G.K. Chesterton – Man for All Seasons, or the power of being contrarian

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 10/02/2012

Man for All Seasons: Why everybody loves G. K. Chesterton – Andrew Ferguson

Why does everyone love him so? Well, not everyone, of course. Here’s what I mean: “Today Chesterton is not among the best known of authors,” wrote the right-wing anarcho-capitalist Joseph Sobran. “But among those who do know him, he is one of the best loved.” And those who do love him are as likely to be on the left as on the right, among vegans and carnivores, bohos and ultramontanes, theocrats, agnostics, and Bible burners alike. Almost everyone.

Chesterton is a funny writer who doesn’t tell jokes; the humor bubbles up organically, from the nature of the material and from the attitudes the author strikes.

Avoiding the most fashionable forms of respectability became a central theme of his life and work.

His geniality helped him survive for much of his career as a party of one. His main target, polemically and personally, was materialism, philosophical and economic. He saw the totalitarian danger implicit in the desacralization of the world, to use Mircea Eliade’s unlovely phrase for the fading away of religious belief. The culprits were the Moderns, particularly in Science—the capitalization is a sure mark of ironic scorn—and most particularly in Darwinism. The weapon the Moderns wielded was as popular among the intellectuals of his day as among our own: the belief that the truest way to explain a human being and his behavior was to reduce him to his constituent parts, buzzing neurons and involuntary impulses and biological imperatives buried deep in the history of the species, as if the whole of the person was not superior to the sum of the parts, and could not be qualitatively different from the parts.

The glibness in Chesterton’s essays was greatly aided by competent schooling and vast reading, staggering by our own standards but fairly common for a well-educated gentleman in turn-of-the-century England. Whether it was Hindu birthing practices or the flora of Pago Pago, Chesterton knew just enough of his subjects to make plausible and sweeping assertions—but not so much that he hampered himself with qualifiers, contradictions, exceptions, or any other complications.

It was the Moderns, he insisted, who were doing what they accused Catholics of doing, abandoning intellectual curiosity and openness of mind for an “imaginative bondage” that ruled too many ideas and experiences out of court to give a compelling, much less satisfying, account of life. As a Catholic, by contrast, he could feast on “living ideas,” in “an active, fruitful, progressive and even adventurous life of the intellect.”

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