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Chesterton's "heretics" and ours


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Juan Luis Lorda |

Professor at School of Theology

The survival, in various guises, of different philosophical and intellectual positions that Gilbert Keith Chesterton left without arguments, means that the thought of the brilliant English author continues to be, a century later, fully current.

One of Gilbert Keith Chesterton 's first essays is Heretics (1905). But in Orthodoxy (1908) he identifies better the modern currents that attack Christianity. It was his realization that these criticisms and alternatives were foolish that led him to the Christian faith and to Orthodoxy. 

Why is Chesterton so topical? Among other merits, because many of the thoughts he confronts with such panache are still valid today. 

Chesterton had a particular grace to overcome them with an effective and sympathetic forcefulness, a really difficult combination, but very Christian and timely also in our times. 

From the time when Chesterton wrote his Orthodoxy (1908) to our own, more than a hundred years have passed. And many things have happened. The main one in the world of ideas has been the deployment and collapse of Marxism geographically and also mentally, with some painful epigones (North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, China, Vietnam...). But the world intellectual class is no longer Marxist in its majority, as it was (astonishingly and paradoxically) fifty years ago. For this reason, what we have in front of us is quite similar to what Chesterton had. And that is why we financial aid so much to read it. 

In Chesterton's England, after a wave of freethinkers in the 18th century, emancipation and distancing from Christianity had reached the streets. The old common and traditional Christian faith, until then the spiritual basis of the nation, was criticized from different angles in the public space and enthusiastic alternatives arose to replace it. 

With all the necessary caveats, it can be said that the intellectual crisis, in the street, of the Christian conscience was more than half a century ahead of Catholic Europe in Anglican England.  

Materialistic monism

Chesterton had before him several currents that could be mixed or added in the same persons. In the first place, the advance of science, reinforced by the theory of evolution (Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859), easily formed a materialistic mentality. Since the whole universe, including the human being, is made of the same stuff and has come from below by a unique process, no other explanation is needed. It is a materialistic monism that is still in force, very forceful though not very subtle, because it does not realize that the laws and intelligent programs - the "software" of the universe and each of its parts - could not have made itself unless the universe itself is an intelligence. 

So thought powerful naturalists and scientific essayists such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) and Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Also poets and writers such as John Davidson and H. G. Wells. They were sure that everything that exists in the world can be explained by reducing it to its material components, doubted the specificity of the human spirit and its freedom, and drew applications of the theory of evolution for social life (and eugenics). It seems to him a singularly "crazy" and self-destructive thought, because it directly disqualifies thought itself (which could only be a combination of material impulses), and cannot account for the complexity of the universe, and of course for freedom. We are still the same today, although evolutionary applications to social life were shelved when the Nazis, who justified themselves with them and wanted to take advantage of them, lost World War II. 

Voluntarism and moral relativism

For Chesterton the value of reason was evident, but also that pure rationalism, reason in isolation, leads to madness; because reason needs the set of resources that make up common sense, the sense of proportion, the perception of what is convenient. That is why he said that the madman is not the one who has lost reason, but the one who has lost everything but reason. 

Something similar happens with the will. Nor is the human being pure will or freedom, as Schopenhauer claimed and Nietzsche took up. The will without reason is blind and wanders in a vacuum. Chesterton identifies the power of Nietzsche. He likes his fearlessness and his desire to overcome mediocrity, but he finds him lazy and incoherent in his purpose to overcome morality. Moreover, the moment morality is left to the individual, any standard for judging that one action is better than another disappears. Neither the tyrant can be condemned nor the freethinker praised. Progress is not possible because, without fixed standards, there is no way of knowing what progress is. 

Socialist messianism

Chesterton, deeply rooted in the class average , did not sympathize with the tics and prejudices of the English gentry. Instead he was genuinely sympathetic to some aspects of socialist aspirations. He was a supporter of universal suffrage because he trusted the common sense of ordinary people much more than that of the economic or intellectual elites. He also desired greater social equality with his "distributism". But he criticized the utopianism and lack of realism of many socialist theories and exponents (Fabianism, for example, which Bernard Shaw or H. G. Wells liked). He pointed out their ignorance of original sin and therefore their inability to detect and solve the real problems. He also criticized their materialistic and deterministic tendencies, which destroyed liberties and threatened to turn society into a henhouse. 

He had before him very enthusiastic and belligerent socialist exponents. The main one was Robert Blatchford (1851-1943) who, with his newspaper, the Clarion (1891), wanted to make England socialist in seven years. He is little known outside the islands, but he created magazines and editorials to combat the Christian faith, favor agnosticism and generate a socialist movement. And he collaborated in the training of the English Labour Party. Chesterton polemicized with him at various times, although he praised his frankness and good will and retained his sympathy. 

This aspect has changed the most. After the collapse of the socialist regimes of the East, what remains of revolutionary socialist thought are nostalgias, shreds of theory and tics, although they still operate in politics through almost marginal parties that enter into parliamentary combinations. It is as if there is no wit and desire left to overcome the old poses and old clichés. Apart from the fact that they have not done the math. 

Spiritual" alternatives

Also on this point, the status of Chesterton's England was quite different from ours. The discrediting of Christianity was accompanied by a kind of fervor for religious novelties that gripped the lower and upper social strata. Chesterton saw his contemporaries as sheep without a shepherd, ready to follow anything that moved.

On the one hand, spiritualism, scientology, the theosophical society that, in London, was promoted by Annie Besant (1848-1933), a real character, or the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge (1841-1940). They mixed all esoteric experiences, combined religions, especially oriental ones, and blindly believed in reincarnation and in the unity of all spirits. 

Chesterton especially criticizes all the cultivators of the "inner light" and by this he means those who believe that religious truth is born spontaneously from the depths of the heart because they are easily deceived and confuse it with their own feelings. It is a way, like others, of always being right. 

Buddhism in particular 

On the other hand, Buddhism was beginning to spread in the West and found acceptance, as always, in some snobs who wanted to feel advanced and different from the masses. Such is the case of Swedenborg. 

Chesterton criticizes those who saw in Buddhism the common background of all religions, including Christianity. And he makes a brilliant comparison between the images of the Buddhist holy man, with his eyes closed, looking inward, and accepting destiny as it comes; and those of the medieval saints carved in stone looking at the world and above all at God with his eyes wide open. Two attitudes that generate two completely different philosophies of life, that of the resigned acceptance of the world or that of the one who wants to improve it at all costs. If there has been historical progress in the West, it is precisely because of this different attitude. 

On the other hand, but we have learned this later, there is a general confusion about Buddhism in the West, even at interdenominational meetings. Buddhism is not a unitary religion with a common doctrine and a central government, but an ancient sapiential and then religious tradition distributed in the culture and customs of many Asian regions, and deeply mixed in each place with ancient religions and superstitions. It lacks unity. That is why it cannot have authorized representatives abroad, but only isolated amateurs, generally focused on a few practices related to health and wellness, which is what usually gives them a living. 

Ex-Christians and post-Christians

Chesterton also had to debate with people who had lost their faith and had become very critical of Christianity. Perhaps the most important is Joseph McCabe, who had been a Franciscan and professor of Christian Philosophy and became a fervent propagator of Nietzsche and materialism. 

Others professed, as today, a Christianity downgraded or converted into an invitation to benevolence, as in the case of Tolstoy and his English followers. 

It also came up against accommodating or "broad" (Broad) currents that were willing to adapt Christianity to the times in order to make it more credible, regardless of what was needed. It would not be difficult to find representatives of these three positions today. 

The peculiarity of Christianity 

When he did not yet believe, Chesterton noticed the nonsensical background of some currents such as materialism, relativism, esotericism. Later, he would find something similar in the many criticisms of Christianity, which were produced with disproportionate animosity and disconcerting disparity. In analyzing its contradictions he came to two brilliant conclusions, which are still valid today. The first was that, if Christianity was criticized with opposing arguments from opposing positions, it meant that Christianity represents the center and the rule or the normal of human aspirations. 

The second is that Christianity contains a special capacity to bring to life in tension enormous forces that neither contradict nor cancel each other out: humility and courage, the recognition that one is a sinner and that one is a child of God, self-contempt and self-love. To detach oneself from the world with all one's heart and to love the world with all one's heart. "It is not enough," he says, "the grumpy acceptance of the Stoics. Loving the world with all one's heart is a consequence of the "cosmic optimism" that comes from knowing that the world has come from God. To detach oneself from the world is a consequence of Christian wisdom that points to the original fall, for Chesterton, a fundamental aspect of the understanding of human history and a stimulus for a relentless struggle not against "the bad guys" but against evil. The ultimate argument of every life and of civilization as a whole. Yesterday and today. 


Orthodoxy narrates the mental pathway of Chesterton himself. Today, Orthodoxy brings a formidable impulse of intellectual lucidity to a culture punished by vices very similar to those of Chesterton's time. 

Then, it must be said, there was an intelligent discussion and Chesterton debated with much clarity, with much grace and with much respect, and his opponents were forced to respond. Nowadays the discussion is absolutely avoided, because perhaps thinking is avoided and clichés are installed by repetition and survive by inertia. All the more reason to keep alive among Christians an intellectual stimulus as formidable as this one.