Wit and Wisdom

I recently reread G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. I’d liked it when I first read it a few years ago, but at the time I hadn’t been sure what to do with some of Chesterton’s more dubious assertions and hadn’t given it too much thought. I’m not sure I’ll give it too much thought this time either—I don’t think it’s the sort of book that needs it—but I do want to register here that I found it thrilling this time, from start to end. The man has style. Unlike most of the books I read—serious books about serious subjects—Orthodoxy is blessedly free of self-seriousness, however serious the subject matter. I can’t think of another nonfiction book I’ve found half as fun. That’s a testament to Chesterton’s command of English, since sustaining a light tone without being merely frivolous is a good deal harder than telling it straight. Of course, Chesterton puts it better himself: “Solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy; hard to be light.”

the man himself
the man himself

There are plenty of one-liners in Orthodoxy. My favorite is this subtle jab: “Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.” It’s for good reason that Chesterton is still so often quoted today; He was a wit. But this might give the impression that Orthodoxy consist entirely of verbal slam-dunks, when each one-liner requires a great deal of preceding play to come off. Nearly all of them come at the end of a paragraph, as summaries of an argument he’s just laid out, and the paragraphs are just as lively as his famous one-liners.

At the end of a digression on language that begins the chapter “The Romance of Orthodoxy Chesterton writes this: “The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.” Orthodoxy is written with that principle in mind, which is one of the reasons it is so readable. Chesterton chooses short words whenever he can and avoids jargon altogether. The whole book is a good reminder that clarity of prose demonstrates clarity of thought and that confusion on the reader’s part often indicates the same on the author’s. 

But all this might lead one to think that Chesterton is merely a stylist, or worse, a sophist. Chesterton’s fondness for paradox might lead one to the same conclusion, since paradox is so often employed today by people too indiscriminate to tell the difference between a contradiction and a paradox or too lazy to do the same. There’s muscle, though, beneath the lovely skin of Chesterton’s prose. His wit is full of wisdom. Take this passage:

“We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening. No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?”

a fortunate find at Open Books - Pilsen
a fortunate find at Open Books – Pilsen

There’s something essential here about what it’s like to be a Christian, to believe that evil and good and sin and grace are real and to act accordingly. And it captures the excitement of living between these convictions, refusing to settle for just one or the other.

Sometimes one feels that Chesterton thought it would be too much effort to get up from his writing desk and see whether what he’d written was, in fact, the case. Sometimes he’s wrong. But he takes chances, and there’s something to be said for that. Much writing today is so modest in its claims one wonders if the writer has—not an excess of scrupulosity—but a lack of courage. I suppose I put up with some of the shortcuts Chesterton takes since I think he’s headed in the right direction. That direction is, of course, orthodoxy. It is as true today as it was in Chesterton’s time that orthodoxy seems a dull thing; a conformity to the theological standards of a bygone era. All the fun seems to be in rebellion. Orthodoxy, whatever its faults, demonstrates that precisely the opposite is the case. In Chesterton’s words, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” Perhaps the best thing to say about this book is that, for all the wild gymnastics of its prose, Chesterton sticks the landing.