Tag Archives: G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

About Beliefs

This article about the resurrection of Christ was published in G. K. Chesterton’s 1936 book of essays, As I Was Saying. Since that book is now almost impossible to obtain—and the title has been co-opted for an unrelated compilation—I’ve reproduced the essay here in full.


Some time ago, when a stir was made by a rather striking book called Who Moved the Stone? which might almost be described, with all reverence, as a divine detective story and almost a theological thriller, a pugnacious little paper in Fleet Street made a remark which has always hovered in my memory as more mysterious than any mystery story in the world. The writer said that any man who believes in the Resurrection is bound to believe also in the story of Aladdin in the Arabian Nights. I have no idea what he meant. Nor, I imagine, had he. But this curious conjunction of ideas recurs to my mind in connexion with a rather interesting suggestion made by Mr. Christopher Dawson about what we may call the History of Science. On the face of it, the remark I have quoted from the pugnacious paper seems to have no quality whatever except pugnacity. There is no sort of logical connexion between believing in one marvellous event and believing in another, even if they were exactly alike and not utterly different. If I believe that Captain Peary reached the North Pole, I am not therefore bound to believe that Dr. Cook also reached the North Pole, even if they both arrived with sledges and dogs out of the same snows. It is a fallacy, therefore, even where the two things are close enough to be compared. But the comparison between the Gospel miracle and the Arabian fairy-tale is about the most unfortunate comparison in the world. For in the one case there is a plain and particular reason for thinking the thing true, or at least meant to be true. And in the other case there is a plain and particular reason for realizing that the tale is not only untrue, but is not even meant to be true.
The historical case for the Resurrection is that everybody else, except the Apostles, had every possible motive to declare what they had done with the body, if anything had been done with it. The Apostles might have hidden it in order to announce a sham miracle, but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham. In the case of the Apostles’ testimony, the general circumstances suggest that it is true. In the case of the Arabian tale, the general circumstances avow and proclaim that it is false. For we are told in the book itself that all the stories were told by a woman merely to amuse the king and distract his attention from the idea of cutting off her head. A romancer in this personal situation is not very likely to confine herself strictly to humdrum accuracy, and it would be impossible more plainly to warn the reader that all the tales are taradiddles. In the one case, then, we have witnesses who not only think the thing true, but do veritably think it is as true as death, or truer than death. They therefore prefer death to the denial of its truth. In the other case we have a story-teller who, in trying to avoid death, has every motive to tell lies. If St. John the Baptist had wished to avoid being beheaded, and had saved his life by inventing a long string of Messianic or Early Christian legends on the spur of the moment, in order to hold the attention of King Herod, I should not regard any “resurrection myth” he might tell as a strong historical argument for the Resurrection. But, as the Apostles were killed as St. John was killed, I think their evidence cannot be identified by sound scholarship as a portion of the Arabian Nights.
I merely pause for a moment upon this wild and preposterous parallel as a passing example of the queer way in which sceptics now refuse to follow an argument and only follow a sort of association or analogy. But the real reason for recalling this strange remark about the Arabian Nights is to be found in a much more genuine analogy between Western Science and Eastern Sorcery. Nobody but a lunatic would look either for his facts or his faith in the Arabian Nights. But, oddly enough, there really was a touch of the Arabian magicians in the Arabian mathematicians. There really was a faint flavour of the Oriental wizardry about the quite genuine Oriental wisdom; even when that wisdom was really doing work for which the world will always be grateful, in geometry or chemistry, in mathematics or medicine. Thus we find the paradox: that a man might, after all, look for some of the elements of science in the Arabian Nights, though he would hardly look there for anything very edifying or elevating in the way of the elements of religion. In short, the old dim, or even dark, connexion between Medicine and Magic has a sort of hidden meaning of great historical interest. It is developed by Mr. Dawson in an essay on the Eastern element in early mediaeval science, and occurs in a book of essays called Mediaeval Religion.
But this particular point is not concerned with religion, but is connected in a curious way with science. The point is this: that Magic (in the ancient sense) and Medicine (in the modern sense) are really in one way very like each other, because they are both very unlike the pure and abstract idea of Science as conceived by the Ancient Greeks. Science only means knowledge; and for those ancients it did only mean knowledge. They wanted nothing but the pleasure of knowing; they were particularly proud of knowing a great deal of utterly useless knowledge. Thus the favourite science of the Greeks was Astronomy, because it was as abstract as Algebra. And when the Philistine among them said: “What are the Pleiades to me?” the Philosopher really answered the Philistine by saying: “They are all the more to me because they are nothing to me.” We may say that the great Greek ideal was to have no use for useful things. The Slave was he who learned useful things; the Freeman was he who learned useless things. This still remains the ideal of many noble men of science, in the sense that they do desire truth as the great Greeks desired it; and their attitude is an eternal protest against the vulgarity of utilitarianism. But there was and is another side of science, also to be respected, which was from the first represented by things like Medicine. And if there were some association of Medicine with Magic, it was because Magic was always extremely practical.
The modern Magician, often a most respectable gentleman, may have altered his opinion that sticking pins in the wax image of a politician would be a practical act of social utility. But so the modern Medicine-Man may have altered his opinion that the blood of badgers mixed with wine and salt is always an immediate cure for rheumatism. But there is nothing in this change of opinion on the mere fact or details that differs from any other modern change in medical method, as in curing consumption first by shutting all the windows and then by opening all the windows. The point is that both types of Medicine-Man were employed by people who wanted something prompt and practical, such as killing politicians or curing rheumatism. And the note of this sort of science, which Mr. Dawson traces to the East, is that it always boasts of possessing Power, as distinct from the other sort set upon enjoying Truth. We have most of us met the kind of theosophical mystic who is always whispering that he can show us the Path to Power; that if we will only say “I am Wisdom; I am Power” seventy-seven times before the looking-glass we shall control the cosmos. There was some such note even in mediaeval medicine. Mediaeval science was really more practical than Pagan science, but sometimes it did really sound a little too practical to be quite wholesome. So some modern hygienic idealists are rather more concerned about health than is quite healthy. It is hard to dwell perpetually on this element of power without poisoning it with some element of pride. So, queerly enough, Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp really has some remote relation with the miracles of science, though hardly any with the miracles of religion.

Review: The Wild Knight and Other Poems

Rating: ★★★★½

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.”

Overview:

If you have not read any of Chesterton’s poetry, The Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900) is a great place to start. It holds the distinction of being G. K. Chesterton’s second published book out of a corpus that spans over 100 volumes over four decades (1900-1936).

Published at the turn of the 20th century, when the author was in his mid-twenties, the volume has almost nothing of the archaisms and classicisms that keep modern readers away from older poetry. Just as Chesterton’s other works, it strikes a balance between profound insight and childlike whimsy.

Among all his works of poetry, the more serious (or semi-serious) poems are found in The Wild Knight (1900), The Ballad of the White Horse (1911), Poems (1915), and The Ballad of St. Barbara (1922). Those four volumes deal with many Christian themes and will probably be enjoyed by serious readers. Very different in tone are the light little collections Greybeards at Play (1900) and Wine, Water and Song (1915), which make quick and light reading, but don’t offer much in the way of hidden treasure.

Meat:

Among my favorites from this volume included “The Human Tree”, “The Donkey”, “Ecclesiastes”, and “A Portrait”.

“The Human Tree” is, to me, a striking picture of divine forbearance, reminiscent of the doctrine of kenosis found in Philippians 2.

“The Donkey”—about the donkey that carried Jesus during the Triumphal Entry—is frequently quoted by Ravi Zacharias and other Christian authors.

Many of Chesterton’s poems, both here in and in his 1915 volume of Poems, deal with Christmas themes, and these were later arranged into a pamphlet called Christmas Poems (1929).

Bones:

Like any good poetry, the author’s meaning is not always on the surface, and so I can’t say that these books make suitable devotional reading. Chesterton was a literary genius and sometimes makes use of archaisms that are not to be found in my little dictionary. Many poems will have to be read twice or thrice, but then, if that weren’t true, what is poetry for?

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (epub, mobi, html), Online Literature (html), Kindle Store (mobi)

Review: Robert Browning (GKC)

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.”

Subject: Robert Browning (1812-1899) was an eminent English poet of the Victorian era, known for his ambitious and dramatic lyrics and monologues. He had an evangelical upbringing, and had a home-grown love for learning. His wife of many years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was an equally revered poet (some say better!), though her career was much shorter due to a chronic illness.

Genre: Biography, criticism.

Overview:

Chesterton’s biography is quite accessible in its length and content, even for someone knowing little about Browning or his poetry. He also addresses his criticism to the novice. For that reason, I gave this book a high rating. Both Brownings were greatly admired by Chesterton, F. W. Boreham, and many other Christian writers and thinkers. Beware: If you sail into this biography, you will definitely find yourself longing to read more of both Brownings, and they were quite prolific poets.

Browning was regarded by critics as a pretentious intellectual, but Chesterton defends him on this point.

His work has the mystery which belongs to the complex; his life the much greater mystery which belongs to the simple. (p. 1)


Browning’s Family and Upbringing

Browning was not allowed to be educated at a Cambridge or Oxford because of his evangelicalism. (They were only open to Anglicans at the time.) He did not receive a first-rate education. But he did imbibe the atmosphere of his father’s expansive library, which held about 6,000 books—not too shabby for a middle-class family.

His father, Robert Browning, Sr., was something of a maverick. He had been sent to Jamaica to work. When a slave revolt happened, he was sent back to England. But, because he expressed sympathy with the slaves, Robert Browning, Sr. was disinherited by his father, and in cutting ties, he chose to leave Anglicanism as well, and became an evangelical. His father even sent him a bill for his entire education.

As Chesterton tells it, Robert Browning’s parents were clearly people of great conviction. His father’s literary taste was rather traditional; Robert was deeply moved by Keats and Shelley. Thus his own poetry falls somewhat towards the Romantics in its style, but more confessional and personal. Chesterton has a stirring passage in which he defends Browning’s so-called intellectualism, calling it not vanity but humility:

The more fixed and solid and sensible the idea appeared to him, the more dark and fantastic it would have appeared to the world. Most of us indeed, if we ever say anything valuable, say it when we are giving expression to that part of us which has become as familiar and invisible as the pattern on our wall paper. It is only when an idea has become a matter of course to the thinker that it becomes startling to the world. (p. 21)

The Great Hour: Browning’s Marriage

The story of Robert Browning’s elopement with Elizabeth Barrett is definitely the turning point of both of their lives and, in my view, almost as stunning an exploit as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The story itself nearly constitutes a screenplay. Here we have two published poets. The lady is six years the man’s senior. She is kept in a sick bed, with heavy curtains keeping out sunlight, and told that if she does not get to a better climate—the doctor says “Italy”—she will hardly last a year. Her selfish father is not only unwilling to take her to Italy, but unwilling to marry her to Robert, who is quite willing to take her to Italy. . . .

Elizabeth had not left the house in many months, and hardly left her dark bedroom. But she came down the stairs, and ordered a carriage to take her to a park. She breathed the fresh air and gazed at the trees for one hour of solitude. Then she returned, fortified, and said yes to Robert’s proposal of elopement.

In the summer of 1846 Elizabeth Barrett was still living under the great family convention which provided her with nothing but an elegant deathbed, forbidden to move, forbidden to see proper daylight, forbidden to receive a friend lest the shock should destroy her suddenly. A year or two later, in Italy, as Mrs. Browning, she was being dragged up hill in a wine hamper, toiling up to the crests of mountains at four o’clock in the morning, riding for five miles on a donkey to what she calls “an inaccessible volcanic ground not far from the stars.” (p. 39)

Robert Browning’s snatching of Elizabeth from her controlling father, whom they never saw again on this earth, was an act highly unusual not only for England, but for Browning himself. As Chesterton would have it, he was a routine-driven and punctual man, leaving the house at the same minute year after year. But there is no doubt that Elizabeth’s family environment was debilitating, perhaps more than any physical ailment, and that Robert’s course of action was utterly in the right.

The story reminds one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conscientious disobedience to the German Reich. Chesterton calls it “virtue not only without the reward, but even without the name of virtue.” (p. 59)

This great moral of Browning, which may be called roughly the doctrine of the great hour, enters, of course, into many poems besides The Ring and the Book, and is indeed the mainspring of a great part of his poetry taken as a whole. (p. 60)

Chesterton writes that such a “great hour,” in which we are called to bury all thought of established convention, and fly in the face of fear for the sake of righteousness, may come to a man only once in his lifetime, and if any man claims it has come twice, we should be immediately skeptical. But there are times when we prove our mettle, not through compliance, but through rebellion.

Browning’s Works

Chesterton hits on many of Browning’s works, especially in Chapters II, VI, VII, and VIII. Chesterton calls Browning

first, the greatest of love poets, and, secondly, the only optimistic philosopher except Whitman. (p. 27)

Chesterton describes Browning’s early poems as primarily confessional, and his later poems as mainly dramatic monologues, which often deal with finding the good in questionable persons. Browning lived to an old age, was productive throughout his lifetime, and wrote in a great variety of forms. Interestingly, even the worst of his characters relate themselves to a higher power, and feel some longing for divine approval and forgiveness. (p. 112)

Browning’s “magnus opus” (Chesterton’s words) occupied five or six years after the death of Elizabeth, and consists of nine perspectives on the same event. The scheme of the poem is based on a case that Browning read in a dingy old book of Italian legal proceedings. Browning imagined a crime

[The Ring and The Book] is the great epic of the enormous importance of small things. (p. 91)

Browning’s Philosophy of Life

In the last chapter, Chesterton summarizes Browning’s philosophy in only two points.

The first point is the hope in the imperfection of man. The analogy given is that an incomplete puzzle implies the existence of the missing piece; so our incomplete longing for eternity justifies confidence in human immortality.

Browning was right in saying that in a cosmos where incompleteness implies completeness, life implies immortality. (p. 99)

Thus a confident assertion of the Fall of Man becomes the very grounds for believing in God’s redemptive act.

Man’s sense of his own imperfection implies a design of perfection. (p. 100)

The second point, Chesterton calls the hope in the “imperfection” of God. Before you burn all your Chesterton and Browning books, I believe that “imperfection” is used only in a hypothetical sense here. The “imperfection” here referred to is the sense in which God is bound in honor to exceed the moral perfections of his creatures. George MacDonald, as well as modern relational theologians, have more ably expressed the same sentiment than Chesterton does here. Thus,

Man’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice implies God’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice. (p. 100)

Overall, the theology expressed in Browning’s life and poetry is compassionate, relational, and intensely personal.

Quotes:

There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.” (p. 1)

Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given. (p. 112)

To the man who sees the marvellousness of all things, the surface of life is fully as strange and magical as its interior; clearness and plainness of life is fully as mysterious as its mysteries. (p. 61)

Charity was his basic philosophy; but it was, as it were, a fierce charity, a charity that went man-hunting. He was a kind of cosmic detective who walked into the foulest of thieves’ kitchens and accused men publicly of virtue. (p. 28)

A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. (p. 46)

This was what happened to Browning; like every one else, he had to discover first the universe, and then humanity, and at last himself. With him, as with all others, the great paradox and the great definition of life was this, that the ambition narrows as the mind expands. (p. 26)

I am not prepared to admit that there is or can be, properly speaking, in the world anything that is too sacred to be known. That spiritual beauty and spiritual truth are in their nature communicable, and that they should be communicated, is a principle which lies at the root of every conceivable religion. Christ was crucified upon a hill, and not in a cavern, and the word Gospel itself involves the same idea as the ordinary name of a daily paper. Whenever, therefore, a poet or any similar type of man can, or conceives that he can, make all men partakers in some splendid secret of his own heart, I can imagine nothing saner and nothing manlier than his course in doing so. (p. 35)

On relativism and seeing all sides:

He held that it is necessary to listen to all sides of a question in order to discover the truth of it. But he held that there was a truth to discover. . . . He held, in other words, the true Browning doctrine, that in a dispute every one was to a certain extent right; not the decadent doctrine that in so mad a place as the world, every one must be by the nature of things wrong. . . . [Here follows the “blind men and the elephant” analogy.] . . . Although the blind men found out very little about the elephant, the elephant was an elephant, and was there all the time. The blind men formed mistaken theories because an elephant is a thing with a very curious shape. And Browning firmly believed that the Universe was a thing with a very curious shape indeed. . . . To the impressionist artist of our time we are not blind men groping after an elephant and naming it a tree or a serpent. We are maniacs, isolated in separate cells, and dreaming of trees and serpents without reason and without result. (p. 98)

Review: Tennyson

Rating: ★★★

Authors:

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.”

Richard Garnett (1835-1906) was an accomplished linguist and writer. He wrote biographies of many famous European writers; he also translated books from at least five languages, and held a position at the British Library.

Series:

Tennyson is one of a series of eight brief biographies of writers (“The Bookman Biographies”), which were produced by Chesterton and other writers in 1902 and 1903. Chesterton co-wrote six of them:

  1. Thomas Carlyle (with J. E. Hodder Williams)
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson (with W. Robertson Nicoll)
  3. Charles Dickens (with F. G. Kitton, J. E. Hodder Williams)
  4. Leo Tolstoy (with Edward Garnett, G. H. Perris)
  5. Tennyson (with Richard Garnett)
  6. Thackeray (with Lewis Melville)

They are a mere 40 pages each, focusing on basic overviews of the works of these five writers (five of them being novelists, and Tennyson the only poet).

These six books are too short for proper biographies, but they have some redeeming qualities—especially if you are interested in eminent writers, and Chesterton’s view of them. In each book, Chesterton dives right into an essay about the author’s thought-life for many pages before giving you the facts about his birth, schooling, and accomplishments. He does this, I believe, lest we get “the facts right and the truth wrong” (Thackeray, ch. 1).

Overview:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1850, after William Wordsworth’s death, and held it until his own death in 1892—the longest tenure of any British poet laureate.

His writings show a deep interest in science and nature alongside a profound respect for spirituality; even so, his thoughts on religion were unconventional. He considered his magnum opus to be The Idylls of the King (last volume published in 1885), an cycle of poems set in Arthurian narrative; but today, his most famous work is “In Memoriam A.H.H” (1849), a long poem published at the death of Arthur Hallam, whom Tennyson regarded very highly.

“In Memoriam” is a most perfect expression of the average theological temper of England in the nineteenth century. (Garnett)

Many of his other poems are still highly regarded, such as “Locksley Hall,” “Crossing the Bar,” “The Lady of Shalott,” and “The Lotos-Eaters.”

Although Tennyson was meticulous in revising his own poetry, he mostly wrote in blank verse, and was not obsessed with form (as Browning). His works are a fresh start from both the metaphysical poets (seventeenth century) and the Romantic movement that preceded him. Rather, he is great not mainly because of any novel design or content in his poetry, but because he was a story-teller.

Meat:

The book at hand, Tennyson (1903), is one of the less ambitious of the Bookman Biographies. The opening essay (by G. K. Chesterton) is not nearly as thrilling as the others in the series. Chesterton connects Tennyson’s writing on nature to the advent of Darwinism (beginning in 1859) and its relation to religion:

It has been constantly supposed that they were angry with Darwinism because it appeared to do something or other to the Book of Genesis; but this was a pretext or a fancy. They fundamentally rebelled against Darwinism, not because they had a fear that it would affect Scripture, but because they had a fear, not altogether unreasonable or ill-founded, that it would affect morality. . . . The first honour, surely, is to those who did not faint in the face of that confounding cosmic betrayal . . . Of these was Tennyson. (Chesterton)

In the second essay, “Tennyson as an Intellectual Force,” Dr. Garnett paints Tennyson as memorable, not so much because he was a great poet, as because he was an English poet. Both Chesterton and Garnett regard Tennyson as closely identified the times in which he wrote (namely, the late Victorian era):

In the main the great Broad Church philosophy which Tennyson uttered has been adopted by everyone. This will make against his fame. For a man may vanish as Chaos vanished in the face of creation, or he may vanish as God vanished in filling all things with that created life. (Chesterton)

[Tennyson] reveals, not new truth to the age, but the age to itself. . . . In truth, Tennyson’s fame rests upon a securer basis than that of some greater poets, for acquaintance with him will always be indispensable to the history of thought and culture in England. (Garnett)

Bones:

At first, I was inclined to rate this book lowly because it did not make me want to read Tennyson; having read (and loved) Enoch Arden and a few of his other short works, I felt discouraged by Garnett’s emphatic statement that Tennyson was “not quite” worthy of the greats who preceded him.

Tennyson’s writings have all the advantages and all the disadvantages of the golden mean. (Garnett)

However, having looked at the statements of some other critics, I believe that Garnett was astute in saying so. Tennyson’s popular appeal does not come from being at the apex of his art; rather, it comes from being a signal representative of the time in which he lived—which is by no means a poor reflection on a nation’s poet laureate.

He is the interpreter of the Victorian era—firstly to itself, secondly to the ages to come. (Garnett)

Read: Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html/rtf), Internet Archive (pdf).

The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson

This article is taken from the 1902 book that G. K. Chesterton wrote with the Scottish minister W. Robertson Nicoll. The book was one of a series of eight books called “The Bookman Biographies,” six of which Chesterton co-wrote in 1902 and 1903 in collaboration other men of letters. The “Bookman Biography” on Robert Louis Stevenson was his second or third book of non-fiction.

This article is re-posted here because it epitomizes Chesterton’s philosophy of life, and the book is difficult to obtain; it is also easy to confuse with Chesterton’s much longer solo-authored book on Robert Louis Stevenson, which was published 25 years later, in 1927.


All things and all men are underrated, much by others, especially by themselves; and men grow tired of men just as they do of green grass, so that they have to seek for green carnations. All great men possess in themselves the qualities which will certainly lay them open to censure and diminishment; but these inevitable deficiencies in the greatness of great men vary in the widest degree of variety. Stevenson is open to a particularly subtle, a particularly effective and a particularly unjust disparagement.

The advantage of great men like Blake or Browning or Walt Whitman is that they did not observe the niceties of technical literature. The far greater disadvantage of Stevenson is that he did. Because he had a conscience about small matters in art, he is conceived not to have had an imagination about big ones. It is assumed by some that he must have been a bad architect, and the only reason that they can assign is that he was a good workman.

The mistake which has given rise to this conception is one that has much to answer for in numerous departments of modern art, literature, religion, philosophy, and politics. The supreme and splendid characteristic of Stevenson, was his levity; and his levity was the flower of a hundred grave philosophies. The strong man is always light: the weak man is always heavy. A swift and casual agility is the mark of bodily strength: a humane levity is the mark of spiritual strength. A thoroughly strong man swinging a sledge-hammer can tap the top of an eggshell. A weaker man swinging a sledge-hammer will break the table on which it stands into pieces. Also, if he is a very weak man, he will be proud of having broken the table, and call himself a strong man dowered with the destructive power of an Imperial race.

This is, superficially speaking, the peculiar interest of Stevenson. He had what may be called a perfect mental athleticism, which enabled him to leap from crag to crag, and to trust himself anywhere and upon any question. His splendid quality as an essayist and controversialist was that he could always recover his weapon.

He was not like the average swashbuckler of the current parties, tugged at the tail of his own sword. This is what tends, for example, to make him stand out so well beside his unhappy friend Mr. Henley, whose true and unquestionable affection has lately taken so bitter and feminine a form. Mr. Henley, an admirable poet and critic, is, nevertheless, the man par excellence who breaks the table instead of tapping the egg. In his recent article on Stevenson he entirely misses this peculiar and supreme point about his subject.

He there indulged in a very emotional remonstrance against the reverence almost universally paid to the physical misfortunes of his celebrated friend. “If Stevenson was a stricken man,” he said, “are we not all stricken men?” And he proceeded to call up the images of the poor and sick, and of their stoicism under their misfortunes. If sentimentalism be definable as the permitting of an emotional movement to cloud a clear intellectual distinction, this most assuredly is sentimentalism, for it would be impossible more completely to misunderstand the real nature of the cult of the courage of Stevenson. The reason that Stevenson has been selected out of the whole of suffering humanity as the type of this more modern and occult martyrdom is a very simple one.

It is not that he merely contrived, like any other man of reasonable manliness, to support pain and limitation without whimpering or committing suicide or taking to drink. In that sense of course we are all stricken men and we are all stoics. The ground of Stevenson’s particular fascination in this matter was that he was the exponent, and the successful exponent, not merely of negative manliness, but of a positive and lyric gaiety.

This wounded soldier did not merely refrain from groans, he gave forth instead a war song, so juvenile and inspiriting that thousands of men without a scratch went back into the battle. This cripple did not merely bear his own burdens, but those of thousands of contemporary men. No one can feel anything but the most inexpressible kind of reverence for the patience of the asthmatic charwoman or the consumptive tailor’s assistant. Still the charwoman does not write “Aes Triplex,” nor the tailor “The Child’s Garden of Verses.”

Their stoicism is magnificent, but it is stoicism. But Stevenson did not face his troubles as a stoic, he faced them as an Epicurean. He practised with an austere triumph that terrible asceticism of frivolity which is so much more difficult than the asceticism of gloom. His resignation can only be called an active and uproarious resignation. It was not merely self-sufficing, it was infectious. His triumph was, not that he went through his misfortunes without becoming a cynic or a poltroon, but that he went through his misfortunes and emerged quite exceptionally cheerful and reasonable and courteous, quite exceptionally light-hearted and liberal-minded. His triumph was, in other words, that he went through his misfortunes and did not become like Mr. Henley.

There is one aspect of this matter in particular, which it is as well to put somewhat more clearly before ourselves. This triumph of Stevenson’s over his physical disadvantages is commonly spoken of with reference only to the elements of joy and faith, and what may be called the new and essential virtue of cosmic courage. But as a matter of fact the peculiarly interesting detachment of Stevenson from his own body, is exhibited in a quite equally striking way in its purely intellectual aspect.

Apart from any moral qualities, Stevenson was characterised by a certain airy wisdom, a certain light and cool rationality, which is very rare and very difficult indeed to those who are greatly thwarted or tormented in life. It is possible to find an invalid capable of the work of a strong man, but it is very rare to find an invalid capable of the idleness of a strong man.

It is possible to find an invalid who has the faith which removes mountains, but not easy to find an invalid who has the faith that puts up with pessimists. It may not be impossible or even unusual for a man to lie on his back on a sick bed in a dark room and be an optimist. But it is very unusual indeed for a man to lie on his back on a sick bed in a dark room and be a reasonable optimist: and that is what Stevenson, almost alone of modern optimists, succeeded in being.

The faith of Stevenson, like that of a great number of very sane men, was founded on what is called a paradox—the paradox that existence was splendid because it was, to all outward appearance, desperate. Paradox, so far from being a modern and fanciful matter, is inherent in all the great hypotheses of humanity. The Athanasian Creed, for example, the supreme testimony of Catholic Christianity, sparkles with paradox like a modern society comedy. Thus, in the same manner, scientific philosophy tells us that finite space is unthinkable and infinite space is unthinkable. Thus the most influential modern metaphysician, Hegel, declares without hesitation, when the last rag of theology is abandoned, and the last point of philosophy passed, that existence is the same as non-existence.

Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously. Thus Tertullian, in the first ages of faith, said “Credo quia impossibile.”

We must not, therefore, be immediately repelled by this paradoxical character of Stevenson’s optimism, or imagine for a moment that it was merely a part of that artistic foppery or “fuddling hedonism” with which he has been ridiculously credited. His optimism was one which, so far from dwelling upon those flowers and sunbeams which form the stock-in-trade of conventional optimism, took a peculiar pleasure in the contemplation of skulls, and cudgels, and gallows.

It is one thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert his mind from personal suffering by dreaming of the face of an angel, and quite another thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert it by dreaming of the face of an angel, and quite another thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert it by dreaming of the foul fat face of Long John Silver. And this faith of his had a very definite and a very original philosophical purport. Other men have justified existence because it was a harmony.

He justified it because it was a battle, because it was an inspiring and melodious discord. He appealed to a certain set of facts which lie far deeper than any logic—the great paradoxes of the soul. For the singular fact is that the spirit of man is in reality depressed by all the things which, logically speaking, should encourage it, and encouraged by all the things which, logically speaking, should depress it.

Nothing, for example, can be conceived more really dispiriting than that rationalistic explanation of pain which conceives it as a thing laid by Providence upon the worst people. Nothing, on the other hand, can be conceived as more exalting and reassuring than that great mystical doctrine which teaches that pain is a thing laid by Providence upon the best. We can accept the agony of heroes, while we revolt against the agony of culprits. We can all endure to regard pain when it is mysterious; our deepest nature protests against it the moment that it is rational.

This doctrine that the best man suffers most is, of course, the supreme doctrine of Christianity; millions have found not merely an elevating but a soothing story in the undeserved sufferings of Christ; had the sufferings been deserved we should all have been pessimists.

Stevenson’s great ethical and philosophical value lies in the fact that he realised this great paradox that life becomes more fascinating the darker it grows, that life is worth living only so far as it is difficult to live. The more steadfastly and gloomily men clung to their sinister visions of duty, the more, in his eyes, they swelled the chorus of the praise of things. He was an optimist because to him everything was heroic, and nothing more heroic than the pessimist.

To Stevenson, the optimist, belong the most frightful epigrams of pessimism. It was he who said that this planet on which we live was more drenched with blood, animal and vegetable, than a pirate ship. It was he who said that man was a disease of the agglutinated dust. And his supreme position and his supreme difference from all common optimists is merely this, that all common optimists say that life is glorious in spite of these things, but he said that all life was glorious because of them. He discovered that a battle is more comforting than a truce. He discovered the same great fact which was discovered by a man so fantastically different from him that the mere name of him may raise a legitimate laugh—General Booth.

He discovered, that is to say, that religious evolution might tend at last to the discovery, that the peace given in the churches was less attractive to the religious spirit than the war promised outside; that for one man who wanted to be comforted a hundred wanted to be stirred; that men, even ordinary men, wanted in the last resort, not life or death, but drums.

It may reasonably be said that of all outrageous comparisons one of the most curious must be this between the old evangelical despot and enthusiast and the elegant and almost hedonistic man of letters. But these far-fetched comparisons are infinitely the sanest, for they remind us of the sanest of all conceptions, the unity of things.

A splendid and pathetic prince of India, living in far-off aeons, came to many of the same conceptions as a rather dingy German professor in the nineteenth century; for there are many essential resemblances between Buddha and Schopenhauer. And if any one should urge that lapse of time might produce mere imitation, it is easy to point out that the same great theory of evolution was pronounced simultaneously by Darwin, who became so grim a rationalist that he ceased even to care for the arts, and by Wallace, who has become so fiery a spiritualist that he yearns after astrology and table-rapping.

Men of the most widely divergent types are connected by these invisible cords across the world, and Stevenson was essentially a Colonel in the Salvation Army. He believed, that is to say, in making religion a military affair. His militarism, of course, needs to be carefully understood. It was considered entirely from the point of view of the person righting.

It had none of that evil pleasure in contemplating the killed and wounded, in realising the agonies of the vanquished, which has been turned by some modern writers into an art, a literary sin, which, though only painted in black ink on white paper, is far worse than the mere sin of murder. Stevenson’s militarism was as free from all the mere poetry of conquest and dominion as the militarism of an actual common soldier. It was mainly, that is to say, a poetry of watches and parades and camp-fires. He knew he was in the hosts of the Lord: he did not trouble much about the enemy. Here is his resemblance to that Church Militant, which, secure only in its own rectitude, wages war upon the nameless thing which has tormented and bewildered us from the beginning of the world.

Of course, this Stevensonian view of war suggests in itself that other question, touching which so much has been written about him, the subject of childishness and the child. It is true, of course, that the splendidly infantile character of Stevenson’s mind saved him from any evil arising from his militarism. A child can hit his nurse hard with a wooden sword without being an aesthete of violence. He may enjoy a hard whack, but he need not enjoy the colour harmonies of black and blue as they are presented in a bruise. It is undoubtedly the truth, of course, that Stevenson’s interest in this fighting side of human nature was mainly childish, that is to say, mainly subjective.

He thought of the whole matter in the primary colours of poetic simplicity. He said with splendid gusto in one of his finest letters:

“Shall we never taste blood?” But he did not really want blood. He wanted crimson-lake.

But of course, in the case of so light and elusive a figure as Stevenson, even the terms which have been most definitely attached to him tend to become misleading and inadequate, and the terms “childlike” or “childish,” true as they are down to a very fundamental truth, are yet the origin of a certain confusion. One of the greatest errors in existing literary philosophy is that of confusing the child with the boy.

Many great moral teachers, beginning with Jesus Christ, have perceived the profound philosophical importance of the child. The child sees everything freshly and fully; as we advance in life it is true that we see things in some degree less and less, that we are afflicted, spiritually and morally, with the myopia of the student. But the problem of the boy is essentially different from that of the child.

The boy represents the earliest growth of the earthly, unmanageable qualities, poetic still, but not so simple or so universal. The child enjoys the plain picture of the world: the boy wants the secret, the end of the story. The child wishes to dance in the sun; but the boy wishes to sail after buried treasure. The child enjoys a flower, and the boy a mechanical engine. And the finest and most peculiar work of Stevenson is rather that he was the first writer to treat seriously and poetically the aesthetic instincts of the boy.

He celebrated the toy gun rather than the rattle. Around the child and his rattle there has gathered a splendid service of literature and art; Hans Andersen and Charles Kingsley and George Macdonald and Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway and a list of celebrities a mile long bring their splendid gifts to the christening. But the tragedy of the helpless infant (if it be a male infant—girls are quite a different matter) is simply this, that, having been fed on literature and art, as fine in its way as Shelley and Turner up to the age of seven, he feels within him new impulses and interests growing, a hunger for action and knowledge, for fighting and discovery, for the witchery of facts and the wild poetry of geography. And then he is suddenly dropped with a crash out of literature, and can read nothing but “Jack Valiant among the Indians.” For in the whole scene there is only one book which is at once literature, like Hans Andersen, and yet a book for boys and not for children, and its name is “Treasure Island.”

G.K. Chesterton.

Review: The Club of Queer Trades

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.”

Genre: Detective fiction, humor, short stories.

Overview:

The Club of Queer Trades is a collection of six related mystery stories published in 1905.  All six stories involve “the Club of Queer Trades” in one way or another:

“What on earth is ‘C.Q.T.’?” asked Rupert Grant, looking over the Major’s shoulder.

“Don’t you know?” returned Northover. “Haven’t you ever heard of the Club of Queer Trades? The Club of Queer Trades is a society consisting exclusively of people who have invented some new and curious way of making money.” (p. 22)

Each story involves a mystery or “case,” but not necessarily related to any violence or crime. Couched in eccentric and explosive literary style, these short stories are sure to make you both ponder and laugh—sometimes at the same time—as you imagine the strange scenarios the author conjures up.

Meat:

As other reviewers have pointed out, these stories could be called anti-mysteries, since Chesterton toys with the genre so much. There are no murder suspects or smoking guns. Most of the plots revolve around two brothers, Rupert and Basil Grant. While Basil searches out “facts” à la Sherlock Holmes, his brother takes the long way round in solving mysteries, and may come out the better by the end of the book.

His brother Basil said of him: “His reasoning is particularly cold and clear, and invariably leads him wrong. But his poetry comes in abruptly and leads him right.” (p.91)

For much of the book, we are not sure if Rupert is a foil for Basil, or if Basil is a foil for Rupert. The solutions turn out to be anything but typical. The joy of the book is to try and solve the cases yourself.

These predate the advent of “Father Brown” by a few years, and in many ways they must be the predecessor of the “Father Brown” stories, scoffing as they do at “deduction” and choosing instead a more imaginative view of life. The biggest difference is that the “Father Brown” stories are much more serious, and they read more in the way that one expects detective stories to read.

Bones:

Although any Chesterton book is aphoristic on almost every page—whether through the narrator or his chosen surrogate—this book doesn’t have much of enduring wisdom in its pages. The book must have been a product of the author’s sheer joy for life, and while his fertile mind kept me laughing and thinking (reflected in my high rating), I couldn’t help but think that all the best fiction, like his Man Who Was Thursday, leaves you with some powerful and unforgettable impression that you will carry with you. This book, while it was a fantastic “light” read, does not have that. The “Father Brown” stories are in general longer, and more thought-out.

Quotes:

Being good is an adventure far more violent and daring than sailing round the world. (p. 24)

“Oh, the mere facts,” he cried out in a kind of despair. “The mere facts! Do you really admit—are you still so sunk in superstitions, so clinging to dim and prehistoric altars, that you believe in facts? Do you not trust an immediate impression?” (p. 26)

“Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” said Basil placidly. “For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.” (p. 56)

“I know of nothing that is safe,” said Basil composedly, “except, possibly—death.” (p. 96)

Review: Robert Louis Stevenson (1902)

Rating: ★★★★½

Authors:

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.”

Sir William Robertson Nicoll was a Scottish Free Church minister as well as a prolific man of letters.

Series:

This little book is one of a series of six brief biographies of writers (“Bookman Biographies”), which were produced by Chesterton in 1902 and 1903:

  1. Thomas Carlyle (with J. E. Hodder Williams)
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson (with W. Robertson Nicoll)
  3. Charles Dickens (with F. G. Kitton)
  4. Tennyson (with Richard Garnett)
  5. Thackeray (with Lewis Melville)
  6. Leo Tolstoy (with Edward Garnett, G. H. Perris)

They are a mere 40 pages each, focusing on basic overviews of the works of these five writers (four of them being novelists, and Tennyson the only poet).

These six books are too short for proper biographies, but they have some redeeming qualities—especially if you are interested in eminent writers, and Chesterton’s view of them. In each book, Chesterton dives right into an essay about the author’s thought-life for many pages before giving you the facts about his birth, schooling, and accomplishments. He does this, I believe, lest we get “the facts right and the truth wrong” (Thackeray, ch. 1).

Overview:

Robert Louis Stevenson (1902), called in the title page of one edition The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson, is probably the best of the six Bookman Biographies in which Chesterton took part. (Chesterton also published a different book by the same title in 1927!) This is one of Chesterton’s earliest books, and contains some of the clearest explanations of his philosophy of life, and especially suffering:

Stevenson’s great ethical and philosophical value lies in the fact that he realised this great paradox that life becomes more fascinating the darker it grows, that life is worth living only so far as it is difficult to live. The more steadfastly and gloomily men clung to their sinister visions of duty, the more, in his eyes, they swelled the chorus of the praise of things. He was an optimist because to him everything was heroic, and nothing more heroic than the pessimist.

Robert Louis Stevenson is known in our time mainly as the writer of two thrilling novels: Treasure Island (1883) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), but in his lifetime, he was known for much more. His novels Kidnapped (1886) and The Black Arrow (1888) are every bit as well produced as Treasure Island. The Master of Ballantrae (1889) was likewise spoken of highly by critics.  But he wrote much more than novels. His travel writings (An Inland Voyage, In the South Seas) were well known. His Child’s Garden of Verses went through numerous editions.

But that is not what made Stevenson so fascinating. Readers in Chesterton’s day would have known that Stevenson suffered from lifelong breathing problems, and died at 44 after relocating to Samoa for health. He was also the grandson of a minister, of whom he wrote:

Now I often wonder what I inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them. (Memories and Portraits)

It not merely his books, but his life as a lens to see them through, that makes Stevenson worth reading about.

Meat:

Stevenson had an interesting relationship with the church and with the missionaries he met in the Pacific. Numerous ministers and lay theologians were enchanted by his philosophy of life; among them we have here two devout authors, but I can also add the eminent names of A. J. Gossip, Oswald Chambers, and F. W. Boreham. They pored over even his lesser known works like Virginibus Puerisque and the volumes of his Vailima Letters.

The secret of Stevenson’s appeal is uncovered by Chesterton more clearly than other critics. That secret, Chesterton says, is his triumphant suffering. He suffered not merely in resignation, but in triumph. That is why Christians find him so interesting; he is himself emblematic of the Christian understanding of “cosmic courage,” to use Chesterton’s phrase.

Bones:

The one annoying thing, as a twenty-first-century reader, in reading about Robert Louis Stevenson, is that we are always told how much he suffered and never told how or why. This is a weak point in Chesterton’s approach, in talking about Stevenson’s life but assuming that the reader already knows his life story. As far as I know, this is mainly a problem of audience; the audience of 1902 would have known the man; the audience of the 2020s knows only the books.

Read for Free: The Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg Australia (html).

Related: Robert Louis Stevenson (GKC, 1927).

Review: Lord Kitchener

Rating: ★★½

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.”

Genre: Eulogy.

Overview:

Lord Kitchener (1917) is a long eulogy of Herbert (Lord) Kitchener, who held a number of positions in the British colonies, including field marshal (the highest-ranking general) and Secretary of State for War. He oversaw combat at the Battle of Omdurman (in Sudan), in the Second Boer War, and the Western Front during World War I. He died in 1916 when the HMS Hampshire struck a German mine on the way to negotiate with the Russian . Kitchener’s image was used in patriotic advertising and military recruitment posters for decades afterwards.

Kitchener is held in notoriety today for his cold and calculating methods among the Boers. His colonial escapades and Chesterton’s patriotism in today’s post-colonial intellectual climate make this one of his least popular books, although it is a somewhat interesting lens into a moment in time.

I am not sure why Chesterton wrote this eulogy. Lord Kitchener was the poster child of British imperialism, and Chesterton wrote bluntly that he was against imperialism (see, e.g,, How To Help Annexation, 1917). A few years earlier, in A Miscellany of Men (1912), he had even made light of Kitchener’s efforts in East Africa:

Here we have evident all the ultimate idiocy of the present Imperial position. Rhodes and Kitchener are to conquer Moslem bedouins and barbarians, in order to teach them to believe only in inevitable fate. We are to wreck provinces and pour blood like Niagara, all in order to teach a Turk to say “Kismet”; which he has said since his cradle. We are to deny Christian justice and destroy international equality, all in order to teach an Arab to believe he is “an agent of fate,” when he has never believed anything else. (“The Sultan”)

This book is not really what we would call “classic” Chesterton, so I don’t recommend it for devotional or leisurely reading, unless you are highly interested in World War I.

Meat:

There are basically two interesting anecdotes in this booklet, which are short enough to include them in this review. The first involves Kitchener’s acculturation among the Arabs:

Well-known English journalist, Bennet Burleigh, wandering near Dongola, fell into conversation with an Arab who spoke excellent English, and who, with a hospitality highly improper in a Moslem, produced two bottles of claret for his entertainment. The name of this Arab was Kitchener; and the two bottles were all he had. (p. 6)

The other interesting story about Kitchener was a war tactic he used in the Battle of Omdurman. Knowing that supplies were hard to come by in the desert, Kitchener worked with a cunning engineer to create a new railway line for he express purpose of winning the war. The army built while fighting, and as a result of this clever tactic, they utterly overwhelmed Sudan’s Mahdist army.

The fact that Kitchener fought with rails as much as with guns rather fixed from this time forward the fashionable view of his character. He was talked of as if he were himself made of metal, with a head filled not only with calculations but with clockwork. (p. 10)

Bones:

Some reviewers have regarded this book as a “short biography”; rather, it definitely excludes many aspects of Kitchener’s life, and eulogies are necessarily published with the purpose of making the public aware of the achievements, honor, and legacy of the deceased. As such, it may be suitable as an introduction to Kitchener’s life, but Christian writers would do well to be aware that he was not so universally regarded as a “hero.”

For instance, one of Kitchener’s failures, which would not receive mention so close to his death, is the use of concentration camps to control Boer families during the Second Boer War. This was a strategy he had inherited from a previous British commander, and it turned out to be far beyond the capacity of the British armies to control, leading to overpopulation, disease, and the death of 26,730 people (including more than 20,000 children).

Although Chesterton has many fantastic books, many of his writings during World War I were understandably patriotic, and these may be considered a weak point in his writing career.

Related Works: The Appetite of Tyranny, The Crimes of England.

Quotes:

“He was the embodiment of an enormous experience which has passed through Imperialism and reached patriotism. He had been the supreme figure of that strange and sprawling England which lies beyond England.” (p. 13)

Review: Eugenics and Other Evils

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.”

Overview:

Eugenics and Other Evils (1922) delineates the scientific and ethical fallacies of “eugenics,” the science of human breeding to improve the race, which was called by its proponents “the self-direction of human evolution.” The first English proponent of these ideas was Francis Galton, half-cousin of Charles Darwin, who coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883. Chesterton is today known as one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of this pseudo-science.

Here it’s necessary to give some background on what eugenics is, before I can break down Chesterton’s objections to it, and what it means for us today.

The History of Eugenics

Many reviewers have started out by saying that eugenics is now defunct, but this is not exactly true. During a period extending until 1952, as many as 20,000 mentally ill patients were sterilized in the United States. This happened after the post-WWII Nuremberg Trials had declared such acts “crimes against humanity.” In the Arabian Peninsula, where cousin marriage is considered ideal among many families, screenings are frequently given that determine the likelihood of birth defects; so, in that sense, a soft form of genetic planning is being practiced in some of the world’s richest societies, and it is not without controversy.

Eugenics was also a key motivator in the promotion of the birth control movement. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, “increasingly rationalized birth control as a means of reducing genetically transmitted mental or physical defects, and at times supported sterilization for the mentally incompetent.” The biographer adds, “While she did not advocate efforts to limit population growth solely on the basis of class, ethnicity or race, and refused to encourage positive race-based eugenics, Sanger’s reputation was permanently tainted by her association with the reactionary wing of the eugenics movement.” [1] This last sentence is very controversial; others have written elsewhere that Sanger did promote race-based eugenics, but here I am getting too far afield.

Chesterton’s Objections to Eugenics

Chesterton’s arguments against eugenics are somewhat scattered in his book, but they may be grouped into ethical, economic, practical, and political objections.

The ethical objections are the most obvious. In Chesterton’s time, eugenics was being pegged as the end of “feeble-mindedness”; the thought was, mentally ill parents have mentally ill children, so all we need to do is prevent the mentally ill from copulating. In contemporary terminology, this leaves little or no room for those who are “disabled” or “differently abled.” It was unashamed ableism, and it was being promoted by great minds like H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and Bertrand Russell. Eugenists believed that the disabled were merely a burden on the rest of society; in capitalist thought, they provided no value inasmuch as they could not contribute to industry.

The economic objections are just as damaging. Here it may be pointed out that abortion, in common with eugenics, is touted as a way of aiding the poor by decreasing their family responsibilities. In fact, Chesterton points out, In America, black women have almost triple the abortion rate that white women have (27.1 / 1000 among blacks; 10 / 1000 among whites). Classism can easily masquerade as either eugenics or abortion, and it can be a way of keeping minorities minorities. Both are destructive for diversity.

As a practical objection, Chesterton points out that eugenics was on shaky ground scientifically, and almost carried the absurdity of the famous statement, “we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.” In Chesterton’s day, there simply was not sufficient knowledge of the genome to even attempt such widespread changes as some were promoting.

There cannot be such a thing as the health adviser of the community, because there cannot be such a thing as one who specialises in the universe. (p. 26)

Again, a policy of eugenics would require a vast quantity of knowledge that, even in 2020, evades us. Even with modern genome mapping, there is still much that we do not know and cannot predict:

I simply cannot conceive any responsible person proposing to legislate on our broken knowledge and bottomless ignorance of heredity. (p. 31)

Eugenics also operates under the assumption that we know what the results will be.

Marry two handsome people whose noses tend to the aquiline, and their baby (for all you know) may be a goblin with a nose like an enormous parrot’s. (p. 32)

Chesterton’s political objections mainly refer to the limitation of state power. Chesterton considered himself a democrat in the most literal, non-partisan sense of the word; that is, he believed in “the common people.” As such, he could not support a politicized pseudo-scientific movement, like eugenics, that would lead to a rapid expansion of state power. He did advocate the expansion of power in special circumstances—such as the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic—provided that these were regarded as special circumstances. For more on this, read what follows.

Meat:

On its most basic level, this book is a statement of the value of human life. This is a topic where American Catholics have been, I believe, more consistent in contemporary thought than American Protestants. Wherever else our philosophy turns, it must begin with the axiom of the great value, not of people or personhood, but of a person.

In the matter of fundamental human rights, nothing can be above Man, except God. (p. 27)

There were two other sections of the book that I thought any modern reader would find very interesting.

The first was Chesterton’s thoughts on the limitation of state power. Libertarians will be licking their lips when the read chapter titles like “The Eclipse of Liberty” and “The Transformation of Socialism”; however, what Chesterton espouses here is not libertarianism, or socialism, or capitalism. He does point out eugenic policies could lead to the bloating of state power, and would also be oppressive to the poor. What he says is happening instead, is that we are losing our liberties to the state, and we are oppressing the poor, and therefore are getting the worst of both socialism and capitalism, without getting the benefits of either.

The compromise eventually made was one of the most interesting and even curious cases in history. It was decided to do everything that had ever been denounced in Socialism, and nothing that had ever been desired in it. Since it was supposed to gain equality at the sacrifice of liberty, we proceeded to prove that it was possible to sacrifice liberty without gaining equality. (p. 71)

The second section of the book that intrigued me was in the very last chapter. There, the author tells the strange and true anecdote of “Eugenette,” a poster-child of eugenics in its heyday:

Round about the year 1913 Eugenics was turned from a fad to a fashion. Then, if I may so summarise the situation, the joke began in earnest. The organising mind which we have seen considering the problem of slum population, the popular material and the possibility of protests, felt that the time had come to open the campaign. Eugenics began to appear in big headlines in the daily Press, and big pictures in the illustrated papers. A foreign gentleman named Bolce, living at Hampstead, was advertised on a huge scale as having every intention of being the father of the Superman. It turned out to be a Superwoman, and was called Eugenette. The parents were described as devoting themselves to the production of perfect pre-natal conditions. They “eliminated everything from their lives which did not tend towards complete happiness.” Many might indeed be ready to do this; but in the voluminous contemporary journalism on the subject I can find no detailed notes about how it is done. Communications were opened with Mr. H.G. Wells, with Dr. Saleeby, and apparently with Dr. Karl Pearson. Every quality desired in the ideal baby was carefully cultivated in the parents. (p. 78)

Bones:

This was not by any means a favorite among Chesterton’s many wonderful writings. It was mainly worth reading simply because Chesterton wrote it. I recommend beginning with his other books of non-fiction.

Chesterton associates eugenics with several German authors, and it is today associated with the evils of Nazi Germany. Ironically, modern sources associate the twentieth-century popularization of eugenics with the United Kingdom. (On this point, you can compare my reviews of The Crimes of England and The Appetite of Tyranny.)

Some of Chesterton’s objections to eugenics have weaknesses that would not have been apparent in 1922. For instance, although our knowledge is very limited, we do have a much more certain knowledge of the causes of certain birth defects than we did in 1922, and we are capable of avoiding some of them.

Quotes:

On expansion of state power in exceptional circumstances, such as war or plague:

“Now it is perfectly plain that government ought to have, and must have, the same sort of right to use exceptional methods occasionally that the private householder has to have a picnic or to sit up all night on New Year’s Eve. The State, like the householder, is sane if it can treat such exceptions as exceptions. Such desperate remedies may not even be right; but such remedies are endurable as long as they are admittedly desperate. Such cases, of course, are the communism of food in a besieged city; the official disavowal of an arrested spy; the subjection of a patch of civil life to martial law; the cutting of communication in a plague; or that deepest degradation of the commonwealth, the use of national soldiers not against foreign soldiers, but against their own brethren in revolt. Of these exceptions some are right and some wrong; but all are right in so far as they are taken as exceptions. The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal.” (p. 12)

Read: This book is available for free in multiple formats on Project Gutenberg, LibriVox, and the Kindle Store.

Review: The Queen of Seven Swords

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.”

Overview:

Despite its humble length (50 pages), this book was an admittedly difficult read for theological reasons, focusing as it does on adoration to Mary. (Other reviews mentioned this, but most lack enough detail to deter a serious, though Protestant, Chestertonian, such as myself.) The poetry itself was beautiful; much of it has the same lilting meter found in Myers’ famous Saint Paul. In its prosody, it follows the same sort of patterns seen in Chesterton’s general collections like The Wild Knight and Other Poems. But unlike the others, it lacks variety of subject matter.

Most readers will either love or hate this book, depending solely on whether they allow for prayer to Mary. For my part, I have always found prayer to the departed saints (including Mary) to have no biblical backing whatsoever; the practice stems from culture and custom, not from wholesome spirituality. The New Testament authors ring with one accord the glorious news that we have become “a kingdom of priests,” fully entitled to “boldly approach the throne” on our own behalf but not on our merits, needing no other surety than the blood of the Lamb.

The eponymous cycle of poems turns on a metaphor of Mary having seven swords in her (see Luke 2:35), which are the swords of seven saints (which he admits are purely fanciful, not reflecting a historical reality).

Favorites were “St. George of England,” and “A Little Litany.” Other than these, there is almost nothing in the book that doesn’t relate directly to the honor of Mary. There are romantic, medieval-sounding themes and Robin Hood and King Arthur receive prominent mention, but mainly as adorers of Mary, whom the author calls by various honorifics, such as “Our Lady,” “Our Mother,” “the Queen of Angels” and “the Mother of the Maker”—an unbiblical falsehood that has been the constant stumbling block of millions of Muslims, who are told in the Quran that we believe God and Mary literally begot Jesus together.

Of the hymns to Mary, “The Black Virgin” was probably the most interesting for theological reasons, dealing with cultural expression of religion.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book at all to Protestant readers. Let not its rarity make it seem a jewel to you; not all rarities are precious.