Why do we like courtroom dramas? Because we like drama. We like articulated tension and heightened emotion and the thrilling confrontation. But why do we like courtroom dramas? Because we like justice and revelation and truth. And why do we usually cheer on the defense lawyer? Because we are quite sure the defendant is not really guilty. We think the accusers are the ones who are wrong.Chesterton’s first book of essays was put together under the title, The Defendant.
He explains the title in the introduction: “I have imagined that the main business of a man, however humble, is defence.” Chesterton saw that many good things in the world were under attack, not only grand things, but commonplace, ordinary things which also had a goodness and truth about them that were well worth defending.
Published in 1901, The Defendant was based on a collection of reviews and articles that he had contributed to an early literary and political journal called The Speaker. Chesterton the Essayist, like Athena from the head of Zeus, emerged fully-formed and ready for battle. These sixteen essays not only set the tone for every other essay he would ever write, but they reveal a completeness in thought that he would continue to draw on for the rest of his life.
And what does he defend here? It is a rather surprising list that includes skeletons, planets, China shepherdesses, ugly things, penny dreadfuls, nonsense and babies.
Skeletons? Well, it is silly to be afraid of skeletons, since each of us relies heavily on one, and that is one skeleton we can’t very well run away from. And Chesterton touches here on a theme that he would return to again and again: that there is an underlying joy to everything we see, just as our skulls are always laughing beneath our faces.
Another recurrent theme is that creation is something we should never get used to. The function of the imagination is “not to make strange things settled so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.” It is religion that “has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation.”
Art, too, should reflect this wonder. Instead, art has attacked both God and Man. “The curse against God is Exercise I.” Exercise II is the attack on the common man and his normal feelings. Art is somehow “low” if it is “sentimental.” But, says Chesterton, “Ordinary men will always be sentimentalists: for a sentimentalist is simply a man who has feelings and does not trouble to invent a new way of expressing them.” Civilization must be defended against the outlaw. Pageantry must be defended against formless fashion. Romance which is real, must be defended against realism which is not real. Babies need to be defended because they are defenseless. They must be defended against those who do not understand that with each new baby, the whole universe is again put on trial.
Whereas first editions are always collector’s items, in this case it is the second edition that is the prize, for it opens with an added essay, “In Defence of a New Edition.” In it Chesterton remarks how strange it is that there should be a second printing of such “ephemeral” essays. He makes the excuse that the essays had obviously been forgotten about and now may be read again as “entirely new sensations.” Well, they can be read again, at the opposite end of the century in which they were written, and they are still entirely new. We need to be reminded of a truth we already know, a truth which Chesterton would always remind us of: “Things must be loved first and improved afterwards.”