A native of England, Joseph Pearce is writer in residence at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, and Director of the College’s Center for Faith and Culture. He is editor of the St. Austin Review (an international review of Catholic culture), series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, and executive director of Catholic Courses. Additionally he is an internationally acclaimed author of many books, including C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Tolkien: Man and Myth, and lives of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. He lectures and speaks widely on the Catholic Literary Revival and sundry other subjects.
Dale Ahlquist maintains that we are in the midst of a Chesterton revival. Do you agree? If so, what is it about Chesterton, and/or about the present age, that is driving his renewed popularity? Can you think of a few particular exigencies of our day to which Chesterton’s thought proves an especially refreshing and convincing response?
Dale Ahlquist is right. We are indeed in the midst of a Chesterton revival. The reasons for this are manifold but much is due to Chesterton’s enduring relevance. Chesterton analyzed the problems that plague modernity with a wit and wisdom which is charming and disarming, using the power of paradox and combining clarity with charity in a way that is difficult to resist. His greatest strength, me judice, is the way in which he always insists on the inextricable marriage of faith and reason and uses this marriage to counter the errors of modernism. After reading Chesterton we are inoculated from the poison of modernism and will never again confuse the Heilige Geist with the Zeitgeist, the Holy Spirit with the Spirit of the Age.
Chesterton is eminently quotable. It seems that for any situation, a pithy line of his comes to mind. (One of my favorites, which I think applicable in many ways today, is his line from Orthodoxy that “the man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.”) Yet among folks who don’t enjoy Chesterton or who find him wearisome, a common critique is that he is too quotable—to such an extent that it sometimes seems that his desire for flourish distracts from his substantive positions. What do you think about this?
I think the problem that many modern readers have with Chesterton is their impatience with his perambulatory style, in which he wanders off on apparent tangents which seem to have little relevance to the subject in hand. Although I agree that this can sometimes be tiresome, on those rare occasions when Chesterton is not at his best, it is, for the most part, a stroll through a beautiful and wonder-filled intellectual landscape in the presence of a veritable genius who is jolly good company. Who would not want to spend time wandering off on exciting and stimulating tangents in such a man’s company? Sadly many modern readers have short attention spans, caused by spending too much time with social media and not enough time with books. Such people sacrifice literary beauty for the bluntness of bullet points. For those of us who like beautiful truth dressed in beautiful language, Chesterton’s perambulations are always going to prove delightful strolls in the presence of a friend, especially as he always brings us to where we need to be in the end.
You’ve written a good deal about Chesterton and his role and place within the larger English literary scene and the wave of conversions to Catholicism of thinkers of his day. Who are some of the most well-known Christian thinkers, converted to Catholicism or Anglo-Catholicism, on whom Chesterton exercised a strong influence, and what particular influence did he play on them?
It is astonishing to think that if it had not been for Chesterton there might not have been a whole host of other writers who owe their conversions in some significant way (under grace) to Chesterton’s influence. Amongst those leading figures of the Catholic Literary Revival influenced by Chesterton on their path to Christ are Maurice Baring, Ronald Knox, Christopher Dawson, Theodore Maynard, Alfred Noyes, and Graham Greene. And, of course, there is Chesterton’s influence on C. S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.
Dorothy L. Sayers told a friend that if it hadn’t been for Chesterton she might in her schooldays have abandoned Christianity altogether. “To the young people of my generation G.K.C. was a kind of Christian liberator,” Sayers wrote in 1952, describing his impact as being “like a beneficent bomb.” It is gratifying to know that the beneficent bomb has continued to explode in later generations, my own included, and it is no exaggeration to say that I owe more to Chesterton (under grace) than to anyone else for my own conversion.
As for the particular influence that Chesterton played on the conversions of the aforementioned writers, it’s a topic too large to cover adequately in an interview. This being so, I would direct those interested in knowing more about this fascinating issue to my book, Literary Converts, in which I document at considerable length the specific role that Chesterton played in the conversions of these writers.
Unlike some of his contemporary converts, Chesterton was not an academic, didn’t even have a typical college degree, but was a journalist by trade. It’s hard for me to put my finger on a good descriptor for the kind of apologetic his work constitutes for Catholicism. How would you describe it? It strikes me as (very) unlike many forms of apologetic.
Very few of the greatest literary converts could be considered academics. I don’t see, therefore, that Chesterton’s lack of a college degree is particularly important. If anything, his lack of formal training allowed him an autodidactic approach to learning, enabling him to escape the tendency of academics to squeeze themselves into the pigeonhole that their over-specialization has carved for them. Chesterton could connect literature, philosophy, theology, and history in his writing because he was not a specialist. I agree that this might make his particular approach to apologetics hard to label or categorize but I believe this to be one of its greatest strengths. His omnivorous approach to truth-telling leads us to God whether we are reading one of his novels or poems, or one of his essays or biographies. Chesterton can start with a piece of chalk and lead us to God. He can be running after his hat and find that he is running after God. He can discuss Dickens and find God, or write history as though it’s His Story. He is a writer and an apologist for whom everything is charged with the grandeur of God.
What would you say are some characteristic contours of Chesterton’s thought that are less well-known or appreciated, or which are often misunderstood? There’s his characteristic gratitude for being, his advocacy of mirth, what could be called his localism or patriotism. These are apparent enough. What doesn’t meet the eye?
You have pretty much covered the major bases! Always at the fore, however, is Chesterton’s realism, in the philosophical sense of the word. He is always at war with nominalism and relativism, and always a defendant of the rational essence of reality. It is his absolute insistence, at all times, on the inextricable bond that exists between fides et ratio which makes him such a powerful force for good. There is also the connection between humor and humility, encapsulated in the wonderful lines in Orthodoxy about angels flying because they take themselves lightly (humility) whereas the Devil falls because he takes himself too seriously (pride). It is this animus between levitas and gravitas that animates Chesterton’s work.
What are some of Chesterton’s blind spots, or intellectual weaknesses? Do you think he got anything just pretty much wrong? If so, what other elements of his thought, or conditions of his day, or circumstances in his life, might have contributed to this?
I think that the two things that Chesterton got pretty much wrong are his idealization of the common man, an idealization that almost became an idolization at times, and his sympathy with the French Revolution and the so-called democratic mob that it unleashed.
The problem is that the common man, as championed by Chesterton, is a figment of the optimist’s imagination. He is an idealized figure in an idyllic world. He is an unobtrusive but very ancient sort, more numerous than he is today. He loves peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside is his favorite haunt. He does not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though he is skillful with tools. This is the Chestertonian common man which, as the more astute reader will have noticed, is also, basically word-for-word, Tolkien’s description of the hobbit. The common man, like the hobbit, is the figment of an idealistic desire for the way the common man ought to be. It is not, unfortunately, the way he is, any more than the real Shire in which he lives is like Tolkien’s Shire or that other idyllic Shire, around which Chesterton’s rolling English road rambles.
Today’s common man is likely to be an agnostic or an atheist (though he might not know the difference between the two) who is addicted to fast food and bad beer, and to sports and TV, not to mention pornography and other equally ‘gollumizing’ manifestations of our deplorably meretricious age. And, lest we fall into the error of harking back to a mythical golden age in the past, we might remind ourselves that it’s never really been very different. Survey the motley medley of folk whom Chaucer places together on his pilgrimage to Canterbury, or the human menagerie that Shakespeare presents to us in his plays. The plebs have always been vulgar, in the pejorative sense of the word, and they’ve always been placated with panem et circenses (bread and circuses, i.e. food, wine, mass entertainment, and lascivious “sex”).
And as for the mob, defended so naively by Dr. Bull in Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who was Thursday, it is rarely right and almost always wrong, and as often as not murderously mad.
I blame Hilaire Belloc, another of my heroes and mentors, for Chesterton’s romantic idealization of the mob. Belloc allowed his French patriotism and republicanism to blind him to the horror and reality of the French Revolution, a blindness which Chesterton, as a disciple of Belloc’s historical perspective, seemed happy to share. It is, for instance, no mere coincidence that the mob being praised so fulsomely by Dr. Bull is French, nor that Marat and Robespierre, two of the Revolution’s most bloodthirsty ideologues, are praised earlier in the same novel as being “idealists” guiltless of the “murderous materialism” of the novel’s anarchist protagonists. Since Marat and Robespierre were the leading radical demagogues of the Revolution that would be the progenitor of the communist revolutions that followed in its wake, it beggars belief that Belloc and Chesterton could exonerate them or that they could idealize the secular fundamentalist mob which put countless Christians to their death in the Reign of Terror.
What is your favorite of Chesterton’s novels? Of his non-fiction? Why?
There is, of course, an important difference between that which is “best” and that which is “favorite.” The best is meant to be an objective statement of that which is, the favorite is merely a subjective preference. The former is a statement of fact, the latter merely a question of taste. In this sense, I would say that The Man Who was Thursday is the best of Chesterton’s novels but that my personal favorite is The Ball and the Cross. I think that my reason for preferring the latter is the sheer exhilaration of the intellectual swordplay between MacIan and Turnbull, the novel’s protagonists, and also the dramatic dichotomy that exists between their intellectual honesty and genuine desire for truth, on the one hand, and the cynical indifference made manifest in the novel’s other characters. In addition, I like the surrealism, for want of a better word, of the mysterious monk, Michael, and the demonic Professor Lucifer, their presence adding spark and sparkle to the novel’s breathtaking apocalyptic climax.
As for his non-fiction, the choice is more difficult, not least because there’s so much more from which to choose. If forced to make a decision, I think I’d choose Chesterton’s life of St. Francis of Assisi, purely because it’s one joy-filled mystic musing upon another.
We should also not omit Chesterton’s poetry, which, though uneven, is, at its best, amongst the best written in the twentieth century. His greatest achievement in verse is indubitably The Ballad of the White Horse, followed perhaps by “Lepanto”, but my favorite is a little known verse entitled “The Strange Music”, a poem which continues to baffle and beguile me every time I read it. Its je ne sais quoi is simply delightful!
If you could recommend one or two Chesterton works to someone interesting in delving into him for the first time, what would it/they be?
This is always a difficult question to answer because it depends on the sort of person to whom one is making the recommendation. Do they prefer philosophy or history? Do they prefer fiction or non-fiction? Poetry or prose?
To be honest, I normally recommend that a newcomer to Chesterton begin with either my own biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, which not only puts the man and his times in context but also quote copiously from his works. I also recommend Dale Ahlquist’s slim volumes, such as Common Sense 101, as a means of dipping one’s foot in the Chestertonian pond.
If forced to name one work of Chesterton’s, I would probably suggest either St. Francis of Assisi or Orthodoxy and perhaps one or two of the poems which encapsulate his spirit, such as “The Donkey,” “The Skeleton,” “The Fish,” or “By the Babe Unborn.”