is president of the American Chesterton Society. Through his popular television
series, The Apostle of Common Sense, as well as his many books and
lectures, he has helped foster a renewed interest in the works of G.K.
Chesterton (1874-1936), the prolific English essayist, novelist, poet,
apologist, pundit, critic, and commentator. Ahlquist has authored and
contributed to several books on Chesterton, including Common Sense 101:
Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense,
and In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton. He recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his new
book, released today by Ignatius Press, The
Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G. K. Chesterton.
In the introduction to your latest book, you write of Chesterton: “In an age of
relativism, he speaks in absolutes.” Although relativism has made its
reputation in the late 20th century, isn’t it true that Chesterton dealt with
many forms of it in his own time?
Ahlquist: In Chesterton’s third novel, The
Ball and the Cross, published in 1909, he stages a debate between a monk
named Michael and a professor named Lucifer. Even the symbolically challenged
should figure out who they represent. At one point in the debate, Lucifer
attempts to parry one of Michael’s points with the comment, “Of course,
everything is relative…” So you see how long ago Chesterton is already aware of
this argument forming, and he puts the argument into the mouth of the devil.
Just as Chesterton warned that the popularization of Darwin would lead to a
belief in mindless progressivism in politics, he warned early on that the
popularization of Einstein would lead to an acceptance of relativism in
You state, “Chesterton’s great accomplishment is that in addition to writing
about everything, he puts it all together. He is a complete thinker.” How, in
light of Chesterton’s writings, does one go about being a complete thinker?
Chesterton says, “Thinking means connecting things.” Chesterton is the complete
thinker in that he connects everything. It is, ironically, why he is so hard to
categorize as a writer. He is bigger than all the categories. He keeps spilling
over into different subjects that we would prefer to be kept watertight. We
want religion kept out of politics. We want it kept out of economics. Well, we
want religion kept out of everything! But we have also separated meaning from
art, and art from beauty. We have separated health from human dignity, and have
separated the family from the home. We have separated the big questions from
the little questions and neither is getting answered very well.
the Complete Thinker, Chesterton is the model thinker. One becomes a complete
thinker by thinking like Chesterton!
What does Chesterton have to say about the disconnect between the modern use
(or abuse) of language and modern man’s failure to think soundly and clearly?
Chesterton is amazing in that he always finds the right word. But that is the
great challenge: finding the right word.
fragmented way of talking reflects our fragmented way of thinking. Our
vocabulary has shrunk, so we are trying to fit more and more meaning into fewer
and fewer words. The frustration, especially among young people, of being
inarticulate, unable to communicate, unable to express their thoughts so that
they can even understand them themselves, much less get someone else to understand
them, this has led to horrible outbreaks of violence and self-destruction.
Why the need to have a chapter, early on, about the “problem of evil”? What
connection does Chesterton make between the problem of the evil and the problem
of modern doubt?
The book combines philosophy, theology, politics, social theory, economics, art
and literary criticismbecause Chesterton combines all those things. That is
what makes him a complete thinker. He has the right ideas about all these different
things, but it turns out they are connected. Now, one of the basic theological
questions that has to be addressed early on is the problem of evil. Chesterton
is an “original thinker” in that he emphasizes the importance of Original Sin.
In today’s materialist world, I think people are even more anxious to deny the
existence of sin than the existence of God. Chesterton, with his penchant for
paradox, shows how the existence of evil is a great argument for the existence
If Chesterton were asked to consider and critique the roots of the current
economic crisis, how might he respond?
Fortunately he has already responded. As a prophet, he tends to respond to
things before they happen. Chesterton foresees the growth of government (due to
the loss of religion), and the growth of debt (due to loss of self-control) and
the growth of big business (due to the loss of small business and
self-proprietorship). His understanding and application of Catholic social teaching
is profound, but for some people is very controversial because, well, we’re
talking about sex and money. There is a renewed interest in Chesterton’s
economic ideas because we are in such an economic mess right now and it is
obvious that the commonly accepted economic theories are simply not working.
Syncretism and indifference to religious distinctions are part and parcel of
our day. How was Chesterton addressing these problems nearly a century ago? To
pick a specific example, what did Chesterton say about Buddhism, an Eastern
religion now very much in vogue in the West?
Chesterton quips that there are people “who are always insisting that
Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.” We have
certainly seen the tendency on the part of those who reject Christianity to
start drifting East. And the argument they always give us (in order to avoid an
argument) is that all religions are pretty much the same; they simply differ in
their practices. Chesterton turns this idea on its head, and we realize
immediately that he’s right when he points out that in their practices, all
religions are pretty much the same. It’s what they believe that is completely
Back in 1906, Chesterton wrote, “I do not understand America. Nor do you.” What
are some of his best insights into America? Criticisms?
I think his best insight into America is that it “is the only nation ever
founded on a creed.” The Declaration of Independence lays out a creed that
bases our rights as being God-given. Therefore a belief in God is foundational
to our country. Obviously, we have veered not only from acknowledging God as
the author of our rights, but we’ve also crushed those rights, especially the
right to life. When Chesterton says he does not understand America, he is
referring to its split personality. The barest way of saying it is that two
different types of people seem to thrive here: the salt of the earth and the
scum of the earth. I’ll let you figure out which is which.
What is the connection between death and dogma?
This is a great example of Chesterton combining two things that we would not
normally associate with each other. Death and dogma are two things people do
not want to deal with. But they are two fundamental realities that cannot be
gotten around. They are both objective, yet subjective. Chesterton says, “Death
is a dogma; there is no doubt about death. No Modernist can make death
discussable; no Evolutionist can make death vague; no Hegelian can make death
life.” He brilliantly gets us to face things we would rather avoid, but more
importantly, he reveals our unconscious dogmas about life.
This year marks the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Charles Dickens,
one of Chesterton’s favorite authors. Why did Chesterton enjoy Dickens so much?
And how did he revive Dickens’ reputation? Why is that important?
Dickens had a huge influence on Chesterton. And fittingly, Chesterton had a
huge influence on Dickens, in that Chesterton’s writings on Dickens spurred a
great revival of interest in that writer who was in danger of being forgotten.
That may seem hard to believe because Dickens is now perennially popular.
The characters he created are still completely alive for us because we
attach ourselves to their struggles and are defeated or victorious with them.
Chesterton shows how Dickens represents one of the most neglected virtues:
The appendix is a about a 1931 debate between Chesterton and Clarence Darrow.
What is the significance of that debate?
Well, everyone seems to be familiar with Darrow’s shellacking of William
Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.” But no one knows about the
time six years later when Chesterton used Darrow as a mop to clean the floor in
a big debate in New York. Chesterton made the great agnostic look rather
foolish, and Darrow fans would prefer to forget the incident. So I have
reminded them of it.
In conclusion, what are the biggest stumbling blocks today to becoming and
being a complete thinker?
: It will not surprise you if I say that the
main problem is that people don’t read enough Chesterton!