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Hot Water and Fresh Air: On Chesterton and His Foes | Janet E. Smith

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"I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean."
G. K. Chesterton

When the accounting comes and we all are asked to report why we are grateful to Father Joseph Fessio, the list will be long. Not least among the gifts he has given us is his project of putting the complete works of G.K. Chesterton back into print. Should that long evening ever arrive in which we might devote ourselves to reading all the books on our shelves, it is sweet to think that G.K. will be awaiting us.

Chesterton was prolific, profound, and pretty darn funny (please pardon the pathetic attempt at alliteration). In this day, which eschews polemics and pugilism in print (I don’t know what is happening here!), it is a real treat to read G.K.’s pungent criticisms of his foes. He did not mince words. He devastated and lacerated his opponents. In a gentlemanly English way to be sure, but he gave his enemies no quarter. Nonetheless, he remained great friends with his foes and seemed to enjoy the battle as much as the victory; what would he do without his worthy sparring partners?

He seemed grateful to have found such terrific foils for his brilliant insights. Of his arch-enemy, George Bernard Shaw, he would say,

"For the truth is that Mr. Shaw has never seen things as they really are. If he had he would have fallen on his knees before them. When we really see men as they are, we don’t criticize, but worship and very rightly. For a monster with mysterious eyes and miraculous thumbs, with strange dreams in his skull, and a queer tenderness for this place or that baby, is truly a wonderful and unnerving matter. And Mr. Shaw, on the practical side perhaps the most humane man alive, is in this sense inhumane. He has even been infected to some extent with the primary intellectual weakness of his new master, Nietzsche, the strange notion that the greater and stronger a man was the more he would despise other things. The greater and stronger a man is the more he would be inclined to prostrate himself before a periwinkle."
Chesterton was never dismissive of his enemies. His sharp words against their views did not suggest that they were idiots; indeed he routinely depicted his opponents as being sincere and intelligent. Yet he did not hesitate to express his frustration that they used their intelligence and talents to advance unthinking cant. He generally convicted them of gross illogic. The following passage may explain his approach: "Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of ‘touching’ a man’s heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." Chesterton spent much of his life in a single-minded expose of the political correctness of his time.

Chesterton’s penetrating critique of contemporary dominant opinion did not cause him to become bitter or melancholic. He had the great grace to find foolishness not hateful but amusing. One cannot find a more cheerful man than Chesterton; in fact he dubbed cheerfulness one of the triad of Christian virtues (the others being humility and activity). When I read Chesterton and about Chesterton, I cannot figure out whether he was temperamentally cheerful or resolutely cheerful, but it is both inspiring and unnerving to encounter someone so relentlessly fascinated and delighted and amused by the world and its inhabitants as G.K. Boredom and cynicism seemed absolutely foreign to him. He re marked about himself: "I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud. It is just the same with people." He clearly bowed before many a periwinkle.

Imagine my delight when I found in one of his essays defending the claim that everything is poetical, the assertion: "If you think the name of ‘Smith’ prosaic, it is not because you are practical and sensible; it is because you are too much affected with literary refinements. The name shouts poetry at you." Else where, "In the case of Smith, the name is so poetical that it must be an arduous and heroic matter for the man to live up to it." Oh, so true.

The Internet has several sites listing several individual’s favorite quotations from Chesterton. Such is not surprising; what is surprising is that each list is not five hundred pages long. It is difficult to read a paragraph from Chesterton without highlighting half of it. Personally, I have long clung to and used as guiding principle of my life the aphorism, "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." This is the last phrase in his collection of essays, What’s Wrong with the World. He writes it in defense of women, and thus of everyone, who would dabble in painting and poetry and music – or in short, in any endeavor for which they may have few talents but much love.

For all his genius and combativeness, G.K. remained one of the most humble men alive. Worthy of long hours of meditation is the simple response he gave in a letter to the editor. I couldn’t locate the passage I have in mind, but my very imperfect memory has him saying, "You ask what is wrong with the world. I am." This, of course, is a funny remark and a deadly serious one.

G.K. often had to defend himself against charges that he was frivolous about serious matters. He responded by asking, "About what other subjects can one make jokes except serious subjects?" He was wise enough not to take the serious too seriously. His lightheartedness was, I think, a product of his faith; he had ultimate confidence in the providence of God, not in the goodness of man. His chief campaign was against social reformers who thought that by letting experts run society we would achieve a kind of utopia. Chesterton knew that without personal reform, social reform could only be misguided and fruitless.

I believed Chesterton labored so hard to debunk the foolishness of his times, because he knew that all of us, himself included, are prone to latch on to the trendy. In Orthodoxy, he lays out his own personal odyssey of discovering the truth and calls it an "elephantine adventure in pursuit of the obvious." He acknowledges, "I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it." For my part, I am with Chesterton in praying for the grace to recognize the obvious. I have seen too many get entangled in subtleties and nuances to the point where they become incapable of breathing fresh air and eventually asphyxiate themselves.

Perhaps reading Chesterton would be the cure, for he is always a breath of fresh air.

[This column originally appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of The Catholic Dossier.]

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Dr. Janet E. Smith
is the Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Issues at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader and many articles on ethical and bioethics issues. Over 700,000 copies of her tape, "Contraception: Why Not?" have been distributed. She taught for nine years at the University of Notre Dame and twelve years at the University of Dallas. She speaks nationally and internationally on several issues, especially the Catholic Church's teaching on sexuality. She is serving a second term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family.

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