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Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, S.J.

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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 Chesterton’s 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 doesn’t 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 Chesterton’s 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 didn’t, 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 What’s 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 choice.

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

Chesterton’s 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 man’s 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 any place.

Chesterton insists on putting blame where it belongs. Many, like Marx, have blamed God for man’s 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 Chesterton’s 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 Christ’s 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 Chesterton’s 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 isn’t, 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. Chesterton’s 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 senses.

Read Part Two of "Chesterton and the Delight of Truth"


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