder,” says Chesterton. In the third, “The Riddles of God,” Ahlquist delves deeply into Chesterton’s use of paradox to point to truth, saying Chesterton is a mystic, for “the mystic is the man who tries to address the doubts and solve the riddles.” The “absolute paradox,” of course, is Jesus Christ, Who is God and man.
Chesterton did not earn a college degree. He went to art school instead, becoming a writer almost accidentally. “Art,” says Chesterton, “is the signature of man,” and that is the title of Ahlquist’s fourth chapter. “Chesterton does not leave us much wiggle room,” says Ahlquist. “He says that when art is not in the service of heaven, it is almost always in the service of hell.” Ahlquist uses Chesterton to contrast the daily news with eternal verities, then discusses Chesterton on literary criticism (“Chesterton says that the best thing we can get out of an interest in literature is a finer interest in life”), before addressing Chesterton’s poetry and the necessity of rhyme in poetry. In the eighth chapter, Ahlquist turns to education. “The purpose of Compulsory Education is to deprive the common people of their common sense,” says Chesterton. “The one thing that is never taught by any chance in the atmosphere of public schools is this: that there is a whole truth of things, and that in knowing it and speaking it we are happy.” Science, for example, is a secondary thing, either a tool or a toy.
One thing is wrong with the “ordinary version of … history that most moderately educated people have absorbed from childhood,” says Chesterton; “there is not one word of truth in it from beginning to end.” Chesterton says “there is no intelligible history without a religion,” and history “is made windy and barren by the narrow notion of leaving out theological theories.” His masterful The Everlasting Man presents Christ as the center of history.
By the eleventh chapter, Ahlquist has moved to Chesterton’s arguments on feminism and other anti-family fads, then he goes to democracy, big business, wage slavery, big government, and distributism. Next, it’s Chesterton on Puritans and pagans, on the art of defending the faith, and on Catholicism.
“G.K. Chesterton is one of the greatest ecumenical writers. He is admired by Catholics, Protestants and even non-Christians because of his goodness and truthfulness and unconquerable joy. He is very fair to other faiths. He acknowledges that many Protestant sects have had their own saints and prophets and provided a living and inspiring faith for their adherents. But each of these sects came about because they believed they were right and everybody else was wrong. In the end, their ultimate claim has to be weighed against the claim of the Catholic Church, from whom they broke away. And it requires far more faith or fanaticism, says Chesterton, to believe that a small chapel can sustain its own claim over the great international Church.”
Ahlquist relates Chesterton’s sacramental understanding of creation and then turns to man’s fallen nature. “When we rebuke a man for being a sinner,” says Chesterton, “we imply that he has the powers of a saint.” After discussing love and marriage, Ahlquist concludes with a plea for a return to common sense and for reintroduction of Chesterton’s ideas into the public arena, goals worth fighting for: “Help bring sanity back to a world gone mad.”
Chesterton’s interest was truly universal, and in Common Sense 101 Ahlquist has synthesized his ideas expertly. Common Sense 101 nevertheless avoids some topics, for example, Chesterton on usury or on the Jews. And some topics, for example, Chesterton on the home and family, may have been more fully presented if in a single chapter rather than blended intermittently into chapters on other topics. But these are quibbles; a perfect plumbing and presentation of Chesterton’s depth is perhaps impossible.
In G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, Ahlquist comments, “there is no best first book to read by Chesterton. Whatever one chooses to read first, it seems it would have been better to have read one of the others first. Or several. … By the time you read your third or fourth book by Chesterton, you will find that you have gotten past the problem of reading the first one.”
The Apostle of Common Sense tries to whet the reader’s appetite for Chesterton by reviewing some of the books Chesterton wrote. Ahlquist here “focuses more on Chesterton’s Catholic and Christian writings than on his novels or poetry or literary criticism.” Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Everlasting Man, The Thing, The Outline of Sanity and a half dozen other books by Chesterton each merit a chapter of a dozen or so pages. Ahlquist makes Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi come alive, much as Chesterton made the saint come alive.
Ahlquist’s discussion of Fr. Brown, Chesterton’s famous non-descript priest-detective, is a delightful meditation on Chesterton, his insight into the human condition, and his rightful place in the pantheon of mystery writers.
“Everyone immediately recognized that the Father Brown stories were breaking new ground. Chesterton’s approach brought motive and character back into prominence in detective fiction and freed these stories from the imitative techniques of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes. He certainly captured the attention of the leading mystery writers of his day. They embraced his new style of murder mystery. They began writing stories of domestic crimes with human motives, with a limited list of suspects, with obvious (though well-disguised) clues, and with an unlikely detective who solves his puzzles without relying on superhuman knowledge or intelligence. Indeed, whenever you think of the great detectives of mystery fiction’s golden age – Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, or Nero Wolfe – remember their parentage. Remember they had a father. His name was Fr. Brown.”
The Fr. Brown stories are one of the better starting points for someone new to Chesterton, Ahlquist indicates. “They are full of Chesterton’s wit and wisdom, and they are good yarns. Besides that, they are detective stories. Detective stories are about finding the truth. And Chesterton understands that our search for truth is what defines us.” It’s hard to disagree, although I also recommend the novel Manalive to those new to Chesterton. “Sadly underrated,” according to Joseph Pearce (Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton), Manalive puts flesh on Chesterton’s admonition that the best thing we can get from an interest in literature is a finer interest in life. Elsewhere, Ahlquist calls it Chesterton’s “book on how to live Chesterton.” (Dover Publications publishes an inexpensive paperback edition of Manalive.)
It is somewhat fashionable to attack Chesterton as an anti-semite. In G.K. Chesterton (1986), biographer Michael Ffinch, for example, lambastes Chesterton as “strongly anti-semitic,” even though “Chesterton himself always hotly denied that he was.” By “the most serious blemish on Chesterton’s character: I mean his attitude to the Jewish people,” says Ffinch. “It is a weak defence to say that Chesterton’s attitude was in no way unusual at the time.” In The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton (1982), Alzina Stone Dale says the “answer that his attitude was not uncommon and had some historical justification cannot be used in the post-Holocaust world.” In a tepid defense in Wisdom and Innocence (1996), Joseph Pearce says that some Chesterton statements appear “tasteless to the sensitivities of those who recall the worst excesses of the Second World War,” but “it must be remembered” that he wrote them “long before the war.” Chesterton “attacked the Jews when he felt they were perpetrators of injustice, but as soon as he saw that they had become the victims of injustice he was swift in their defence.” According to Pearce,
“The main reason for the eventual reconciliation between Chesterton and the Jews was, ironically and paradoxically, the anti-Semitism of Hitler. The Jews forgave Chesterton his earlier indiscretions because ‘he was the first to speak out when the real testing time came’, and Chesterton softened his attitude to the Jews because he was horrified to see the hardening of attitudes in Germany and its results.”
Even in the preface to The Father Brown Omnibus (1982), Auberon Waugh feels compelled to comment on “what is sometimes seen as his anti-Semitism,” saying “no discussion of Chesterton would be complete without some mention of this aspect, although it scarcely appears at all in the Father Brown series.” Waugh says:
“The period between 1870 and 1910 saw an increase in Jewish influence in Britain, which extended through finance and politics to the court. … Nowadays people rail against the international combines; in those days, long before the Holocaust revealed unmistakably and for all time the dangers of such sloppy thinking, it was the Jews. But Chesterton was far too genial a man to bear malice against any individual or group, except maybe the Quakers. He was attacking what seemed to him a power structure.
“It would be small comfort to a Jewish reader to assure him that Chesterton’s apparent anti-Semitism … was incidental rather than intended. … His apparent xenophobia was no more than a hatred of the structure of power and wealth, which he insisted on seeing as something alien to the genial, beer-swilling English nature.”
Chesterton would have demolished the idea that the Jewish Holocaust is the dividing and defining point in history. Christ is. Similarly, he would have laughed at the Bush Administration’s braggadocio that “everything is different” after 9/11 and made shambles of the Bush Doctrine of preventive warfare. Although neither of Ahlquist’s books touches on the accusations of anti-semitism or discusses 9/11, Common Sense 101 responds nevertheless to the suggestion that everything has changed because of the Holocaust or 9/11 or both of them: “if names and dates are important to you,” writes Ahlquist, “then here indeed are the most important, in fact, the only ones you need to know: B.C. and A.D., Before Christ and Anno Domini, respectively.” Chesterton also would have suggested that fashions and fads are unimportant but truth and moral norms are precious and constant. He would have defended The Passion of the Christ and The Gospel of St. John against the smear of anti-semitism, exposing the tactic as an attack on Christ and His Church. “What is really working in the world today is Anti-Catholicism and nothing else,” noted Chesterton in The Well and the Shadows.
Ahlquist does not shy away from the accusations of anti-semitism that haunt Chesterton. His robust defense of Chesterton, though, is not in either of these books, but on the website of the American Chesterton Society, of which he is the president:
“The most devastating accusation against G.K. Chesterton is that he was an anti-Semite. It has been repeated so many times that not only do his enemies assume it be fact, so do many of his friends. They ignore the fact that Chesterton was a great defender of the Jews, from his schoolboy days to the day of his death. So why does the charge persist? Two reasons. One, it is a convenient way to discredit Chesterton altogether. The charge itself is as good as a guilty verdict; it suggests a fundamental flaw in Chesterton that must therefore make all of his writing suddenly suspect, especially his defense of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Two, it ensures that Chesterton's honest (and sympathetic) criticisms of the Jews will not be taken seriously, but will be immediately dismissed or ignored as anti-Semitic ravings.
“Chesterton was puzzled by the charge of anti-Semitism in his own lifetime. He thought it strange that he could criticize everyone except the Jews. …
“The main problem is that no one bothers examining the evidence. Much of the so-called support for the charge is taken from [The New Jerusalem (1920)]. However, the quotations are carefully lifted out of context or else blatantly misquoted. …
“His initial point is that it is absurd to say that Jews have only been oppressed and have never been the oppressor. His main argument about Jews being the oppressor is the consequences of usury in the Middle Ages. It is an issue no one ever wants to discuss. In fact, no one ever dares to discuss the reason why Jews were historically unpopular in Europe. The problem is epitomized by the literary discussions of Shakespeare and Shylock that never mention the word "usury." Chesterton insists that Shylock is not disliked because he is a Jew but because he is a usurer.
“Chesterton is frank in his criticism of wealthy international banking firms run by Jewish families that have a huge influence on European political and commercial affairs in his own day. But again, his attack on them is not that they are Jewish but that they are too rich and too powerful and make for an unjust world. Chesterton is always a defender of the poor and always a gadfly of the rich. The chief character in the New Testament was much the same way.
“But the real "Jewish Problem" as Chesterton calls it, is that the Jews were a people in exile, a people without a homeland. Patriotism is a natural virtue, always praised by Chesterton, but the Jew's patriotism is for a land that he has lost and not for the land in which he is an exile, no matter how well his host country treats him. It is important to note that he is talking about the Jew in Europe, not the Jew in America, where we are an entire nation of exiles, who have a loyalty to this country that is always mixed with a loyalty to our ethnic heritage and national origin. It was not that way in Europe, where a nation was a more organic thing, and the Jew, through no fault of his own, was always an outsider. …
“As with all of Chesterton's writings, The New Jerusalem has a prophetic quality. But certainly the most chilling prophecy is Chesterton's warning that unless England (and Europe) admits that there is a "Jewish Problem" rather than denying it or ignoring it, there could be a violent outbreak against the Jews.”
Why would anyone want “to discredit Chesterton altogether”? Well, he’s dangerous. Look at what his pen skewers successfully and rebuts persuasively with great joy and hilarity: feminism, the free market, capitalism, statism, socialism, contraception, Calvinism, Protestantism, scientism, big business and big government, militarism, and everything else that is not Catholic. If you are more enamored with Planned Parenthood, the American Enterprise Institute, the Democratic or Republican Party, the National Organization for Women, the Global War on Terror, or anything else, than with the Truth and His Church, then Chesterton’s pen, his thought, and his aphorisms are a great threat. All the more so because Chesterton was a convert who defended the Church for years before he entered it. He was persuaded by the Truth, and has been persuading others for more than a century. Ahlquist, too, is a convert, drawn into the Church by Chesterton.
Ahlquist, the publisher of (and a regular contributor to) Gilbert Magazine, is proselytizing for Chesterton, for common sense, and for Catholicism. He does it well. I recommend these books highly. Even those intimately familiar with Chesterton’s writing should be impressed by Common Sense 101. If it doesn’t whet the appetite for Chesterton among those otherwise unfamiliar with his writings, nothing is likely to. The Apostle of Common Sense, though, presents a hidden danger. Its introductions to Chesterton’s books could induce readers to bypass those books, thinking Ahlquist’s presentation so good that they need not read the books themselves. Dale’s Notes would substitute for reading Chesterton. That would be a shame: the aim of Common Sense 101 and The Apostle of Common Sense is to encourage a world that neglects Chesterton to read him anew, and, hopefully, to rediscover common sense.
This review was published in the October 2006 issue of Culture Wars.
Impossible Possibilities, an e-book by James G. Bruen, Jr. These five brief interlocking stories of people who accomplish the proverbially impossible were published originally in the American Chesterton Societys Gilbert Magazine. Each story stands alone, but together they also constitute a single narrative. Whimsical yet serious, Impossible Possibilities is a story of family, rootedness, and struggle against big business and government. Impossibile Possibilities was inspired by G. K. Chestertons Tales of the Long Bow. $2.99. Read More/Order
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