Rediscovering Chesterton

By Nathan Rolf
March 7, 2014

The very first Chesterton book that I read was The Catholic Church and Conversion. Little did I know that after reading this literary genius for the first time, I would soon become a disciple to the apostle of common sense.


After delving more into Chesterton’s writings, I have found that he is much more relevant and contemporary today than he might have been in his own epoch. He wrote on various topics—including religion, politics, feminism, abortion, and marriage—that are just as much if not more salient in today's culture than in the first half of the 20th century. We should look to someone like Chesterton, known as one of the most quotable authors of all-time, as a provider of antidotes to the fallacies that plague the 21st century.


Principles deeply rooted in facts and tradition are what Chesterton discovered to be the secret to restoring human sanity. In his book The Everlasting Man, Chesterton explains that two things at the very beginning of history must be understood and recovered so that we may understand the proper order of things:


The first is the fact that original sin is really original. Not merely in theology but in history it is a thing rooted in the origins. Whatever else men have believed, they have all believed that there is something the matter with mankind. This sense of sin has made it impossible to be natural and have no clothes, just as it has made it impossible to be natural and have no laws.



That we may avoid the temptation to turn to despair when facing the culture of death, we must understand that (after the first man used his free will and fell from grace) there is indeed a reason why we choose that which is contrary to our true destiny. When we fall into the desire for something that lacks goodness, we are experiencing the inescapable and universal concept of sin. Sin is what prevents us from practicing the saving virtue of humility; as Chesterton explains it, “...sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.”


Because we lack proper modesty in our actions, cruel consequences (like abortion) slither their way into our societies. We pursue our selfish desires over the good of those around us, and our own true good. Instead of giving and sacrificing ourselves to others, we sacrifice others so that we may get more.


The second fact about the beginning and reality of man, which Chesterton explains in the very same passage as the one cited above, stresses the importance of returning to the family as ruler:


But above all it is to be found in that other fact, which is the father and mother of all laws as it is itself founded on a father and mother; the thing that is before all thrones and even all commonwealths.



The “new age” feminist and LGBTQ rights  movements undermine this first important fact about human beings: that at the forefront and head of every single society is a mother and father, not the government or an individual’s own personal wants. The health and proper order of society depends upon whether or not the law protects its very first law: that the good of the family—mother, father, children—comes first. To reject this fact is to reject that which sustains the future of human life.


So-called “progressive” movements, like the two listed above, stall a society’s true progression towards actual fulfillment and order when they carelessly discard these two facts about our beginnings. Chesterton, in his book What’s Wrong with the World, pinpoints the beginning of the problem (using the example of progressive feminists), stating:


By the beginning of the twentieth century, within the last few years, the woman has in public surrendered to the man. She has seriously and officially owned that the man has been right all along; that the public house (or Parliament) is really more important than the private house; that politics are not (as woman had always maintained) an excuse for pots of beer, but are a sacred solemnity to which new female worshipers may kneel; that the talkative patriots in the tavern are not only admirable but enviable; that talk is not a waste of time, and therefore (as a consequence, surely) that taverns are not a waste of money.



Evidently so, it is no wonder that government has infiltrated the home—the place wherein man and wife should decide what is right and wrong for their children. But, as Chesterton explains, it wasn’t difficult for government to control the home once both mother and father were missing from it. The problem of progressivism arrives as soon as the facts of history of mankind are lost. The effect of this forgetfulness? To quote Chesterton once again: “...it was by experience and education that little commonwealths lose their liberty; that absolute sovereignty is something not merely ancient but rather relatively modern, and it is at the end of the path called progress that men return to the king.”


To avoid a return to the despotic rule that so many “progressive” movements today represent, one must avoid that unsound philosophy that forgets the facts that we find at the beginning of mankind. The philosophy that supports the facts that we actually want, Chesterton clarifies, “is not one that is right where we are right, but one that is right where we are wrong.”


Finding the antidote to this culture of death that we currently face consists in part in returning to those true principles that uphold a philosophy that relates to objective reality. The problems of the world are not new, and the location of that antidote can be aided by rediscovering the wisdom found in Gilbert Keith Chesterton, asking ourselves as he did:


“Can man hate the world enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?”