Can Chesterton answer all our questions? John sent me this previously published article in response to the combox writer in a previous argument down below.
“Chesterton as ‘The Answer Man’”
A Paper Prepared for the Chicago Chesterton Society in 1987 as reprinted in Midwest Chesterton News, December 10, 1990
Chesterton said more than once that he could start with any seemingly insignificant or random point and build his entire philosophy from that beginning. He says it quite clearly, for example, in his Illustrated London News column of February 17, 1906:
“A Philosophical connection there always is between any two items imaginable. This must be so, so long as we allow any harmony or unity in the cosmos at all. There must be a philosophical connection between any two things in the universe. If it is not so, we can only say there is no universe, and can be no philosophy.” [See CW, XXVII, p. 127]Continue reading.
He said this often, and he demonstrated it more often. You will think especially of his essay, “What I Found in My Pocket,” which Chesterton wrote for the London Daily News in that same year of 1906. It was later collected in the 1909 volume titled Tremendous Trifles. The essay describes how, on a long railway journey somewhere, he found ultimate lessons in a tram ticket, a box of matches, a piece of chalk, a pocketknife, and anything at all among the random litter as he searched through his pockets.
Some might say the whole meaning and charm of Tremendous Trifles is this Chestertonian ability to see the eternal in the trivial. You might as easily say it is the whole meaning and charm of all his journalism, his newspaper work—the Illustrated London News essays included. Why else would we meet here in Chicago Illinois in 1987 to discuss newspaper columns from London England of 1906? Why are we interested in Chesterton’s reaction to a series of childish pranks that occurred over eighty years ago in time, in a foreign country over four thousand miles away in geography?
I realize this is a fairly well worn path in Chesterton discussions and criticism. We all know that Chesterton finds eternal significance in cheese; or, to use the essay under discussion here, eternal significance in undergraduate mischief and student disturbances. But having said that, we have to ask one more question. Does Chesterton teach us the meaning of cheese or beer or student ragging and rioting? Or does he teach us how to see cheese and these other things in order that we ourselves may be able to find meaning in them? Does he give us meanings or does he show the way to find meanings?
Put another way, the question asks about using Chesterton’s Collected Works as a kind of dictionary or encyclopedia. What are we to think of beer? Look it up in Chesterton. What are we to think of student mischief? What are we to think of Charles Dickens? Or The Book of Job? Or Christianity? One can use Chesterton as a source of doctrine, and doubtless many do. But it is also possible to suggest that Chesterton’s lessons in how to think are more valuable than his lessons in what to think. His essay on “Undergraduate Ragging” offers us a chance to make and to study this distinction.
In this essay, Chesterton does not offer us a single point of view on student outbreaks and mischief. He offers us lessons in how to use student outbreaks in various ways to illustrate moral lessons—moral lessons of more than one kind. How are we to judge the students? On page 612 we are told that the moral test of student mischief rests on the answers to two questions. (One) are their victims also their friends? (Two) are their victims strong enough to defend themselves and to retaliate? If the answers are “no,” Chesterton says student ragging is mere cowardice.
My point is that after reading the essay we are much better informed about how Chesterton thought about these kinds of events but not so well informed about what he thought about them. The “what,” he leads us to understand, is not the issue.
Next, we have the medical students who attacked the “celebrated anti-vivisectionist monument” near Chesterton’s home in Battersea. On page 614 we find that “because the medical students were acting from philosophical or fanatical motives,” their case is “more interesting and valuable.” This leads Chesterton into an intriguing discussion of vivisection with which the column concludes.
Meanwhile, back on page 332 [the column of 11/24/06] we remember having heard of “the English schoolboy Allen who was arrested for having painted red” yet a different public monument—this time the statue of a Swiss general. About this student uprising, Chesterton says,
“The morals of a matter like this are exactly like the morals of anything else; they are concerned with mutual contract, or the rights of independent human lives. I have no right to paint the statue of Lord Salisbury red, just as I have no right to paint the face of Mr. Moberly Bell green, however much I think they might be improved by the transformation.”
This general statement of moral principle might have been applied to the medical students who attacked the anti-vivisectionist monument. Or it might have been applied to the undergraduate bullies who attacked the defenseless old maiden ladies.
Also, turning the discussion around the other way, the rules for student ragging which Chesterton formulated on page 613 might have been applied to the case of Master Allen who painted the Swiss general on page 332. It is evident, however, that Chesterton was not aiming at a universal “law of unruly students.”
We all probably fall into the habit of using Chesterton as an encyclopedia—asking for the great man to supply us with definitive answers to highly specific questions. The problem is, on any narrow question, Chesterton was likely to have had an assortment of opinions, the one to be used depending upon the controversy of the moment, the surrounding symbolism, or the weaponry to be found in the enemy camp.
We make Chesterton “The Answer Man” when we paraphrase him, or quote him in an inappropriate contexts, or otherwise use his authority when speaking on behalf of our own pet ideas. One suspects that the one-volume Quotable Chesterton is misused in this way: want to know what Chesterton thought about advertising or Zionism. Look it up, it’s in alphabetical order.
Scholars conduct serious arguments in the pages of The Chesterton Review over whether Chesterton would or would not have voted for Ronald Reagan.
Critics publish long volumes of summarization, as, for example, Chistopher Hollis’ The Mind of Chesterton, in which the author’s only evident purpose is to paraphrase Chesterton’s published books, boil the ideas down, and “explain” what he wrote, in the fashion of Cliff’s Notes.
When Chesterton said he could connect any two ideas in the universe, he might have had in mind the meanings of all the world’s separate, distinct, and individual things. He also might have had in mind the pathways between things, the secret but real ties which, he was confident, he could always discern connecting A to Z, soup to nuts, and undergraduate riots to the morality of vivisection.
Chesterton’s grandnephew, David Chesterton, wrote in 1982 that his uncle convinced him to be busy about searching for conclusions rather than forming conclusions. [See The Chesterton Review, February, 1982, pp. 51-56]
We know that David Chesterton went to the other extreme: he was an ideologue. More moderately though, a case can be made that Chesterton should be read less for the final word on passing events such as student riots, and more for fresh ways of thinking about student riots, or about any of the countless, random, passing news items that have colored daily journalism from Chesterton’s day to our own.