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A Defense of Chestertonian Optimism

December 4, 2020


“I say as do all Christian men, that it is a divine purpose that rules, and not fate.” This sage line appears on the first page of G.K. Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse. The statement is at the bottom of Robert Austin’s first illustration showing a mounted King Alfred of England riding near his war-ready troops. The passage is said to be King Alfred’s addition to Boethius—the great defender of philosophy and happiness. James Schall wrote in his book on Chesterton that “Alfred’s addition is the most important thing that can be said, yes, even to men of our time.” Schall continues by reminiscing on his reading of Russell Kirk’s The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky; Kirk wrote that what Chesterton had in mind while writing The Ballad of the White Horse was “those people in the twentieth century who declare that our culture is doomed for destruction.” In the introduction to the poem, Chesterton writes:

Alfred has come down to us in the best way (that is by national legends) solely for the same reason as Arthur and Roland and the other giants of that darkness, because he fought for the Christian civilization against the heathen nihilism.

In a way, Chesterton writes The Ballad of the White Horse as a reminder that the nihilism of the heathen is not dead; it has merely changed shape. Rather than a heathenism of violence and action, the heathenism of today is one of ideas. It is a pessimism that has infected academia and the cultural expressions of the arts. The eschatology of doom we find in heathen myth has been rewritten by armchair philosophers. The rousing song of sword and blood has been replaced with a cacophonous shout of suicide. In one of the most brilliant lines of the poem, King Alfred, after winning a battle and dedicating the land to Our Lady, reflects on a prophetic vision:

Not with the humour of hunters
Or savage skill in war,
But ordering all things with dead words,
Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,
And wheels of wind and star.

They shall come mild as monkish clerks,
With many a scroll and pen;
And backward shall ye turn and gaze,
Desiring one of Alfred’s days,
When pagans still were men.

Heathenism concealed in ideas is more dangerous than a heathenism of myth and blood; at least those enemies of Christian virtue are visible. The “dead words” of pessimistic atheist philosophers cause confusion and hysteria. It is against this pessimism that Gilbert Keith Chesterton spent years fighting. As William Oddie wrote in his Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, we can see a “theme which begins to recur in [Chesterton’s] thinking, the problem (both cultural and personal) of ‘pessimism.’ This became for him, almost obsessively (and for the rest of his life), one distinguishing mark of the great intellectual enemy of the times, the dragon that had to be slain.”

Throughout his work, Chesterton uses the term “optimism” as a positive philosophy of life and way of seeing the world. Many Christians understand this optimism and base the belief on the knowledge of a loving Creator with a divine plan for humanity. Interestingly, Chesterton was an optimist prior to becoming a Catholic; however, the principles of his optimism flowed very well with the Christian understanding of the cosmos and continued to be operative principles after his official conversion. As he wrote in his biography praising St. Thomas Aquinas, “He was the optimist theologian, and . . . Catholicism is the only optimist theology. Something milder and more amiable may be made out of the deliquescence of theology . . . [but] this is the only one that is entirely on the side of Life.”

Understanding these principles is helpful for the modern educator, philosopher, apologist, and the everyday man or woman who desires an outlook of hope in a world so often revealing its fallenness. The philosophy of this joyful, gentle giant is a much-needed corrective in the wake of modern nihilism and loss of hope. As Schall continues, “Here is the recurring problem of Eastern fatalism and Christian hope. We are doomed for glory, but, in the divine purpose, we must choose it.”

The three principles I’d like to outline are (1) finding the extraordinary in the ordinary things of life, (2) paradox, and (3) the ideal of common sense. By understanding these three principles, one can get a deeper understanding of the man himself and how one might be able to imitate him in his optimism.

Principle #1: Extraordinary in the Ordinary 

Chesterton was a champion of normality; not a humdrum sense of normality, but an “astonishment” at what we tend to brush off as normal. Often referred to as the Apostle of Common Sense, his work is rife with optimism and a startling reaction to the everyday things. In a chapter of The Defendant brilliantly entitled “A Defense of Baby Worship,” Chesterton marks the characteristics of children as things to be upheld, celebrated, and even “worshipped.” The two characteristics he considers are “that they are very serious, and secondly, that they are in consequence very happy.” He is alluding to the fact that many “serious” philosophers become so pessimistic in their view of the world. They might be able to see into the scientific facts of the stars yet lose the poetical beauty they convey. Whereas children, contending with the seriousness of the universe, laugh in wonder. As Chesterton writes, “The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe . . . a transcendent common-sense.” Children have the unique ability to see the world through fresh eyes; every animal is a monster, every adult is a giant, and every star is a firefly in the sky.

The imaginative powers and innocence of children is a recurring theme in Chesterton; however, regarding this principle, so is the “astonishment” at the fact of existence itself. In his essay “The Ethics of Elfland,” Chesterton challenges numerous assumptions about this cosmos and life itself. Rather than seeing the cosmos as a vast never-ending abstraction, he argues that he sees it as something cozy, more like a hearth or a blanket than a cold, dark expanse. Chesterton biographer Dale Ahlquist comments in The Complete Thinker, “By viewing the earth as small and precious, and also menacingly close, we can begin to form the proper attitude toward it.” That attitude is finding the simple, ordinary areas of life as something to be protected and loved.

Principle #2: Paradox, or Standing on your Head

One of the characteristics of “astonishment” in the Chestertonian sense of the word, is realizing things that seem to be silly or perhaps the opposite of what has become the norm, are profoundly, deeply true. When we remove our lens of self-perception or self-assuredness (intended or unintended), we come to find that life is full of paradox. Interestingly, paradox for Chesterton was not merely a way to explain the world—it is a reflection of his philosophy of life. Chesterton’s philosophy of optimism is grounded in the belief that it is precisely the concrete things that offer the most astonishing reflection of human existence. He thought that too often individuals get caught up in grandstanding philosophical abstractions and forget what is right in front of them.

Oddie mentions an incident where a reviewer of Chesterton’s work attacked him on the grounds of the overuse of paradox. Chesterton then responds with an explanation of his use of paradox, and as Oddie states, he provides his readers with “a clear and coherent understanding of how he intended the device to reflect his philosophy of life.” Chesterton writes that his critic, named G.G.G. in the article, “has got into his head the extraordinary idea that paradox is a flowery, artificial thing, invented by literary flaneurs. If that were all, paradox would never have become sufficiently widespread for him to be aware of its existence.” Rather, “the reason that paradox is continuous and ancient  . . . is that there really is a strand of contradiction running through the universe.” One of the many examples Chesterton uses is the matter of courage, which “is the first virtue that the savage learns: it is the last virtue which the decadent most reluctantly abandons.”

The belief that paradox runs through the very fabric of human existence provides a lens through which all matters of life must be viewed. This is important to the discussion of the first principle because the natural human instinct is to find the extraordinary in those things which are not experienced on a daily basis. However, Chesterton argues that it is within the ordinary, within the grounding of being itself, that we cannot escape paradox; and paradox is most often where we find the truth of things. James Schall, while noting the relationship between Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, wrote that Chesterton’s love of reality and the paradoxical nature of it stem from “the affirmation of what is that it is, the rejoicing in what is, that it is, the affirmation that all that is is worthy of praise, not excluding oneself—this is what Belloc called . . . ‘that intense exuberance in happiness.’” Schall goes on to express the way Belloc commented on Chesterton’s frequent use of paradox in which Belloc writes, “In statement of truth [Chesterton] did not and could not exaggerate because truth, which was his sole concern, is of its nature absolute.” In other words, Chesterton did not use paradox as some kind of rhetorical device in order to win an argument; rather, because of his love for what is, he loved the paradoxical. A paradoxical philosophy is one of joy and optimism.

Principle #3: Common Sense

Throughout Chesterton’s work there is a continual thread of distaste for the abstractions of modern philosophers, as was discussed in the first principle. One aspect of that distaste is his conviction to fight the notion that “truth was the province of the elite.” Chesterton believed in democracy with an almost religious conviction rather than a merely political stance. This notion ties very well with his love of ordinary things and ordinary people. He felt that the truths of the day are often given by people who take themselves far too seriously. Rather, there are truths to be found in “old wive’s tales” and legends. Common sense, or to phrase it differently, the sense of the “common,” is an epistemology of a unique kind. Oddie points out that Chesterton’s “passion for common sense is part of his passion for rational truth; and paradox is an instrument of common sense in a world out of joint, a world in which common sense is habitually denied.”

Much like paradox, Chesterton did not think of “common sense” as something simple or dumbed-down; rather, it was the deepest truths to be discovered. Consider his treatment of mysticism. In an essay entitled “The Mystery of the Mystics,” he provides a thoroughly counter-cultural vision of the world by stating that mysticism is “plain common sense,” something Oddie states as being the “very heart” of his intellectual development. Chesterton writes, “Mysticism in its noblest sense . . . is not an exceptionally dark and secret thing. . . . It is in reality too clear for most of us to comprehend, and too obvious for most of us to see.”

Optimism, mysticism, and common sense are not mere sentiments, personality traits, or happy ignorance; rather, they are an acceptance of the truth of things as they really are and a celebration of their existence. Job was a mystic because he really did converse with God and the cosmos. But Job is also the everyman. He shook his fists at the dire situation in which he was placed, but blessed God in the midst of it. His common sense was “common” in that each human person has the capacity to act in such a way that respects and loves the world even when all seems lost. For Chesterton, the ordinary man has the common sense to see what a thing is as it is; no rationalizing, no abstracting beyond human capacity, and no agenda for claiming something to be true that is not. Common sense, in the Chestertonian style, is seeing the world at its most raw and real, which often requires modern man to “stand on his head.” Common sense creates optimism because common sense allows for the hilarity and paradox of life.

It is of high importance that philosophers, theologians, educators, and the everyday man learn of this great man’s philosophy, and one way to begin that education is by stating and explaining these three principles. By viewing the ordinary as something extraordinary, a person comes to a deeper fondness and love of their lives, their communities, and existence itself. In loving the small, ordinary world, one can adequately fight for the goodness it contains. Understanding Chesterton’s use and view of paradox makes an individual’s daily life nothing less than an adventure. In a time of scientism and determinism, rediscovering the mystery of paradox, and coming to understand the cosmos as paradoxical, revivifies man’s need for wonder. Paradox as a source of truth must be revisited in academia and the classroom. And lastly, Chesterton’s simple explanation of common sense, though a paradox in itself given his use of mysticism as common sense, is a style of knowledge and a view of the ordinary man as a source of great intellect.

There is still an elitism in philosophy that Chesterton fought against. Perhaps these principles can help balance out the way the world views what is true.