Happy Birthday G.K. Chesterton

birthday chesterton father brown orthodoxy philosophy theology christian faith madness
Today is the birthday of one of my favorite philosophers -- indeed, in my book a writer legitimately termed a philosopher, though many would rather recall him as a novelist, a cultural critic, an essayist, perhaps even in a sense a theologian -- Gilbert Keith Chesterton.  If I had to adduce only one reason for calling him that, I might cite his own words from the first page of his own Orthodoxy, where he tells us:

I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe.  I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it.  God and humanity made it; and it made me.
Now, as one of the so down-to-earth-characters into whose mouth that author inserted so many excellent quips, paradoxical assertions, and deductions, might have said, we ought not allow ourselves to be followed into concluding that someone is actually a philosopher, simply on the say-so of their speaking of having a philosophy, even of believing in one -- or still yet attributing it to others and claiming to have been shaped and reformed by it.  After all, people are prone to say all sorts of things about themselves, true, false, sage, foolish, deceptive, furtive, bold, craven -- even sometimes to reveal to the attuned eye or the attentive ear realities they only dimly know themselves. 
Perhaps then, I'm wrong to place Chesterton into that pantheon of those particular -- maybe peculiar -- persons deserving of the designation philosopher.  There's an awful lot of easy, uncritical reference to religion on his part, is there not -- and we all know, almost like a dogma in which we can place all our faith, that when one becomes religious, a certain threshold is crossed, theology begins and philosophy ends -- isn't that true?

One might raise counter-objections, or at least establish a contrapunct, in a variety of different ways.  Just to take one, a historically-informed approach, for instance, might range over, shuffle and fan out on the table like a pack of cards -- possibly to check whether the deck is complete, or alternately to discover the anomalous Joker (the Proteus prepared to be all or none) -- the manifold figures who have employed the term "philosophy," so many of whom would get a cold shoulder from those few dominating schools of the present.  But, there it is -- whatever one may assert, the fact of the case is that "philosophy" has never had an uncontroversial, universally accepted meaning or sense.  In fact, when it has proven to be most vital, most fertile, even. . . dare one say. . .  most interesting, philosophy has evinced an openness, a willingness, a receptivity to inclusion of all sorts of things within its scope -- a kind of catholicity.

One needn't necessarily go back to the monks of the Middle Ages, in whose company one could legitimately speak of the "philosophy of St. Benedict."  One can go back further, in one sense -- since chronologically that narrative, that character, that conversation lies further back in antiquity -- but also closer in a different sense -- for many modern philosophers find an asynchronous affinity with the ancient Greeks that leapfrogs the age of faith and its hybridized thinkers, heading back to a thinker everyone can agree upon as the real deal of philosophy, Plato.  The broad-shouldered student of Socrates was nevertheless willing to entertain an elder Protagoras in a  conversation (might I suggest it to be a Chestertonian-comedic one?) with a youthful Socrates playing with suggestions that all sorts of people might be on the road to, or possessed of, wisdom.

Protagoras traces out a genealogy for himself, in which he is the sophist at last openly acknowledging himself as such:
Personally I hold that the Sophist's art is an ancient one, but that those who put their hand to it in former times, fearing the odium which it brings, adopted a disguise and worked under cover.  Some used poetry as a screen, for instance Homer and Hesiod and Simonides; others religious rites and prophecy, like Orpheus and Musaeus and their school; some even -- so I have noticed -- physical training, like Iccus of Tarentum and in our own day Herodicus of Selymbria, the former Megarian, as great a Sophist as any.  Music was used as cover by your own Agathocles, a great Sophist, and Pythoclides of Ceos and many others.
Socrates for his part maintains:
The most ancient and fertile home of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta, where are to be found more Sophists than anywhere on earth.  But they conceal their wisdom like the Sophists Protagoras spoke of , and pretend to be fools, so that their superiority over the rest of Greece may not be known to lie in wisdom, but seem to lie in fighting and courage.

Now this is how you may know that I am telling the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and specking. If you talk to the most ordinary Spartan, you will find that for most of the time he shows himself a quite unimpressive speaker.  But then, at some chance point in conversation, like a brilliant marksman he shoots in a telling phrase, brief and taut, showing up whoever is talking to him to be as helpless as a child.
After this bit of playing or puttering around  -- which to me seems entirely befitting when writing about Chesterton! -- with bits of a Platonic dialogue, let me bring matters around to make the point of this diversion or detour, which doubtless you've been waiting for, wondering what it might be.  Actually, one might legitimately go off in different directions from here -- that's the problem and opportunity of working with intellectually rich texts worked out by equally intellectually probing and puzzling thinkers -- and Plato is certainly of the first rank of those, isn't he?

Well then, what do you have in Plato?  A great thinker? The founder of a school?  A synthesizer and dialectician who weaves together threads of thought from multiple sources?  All that, and more -- he writes dialogues, creates characters, breathes not only life but thought into their mouths, engineers conversations sprawling over so many topics, referencing, questioning, even unwitting so many other authors.  The Symposium rightly deserves to be called his greatest work, if one measure is the capacity not merely to imitate, but to assimilate, to enter entirely into not only the mindset, but the very desires and diction of so many others.  I would go so far as to say that one kind of great philosopher -- not the only type, mind you -- is revealed in the ability to make enough room within oneself for myriad others -- a manifestation of ontological generosity, perhaps even love -- and yet to retain enough presence of self to keep all these voices, so many people from degenerating into a chaos, a crowd, a cacophony.  Plato can speak through Socrates, true, but also through all the other characters, letting them go far enough, lending them enough reality, for them to encounter their own falsity.

All of this is a long indulgence in talking about everything other than Chesterton, but actually he has been leaning, wryly observing, like his great wise figure, Father Brown, in the background.  For, Chesterton is himself a philosopher, his principal trait being not his humor, nor his readiness to turn and twist phrases and ideas, nor his erudite eloquence, his breadth of learning not merely memorized but long and ruminatively reflected upon --it is rather his catholicity, one reminiscent of  and yet necessarily differing from Plato's own.  Chesterton too writes dialogues, though one might easily be seduced by genre into believing that instead what he pens are witty treatises composed of essays -- like Orthodoxy, Heretics, or The Everlasting Man -- and brilliant novels and story collections, carefully working and reworking themes and twists, reversals and revelations, arguments, affections, and experiences -- like the Father Brown stories, or The Man Who Was Thursday, or The Ball and The Cross.

Really, though, on a fundamental level, his work is much more akin to Platonic dialogues -- one can say similarly things of Fyodor Dostoevsky or Soren Kierkegaard or Maurice Blondel as well -- and if that assertion appears incongruous, insupportable, even possibly insulting to Plato, I would say that one arrives at such assessments through imposing an unwonted and unwanted narrowing upon Platonic dialogues.  Really, just as much as with a Gospel, a parable, a psalm, or a proverb, any time someone says to me that it is just about this. . . that it is only about such and such. . . that its meaning or value is reducible to that -- particularly when the only thing a reader seems keen about is the claim or the argument you can be quite sure that they've managed to miss it for the most part, and so much more. 

Chesterton gives voice to such reasonable reductions -- a constant temptation of the intellect and the emotions -- so innumerably in his work that it would hardly do justice to focus on any single one of them, even if adding to its rendering its subsequent, indeed inevitable refutation.  And yet, one needs something tangible to latch onto -- an interminable series lacks the capacity to provide anything but an imagined satisfaction -- so once again, I'll draw from the well of Orthodoxy, where Chesterton is sketching out a common type of madness, pitiable in its constriction and crampedness. 


The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.  Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable.

Nevertheless he is wrong.  But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.  Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.  A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large.  A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world.  There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions.

Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.  The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but does not explain them in a large way.
How do you know that something is lacking in any one of the reductive, seemingly rigorous, philosophies (which always involve a reductive understanding of what philosophy is or can be as well)?  How can you prove that something has been unaccounted for, ignored, suppressed, mistaken for something else, something lesser, something more tractable?  Well, within the system, you likely can't -- but so much lying outside of a given system ought to undo its pretensions -- at least reveal them as such, as pretense and pretending --  to covering, encompassing, classifying, comprehending everything.

Does that mean that one must give up on logic, on rigor, on making judgements?  Not at all, but one must do so from a position -- I might go so far as to suggest, a life -- marked by an intellectual openness and avidity, a curiosity that while not remaining childish does retain a childlike fascination and trust, a conversation communicating continually and critically with multiple heterogeneous partners -- and a realization that the great intellectual heritage of the human race consists precisely in part in the so many others who did that, and did so in their own distinctive, generous, even charitable ways -- others from whom one can learn in turn.

I'm willing to call both the desire for and the choice of such a way of life, ongoing and even relentless use of the intellect integrated with the whole person (and thus with other persons, taking cues from what matters to them), an essential trait of the genuine philosopher, and what such a person does philosophy -- that's not yet to say that it's necessarily good philosophy.  but, in Chesterton's case, I'm willing to say it's also that.