Book review: G.K. Chesterton

Chris Chan

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a man who wrote about everything. Six foot four and over three hundred pounds, G.K. Chesterton was both in size and talent one of the biggest figures of the early twentieth century literary scene. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, poems, theological works, economic treatises, and literary criticism, all with unmatched humor, insight, and wit. If any author deserves to have his works added to the Lawrence University Freshman Studies reading list, it is G.K. Chesterton.Chesterton was a breath of fresh air in an age beset with pessimism. He good-naturedly launched verbal attacks on what he perceived to be the foibles of his age: social Darwinism, Prohibition, moral relativism, national insularity, and countless others. While some of his opinions on race relations and women’s rights issues are definitely dated in the twenty-first century, other opinions on these topics are rather progressive, even today.

He had opinions on everything, but he possessed the rare gift of being able to put his views forth forcefully without harboring personal animosity toward his opponents. In an era when free speech often means shouting down one’s antagonist, Chesterton was able to create friendships with those who despised his views. The socialist, Puritanical, vegetarian George Bernard Shaw kept a close friendship with the distributist, Catholic, beef-loving Chesterton, although Shaw was frequently shocked by what he perceived to be his friend’s eccentricities.

Out of a prodigious literary output, Chesterton’s books Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, and Heretics contain some of his most thoughtful and amusing writing. Any of these books would make a fine addition to the Freshman Studies reading list. These books are primarily theological musings, but they are also profound social commentary.

Chesterton was disturbed with the social iniquities stemming from unrestrained capitalism, but he was heedful of the dangers of socialism and Communism. Chesterton was also aware that social unity and the search for truth are badly hampered by the filing of all beliefs and opinions into the constricting labels of “liberal” and “conservative.” Somehow, Chesterton’s paradoxes are clearer and more comprehensive than the dogmatic absolutisms of most modern pundits.

Chesterton would fit in wonderfully with the Freshmen Studies curriculum. A comparison of Chesterton’s paradoxes of the ways of the world and the meaning of religion and philosophy to Chaung Tzu would make an unforgettable essay. Or what about Chesterton’s views on economics versus Marx and Engles’s? Chesterton’s ideal society compared to Plato’s? Chesterton’s concern about science overstepping its boundaries into religious territory compared to Galileo’s scientific writings? Chesterton’s opinions on careers for women as opposed to those of Virginia Woolf? Chesterton’s belief that the world is a beautiful, magical, poetic place could be an invaluable frame of reference when reading a Shakespearean comedy. The list could go on and on. Chesterton’s humor, originality and succinctness would be a great way to teach students the way an essay should be written.

I have not focused this review on a single book simply because Chesterton’s work is so vast, and his central ideas and themes so complex that it is impossible to pick one book to represent them all. Many of Chesterton’s works are on the Internet; see www.chesterton.org or www.gilbertmagazine.com for more details and links to Chesterton’s writings. Chesterton’s works were considered vital reading material during his lifetime, but during the Post-WWII era and the sixties they slowly faded from the public consciousness, although they are now making a comeback. It is my sincere hope that Lawrence can help lead this trend.

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