Wednesday, July 17, 2013

All Things Considered, by G. K. Chesterton

Not many people today remember Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (1874 – 1936) outside of his delightful Father Brown detective stories.  This is a shame, because Chesterton was also one of the outstanding critics and thinkers of his age.  It has been argued that we are all born with a natural sense of wonder, but that by age 13 or so it is beaten, combed and prayed out of us.  Chesterton never lost that childlike innocence and clarity, and mixed that sensibility with a gargantuan intellect.  To read Chesterton on Dickens or Shakespeare, for example, is to see these writers anew, as if some profound truth were staring us in the face and it took a little boy to point it out.

Gargantuan was perhaps the perfect word for Chesterton in other respects.  He was simply enormous, both tall and hideously corpulent.  He wore a broad-brimmed slouch hat and cape, and often carried a sword cane.  Of such figures legends are made, and Chesterton, the man himself, influenced writers who converted the easily recognizable figure into a string of fictional characters.  (Most notably amateur detective Dr. Gideon Fell, created by author John Dickson Carr.)

Chesterton’s political thinking was fairly close to that of your correspondent, writing that the whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.  Hauntingly prescient to 2013 America.  I have been reading a great deal of Chesterton latterly and have found him a balm for a somewhat bruised soul. 

Chesterton was also a journalist, and writing for the London Daily News.  His 1915 book All Things Considered features more than 30 columns on a variety of different subjects.  Leaving few stones unturned, Chesterton writes about daily annoyances, on literature, on missing trains, on Modernism … Chesterton wrote over 4,000 newspaper columns, and this is, understandably, the smallest sampling.  Anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating man should look at his newspaper columns while also reading his many novels and books of sustained criticism.

In the introduction, Chesterton writes This is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current subjects for it is mostly concerned with attacking attitudes which are in their nature accidental and incapable of enduring. Brief as is the career of such a book as this, it may last twenty minutes longer than most of the philosophies that it attacks.  So, yes, many of the bugaboos and cultural concerns are outdated, but the refreshing take on reality and the authorial voice remain magnificent.

Here are some quotes:

But I never succeeded in saying the quite clear and obvious thing that is rally the matter with modernism.  The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness.  It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is specially up to date or particularly “in the know.”  To flaunt the fact that we have had the last books from Germany is simply vulgar; like flaunting the fact that we have had all the last bonnets from Paris.  To introduce into philosophical discussion a sneer at a creed’s antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a lady’s age.  It is caddish because it is irrelevant.  The pure modernist is merely a snob; he cannot stand to be one month behind fashion.

Here’s something quite terrific: They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books.

On reformers: It is a fact that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be a reformer; that the man who thought everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better… It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with startled indignation… The pessimist can be enraged at wrong, but only the optimist can be startled [enough to want to change it].

On Shakespeare: Nobody could say that a statue of Shakespeare, even fifty feet high, on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, could define Shakespeare’s position. It only defines our position towards Shakespeare. It is he who is fixed. It is we who are unstable.

Like much of Chesterton’s criticism, this book is available for free on  It is an invaluable site for bibliophiles.


Tam B said...

Nice post! Introducing GK Chesterton to the blogosphere, not a bad idea...

James Abbott said...

Many thanks. More GKC tomorrow. Also -- I read your blog with great interest!

lyle said...

"His 1915 book All Things Considered...", hey, did NPR steal this line?

"The pessimist can be enraged at wrong, but only the optimist can be startled [enough to want to change it]." .... kinda sounds like congress....

david thompson said...

Chesterton also wrote a fascinating little biography of G.F.Watts. The opening section where he talks of the mental attitude of the great Victorians is particularly interesting. "He may not be certain that he is successful or certain that he is great, or certain that he is good or certain that he is capable: but he is certain that he is right"

James Abbott said...

I am not familiar with the Watts biography -- but will certainly now secure a copy. Many thanks!

david thompson said...

On reflection, perhaps "biography" isn't really the right word. Extended critical essay would probably be nearer the mark. It was first published in 1904 very shortly after Watts' death indeed he was still alive when Chesterton was writing. If you do get hold of a copy I'm sure you will find it full of fascinating insight into the atmosphere of a great intellectual age now sadly lost. More than lost for most people I suspect but rather, completely incomprehensible.