There haven’t been many writers who exuded gratitude more than G.K. Chesterton. One could assemble a lovely article simply by stitching together his best insights about being humble, grateful, gracious and adventurous, so that’s just what I’ve done. Perhaps folks who are fretting their family get-togethers because of tenuous, tender tensions with their relatives might find solace in his timeless wisdom.
But first, a quick introduction to the portly ‘prince of paradox’. The 6’4″, 290-pound Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874–1936) does not fit neatly into any political scheme any more easily than he would have fit neatly into a 44-short suit. He rejected many of the beliefs held by conservatism’s hero, the Old Whig, Edmund Burke. However, Chesterton did share with Burke a reverence for the Tory Doctor Samuel Johnson who thought Burke was the only worthwhile Whig. Chesterton was once a Fabian socialist and a friend of George Bernard Shaw, but broke with both and converted to Roman Catholicism. Along with his good friend Hilaire Belloc (the two men were so close that people combined them into one name ‘Chesterbelloc’ just to be short), he embraced ‘Distributism’ which is a dubious but admirable economic system based on property-rights and widely-distributed productive means. Gilbert disliked the rich but hated the wealth-distributor even more. In a famous public debate moderated by Belloc, Chesterton remarked, “Shaw proposes to distribute wealth. We propose to distribute power.” He was very much a small ‘d’ democrat and despised the aristocracy and the ruling elite but considered a meritocracy a possibility. He could be counted on to support just about any proposal that would protect the working man’s liberty, make him more secure in his property, and enhance the mastery over his own life. He could also be counted on to oppose anyone who attempted to master the working man by enslaving him in a expanded servile state.
Today’s conservatives can find much in Chesterton’s work that frustrates and even more that affirms, but without fail, he delights. He wrote some of his eighty books, hundreds of poems and short stories and four thousand essays. Although I’ve really only come to know him over the last couple years and only through a handful of his books and essays, I am persuaded that Chesterton’s Christian humanism can be powerfully important to today’s conservatism. His often overlooked view of and love for the working classes was proper and profound and we would do well to reconsider this giant gentle genius.
Nowadays we conservatives are too easily portrayed as merely the defenders of the rich. The class warriors have maneuvered us into the position of defending property of the rich because we defend the property rights of everyone. For conservatism to become ascendant again, it must cross class lines and convincingly explain that its ideas are not just for a few (indeed the conservative has a healthy suspicion of the super rich), but for the benefit of everyone. Conservatism is much more than economics, it is about creating a humane culture and a nourishing society that empowers each individual to reach their fullest potential — as human beings imbedded with that divine spark which gives each of us an inherent dignity that demands equal treatment under the law and the liberty to pursue our own happiness. The justly ordered ‘good society’ that the conservative cultivates enables a fuller flourishing of the families and persons that comprise it.
But enough about politics. Today’s topic is Thanksgiving and cherishing Chesterton’s magnanimity for our fellow, but often frustrating, man. He said, “We need a rally of the really human things; will which is morals, memory which is tradition, culture which is the mental thrift of our fathers.” What follows is a cornucopia of aphorisms and excerpts from a wide array of his work that I have stitched together into a single stream of consciousness. The reader should know that although I have changed no words, I have changed punctuations to make this amalgam read more fluidly. Any clumsiness of expression is attributable to my editing of the consummately eloquent Chesterton, but as he himself said, “if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”
“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude. I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.
The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people. We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.
To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless. Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory. There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable. Love is not blind; that is the last thing it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.
In the same way, alas! we all go on every day, unless we are continually goading ourselves into gratitude and humility, seeing less and less of the significance of the sky or the stones.
Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak. If a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything – even pride. It is always the secure who are humble. The real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.
Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity. In anything that does cover the whole of your life – in your philosophy and your religion – you must have mirth. If you do not have mirth you will certainly have madness. Man is more himself, more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing and grief superficial. It is easy to be solemn, it is so hard to be frivolous. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.
The men who made the joke saw something deep which they could not express except by something silly and emphatic. The joke is generally in the oddest way the truth and yet not the fact. Humor can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle. My life is passed in making bad jokes and seeing them turn into true prophecies. The most comic things of all are exactly the things most worth doing — such as making love. It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.
There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. There are no boring subjects, only disinterested minds. And the Mass is very long and tiresome unless one loves God. When the chord of monotony is stretched to its tightest, it breaks with the sound of a song.
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder. We should always endeavor to wonder at the permanent thing, not at the mere exception. We should be startled by the sun, and not by the eclipse. We should wonder less at the earthquake, and wonder more at the earth. What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world. Somehow one must love the world without being worldly.
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce variety and uncompromising divergences of men. In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized society groups come into existence founded upon sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique.
The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.
But in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential. It may often happen, no doubt, that a drama may be written by somebody else which we like very little. But we should like it still less if the author came before the curtain every hour or so, and forced on us the whole trouble of inventing the next act.
A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. And the reason why the lives of the rich are at bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events. They are dull because they are omnipotent. They fail to feel adventures because they can make the adventures. The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect.
The comedy of man survives the tragedy of man. Always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do? He is a [sane] man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered. Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them.
I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.
A stiff apology is a second insult. The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.
If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment.
Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified. Individually, men may present a more or less rational appearance, eating, sleeping, and scheming. But humanity as a whole is changeful, mystical, fickle, delightful. Men are men, but Man is a woman.
Women are the only realists; their whole object in life is to pit their realism against the extravagant, excessive, and occasionally drunken idealism of men.
There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less. We can’t turn life into a pleasure. But we can choose such pleasures as are worthy of us and our immortal souls. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers. We are thankful for you and the community of Chestertonian souls who come to The Imaginative Conservative to commune with what Chesterton called ‘the democracy of the dead.’ “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”
Books by or on G.K. Chesterton may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.