Why G.K. Chesterton Is Enjoying a Resurgence
Dale Ahlquist Talks of English Essayist's Timeless Wit and Wisdom
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MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, MARCH 24, 2003 (Zenit.org).- It has been said that the great authors are often discarded and go out of fashion after their death only to be rediscovered by their descendents who seek timeless wisdom to solve new problems.
Recently, the writings of many notable Catholic literary and philosophical figures from the first half of the 20th century have returned to print, and new publishing houses have been created to recover these classics.
A case in point is the big interest in the writings of English essayist G.K. Chesterton. His newfound popularity has even spawned a magazine, Gilbert! The Magazine of G.K. Chesterton (see www.gilbertmagazine.com).
To find out why the essayist has been rediscovered, ZENIT spoke with Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, author of the newly released "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense" (Ignatius Press) and host of a 28-part EWTN series by the same name.
Q: Why is G.K. Chesterton the "apostle of common sense"?
Ahlquist: I dubbed Chesterton the "apostle of common sense" because his constant message for the world is the good news of what we already know. Common sense is the truth that we have in common, even if it has become uncommon.
We have it in common because we share the same roots, which are the roots of Western civilization: Classical learning and Christianity. Chesterton makes the profound statement that the world is "living off its Catholic capital." There really are no new thoughts or new ideas. Only new doubts and new diseases. There might even be a connection between the two.
Q: Why has there been a resurgence of interest in famous Catholic authors from the past, especially those that wrote prior to the Second Vatican Council?
Ahlquist: Great authors go through cycles only because we forget them and have to rediscover them.
The only reason we forget them is because we think we are familiar enough with them or think we can sum them up in a few words. Then we use the summaries in order to dismiss them as outdated.
Timeless authors shock us with how timely they are. That is because the truth doesn't change.
Q: Chesterton's most famous book is "Orthodoxy." What did this term mean for him and how did it influence his later conversion to Catholicism?
Ahlquist: He says quite plainly in the book that orthodoxy is the philosophy summed up by the Apostle's Creed. Chesterton discovered Christianity by following the trail of tradition, or what he calls "the Democracy of the Dead," the idea that our ancestors might know a thing or two.
He was close to Catholicism when he became a Christian. He simply followed the trail a little further until he arrived in Rome.
Q: Who are some notable people who have been influenced and formed by the thought of G.K. Chesterton? Why were they attracted to this man and his ideas?
Ahlquist: Chesterton had a major influence on perhaps the greatest diversity of writers and thinkers from the 20th century. It's an astonishing list: Gandhi, C.S. Lewis, Michael Collins, E.F. Schumacher, William F. Buckley, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dorothy Day, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, John Dickinson Carr, Neil Gaiman, Larry Norman, the list goes on.
Try to find something in common with everybody on that list. You can't. Except Chesterton. That's what they have in common.
Chesterton was a complete thinker, and complete thinkers are necessarily broad thinkers, and touch everything. Because everything is connected to everything else. As Chesterton says, "There is no such thing as a different subject."
Also, Chesterton was incredibly versatile, wrote in all genres: essays, novels, poetry, history, economics, social criticism, philosophy, theology and, of course, what he considered the highest of literary forms: detective fiction. That also explains his vast influence.
The irony is that the academy has kept him a secret because he is too big to get a hold of. He doesn't fit into any of our neat compartments. Or departments, for that matter. He keeps spilling over into different disciplines. The problem is not Chesterton, of course. It's our broken way of thinking.
Q: What wisdom does G.K. Chesterton offer us today?
Ahlquist: That there is a Truth that can be trusted. That none of the objections to that Truth are as trustworthy as the Truth itself.
Chesterton is as timely as ever. As a critic of commercial culture, of the evils of runaway big government and run away big business, as a defender of the family, and of course a defender of the Catholic faith, we need to heed his words. He just keeps being right.
Q: Can you leave us with a few of Chesterton's memorable quotes?
Ahlquist: Well, there are the favorites: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried." and "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly."
Then there are the standbys: "Take away the supernatural and what remains is the unnatural." And, "The Bible tells us to love our neighbor and to love our enemy generally because they are the same people."
Then there are the simply prophetic: "The modern world is a crowd of rapidly racing cars all brought to a standstill and stuck in a block of traffic." And, "Our chief peril is not attack; it is decay."
The supply is endless. Chesterton is a fountain of truth, and being a fountain, he is bright and sparkling and refreshing. And paradoxical! After all as Chesterton said, a fountain is a paradox. It is water running up hill!