G.K. Chesterton, the Complete Thinker

The author of The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton discusses relativism, good thinking, bad thinking, global economics, and more.

Dale Ahlquist 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.

CWR: 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?

Dale 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 philosophy.

CWR: 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?

Ahlquist: 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.

As the Complete Thinker, Chesterton is the model thinker. One becomes a complete thinker by thinking like Chesterton!

CWR: 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?

Ahlquist: Chesterton is amazing in that he always finds the right word. But that is the great challenge: finding the right word.

Our 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.

CWR: 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?

Ahlquist: The book combines philosophy, theology, politics, social theory, economics, art and literary criticism—because 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 of God.

CWR: If Chesterton were asked to consider and critique the roots of the current economic crisis, how might he respond?

Ahlquist: 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.  

CWR: 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?

Ahlquist: 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 different.

CWR: Back in 1906, Chesterton wrote, “I do not understand America. Nor do you.” What are some of his best insights into America? Criticisms?

Ahlquist: 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.

CWR: What is the connection between death and dogma?

Ahlquist: 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.

CWR: 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?

Ahlquist: 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: hope.

CWR: The appendix is a about a 1931 debate between Chesterton and Clarence Darrow. What is the significance of that debate?

Ahlquist: 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.

CWR: In conclusion, what are the biggest stumbling blocks today to becoming and being a complete thinker?

Ahlquist: It will not surprise you if I say that the main problem is that people don’t read enough Chesterton!

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