Quodlibets—Chesterton as Philosopher: Guilty or Not Guilty?

It is not of course true that only non-Catholics are interested in the intellectual patrimony of Catholicism, however tempting the thought may sometimes be. Take the case of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a veritable Vesuvius of literature. How could nearly a hundred titles ever be forgotten? Yet, that evangelical colleges and Protestant publishing houses seemed for a time to be the only ones still fascinated by Chesterton is undeniable. The magnificent collection at Wheaton College in Illinois and the list of Eerdmans Publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan were both an adornment to these institutions and a rebuke to Catholics.

To some Catholics, at least. There were indeed many whose interest in Chesterton antedated the writer’s death in 1936 and had flourished over the years. I think of the Chestertonians at Notre Dame who under the leadership of my late colleague Rufus Rauch, with his vivid memories of Chesterton’s stay at Notre Dame, constituted an unbroken tradition. Nonetheless, in that parlous period following the Council, GKC like so many other stalwarts of the recent golden age of Catholicism, fell into oblivion among many.

How wonderful then it is to see a renaissance afoot. There was first of all the Chesterton Society, with its journal The Chesterton Review. If the latter sometimes veers in the direction of that donnishness that Belloc rose to protect Chesterton from, it is by and large an unequivocal blessing.

And then there is the Ignatius Press edition of Chesterton’s Collected Works, well under way, a typographical delight and available in paper as well as cloth binding. For decades there has been a lively trade in Chestertoniania, and doubtless it will go on, but soon largely among bibliophiles. The Ignatius Press edition makes reading Chesterton easy again and for this as for so much else the Church in America is indebted to Father Joseph Fessio, S.J..

Chesterton wrote and prayed himself into the Church over many years and many books—it is worth recalling that Orthodoxy was written prior to his reception into the Church—and there is a feisty bellicosity about his writings—Heretics, What’s Wrong With the World?, Eugenics and Other Evils—that seems to characterize him as a mere controversialist. Not that he would have eschewed the label. He gloried in being divisive when what was being divided was truth and falsity. But even his friends may sometimes think of him as, well, a journalist. There are two recent books that will give such friends pause.

Stanley Jaki, O.S.B., published with the University of Illinois Press in 1986 his Chesterton, A Seer of Science in which Father Jaki, an estimable theologian and historian of science (winner of the Templeton Prize a year ago) draws attention to remarkable features of Chesterton’s attitude toward science. Behind the inspired jibes at scientism and derision of evolutionism lies, Jaki shows us, the makings of a solid critique.

Now Quentin Lauer, S.J., the formidable philosopher of Fordham, has published a thoroughly delightful book, G. K. Chesterton: Philosopher Without Portfolio (Fordam, 1988), in which Chesterton’s political and moral philosophy is praised as well as his philosophy of science. Like Jaki, Father Lauer is a giant in his field and his praise of Chesterton as a philosopher is of extraordinary significance.

There is an adage, Si tacuisses, philosophus remansisses, which suggests that silence or at least taciturnity is a prerequisite for being regarded a philosopher, something that would disqualify Chesterton immediately. And anyway there will be some who think that calling Chesterton a philosopher may be the kiss of death. Does he deserve no better than this?

But what the books by Jaki and Lauer, as well as the Chesterton Miscellany of Rufus Rauch (Notre Dame Press), suggest is that Chesterton provides a corrective for what philosophy has become. It is not that he must be made to fit into the narrow Procrustean bed of present day philosophy, a sizeable and doubtless impossible task, but rather that he reminds professional philosophers of what the intellectual life should really be like.

It is my view that among Catholics writing today, no one comes closer to the talents of a Chesterton than Joseph Sobran. It is not to the Academy, certainly not to the Academy alone, that the Church has looked for its defenders and apologists in the present time. The stirrings from the Academy I report here suggest to me that professional philosophers and theologians, mindful of the lasting importance of Chesterton, would do well to acknowledge the achievements of such writers as Sobran. I suspect that, in fifty years, they are the ones who will be recognized as major vehicles of authentic renewal in the Church.

By

Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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