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Bryson 1 Christina Helen Bryson Professor Longinow Philosophy of Ethics & Journalism 26 March 2013 Gilbert Keith Chesterton: Destroying Modern Pessimism He has been loved and hated by many. He has been described as a “colossal genius,” by George Bernard Shaw, a defender of the Christian tradition...and a literary genius,” according to Robert Knille in his book As I Was Saying (3). He has also been called a “devoted son of the Holy Church” (Knille 3). Out of all these titles G.K. Chesterton considered himself “primarily” to be a journalist, and an unusual journalist he was at the time (Knille 3). G.K Chesterton does not fit the mold of a typical journalist, rather he challenges and redefines our preconceived ideas of journalism. Chesterton can be viewed as a revolutionary journalist in his way of romanticizing the world around us while spreading the Truth of God, while destroying the unethical evils of pessimism and skepticism. Chesterton is remembered for being a great literary journalist, literary critic, political thinker, and apologetic. Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born on May 29, 1974 in Campden Hill, Kensington and was baptized, according to his Autobiography was baptized in a little church of St. George on July 1874 (21). Chesterton’s childhood, according to himself, was filled with wonder. “It was not merely a world full of miracles’ it was a miraculous world” (45-6,51). This sense of wonder and astonishment as Chesterton describes his own childhood is the same sentiment he expects of us in our daily life. Chesterton characterizes his parents as being somewhat “bohemian” and he also likens his dad to have the same demeanor as the character Mr. Bennet in the beloved Jane Austen novel “Pride and Prejudice” (Autobiography, 37). Most of Chesterton’s life remains a mystery, which is the way he wanted to remain, a mystery. He kept no “diaries or journals,” according to Ian Kerr, author of G.K. Chesterton: A Biography (ix). Most of what we know of Chesterton’s personal life is from his Autobiography and from his last secretary before he died, Dorothy Collins, who saved some of Chesterton’s letters from his time spent traveling in America. What Collins and others close to Chesterton remember most about him was his humor, which Kerr calls a “heroic humor” (x). “The unfailing humour that was so significant an aspect of Chesterton’s personal life has its parallel in the enormous importance he attached in his writing to humour as a medium for comprehending and interpreting life, regarding comedy as he did as an art form at least as serious as tragedy” (Kerr, xi). Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is drenched in this satirical humor, that seeks to give readers a “fresh perspective” of Christianity (Kerr, xi). This characteristic is important for his technique in writing about Christianity during a period of time that was polluted by doubt and misery.


2 Chesterton began writing at a very tumultuous time in England’s history. During the 19th century there was a battle between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church. Many critics, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Pater, were rising up creating a culture of pessimism and skepticism, which these critiques the Chesterton often mentions throughout his Orthodoxy. According to Mark Knight and Emma Mason, the authors of Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature, Nietzsche and Pater “helped develop new modes of thought” in the arts and religion (198). Chesterton at this time is remembered as one of the most influential “Catholic thinkers” (Knight and Mason, 200). Orthodoxy was published in 1908 when Chesterton was 34 years old, according to William Oddie, author of Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy (3). Orthodoxy was written as a defense of Chesterton’s Christian faith in the midst of the 19th century skeptical society. At a young age Chesterton remembers feeling a sense of optimism after being in the “darkest depths of pessimism,” which he describes as “rather odd” (Autobiography, 9). At this point Chesterton had not accepted the Christian faith, but had decided that pessimism was not a healthy way of living. It wasn’t until later when Chesterton would join the Church of Rome and discover the doctrine of repentance as a necessary step in salvation. In an excerpt of his Autobiography Chesterton writes, “When people ask me, or indeed anybody else, ‘Why did you join the Church of Rome?’ the first essential answer is, ‘to get rid of my sins.’ For there is no other religious system that does really profess to get rid of people’s sins” (15). Chesterton discusses his discovery of the Christian faith in the beginning chapters of Orthodoxy, using the metaphor of his spiritual journey as compared to a yachtsman who “discovered” England thinking that it was a new land, but it was the place he had been all along. This England is the orthodoxy of the Christian faith, that has been discovered and is waiting to be uncovered. This type of spiritual experience that Chesterton is describing reminds me of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts 9:18: “...And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized.” Throughout the book Chesterton attacks the empirical skepticism of Nietzsche and Tolstoy, challenging their beliefs that the only Truth we can obtain is that from which we can perceive completely and only with our senses. Cheston calls his readers to have faith in miracles and wonder, which is more real that anything that we think we can come to knowledge of through our corrupted darkness of our intellect. Chesterton convinces us of the “romance of Christian orthodoxy,” which is the only thing that can give us pagan’s true joy. Chesterton calls the life of modern pagans as the most unhappy, because they choose to feel “miserable about existence” (Orthodoxy, 166). “Man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional halfholiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live” (Orthodoxy, 166). Out of all of the themes interwoven throughout the Orthodoxy the main theme that Chesterton offers in light of Christianity is freedom and the joy that the Truth offers us. He calls this the “gigantic secret of the Christian” (Orthodoxy, 167).


Bryson 3 When Orthodoxy was published it gained a lot of attention from Chesterton’s critiques. According to the article “G.K. Chesterton: Champion of Orthodoxy,” from Lay Witness Magazine, Chesterton was a threat to the “agnostics” of the time and he recognized their response: “Very nearly everybody . . . began by taking it for granted that my faith in the Christian creed was a pose or a paradox. The more cynical supposed that it was only a stunt. The more generous and loyal warmly maintained that it was only a joke. It was not until long afterwards that the full horror of the truth burst upon them; the disgraceful truth that I really thought the thing was true . . . Critics were almost entirely complementary to what they were pleased to call my brilliant paradoxes; until they discovered that I really meant what I said.” Chesterton was also recognized for being an intense literary critique. According to Orwell, he was a fantastic critique because his style was not too focused on the “‘literary’” part of critiquing literature, but he went straight for the content and ideas expressed in novels (20). Chesterton was inspired by the writings of Charles Dickens and also chose to dedicate an entire book to critiquing his works. Chesterton upholds that Dickens was no less than a “great artist,” in his book Chesterton on Dickens. Chesterton believed Dickens to be an optimist, who attempted to have a cynical view on human life (380). “Dickens was really trying to be a quiet, and detached, and even a cynical observer of human life. And the final and startling triumph of Dickens is this: that even to this moderate and modern story, he gives an incomparable energy which is not moderate and which is not modern. He is trying to be reasonable; but in spite of himself he is inspired” (380-381). Chesterton’s writing has left a major impact on other authors and on British and American society today. Politically Chesterton influenced the writings of prominent author, Eric Blair, or known by his pen name, George Orwell. Orwell was given a copy of Chesterton’s Manalive at a young age and he would go on to write for “G.K’s Weekly,” a newspaper edited by Chesterton. According to Luke Seaber, author of G.K. Chesterton’s Influence on George Orwell: A Surprising Irony, Orwell wrote his first piece attacking big business, calling it “an enemy of democracy” (13). Orwell targeted “Farthing Newspaper” in France in his article and gave many reasons using similar rhetoric as Chesterton to describe it’s evils. Orwell considered Chesterton to have a “‘very appealing though not logically convincing case” for his idea of a more “primitive form of society’” (Seaber, 19). C.S. Lewis’s spiritual life was greatly changed after being introduced to the writings of Chesterton. Lewis who was a devout atheist began to consider the existence of God after reading Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, according to Pearce. "Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together," Lewis wrote, "bating, of course, his Christianity . . . Then I read Chesterton's Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense” (Pearce). Lewis, after coming to the Christian faith, would go on to become one of the most outspoken and renowned Christian authors. According to Pearce, Chesterton influenced numberless Christian


4 writers, some being Dorothy Sayers, Ronald Knox, and Graham Greene. And this is just the “tip of the iceberg” of authors (Pearce). As for our 21st Century postmodern society, I feel like Chesterton’s argument Chesterton would argue that this is the way man was created to live, to have joy and wonder in a world created with a purpose by a loving God. In the political state of America, Chesterton would prescribe a big dose of optimism to banish the pessimism in our culture. Chesterton writes that in order to change something we must love it first. He writes, “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her” (Orthodoxy, 73). Modern politicians claim to love the states and desire to “help” America, yet they undermine the principles America established in the beginning that made it great. Chesterton challenges us to love something so much we would be willing to die for it. This is the passion that Chesterton wants from us, a passion that drives revolution. As a journalist, Chesterton encourages me to pursue truth at all costs. Especially in a world where truth is being snuffed out by the media, there needs to be brave storytellers who will stand up for truth. Speaking the truth is sometimes intimidating especially since I am just graduating and entering the real world. 1 Timothy 4:12 says, “Let no one despise you for your youth ,but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” This verse brings encouragement to me when I have a very heavy task ahead of me as a truth teller.


Bryson 5 Works Cited Joseph Pearce. "G.K. Chesterton: Champion of Orthodoxy." Lay Witness (March 2001). Kerr, Ian. G.K. Chesterton: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Knight, Mark Mason, Emma. Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2006. Knille, Robert, ed. As I Was Saying. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984. Oddie, William. Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Seaber, Luke. G.K. Chesterton’s Literary Influence on George Orwell: A Surprising Irony. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2012. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Good News Publishers, 2001.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton: Destroying Modern Pessimism  

A paper written for Journalism Philosophy & Ethics class on Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

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