Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton (1908)
Book reviewed by Samuel Johns (July 2021)
The British journalist, philosopher, playwright, and theologian warned over 100 years ago:
“The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things [in life], but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless, it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike [sic], when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind;
Praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live” (p.169).
How does G.K. Chesterton arrive at such a conclusion?
His book entitled ‘Orthodoxy’ (which sold 750,000 copies on first print), is a treatise on the origins of pleasure. The questions he wants to get to the bottom of are those such as: where does joy stem from? What is the heartbeat of pleasure? What are its origins in our world?
Chesterton himself, after many years of searching and travail, settled on ‘Christianity as the only reasonable explanation for the existence [of pleasure] in the world’ (p. xvi). Philip Yancey writing in the preface puts it this way (p. xvi): ‘along the way we lose sight of the One who gave us pleasure’. Chesterton himself writes:: “moments of pleasure are the remnants washed ashore from a shipwreck, bits of Paradise extended through time. We must hold these relics lightly, and use them with humility and restraint, never seize them as our entitlements” (ibid.).
For G.K. Chesterton, the centrality of the Fall cannot be overstated, for understanding the human condition. When we lose sight of our condition, we lose sight of the terrain of joy. And this means
Love can become lust, power becomes abuse, money becomes an idol, eating becomes gluttony, and addictions can run rampant in our lives.
As Yancey suggests (p. xvi), ‘along the way we lose sight of the One who gave us pleasure’. Chesterton writes:
“The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall…To the question, “What is meant by the Fall?” I could answer with complete sincerity, “That whatever I am, I am not myself.” This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves, but even more natural to us than ourselves” (p.167).
This is the bedrock of the gospel – ‘the normal itself is an abnormality’. For Chesterton, it is also the bedrock of true sanity. Intriguingly, he credits the gospel – or what he prefers to call orthodoxy – with granting him mental emancipation. In his brief study on the philosophy of sanity, he calls us to test our presuppositions far and wide – to take them to the edges and push right up to the borders. Chesterton writes:
“There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable…[yet] facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom” (p.10).
This writing glimmers with sincerity, recovering an Eden-like innocence and appreciation for the world which is badly needed in the late-modern West. Our culture, fed on the excess of positivity and breadcrumbed by media stimulation, has drank from the waters of satire and imbibed irony and sarcasm as the highest forms of intelligence. Yet as Chesterton writes, satire “presupposes an admitted superiority in certain things over others; it presupposes a standard” (p.38). This can serve well, at times, in establishing a principle to be fierce about. Yet at other times it can be disastrous for the common morality of man.
Chesterton gives the example of Nietzsche – a philosopher with a great talent for sarcasm, who ultimately tested the bounds of sanity. He suggests: “if Nietzsche had not ended in imbecility, Nietzscheism would end in imbecility. Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man [sic] who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain” (p.39). And so the story goes for Nietzsche – who concluded his life with seven uncommunicative years of silence.
Sanity, for G.K. Chesterton, belongs to the poet who accepts the romance and drama of the world, rather than the logician who does not.
This sanity is not static. Where science seeks to explain all things in terms of calculation and necessary law, Chesterton argues on behalf of the Christian doctrines of mystery and free will.
Yet Chesterton does not mean merely learning the right doctrines, then lapsing into a refined meditation on them. He affirms that right thinking is a waste without right action. In the hidden wisdom of the doctrines of original sin and the divinity of Christ, Chesterton finds the seedbeds of action and revolt necessary for life to face up to the tyrannies of money and power.
It is in tales of wonder that our deepest selves are stirred up. Chesterton calls this ‘elementary wonder’ (p.51), not something to be confused with ‘mere fancy’ (ibid.). He writes: ‘just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment’ (ibid). Consider the child, Chesterton tells us. ‘Mere life is interesting enough’ (ibid.). To a child of four, it is not fairy tales that are needed but simply tales. ‘A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door & saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door’ (ibid.).
Again, Chesterton draws this back to the human condition. He articulates this with crystal clarity – tying together the fallenness of man [sic] with our forgetfulness. He writes:
“We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forgot” (p.51).
For the materialist, a high degree of simplicity and uniformity are sought after. Yet at what cost? Chesterton would posit that ‘materialism has a sort of insane simplicity’ (p.17). The desire to understand everything, and categorise all of life, does not necessarily imply value in that understanding. The materialist may ‘understand everything, and [yet] everything does not seem worth understanding’ (ibid.). For the thoughts of the materialist are primarily concerned with the cosmos – yet divided from the realities of the earth. Chesterton writes: ‘his cosmos is smaller than our world…it is not
Thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea.
The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in’ (p.17).
Chesterton continues his critique by centring on the very Christian notion of humility. In one sense, he argues, humility is the enigma that is strictly peculiar to Christendom. He ties this to the democratic process of voting and the machinery of democracy. For our purposes here, however, the point still stands as valid on its own:
“There is nothing really humble about the abnegation of the Buddhist; the mild Hindoo is mild, but he is not meek. But there is something psychologically Christian about the idea of seeking for the opinion of the obscure rather than taking the obvious course of accepting the opinion of the prominent” (p.124).
To this, perhaps we can raise the question of posture. What is our posture? To what are we attentive? With what do our ears prick up and the pace of our heart beat faster? Clearly, Christianity ‘preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king’ (p.166). Yet this is also the great paradox of life within Christendom. Chesterton adds;
‘Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian’ (p.170).
This is arguably best distilled in the gravity-induced metaphors that Chesterton employs to capture our imagination. He writes: ‘pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man “falls” into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue…for solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity’ (p.125).
The question then, is what (mental) world do we intend to inhabit?
The world of Orthodoxy, for GK Chesterton, brought ‘mental emancipation’ (p.168) and a ‘gaiety [not] about the facts of life, [but] about its origin’ (ibid.). Our society is now all topsy-turvy with its obsession for perfection, athleticism, speed, efficacy, optimisation.
“Men of science offer us health, an obvious benefit; it is only afterwards that we discover that by health, they mean bodily slavery and spiritual tedium. Orthodoxy makes us jump by the sudden brink of hell; it is only afterwards that we realise that jumping was an athletic exercise highly beneficial to our health. It is only afterwards that we realise that this danger is the root of all drama and romance” (p.166).
There is a wonderful image that Chesterton ends on. He argues against the vacuousness of materialism, devoid of meaning in the universe, and thus without romance or mystery, for ‘its romances will have no plots’ (p.167). Indeed, he warns;
‘A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land of authority.
One can find no meanings in a jungle of scepticism; but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of doctrine and design. Here everything has a story tied to its tail’ (ibid.).
How can we inhabit this forest of doctrine and design? What posture can we adopt?
Chesterton calls this the topsy-turvy condition of ‘being born upside down’ (p.169), whereby ‘modern man is standing on his head’ (ibid., with the heavens below the earth) in contrast to the man living in Christendom – a land that ‘satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small’ (p.169).
*Page references refer to the Image Doubleday Edition © (1st pubs. 1959) 2001 (NY, USA)
*** Readability (3/5): language articulating profound, philosophical arguments
**** Application (4/5): we all deal with orthodox belief as part of the Christian tradition
**** General Appeal (4/5): highly recommended as a riveting read
*** Commitment (3/5): Weekend read or major commitment? Eminently readable
**** Challenge (4/5): a good read, though philosophical, and thus intellectually challenging
**** Recommendation (4/5): read it, enjoy it, ponder it, savour it!