Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, S.J.
Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V.
This essay might be about the "splendor" of truth rather than
about its "delight," but John Paul II famously claimed the "splendor"
for himself Veritatis Splendor. Chesterton simply rejoices
in truth, but not just for the sake of his own rejoicing, but because
there is something to rejoice about. "I had heard that I was in the
wrong place, and my soul sang for joy" this is Chestertons
startling reaction to his discovery that man is not made only for this
earth but through it for eternal life. The "splendor" of truth,
I suppose, stresses its own luminousness, its own shining, its reality,
while "delight" indicates our proper reaction to what is, that
it is at all, to what sheds its light before us when we realize at last
that we need light, that there is light.
The Wonder of Existence
But doesnt everyone see this luminous truth? Why was Chesterton
any different? To be sure, no one lacks the power to see truth. The power
is given with what we are. But many, evidently very many, having the power
to see it, choose the word is important not to accept
it. Chesterton is different because he saw, accepted, and affirmed it.
His enthusiasm for reality, for what is, is our grace. If our lives
are disordered, however, it is likely that we do not experience any delight
in truth because we actively prevent ourselves from seeing the splendor
that is there. We can seek, like the young Augustine, all those beautiful
things, without letting ourselves aver to why they might be beautiful
in the first place. We want things before we appreciate what they are
in their fullness the exact opposite of the right order of things.
We oftentimes suspect where truth might lead us, so we cleverly refuse
to go there without ever honestly spelling out to ourselves what we are
doing. We choose to deceive ourselves. We build an apparently plausible
"counter-truth" to justify how we choose to live. We quietly
put aside in our hearts any comparison between what we do and what we
ought to do. The good, the true, and the beautiful, however, are interrelated
in ways that can hide their inner-connections from those who do not want
to see what is there. "The test of all happiness is gratitude; and
I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom" is Chestertons
way of expressing his realization of the truth that the good is really
good even though he did not himself create it, perhaps primarily because
he did not create it. He is grateful that he did not hide from the truth
that he saw. He wants to know, in fact, who "caused" it since
he knows he didnt, yet it is there.
Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy
in 1908. He was a young man at the time, already into his journalism
career. He had an uncanny, almost supernatural, knack for discerning in
their incipient principles what events would come about later in the twentieth
century, even to its end, because he simply "saw" things, saw
the truth in them and, more importantly, affirmed it. His Whats
Wrong with the World (1910) spells out the cause of almost every
societal aberration about which we read in our papers each day. Chesterton
indeed was one of those remarkable people who learned about truth not
from itself but from the common and fashionable errors he saw all about
him. They left him perplexed because he could see that they were not true,
in spite of their popularity.
Chesterton delighted in things because he was acutely conscious of the
fact that they need not exist at all "every man in the street
is a great might-not-have-been," as he put it. Every might-not-have-been
in the streets, including ourselves, is filled with a divinely guaranteed
dignity. We are all like the penny, he said in his Charles
Dickens, because we have the image of the king stamped on us,
the divine King. Yet every actual existence is so overwhelmingly unexpected
that everyone who exists at all seems like the result of some huge, improbable
When he realized that the world need not exist (the doctrine of Creation)
and that God did not need to create it (the doctrine of the Trinity),
Chesterton knew that he was free of all the depressing philosophies of
necessity that implied that he had no other purpose of existing but necessity
itself, that reality was merely an unraveling of what had to be. If the
world was the result of choice, however, so much the more so was he. Yet,
if a man did not need to exist, what was the "golden key," as
Chesterton called it, that could account for the wondrous fact that he
did exist without his having anything to do with it? At a minimum, every
person, who might not have been at all, is at least vaguely aware that
his own particular existence rose out of nothingness through no input
of his own.
Ideas Make the Difference
Chestertons first major book in 1905 (and remains a penetrating
read) explains just why he was not a follower of various modern intellectual
movements, most of which are still around in some form or another at the
turn of the twenty-first century. Basically, he did not follow them because
he understood them; he understood their disorder. He knew that the purpose
of a mind was to know reality, to come to a conclusion about claims to
be right or true. "I am a rationalist," he explained in Orthodoxy.
"I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions.
If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual convenience
to me to believe that he fell, and I find, for some odd psychological
reason, that I can deal better with a mans exercise of free will
if I believe that he has got it." Chesterton always had the deadly
capacity to see our implicit contradictions.
To meet the mind of Chesterton is to meet a mind that will not let our
intellectual errors remain hidden from ourselves, however much we might
prefer not to have them boldly spelled out. The most wide-spread contemporary
intellectual error is no doubt something known as cultural relativism.
Chesterton is always amusing when he points out the error of some such
theory that asks us to maintain its contradictions as if they did not
exist. "An imbecile habit has risen in modern controversy of saying
that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in
another. Some dogma was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible
in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can
be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays." About
the principle at issue, little further needs to be said in any age, in
Chesterton insists on putting blame where it belongs. Many, like Marx,
have blamed God for mans problems and claim that they could do better
for man by leaving God completely out of the picture. Chesterton was not
so sure. "The secularists have not wrecked divine things, but the
secularists have wrecked secular things." A human error about the
nature or reality of the divinity does not lead to a change in or threat
to the divinity, but it does, like Marxism eventually did, ironically
wreak havoc among human lives and institutions. We may not be able directly
to test the divinity, but we can test what men do because of their misunderstanding
of the divinity, or whatever they have chosen to take its place. Our culture
is wont to teach us that ideas make little difference. Chesterton thinks
that any difference there is comes from our ideas. The real issue is whether
ideas are true or not.
The provocativeness of Heretics, its charming reduction of well-known
philosophic and religious positions to humorous absurdity, annoyed someone
so much that he challenged Chesterton to write a book explaining, not
what he was against, but what he was for. This challenge energized him
even more than his enterprise of pointing out the errors of his friends
and critics in Heretics. Chesterton, incidentally, was, even in
issues of great and passionate controversy, an amazing sort of man who
never lost a friend because he pointed out the impossibility of his ideas.
This is a rare gift and speaks much of the greatness of Chesterton.
Thus, when confronted, Chesterton took up the writing of Orthodoxy,
in which he set forth what he did hold. He discovered that what he
did come to maintain, which he thought so original, was in fact what all
Christians profess in the Creed, many of whom, I might add, unlike Chesterton,
profess the Creed without seeing its wonder, its standing at the foundation
of all healthy and human things. Orthodoxy is itself one of the
best and most profound commentaries on the great Christian Creed. Chesterton
explains in his own way what it affirms and why what it affirms is directed
to the freedom and dignity of man because it is first directed to the
revelation of who God is.
Because Chesterton later wrote his own Autobiography, itself a
marvelous book, Orthodoxy is not an autobiography, though it is
completely autobiographical. Though he was not a Catholic when he wrote
it, it is nevertheless completely Catholic. Though it is written in a
completely unscholarly and familiar style, it is thoroughly scholarly
and formal in its argumentation. When everyone else found "orthodoxy"
to be a bad word, Chesterton found it to be the exact description of what
keeps us sane. "When ever we feel there is something odd in Christian
theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth."
"The Great March of Mental Destruction"
To begin to understand Chesterton, it is worth recalling the last sentences
of Heretics, as they reveal his soul perhaps as well as anything
he ever wrote not denying that Chestertons great soul clearly
shone through everything he did write, even his shortest essay. But fully
to comprehend what Chesterton concluded at the end of Heretics, we
have to be familiar with one of the great scenes in the New Testament,
with the passage that, perhaps more than any other in our literature,
has consoled ordinary folks who, while bearing constant witness to the
difficulties of belief and its living, nevertheless still believe.
The scene is of the Apostle Thomas, the famous "Doubting Thomas,"
who will not believe reports of the Risen Lord until he sees the wounds
of Christs body and hands. When the Lord appears to Thomas and fulfills
his demand to see and to touch, evidential things, Christ says to him,
with His own paradox, which Chesterton surely noticed, "Blessed are
they, Thomas, who have not seen but who have believed." We cannot
be unaware that this latter group includes the vast majority of mankind
who continue to believe.
"The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will
be denied," Chesterton concludes his analysis of modern thought in
an almost prophetic voice.
Everything will become a creed. It is a rational position to deny the
stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It
is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be mystical sanity
to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two
and two make four.... We shall be left defending, not only the incredible
virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still,
this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight
for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the
impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of
those who have seen and yet have believed.
Unlike Thomas before the Lord, who now believes because he has seen, Chesterton
is talking to those modern philosophers who see the ordinary things before
their very eyes and still do not believe in their existence, in their
existence that reaches to the order of what is. Chesterton intimated,
in fact, that in our era, we need the faith to believe in what is evident
to our senses, to our reason. The subsequent history of modern philosophy
does not in the least prove that Chesterton was wrong in his supposition.
The end of Heretics, thus, reveals Chestertons profound insight
that the ultimate result of the rejection of the evidence for belief in
modernity would end up with a doubt about the existence of the world itself.
Logically, in order to "prove" that God does not exist, we have
to maintain at some point that the world and its order the very
point at which we started do not exist. Somehow in some albeit
unexpected wisdom, to maintain the existence of natural things as they
are involves the belief in supernatural ones. Chesterton makes this observation
not as a matter of doctrine, which it isnt, but as a matter of historical
fact, of what happens in the minds of those who consistently reject belief
and its evidence and then try to explain consistently what they are doing.
It would most often be the scientists, the philosophers, and the academics
who would come to doubt their senses and any concrete extra-sensory object
they might reveal to us as existing. This observation was one reason that
Chesterton was a democrat and loved ordinary folks "the common
man" as he called him. They were, as he knew them, less susceptible
to an intellectual "proof" that the world did not exist since
they saw quite clearly that it did, no matter what the specialists might
tell them. Chestertons philosophy, as he put it, allowed him to
accept or reject miracles on the basis of evidence. But a determinist
philosopher is not free to accept or reject any mere evidence, because
his philosophy has already precluded any possibility of miracles or evidence
for them. His philosophy, in other words, has caused him to doubt his
The Logic and Excitement of Orthodoxy
The title of Orthodoxy means literally right opinion. First of
all, it implies that there can be a wrong opinion and that the difference
between the two makes considerable difference in how we live. It means
further that how we live is directly affected by how we think. Almost
a hundred years after Chesterton, we live in an age that doubts everything
about itself that the mind can know the truth, even that it ought
to know the truth, that it ought to know anything. We advocate a kind
of relativism or multiculturalism that, far from simply pointing to the
myriad differences in the reality of time and space, maintains that nothing
is certain, that there are no standards, particularly no human standards.
Therefore, because there are no standards, no truth, we are said to be
"free." In this system, it is not the truth that makes us free.
We make ourselves free by denying any criterion outside of ourselves.
Everything is permitted because not only is nothing known, but nothing
can be known. We choose our choices so that we are enslaved by what we
Second, orthodoxy implies that it is possible to establish what right
opinion is by examining all opinion, especially wrong opinion. Chestertons
favorite book list seems to have been the famous Index of Forbidden
Books. It was from errors in the most popular and most scientific
positions that he found the raw material of truth. "All I had hitherto
heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at
the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen.... I
never read a line of Christian apologetics." Nietzsche was a favorite
author if only because he put what was wrong so well. Literally, as he
tells us, Chesterton learned truth from the weirdness of the constant
error he read.
On the basis of the impossibility of what theories the great modern philosophers
used to explain reality, Chesterton set out to found his own "heresy,"
as he delighted in calling it. He himself, however, as he conceived it,
was the ultimate "heretic"! And when he found the truth, he
discovered to his astonishment that it was invented some eighteen hundred
years before his time and was called "orthodoxy." He was glad
that he did not have to invent the "heresy of orthodoxy" himself
but could simply recognize it as already having been invented a
fact that made him even more curious. Invented by whom?
Chesterton was constantly amused by the fact that the most true and delightful
teaching was the one to which most opposition was found. It was quite
contrary to what was actually taught in the modern schools. Yet, "there
never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy," he reflects.
It was "perilous" because it affirmed that our choices were
infinitely serious and potentially dangerous; it was "exciting"
because it showed us that our choices could lead either to damnation or
to what was infinitely worthwhile. Chesterton defended the possibility
of excitement by defending the doctrine of free will and the fact that
it could choose rightly or wrongly, but freely, not necessarily. We may
not want to have this choice, which logically means that we may not want
to be what we are. But the fact is that denying our freedom leads not
to excitement and drama, but to dullness and indifference. Chester ton
preferred the world of freedom and excitement with its dangers and its
Chesterton as a young man never heard of Christian truth, but he knew
that what was proposed, especially against the faith, on examination could
not be true. He could understand contradictions and therefore errors.
Chesterton was converted intellectually by the heretics, not by the orthodox.
He could not at first understand the odd nature of the opposition to the
classic faith, but what he did notice made him wonder, finally, if it
might be true because it could not be all the contradictory things said
against it. "Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom
and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may
fight the Church."
This was, I say, not something he expected as a matter of theory, but
something he observed as a matter of fact. He reflected that something
against which every sort of accusation is made, even if it be contradicted
by another accusation, might be very odd indeed, but it might also be
the normal. For to the abnormal, it is only the normal that looks most
grotesque. Somehow most modern philosophy seemed to picture an utterly
abnormal world that bore little relation to what was true.
The Meaning of Sins Existence
One of the chapters in Orthodoxy is called the suicide of thought.
Roughly, this means that no one can think if he maintains that his organ
of thinking cannot know anything or that his organ of will cannot decide
anything about what is known. Moreover, no one allows his organ of deciding
to decide anything if there are, on the basis of what he knows to be true,
certain things that will be forbidden to him. If it should so happen that
some things are right and true, we may just not want to know about them
if we suspect that they might interfere with what we have already chosen
to do. When we act on this failure to know what we should know, we sin,
to use the classic word that indicates both the seriousness of our thoughts
and the choices that follow from them. Not surprisingly, then, when asked,
the reason Chesterton himself gave for his final conversion to the faith
was that he wanted to get rid of his sins. He knew that the structure
of reality was such that they were possible, and he knew himself well
enough to know that he, no one else, committed them.
Chesterton liked to talk about sin, no doubt because it was so serious
and so common. Indeed, in his Father
Brown stories, he liked to write about it. He thought we should be
sinning all the time, not by actually murdering or stealing or committing
adultery, of course, but by writing about such aberrations. Though he
loved the sinner, he did not have any sympathy for those who refused to
understand the reality or depths of sin. He often suggested, furthermore,
that those who know most about sin are not the sinners themselves but
the pure of heart, those who have decided not to commit it. The knowledge
of sin and its attraction is not itself a sin but a necessary element
in our understanding ourselves. But the existence of sin and its terribleness
was part of the risk of the universe that contained the finite free creature.
If God wanted to create a finite person who could love Him freely, He
had to accept, as in all love, the possibility of being rejected.
Chesterton was acutely aware that what made the universe particularly interesting
was not the existence of sin in it, with its pre-condition of free will,
but the possibility and condition of its forgiveness. In determinist theory,
"the cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could
there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness
or free will." Free will meant that we could sin and were responsible
for it. It also meant that we could be grateful for existence itself. Forgiveness
meant that even if we sinned, what we sinned against could forgive us, that
sin was personal both on our parts and on the part of what we sinned against.
"Such ... was the joy of man; ... happiness depended on not doing
something which you could at any moment do, but which, very often, it was
not obvious why you should not do it." All romance depended on not
doing what ought not to be done. Sometimes on crucial things, we simply
had to obey. "Thou shalt not ...."
Chesterton, moreover, thought that the doctrine of original sin grounded
democracy and was the only reason we could give for not absolutely trusting
a ruling elite. "The unpopular parts of Christianity (like original
sin) turn out when examined to be the very props of the people." Original
sin explained why we needed to bind even our rulers by law, morality, and
sanction. They too were sinners and lived in the worst possible occasion
for sin the life of power, publicity, and comfort. "In the best
Utopia, I must be prepared for the fall of any man, in any position, at
any moment...." But no matter in what sort of society or situation
in which man lived, sin is always caused by will, not by something external
to us. No arrangement of society or state, contrary to Rousseau and his
tradition, would ever eliminate the possibility of sin and wrong doing from
among us, especially from the elite. "For she (the Church) has maintained
from the beginning that the danger was not in mans environment, but
in man." This awareness of the possibility of sin in anyone, even rulers,
is one fundamental element of any charter of liberty, of any understanding
What is surprising at first sight is the amount of attention that Chesterton
gives in Orthodoxy to questions of sin, original sin, and free will.
These three are, no doubt, essential doctrines of the faith and its philosophic
support. If there is such a thing as sin, the deliberate choice of a thought
or action against God and man, there must first be a free will to choose
such thought or action. Moreover, it is clear that from time immemorial,
man has had difficulty in living virtuously, even when he wanted to and
chose to do so. Indeed, this difficulty in living virtuously will seem to
justify theories which maintain that sin is the normal condition of mankind,
so we should not worry about it but expect it, even excuse it, make it "normal"
because it is so frequent. Chestertons response to this position is
again amusing: "Men may have had concubines as long as they have had
horses still they were not part of him if they were sinful."
The frequency of any sin does not somehow indicate its rightness but its
All That Is Is Created in Joy
The greatest thing about Orthodoxy, however, is its enthusiasm for
and delight in what is.
The structure of Orthodoxy is cast in the form of the adventure of
a man who set out around the world to discover some strange land. Finally,
his ship reaches this distant land; only there he discovers that it is England,
his original home. The analogy, of course, is to Chestertons own spiritual
adventure in discovering orthodoxy to be the home he was looking for all
along only he did not recognize it right before his very eyes. One of the
mysteries of his life, Chesterton tells us, was why he could be "homesick
at home." This homesickness-at-home is a most striking image, for Chesterton
loved home and thought it the noblest word in the language. Yet, he understood
that even when we have everything, even when we do not sin, we feel that
there is something missing to us. We seek our true home even at home.
In his musings about what it is we want, what sort of freedom is the greatest,
even at home, Chesterton argued that it is the freedom to bind ourselves.
"I would never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave
to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself."
This freedom of binding oneself was for Chesterton the key to the highest
wisdom about the most basic things of life. "I could never mix in the
common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restrictions
on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself... Keeping to one woman
is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could
only be married once was like complaining that I could only be born once."
Chesterton was capable of elevating this principle to the more universal
idea that our individual uniquenesses, in being bound by love, lie at the
heart of all true relationships. "I want to love my neighbor not because
he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not
as one likes a looking-glass, because it is ones self, but as one
loves a woman, because she is entirely different."
And because God too is entirely different and stands at the heart of all
binding promises, of all freedom, it is possible to love Him because we
know we are first chosen, that being ourselves is not enough. Our ideas
of God decide our ideas of the world. "By insisting especially on the
transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure,
righteous indignation, Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man
is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has
transcended himself." In transcending himself, in what he might expect
of himself, man does not cease to be himself. We do not become "gods."
We love God and this is our joy. Eternal life comes precisely to us, as
Chesterton ends Orthodoxy by suggesting that the only thing that
the Incarnate God did not show us while He was on earth was his "mirth,"
his joy. He did not show us this mirth because we could not bear it now,
not because this was not of the essence of His being. "The mass of
men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the
big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native
to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the
fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. ... Joy ... is the
gigantic secret of the Christian."
This at last is the secret of Chesterton and of his Orthodoxy. All that
is is created in joy because this is what God is. Life is our seeking
to find wherein joy is our home. And we can finally only have a home if
we bind freely ourselves. Only this philosophy, this "heresy"
of "orthodoxy" which Chesterton discovered and in discovering
leaves its gift of sanity to us "has again and again said the
thing that does not seem to be true, but is true." Ultimately, this
truth, in its splendor, is the delight of orthodoxy.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of
Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing,
Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal
Read more of his essays on his
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