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.