Tag Archives: 20th-century nonfiction

Review: A Miscellany of Men

Rating: ★★★★

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.

Overview:

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.

Meat:

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.

Bones:

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.

Read for Free: You can read this book for free on LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (multiple formats), the Internet Archive (pdf), and in the Kindle Store (mobi).

Similar: The Defendant, Tremendous Trifles, Alarms and Discursions, All Things Considered

Begin Here review

Review: Begin Here: A Wartime Essay (Sayers)

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Dorothy Sayers, 20th-century novelist, linguist, and essayist; Sayers is most famous for her mystery novels, but I will be reviewing her non-fiction. I should add, Sayers is known as an “honorary” Inkling (the club was men-only) and could probably hold her own in an arm-wrestling match with C. S. Lewis.

Overview: Begin Here is a 1940 “wartime essay,” as the British subtitle states, putting World War II in its historical context in terms of how the Brits got there and what attitude they should have towards the war. Although this makes the book sound ephemeral, Sayers is broad enough in her analysis to give her book lasting relevance. Her writing is also impeccable.

The six essays included are “The Serial Drama of History,” “By the Author of ——?”, “Synopsis of Preceding Installments,” “What Happened in the Last Chapter,” “Brief Outline of the Characters,” and “Begin Here.”

Meat: The meat of the book is Sayers’ explanation, in Chapter III, of how our philosophy of man has progressed. She divides it this way, starting from what she calls :

  1. The Whole Man, the image of God — theological man.
  2. The Whole Man, a value in himself, apart from God — humanist man.
  3. Man the embodied Intelligence — rational man.
  4. Homo Sapiens, the intelligent animal — biological man.
  5. Man the member of the herd — sociological man.
  6. Man the response to environment — psychological man.
  7. Man the response to the means of livelihood — economic man. (p. 72)

“The first structure of Western-Mediterranean-Christian civilization which presents itself for our examination was theological. . . . It differs in two ways from any succeeding theory of civilization: it referred all problems to one absolute Authority beyond history and beyond humanity; and as a scheme for the satisfactory fulfillment of the individual and the world-community it was and remains complete and unassailable.” (p. 29-30)

Sayers elaborates one how different understandings of man have successively set up Reason, Life, the State, the individual, and money as absolutes to which all else must bow. None of these had an absolute basis for authority outside itself, and therefore every attempt to substitute an absolute fails.

Likewise, man has languished, she says, in the presence of so much wartime entertainment, all of which is shallow, none of which is devised to capture the reason or imagination of man. Such passive entertainment is derived from an underestimation of man as man. “For man is never truly himself except when he is actively creating something.” (p. 15) Attempts to find inner peace in passivity, then, are unfounded, she says; we are like a cyclist on a tightrope over Niagara Falls; the only recourse is to keep going.

We cannot complain of totalitarianism when we have sat in front of the television, hamstrung our reasons, complaining without creating. Germany, she says, succumbed to Hitler because they were crestfallen, restless, and unproductive; and Hitler appealed on a basic level, not as an elite.

Spoiler: As the final suggestion of the book, Sayers suggests the following:

“There are only two ways to move the world: the way of the Gospel and the way of the Law, and if we will not have the one we must submit to the other. Somehow we have got to find the integrating principle for our lives, the creative power that sustains our balance in motion, and we have got to do it quickly. The task is urgent; we must not push it into the future; we must not leave it to others: we must do it ourselves, and we must begin now and here.” (p. 155-156)

Bones: (I almost forgot to put a critical section, I was so fastened by my first Sayers read.) This book shoots over my head sometimes, as it sweeps along through Communism, the medieval era, the rise of Hitler, and occasional details of wartime Britain. But then, Harry Conn would say you should only read books that you don’t fully understand.

Quotes:

“Seeing that these principles, left to function on their own, produced so strange and insoluble an antinomy, the logical mind could come to only one conclusion: without the theology, the principles have no authority. There is no reason whatever why, having abandoned the theology, we should not abandon the principles. We shall then be free to make our own absolute.” (p. 76)

“We keep on thinking that the German state is the old-fashioned Christian kind of sinner that knows what is right but does what it knows to be wrong; we are unable to conceive that more desparate condition of sin that honestly believes the wrong to be right.” (p. 89)

“”We are like a man riding a bicycle on a tight-rope across the Niagara Falls: we cannot go back, we dare not stop, we must go forward and keep our balance if we are not to fall into destruction.”

“There is one foe within his own gates that every tyrant fears, and that is the Rational Man.” (p. 115-116)

“Peace is not a static thing: it is the supreme example of balance in movement.” (p. 135