- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

Tradition, he wrote, "is the democracy of the dead." He observed: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried." British author Gilbert Keith Chesterton was one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century, and remains one of the most quotable. He published 4,000 essays, 100 books, hundreds of poems and short stories, including the Father Brown detective tales.
Despite his achievements, G.K. Chesterton is not on the syllabus at colleges and universities, says Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society.
"It's a crime," he says. "We're turning these people out into the world claiming they're educated without having been exposed to Chesterton."
Chesterton's Christian perspective provides "the balance that is missing in modern education," Mr. Ahlquist says. "He is the counterargument to the materialist theory of history and to scientific determinism and moral relativism. He's an ardent critic of Darwin, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. You'd think that to give a student a balanced education … you'd provide a little rebuttal to their arguments. But that's exactly why he's not taught."
There is another reason that colleges don't teach Chesterton, Mr. Ahlquist says.
"He's just really too big to get a hold of," he says. "He wrote about everything, was just immensely prolific, wrote in all genres, and we are just so compartmentalized in our thinking that we don't know where to put Chesterton. He can't be pigeonholed."
Still, if neglected by academics, Chesterton's flair for aphorisms and wordplay have earned him an enduring spot in anthologies of quotations. He merits 13 entries in "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations," and a whopping 59 entries in "The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations."
Among Chesterton's quotes:
"A citizen can hardly distinguish between a tax and a fine, except that the fine is generally much lighter."
"The mistake of all that medical talk lies in the very fact that it connects the idea of health with the idea of care. What has health to do with care? Health has to do with carelessness."
"Man is always something worse or something better than an animal; and a mere argument from animal perfection never touches him at all. Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal invented anything so bad as drunkenness or so good as drink."
On no subject was Chesterton more quotable than on progress, which he scorned:
"Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative."
"Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision; instead we are always changing the vision."
"My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday."
Chesterton was also hostile to feminism.
"Most of the feminists," he wrote in 1910, "would probably agree with me that womanhood is under shameful tyranny in the shops and mills. But I want to destroy tyranny. They want to destroy womanhood. That is the only difference."
Chesterton "was a great critic of feminism because he was a defender of womanhood," Mr. Ahlquist says. "Most clear-thinking women recognize they have an ally in Chesterton, because he recognizes that not only are men and women not equal, but women are superior."
Among Chesterton's most enduring creations was a fictional Catholic priest who "really turned the whole tide of detective fiction," Mr. Ahlquist says.
"Up until the time of the Father Brown stories, all detective fiction was either Sherlock Holmes or a bad imitation of Sherlock Holmes. What Chesterton did was introduce the underdog sleuth, the detective who's on the same level as the reader, and also the unassuming and almost unnoticeable detective who is a lot smarter than anyone is prepared to give him credit for. … He's the inspiration for 'Columbo.'"
The Father Brown stories so far have inspired a British Broadcasting Corp. series and a 1950 movie, "The Detective," starring Sir Alec Guinness who converted to Catholicism after playing the priest's role.
Chesterton's traditionalism and Catholicism may explain in part his exclusion from the current academic canon. More damaging, however, is the accusation that Chesterton was an anti-Semite.
"[T]he aura of anti-Semitism … persistently clings to his name," columnist Robert Fulford wrote of Chesterton in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1999. "[I]n the years before Hitler, Chesterton was one of many articulate intellectuals who saw the Jews as a less than positive force in Europe."
Chesterton's enemies "take a few sentences out of context," Mr. Ahlquist says. "He was a critic of certain Jews, but he was a critic of a lot of people. The fact is, he was one of the very first critics of Hitler and specifically attacked Hitler's policy toward the Jews."
In 1934, Chesterton wrote a tract warning England of the Nazi menace, and the next year wrote: "I will die defending the last Jew in Europe." After Chesterton died in 1936, Rabbi Stephen Wise wrote of him: "When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great, unabashed spirit."
Mr. Ahlquist discovered Chesterton a few years after graduating from college, when he picked up the 1925 book "The Everlasting Man" the same book that persuaded a young C.S. Lewis to become a Christian.
"The point of that book is, it's the explanation of history that we don't hear," Mr. Ahlquist says. "You can't understand history unless, first of all, you understand the uniqueness of the creature called man, and the uniqueness of the man called Christ."
Mr. Ahlquist's reaction to discovering Chesterton "was the sense of having been cheated. I was thinking, 'Why hadn't anyone exposed me to this writer when I was having my formal education?'"
He has since gone on to create for the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network a documentary series about Chesterton called "The Apostle of Common Sense," which is also the title of Mr. Ahlquist's new book.
Mr. Ahlquist founded the American Chesterton Society in 1996. The society has a Web site (www.chesterton. org) and publishes a magazine, Gilbert. It has about 1,000 members, Mr. Ahlquist says. "It's a pretty illustrious group."
While Chesterton's reputation did go into a period of eclipse after his death in 1936, Mr. Ahlquist says: "The fact is, there is a Chesterton revival under way. More than 60 of his books are back in print. … Local Chesterton societies are popping up all over the country, because people are having the same feeling I had they're feeling cheated about not having been taught about Chesterton."
So far, however, Chesterton mania has yet to reach academia.
"There is definitely a revival of interest in him, and maybe the colleges and universities will catch up."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide