Monday, November 20, 2006

Selected Chesterton Utterances

Fairness (to the Catholic Church)

    I had no more idea of becoming a Catholic than of becoming a cannibal. I imagined that I was merely pointing out that justice should be done even to cannibals . . . [but] it is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it . . .

    {The Catholic Church and Conversion, New York: Macmillan, 1926, 59,62}

English Thought

    Somewhere about the beginning of the nineteenth century, we English came to the conclusion that we could not think. This seemed, for some reason, to please us very much. And indeed it would not have mattered seriously if we had not immediately begun to think about our own thoughtlessness. We had a theory that we had no theory. Now, this kind of thing will not do; because whatever advantages there really are in being vague involve the idea that one does not know that one is vague. The one advantage of a child is that he does not know that he is a child . . . When England became proud of being unreasonable, then England lost all the force that belongs to pure folly.

    {"The Anomalies of English Politics," The Illustrated London News, 7 March 1908}


    Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death . . . I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.

    {Orthodoxy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1908, 48}

The Middle Ages

    There is something odd in the fact that when we reproduce the Middle Ages it is always some such rough and half-grotesque part of them that we reproduce . . . Why is it that we mainly remember the Middle Ages by absurd things? . . . Few modern people know what a mass of illuminating philosophy, delicate metaphysics, clear and dignified social morality exists in the serious scholastic writers of mediaeval times. But we seem to have grasped somehow that the ruder and more clownish elements in the Middle Ages have a human and poetical interest. We are delighted to know about the ignorance of mediaevalism; we are contented to be ignorant about its knowledge. When we talk of something mediaeval, we mean something quaint. We remember that alchemy was mediaeval, or that heraldry was mediaeval. We forget that Parliaments are mediaeval, that all our Universities are mediaeval, that city corporations are mediaeval, that gunpowder and printing are mediaeval, that half the things by which we now live, and to which we look for progress, are mediaeval."

    {"The True Middle Ages," The Illustrated London News, 14 July 1906}

The Early Church and Heretics

    The early Church was ascetic, but she proved that she was not pessimistic, simply by condemning the pessimists. The creed declared that man was sinful, but it did not declare that life was evil . . . The condemnation of the early heretics is itself condemned as something crabbed and narrow; but it was in truth the very proof that the Church meant to be brotherly and broad. It proved that the primitive Catholics were specially eager to explain that they did not think man utterly vile; that they did not think life incurably miserable; that they did not think marriage a sin or procreation a tragedy.

    {The Everlasting Man, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1925, 223}


    History does not consist of completed and crumbling ruins; rather it consists of half-built villas abandoned by a bankrupt builder. This world is more like an unfinished suburb than a deserted cemetery.

    {What's Wrong With the World, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1910, 53}

Science and Christianity

    Unfortunately, 19th-century scientists were just as ready to jump to the conclusion that any guess about nature was an obvious fact, as were 17th-century sectarians to jump to the conclusion that any guess about Scripture was the obvious explanation . . . . and this clumsy collision of two very impatient forms of ignorance was known as the quarrel of Science and Religion.

    {Saint Thomas Aquinas, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1933, 88}

Clashing Creeds

    Creeds must disagree: it is the whole fun of the thing. If I think the universe is triangular, and you think it is square, there cannot be room for two universes. We may argue politely, we may argue humanely, we may argue with great mutual benefit; but, obviously, we must argue. Modern toleration is really a tyranny. It is a tyranny because it is a silence. To say that I must not deny my opponent's faith is to say I must not discuss it . . . It is absurd to have a discussion on Comparative Religions if you don't compare them.

    {"The History of Religions," The Illustrated London News, 10 October 1908}

Intellect and the Mass

    A thinking man can think himself deeper and deeper into Catholicism . . . conversion is the beginning of an active, fruitful, progressive and even adventurous life of the intellect . . . To exalt the Mass is to enter into a magnificent world of metaphysical ideas, illuminating all the relations of matter and mind, of flesh and spirit, of the most impersonal abstractions as well as the most personal affections. To set out to belittle and minimise the Mass, by talking ephemeral back-chat about what it had in common with Mithras or the Mysteries, is to be in altogether a more petty and pedantic mood; not only lower than Catholicism but lower even than Mithraism . . . It is precisely the dogmas that are living, that are inspiring, that are intellectually interesting.

    {The Thing, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929, 212-213}


    People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad . . . The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable . . . It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob . . . It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to avoid them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

    {Orthodoxy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1908, 100-101}


    I could not understand why these romancers never took the trouble to find out a few elementary facts about the thing they denounced. The facts might easily have helped the denunciation, where the fictions discredited it. There were any number of real Catholic doctrines I should then have thought disgraceful to the Church . . . But the enemies of the Church never found these real rocks of offence. They never looked for them. They never looked for anything . . . Boundless freedom reigned; it was not treated as if it were a question of fact at all . . . It puzzled me very much, even at that early stage, to imagine why people bringing controversial charges against a powerful and prominent institution should thus neglect to test their own case, and should draw in this random way on their own imagination . . . I never dreamed that the Roman religion was true; but I knew that its accusers, for some reason or other, were curiously inaccurate.

    (The Catholic Church and Conversion, New York: Macmillan, 1926, 36-38)

Cynicism and Christian Conversion

    Very nearly everybody, in the ordinary literary and journalistic world, began by taking it for granted that my faith in the Christian creed was a pose or a paradox. The more cynical supposed that it was only a stunt. The more generous and loyal warmly maintained that it was only a joke. It was not until long afterwards that the full horror of the truth burst upon them; the disgraceful truth that I really thought the thing was true. And I have found, as I say, that this represents a real transition or border-line in the life of apologists. Critics were almost entirely complimentary to what they were pleased to call my brilliant paradoxes; until they discovered that I really meant what I said. Since then they have been more combative; and I do not blame them.

    {Autobiography, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936, 180; referring to the period in which Orthodoxy was written (1908) }


    Any extreme of Catholic asceticism is a wise, or unwise, precaution against the evil of the Fall; it is never a doubt about the good of the Creation.

    {Saint Thomas Aquinas, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1933, 105}

The 13th Century

    Nobody can understand the greatness of the 13th century, who does not realise that it was a great growth of new things produced by a living thing. In that sense it was really bolder and freer than what we call the Renaissance, which was a resurrection of old things discovered in a dead thing.

    {Saint Thomas Aquinas, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1933, 41}


    Any man with eyes in his head, whatever the ideas in his head, who looks at the world as it is today, must know that the whole social substance of marriage has changed . . . Numbers of normal people are getting married, thinking already that they may be divorced . . . The Church was right to refuse even the exception. The world has admitted the exception; and the exception has become the rule . . . The Catholic Church, standing almost alone, declared that it would in fact lead to an anarchical position; and the Catholic Church was right.

    {The Well and the Shallows, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935, 42-43}

Jonah's "Fish" and Eve's "Fruit"

    Any number of people assume that the Bible says that Eve ate an apple, or that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Yet the Bible never says a word about whales or apples. In the former case it refers to a fish, which might imply any sort of sea-monster; and in the second, to the essential experience of fruition, or tasting the fruit of the tree, which is obviously more general and even more mystical . . . The things that look silly now are the first rationalistic explanations rather than the first religious or primitive outlines. If those original images had been left in their own natural mystery of dark fruition or dim monsters of the deep, nobody would have quarrelled with them half so much . . . But it is unfair to turn round and blame the Bible because of all these legends and jokes and journalistic allusions, which are read into the Bible by people who have not read the Bible.

    {"The Bible and the Sceptics," The Illustrated London News, 20 April 1929}

The Origin of the Universe

    It is absurd for the Evolutionist to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing, and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into anything.

    {Saint Thomas Aquinas, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1933, 174}

The Church Transcends Fashion

    The Church is from the first a thing holding its own position and point of view, quite apart from the accidents and anarchies of its age. That is why it deals blows impartially right and left, at the pessimism of the Manichean or the optimism of the Pelagian. It was not a Manichean movement because it was not a movement at all. It was not an official fashion because it was not a fashion at all. It was something that could coincide with movements and fashions, could control them and could survive them.

    {The Everlasting Man, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1925, 228}

Decay and Revival in the Church

    I suspect that we should find several occasions when Christendom was thus to all appearance hollowed out from within by doubt and indifference, so that only the old Christian shell stood as the pagan shell had stood so long. But the difference is that in every such case, the sons were fanatical for the faith where the fathers had been slack about it. This is obvious in the case of the transition from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation. It is obvious in the case of a transition from the eighteenth century to the many Catholic revivals of our own time . . . Just as some might have thought the Church simply a part of the Roman Empire, so others later might have thought the Church only a part of the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages ended as the Empire had ended; and the Church should have departed with them, if she had been also one of the shades of night.

    {The Everlasting Man, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1925, 250-252}

The Five Deaths of the Faith

    At least five times, . . . with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.

    {The Everlasting Man, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1925, 254}

The Renaissance

    The Renaissance was in some ways a real improvement, and never more than when it was conducted in the same religious centres as the mediaeval life. I know very well that Thomas More understood some things better than Thomas Becket. I agree that Humanism was often human. But we moderns, who are the children of the Renaissance, have worked out its destiny and are pretty near to its death. In a hundred ways, especially ethical and economic, its last effects are merely a trail and tangle of tragedies . . . The Renaissance is very old; the rebirth needs to be reborn and to become more like a little child.

    {"The Imagination of the Renaissance," The Illustrated London News, 13 December 1924}

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Nihilism

    It is largely because the free-thinkers, as a school, have hardly made up their minds whether they want to be more optimist or more pessimist than Christianity that their small but sincere movement has failed. For the duel is deadly; and any agnostic who wishes to be anything more than a Nihilist must sympathize with one version of nature or the other.

    {The Victorian Age in Literature, Oxford Univ. Press, 1913, 62-63}

The Blindness of Modern Man

    The mind of modern man is a curious mixture of decayed Calvinism and diluted Buddhism; and he expresses his philosophy without knowing that he holds it. We [i.e., Catholics] say what it is natural for us to say; but we know what we are saying; therefore it is assumed that we are saying it for effect. He says what it is natural for him to say; but he does not know what he is saying, still less why he is saying it . . . He is just as partisan; . . . just as much depending on one doctrinal system as distinct from another. But he has taken it for granted so often that he has forgotten what it is. So his literature does not seem to him partisan, even when it is. But our literature does seem to him propagandist, even when it isn't.

    {The Thing, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929, 120}

God, Grasshoppers, and the Pope

    Catholics, I need not say, are about as likely to call the Pope God as to call a grasshopper the Pope.

    {The Thing, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929, 243}

"New" Theology

    I look at the New Theology, however, and find that it is an old Theology, that it is even more than that - that it is something older and duller than Theology itself; that it is the dim and vague cosmogony which men required before they were intellectual enough to require Theology.

    {"Creed and Deed," The Illustrated London News, 2 February 1907}


    It has been left to the last Christians, or rather to the first Christians fully committed to blaspheming and denying Christianity, to invent a new kind of worship of Sex, which is not even a worship of Life. It has been left to the very latest Modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility . . . The new priests abolish the fatherhood and keep the feast - to themselves.
    {The Well and the Shallows, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935, 233}
Evolutionary Wishful Thinking

    Nearly all the "skulls," out of which Missing Links and Monkey Men have been made, have been only bits of bone. I do know that even of these bits of bone there are only about two or three in the whole world. But as long as those bits of bone were supposed to point, like the pebbles in the fairy-tale, along a particular path, a very gradual upward path of evolution, a scientific progress, nobody dared to suggest that such evidence was rather slight. Nobody ventured to complain that one skull was insufficient, or that one scrap of one skull was insufficient. Any minute bit of any mouldy bone was good enough for the purpose, so long as the evolutionists recognised it as a good purpose. Anything proved anything, so long as it proved the proper, progressive, really evolutionary thing.

    {"Outlines of History," The Illustrated London News, 13 January 1923}

Free Love

    They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words - "free love" - as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.

    {The Defendant, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1902, 23}

Revolts Against Catholicism

    I have much more sympathy with the person who leaves the Church for a love-affair than with one who leaves it for a long-winded German theory to prove that God is evil or that children are a sort of morbid monkey. But the very laws of life are against the endurance of a revolt that rests on nothing but natural passion; it is bound to change in its proportion with the coming of experience; and, at the worst, it will become a battle between bad Catholics and good Catholics, with the great dome over all.

    {The Catholic Church and Conversion, New York: Macmillan, 1926, 115}


    The great temptation of the Catholic . . . is the temptation to intellectual pride. It is so obvious that most of his critlcs are talking without in the least knowing what they are talking about, that he is sometimes a little provoked towards the very un-Christian logic of answering a fool according to his folly. He is a little bit disposed to luxuriate in secret, as it were, over the much greater subtlety and richness of the philosophy he inherits; and only answer a bewildered barbarian so as to bewilder him still more. He is tempted to ironical agreements or even to disguising himself as a dunce . . . So many people are at once preoccupied with it and prejudiced against it. It is queer to observe so much ignorance with so little indifference. They love talking about it and they hate hearing about it . . . I fancy there is more than meets the eye in this curious controversial attitude; the desire to ask rhetorical questions and not to ask real questions; the wish to heckle and not to hear.

    {The Thing, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929, 134, 81-82}

Nature, Pantheism, and God

    Even the nature-worship which Pagans have felt, even the nature-love which Pantheists have felt, ultimately depends as much on some implied purpose and positive good in things, as does the direct thanksgiving which Christians have felt. Indeed Nature is at best merely a female name we give to Providence when we are not treating it very seriously; a piece of feminist mythology. There is a sort of fireside fairytale, more fitted for the hearth than for the altar; and in that what is called Nature can be a sort of fairy godmother. But there can only be fairy godmothers because there are godmothers; and there can only be godmothers because there is God.

    {Autobiography, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936, 348}

Judgment Day

    Very few people in this world would care to listen to the real defense of their own characters. The real defense, the defense which belongs to the Day of Judgment, would make such damaging admissions, would clear away so many artificial virtues, would tell such tragedies of weakness and failure, that a man would sooner be misunderstood and censured by the world than exposed to that awful and merciless eulogy.

    {Robert Browning, London: Macmillan, 1914, 188}

Romance and Realism

    Romance is more solid than realism, and that for a very evident reason. The things that men happen to get in this life depend upon quite shifting accidents and conditions. But the things that they desire and dream of are always the same.

    {"Romantic and Realistic Drama,"The Illustrated London News, 17 March 1906}

The Intellectual Folly of Agnosticism

    A world in which men know that most of what they know is probably untrue cannot be dignified with the name of a sceptical world; it is simply an impotent and abject world, not attacking anything, but accepting everything while trusting nothing; accepting even its own incapacity to attack; accepting its own lack of authority to accept; doubting its very right to doubt. We are grateful for this public experiment and demonstration; it has taught us much. We did not believe that rationalists were so utterly mad until they made it quite clear to us. We did not ourselves think that the mere denial of our dogmas could end in such dehumanised and demented anarchy. It might have taken the world a long time to understand that what it had been taught to dismiss as mediaeval theology was often mere common sense; although the very term common sense, or communis sententia, was a mediaeval conception. But it took the world very little time to understand that the talk on the other side was most uncommon nonsense. It was nonsense that could not be made the basis of any common system, such as has been founded upon common sense.
    {The Well and the Shallows, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935, 79-80}

    Pride consists in a man making his personality the only test, instead of making truth the test. It is not pride to wish to do well, or even to look well, according to a real test. It is pride to think that a thing looks ill. because it does not look like something characteristic of oneself.

    {The Common Man, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1950, 254}

St. Francis of Assisi

    St. Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion . . . That was the point the Pope had to settle; whether Christendom should absorb Francis or Francis Christendom. And he decided rightly, . . . for the Church could include all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not include all that was good in the Church.

    {St. Francis of Assisi, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1924, 150-151}

On Virginity

    I have not myself any instinctive kinship with that enthusiasm for physical virginity, which has certainly been a note of historic Christianity. But when I look not at myself but at the world, I perceive that this enthusiasm is not only a note of Christianity, but a note of Paganism, a note of high human nature in many spheres. The Greeks felt virginity when they carved Artemis, the Romans when they robed the vestals, the worst and wildest of the great Elizabethan playwrights clung to the literal purity of a woman as to the central pillar of the world. Above all, the modern world (even while mocking sexual innocence) has flung itself into a generous idolatry of sexual innocence - the great modern worship of children. For any man who loves children will agree that their peculiar beauty is hurt by a hint of physical sex. With all this human experience, allied with the Christian authority, I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the church right; or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal. It takes all sorts to make a church; she does not ask me to be celibate. But the fact that I have no appreciation of the celibates, I accept like the fact that I have no ear for music. The best human experience is against me, as it is on the subject of Bach. Celibacy is one flower in my father's garden, of which I have not been told the sweet or terrible name. But I may be told it any day.

    {Orthodoxy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1908, 156}

Restraint and Freedom

    Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

    {Orthodoxy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1908, 145}

On Christmas and its Modern Detractors

    If ever a faith is firmly grounded again, it will be at least interesting to notice those few things that have bridged the gulf, that stood firm when faith was lost, and were still standing when it was found again. Of these really interesting things one, in all probability, will be the English celebration of Christmas. Father Christmas was with us when the fairies departed; and please God he will still be with us when the gods return. Of course, it is covered up, like every other living thing, with a sort of moss of convention and the unmeaning use of words . . . There is nothing really wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas. The modern world will have to fit in with Christmas or die . . . All Christmas feasts, all Christmas freaks, are founded on human equality: at least, upon what is now called equality of opportunity . . . The real basis of life is not scientific; the strongest basis of life is sentimental. People are not economically obliged to live. Anybody can die for nothing. People romantically desire to live - especially at Christmas.

    {"The Wrong Books at Christmas," The Illustrated London News, 9 January 1909}

Dickens' A Christmas Carol

    The beauty and the real blessing of the story do not lie in the mechanical plot of it, the repentance of Scrooge, probable or improbable; they lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scrooge and everything around him; that great furnace, the heart of Dickens. Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us.

    {Charles Dickens: Last of the Great Men, New York: Press of the Readers Club, 1942 (orig. 1906), 123}

Christmas Comfort

    Comfort, especially this vision of Christmas comfort, is the reverse of a gross or material thing. It is far more poetical, properly speaking, than the Garden of Epicurus. It is far more artistic than the Palace of Art. It is more artistic because it is based upon a contrast, a contrast between the fire and wine within the house and the winter and roaring rains without. It is far more poetical, because there is in it a note of defense, almost of war; a note of being besieged by the snow and hail; of making merry in the belly of a fort.

    {Charles Dickens: Last of the Great Men, New York: Press of the Readers Club, 1942 (orig. 1906), 118-119}

Compiled by Dave Armstrong in 1997. Added to blog on 20 November 2006.


Walter Mead said...

I paraphrase a quotation that I came
across years ago, I think, from Chesterton:
'Put mystery in the center,
and all things will fall
into place.
But put reason in the center,
and the result will be chaos.'

I thought this quotation I've paraphrased came from "Orthodoxy",
but I've been unable to find it there,or anywhere. Do you know the source of this quotation?

Walter Mead <"

Dave Armstrong said...

Dunno that one.

You need to contact American Chesterton Society (they can probably help):