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

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.

Review: The Innocence of Father Brown

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.”

Series: The “Father Brown” series of short stories was collected into five books:

  1. The Innocence of Father Brown (1911)
  2. The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914)
  3. The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926)
  4. The Secret of Father Brown (1927)
  5. The Scandal of Father Brown (1935)

One additional story, “The Mask of Midas” (1936), was not included. (The author died in 1936.)

Overview:

Father Brown epitomizes one key of Chestertonian thought: the triumph of common sense over intellect. While Sherlock Holmes—especially in modern interpretations—glorifies uncommon intellect, Father Brown glorifies the common man. Here is how he is introduced in “The Blue Cross”:

The little priest had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of collecting.

He is no Sherlock Holmes. In many places in the stories, he summarizes his method of solving crimes, and it is inductive rather than deductive. He solves crimes mainly by his intuitive, priestly knowledge of people, not a knowledge of facts.

“‘How do you know all this?’ he cried. ‘Are you a devil?’
“‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.'” (p. 140)

The above quote summarizes the message of Father Brown. The “Father Brown” corpus carries an intrinsically personal vision of life on earth, and in that way it acts as a weighty supplement to Chesterton’s other writings.

Meat:

My favorite stories from this collection were “The Blue Cross,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Honour of Israel Gow,” “The Hammer of God,” and “The Three Tools of Death.”

In 1910, “The Blue Cross” became the first “Father Brown” story to be published, and in many ways it exemplifies his humble character, and has less violence than many of the others. “The Hammer of God” is also classic Chesterton as well as a thrilling mystery.

Chesterton masterfully utilizes the Scottish castle setting in “The Honour of Israel Gow,” to set the tone of a horror story. In general, I really enjoyed his use of setting. The modern BBC series ties Father Brown down to the Cotswolds (SW England), but this book alone has numerous and varied settings.

Bones:

Although I know it is par for the field, I did not like that nearly all of the stories involved a murder. I felt that Chesterton displayed his unique cleverness whenever there was no violence in the story at all, as in “The Blue Cross,” or Father Brown’s whimsical prelude, The Club of Queer Trades. I wanted more variety.

Quotes:

“Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.” (p. 65)

“I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous.” (p. 111)

“‘How do you know all this?’ he cried. ‘Are you a devil?’
“‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.'” (p. 140)

“There is this about such evil, that it opens door after door in hell, and always into smaller and smaller chambers. This is the real case against crime, that a man does not become wilder and wilder, but only meaner and meaner.” (p. 167)

“Even the most murderous blunders don’t poison life like sins.” (p. 183)

Read (free): Internet Archive (pdf), LibriVox (audio), Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html)

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

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:

Like its more famous cousin The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a tale of paradoxes and dichotomies. It was published in 1904 (his first novel) and set in semi-utopian future, and the tale arcs around two central characters.

The first central character is Auberon Quin, described in the following way:

When he entered a room of strangers, they mistook him for a small boy, and wanted to take him on their knees, until he spoke, when they perceived that a boy would have been more intelligent.

Auberon is selected by a kind of hyper-democratic lottery as the King of England while he is ludicrously babbling about Nicaragua. This plot device—the selecting of monarchs at random—was not a mere gimmick for Chesterton, but was his actual explanation of dynastic monarchy, as he had stated in his chapter of Robert Browning’s philosophy:

The great compliment which monarchy paid to mankind [is] the compliment of selecting from it almost at random. (Robert Browning, p. 94)

The second central character (to whom the title alludes) is Adam Wayne, who lives his whole life in Notting Hill, and grows an obsessive patriotic loyalty for the London borough that he calls his home.

He still retained his feeling about the town of Notting Hill . . . He was a genuine natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland. But he was perhaps the first to realise how often the boundary of fairyland runs through a crowded city. Twenty feet from him (for he was very short-sighted) the red and white and yellow suns of the gas-lights [i.e. street lamps] thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the wood of elf-land.

The playful competition and opposition of these two characters comprises the whole plot of this novel.

Meat:

Without spoiling the plot, there are some themes worth mentioning. One is the nearness of fairyland. “Fairyland” or “Elfland” in Chesterton (and the Inklings who read him) refer to a hypothetical land visited by imagination. The theme is the precise precursor to Lewis’ Narnia and functions like another dimension, visited in vision by the most childlike characters. In Napoleon of Notting Hill, the narrator references “fairyland” quite a few times through the course of the novel (for example, see the above quotation). This is important because these are some of his earliest published references to an idea that became integral to Chesterton’s view of life. “Fairyland” figures most prominently in Chesterton’s works Magic: A Fantastic Comedy and Orthodoxy, but I have yet to find a book in which it is not mentioned.

Another theme is the vindication of humor. (See also “A Defence of Nonsense”!) Auberon Quin seems to take nothing seriously, and Adam Wayne seems to take everything seriously. As the novel proceeds, positive and negative judgments are given on both characters, and the reader is left wondering who is the hero.

“Madmen are always serious; they go mad from lack of humour. You are looking serious yourself, James.” (Auberon Quin)

Chesterton also has an interesting take on patriotism, which I give here at length, since it does not in any way spoil the novel, and is a characteristic sample:

Upwards from his abstracted childhood, Adam Wayne had grown strongly and silently in a certain quality or capacity which is in modern cities almost entirely artificial, but which can be natural, and was primarily almost brutally natural in him, the quality or capacity of patriotism. . . . He knew that in proper names themselves is half the poetry of all national poems. Above all, he knew . . . that the patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.

All this he knew, not because he was a philosopher or a genius, but because he was a child. Any one who cares to walk up a side slum like Pump Street, can see a little Adam claiming to be king of a paving-stone. And he will always be proudest if the stone is almost too narrow for him to keep his feet inside it.

It is almost impossible to convey to any ordinary imagination the degree to which he had transmitted the leaden London landscape to a romantic gold. . . . To this man, at any rate, the inconceivable had happened. The artificial city had become to him nature, and he felt the curbstones and gas-lamps as things as ancient as the sky. (p. 134-136)

Political themes are also important to Napoleon of Notting Hill, but there is nothing there I haven’t written about in my review of What I Saw in America. His stance on “internationalism” is obvious in Napoleon from the semi-utopian setting of the book; ultimately, he sees efforts to unite the world in peace to be idealistic and misguided. He also mocks pure democracy in the setup to the novel (again, he wrote about this in his writings on America).

Bones:

This novel is not as fast-moving as The Man Who Was Thursday. Admittedly, during the first few chapters, I was quite lost as to where the novel was going, or who the “Napoleon of Notting Hill” could be. The first chapter is essentially an essay. But the novel does start to get interesting after “The Charter of the Cities,” and it does have its fair share of action in the second half. Take heart; patience is rewarded in this one.

When I saw how the plot turned in this novel, I was inclined to think that it could have been a short story. The short story usually turns on one key dilemma or plot device (in this case, a monarch selected at random), and so far that has been true of Chesterton’s novels. At least they are interesting, and Chesterton’s narration has many intriguing asides.

Review: The Crimes of England

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: Non-fiction, wartime essays.

Overview:

After the publications of The Barbarism of Berlin and its expanded edition, The Appetite of Tyranny, Chesterton wrote this longer work (published in January 1916) in defense of the same ideas. Ostensibly, the book is a confessional of England’s “crimes” in recent history, meaning the late nineteenth century:

I have thought it advisable to provide you with a catalogue of the real crimes of England. (p. 9)

In reality, though, the title is an ironic jab against England’s then-recent policy of having Germany as an ally. He means to recount how badly Germany has treated England and Europe, and England’s “crime” of being all too forbearing with Germany.

Long and weary as may be the records of our [England’s] wickedness, in one direction we have done nothing but good. Whoever we may have wronged, we have never wronged Germany. (p. 53)

Chesterton held to what some reviewers have called “Teutonophobia,” and his account of England’s so-called crimes amounts mainly to not throwing Prussia under the bus when they had a chance.

For all readers except those most keenly fascinated by European history and politics, this book will make undoubtedly dull reading, set as it is in a balance of power that is no longer relevant, and dealing with the emotions of a war that not even centegenarians would recall directly.

Meat:

This book has one minor advantage over Appetite of Tyranny in that his anger over the outbreak of World War I had had another year to mellow, and he tries to substantiate his position historically, rather than through cultural generalizations.

Modern reviewers may be interested in Chesterton’s occasional reference to German race theory, called by him “Teutonism”—as well as the related idea which he calls “pan-Germanism,” that every great genius must have been Prussian. Chesterton calls this Germany ideology “a religion”:

Not a race, but rather a religion, the thing [Teutonism] exists; and in 1870 its sun was at noon. (p. 49)

Here he was referring back to the Franco-Prussian War, in which Germany achieved its unification and changed the balance of power in Europe. Chesterton didn’t know, of course, that pro-Aryan ideology would lead to another world war and millions more deaths just 23 years later.

As an aside, Chesterton takes the pro-Irish side on “the Irish question” in this book, a stance solidified soon after in his 1919 book Irish Impressions and also mentioned in What I Saw in America (1922).

Bones:

The Crimes of England mainly suffers from the same defects as The Appetite of Tyranny, so I refer my readers to that review.

I add to those criticisms as well that it was a deplorably dull read. Chesterton handles most topics well, but neat chronological accounts were not his forte, and so his account of historical relations between England and Germany is barely readable to someone who is not deeply acquainted with the time period.

Quotes:

These below are given to exemplify the author’s opinions in this book, not those of the reviewer:

I have passed the great part of my life in criticising and condemning the existing rulers and institutions of my country: I think it is infinitely the most patriotic thing that a man can do. . . . I think our whole history in Ireland has been a vulgar and ignorant hatred of the crucifix, expressed by a crucifixion. I think the South African War was a dirty work which we did under the whips of moneylenders. I think Mitchelstown was a disgrace; I think Denshawi was a devilry. (p. 53)

The German superiority has been in a certain thing and of a certain kind. It is not unity; it is not, in the moral sense, discipline. Nothing can be more united in a moral sense than a French, British, or Russian regiment. Nothing, for that matter, could be more united than a Highland clan at Killiecrankie or a rush of religious fanatics in the Soudan. What such engines, in such size and multiplicity, really meant was this: they meant a type of life naturally intolerable to happier and more healthy-minded men, conducted on a larger scale and consuming larger populations than had ever been known before. (p. 61)

Review: Magic (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.”

Full title: Magic: A Fantastic Comedy.

Genre: Play, comedy.

Overview:

This play is set at the Duke’s home. The action begins with the search for his adult niece, Patricia Carleon, who has been in the garden, exploring Fairyland.

[Enter Patricia.]
Carleon. [Still agitated.] Patricia, where have you been?
Patricia. [Rather wearily.] Oh! in Fairyland.
Doctor. [Genially.] And whereabouts is that?
Patricia. It’s rather different from other places. It’s either nowhere or it’s wherever you are.

Thus Patricia, the mystic, sparks a debate about belief involving herself, her uncle, and her uncle’s guests. The themes about disbelief and skepticism in this little play are strongly echoed in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which in 1950 became the first of The Chronicles of Narnia series. An interesting difference is that Lucy, who discovers Narnia, is a child; while Patricia, in Chesterton’s play, is an adult. Chesterton wants the reader to know that belief is not confined to childhood or naivete.

Conjurer. [Contemptuously.] Yes, your Grace, one of those larger laws you were telling us about. (p. 42)

Published in 1913 and performed in London’s Little Theatre, this is the first of only three plays written by Chesterton and performed during his lifetime. (A fourth was published posthumously.) This is also the only one of his plays that is widely accessible today, having been digitized by Project Gutenberg.

Meat:

The debate about belief is resolved in much the same way as it is in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: we are reminded of the gloriously child-like wisdom of giving people the benefit of a doubt when they speak of miracles.

Why should sham miracles prove to us that real Saints and Prophets never lived. There may be sham magic and real magic also. . . . There may be turnip ghosts precisely because there are real ghosts. There may be theatrical fairies precisely because there are real fairies. You do not abolish the Bank of England by pointing to a forged bank-note. (p. 30)

One character notes that disbelief is just as bad a curse as gullibility.

Here is the boy who questions everything and a girl who can believe anything. Upon which has the curse fallen?

Bones:

There is not a lot of action in this play. The plot would have been more memorable if it had been a little longer or had more change of scenery.

Quotes:

Old women have taught you that the fairies are too small to be seen. But I tell you the fairies are too mighty to be seen. (p. 4)

The Doctor does not believe me. He is an agnostic; and he knows everything. (p. 43)

There is no bigot like the atheist. (p. 47)

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html), Kindle Store (mobi)