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1 review about Heretics

Life is always a novel

  • Sep 13, 2012
In the decades since his death, I imagine Mr. Chesterton has been bounding about Heaven in an unfeigned energy of pure virginal (his term) faith and and delight in its wonders, perhaps trading epigrams with Oscar Wilde (who would not be the only forgiven sinner in Paradise) in joyous competition, and quoting with delight the words of that new young songwriter Jimmy Buffett "the more we learn the less we know."

OK, perhaps not, but after reading thousands of books in my life, and reviewing nearly a thousand here for The catholic reader, it is easy to become jaded or accepting of man in his imperfect sinfulness less than the amazing power that God gave him at creation.  Chesterton restores that vision of the Garden with brilliant clarity like pure sunlight refracted through a perfect diamond, with no imperfections to color the refraction.  

What exactly is a G. K. Chesterton, and why is a book with the dry title "Heretics" worthy of such flashy praise.  Chesterton was an English writer, a journalist he preferred to be called, of philosophy, religion, politics, criticism--and of the long-running and incredibly popular series of Father Brown mystery novels.  His life (1874-1936) spanned the peak, decline, and the beginning of the dissolution of the Empire, but he was neither jingoist nor anarchist, neither freethinker nor scientific utopian, neither atheist nor utopian believer.  He was, in style, substance, and content, a Christian of rational faith and pure passion, a walking contradiction in perfect unity with himself, his world, his world-view, and his God.

And it is at world-view that "Heretics" strikes its simple yet powerful blow, beginning with a discussion of "the importance of orthodoxy."  By this Chesterton means the position of caring that what one believes is right; it is his strong reaction to so-called open-mindedness, to tolerance, the all-purpose meaningless mental trance of our present-day.  It is a position, says Chesterton, that leaves man in the absurd position that :

A man's opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter.  . . . Everything matters--except everything.

Chesterton quickly segues logically into a topic which will consume much of "Heresy":  the false contrast between "practicality" and "idealism", with a reference to his contemporary Wilde (my mention of him in the opening of this review not by coincidence):

In the fifteenth century men cross-examined and tormented a man because he preached some immoral attitude; in the nineteenth century we feted and flattered Oscar Wilde because he preached such an attitude, and then broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out.  It may be a question which of the two methods was the more cruel; there can be no kind of question which was the more ludicrous.  The age of the Inquisition has not at least the disgrace of having produced a society which made an idol of the very same man for preaching the very same things which it made him a convict for practicing.  

Know what you believe, says Chesterton, and live it like you mean it to the hilt; any other manner of living is heresy.  Of course, your belief may be wildly wrong, and Chesterton will mercilessly mock you for it, as he does such famous names as Kipling, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw.  It is important to be orthodox, but it is just as important to be right, says Chesterton, in words so often quotable that for the first time in a long time I was underscoring dozens of passages and tempted to quote most of them here in this review

The next topic which Chesterton sinks his teeth into is Wells's progressivism, which is doubly-cursed:  practicality combined with scientific optimism.

"Liberty" . . . is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. . . .  "Progress" . . . is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  . . . "Education" . . . is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  The modern man says "let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty." This is, logically rendered, "Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it."  He says "Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress." This, logically stated, means "Let us not settle what is good, but let us settle whether we are getting more of it."  He says, "Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education."  This, clearly expressed, means, "We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children."

The next time someone throws "tolerance" in your face for speaking clearly and strongly about what you believe and why, throw Chesterton back in his face, and defy him with good humor and grace for the fool that he is.  And if some one claims to tell you why you must vote for one candidate over another in this year's election, but this person has not read Chesterton, suggest that he is not qualified to vote intelligently until he has read and understood Chesterton.  Most likely, given the general state of education and vote-mongers in this country today, he will neither have read Chesterton nor be able to understand him if he had.

This is not to say that "Heresy" is a dull philosophical, religious, or political tract.  Chesterton insisted that he be called a journalist, a worthy claim because a journalist must in all extremities be brief, precise, interesting and readable, and Chesterton is all of those things.  Reading him is like sharing a brief but blazing battle of wits with a good friend on topics that you both feel deeply about but might not always agree on.  His writing is also, though or perhaps because a journalist, still as timely as today's headlines even though over a century old (read p. 94-95 of the Barnes & Noble paperback edition to see Chesterton's thoughts on your Facebook friend list).

There are several more page references and quotes I jotted down as I read, but I will let you discover them for yourself (yes, my review title is a quote too.  You will understand it and enjoy it even more when you read the context).  I will conclude with one last quote:

Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin.  . . . Physical science is of Christian origin.  The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin.  There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.

It does matter what you believe, and why, and Chesterton is unapologetically Christian to the core.  Know what you believe, and why.  And please, don't vote unless you do.

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