Monday, February 20, 2006

Chesterton on the Olympics

I just received a new book, Twelve Types and immediately paged to the chapter on St. Francis. Inside, I found this Olympian quote:

"If ever it should happen that the system of English athletes should vanish from the public schools and universities, if science should supply some new and non-competitive manner of perfecting the physique, if public ethics swung around to an attitude of absolute contempt and indifference towards the feeling called sport, then it is easy to see what would happen.

Future historians would simply state that in the dark days of Queen Victoria [or George W. Bush and Tony Blair] young men [and women] at Oxford and Cambridge were subjected to a horrible sort of religious torture.

They were forbidden, by fantastic monastic rules, to indulge in wine or tobacco during certain arbitrarily fixed periods in time, before certain brutal fights and festivals [think Olympics]. Bigots insisted on their rising at unearthly house and running violently around fields for no object.

Many men ruined their health in these dens of superstition, many died there. All this is perfectly true and irrefutable. Athleticism in England is an asceticism, as much as the monastic rules. Men have overstrained themselves and killed themselves through English athleticism. There is one difference and one only; we do feel the love of sport; we do not feel the love of religious offices. We see only the prices in the one case and only the purchase in the other." GKC Twelve Types, pg. 35.


  1. So I guess the imbecile who said, “The Olympics are the signature of man” in the Flying Tomato thread below was, once again, out to lunch – with his “Life takes” Visa card no doubt. Does this mean I shouldn’t really like short track speed skating?

    In the same way that I can admire Chesterton for being a great writer and glorifying God with his skill, can I not admire those who possess great physical skill and the opportunity to glorify God through sport? Yes, the Olympics seem somehow lost in medal counts, contrivances, controversy, and commercial self-promotion, but I assert that there are “gems” to be found that stand out and inspire, much the same way that Chesterton can be found sailing beyond so many of our rudderless modern authors who seem to create fog as an excuse for their lack of direction.*

    I wonder what GKC would have thought of “Chariots of Fire?”

    (*Is this sentence not the nightmare of every editor?)

  2. I don't know that GKC could have sat through all of "Chariots of Fire" without succumbing to inspiration and rushing off to his room to "do what was wrong" - see the dedication to What's Wrong With the World (how do you do italics?). Anyway, I agree with Tom in that the Olympics seem to always have a few stories that inspire. Of course, we really shouldn't be all that surprised by the doping scandals and the ceaseless commercial self-promotion. Didn't GKC say "[T]he wickedest work in this world is symbolized not by a wine
    glass but by a looking-glass." It all spirals back to the pride of life.

  3. Gee, guys, I did not intend this to be a Chestertonian anti-Olympics post. It really isn't. And I do believe, Tom, that the Olympics ARE the signiture of man--what animal groups get together and see who is the fastest? The most graceful? The best acrobat in the air?

    The Olympics are proof that man is different, in a different category alltogether.

    You should go right on loving short track speed skating. You know that penguins also skid on the ice, but never do they move and jockey to pass one another in an attempt to get to the "finish line."

    Chesterton was merely comparing the religious astheticism of St. Francis (which no one can really understand outside the context of a life of faith and a goal of getting to heaven) to the athleticism of the English. Both can be fanatical, but the athlete will never be criticised for starving himself for a race, or practicing so hard that he has a heart attack. The asthete will be called "overboard" a "lunatic" or a "fool" as St. Francis was.

    So contrary to the comments here, and not criticising, but merely pointing out, that I do believe that Chesterton is saying that we humans do strive for things. Some stive for perfection of physique, or physical prowess in some athletic field, and others stive for perfection in the spiritual realm; some by astheticism, others through mystical prayer experiences, others by giving their lives to serve others, etc.

    Am I making sense?

  4. I think, in that excerpt, that Chesterton was merely commenting on the distorted histories of what really happened in the English reformation, and using that as a springboard to speculate on the kind of distorted historicism that might result in the future if athletics were banned.

    You guys are reading it wrong if you interpret it as a criticism of athletics.

  5. Correction to my comment:
    My fingers did the talking and excluded my brain. Sorry. I mean ASCETIC not AESTHETIC (which I probably spelled wrong anyhow). I mean someone like Francis who deprives himself of something good for a higher good.

    And I disagree, Chestertonian. I think Chesterton is criticizing the modern world for not understanding ascetics and asceticism, and behind that, not understanding religious fervor, or even the practice of religion. But that we do things like have Opympics, where we have traditional songs, activities, ceremonies and even holy fire rituals, and that is all OK because it is in the name of sport, so why isn't it equally OK to do it in the name of religion, where it really means something?

    That's my understanding of this passage.

  6. I really didn't mean to post an anti-olympic or anti-athletic post. Actually, I am a huge sports enthusiast and would be rather disappointed if Chesterton's point was to knock athletics. Anyway, my pride wants me to suggest that I understood exactly what Chesterton meant, but I don't think I actually "got it" until I read Nancy's post ("The simplification of anything is always sensational." -- thank you, Nancy). As usual, Chesterton's point by comparison is brilliant.

  7. I think, Nancy, that you are probably right in the broader sense: that Chesterton was commenting on the aversion to asceticism in his day, and using the distortions about what Victorians said about monkish asceticism as a springboard. And his thinking, as usual, is just as applicable today: people have no problem with athletes going to all kinds of extremes for physical perfection, but look askance at someone putting himself through physical rigors for the sake of spiritual perfection.

  8. yeah, now that I think about it, that's what I meant to say the first time. :)

  9. The difference is that, today, there are people who are likely to say "you're absolutely right--ban sports!" Probably because we actually do live in Chesterton's future, though not far enough in it that we have actually replaced sports. In Chesterton's time, sports were assumed to be a good thing--which is the reason Chesterton was able to describe the negative things about sports.

    Which is, perhaps, the reason behind the misinterpretation of Chesterton's post here.

  10. " we actually do live in Chesterton's future"


    With the enlightenment of my fellow Chestertonians in this thread, GKC's meaning is becoming clear to me now. Many thanks.

    I love this blog.

  11. Obviously you are a REAL Chestertonian - for he loved "this" Blogg too.

    (His wife's maiden name, yes, was Frances Blogg - really and truly!)


Join our FaceBook fan page today!