G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Volume XXXI
G.K. Chesterton wrote a weekly column for The Illustrated London News from the mid-1900s to the mid-1930s. Ignatius Press has assembled his essays into several volumes, as part of its massive Collected Works compilation. Despite being a century old, Chesterton’s insights are just as pertinent today as they were then — in fact, even more so.
Because Chesterton’s ideas are so important, I thought I’d share some of my favorite passages from each volume. With luck they will spark your interest in reading more. The passages below are a mere taste; Chesterton’s most engaging ideas are too involved and too amazing to be boiled down into a short excerpt.
Another volume that will fascinate students of history. Most of his 1917 and 1918 essays go deep into all aspects of World War I, with a great deal of emphasis on the Prussian and German character, pacifism, militarism, and waxing and waning political forces. In 1919, Chesterton turns his attention to what we now call communism, and as always, he is eerily and unhappily prophetic. Think about the excerpts below in the context of today’s social and political realities.
“Among the few problems that deserve to be called problems is the proper balance of indignation and charity. It is no solution, as some moderns seem to suppose, simply to be charitable and pardon everybody, any more than it would be a solution simply to be indignant and kill everybody.” (04-28-1917)
“You cannot live in the same field with a man who lives in a different universe.” (04-28-1917)
“There are, of course, some shameless and shocking things which the Germans have not done even yet. There are not many; but there are some. They have killed prisoners, but they have not, so far as I know, eaten prisoners. But if anything can be calculated from any human tendencies at all, they would probably do it at a later state, or in another war — if we go out of our way to give them the chance.” (09-15-1917)
“It seems never to have occurred to some people to speculate about what all the work of the world would really be like, if the poor were quite so idiotic or quite so irresponsible as they seem to suppose. Every house we live in would fall down, every train we travel in would go to smash, every chair we sit on would break (this does sometimes happen to chairs in my own experience, but I believe this to be personal experience), every boat would sink, every flock would stray, every furrow would run crooked — the whole framework of our earthly lives would fall to pieces in an instant.” (04-13-1918)
“For there is present something I for one have invariably found wherever there is the mere worship of the intellect — I mean the decay of the intellect.” (05-11-1918)
“… I do not know, and no human creature knows, of what modern Germany may be capable. Modern Germany does not itself know; it gives to the blindness and madness of its plunge into the darkness the name of progress and a will to power. No man has any notion of the end of which torture and infanticide are but the beginnings.” (06-22-1918)
“In short, I am in favor of an alliance of States to fight for the independence of each; I am not at all in favor of a new State expressing merely the interdependence of all.” (08-10-1918)
“The Prussian Socialism is a strict State Socialism: in other words, the Prussians still believe in the divine right, or diabolical right, of the State. The theory remains that the State is the only absolute in morals — that is, that there is no appeal from it to God or man, to Christendom or conscience, to the individual or the family or the fellowship of all mankind. The very theory that was the ethical excuse of all their crimes in the past is the first principle of their political philosophy of the future.” (12-21-1918)
“A free Poland is not only necessary to a free Europe, but it rather specially necessary to a free England.” (01-11-1919)
“Collectivism is the child of Capitalism; and it has much more of a family likeness than it seems to fancy.” (01-25-1919)
“The special mark of the modern world is not that it is sceptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it. … In short, they always have an unconscious dogma; and an unconscious dogma is the definition of a prejudice. … A man who is awake should know what he is saying, and why he is saying it — that is, he should have a fixed creed and relate it to a first principle. This is what most moderns will not consent to do. Their thoughts will work out to the most interesting conclusions; but they can never tell you anything about their beginnings.” (03-15-1919)
“Until the autumn of 1914, thousands of thinking people in this island really did not believe that men so scientific as the Germans could be so sinful as the Germans.” (04-12-1919)
“… even if you think, as I do, that democracy is a good thing, that is not within a thousand miles of saying that it can only do good things.” (06-07-1919)
“The one thing the moderns will not trust a man to do is to conduct his own life.” (10-04-1919)
“This is the age in which thin and theoretic minorities can cover and conquer unconscious and untheoretic majorities, being spread over them like spiders’ webs. A small group that has a philosophy, even if it is a heresy or merely a fallacy, has now an abnormal advantage over the masses that have no philosophy, but only a sort of broad bewilderment produced by the reading of newspapers. There were times when the democratic masses did have a philosophy. It was called a religion. But some of the thin theoretic spiders, unrepresentative but ubiquitous, have contrived to destroy that; and there is no mental machinery for common sense.” (12-20-1919)
“Something is wrong with a trend of thought that hates even the holidays of man.” (12-27-1919)