Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Splendid strangers

I am enjoying my daily snippet of wisdom from the writings of G K Chesterton in the book of Advent and Christmas reflections I had for my birthday. I think that the Father Brown stories were probably all that I knew of Chesterton's work before this came into my possession but, each day, the brief extract given for reflection makes me want to read more from this prolific writer. I am finding this online reader a most useful site for further exploration.

Here is an extract from 'Orthodoxy', which found echoes in my own attitude towards people and, indeed, is one of the reasons that I like blogging; I love to meet (even virtually) people from different walks of life, with different opinions and experiences. I may not agree with them but how dull life would be if we only mixed with carbon copies of ourselves.

How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other [people]* with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers. (Orthodoxy)
*he did, of course, write 'men'


  1. I am ashamed to admit that I'v never read any GK Chesterton M, even though the FCJ nuns were always exhorting the teenage girls in their charge to do so. What would you recommend as a staring point?

  2. As I say, D, Fr Brown was all I knew and I must confess that was via the Alec Guinness film rather than the books.
    These snippets I'm reading, show him to have been a gentle theologian and philosopher and surprisingly easy to read. The butterfly quote I used on an earlier post is from 'Charles Dickens: Last of the Great Men' and the splendid strangers comes from 'Orthodoxy'. I've only looked at the on-line reader that I link to, so far. Perhaps I'll get down to handling a real book in the new year.
    Ignatius Press is publishing the Collected Works of G.K Chesterton as an ongoing project - to date 35 volumes!

  3. He was unsurpassed in his ability to see the realities of the human condition and to skewer the pretentions of modern intellectuals simply and often hilariously. One of my favourite quips was when he was discussing the social sciences and recounted how some famous anthropologist reported how a primitive tribe he was studying put food in the graves of their dead, thus leading him to conclude they believed the dead could eat (sage nods of agreement all around). Chesterton's reply was to imagine a future anthroplogist studying us and recording how we tended to surround our caskets with flowers (observing scientifically that many elderly ladies became quite upset if they didn't arrive on time), thus proving we believed the dead could smell.

    And here is a gem from Chapter Six of Orthodoxy. monix, how often in your life have you been caught in this magic kingdom of doublespeak, including in your blogging life:

    Here is another case of the same kind. I felt that a strong case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called "Christian," especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting. The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile. Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley, in a reticent way, were decidedly men. In comparison, it did seem tenable that there was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels. The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep. I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different. I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Leon did. The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes. What could it all mean? What was this Christianity which always forbade war and always produced wars? What could be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight, and second because it was always fighting? In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness? The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant.

    I take a third case; the strangest of all, because it involves the one real objection to the faith. The one real objection to the Christian religion is simply that it is one religion. The world is a big place, full of very different kinds of people. Christianity (it may reasonably be said) is one thing confined to one kind of people; it began in Palestine, it has practically stopped with Europe. I was duly impressed with this argument in my youth, and I was much drawn towards the doctrine often preached in Ethical Societies -- I mean the doctrine that there is one great unconscious church of all humanity rounded on the omnipresence of the human conscience. Creeds, it was said, divided men; but at least morals united them. The soul might seek the strangest and most remote lands and ages and still find essential ethical common sense. It might find Confucius under Eastern trees, and he would be writing "Thou shalt not steal." It might decipher the darkest hieroglyphic on the most primeval desert, and the meaning when deciphered would be "Little boys should tell the truth." I believed this doctrine of the brotherhood of all men in the possession of a moral sense, and I believe it still -- with other things. And I was thoroughly annoyed with Christianity for suggesting (as I supposed) that whole ages and empires of men had utterly escaped this light of justice and reason. But then I found an astonishing thing. I found that the very people who said that mankind was one church from Plato to Emerson were the very people who said that morality had changed altogether, and that what was right in one age was wrong in another. If I asked, say, for an altar, I was told that we needed none, for men our brothers gave us clear oracles and one creed in their universal customs and ideals. But if I mildly pointed out that one of men's universal customs was to have an altar, then my agnostic teachers turned clean round and told me that men had always been in darkness and the superstitions of savages. I found it was their daily taunt against Christianity that it was the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark. But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people, and that all other peoples had died in the dark. Their chief insult to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves, and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative insistence on the two things. When considering some pagan or agnostic, we were to remember that all men had one religion; when considering some mystic or spiritualist, we were only to consider what absurd religions some men had. We could trust the ethics of Epictetus, because ethics had never changed. We must not trust the ethics of Bossuet, because ethics had changed. They changed in two hundred years, but not in two thousand.


    Try Heretics for much wisdom and hilarity. Just to give you a taste of classic Chestertonism, here he is on the Salvation Army:

    The usual verdict of educated people on the Salvation Army is expressed in some such words as these: “I have no doubt they do a great deal of good, but they do it in a vulgar and profane style; their aims are excellent, but their methods are wrong.” To me, unfortunately, the precise reverse of this appears to be the truth. I do not know whether the aims of the Salvation Army are excellent, but I am quite sure their methods are admirable....No one, perhaps, but a sociologist can see whether General Booth’s housing scheme is right. But any healthy person can see that banging brass cymbals together must be right.

  4. Peter, thank you for confirming that I have been missing a great deal. Chesterton will definitely be on my 2008 reading list.

    As for the double speak, how delightful to see that there is nothing new under the sun, even on the Daily Duck! I visit frequently, leave dismayed or frustrated but I love them all as 'splendid strangers.' In a way, I pity them as slaves to their certainties while, as you know, we Christians are really comfortable with paradox!


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