Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Full title: Magic: A Fantastic Comedy.
Genre: Essays, articles.
A Miscellany of Men (1912) is one of Chesterton’s most humorous and interesting books of short articles. Like The Defendant (1901), the essays here share a loose frame, but vary widely in subject matter. The frame for A Miscellany of Men is that of a collection of types or profiles of various people, but all of the “men” (and women) being portrayed are anonymous: “The Free Man,” “The Real Journalist,” “The Fool,” etc.
Themes covered are Chesterton’s typical fare: political paradoxes, religious freedom, and, of course, embarrassing tales of his own lethargy and absentmindedness. His self-deprecating humor peaks in “The Real Journalist” and “The Gardener and the Guinea.” Only a few articles deal with current events, and he usually only does so when there is an element of humor or paradox involved. With that in mind, pegging this book as “journalistic” articles would fall short of their enduring quality.
Near the end of the book, “The Divine Detective” is an essay that is key to understanding why Chesterton revelled in detective stories, as well as a profound statement of missional theology. I highly recommend it.
Liberty is a theme that is repeated throughout this book more so than in his other books of essays. Several whole articles are devoted to this topic:
- “The Mad Official”—about unjust laws;
- “The Free Man”—about political liberty;
- “The Sectarian of Society”—about religious tolerance;
- “The Voter and the Two Voices”—about agenda-setting in politics;
- “The Chartered Libertine”—about liberty and law.
But, for Chesterton, the other side of the coin is always equality. He deals with classism and inequality in essays such as:
- “The Miser and His Friends”;
- “The Man on Top”; and
- “The Fool.”
The key to much of Chesterton’s thought is how he seeks to balance these two axiomatic principles of freedom and equality.
This was a very good book of essays, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in how Chesterton thinks. It contains some of the clearer statements of Chesterton’s political thoughts, in the above-mentioned essays. In particular, I was intrigued by “The Voter and the Two Voices”:
It is not the quantity of voters, but the quality of the thing they are voting about. A certain alternative is put before them by the powerful houses and the highest political class. Two roads are opened to them; but they must go down one or the other. They cannot have what they choose, but only which they choose.
Agenda-setting was formalized in political science in the 1960s, so this was not a problem that scholars were often writing about in Chesterton’s day.
Chesterton’s political opinions are, like his other opinions, told in a rather upside-down fashion. That is, he stands on his head, and proceeds to point out that that is the only way our theories are turned right-side-up. When he writes about women’s suffrage in the books opening essay, he does not argue for one or the other solution; he is always turning them both down and searching for clues to the deeper issues in our system.
I enjoyed the “miscellany” in A Miscellany of Men, but I do wish that Chesterton had spent more time connecting his arguments together in longer chains of thought, as he did in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy. If there is one reason that he is not grappled with more often as a serious thinker, it is this: his epiphanies do not roll in linearly, one at a time, but they come in jumbles all at once—so that he has had precious little time to filter for us the light of the Muses as it shone so brilliantly on him for those four decades of prolific output.
If I may make a single criticism, Chesterton seems to have more criticisms for the greedy and the power-hungry than he has solutions. One gets the feeling sometimes that he was backed into a corner. But then, he was a journalist, and I suppose that a cheery exposition of his ideal society would not have sold papers! He had to couch his philosophy in the reality around him, which was not always free and not always equal.
Similar: The Defendant, Tremendous Trifles, Alarms and Discursions, All Things Considered