Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, S.J.

Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, S.J.

This essay might be about the "splendor" of truth rather than about its "delight," but John Paul II famously claimed the "splendor" for himself – Veritatis Splendor. Chesterton simply rejoices in truth, but not just for the sake of his own rejoicing, but because there is something to rejoice about. "I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy" – this is Chesterton’s startling reaction to his discovery that man is not made only for this earth but through it for eternal life. The "splendor" of truth, I suppose, stresses its own luminousness, its own shining, its reality, while "delight" indicates our proper reaction to what is, that it is at all, to what sheds its light before us when we realize at last that we need light, that there is light.

The Wonder of Existence

But doesn’t everyone see this luminous truth? Why was Chesterton any different? To be sure, no one lacks the power to see truth. The power is given with what we are. But many, evidently very many, having the power to see it, choose – the word is important – not to accept it. Chesterton is different because he saw, accepted, and affirmed it. His enthusiasm for reality, for what is, is our grace. If our lives are disordered, however, it is likely that we do not experience any delight in truth because we actively prevent ourselves from seeing the splendor that is there. We can seek, like the young Augustine, all those beautiful things, without letting ourselves aver to why they might be beautiful in the first place. We want things before we appreciate what they are in their fullness – the exact opposite of the right order of things.

We oftentimes suspect where truth might lead us, so we cleverly refuse to go there without ever honestly spelling out to ourselves what we are doing. We choose to deceive ourselves. We build an apparently plausible "counter-truth" to justify how we choose to live. We quietly put aside in our hearts any comparison between what we do and what we ought to do. The good, the true, and the beautiful, however, are interrelated in ways that can hide their inner-connections from those who do not want to see what is there. "The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom" is Chesterton’s way of expressing his realization of the truth that the good is really good even though he did not himself create it, perhaps primarily because he did not create it. He is grateful that he did not hide from the truth that he saw. He wants to know, in fact, who "caused" it since he knows he didn’t, yet it is there.

Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy in 1908. He was a young man at the time, already into his journalism career. He had an uncanny, almost supernatural, knack for discerning in their incipient principles what events would come about later in the twentieth century, even to its end, because he simply "saw" things, saw the truth in them and, more importantly, affirmed it. His What’s Wrong with the World (1910) spells out the cause of almost every societal aberration about which we read in our papers each day. Chesterton indeed was one of those remarkable people who learned about truth not from itself but from the common and fashionable errors he saw all about him. They left him perplexed because he could see that they were not true, in spite of their popularity.

Chesterton delighted in things because he was acutely conscious of the fact that they need not exist at all – "every man in the street is a great might-not-have-been," as he put it. Every might-not-have-been in the streets, including ourselves, is filled with a divinely guaranteed dignity. We are all like the penny, he said in his Charles Dickens, because we have the image of the king stamped on us, the divine King. Yet every actual existence is so overwhelmingly unexpected that everyone who exists at all seems like the result of some huge, improbable choice.

When he realized that the world need not exist (the doctrine of Creation) and that God did not need to create it (the doctrine of the Trinity), Chesterton knew that he was free of all the depressing philosophies of necessity that implied that he had no other purpose of existing but necessity itself, that reality was merely an unraveling of what had to be. If the world was the result of choice, however, so much the more so was he. Yet, if a man did not need to exist, what was the "golden key," as Chesterton called it, that could account for the wondrous fact that he did exist without his having anything to do with it? At a minimum, every person, who might not have been at all, is at least vaguely aware that his own particular existence rose out of nothingness through no input of his own.

Ideas Make the Difference

Chesterton’s first major book in 1905 (and remains a penetrating read) explains just why he was not a follower of various modern intellectual movements, most of which are still around in some form or another at the turn of the twenty-first century. Basically, he did not follow them because he understood them; he understood their disorder. He knew that the purpose of a mind was to know reality, to come to a conclusion about claims to be right or true. "I am a rationalist," he explained in Orthodoxy. "I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions. If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual convenience to me to believe that he fell, and I find, for some odd psychological reason, that I can deal better with a man’s exercise of free will if I believe that he has got it." Chesterton always had the deadly capacity to see our implicit contradictions.

To meet the mind of Chesterton is to meet a mind that will not let our intellectual errors remain hidden from ourselves, however much we might prefer not to have them boldly spelled out. The most wide-spread contemporary intellectual error is no doubt something known as cultural relativism. Chesterton is always amusing when he points out the error of some such theory that asks us to maintain its contradictions as if they did not exist. "An imbecile habit has risen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays." About the principle at issue, little further needs to be said in any age, in any place.

Chesterton insists on putting blame where it belongs. Many, like Marx, have blamed God for man’s problems and claim that they could do better for man by leaving God completely out of the picture. Chesterton was not so sure. "The secularists have not wrecked divine things, but the secularists have wrecked secular things." A human error about the nature or reality of the divinity does not lead to a change in or threat to the divinity, but it does, like Marxism eventually did, ironically wreak havoc among human lives and institutions. We may not be able directly to test the divinity, but we can test what men do because of their misunderstanding of the divinity, or whatever they have chosen to take its place. Our culture is wont to teach us that ideas make little difference. Chesterton thinks that any difference there is comes from our ideas. The real issue is whether ideas are true or not.

The provocativeness of Heretics, its charming reduction of well-known philosophic and religious positions to humorous absurdity, annoyed someone so much that he challenged Chesterton to write a book explaining, not what he was against, but what he was for. This challenge energized him even more than his enterprise of pointing out the errors of his friends and critics in Heretics. Chesterton, incidentally, was, even in issues of great and passionate controversy, an amazing sort of man who never lost a friend because he pointed out the impossibility of his ideas. This is a rare gift and speaks much of the greatness of Chesterton.

Thus, when confronted, Chesterton took up the writing of Orthodoxy, in which he set forth what he did hold. He discovered that what he did come to maintain, which he thought so original, was in fact what all Christians profess in the Creed, many of whom, I might add, unlike Chesterton, profess the Creed without seeing its wonder, its standing at the foundation of all healthy and human things. Orthodoxy is itself one of the best and most profound commentaries on the great Christian Creed. Chesterton explains in his own way what it affirms and why what it affirms is directed to the freedom and dignity of man because it is first directed to the revelation of who God is.

Because Chesterton later wrote his own Autobiography, itself a marvelous book, Orthodoxy is not an autobiography, though it is completely autobiographical. Though he was not a Catholic when he wrote it, it is nevertheless completely Catholic. Though it is written in a completely unscholarly and familiar style, it is thoroughly scholarly and formal in its argumentation. When everyone else found "orthodoxy" to be a bad word, Chesterton found it to be the exact description of what keeps us sane. "When ever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth."

"The Great March of Mental Destruction"

To begin to understand Chesterton, it is worth recalling the last sentences of Heretics, as they reveal his soul perhaps as well as anything he ever wrote – not denying that Chesterton’s great soul clearly shone through everything he did write, even his shortest essay. But fully to comprehend what Chesterton concluded at the end of Heretics, we have to be familiar with one of the great scenes in the New Testament, with the passage that, perhaps more than any other in our literature, has consoled ordinary folks who, while bearing constant witness to the difficulties of belief and its living, nevertheless still believe.

The scene is of the Apostle Thomas, the famous "Doubting Thomas," who will not believe reports of the Risen Lord until he sees the wounds of Christ’s body and hands. When the Lord appears to Thomas and fulfills his demand to see and to touch, evidential things, Christ says to him, with His own paradox, which Chesterton surely noticed, "Blessed are they, Thomas, who have not seen but who have believed." We cannot be unaware that this latter group includes the vast majority of mankind who continue to believe.

"The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied," Chesterton concludes his analysis of modern thought in an almost prophetic voice.

Everything will become a creed. It is a rational position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four.... We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.

Unlike Thomas before the Lord, who now believes because he has seen, Chesterton is talking to those modern philosophers who see the ordinary things before their very eyes and still do not believe in their existence, in their existence that reaches to the order of what is. Chesterton intimated, in fact, that in our era, we need the faith to believe in what is evident to our senses, to our reason. The subsequent history of modern philosophy does not in the least prove that Chesterton was wrong in his supposition.

The end of Heretics, thus, reveals Chesterton’s profound insight that the ultimate result of the rejection of the evidence for belief in modernity would end up with a doubt about the existence of the world itself. Logically, in order to "prove" that God does not exist, we have to maintain at some point that the world and its order – the very point at which we started – do not exist. Somehow in some albeit unexpected wisdom, to maintain the existence of natural things as they are involves the belief in supernatural ones. Chesterton makes this observation not as a matter of doctrine, which it isn’t, but as a matter of historical fact, of what happens in the minds of those who consistently reject belief and its evidence and then try to explain consistently what they are doing.

It would most often be the scientists, the philosophers, and the academics who would come to doubt their senses and any concrete extra-sensory object they might reveal to us as existing. This observation was one reason that Chesterton was a democrat and loved ordinary folks – "the common man" as he called him. They were, as he knew them, less susceptible to an intellectual "proof" that the world did not exist since they saw quite clearly that it did, no matter what the specialists might tell them. Chesterton’s philosophy, as he put it, allowed him to accept or reject miracles on the basis of evidence. But a determinist philosopher is not free to accept or reject any mere evidence, because his philosophy has already precluded any possibility of miracles or evidence for them. His philosophy, in other words, has caused him to doubt his senses.

The Logic and Excitement of Orthodoxy

The title of Orthodoxy means literally right opinion. First of all, it implies that there can be a wrong opinion and that the difference between the two makes considerable difference in how we live. It means further that how we live is directly affected by how we think. Almost a hundred years after Chesterton, we live in an age that doubts everything about itself – that the mind can know the truth, even that it ought to know the truth, that it ought to know anything. We advocate a kind of relativism or multiculturalism that, far from simply pointing to the myriad differences in the reality of time and space, maintains that nothing is certain, that there are no standards, particularly no human standards. Therefore, because there are no standards, no truth, we are said to be "free." In this system, it is not the truth that makes us free. We make ourselves free by denying any criterion outside of ourselves. Everything is permitted because not only is nothing known, but nothing can be known. We choose our choices so that we are enslaved by what we want.

Second, orthodoxy implies that it is possible to establish what right opinion is by examining all opinion, especially wrong opinion. Chesterton’s favorite book list seems to have been the famous Index of Forbidden Books. It was from errors in the most popular and most scientific positions that he found the raw material of truth. "All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen.... I never read a line of Christian apologetics." Nietzsche was a favorite author if only because he put what was wrong so well. Literally, as he tells us, Chesterton learned truth from the weirdness of the constant error he read.

On the basis of the impossibility of what theories the great modern philosophers used to explain reality, Chesterton set out to found his own "heresy," as he delighted in calling it. He himself, however, as he conceived it, was the ultimate "heretic"! And when he found the truth, he discovered to his astonishment that it was invented some eighteen hundred years before his time and was called "orthodoxy." He was glad that he did not have to invent the "heresy of orthodoxy" himself but could simply recognize it as already having been invented – a fact that made him even more curious. Invented by whom?

Chesterton was constantly amused by the fact that the most true and delightful teaching was the one to which most opposition was found. It was quite contrary to what was actually taught in the modern schools. Yet, "there never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy," he reflects. It was "perilous" because it affirmed that our choices were infinitely serious and potentially dangerous; it was "exciting" because it showed us that our choices could lead either to damnation or to what was infinitely worthwhile. Chesterton defended the possibility of excitement by defending the doctrine of free will and the fact that it could choose rightly or wrongly, but freely, not necessarily. We may not want to have this choice, which logically means that we may not want to be what we are. But the fact is that denying our freedom leads not to excitement and drama, but to dullness and indifference. Chester ton preferred the world of freedom and excitement with its dangers and its glory.

Chesterton as a young man never heard of Christian truth, but he knew that what was proposed, especially against the faith, on examination could not be true. He could understand contradictions and therefore errors. Chesterton was converted intellectually by the heretics, not by the orthodox. He could not at first understand the odd nature of the opposition to the classic faith, but what he did notice made him wonder, finally, if it might be true because it could not be all the contradictory things said against it. "Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church."

This was, I say, not something he expected as a matter of theory, but something he observed as a matter of fact. He reflected that something against which every sort of accusation is made, even if it be contradicted by another accusation, might be very odd indeed, but it might also be the normal. For to the abnormal, it is only the normal that looks most grotesque. Somehow most modern philosophy seemed to picture an utterly abnormal world that bore little relation to what was true.

The Meaning of Sin’s Existence

One of the chapters in Orthodoxy is called the suicide of thought. Roughly, this means that no one can think if he maintains that his organ of thinking cannot know anything or that his organ of will cannot decide anything about what is known. Moreover, no one allows his organ of deciding to decide anything if there are, on the basis of what he knows to be true, certain things that will be forbidden to him. If it should so happen that some things are right and true, we may just not want to know about them if we suspect that they might interfere with what we have already chosen to do. When we act on this failure to know what we should know, we sin, to use the classic word that indicates both the seriousness of our thoughts and the choices that follow from them. Not surprisingly, then, when asked, the reason Chesterton himself gave for his final conversion to the faith was that he wanted to get rid of his sins. He knew that the structure of reality was such that they were possible, and he knew himself well enough to know that he, no one else, committed them.

Chesterton liked to talk about sin, no doubt because it was so serious and so common. Indeed, in his Father Brown stories, he liked to write about it. He thought we should be sinning all the time, not by actually murdering or stealing or committing adultery, of course, but by writing about such aberrations. Though he loved the sinner, he did not have any sympathy for those who refused to understand the reality or depths of sin. He often suggested, furthermore, that those who know most about sin are not the sinners themselves but the pure of heart, those who have decided not to commit it. The knowledge of sin and its attraction is not itself a sin but a necessary element in our understanding ourselves. But the existence of sin and its terribleness was part of the risk of the universe that contained the finite free creature. If God wanted to create a finite person who could love Him freely, He had to accept, as in all love, the possibility of being rejected.

Chesterton was acutely aware that what made the universe particularly interesting was not the existence of sin in it, with its pre-condition of free will, but the possibility and condition of its forgiveness. In determinist theory, "the cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will." Free will meant that we could sin and were responsible for it. It also meant that we could be grateful for existence itself. Forgiveness meant that even if we sinned, what we sinned against could forgive us, that sin was personal both on our parts and on the part of what we sinned against. "Such ... was the joy of man; ... happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do, but which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do it." All romance depended on not doing what ought not to be done. Sometimes on crucial things, we simply had to obey. "Thou shalt not ...."

Chesterton, moreover, thought that the doctrine of original sin grounded democracy and was the only reason we could give for not absolutely trusting a ruling elite. "The unpopular parts of Christianity (like original sin) turn out when examined to be the very props of the people." Original sin explained why we needed to bind even our rulers by law, morality, and sanction. They too were sinners and lived in the worst possible occasion for sin – the life of power, publicity, and comfort. "In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the fall of any man, in any position, at any moment...." But no matter in what sort of society or situation in which man lived, sin is always caused by will, not by something external to us. No arrangement of society or state, contrary to Rousseau and his tradition, would ever eliminate the possibility of sin and wrong doing from among us, especially from the elite. "For she (the Church) has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man." This awareness of the possibility of sin in anyone, even rulers, is one fundamental element of any charter of liberty, of any understanding of responsibility.

What is surprising at first sight is the amount of attention that Chesterton gives in Orthodoxy to questions of sin, original sin, and free will. These three are, no doubt, essential doctrines of the faith and its philosophic support. If there is such a thing as sin, the deliberate choice of a thought or action against God and man, there must first be a free will to choose such thought or action. Moreover, it is clear that from time immemorial, man has had difficulty in living virtuously, even when he wanted to and chose to do so. Indeed, this difficulty in living virtuously will seem to justify theories which maintain that sin is the normal condition of mankind, so we should not worry about it but expect it, even excuse it, make it "normal" because it is so frequent. Chesterton’s response to this position is again amusing: "Men may have had concubines as long as they have had horses – still they were not part of him if they were sinful." The frequency of any sin does not somehow indicate its rightness but its wrongness.

All That Is
Is Created in Joy

The greatest thing about Orthodoxy, however, is its enthusiasm for and delight in what is.

The structure of Orthodoxy is cast in the form of the adventure of a man who set out around the world to discover some strange land. Finally, his ship reaches this distant land; only there he discovers that it is England, his original home. The analogy, of course, is to Chesterton’s own spiritual adventure in discovering orthodoxy to be the home he was looking for all along only he did not recognize it right before his very eyes. One of the mysteries of his life, Chesterton tells us, was why he could be "homesick at home." This homesickness-at-home is a most striking image, for Chesterton loved home and thought it the noblest word in the language. Yet, he understood that even when we have everything, even when we do not sin, we feel that there is something missing to us. We seek our true home even at home.

In his musings about what it is we want, what sort of freedom is the greatest, even at home, Chesterton argued that it is the freedom to bind ourselves. "I would never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself." This freedom of binding oneself was for Chesterton the key to the highest wisdom about the most basic things of life. "I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restrictions on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself... Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I could only be born once." Chesterton was capable of elevating this principle to the more universal idea that our individual uniquenesses, in being bound by love, lie at the heart of all true relationships. "I want to love my neighbor not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different."

And because God too is entirely different and stands at the heart of all binding promises, of all freedom, it is possible to love Him because we know we are first chosen, that being ourselves is not enough. Our ideas of God decide our ideas of the world. "By insisting especially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation, Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself." In transcending himself, in what he might expect of himself, man does not cease to be himself. We do not become "gods." We love God and this is our joy. Eternal life comes precisely to us, as we are.

Chesterton ends Orthodoxy by suggesting that the only thing that the Incarnate God did not show us while He was on earth was his "mirth," his joy. He did not show us this mirth because we could not bear it now, not because this was not of the essence of His being. "The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. ... Joy ... is the gigantic secret of the Christian."

This at last is the secret of Chesterton and of his Orthodoxy. All that is is created in joy because this is what God is. Life is our seeking to find wherein joy is our home. And we can finally only have a home if we bind freely ourselves. Only this philosophy, this "heresy" of "orthodoxy" – which Chesterton discovered and in discovering leaves its gift of sanity to us – "has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true." Ultimately, this truth, in its splendor, is the delight of orthodoxy.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.

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