Many people with a remarkable facility with words are not deep thinkers. That Gilbert Keith Chesterton had that facility to the point of genius few would deny; but he had a depth which put him among the outstanding thinkers of his time, or of any time.
That fact is exemplified in such books as Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man and St Thomas Aquinas, as well as in his numerous articles and stories. He had the gift of capturing an unexpected aspect of things in a witty or paradoxical phrase, sometimes by reversing a popular saying.
He states that “travel narrows the mind”. And on thinking about it one sees that it does. Before visiting a country we have a general but vague view of the place; after visiting it our view is narrowed down to what is concretely there.
Or again, he says: “if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly”. On reflection, that is generally the case.
Chesterton exposes the real meaning hidden in common expressions, as when he observes that people who speak of “the spirit of Christianity” really mean “the ghost of Christianity”. (Today we can say the same of those who talk about “the spirit of Vatican II”.)
He shows up well the pretensions of the population controllers who want to reduce poverty by reducing population. GKC comments that if there are ten boys and they have only nine hats, the right solution is to manufacture another hat. But the solution of the population controllers is to cut off one of the heads.
Remarking on the difference between the way people’s lives went astray in more settled times and the way they go astray in the confused modern world, he says: “Man has always lost his way; but modern man has lost his address”.
Critics of H.G. Wells’ book God the Invisible King observed correctly that it has an anthropomorphic understanding of God. Chesterton put this in his own characteristic way: “Mr Well’s invisible king seems very like Mr Well’s invisible man”.
There have been attempts to keep the poor from rebelling against their rich oppressors by assuring them it is God’s will that they be poor, and they will get their reward in heaven. Chesterton says of this: “The poor man asked for bread and they gave him a stone, and told him it was the white stone of the elect.”
He speaks of the “sub-conscious popular instinct against Darwinism…”, and locates it in a perception that “when one once begins of think of man as a shifting and alterable thing, it is always easy for the strong and crafty to twist him into new shapes for all kinds of unnatural purposes.” (We see that happening today.)
Gilbert Chesterton had an intense inner life, with an acute awareness of reality. I read somewhere that the key to understanding his genius is to see that he had “a metaphysical intuition of being”. That sums it up. It is an awareness of being – of the depths of reality – which is required if one is to be a true philosopher, and it is something never attained by most thinkers who are regarded as philosophers and who may write books on the subject or give learned lectures on it.
In Chesterton’s case it came without close study of books, and could almost be called spontaneous. His intensity of perception is reflected in the fact that he used to talk to himself. He himself said: “If a man doesn’t talk to himself, it’s because he is not worth talking to.”
When he wrote his book St Thomas Aquinas, which was published by Sheed and Ward, Frank Sheed had misgivings. As Mrs Sheed says in her work Gilbert Keith Chesterton, they doubted if Gilbert could have done sufficient research, for a great many experts had produced studies on the Angelic Doctor. She says they would have been even more concerned had they known what his secretary Dorothy Collins told them later. He had dictated half the work at high speed, then he asked her to go to
and get him some books. She asked: “Which books?” He said: “I don’t know.” She consulted Father O’Connor (the real life model for Father Brown), and brought back some books on London . Gilbert flicked through them, then dictated the rest of his work. St Thomas
The great Thomist scholar Etienne Gilson has this to say about it: “I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on
. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement… Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed…” Quoted by Maisie Ward in Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Penguin Books, pp381-382). St Thomas
(Numerous of Chesterton's works are in the Library collection and are avaliable for browsing and/or borrowing.)