G.K. Chesterton
Stratford Caldecott

 

Summary

Probably the most popular (and prolific) journalist of the twentieth century.

A detective-story writer – the inventor of Father Brown.

'One of the deepest thinkers who ever existed' (Etienne Gilson).

Leader of a social movement called Distributism.

An artist, poet, literary critic and cartoonist.

Political, social and religious prophet.

Leading figure in the Catholic revival of the first half of the century.

Perhaps the greatest Christian writer since John Henry Newman.

Influenced and helped to convert many other Christian writers (C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, etc.)

Biographical notes

Born 1874 in Kensington, London, to a Unitarian family. By 1901 married to an Anglo-Catholic, and suddenly famous as a writer. Opponent of British policy in the Boer War. Friend of Hilaire Belloc; friend and opponent of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. 1908 publishes Orthodoxy. Received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1922, aged 48. In 1925 publishes The Everlasting Man. Died in 1936 aged 62, after completing his Autobiography. Numerous biographies: the first and greatest by Maisie Ward.

Chesterton was one of the great opponents of Socialism and Communism – so much so that his writings were circulated in samizdat form by the underground in Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe. But he was also an opponent of Capitalism. Today, of course, Capitalism (being all-pervasive) is not an easy target to define. To Chesterton, it meant an obvious injustice: the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, to the disadvantage of the majority. It meant the set of conditions under which most men were deprived of capital, and kept in a state of wage slavery. (Belloc's famous term for this was The Servile State, described in the book of that name which he published in 1912.)

Chesterton's Distributism proposed the wider distribution of personal property throughout society. It did not generally plan to take money and land away from the rich and redistribute it to the poor like Robin Hood, but simply to devise schemes and where necessary legislation that would make it easier for small, family businesses and farms to survive in a modern economy. The Birmingham Land Scheme, for instance, would have enabled the unemployed to develop their own small farms, if it had not been squashed by the government.

Distributists defended the small shopkeeper against the growth of the supermarket. They would also have opposed Sunday trading, WalMart and Amazon.com. Distributist communities (traces of which still survive) sprang up at Laxton, and at Ditchling, inspired by brilliant eccentrics like the craftsman Eric Gill and the Dominican friar Vincent McNabb (to whom a special issue of The Chesterton Review was devoted in February-May 1996).

The reasons for the collapse of the Distributist League around the time of Chesterton's death in 1936 have been well documented by Michael Thorn in several issues of The Chesterton Review. There was always a tendency toward excessive Romanticism among the Distributists, coupled with a reluctance to get involved in the dirty business of politics. The effect of the Depression was to focus many Distributists on the need for decisive political action. However, the attempt to start a political party in 1930 fizzled out, and the apparent sympathy of some of the movement's intellectual leaders for Fascism in the run-up to the War alienated the remaining rank and file.

Distributists cannot simply be written off as Romantics, drawn either to an impractical Luddism or an all-too-practical Fascism. Distributism may have been idealistic and impractical, but it was not a Ćdead end'. Its inspiration flowed on into the cooperative movement, and into the alternative or Ćnew' economics that is today associated with the name of E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful (himself a Catholic convert after 1968) and (less famously) Leopold Kohr, whose Breakdown of Nations deserves rediscovery. Even the agrarian emphasis of Distributism survives – though now detached from Catholicism – in the form of the ĆGreens', and popular writers like Wendell Berry in America recall the great agrarian literary figures of the 1920s. The Distributists left behind them not only a list of publications and some institutional monuments, but a widening circle of influence.

Admirers have often called Chesterton a prophet. Chesterton claimed to Ćagree with the realistic Irishman who said he preferred to prophesy after the event'. In fact, of course, the function of a prophet is not so much to predict the future but to speak as God's voice against injustice and evil. In Chesterton's case he was almost the only major figure to oppose eugenics at a time when most people (including H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and even Winston Churchill) could see nothing wrong with it. The arguments he used against it then are just as valid today, against its modern forms: population control, genetic engineering and the cloning of human beings.

Links

American Chesterton Society official site
A personal GKC site: http://www.dur.ac.uk/~dcs6mpw/gkc/
Another excellent resource: http://ic.net/~erasmus/RAZ27.HTM
Chesterton day by day: http://www.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/gkcday.htm

 

A Selection of GKC Quotations
See www.chesterton.org for more

Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.

The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.

The whole modern world has divided itself into conservatives and progressives. The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.

The fact is this: that the modern world, with its modern movements, is living on its Catholic capital. It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendon; including, of course, many truths known to pagan antiquity but crystallized in Christendom.

The relations of the sexes are mystical, are and ought to be irrational. Every gentleman should take off his head to a lady.

A religion is not the church a man goes to but the cosmos he lives in.

A new philosophy generally means in practice the praise of some old vice.

War is not the best way of settling differences; it is the only way of preventing their being settled for you.

The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.

Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home; because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be a usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution.

[Capitalism is] that commercial system in which supply immediately answers to demand, and in which everybody seems to be thoroughly dissatisfied and unable to get anything he wants.'