Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 23-26.
It would no doubt be foolish to suggest that there is a single, essential contribution which Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874–1936) can make to us from across the span of a century and a quarter since his birth. In the first place, how could one simplify a man of such complex talents? And in the second, would not everyone who patiently explains why Chesterton should be of interest to us in fact be explaining their own range of interests? Literary types would laud him for his poetry and novels and detective stories and plays; social critics would approve him for his prescient admonitions about eugenics and nihilism and socialism; champions of domestic democracy would like his doctrine of distributism; philosophers would be challenged by his insights into Thomas and Francis, and the quips he trades with Shaw and Blatchford; the fundamentalist Christian would defend him for defending Christianity, and the Catholic Christian would enjoy the enjoyment Chesterton derived from his Catholicism. This is a multifaceted man.
It is probably foolish, therefore, to attempt to identify an essential characteristic of Chesterton, but that is what this essay proposes. Although all successful writers would tell me that interests are idiosyncratic, and I should therefore identify a specific contribution Chesterton made in a specific field of interest, instead I seek to identify a universal feature that threads through all of Chesterton’s above–listed avocations. I furthermore suggest that this feature is his principal boon to us.
Chesterton’s modesty would have prevented him from claiming sainthood. It is I, not he, who shall compare his salutary effect with a saint’s, but the point is true, nonetheless, that what he said about saints is perfectly and exactly applicable to himself: "The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need. . . . Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most." The way in which Chesterton contradicts us most is by being a happy man. By this trait he can serve as our antidote, exaggerating what we neglect, supplying what we need, even if we do not know we do.
The happiness that pervades every word Chesterton writes is occasioned both by things and by people. In his hands, as in the hands of an artist, something is done to the ordinary world that enables the viewer to see its landscape and its citizens anew. "At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise or wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy." To Chesterton, all things appear as wonderful parts of a thrilling fairyland. He retains an innocent, original delight in things instead of succumbing to the monotony that assails most of us as we grow older. It is adults who become bored with life; children find the world as exotic as a fairy tale. "Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. . . . These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water."
Chesterton has the quixotic goal of remaining childlike even after growing up, because children escape the curse of being weary of wonders. If an artist (working in the medium of words) could revivify this sense, he could provide a magical view of things as ordinary as a London hansom cab or Fleet Street lamplight. "To the child the tree and the lamppost are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other, are equally of the gold of fairy tales."
It is the same with people. People are just as wonder–filled as things. In a letter to his fiancée, Frances, he confesses to being stained with ink from that day’s work (a state of appearance at which Frances would probably not be surprised), and then thinks to add, "I like the Cyclostyle ink; it is so inky. I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud. It is just the same with people. . . . When we call a man ‘manly’ or a woman ‘womanly’ we touch the deepest philosophy." Chesterton was pleased to make the acquaintance of various people, many people, any people. He even once thought it would be pleasing to make the acquaintance of all people:
Mr. Gilbert Chesterton
requests the pleasure
Of humanity’s company
to tea on Dec. 25th 1896.
Humanity Esq., The Earth, Cosmos E.
On every encounter, at every turn, with every person, there is cause for happiness. Both the tree and the lamppost, both the friend and the stranger, are equally delightful, for they are splendid and unexplained. They seem supernatural because there is no explanation as to how we should be graced with them, and they seem natural because they are made just for us. The opportunities for happiness are coterminous with being itself. We have been given a world crammed with a million means to beatitude.
Now in light of all this, one would think happiness to be among the easier achievements of mankind. One would think that happiness belongs to our nature, and should come as naturally as eating or loving. Indeed, Chesterton does believe that "all human beings, without any exception whatever, were specially made, were shaped and pointed like shining arrows, for the end of hitting the mark of Beatitude." But, unfortunately, something has gone awry. We don’t do nature naturally. The natural acts of eating and loving can become the unnatural acts of gluttony or lust, and a world that should make us happy can make us unhappy because we don’t do the world the way it was meant to be done. Chesterton flirted with this state of being, exploring the topography of nihilism—a period described in his autobiography as "How to Be a Lunatic." He had often called himself an optimist, he said, "to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism," but he still searched for a justification of optimism. The stakes were high, because if a ground for optimism could not be found, then life would collapse in on itself, like a star imploding.
We often speak of unhappiness as a sort of pain, but it might be more accurate to speak of unhappiness as a sort of unhealth, because it shares with unhealth this characteristic: one can be in it without realizing it. This is not the case with pain. One cannot be in pain without knowing it. If a well–meaning informant were to approach a person who was lazing comfortably and announce to him in earnest and urgent tones that he was in pain, the latter would be justified in concluding that this evangelist did not understand either the grammar of the word or the logic of the concept. But unlike pain, unhappiness can descend lightly, without friction, like a pendent fog, and one can be unaware of the dis–ease. Then the help one needs is to become aware of the unhappiness, and there are two ways to this.
The first is when unhappiness at length erupts as suffering or sorrow. Regrettably, our generation does not tolerate suffering or sorrow very gladly, and we have generated infinite resources for anesthetizing ourselves. If this is the only way of salvation—a way of negation—then the majority are at risk of never recovering. But there is a second way to become aware of unhappiness—a way of affirmation—whereby one comes in contact with someone who is genuinely happy, someone who is so glad to be that one is reminded of the gladness of being. Such is the rehabilitative effect of the saintly artist, and no matter what genre Chesterton writes in, he has this salubrious effect.
It is tempting to ascribe Chesterton’s happiness either to the less complicated age in which he lived or to his optimistic personality, but we cannot because he does not. He does not mainly attribute his happiness to nature or nurture (disappointing the psychologist whose anthropology is restricted to these alternatives alone). He attributes happiness to the will. Happiness is not bestowed, it is accomplished. It is gleaned. "In everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. . . . The point is, that if a man is bored in the first five minutes he must go on and force himself to be happy. Coercion is a kind of encouragement."
This viewpoint does not contradict the earlier statement that human nature is fitted like an arrow on the string and aimed straight at happiness, because for an arrow to fly there must be tension in the bow. To say that man was created for happiness, as well as that man must achieve happiness, does not make a contradiction, it makes for drama. The question of whether an individual will achieve beatitude is still open. To be natural means to belong to a nature. It is not natural for a cat to speak; it is natural for a human being to be happy. Although our hap piness may be natural, it is neither guaranteed nor easy. There remains some suspense over whether a person will achieve the fullness of his nature.
One’s capacity for happiness must be trained, naturally (of course); and it must be trained naturally (in accord with reality). The principle that happiness contains qualifications is a law Chesterton calls "the Doctrine of Conditional Joy," and he explains its corpus juris most lucidly in the chapter in Orthodoxy called "Ethics of Elfland." "According to elfin ethics all virtue is in an ‘if.’ The note of the fairy utterance always is, ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word "cow"’; or ‘You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden."
Joy is conditional, only the price is not arbitrarily set by fates unseen and gods unknown, as some ancient cosmologies and some lately restored cosmologies would have it. It is not as if human beings could enjoy the world in a rampant, reckless way save that we are not allowed to, though we could be. The doctrine of conditional joy does not describe accidental conditions that must be met before joy will be released by some repressive power (as in, it is necessary to eat vegetables before you will be allowed dessert); the doctrine rather describes the conditions necessary for the experience of joy (e.g., it is necessary to eat in order to live). That a disordered will cannot be happy is not an accidental decree, it is a state impossible by definition. Happiness is contingent upon an ordered will, like seeing is contingent upon having one’s eyes open. The condition in conditional joy is not a fee demanded of us before we are permitted to enjoy the world, it is the capacitation required of us before we can find the world enjoyable. The price for happiness is set by ontological conditions.
It is commonly said that the modern world is reverting to paganism, and Chesterton would agree, but for quite a different reason than that commonly proffered. When alarmed pietists say the world is reverting to paganism, they mean the modern person is enjoying himself too much. When Chesterton says the modern world has reverted to paganism, he means the modern person is, like the pagan, no longer able to enjoy anything. "The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else." The secret sin we share with the pagans is egocentric despair. We, like they, are first sated, then satiated, then bored, then unhappy. The twenty–first century may become even more pagan than the twentieth, and if it does, it will not be because its citizenry is shamelessly happy, but for the very opposite reason: they will have reached the same end that paganism reached. "When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead."
"The test of all happiness is gratitude," Chesterton wrote, and many of us have flunked that test. "Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?" We feel no wonder at ordinary things; it is no wonder that ordinary things disappoint us. Chesterton could be made happy by the sudden yellowness of a dandelion, but we do not find dandelions delightful if we are constantly comparing them to orchids. "It is not familiarity but comparison that breeds contempt. And all such captious comparisons are ultimately based on the strange and staggering heresy that a human being has a right to dandelions; that in some extraordinary fashion we can demand the very pick of all the dandelions in the garden of Paradise; that we owe no thanks for them at all and need feel no wonder at them at all." The twin brother of this presumptive attitude is despair, and the two make us sick and tired. "Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other the good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless."
Until we are grateful, we will not find the world miraculous; until we find the world miraculous, we will not find it important; until we find the world important, we will not be happy here. The difference between ourselves and Chesterton is that we don’t think our world important because it seems ordinary, while he thinks his world is important because he is ordinary. "I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term; which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and chivalry as laws rightly controlling them, and the rest of the normal traditions of our race and religion."
This ordinary happiness makes up the essence of Chesterton, and, woven into all his writings, perspicuous on whatever page one opens, it is his gift to those who suffer boredom. A happy saint is just the antidote we need.
David W. Fagerberg is Professor of Religion at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.