Lecture 83: The Man Who Was Orthodox

Trivia question: from which of Chesterton’s books come the following famous quotations?

You cannot evade the issue of God, whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him. Now if Christianity be… a fragment of metaphysical nonsense invented by a few people, then, of course, defending it will simply mean talking that metaphysical nonsense over and over. But if Christianity should happen to be true, then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.

One can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.

When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.

Give up? It was a trick question. You will look in vain to find these great lines in any of Chesterton’s books. They are from three different Daily News columns written in 1905. They did not appear in a book until 1963, when A.L. Maycock selected and introduced several dozen marvelous passages from Chesterton’s uncollected writings under the title The Man Who Was Orthodox.

Alan Lawson Maycock (1898-1968) was a graduate of Cambridge, a surveyor in Egypt, a civilian education officer in the Royal Air Force, and a librarian at Magdalene College. He also authored a book on the Spanish Inquisition, which was introduced by Ronald Knox, and worked to restore the church at Little Gidding, which was inspirational to T.S. Eliot in writing his “Four Quartets.” Described as being “devoid of any desire whatsoever for personal aggrandizement, with no other aim than to be of service to his fellow men,” Maycock was the first scholar outside of Chesterton’s circle to put together a volume of previously uncollected writings for publication. Dorothy Collins was not impressed with Maycock’s proposal until she saw the final product, which pleased her very much.

In his introduction, Maycock describes Chesterton as the last of journalism’s great men of letters, who wrote “ceaselessly and spontaneously, pouring out riches of an ever-fertile mind on every kind of topic.” He was also “the last crusader,” with a passion for truth and justice, and “the prophet and the poet of the man in the street,” who could engage and stimulate his audiences and allies as well as his opponents. Chesterton watched the transformation of journalism from being the voice of the common man to being almost nothing more than articles written on the backs of advertisements, leading him to wonder aloud (or rather in print) if there was “any institution in the world that does harm on so gigantic a scale as the press.”

Maycock’s introduction might be one of the best little literary biographies of Chesterton ever written, but as brilliant and perceptive as it is, there is one way in which we feel slighted: this “introduction” takes up half the book. He has obviously sifted through a mountain of material, but he only manages to give us about a hundred pages of actual Chesterton. There is great stuff here, to be sure, along with a few odd selections, such as seven obituaries that Chesterton wrote for some now rather forgotten figures. We are treated to Chesterton’s unique slants on puppetry, humor, sophistry, rationalism, skepticism, classical philosophy, the Bible, Prohibition, pornography, politics, chaos, iconoclasm, fairy tales, comparative religion, Jesus Christ, and that old standby, Original Sin. (“Even if we do not admit the Fall of Man, we must admit his continuous state of the staggers. The apple that Eve ate was an orange; and its peel has ever since strewed the ways of the world.”)

But in spite of the wide selection, we are left panting for more. Maycock has only scratched the surface of the uncollected writings. It would be another 25 years before Ignatius Press would start publishing the collected Illustrated London News columns. We must continue to wait for the many columns from the Daily News, the New Witness, G.K.’s Weekly, and more. But A. L. Maycock does give a us a taste of these, and of all the good things to come when all the wonderful words of Chesterton that were once scattered among various journals will be finally brought together into a glorious whole.

We have a hint of that wholeness, the integrity, even the completeness of that as yet uncompleted collection in Maycock’s final selection. He ends the book with a beginning, quoting the last sentence of Chesterton’s first published essay, “The Dragon” (from The Debater at St. Paul’s School in 1891). Maycock suggests that it expresses “something of which Chesterton’s whole literary career was, in a very real sense, fulfillment”:

Reader, when you or I meet [the Dragon], under whatever disguise, and perhaps rescue a few captives from his black cavern, may we bear a brave lance and a spotless shield through the crashing melee of life’s narrow lists and may our wearied swords have struck fiercely on the painted crests of Imposture and Injustice when the Dark Herald comes to lead us to the pavilion of the King.

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