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G. K. Chesterton: The Tame Oracle?

January 16, 2015 9:05 am | 10 Comments


G.K. Chesterton loved to argue. He argued with his family, he argued with his friends, he argued his enemies into becoming his friends. His infectious delight in argument won over some other prominent literary figures who were determined to dislike the man. They found that he had no qualms being friends with them—so long as they didn’t mind arguing with him.

Chesterton’s essays in the Illustrated London News read as rambling, pugnacious invitations to argument. Nothing was off limits in his column, everything was fodder for jumping from subject to subject, jabbing and poking at the ideas he found incorrect. He exaggerated, tossed off outrageous hyperbole, and overstated his case; in short, he was a provocateur.

I love Chesterton. I’ve been fortunate enough to design a couple of book covers for the Ignatius Press editions of his work, and I’ve been collecting original editions of his books when I can. But good old G.K.C. the wild provocateur is in danger these days. Chesterton the tame oracle is taking his place.

Love of Chesterton has led many people to simply read him while disengaging the critical part of their mind. They accept everything he says at face value—so you’ll have people uncritically agree with, for example, Chesterton’s insistence that women be denied suffrage. If G.K. said it, he must be right!  He’s our tame oracle.

This does a disservice to Chesterton. If you read him without any push and pull, back and forth, you’re denying him the argument he so loved. His writings were meant to be debated, to be agreed and disagreed with. Each of his weekly columns is an invitation to engage in rhetorical battle. Simply nodding in agreement won’t do.

I think some of this has to do with how people have segregated themselves into like-minded groups. For many of us, we’ve managed to separate ourselves into cliques along with others who agree with us on most everything. There’s an absolutizing of opinion, and an inability to have an argument that isn’t viewed as a personal attack (or to make an argument that isn’t simply a personal attack!) It’s even easier in the digital age to shape what media and opinion we consume, resulting in an endless round of affirmation of ones beliefs without examination.

The great Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac says in Paradoxes of Faith:

Everybody has his filter, which he takes about with him, through which, from the indefinite mass of facts, he gathers in those suited to confirm his prejudices. And the same fact again, passing through different filters, is revealed in different aspects, so as to confirm the most diverse opinions. It has always been so, it always will be so in this world.

Rare, very rare are those who check their filter.

That’s what Chesterton tries to do. Get you to check your filter. Don’t allow Gilbert to become a tame oracle; get up off of your mental chair, get grappling and throw a few punches. It’s what that wild provocateur thrived upon.

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children.

Tags: criticism G.K. Chesterton Henri de Lubac media


  1. January 16, 2015 at 10:03 am

    Maybe We agree with Chesterton, not because we have disengaged te critical part of our mind, but because we have thought his ideas throug and think tem really right. I think, for instance, that Chesterton is RIGHT on sufferage, and that maybe you don’t understand why he thought he was right.

  2. January 16, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Good post. “Man Alive” is a great cover.

  3. John Herreid

    January 16, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Rus: I think Chesterton on women’s suffrage is informative, in the way he draws out what he thinks the key differences in the complementary roles men and women have. Ultimately, though, I think his thought on this issue is informed by passing cultural norms. However, what is timeless in his faith and thought is what, to quote the man himself, saves him from the “degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”

    Joe: Thanks!

  4. January 16, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    I love Chesterton and his writings played a major role in my decision to become Catholic. But he was wrong about a few things, most notably his disdain for jazz.

  5. John Herreid

    January 16, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Carl: I think he was also wrong about T.S. Eliot. He had a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to newer artistic forms. But man, that guy could write. I’ve been rereading his novels lately and the way he uses words almost as paint is incredible.

  6. January 17, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    Ah, yes, good call. I’ve argued with the wonderful Dale Ahlquist about Chesterton’s take on both topics: jazz and Eliot. We had to agree to disagree in the end. But it hardly dints my admiration for Chesterton, because his genius—both as a thinker and a communicator—is so obvious, and his vision of Reality is so full formed, vibrant, bracing, and joyful. And, yes, completely Catholic.

  7. January 20, 2015 at 9:58 am

    Bigger than jazz (about which he was mostly right) or Elliot, was the French Revolution, about which he was really wrong. I debated the wonderful Dale Ahlquist (who thinks G.K. was right about everything) on this topic at a Chesterton Conference some years ago, and we’ve been debating it ever since. To Dale’s credit, he invited the argument, just as his idol would have.
    It’s interesting, and daunting to those who would take up the debate, to think about how a man with such a penetrating mind could err on something like that.

  8. January 21, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    He didn’t say women don’t deserve suffrage. That is a failure to even understand the plain meaning of the text (I think I know what the reference is to, and I note it is not cited here!).

  9. John Herreid

    January 21, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    I agree–I don’t think he ever said women didn’t “deserve” suffrage. His argument, if I recall, was that allowing women to vote wouldn’t really do anything to change the status of women, and would only serve to further separate women from their true role as wives and mothers. As I said above, his argument is interesting, but I fail to be convinced by it. I think it draws too heavily on cultural norms of his time. In any case, he basically made his peace with the idea of women voting in his later writing, if somewhat grudgingly.

  10. February 12, 2015 at 7:35 pm

    “cultural norms of his times”. Sadly “his times” is the key to much of the problem for today’s readers. Most young Americans can’t read Chesterton because they don’t understand that they are not the audiance he was writing to. For example “Orthodoxy” was written for London society of 1908 on why he joined a “cutter religion”. And though Ignatius Press does an excellant job through foot notes in explaining of who and what he is talking about, the kids today don’t look at the bottom and read them. So they miss out on his brillance.

    In years past I’d suggest to a young person to start with CS Lewis first, and then move onto GKC. Now today you need to explain to them the concept of a letter of advice and for that matter that an Uncle would actually take the interest in the career development of his nephew! LOL so now even Lewis needs an explantion first, a what a World we have come to.

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