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Chesterton via Ahlquist: Marvelous

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 14, 2013

Here is a book which took me by surprise: Dale Ahlquist’s explication of the thought of G. K. Chesterton in The Complete Thinker. Subtitled “The Marvelous Mind of G. K. Chesterton”, Ahlquist’s book explains Chesterton’s writing not only through many apt quotations but also by successfully distilling his varied writings into their key elements so that the reader has a clear framework of appreciation. Because Dale Ahlquist is a fine writer in his own right, the book is as enjoyable as it is enlightening.

I had always wondered why publishers occasionally bring out books about the writings of Chesterton when it is so much fun simply to read Chesterton himself, a course which I still heartily recommend (see Reading the Greats during the Year of Faith: Newman and Chesterton). But I think the answer lies in the fact that there are actually quite a few English-speaking readers, even Catholic readers, who do not appreciate Chesterton as much as those of us who love him think they should. The problem with Chesterton is that if you approach his work as a means of gathering information and arguments about a particular topic, you will continually wonder why it takes him so long to get to the point. Chesterton is the master of expressing great truths through light-hearted asides, imaginative tangents, and delightful paradoxes. If your chief concern is to get to a destination, you may not enjoy the ride.

For those who have found themselves in this unenviable position, this position of being on a walking tour while desiring air travel, The Complete Thinker provides a very well-structured introduction in a lively and entertaining style, without sacrificing GKC’s immense quotability. For those who have enjoyed Chesterton but have not had time to read even a small portion of his immense body of work, The Complete Thinker packs a great deal into a small space. And for those who are wondering if they should get started with Chesterton at all, reading Ahlquist’s appreciation will answer that question, probably by whetting the appetite.

Chesterton wrote some eighty books encompassing nearly every kind of literature: Serious and sustained apologetics; literary criticism; biography and autobiography; novels; short stories; poetry, including an epic; plays; and his stock in trade, more than four thousand newspaper and magazine columns over a span of some forty years. He also excelled at public lectures and debates. Because of the great breadth of his work, it is easy to get the flavor of Chesterton, but hard to develop a systematic assessment of his thought. A glance at the table of contents of The Complete Thinker shows how deftly Ahlquist brings things together under key categories. In addition, an entertaining appendix summarizes the remarkable debate between Chesterton and Clarence Darrow, an agnostic who delighted in browbeating Fundamentalists, and who was completely unprepared to contend verbally with a man of generous and Catholic mind.

At rare intervals, I suppose, Ahlquist falls into an uncritical admiration for Chesterton, unwilling to see any blemishes or even raise questions about his hero. For example, Ahlquist assumes that since Chesterton understood mysticism, he must therefore have been a mystic himself. But there is no evidence whatsoever that Chesterton was a mystic, though there is every evidence for his prodigious imagination. I do not mean only in the fabulous or fantastic sense, but in the sense of being able to correctly imagine how others see the universe, and what makes them tick, for good or ill. It is not necessary, in making out Chesterton to be a perceptive writer, that we also make him out to be a visionary saint.

Of course, the reason I cannot give a page reference for this small point is that I was having too much fun reading to bother to take notes. But another instance is Ahlquist’s treatment of Chesterton’s views on commerce (or, more largely, economics), which are covered in the chapter entitled “Buying and Selling”. Chesterton, along with his friend Hilaire Belloc, was a Distributist. Distributism consists in the noble and attractive idea that the best possible economic order is one which divides property, production and exchange among the greatest number of people in a way which makes each person the proprietor of his own farm or business, or at least each person an important figure in some useful enterprise operating on a humane scale—which is to say a small scale.

Chesterton abhorred not only big government but what he called “the big shop”. I suspect he was right to do so, for the big shop, just like the big government, is home to a thousand abuses which too often demean the greater number of men and women, whom Chesterton viewed as playing the unfortunate part of “wage slaves”. I grant that Chesterton was not far wrong in perceiving that the world is being carved up by the few to the detriment of the many, and principally by a kind of symbiosis of business and government, which turns the world into the oyster of the rich and powerful. And Chesterton was certainly correct that insofar as any of our laws, including our property laws, favor this tendency, they are laws in need of reform.

Moreover, Distributism is even more attractive in that, for Chesterton, it was built on the family as prior to both the State and the Shop. Without question, the family is the foundation of social health. But attractiveness aside, Chesterton never seemed to understand much about economics, the most important factor in which is efficiency of production. It is when the time-cost of producing things drops dramatically that large numbers of people can begin to afford greater leisure and greater material well-being. To move quickly to the crux of the matter: Once people achieve such efficiencies, it is hard to keep them down on the farm—or even in small, family-oriented business ventures where so much depends, day and night, on the sole proprietor. Most “wage slaves” would not go back (or forward) to the Distributist ideal even if they could.

Like many specific economic visions, therefore, Distributism would have to be forced. Yet in fact no single specific economic vision is necessary to the Catholic. The virtue of solidarity is flexible enough to deal with inequities within a wide variety of economic systems and structures. So let me emphasize that economics is considered in only one chapter out of seventeen, and I am over-emphasizing this point only to recognize the one very minor flaw in the book, which is that Dale Ahlquist does not appear to see any minor flaws in G. K. Chesterton, or even any debatable flaws. It is just a little bit dangerous to one’s own balanced judgment to place oneself in the hands of an intermediary who believes his hero to be perfect in every respect, never on any occasion to fall short of the mark. Chesterton himself was not in the least tempted by the cult of personality.

Still, this is a minor niggle, such as it is the reviewer’s business to provide, especially as there is so much to admire about Chesterton. If you are having trouble getting a handle on G. K Chesterton for any reason, read Dale Ahlquist’s The Complete Thinker. This affordable paperback from Ignatius Press is by far the best single approach to Chesterton’s truly marvelous mind.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: matthew.buckley1558 - Jan. 19, 2013 10:42 PM ET USA

    Readers should consult Dr Donald Boland's article "Chesterton and Capitalism" for a better discussion of the problem Chesterton faced in his day in the economic order. Dr Boland told me he regards Chesterton's system as "right but incomplete." One should remember that efficiency is not necessarily a virtue. One can be an efficient thief. http://www.cts.org.au/0808/CHESTERTON-AND-CAPITALISM.pdf

  • Posted by: colinlavergne9538 - Jan. 16, 2013 12:37 AM ET USA

    "I am over-emphasizing this point only to recognize the one very minor flaw in the book, which is that Dale Ahlquist does not appear to see any minor flaws in G. K. Chesterton, or even any debatable flaws." This was a very G.K. style of remark. I'm impressed.

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Jan. 15, 2013 11:32 PM ET USA

    I am glad to see that you still do not buy "Distributism" as the panacea that Chesterton and to a greater extent Belloc think it is.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Jan. 15, 2013 5:26 PM ET USA

    Serious Catholics can be serious Chesterton fans. Serious economists cannot be distributists. It goes like this: Step 1: Everyone decides that free markets/free enterprise is bad. Step 2: A miracle happens. Step 3: We are all happy distributists (at least until the Second Coming). Even in Chesterton's time there were no trends in the direction of small-scale production.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jan. 15, 2013 9:29 AM ET USA

    "...Chesterton never seemed to understand much about economics, the most important factor in which is efficiency of production." Except that Chesterton understood that family is far more important than efficiency of production. Having a family shop where the family participates in the production of whatever goods are to be sold potentially brings about a greater familial bond, and that's far more important than "efficiency of production."

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