I remember a former boss criticizing and ultimately crushing a colleague with this scathing and unforgettable description: “He has only one idea and it is wrong.”
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a versatile and enormously gifted writer. He was also a prolific writer, having published some 80 books, a dozen posthumously. The fact that he was both perceptive and productive, that he combined a discerning eye with a fertile mind, that he saw life through a prism of paradoxes, made it almost inevitable that he would become the source of a near endless array of punchy lines and pithy sayings, so many of which resonate to this day. Unlike my unfortunate and now undone colleague, Chesterton was a man of many ideas and, a century later, there is still little to fault with any of them.
Chesterton had strength of character and conviction. For a self-described ‘rollicking journalist’, he had strongly-held opinions and defended them vigorously.
Still in his 20s, he was one of the few journalists who publicly opposed the Boer War. Over the years, he held fast to his anti-war sentiments. “The only defensible war”, he wrote in his Autobiography (published in 1937), “is a war of defense”.
Chesterton was highly politicized, his politics coloured by his deep distrust of concentrated wealth and power.
On the nations’ leadership, he scathingly wrote: “Democracy means government by the uneducated. Aristocracy means government by the badly educated.” And: “When a politician is in opposition, he is an expert on the means to some end; when he is in office he is an expert on the obstacles to it.”
His take on national pride is a classic: “(Saying) ‘My country right or wrong’ is like saying ‘my mother, drunk or sober’.”
Chesterton’s gregarious manner and wry humor belied a deep troubling over the vagaries, paradoxes and inconsistencies of life. He found answers in Christianity; his books on the subject contained some of his most memorable thoughts, not always religious ones.
From his 1905 Heretics: “Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” The sequel, Orthodoxy, appeared three years later and provided this gem: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”
Ultimately, the failings of other societal structures gave way to the constancy and incontrovertibility of faith. From his Introduction to the Book of Job (1907), Chesterton makes it clear that “the riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man”. In Christendom in Dublin, published in 1933, he wrote: “Once abolish the God… government becomes the God.” And, finally: “When people cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything”.
Of course, not all his subjects were lofty; some of his targets were, frankly, of low stature. Consider these observations on thieves: “Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become theirs so that they may more perfectly respect it.” And “Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before.”Anything and everything was grist for his always turning, ever-churning mill. “There is no such thing…as an uninteresting subject”, he wrote. “The only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”
According to Charles Dickens, “trifles make the sum of life”. This has special meaning when it comes to Chesterton, whose keen eyes caught the essence of even the most mundane things. You know someone can put things in their proper perspective when he can write a book called On Running After One’s Hat, All Things Considered. Perhaps the best example of Chesterton’s ability to turn trivia into timeless truths is his wonderfully witty Tremendous Trifles, published in 1909.
From this classic and others, come the following Chesterton observations worth contemplating:
“He is a [sane] man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head.”
“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”
“One sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak.”
With a broad sweep from his unique vantage point, Chesterton managed to take in everything, great and small.