Lecture 114: Persuasion – Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
The Apostolate of Common Sense

Lecture 114: Persuasion

Essays from The Daily News, 1905-June 1906

Daily News Volume 3, 1905 – June, 1906

 

By 1905, G.K. Chesterton, only 30 years old, had established himself as one of the great essayists of his time, and clearly, everyone knew it. Before the end of the year, he would be hired as the “Our Notebook” columnist for the Illustrated London News, and he continued to issue a steady stream of contributions to miscellaneous journals. But his reputation was made in his very popular Saturday column for the Daily News. And even the Daily News saw more of his work, as he churned out dozens of book reviews that appeared during the week, and even added letters to the editor. He wrote so much for the Daily News during this time, that only a year-and-a-half worth of material manages to fit into the Volume Three. It includes not only such classics as “A Piece of Chalk,” “What I Found in My Pocket,” “The Twelve Men,” and “The Extraordinary Cabman,” but wonderful previously uncollected essays such as “On Toys and Other Allegories,” “Tragedy and the Gods,” and “A Plea for Political Unreason.” We find delicious literary criticism of Euripides, Ibsen, John Masefield, George MacDonald, Andrew Lang, Shelley, Shaw, and Shakespeare, as well as art criticism of painters as different as Durer and Whistler. 

This is some of Chesterton’s most enjoyable writing. In the midst of his astonishing variety of subject matter, he is laying the groundwork for Orthodoxy, with passages that will prove to be very similar to the book—touching on such things as the sameness of optimism and pessimism, the difference between a suicide and a martyr, and the uniqueness of Christianity among all religions. 

All of these essays are controversial. That is, Chesterton takes a stand in favor of a truth he has identified against an error he has also identified. “In persuasion we have nothing to do except to try and show that we are right.” To what end? “What we are all trying to do is to induce some regiments of the enemy to desert.” 

He has begun his war on two words that are becoming too over-used and under-considered: progress and efficiency, words that do not mean anything unless one establishes what one’s goal is. But the politicians and pundits use the words as ends in themselves, with no reference at all to any defined aims. “The typical modern man in revolt has no positive picture at all of what he is aiming at, but only a vague (and erroneous) sensation of progress.”  

While the new age is patting itself on the back at its superiority over old things, Chesterton maintains that the true independent mind must assert its superiority to new things. It is easy to avoid the fads and prejudices of the past. It is much more difficult to avoid the fads and prejudices of the present. The most creative thinking involves picturing a future when the present is the past. Amazingly, Chesterton can already see past decayed socialism in Russia and express concern about a capitalist menace in Japan. This is in 1905!  

At the same time he predicts the future, he does what he can to preserve the past, to prevent good things from being lost. He defends the traditions that are not only being neglected but those which are being pompously dismissed, including the old ways of generating a joyous laughter. He still wants to enjoy the “old rowdy humour which men count humiliating nowadays,” but which is actually less humiliating “than the bitter comedy and sneering psychology of to-day. The old farce only humiliated the body; which is a comic thing to begin with: the body is a beast on its hind legs. The Zolaesque upheavals seek to humiliate the soul.” He defends beauty to a world that is growing uglier and uglier. It is ugly, he says, because the modern world is unhappy. “Wherever there are happy men they will build beautiful things.” 

And of course he defends Christianity, even while conceding that most Christians fail to fulfill the Christian ideal. 

This bitter and bracing fact cannot be too much insisted upon in this and every other moral question. But, perhaps, it might be suggested that this failure is not so much the failure of Christians in connection with the Christian ideal as the failure of any men in connection with any ideal. That Christians are not always Christian is obvious; neither are Liberals always liberal, nor Socialists always social, nor Humanitarians always kind, nor Rationalists always rational, nor are gentlemen always gentle, nor do working men always work. If people are especially horrified at the failure of Christian practice it must be an indirect compliment to the Christian creed. 

As always, Chesterton combines religion and politics, and while he is accurate in his predictions, he is never predictable in his controversies. When attacking party politics, he says the evil in party government “does not lie in the fact that Liberals and Tories hate each other too much because they are Liberals and Tories. It lies in the fact that Liberals and Tories do not hate each other enough . . . It does not lie in the fact that the governing class is divided in the form of two factions; it lies in the fact that the governing class is a great deal too much united as the governing class.” 

His reviews of long-forgotten books are completely intoxicating. It is amazing that he can write a review that is worth reading about a book that is not worth reading, a book that will not likely ever be read by anyone ever again. He is always generous to his subject, even ending a review of a particularly weak effort from one particular author whose book was “not properly a book at all,” but “If he would write it again I would read it again.” Could anyone ask for a better review of a bad book? 

 

This essay first appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Gilbert! magazine