Lecture 77: The Common Man

Most of us do not regard reading books as a mere animal pleasure. But Chesterton says that it was for him, at least it was when he was a boy and he was reading books for boys. He was almost mechanically receptive, chewing up stories with “the sort of pleasure that a cow must have [...]

Lecture 76: The End of the Armistice

When the Great War ended, it didn’t end. That is why it would later be known as World War I. G.K. Chesterton argued that the armistice of 1918 was not a peace, but a truce. Less than fifteen years later, he saw that the truce was crumbling, that the world was headed towards a new [...]

Lecture 75: The Coloured Lands

What do you think of when someone uses the word, “Plakkopytrixophylisperambulantiobatrix”? For Chesterton (who is the only person I know to have used the word – well, other than Peter Floriani), the word refers to a twenty minute holiday from writing fiction. It is the title of a poem in the book The Coloured Lands, a [...]

Lecture 74: The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

It is well known that Father John O’Connor was the inspiration for the character of Father Brown, and it is generally conceded that Maurice Baring was in some way the model for Horne Fisher of The Man Who Knew Too Much. But who served as the basis for Mr. Pond? I have never heard of anyone [...]

Lecture 73: Autobiography

In June of 1936, when G.K. Chesterton’s death was announced in every major newspaper in the world, many of the headlines and subheads mentioned that he had just finished writing his autobiography. It was as if he knew before laying down his pen that the final book he had to complete in his life was [...]

Lecture 72: Chesterton’s First Book?

We have now completed our survey of the books Chesterton wrote in his lifetime. Before we begin considering his posthumous books, of which there are many, we are going to back up a bit. All the way to what we could call Chesterton’s “primitive” beginning. In 1898 Chesterton was working for the publisher Fisher Unwin. [...]

Lecture 71: As I Was Saying

As I Was Saying is the last book by G.K. Chesterton that was published during his lifetime. However, his literary estate would publish fourteen more books by him after his death, and there are still new books by Chesterton appearing almost every year. He apparently hasn’t stopped writing. He certainly hasn’t stopped being relevant. The [...]

Lecture 70: The Well and the Shallows

A few years after his conversion, G.K. Chesterton began contributing articles to Catholic magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. The bulk of these of essays were reprinted in The Thing: Why I am a Catholic (1929) and this book, The Well and the Shallows (1935), which could almost be called The Thing: Part II or, as he [...]

Lecture 69: The Scandal of Father Brown

According to G.K. Chesterton, every character in a novel is only the author in disguise. We certainly have evidence of this from Chesterton’s own fiction. Indeed, one of the standard criticisms of it is that all the characters sound like Chesterton. Perhaps the thinnest disguise Chesterton ever wears in the pages of a book is [...]

Lecture 68: Avowals and Denials

It is fun to see G.K. Chesterton writing about, of all things, the Loch Ness Monster, that fabled beast who is supposed to live, “for reasons best known to himself,” at the bottom of a that murky lake in Scotland. Chesterton observes that whether or not the monster is an inhabitant of Loch Ness, he [...]

Lecture 67: St. Thomas Aquinas

Evelyn Waugh claimed that G.K. Chesterton never actually read the Summa Theologica. He simply ran his fingers over the binding and absorbed its content. It is certainly as good a legend as Dorothy Collins’ account of Chesterton dictating half the book of St. Thomas Aquinas to her, stopping, asking her to get some books (“What books?” “I [...]

Lecture 66: All I Survey

G.K. Chesterton knew the power of words. He spent his whole life deftly handling these explosive devices. He argued about politics and religion where the weapons are simple and straightforward even when meant to deceive. But he also argued about literature, where words are intricate and subtle, where the flashes and bursts are beautiful but [...]

Lecture 65: Christendom in Dublin

Like all of G.K. Chesterton’s best writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, Christendom in Dublin reads like a good mystery story. The opening pages drop us into the midst of a flutter of flags. Chesterton vividly describes their differences, but we really have no idea what he is talking about or, more importantly, why. Finally he [...]

Lecture 64: Sidelights on New London and Newer York

After his second trip to America in 1931, G.K. Chesterton mused, “The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong.” Never one to shy away from a good fight, he decided to take on the ideal American. In putting together a book of sometimes polemical essays, he prefaces his [...]

Lecture 63: Chaucer

Chesterton has often been dismissed for blindly idealizing the Middle Ages, but the real problem is quite the opposite. The modern world automatically attacks the Middle Ages as something backwards, dark, and superstitious, the enemy of reason and liberty. Chesterton merely defended the truth that reason and liberty enjoyed a high point in medieval times [...]

Lecture 62: All is Grist

This gathering of Illustrated London News essays from 1930-31 demonstrates two things about Chesterton. First, that he could write a profound and provocative piece on any subject whatsoever – hence the title of the book: all is grist for Chesterton’s mill. The phrase is a wonderfully apt metaphor: he could make his daily bread from anything [...]

Lecture 61: The Resurrection of Rome

Chesterton went to Rome in 1930 to attend the Beatification of the English Martyrs. While he was there, he had personal audiences with both Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. In both cases, he did not do much talking. In the first case, it was because Mussolini did all the talking. In the second case, it [...]

Lecture 60: Come to Think of It

Of the several books that were comprised of essays that had previously appeared in the Illustrated London News, Come To Think of It stands apart for two reasons. First, the essays were chosen and arranged by J.P. de Fonseka, the Sri Lankan writer who also compiled GKC as MC (the other collections were done by [...]

Lecture 59: Four Faultless Felons

At first glance, Four Faultless Felons appears to be a cross between Manalive and The Club of Queer Trades. At second glance, too. It could serve as the Legion of Innocent Smith, who certainly could qualify as a faultless felon for his attempted murder, his burglary, his betrayals, all of which prove to be something [...]

Lecture 58: GKC as MC

This unique book was the bright idea of a writer from Ceylon who visited England in the late 1920’s and became friends with Chesterton. J.P. de Fonseka considered Chesterton a Master of Ceremonies to a whole banquet of authors past and present. Not just a Master but a Grand Master. He decided to collect Chesterton’s [...]

Lecture 57: The Thing

“The Faith,” says Chesterton, “gives a man back his body and his soul and his reason and his will and his very life.” In trying to explain its comprehensiveness, the master of words has to resort to an over-used, all-purpose, all-inclusive noun: the Catholic faith is simply “The Thing.” Later editions of this 1929 book [...]

Lecture 56: The Poet and the Lunatics

Here is a scenario for a game of twenty questions: a man chases another man outside in a violent thunderstorm, lassoing him with a rope, dragging him like a sack, tying him to a tree, pinning his head to the trunk with the prongs of a pitchfork on either side of the neck, and then [...]

Lecture 55: Generally Speaking

All Things Considered was the first and most famous collection of essays from Chesterton’s Illustrated London News columns. It is strange that after the success of that 1908 book, it took a full 20 years for another book from the Illustrated London News essays to be published. It was Generally Speaking, which came out in [...]

Lecture 54: Robert Louis Stevenson

After Chesterton’s book on Robert Louis Stevenson was published in 1927, Edmund Gosse sent Chesterton a letter. Gosse had been a friend of Stevenson and one of his great champions. We can almost hear Gosse weeping with joy and gratitude as he writes that Chesterton really understands Stevenson, unlike any other modern critic. Just as [...]

Lecture 53: The Judgment of Dr. Johnson

I hate to admit that George Bernard Shaw was right about anything even though it is almost impossible that anyone can be wrong about everything. But I must openly declare that Shaw was certainly right when he urged Chesterton to write more plays. He recognized Chesterton’s gift for plotting, for dramatic impulse, for show-stopping wit, [...]

Lecture 52: The Secret of Father Brown

It is no secret that the character of Father Brown was inspired by Fr. John O’Connor. Chesterton was intrigued by the fact that most people do not take priests seriously, thinking them out of touch with the grime and crime of the real world. It never occurs to them that a man who hears confessions [...]

Lecture 51: The Collected Poems

When his Collected Poems appeared in 1927, G.K. Chesterton had been recognized as a major English poet for well over a decade. Most of the poems in this collection had already been published in book form, including the charmers such as “The Donkey,” the rousers such as “Lepanto,” and the epic Ballad of the White Horse. However, [...]

Lecture 50: The Return of Don Quixote

Chesterton’s last novel is a reflection of his first novel. One contemporary reviewer called it “a new kind of Napoleon coming to a new kind of Notting Hill.” Michael Herne is a librarian at Seawood Abbey, an estate owned by Lord Seawood. When Lord Seawood’s daughter and some of her friends want to put on [...]

Lecture 49: The Catholic Church and Conversion

It may surprise some to know that Chesterton was raised as a Unitarian. His discovery of “orthodox” Christianity (as described in his book Orthodoxy), led him first to the Church of England in 1901, which he said later was simply his own uncompleted conversion to Catholicism. Before becoming Catholic, Chesterton acknowledged the fact that he was [...]

Lecture 48: The Queen of Seven Swords

A poem is picture painted with words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, so is a poem, even if the poem has very few words. A poem uses language as a shortcut to an idea or a feeling that would take much longer to describe in prose. A short poem can sometimes say [...]

Lecture 47: The Outline of Sanity

America leads the world in many things, including mental illness. Our mixed up society helps produce mixed up people. We are mixed up about religion, education, sex, and two other very basic things: politics and economics. We are basically insane when it comes to the role of money and laws and our daily bread. We [...]

Lecture 46: The Incredulity of Father Brown

We could probably consider this collection as the most autobiographical of the Father Brown stories. In them Chesterton talks about fame, about traveling to America, and about conversion. We learn that Father Brown has, all his life, “been led by an intellectual hunger for truth, even of trifles.” We see his concern for justice on [...]

Lecture 45: William Cobbett

It has been said (never mind by whom) that Chesterton’s books about others are really about himself. The qualities he admired in these indeed admirable characters were qualities that we immediately recognize in Chesterton. This is especially true of William Cobbett. Like Chesterton, William Cobbett (1763-1835) was a writer of many genres who cannot be [...]

Lecture 44: The Everlasting Man

C.S. Lewis was an atheist until he read Chesterton’s book, The Everlasting Man, but he wasn’t afterwards, prompting him to observe that a young man who is serious about his atheism cannot be too careful about what he reads. Of all of Chesterton’s literary monuments, this is perhaps his greatest, for he eloquently and concisely packs [...]

Lecture 43: Tales of the Long Bow

“These tales concern the doing of things recognised as impossible to do; impossible to believe; and, as the weary reader may well cry aloud, impossible to read about.” So begins Tales of the Long Bow, in which a man eats his hat, another sets the Thames on fire, silk purses are made out of sow’s ears, [...]

Lecture 42: Superstitions of the Sceptic

This small book, which is extremely hard to find, begins with a verbatim transcription of a lecture that Chesterton gave at Cambridge in 1925. One of the things confirmed in this transcript is that Chesterton talks exactly the way he writes: clearly, correctly, and generously. In the lecture, he argues that when skeptics break away [...]

Lecture 41: St. Francis of Assisi

Chesterton’s ten “biographies” are more like commentaries rather than accounts of the life and work of their subjects. Heavy on the analysis, light on the narrative. Even lighter on the facts. His subjects sometimes even appear to be secondary to the larger themes he wishes to discuss. His book on St. Francis, however, is unlike [...]

Lecture 40: Fancies vs. Fads

Fads are not new roads, but new ruts. They are not broadening, they are narrowing. They are not forms of freedom but forms of servitude. The person following a fashion is a kind of slave who does whatever he is told. He is stuck. Each of the “wild theorists” of our time, says Chesterton, “is [...]

Lecture 39: The Man Who Knew Too Much

First of all, there is no connection between The Man Who Knew Too Much and the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. Other than the same name. In this collection of stories, the man who knows too much is Horne Fisher, a character who is generally thought to be based on Chesterton’s good friend, [...]

Lecture 38: The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Poems

While Chesterton’s prose is usually rewarding on the first reading, his poetry often demands two or three readings before it really starts bearing fruit. There is much to miss the first time around and always more to discover upon returning again and again. It is a pity that so much of it is not only [...]

Lecture 37: What I Saw in America

When Chesterton was getting ready to travel to America for a speaking tour in 1921, he had to go to the American consulate about his passport. He was asked to answer certain questions. One was “Are you in favour of subverting the government of the United States by force?” His response: “I prefer to answer [...]

Lecture 36: Eugenics and Other Evils

Eugenics is a nice-sounding word, combining as it does the Greek words for “good” and “birth.” And Francis Galton, who made up the word and the idea, proposed Eugenics “for the betterment of mankind.” But that’s as far as the nice-sounding stuff goes. The actual definition is rather horrible: the controlled and selective breeding of [...]

Lecture 35: The New Jerusalem

During Christmas of 1919, G.K. Chesterton left his home in Beaconsfield, and traveled backward through time to the place where Christmas began. His 1920 book, The New Jerusalem, is a philosophical travelogue of his journey across Europe, across the desert, to Palestine. He says in fell in love with Jerusalem at first sight. He found [...]

Lecture 34: The Uses of Diversity

“Diversity” is one of those words that has become a sort of sledgehammer to force curriculums and staffs and casts of television shows to look a certain way. There is something quite fraudulent about it, and it is easy to point out. If people were serious about diversity, they would all be reading G.K. Chesterton. [...]

Lecture 33: The Superstition of Divorce

In 1918, Chesterton wrote a series of articles called “The Superstition of Divorce” for the New Witness. The essays were published as a collection under the same title in 1920. He said it wasn’t supposed to be a book, but a pamphlet, and the object of a pamphlet is to be out of date as [...]

Lecture 32: Irish Impressions

There is almost nothing about Chesterton that is not paradoxical. In 1918, when he traveled to Ireland for the first time, he was supposedly on a mission to recruit Irish men to fight alongside the English in World War I. While he certainly believed in defending Europe against the “barbaric imperialism” of Germany, the paradox [...]

Lecture 31: Utopia of Usurers

In that never-ending battle to answer the question, “Which Chesterton book should I read first?” one of the easiest and yet most pointed solutions came from that great English Chestertonian, Aidan Mackey, who said read any of Chesterton’s books first. It doesn’t matter as long as you start somewhere. The important thing is to start. [...]

Lecture 30: A Short History of England

Most history books are written to correct other history books. Chesterton’s A Short History of England is no exception. In every other sense, however, it is exceptional to every other history book. Chesterton wanted to write a popular history, that is, “a history from the standpoint of a member of the public.” Most historical accounts [...]

Lecture 29: The Appetite of Tyranny

In his book on William Blake, Chesterton says, “We all wake up on a battlefield.” In 1915, when he emerged from his coma-like state after his physical collapse several months earlier, Chesterton, in effect, did wake up on a battlefield. England was in the midst of the Great War with Germany. Though the English army [...]

Lecture 28: Collected Poems

Chesterton’s Collected Poems was very nearly his last book. At Christmas, 1914, Chesterton’s huge body suddenly shut down. He suffered a mysterious physical collapse that left him in a coma-like state for several months. Many people thought he would die. But, quite amazingly – and quite appropriately – he came back to life at Easter, [...]

Lecture 27: The Wisdom of Father Brown

There is only one kind of literature that is most successful and most appreciated when it makes us feel like a fool: detective fiction. A good mystery gives great pleasure when we come to the end of it and are dumbfounded by the solution. It is simultaneously humbling and gratifying to be surprised by a [...]

Lecture 26: The Flying Inn

Besides Heretics and Orthodoxy, Chesterton said that the book he most enjoyed writing was The Flying Inn. He apparently enjoyed creating the comical scenes as much as the polemical ones, the drinking songs as much as the bitter satire and the hard-edged debate. As the hero of the novel says (in describing something else), “It’s [...]

Lecture 25: Chesterton’s Play “Magic”

I shall deliberately destroy your credit as an essayist, as a journalist, as a critic, as a Liberal, as everything that offers your laziness as a refuge, until starvation and shame drive you to serious dramatic parturition. I shall repeat my public challenge to you; vaunt my superiority; insult your corpulence; torture Belloc; if necessary, [...]

Lecture 24: The Victorian Age in Literature

In 1913 the Home University Library published Chesterton’s The Victorian Age in Literature. But the editors emphatically declared that the book was not being offered as “an authoritative history of Victorian Literature” but only as Chesterton’s “personal views” on the subject. Apparently someone with personal views cannot write an authoritative history. In other words, an [...]

Lecture 23: A Miscellany of Men

A Miscellany of Men seems at first to be as random a gathering as the title suggests. In it you will find rapturous, poetic descriptions of fire and rain, of spring, of Gothic architecture, of soldiers praying in a church. You will find the Chesterton wit and charm and gentle satire. But you will also [...]

Lecture 22: Manalive

Every one of Chesterton’s novels is in some way a tribute to Charles Dickens: Pickwickian ensembles, broad-brushed emotion, extravagant variations on eternal struggles. As a painter borrowing a classic pose or technique from another painter’s masterpiece, so Chesterton models some of his literary scenes on those created by Dickens. A prime example of this is [...]

Lecture 21: The Ballad of the White Horse

Chesterton may have considered The Ballad of the White Horse his greatest literary accomplishment. I have two reasons for saying that. First of all, it is a masterpiece. But it was the only one of his works that he felt worthy enough to dedicate to his wife. The Ballad of the White Horse is one [...]

Lecture 20: The Innocence of Father Brown

While on a lecture tour of England in 1904, Chesterton met one of the most important people in his life: Father John O’Connor, a Catholic priest who became a lifelong friend and inspiration. It was Father O’Connor who opened Chesterton’s eyes to the Catholic Faith in a way he had never considered and patiently accompanied [...]

Lecture 19: Appreciations and Criticisms

In discussing his monumental biography of Charles Dickens, Peter Ackroyd made the equally monumental claim that he had read everything ever written by and about Dickens. But he was not saying this to boast; he was saying it to give weight to his claim that the best writer on Dickens is G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton’s intimacy [...]

Lecture 18: William Blake

Many William Blake fans dismiss this book. They conclude ahead of time that Chesterton and Blake are pretty much oil and water and cannot be mixed. If they do read the book, they do so with a focused determination that Chesterton doesn’t understand Blake. But they’re wrong. This book reveals – once again – Chesterton’s [...]

Lecture 17: Alarms and Discursions

In this collection, Chesterton the master essayist – and master discursionist – moves easily from the mirthful to the magnificent, observing that poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese, that Futurists don’t know a damn thing, and that England is the only place you can find Weather. He has us watch a [...]

Lecture 16: What’s Wrong with the World

Chesterton’s book, What’s Wrong with the World, was supposedly written in 1910. But there is good evidence that it was actually written today. Our society is experiencing exactly the crisis that Chesterton warned us about almost a century ago. There is a greater disparity than ever between the rich and poor. Our families are falling [...]

Lecture 15: The Ball and the Cross

Exactly 35 years after Chesterton died, the Archbishop of Venice wrote him a letter. He wanted to express his grateful agreement with the profound truths conveyed in Chesterton’s novel, The Ball and the Cross, particularly the idea that when people set out to destroy the cross, they end up destroying everything else, and doing it [...]

Lecture 14: Tremendous Trifles

There are several best introductions to Chesterton. Tremendous Trifles is one of the best of the best. It has only one disadvantage that I can think of: it is currently out of print. Fortunately, many of the essays from this collection are available elsewhere, such as on certain web sites and in the newly released [...]

Lecture 13: George Bernard Shaw

Chesterton’s most famous philosophical opponent was the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Their debates in print and in public were a subject of great amusement, and a source of one witty exchange after another: Chesterton: I see there has been a famine in the land. Shaw: And I see the cause of it. Shaw: If [...]

Lecture 12: Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy is the trunk of the tree from which all the other branches of Chesterton grow. It is a masterpiece of rhetoric, it has never been out of print since it was first published in 1908, and it is simply one of the best books written in the 20th century. If you only read one [...]

Lecture 11: All Things Considered

“I cannot understand the people who take literature seriously; but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this book.” This is how Chesterton introduces his 1908 collection of essays called All Things Considered. It was the first of several books comprised of essays which [...]

Why I Believe in Christianity

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Blatchford in saying that our difficulty very largely lies in the fact that he, like masses of clever people nowadays, does not understand what theology is. To make mistakes in a science is one thing, to mistake its nature another. And as I read God and My Neighbour, the conviction [...]

Why I Am A Catholic

The difficulty of explaining “why I am a Catholic” is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true. I could fill all my space with separate sentences each beginning with the words, “It is the only thing that…” As, for instance, (1) It is the only thing that [...]

Skepticism and Spiritualism

Glancing over several papers of late, I see such headings as “Another Medium Exposed,” and “Another Spiritualistic Fraud.” The easy and conventional comments made upon the matter by the journalists seem to me to be singularly lacking in a logical sense, and there seems to be an underlying assumption in all such comments that the [...]

St. Thomas Aquinas

The difficulty of dealing with St. Thomas Aquinas in this brief article is the difficulty of selecting that aspect of a many-sided mind which will best suggest its size or scale. Because of the massive body which carried his massive brain, he was called “The Ox”; but any attempt to boil down such a brain [...]

The Religious Aim of Education

It is only by a definite and even deliberate narrowing of the mind that we can keep religion out of education. I do not deny that it may in certain cases be the least of many evils; that it may be a sort of loyalty to a political compromise; that it is certainly better than [...]

Miracles and Modern Civilisation

Mr. Blatchford has summed up all that is important in his whole position in three sentences. They are perfectly honest and clear. Nor are they any the less honest and clear because the first two of them are falsehoods and the third is a fallacy. He says “The Christian denies the miracles of the Mahommedan. [...]

Introduction to the Book of Job

The book of Job is among the other Old Testament books both a philosophical riddle and a historical riddle. It is the philosophical riddle that concerns us in such an introduction as this; so we may dismiss first the few words of general explanation or warning which should be said about the historical aspect. Controversy [...]

Buddhism and Christianity

A distinguished military gentleman recently wrote to the newspaper to announce that a Chinese Buddhist is shortly to visit England, with the firm intention of finally abolishing war. He – I mean the military gentleman – explained that Buddhism is a word that means Enlightenment, and that only Enlightenment can abolish War. This seems in [...]

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