Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Errors of Mr. Chesterton

What! Can this title be real?

(It must be some sort of joke... Surely Dr. Thursday is not serious...)

Oh, but I am quite serious. I do mean to state here that there are real errors in the writings of G. K. Chesterton. And I don't merely mean merely typographical oversights.

You stammer and whine... You are horrified; you weep, you moan,you smash your keyboard. You write to Dale Ahlquist, to Father Boyd, to Father Fessio, to Dover Publications, to Aidan Mackey, to the Queen of England, to the Vatican, screaming "Denounce Dr. Thursday, crush him, destroy him! May he be erased, and may his all disk drives be overwritten with crayons! Let his words, indeed, let his very name be stricken from every pylon and obelisk..." Ahem.

Ah, but you see, as much as I delight in reading GKC, and admire his work, and struggle to study it and to teach it to others, I do not believe that GKC is Almighty God. Speaking in a vaguely generic sense, as I am a mere layman, I am probably more of a Dominican than a Franciscan - but I am at least a Franciscan in this, that I follow Jesus, and not Francis. If you misunderstand that, you'll need to re-read GKC's book on St. Francis. It means that even Francis submitted to the authority of the Pope, and did not set up a new religion - though he could have. In the same way, I follow Jesus, not Chesterton, who himself submitted to papal authority; it would be all too easy for someone to begin a sect of Chestertonism.

"But Doc" - you say - "you may feel you are lying when you assert that GKC is never wrong, but why worry? You could be serving Chesterton as no Chestertonian has ever served him before!"

Ah yes. But you forget I have read GKC.

" wouldn't suggest I should serve Chesterton by what I know to be a lie. I don't know precisely what you mean by the phrase; and, to be quite candid, I'm not sure you do. Lying may be serving Chesterton; I'm sure it's not serving God."
[cf "The Miracle of Moon Crescent" in The Incredulity of Father Brown]

You sit and think a little - then ask: "do you mean this is some sort of exposé - you are going to enumerate all the little peccadillos and all the grave heresies committed by this wicked English journalist?"

No. At least not today. I'm not writing that sort of criticism. You really have to think again about what I do here, and why I do it. This is not that sort of column.

Rather, let me just quote a little from a marvellous book I am reading about St. Albert, the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, which may give you some insight into the matter:
[Albert] tells us that in scientific matters one could not expect to investigate everything in person, though if this were possible, it would be the ideal method of procedure. Since, however, it is out of the question, the next best thing is to base one's theories on the observations of man whom one has no reason to suspect of lying or chicanery. If, therefore, he [Albert] chose Aristotle as his guide and authority in the sciences, it was because he had reason to conclude, owing to the instances when he had tried out and tested the Greek's [Aristotle's] sayings by his [Albert's] own observations, that the Stagirite [that is, Aristotle] was faithfully reporting his own observations and those of his pupils. Hence, it is unjust to identify Albert's scientific doctrine absolutely and exclusively with what Aristotle had said. Albert put it down as a fundamental principle, which he carried out frequently in his own case, that when Aristotle's findings were in contradiction with one's bservations the only honest and sensible procedure was to hold to one's own opinion. [see below] Albert did subject Aristotle's scientific statements to scrutiny. Thus he rejects Aristotle when he says that lunar rainbows appear only every fifty years, since he himself had witnessed two in one year. This is one case only out of many where he proves his contention that even Aristotle is fallible; God alone is infallible.
[Schwertner, St. Albert the Great, 193-4]

You see? That is not only true for science, or for history, but even for literature - we must check into things. But more important is that concluding line: even Aristotle is fallible - God alone is infallible.

Actually, the delight in reading Chesterton is that he can poke so much fun at himself, even when he is wrong. There is a very famous line often quoted about this, and I will repeat it for you:
Listeners especially noted the quickness with which he picked up the "feel" of the audience and returned the ball to the questioner, leaving him often holding it in bewilderment and not knowing what to do next. A rather conceited young man made quite a speech of patronizing approval, saying that he had really quite liked the lecture but ending up, "I feel, Mr. Chesterton, that there is one important matter you have not quite covered: in the event of your having to change your original position, what tactics do you adopt?"
G.K. answered, "On such occasions I invariably commit suicide."
[Ward, Return To Chesterton 152]
From which it has been derived (by good logic) that, since GKC never committed suicide, he never changed his original position. Which is trivially refuted by his conversion in 1922.

But that is not the point. The point is not that he was "wrong" - but that he was poking fun, both at himself and at his questioner. If you wish something even funnier, check out "The Real Journalist" which was collected in A Miscellany of Men and tells of how GKC misquoted or misrepresented some poem or other, and how it snowballed into a media "feeding frenzy" and silly accusations and letter-writing. One can only imagine how the "bloggosphere" would react if it had been a posting... of course it is far too long for a "twitter", thank God! Hee hee.

But let us hear a little more of GKC about making mistakes. It may not satisfy you - in fact, it may leave me unspeakably tarred with some sort of anti-Chestertonian brush (hee hee!) but then as the Master has suffered, so also should the disciple expect to suffer. It may be my business to find and correct errors, but I do spend time considering the errors in my own writing before I bother fussing about those committed by others. (Remember that thing about digging out the wooden beam from your own eye first?) Try thinking about all this, and refrain from commenting until you have spent some time on it; you may be surprised at the result. Maybe you will actually laugh.

There is nothing that needs more fastidious care than our choice of nonsense. Sense is like daylight or daily air, and may come from any quarter or in any quantity. But nonsense is an art. Like an art, it is rarely successful, and yet entirely simple when it is successful. Like an art, it depends on the smallest word, and a misprint can spoil it. And like an art, when it is not in the service of heaven it is almost always in the service of hell. Numberless imitators of Lewis Carroll or of Edward Lear have tried to write nonsense and failed; falling back (one may hope) upon writing sense. But certainly, as the great Gilbert said, wherever there has been nonsense it has been precious nonsense. Les Précieuses Ridicules might be translated, perhaps, in two ways. No one doubts that serious artists are absurd; but it might also be maintained that absurdity is always a serious art.

I have suffered as much as any man from the public insult of the misprint. I have seen my love of books described as a love of boots. I have seen the word "cosmic" invariably printed as "comic"; and have merely reflected that the two are much the same. As to Nationalists and Rationalists, I have come to the conclusion that no human handwriting or typewriting can clearly distinguish them; and I now placidly permit them to be interchanged, though the first represents everything I love and the second everything I loathe. But there is one kind of misprint I should still find it hard to forgive. I could not pardon a blunder in the printing of "Jabberwock." I insist on absolute literalism in that really fine poem of Lear, "The Dong with the Luminous Nose." To spoil these new nonsense words would be like shooting a great musician improvising on the piano. The sounds could never be recovered again. "And as in uffish thought he stood." If the printer had printed it "affish" I doubt if the first edition would have sold. "Over the Great Gromboolian Plain." Suppose I had seen it printed "Gromhoolian." Perhaps I should never have known, as I know now, that Edward Lear was a yet greater man than Lewis Carroll.

The first principle, then, may be considered clear. Let mistakes be made in ordinary books - that is, in scientific works, established biographies, histories, and so on. Do not let us be hard on misprints when they occur merely in time-tables or atlases or works of science. In works like those of Professor Haeckel, for example, it is sometimes quite difficult to discover which are the misprints and which are the intentional assertions. But in anything. artistic, anything which avowedly strays beyond reason, there we must demand the exactitude of art. If a thing is admittedly not possible, then the next best thing it can do is to be beautiful. If a thing is nonsensical, it ought to be perfectly nonsensical.
[GKC ILN March 11 1911, CW29:51-2.
Also see ILN June 9, 1906 CW 27:206: "Whatever is cosmic is comic."]
I am ready to admit I have made many mistakes in this posting, but I do not have any intention of committing suicide. I've got too much to do just now, so "I think I shall not hang myself today." [GKC "A Ballade Of Suicide" in Collected Poems 180]

Postscript. I had to poke into the Jaki part of AMBER to find out something more about Haeckel. As GKC says, "The religion of Haeckel the biologist is more important than his biology." [ILN June 22 1912 CW29:312] But he really was even more hilarious when you hear his science:
Some monists tried of course to camouflage their materialistic exploitation of the alleged fact of spontaneous generation with a propaganda long on scientific words but very short on science. Thus Haeckel boldly informed the German Association in 1877 that once the chemical components of a cell - carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulphur - are properly united, they "produce the soul and body of the animated world, and suitably nursed, become man." In all this of course there was only as little of "exact" physical science as there was logic in his concluding sentence: "With this single argument the mystery of the universe is explained, the Deity annulled and a new era of infinite knowledge ushered in."
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 310]
Oh my... Hee hee!


  1. Best. Post. Ever! Human, fallible heroes are the best kind.

    But wasn't Chesterton more a FrancEs-can than a Franciscan?

  2. What about infallible human heroes, like Jesus.

    "He must be a killable hero."


  3. If I'm reading Chesterton right, I believe he DOES makes three theological errors as a Catholic. First, in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, he makes it clear that he believes that the Father had forsaken Christ at the cross. Second, in What's Wrong With the World, he writes of governments as penalties of the Fall (I could be wrong with this one, but he runs with it.) Last, in Orthodoxy, he emphasizes Jesus going through doubt at the Passion. Other than these three things, I haven't seen anything heterodox in his writings.

  4. I'm too lazy to look up the quote, but I thought he said that he "seems" to have doubt. Been a while though.

  5. "But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God."
    -Orthodoxy, Ch. 8 The Romance of Orthodoxy.


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