Review: Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

This post started out as a simple review of a book my parents bought for me for Christmas.

However, since I've found my new hero as a result of reading this book (my wife now asks who I like more, Alton Brown, or Chesterton), I feel I have to say a little bit more...

My parents bought me Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton for Christmas. I was a few weeks before I was able to get to it, but once I read the first few pages I couldn't put it down. I finished it just a few days later wondering how I could have never read anything by Chesterton before. He has a very unique style, very funny, with deep insights into human nature and society. He uses metaphor extremely effectively, and quite frequently to humorous effect throughout his works. His works have had an influence on other writers I love, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Orthodoxy was written in 1908, 100 years ago now. And yet amazingly it's still relevant today.

In the second paragraph of the book he describes how he has always wanted to write a book about an English yachtsman who miscalculated his course and arrives back at England meanwhile believing he has discovered a new island in the South Seas. "What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?" Later he explains why he mentions this: "But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England...I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before."

After this, I was most definitely hooked.

Orthodoxy is a book that explains Chesterton's reasons for being a Catholic and at the same time is a defence against or a response to the relativism of his day.

All the will-worshippers, from Nietzsche to Mr. Davidson, are really quite empty of volition. They cannot will, they can hardly wish. And if any one wants a proof of this, it can be found quite easily. It can be found in this fact: that they always talk of will as something that expands and breaks out. But it is quite the opposite. Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else. That objection, which men of this school used to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act. Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses. If you become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton. If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon. It is the existence of this negative or limiting side of will that makes most of the talk of the anarchic will-worshippers little better than nonsense. For instance, Mr. John Davidson tells us to have nothing to do with "Thou shalt not"; but it is surely obvious that "Thou shalt not" is only one of the necessary corollaries of "I will." "I will go to the Lord Mayor's Show, and thou shalt not stop me." Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel.

(emphasis mine here, and in following quotes; quoted from Project Gutenburg's eBook available online.)

This newfound fascination with Chesterton lead me to the Internet. There's some good information on G. K. Chesterton's wikipedia page. I also found a great resource at the American Chesterton Society. They've got a bunch of Chesterton's essays and other works online.

From his "Why I Am A Catholic" article,

The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel.

I like this quote in particular,

[Catholicism] does not, in the conventional phrase, accept the conclusions of science, for the simple reason that science has not concluded. To conclude is to shut up; and the man of science is not at all likely to shut up.

I find this especially relevant. Today there is the widespread belief that science is the sole source of knowledge. Anything that can be known, science can and eventually will discover. This is not to say that Chesterton (or myself) was down on science. It's just important to recognize the limits of what science can tell us. At some level all laws of science are just hypotheses or theories. The universe appears to obey these laws, but the jump between saying these laws are good models for explaining natural phenomena, and saying that natural phenomena occur exactly according to these laws is a jump across an abyss, with nothing connecting either side. This is central to much of the evolution vs. so-called "intelligent design" argument raging in the US right now.

I also enjoyed his his essay on A Piece of Chalk,

One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.

I can't wait to get my hands on another Chesterton book!