In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Guerilla Filmmaking 5 -- Reading List | Main | Elsewhere »

May 18, 2007

Philip Bess on Chesterton

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I received a very interesting response via email to my recent posting about G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" from Philip Bess, an architect, an author, and a professor of architecture at Notre Dame. It was too interesting not to share with others, so I asked Philip for permission to copy and paste it into the blog. Philip has kindly agreed. Here it is:

Dear Michael Blowhard:

Wow, thank you for the wonderful recent post on Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" (which John Massengale forwarded to me), especially impressive given your own existential caveats. While I don't agree with your characterization of Chesterton in all of its details (this owes, perhaps, to my being familiar with a larger part of the Chesterton corpus; though by no means a majority!), your review is nonetheless generously sympathetic.

I appreciate too your gently-phrased advance warning to any would-be evangelists eager to think you may be on the edge of religious conversion, and hoping themselves to give you that just slight but decisive nudge. At the risk of appearing to be one of that type -- and advance apologies if indeed I am one of that type -- allow me nevertheless to give you my take on several of the interesting issues and questions your review has raised.

1) Several of your readers have already pointed out that "Orthodoxy" represents not Chesterton's apology for Catholicism (of which there are several later examples, to one of which I refer below), but rather simply for orthodox Christianity as summarized in The Apostles' Creed, which can be (and is) affirmed by Orthodox and many Protestant Christians as well as Roman Catholics. Chesterton states this almost in passing near the end of his Introduction:

These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics.... When the word "orthodoxy" is used here it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.

And the rest of the book simply proceeds with this understanding of Christianity. It also may or may not help to understand 1908 "Orthodoxy's" relationship to his 1905 book "Heretics," one of whose subjects made the off-hand remark that he would worry about the alleged deficiencies of his own philosophy "when Mr. Chesterton has given us his." "Orthodoxy" followed from that challenge.

2) I think you are absolutely right that Chesterton embraced orthodox Christianity (and ultimately Catholicism) not because he reasoned his way through all the propositions of its creed/s and catechism but rather because he simply came to believe 1) that Catholicism was foundational for, inseparable from and part and parcel of western culture (including the best parts of the modern world, not least science and technology); 2) that he found that Christian orthodoxy suited his own temperament and intellect; and 3) that he believed points 1 and 2 to be related.

But again, he says this right up front in the Introduction, speaking of the faith ("worldview" would almost be the better word) he had "invented," which he then found he had not invented, which he then acknowledged had made him.

3) With reference to your lingering puzzlement about why Chesterton ultimately embraced Catholic orthodoxy, there are a number of books and essays about that more decisive decision; but many (though not all) are similar to "Orthodoxy" insofar as the mode of argument typically goes something like this:

  • The modern world has come to a conclusion about X;

  • X is clearly wrong (either in substance or emphasis), and here's why;

  • The Catholic Church -- and often only the Catholic Church -- teaches that X is either wrong or improperly emphasized;

  • Therefore the teaching of the Catholic Church is true, and warrants both membership and allegiance to the God that the Church proclaims.

Now this obviously is not and cannot be a decisive proof of the truth of Catholic teaching. Chesterton's claim and method is simply that he found there to be so many of these examples (as noted especially in the penultimate paragraph of Chapter V and the entirety of Chapter VI in "Orthodoxy") that he came to believe that Christian orthodoxy is true; and later that the Catholic Church in particular is (as he once said, referring to the institution if not necessarily all of its members) "a truth-telling thing."

One of his last books, "The Well and the Shallows" (1935), even includes six issues discussed in six chapters telling why, late in his life, he would become a Catholic again were he not already a Catholic. See "My Six Conversions."

4) Chesterton in many ways appeared to be the anti-Buddhist, with an interesting (if limited and unstudied) understanding of and relationship to Buddhism; though I think that he also possessed himself certain Buddhist qualities. But that Chesterton's primal sensibility was Christian rather than Buddhist is also alluded to in the Introduction to "Orthodoxy," where he writes that

Any one setting out to dispute anything ought always to begin by saying what he does not dispute. Beyond stating what he proposes to prove he should always state what he does not propose to prove.

The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing [emphasis added].

But nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. It is THIS achievement of my creed that I shall chiefly pursue in these pages.

Chesterton loved and (most importantly) believed in the reality of specific individuated persons and things. This delight in specificity (I suspect) more than anything else is what made him a Christian, because he found in Christianity -- and particularly Christianity's doctrines of creation, fall and redemption -- a believable narrative that accounted for both the goodness and the fallen-ness, and above all the reality, of the world and everything in it. This is also what made Chesterton an Aristotelian and Thomist -- see especially chapters 3, 6 & 7 of his little book on Thomas Aquinas, that Thomist scholar Etienne Gilson called "without possible comparison the best book ever written about Thomas Aquinas" -- and I suspect the Catholic Church's embrace of both Aristotle and Thomas (more precisely, of Aristotle thru Thomas) was for Chesterton just one more bit of evidence of the trustworthiness and authority of the Catholic Church.

It is Chesterton's insistence upon the reality of the world and its distinctiveness from God that led him to make comments such as (I paraphrase): the Christian heaven is where we will all love each other, the Buddhist heaven is where we will all be each other; as well as his earlier comment quoted above that if you prefer nothing he can give you nothing. But even this latter representative piece of Chestertonian wordplay is indicative of a sensibility which might not be so foreign to Buddhism at all. As you rightly noted, "Orthodoxy" eschews any kind of direct propositional argument/s for the truth of Christianity. Chesterton's arguments are rather more elliptical. Though Chesterton valued propositional reason -- and again, he resonated with the Catholic Church's defense of reason as able to achieve true if incomplete knowledge of the world; the protagonist in one of Chesterton's "Father Brown" detective stories was able to foil a crime because the criminal, masquerading as a Catholic priest, disparaged reason ("It's bad theology," said Father Brown) -- Chesterton's own approach was indirect, relying especially upon paradox and pun, aphorism and alliteration rather than propositional logic. Reason is valuable and important, but cannot penetrate to the deepest mystery of things so well as paradox (which is, of course, at the very heart of the central Christian truth claims about both the Incarnation and God's Trinitarian nature). In this, I think, Chesterton was very like a Zen-master; except that Chesterton was a Zen-master of multi-form being rather than a Zen-master of nothingness.

5) I found your reference to Chesterton and autism / Asperger's Syndrome interesting but not at all convincing (though I realize, and appreciate, that you were not trying to "explain away" Chesterton's genius). The reason I found it unconvincing -- and I say this as someone with little expertise in autism or Aspergers -- is not because Chesterton's genius might not warrant such a hypothesis, but rather because his ordinariness doesn't seem to warrant such a hypothesis. Chesterton (notwithstanding his adolescent bouts with depression and his adult obesity) seems to have been a pretty garrulous and sociable and playful and well-mannered human being, who just happened to be a genius. Is this ordinarily true of those with autism / Asperger's Syndrome? I'm no expert, but that's not my impression.

6) Finally, I would just note the disparity of reactions to Chesterton's use of paradox to make his arguments. In my experience, Chesterton's paradoxes are so striking, and so often strike at what has come to be taken as common sense if not progress in the modern world, that readers are either shaken if not changed by him or they just dismiss him out of hand as a buffoon and simply unserious and never engage his arguments. Perhaps his essays on and against birth control (what he rather contemptuously calls "birth prevention") and eugenics are the most striking examples guaranteed to provoke contemporary readers. I have to say, as someone thoroughly imbued (along with most of my generation) with the idea that birth control in the context of marriage (at least) is an unambiguous good -- and while I did not inherit these ideas from Catholic circles, they are certainly present in some Catholic circles -- that while Chesterton's arguments against contraception in light of my own life experience have given me pause, there are other readers who will be unable to engage anyone who holds such an opinion, even when argued as well as Chesterton argues. This would be too bad, of course; though not necessarily indicative of any flaw in Chesterton's thinking.

Anyway, thank you again for your most thoughtful, generous and insightful review of "Orthodoxy." BTW, I also enjoy your occasional contributions to Right Reason in defense of traditional urbanism. I've been invited by Max Goss to make a couple postings there, and hope to do so soon.


Philip Bess
Professor of Architecture
University of Notre Dame

Here's Philip Bess' architecture website. (Note the Chestertonian name -- Thursday Associates.) I encourage you to poke around. As you can tell from his email to me, Philip is a very interesting guy as well as an excellent writer. I'm looking forward to catching up with Philip's book, "Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred" -- talk about a great topic. I'm pleased as well to learn that Philip will be doing some guest-blogging at Right Reason. All the more reason to visit an always-worth-checking-out blog. Don't miss John Massengale's recent urbanist's guide to Philadelphia.

Many thanks to Philip Best.



posted by Michael at May 18, 2007


Philip Bess wrote:

I found your reference to Chesterton and autism / Asperger's Syndrome interesting but not at all convincing (though I realize, and appreciate, that you were not trying to "explain away" Chesterton's genius). The reason I found it unconvincing -- and I say this as someone with little expertise in autism or Aspergers -- is not because Chesterton's genius might not warrant such a hypothesis, but rather because his ordinariness doesn't seem to warrant such a hypothesis. Chesterton (notwithstanding his adolescent bouts with depression and his adult obesity) seems to have been a pretty garrulous and sociable and playful and well-mannered human being, who just happened to be a genius.

I suspect that artists not only encompass "a wider range of the masculine to feminine continuum than is common among us mortals" (to quote Steve Sailer), but that they encompass a wider range on the Nerd to Big Man continuum as well. They tend to combine an obsessive, problem solving side with an intuitive, people centred side as well. The reason I found the autism link plausible was Chesterton's complete inability to "get" music, much like Temple Grandin, the famous autistic Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State. I too am no expert, but thought the similarities between the two interesting.

Anyway, I blog more on Chesterton and his love of systematic thinking here.

Posted by: Thursday on May 18, 2007 7:55 AM

Thanks for the link to John Massengale's piece. Short & Sweet & not one negative word about the Phamous Philly attitooode. I'd second his recommendation of White Dog Cafe, a quite good restaurant located in a series of seperated-walls rowhouses right in the middle of UPenn.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 18, 2007 8:51 AM

I think that some of Chesterton's apparent hostility to Buddhism was because certain spiritualist types of the time (remember Theosophists, anyone?) tried to identify a universal common religion or "perennial philosophy" as it was later called, by taking Christianity, dropping all the difficult Western, Christian parts, and then slipping in some generic simple-mindedly bland "Buddhism". In fact, that kind of manoeuvre is still performed today, by New Agers and others.

As GK put it, "There are those who say that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike. Especially Buddhism."

Posted by: PatrickH on May 18, 2007 11:23 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?