G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Volume XXXVII
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.
This is the final Collected Works volume of ILN essays; G. K. Chesterton died on June 14, 1936 at the age of 62. Chesterton’s last finished essay was published in the June 13 edition, capping a 31-year career of weekly contributions to the publication. He appeared on the cover of the June 20, 1936 edition of ILN. Volume XXXVII has a great bonus feature, a subject index covering all 31 years of ILN essays. You can get the book here.
This final collection of essays struck me as being more serious and thematically focused than earlier (other than during World War I). Chesterton continually comes back to such deep problems as the disappearance of logical thinking, the progressive way of accepting ideas because they are new rather than true, a widespread spiritual malaise, and overconfidence in the state and in man’s intellect as avenues to happiness and spiritual fulfillment. Historically, it is quite interesting to read his take on contemporary political figures including Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franklin Roosevelt. His essays revolving around the death of King George V are fascinating explorations of both contemporary European culture and the ancient roots and meaning of kingship.
But more than anything, in this volume, in a more concentrated fashion than usual, Chesterton is shouting out to us: Wake up! Think! Learn! See what is real! Before it is too late.
“Any sort of people who happened to irritate us, by not being the same sort of people as ourselves, only needed to be cured by an electric shock from the new electric battery called Education.” (01-12-1935)
“First, it is odd, in a question of reverence to religion, that the only religion we do, in fact, expose to superficial irreverence is our own religion.” (03-23-1935)
“Now, if there is one thing in which all my moods are at one, if there is one thing that connects my earlier optimistic antics with my last doctrinal convictions, is that I do most violently revolt against despair. According to my first instincts it was a perversion; in my present faith it is a sin.” (0-30-1935)
“… Progress is never merely the solving of problems; it is always also the setting of problems. … Progress is the mother of Problems. I do not say that Progress is therefore undesirable; or that the problems are therefore insoluble. I only say there will always be numberless new problems to solve.” (04-06-1935)
“One of the chief problems of our time is the prevalence of popular ideas which are really only the reversal of normal ideas.” (04-27-1935)
“Tyranny is the opposite of authority. For authority simply means right; and nothing is authoritative except what somebody has a right to do, and therefore is right in doing. It often happens in this imperfect world that he has the right to do it and not the power to do it. But he cannot have a shred of authority if he merely has the power to do it and not the right to do it.” (06-29-1935)
“Orthodoxy is that primary principle, or right reason in things, by which they can be judged independently of new fads or of old prejudices. There is an intrinsic intellectual rightness that can be judged in all times on its own terms; and orthodoxy was the term I once found convenient for it. (07-06-1935)
“The theory of progress may be argued; but it must be proved. It is necessary to show that certain social stages are superior to previous social stages on their own merits; and in many cases it may be possible to prove it. In some cases it is certainly possible to disprove it.” (07-13-1935)
“The worst argument in the world is a date. For it is actually taking as fixed the one thing that we really know is fugitive; and staking all upon to-day at the moment when it is turning into yesterday. (07-13-1935)
“I cannot believe that men are quite so different that any of the want to be the same.” (07-20-1935)
“But what goads the experienced persons to a senile rage, approximating to madness or murder, is the fact that they are asked to accept, as fresh, ideas which even in their own experience are stale to the point of stinking …” (07-27-1935)
“Between newspaper stunts and newspaper suppressions on the one side, and dictatorships with their censorships on the other, it is highly probably that our immediate posterity will know less about what is going on than they did before there was a printing press.” (08-24-1935)
“… the value of anything, the question of whether it is or is not good in itself, is now hopelessly confused by the fuss about the man who was the first to find it” (09-07-1935)
“For the whole world of mere stunts and scoops and trading and self-advertisement is spiritually a world utterly dead; although it is very noisy. It is, in the very precise and literal meaning of the phrase, a howling wilderness.” (09-14-1935)
“The modern way of talking does not run any risk of considering man without mankind. It is now in mortal peril of considering mankind without man. It talks about a social organism, forgetting that it is a metaphor to call the state an organism.” (09-21-1935)
“Still less have we got the World-State of modernity; in which millions of different sorts of people will somehow manage to be as independent as rebels and yet as unanimous as slaves.” (11-30-1935)
“The old way of liberating human life was to lift it into a more intense consciousness; the new way of liberating it is to let it lapse into a sort of absence of mind.” (12-21-1935)
“Thus I will admit anything against old customs, except the idea that they are dead and meaningless. It is the society without customs that becomes dead and meaningless.” (12-21-1935)
“The modern world has, in the literal sense, made everybody much too insignificant.” (12-21-1935)
“If families will not be responsible for their own children then officials will be responsible for other people’s children … The total control of human life will pass to the State; and it will be a very Totalitarian State.” (01-04-1936)
“What has harmed modern government, including what we call representative government, is a certain quality that is seldom mentioned, though I think I have mentioned it here, for I think it is very serious. It is the loss of the old ideal which associated a love of liberty with a scorn of luxury.” (01-25-1936)
“The mere guesses of popular science have already hardened into the certainties of public opinion.” (03-28-1936)
“The doctor is satisfied to find any remedy that will cure the disease; it does not bother him that, in the long development of the philosophy of medicine, the remedy is worse than the disease. So long as his argument is immediately applicable, he does not care if it lays the world waste by being universally inapplicable.” (06-02-1936)