Wednesday, September 24, 2008

G. K. Chesterton: Quotations About Great Men and Women

Athanasius, St.

It was emphatically he who really was fighting for a God of Love against a God of colourless and remote cosmic control; the God of the stoics and the agnostics. (EM, II-4)

Aquinas, St. Thomas

I know of no question that Voltaire asked which St. Thomas Aquinas did not ask before him. (ILN, “A Defense of Human Dignity,” 2-22-30)

Clare, St.

For the rest, we may at least assume that no friend of what is called the emancipation of women will regret the revolt of St. Clare.

She did most truly, in the modern jargon, live her own life, the life that she herself wanted to lead, as distinct from the life into which parental commands and conventional arrangements would have forced her.

She became the foundress of a great feminine movement which still profoundly affects the world; and her place is with the powerful women of history. (SF, ch. 7)

Dickens, Charles

It means that the living and invigorating ideal of England must be looked for in the masses; it must be looked for where Dickens found it -- Dickens among whose glories it was to be a humorist, to be a sentimentalist, to be an optimist, to be a poor man, to be an Englishman, but the greatest of whose glories was that he saw all mankind in its amazing and tropical luxuriance, and did not even notice the aristocracy; Dickens, the greatest of whose glories was that he could not describe a gentleman. (H, ch. 15)

Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. (CD, ch. 4)

Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community.

His power, then, lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind. (CD, ch. 5)

The essential of Dickens's character was the conjunction of common sense with uncommon sensibility. (CD, ch. 6)

No one but an Englishman could have filled his books at once with a furious caricature and with a positively furious kindness. (CD, ch. 12)

Francis of Assisi, St.

All those things that nobody understood before Wordsworth were exceedingly well understood by St. Francis.

In other words, he knew all about that childish solemnity of pleasure that sees natural things in a white light of wonder. (ILN, “Looking at Byzantine Art,” 3-10-23)

He could be presented, not only as a human but a humanitarian hero; indeed as the first hero of humanism.

The reader cannot even begin to see the sense of a story that may well seem to him a very wild one, until he understands that to this great mystic his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair. (SF, ch. 1)

His life was one riot of rash vows; of rash vows that turned out right.

Bit if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed.

Some might call him a madman, but he was the very reverse of a dreamer.

Nobody would be likely to call him a man of business; but he was very emphatically a man of action. (SF, ch. 3)

Common sense was commoner in the Middle Ages, I think, than in our own rather jumpy journalistic age; but men like Francis are not common in any age, nor are they to be fully understood merely by the exercise of common sense. (SF, ch. 4)

This is why it is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake.

The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure.

The whole point about St. Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy.

He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold.

And it is precisely the positive and passionate quality of this part of his personality that is a challenge to the modern mind in the whole problem of the pursuit of pleasure.

It is certain that he held on this heroic or unnatural course from the moment when he went forth in his hair-shirt into the winter woods to the moment when he desired even in his death agony to lie bare upon the bare ground, to prove that he had and that he was nothing. (SF, ch. 5)

Even among the saints he has the air of a sort of eccentric, if one may use the word of one whose eccentricity consisted in always turning towards the centre.

He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in action like a play.

He was a poet whose whole life was a poem.

But St. Francis did in a definite sense make the very act of living an art, though it was an unpremeditated art.

What distinguishes this very genuine democrat from any mere demagogue is that he never either deceived or was deceived by the illusion of mass-suggestion.

He honoured all men; that is, he not only loved but respected them all.

What gave him his extraordinary personal power was this; that from the Pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardone was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document. (SF, ch. 6)

His argument was this: that the dedicated man might go anywhere among any kind of men, even the worst kind of men, so long as there was nothing by which they could hold him.

But for his own particular purpose of stirring up the world to a new spiritual enthusiasm, he saw with a logical clarity that was quite reverse of fanatical or sentimental, that friars must not become like ordinary men; that the salt must not lose its savour even to turn into human nature's daily food.

He always went to the point; he always seemed at once more right and more simple than the person he was speaking to.

Something in this attitude disarmed the world as it has never been disarmed again.

Though there was much that was romantic, there was nothing in the least sentimental about his mood. (SF, ch. 7)

But subject to this understanding, it is perfectly true and it is vitally important that Christ was the pattern on which St. Francis sought to fashion himself; and that at many points their human and historical lives were even curiously coincident; and above all, that compared to most of us at least St. Francis is a most sublime approximation to his Master, and, even in being an intermediary and a reflection, is a splendid and yet a merciful Mirror of Christ.

St. Francis is the mirror of Christ rather as the moon is the mirror of the sun.

The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it is also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is more visible.

But if we understand that it was truly under the inspiration of his divine Master that St. Francis did these merely quaint or eccentric acts of charity, we must understand that it was under the same inspiration that he did acts of self-denial and austerity.

It is clear that these more or less playful parables of the love of men were conceived after a close study of the Sermon on the Mount.

But it is evident that he made an even closer study of the silent sermon on that other mountain; the mountain that was called Golgotha.

Through all his plunging and, restless days ran the refrain: I have not suffered enough; I have not sacrificed enough; I am not yet worthy even of the shadow of the crown of thorns.

About everything St. Francis did there was something that was in a good sense childish, and even in a good sense wilful.

He threw himself into things abruptly, as if they had just occurred to him. (SF, ch. 8)

And the really logical conclusion from throwing doubts on all tales like the miracles of St. Francis was to throw doubts on the existence of men like St. Francis.

But whatever may be thought of such supernaturalism in the comparatively material and popular sense of supernatural acts, we shall miss the whole point of St. Francis, especially of St. Francis after Alverno, if we do not realise that he was living a supernatural life. (SF, ch. 9)

That was the point the Pope had to settle; whether Christendom should absorb Francis or Francis Christendom.

And he decided rightly, apart from the duties of his place; 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.

The sense of humour which salts all the stories of his escapades alone prevented him from ever hardening into the solemnity of sectarian self-righteousness.

He was above all things a great giver; and he cared chiefly for the best kind of giving which is called thanksgiving. (SF, ch. 10)

St. Francis of Assisi really remained individual, because he remained inimitable. (ILN, “Personality in the Modern world,” 2-25-28)

Joan of Arc, St.

I mean that if we take the tale of St. Joan as a test, the really remarkable thing is not so much the slowness of the Church to appreciate her, as the slowness of everybody else.

Humanism and Humanitarianism and, in a general sense, Humanity, did not really rehabilitate Joan until about five hundred years after the Church had done so.

And though I have taken here the particular case of St. Joan of Arc, I believe that something of the same sort could be traced through a great many other affairs in human history. (TT, ch. 11)

Shakespeare, William

The modern artistic temperament cannot understand how a man who could write such lyrics as Shakespeare wrote, could be as keen as Shakespeare was on business transactions in a little town in Warwickshire.

The explanation is simple enough; it is that Shakespeare had a real lyrical impulse, wrote a real lyric, and so got rid of the impulse and went about his business.

The first-rate great man is equal with other men, like Shakespeare. (H, ch. 17)

But Shakspere is possessed through and through with the feeling which is the first and finest idea of Catholicism – that truth exists whether we like it or not, and that it is for us to accommodate ourselves to it. (ILN, “Catholic Shakspere and Protestant Milton,” 6-8-07)

I believe that recent discoveries, as recorded in a book by a French lady, have very strongly confirmed the theory that Shakespeare died a Catholic.

But I need no books and no discoveries to prove to me that he had lived a Catholic, or more probably, like the rest of us, tried unsuccessfully to live a Catholic; that he thought like a Catholic and felt like a Catholic and saw every question as a Catholic sees it. (TT, ch. 33)


CD Charles Dickens (London: Methuen & Co., 1906)

EM The Everlasting Man (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1925)

H Heretics (New York: John Lane Co., 1905)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXVII: The Illustrated London News: 1905-1907 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXXIII: The Illustrated London News: 1923-1925 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; general editors: George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXXIV: The Illustrated London News: 1926-1928 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; general editors: George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXXV: The Illustrated London News: 1929-1931 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; general editors: George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991)

SF St. Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1924)

TT The Thing: Why I am a Catholic (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929)

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