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Recovering The Lost Art of Common Sense | Dale Ahlquist | An Excerpt from Common Sense 101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton

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The most famous thing Chesterton said is something he didn't say. He is always quoted as saying that when a man stops believing in God he doesn't believe in nothing, he believes in anything. It is a great line, and it is well worth quoting, and I have no doubt that Chesterton would agree with it and would be pleased to hear it quoted. But it's just not what he said. What he said was, "The first effect of not believing in God, is that you lose your common sense." [1]

Since the line never gets quoted correctly, let's quote it correctly again: "The first effect of not believing in God, is that you lose your common sense." That means that in order for us to recover our common sense, we have to recover our faith. In order for us to recover our faith we need religious renewal and reform. History shows that reform is a thing that is indeed needed from time to time. And usually it is botched up every time it is needed.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it." This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion. [2]
So, the problem with the reformers is that they so often want to do away with things they don't understand. They apparently regard their lack of understanding as proof that the thing is not needed. It does not occur to them that the tradition they are trying to destroy may have been put into place for a very good reason. Chesterton says, "A tradition is generally a truth", [3] and, "Common sense often comes to us in the form of a tradition." [4] The successful reforms in history have occurred when people reconnected with their roots and where they recovered their lost traditions. It is not the tradition that has gone wrong; it is we who have gone wrong.

In order to have reform, says Chesterton, to return to the form, we must have repentance. We must admit that we have gone wrong. The point of repentance is starting over, beginning fresh. The only fresh beginning is that which starts from first principles, which will always be fresh when all novelties are stale. [5]

Chesterton, as we know by now, favors the common sense of the common man as the basis for democracy. And when it comes to the idea of reform, he reminds us famously of the democracy of the dead. True democracy means respecting tradition: "It means giving a vote to the obscurest of all classes, our ancestors." It means not submitting to the "oligarchy of those who merely happen to he walking about". [6] To get at what we have in common, we have to go backward. It is ancient history that will unite us, while modern history has only divided us.
To say that new things like [rapid transportation and communication] have united nations is simply false. . . . It is not new but old things that unify mankind; it is at the back of history that we rediscover humanity; it is quite strictly, in Genesis or the beginnings that we find the brotherhood of men; even if some controversy continues about ... Abel and Cain. [7]
It is true that the first family had its problems and didn't exactly set a good precedent for the rest of us. But the fact remains that the basic unit of society is still the family. Strong families make for a strong society. If the family is weakened, the society is fundamentally weakened. But even if we try to break the basic unit of society into smaller pieces, those pieces still have to be held together by a very strong cement in order for the larger structure of society to hold up, and the smaller the pieces the stronger the glue must be. Chesterton says the only glue strong enough to bind people together is religion. [8] If people abandon religion, they abandon each other. Art and culture, sports and games, political causes and commercial ventures all have their place in a society but a very secondary place. None of them are broad enough or deep enough to be a substitute for religion. And when we try to make them a substitute for religion, our society is in decline.

Most people are aware that something is quite wrong with our society. But most of us are in a daze about it. We feel quite lost. Man has always lost his way, says Chesterton, but our problem is that we have not only lost our way; we've lost our address. [9]
We have all read in scientific books, and in romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is .... The self is more distant than any star. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. [10]
The reason we have forgotten who we are is that we have been cut off from our traditions. We have not only lost the common sense that connects us to others; we have lost our own sense of identity. And, again, the thing that defines us, as individuals and as a community, is religion. That is the only thing that can give us an ultimate meaning and sense of purpose. When the majority of people lose their religion and their common philosophy, they are easy prey for what Chesterton calls the "thin and theoretic minorities". [11] By simply having a philosophy, even if it is a fallacy or a perversion, a small group can conquer the vast majority who have lost their philosophy. The abnormal gains an advantage over the normal. And this is exactly what we have seen happen in our society. A few small minorities with some strong but wrong philosophies, such as those that favor abortion and homosexuality, have managed to spread their poisonous ideas to the rest of society, because the rest of society has no cohesive ideas but only "a sort of broad bewilderment produced by the reading of newspapers". [12] (And Chesterton would certainly have added "by the watching of television".) Those thin and theoretic minorities do not represent the masses, yet because of the media, they seem to be everywhere, and they have contrived to destroy the role of religion in our society. The result, says Chesterton, is that now "there is no mental machinery for common sense." [13] In order to have common sense, a society must have what Chesterton calls "spontaneous mental discipline". [14] We have lost ours.

How do we get it back?

First of all, we cannot deal with these problems superficially. Chesterton says we have to get down to fundamentals. We have to recognize that there is a battle between good and evil. And we have to recognize evil, which is always very recognizable and very obvious. But we choose to ignore it.
Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable. [15]
One of the most insidious philosophies of the modern world is the bland tolerance of every other philosophy, the idea that it doesn't matter what you do or what you believe. Evil rushes in through the door of indifference.

Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it." [16]
In a confusing world we have to speak clearly. People will sneer at our words, calling them catchwords. But Chesterton says, "The words used by ordinary hardworking people have to be ordinary and rather hard-worked words." [17] We do not have to apologize for using the common words of common sense. Chesterton says, the great men of history had the common mind and they are great not because they make every man feel small, but because they make every man feel great. [18] They help us to regain our vision of what's important, and to rise up and defend it or reclaim it.

There is something that is not plain about the plain truth. There is something uncommon about common sense. It is has to be repeated over and over again because a million small distractions draw us away from the great truths. Chesterton is sometimes accused of repeating himself, but that is only because we need to be reminded of the simple, vital, basic things. Things like this: we must have a code of morals in a society; we have to teach this code of morals to our children; we have to believe our own beliefs enough to act on them in order to expect our children to believe us.

Everything has its place and proportion and proper use, and it is rational to trust its use and to distrust its abuse. The idea of "everything in its place" is the idea of the ordinary. G. K. Chesterton was an extraordinary man who defended ordinary things:
I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term, which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and chivalry as laws rightly controlling them, and the rest of the normal traditions of our ... religion. [19]
According to Chesterton, Christianity is the religion that is most at one with common sense. It proclaims basic truths that can be relied on: that the world is real; that our actions have consequences; that truth itself is something solid and absolute; that we didn't just make it up. He says that all religious history shows that this common sense perishes except where there is Christianity to preserve it. Other religions and philosophies and heresies have tried to reduce Christianity to something less than itself, but they always make it too simple to be sane. The temptation of the philosophers is simplicity rather than subtlety.

The commands of Christ, says Chesterton, may sound impossible, but they are not insane. They are, rather, "sanity preached to a planet of lunatics". [20] When someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other. When someone steals your shirt, give him your cloak as well. [21] Why is that sanity? Because it really does make more sense to turn the other cheek in order to stop the insane cycle of revenge. It really does make more sense to give the thief more than he has stolen because he may need it, and what he needs most of all is grace and charity. That will serve to save his soul. His soul is more important than our clothes. And the main point of Christ's commands is that we should not take ourselves so seriously. Being able to laugh at ourselves is the key to humility and obedience. "If the whole world was suddenly stricken with a sense of humour it would find itself automatically fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount." [22]

The reason that Christianity is at one with common sense is that both are all about what is good for everybody. Only a religion of charity can be the glue to hold a society together. Christianity teaches us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give shelter to the homeless. And Chesterton points out that this applies to spiritual poverty as well as physical poverty.
As we should be genuinely sorry for tramps and paupers who are materially homeless, so we should be sorry for those who are morally homeless, and who suffer a philosophical starvation as deadly as physical starvation. [23]
The Christian saints were famous for their great charity, and their charity was exactly what the world needed. They were mystics, but they were also very practical. The two go together. And that is why Chesterton says we will never recover common sense until we recover the mysticism of the saints. The saints are "wild and perfect". [24] They put their idealism in the right place and their realism in the right place. We have both things displaced. The saints put their dreams and sentiments into their aims, where they ought to be, and their practicality into their practice, where it ought to be. We have it backwards. Our dreams, we insist, are quite practical. But our practice is quite impractical. Our aims fall far short of heaven. Our practice falls short even of earth. And one of the main problems with our practice is that we don't do anything ourselves. We don't take responsibility. We leave it to the expert or to the public servant or to the private servant. We don't grow our own food; we don't build our own homes. We don't teach our own children; we don't even raise our own children. We leave everything up to someone else. We don't even think for ourselves. We even let others tell us what our tastes are. And, we don't even practice our own religion. It has become more convenient to leave that to others, too.
Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better. If our civilization goes on like this, only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest. [25]
Whenever we have some crisis in society, rather than solving the crisis ourselves, we immediately make demands of the government for a solution. But a solution from the government always means a new set of laws and regulations. Chesterton says, "Modern man is in favor of introducing order into everything except his own ideas." [26] Excessive regulation and organization rests on a fallacy. It basically means turning men into machinery, and it is a mistake to think that machinery made out of men will be very efficient. The other problem with such schemes is that they must be enforced, which usually just means forced.

The point is, it is up to us to solve the crisis. It cannot be done for us. That is the disadvantage as well as the advantage of having free will. Common sense works only if we use it. Chesterton offers common sense both as a challenge and a comfort:
If men cannot save themselves by common sense, they cannot save each other by coercion. [27]

But what more can we have on our side than the common sense of everybody? [28]
In this book, we have covered some of the main ideas in Chesterton's writing. These are not mere literary themes; they are fundamental truths, and if we would take the trouble to understand them, they would rejuvenate our lives.

And they would help us recover the lost art of common sense. Let's review them very briefly:

First: our whole approach to life should be filled with wonder and gratitude. Thanks are the highest form of thought.

Second: truth is paradoxical. That explains why it is dignified and tragic when a man suffers, and why it is undignified and funny when a man sits on his hat.

Third: we are created in the image of God, which means we also are creators. Art is the signature of man. But art must connect. It has to connect to people, and it must also be connected to the eternal.

Fourth: we have a responsibility to pass truth on to our children. Therefore, education must be controlled by parents.

Fifth: temporary trends must never take precedence over permanent things. Fads and fashionable ideas always undermine the authority of the family and the Faith.

Sixth: democracy operates on the principle of common sense, the idea that people really can rule themselves if they truly have the freedom and independence to do so. Democracy means that self-government is better than big government, and that self-employment is better than wage slavery.

Seventh, eighth, and ninth: the world constantly tries to attack the Catholic Church or replace the Catholic Church or reduce and redo the Catholic Church, and in every case the result is something less satisfying, less balanced, and less complete than the Catholic Church.

And tenth: poems should rhyme.

Of course, there is one more thing we can do to help recover the lost art of common sense: read G. K. Chesterton.


[1] And he gave the line to Father Brown, who said it in a story called "The Oracle of the Dog".
[2] The Thing, CW 3:157.
[3] The Everlasting Man, CW 2:204.
[4] lbid., 163.
[5] See ILN, September 4, 1920.
[6] Orthodoxy, CW 1:251.
[7] The Well and the Shallows, CW 3:460.
[8] See ILN, January 13, 1912.
[9] See What's Wrong with the World, CW 4:77.
[10] Orthodoxy, CW 1:257.
[11] ILN, December 20, 1919.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] lbid.
[15] ILN, October 23, 1909.
[16] ILN, May 11, 1907.
[17] ILN, July 3, 1920.
[18] See Charles Dickens, CW 15:43.
[19] The Thing, CW 3:169.
[20] Twelve Types, 66.
[21] See Matthew 5:39-40.
[22] Twelve Types (Norfolk, Va.: IHS Press, 2003), 66.
[23] ILN, November 24, 1934.
[24] ILN, March 28, 1908.
[25] Heretics, CW 1:164.
[26] ILN, April 1, 1922.
[27] ILN, September 29, 1923.
[28] The Napoleon of Notting Hill, CW 6:308.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Pages:

Author page for G.K. Chesterton
The God in the Cave | G.K. Chesterton
"What Is America?" | G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton: Common Sense Apostle & Cigar Smoking Mystic | Dale Ahlquist
Hot Water and Fresh Air: On Chesterton and His Foes | Janet E. Smith
Chesterton and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, SJ
The Life and Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Fr. Randall Paine

Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the television series, “G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense,” on EWTN. Dale is the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, author of The Chesterton University Student Handbook, editor of The Gift of Wonder: The Many Sides of G.K. Chesterton, associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He has been called “one of the most respected Chesterton scholars in the world” and has delighted audiences around the country with his variety of talks on the great English writer. He is a graduate of Carleton College (B.A.) in Northfield, Minnesota, and Hamline University (M.A.) in St. Paul, Minnesota. He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and five children. Like Chesterton, Dale is a Catholic convert and a joyful defender of the Catholic Faith. He can be contacted at info@chesterton.org.

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