I was wandering through Facebook and noticed a quote by G.K. Chesterton at the top of someone’s profile. The quote was exceptionally stupid. And I thought to myself, So many people repeat these little quips, and so many of them are awful. So I decided to start a collection. I made it through the first two pages (of sixteen) devoted to Chesterton on a popular quotation website. Here are a few of the stupidities I found...Milco then proceeds to highlight a number of Chesterton quotes and voice objections against them. Some of these are, I will admit, a bit of a stretch. For instance:
“Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all.”It strikes me that both Chesterton and Milco are, arguably, saying something quite valid in their opposing quips. And while it's possible to take Chesterton wrong -- taking "unlovable" in a more literal sense to mean something which really ought not to be loved (say: cruelty) -- I think it's moderately clear that his quip is meant to be taken more or less as a brief restatement of what Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount:
Love means to love what is worthy of love; everything else is vice.
But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?Nonetheless, I think he scores some fairly direct hits on Chestertonian tropes. Some of these are evocative but poorly reasoned on Chesterton's part. For example:
“People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are.”Certainly, fiction can convey truth in a very compelling way. However, let's be honest, the fact that something sells a lot is not proof that it is more true (as Milco points out in his response) and furthermore I don't think it's really the case that people read novels because they are "more true" than non-fiction. When people choose novels over non-fiction, I think they usually do so because novels are more fun than non-fiction. (These days non-fiction actually sells more than fiction does, but I don't know if Chesterton's factual claim was correct then or not.)
By this logic, the works of E.L. James must be extremely true.
“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.”Chesterton's little fantasy that it is ordered thinkers who go mad and fantasists who are sane is one that comes up frequently in The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel which I enjoy for unrelated reasons. However, although it is, like many of Chesterton's ideas, evocative in a way, it's also a deeply unrealistic conceit. Order is not something that leads one away from truth and from God. God is ordered. From these quotes one could almost imagine Chesterton is endorsing the clearly foolish idea that God and reason are opposed, were it not that one knows Chesterton elsewhere attacks that idea with equal charm, as in the Father Brown story in which Father Brown immediately detects the thief dressed as a bishop because the thief denounces reason. Moreover, the conceit rests on something to which Chesterton quotes too often seem to owe their being: a completely made up fact. The one thing that makes this forgivable is that I rather doubt Chesterton himself thought it was clearly known and true that mathematicians and chess players go mad more often than poets and artists -- he just said it because he thought it illustrated an interesting idea regardless of its factual accuracy. The problem is, I'm not sure that the many people who throw this quote and ones like it around realize this.
Poets go mad quite often, and they seem much more frequently to end up totally absorbed in their own creative “genius” and independence than chess players. Maybe the fault is in imagination and not in logic. Or maybe the idea of ascribing some intrinsic danger to either of these faculties is idiotic.
Chesterton is a good writer, and I enjoy some of his works very much (mostly his fiction.) He is also very skilled at forming memorably paradoxical quips which contain a certain degree of truth. This is great, so long as one values Chesterton for what he is rather than what he is not. The problem is when his quips and paradoxes are imbued with a nearly scriptural authority, a weight they were never designed to bear. While he can be very good and thought provoking light reading, Chesterton was not a rigorous philosopher or theologian, and since his specialty was paradox there is the difficulty that many of his most memorable sayings are, while surprisingly true, also (by the nature of paradox) half wrong.
Because Chesterton quotes are so memorably clever, they are too often are taken out of context and thrown around as if one need merely quote something clever Chesterton said and the issue has been settled. If only to combat this frequent misuse (though also to underline some of Homer's more awkward nods) Milco's exercise, however cheeky, strikes me as a needed corrective.
To indulge in a bit of Chestertonian paradox: The problem with too many internet Chestertonians they take Chesterton too seriously -- becoming like his madly logical clerk or chess player in rigorously applying some superficially applicable Chesterton quote to each situation. Milco's tilt at the Chestertonian windmill is, perhaps, the more Chestertonian exercise.