“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 previously appeared as columns in the Illustrated London News. Chesterton wrote 1535 columns for the ILN from 1905 to 1936. In addition to the 34 essays here, over 300 others were collected in such books as: The Uses of Diversity, Fancies vs. Fads, Generally Speaking, All is Grist, Come to Think of It, All I Survey, Avowal and Denials, As I was Saying, and The Glass Walking-Stick. There is no real reason to think that the 300 plus essays that were gathered into these books are necessarily the best of Chesterton’s contributions to the Illustrated London News. Anyone who has delved into the Ignatius Press edition of the original ILN columns (now nearly complete) can confirm this. The entire corpus is simply a gold mine with vast treasures waiting to be discovered.
Yet there is something special about this, the first collection: All Things Considered. Both in its title and content, it is quintessential Chesterton. Here, the master essayist considers all things from poetry to patriotism, from anonymity to impartiality, from demagogues to mystagogues, from science to religion, from phonetic spelling to running after one’s hat.
As he does elsewhere, in his introduction Chesterton expresses astonishment that his ephemeral journalism should be reprinted in something so permanent as a book. After all, the main thrust of these writings is to take aim at modern ideas which flee as fashions flee. He cannot imagine that the book would last twenty minutes longer than the philosophies which it attacks. But the reason these essays still hold up so well, is because the bad ideas which they counter keep returning as do wide lapels and baggy pants.
And most bad ideas, like bad fashions, attack the dignity of Man. Chesterton defends Man as the only creature that can be dignified – because Man is also the only creature that can be absurd. “Man is an exception, whatever else he is. . . Man is always something worse or something better than an animal.” For in sex, no animal can be chivalrous – and no animal can be obscene. And “no animal ever invented anything so bad as drunkenness – or so good as drink”.
Man is a paradox: “superior to all the things around him and yet at their mercy.” A man trying to get a fly out of his glass of milk or a piece of cork out of his glass of wine “imagines himself irritated.” And “people of very modern views [are] driven by their distress to the use of theological terms to which they attach no doctrinal significance, merely because a drawer was jammed tight and they could not pull it out.” But their problems, says Chesterton, merely rest on false assumptions, such as the assumption that drawers should always come out easily. We make fools of ourselves because we have wrong ideas. We can then laugh at how foolish we are when we suddenly see things clearly.
Chesterton says a joke is “the truth yet not the fact.” For instance, the many jokes about shrewish wives and henpecked husbands are an exaggeration, but they are “an exaggeration of a truth; whereas all the modern mouthings about oppressed women are the exaggerations of a falsehood.” He says if you read the intellectuals you will see wives portrayed as if they are the chattel of their lords, like his bath or his bed. “But if you read the comic literature of the democracy you will find that the lord hides under the bed to escape the wrath of his chattel. This is not the fact, but it is much nearer the truth.” The point of the joke, says Chesterton, is that even if the man is the head of the house he knows he is only the figure-head.
Similarly, every joke is a “grave theological matter” because every joke is about the Fall of Man. You cannot even appreciate a joke unless you have a clear philosophy which can recognize what is right and what is askew. Furthermore, a good philosophy will not collapse under the lightness of a joke. Thus the warning at the beginning of the book to people who take literature seriously. They may find that their ideas do not hold up so well under the weight of Chesterton’s wit. Whereas, “it is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”Most fleeting ideas, which seem to the world to be so new and noteworthy, attack the permanent things, like religion, which seem so old and outdated. But truth is not a trend, and Chesterton never bows to the weird winds of new philosophies, no matter how strongly they blow. It does not matter how popular an idea is today or tomorrow; what matters is whether it is right or wrong. “Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it.”Imagine. There is a right and there is a wrong. The modern world has rejected this scandalously simple idea. Right and wrong has been replaced by a vague and slippery self-interest. Black and white has been replaced by various shades of gray. Conviction has been replaced by impartiality, and the agnostic is regarded as a more balanced thinker than a believer. But as Chesterton says, “It is assumed that the agnostic is impartial, whereas the agnostic is merely ignorant.”If this book could be reduced to one quotation it might be this: “It is the mark of religious forms that they declare something unknown. But it is the mark of worldly forms that they declare something which is known, and which is known to be untrue.”