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 in grazing all day long.” He was saddened that this literary genre had degenerated in his lifetime, but even so, the newer adventure books still retained something of the original delights, even if they were only “the reflection of a hundred reflections and each in a distorting mirror.”

The Common Man is mostly a book about books. It is not dry literary criticism but is itself an adventure story about adventure stories. Chesterton walks with the classical heroes as he slays the modern monsters. He writes great essays about great books but can even write exciting essays about boring books. He marches across time, taking on The Song of Roland, Dr. Johnson, Rabelais, Francis Thompson, George Meredith, Rupert Brooke, Thackeray, Dickens (of course), the James Brothers, (Henry and William), Smollet, Tolstoy, Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and his friend, Walter de la Mare. Also included here is Chesterton’s masterful exploration of “the mysticism of happiness” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is probably the best essay ever written about Shakespeare (or any other writer).

There is a reason why great books cut across historical epochs. There is a reason why mediocre books get stuck in their own era. “The first use of good literature,” says Chesterton, “is that it prevents a man from being merely modern.” Eternal themes don’t wear out even if the current fashions neglect them for a moment in time. “What we call the new ideas are generally broken fragments of the old ideas.”

The theme is launched with the title essay of the book.

Modern emancipation has really been a new persecution of the Common Man. If it has emancipated anybody, it has in rather special and narrow ways emancipated the Uncommon Man. It has given an eccentric sort of liberty to some of the hobbies of the wealthy, and occasionally to some of the more humane lunacies of the cultured. The only thing that it has forbidden is common sense, as it would have been understood by the common people.

The modern intellectuals are always fleeing to different extremes and then forcing their absurd theories on the normal people who have to suffer the consequences. All of the ordinary things are under assault from the altar to the hearth. The professors who are supposed to appreciate and protect the past instead re-writs history and twist the time-honored texts into tortured meanings. Chesterton muses that he would like to put the head of such a professor on the end of stick, “in the French Revolutionary manner,” and use it as a club with which to beat some sense into other professors who have tried to empty Christianity of its divinity and empty the Bible of its inspiration.

Theologians and philosophers debate about the inspiration of scripture; but perhaps the most philosophical argument, for certain scriptural sayings being inspired, is simply that they sound like it.

They have spread the misconception that Christianity is dull, that the Christian virtues are tame and timid and even respectable. Chesterton stands up against them: he asserts that the Christian virtues are “vast, defiant, and even destructive things, scorning the yoke of this world, dwelling in the desert, and seeking their meat from God.” The modern world portrays itself as full of noise and energy and restlessness. Rather, says Chesterton, the age we live in “is really very sleepy; all the wheels and the traffic send one to sleep.”

In between these literary essays are reflections on love and laughter, including the wonderful “Two Stubborn Pieces of Iron,” a title used to describe those two very different creatures – man and woman – who can only be joined together when they are “red hot.” There is also the sermon that Chesterton would have preached, had he been a preacher, a sermon against the sin of pride, and a tour de force of the history that might have been: “If Don John of Austria had Married Mary Queen of Scots.”

This was the first posthumous collection of Chesterton essays edited by his secretary and literary executrix, Dorothy Collins. The writer she had served so well had been dead for fourteen years but there was still a demand for his books, albeit a waning one. She put together some of his best uncollected essays for this volume, but there was still a wealth of scattered material to be gathered. She would bring out seven more such books over the next twenty years. But we are only seeing the beginning of Chesterton’s posthumous books. Not a bad accomplishment for a writer to keep writing so many books after his death.

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