GKC – A Few Phrases, A Lot of Issues; Orthodoxy Chapter 01a   Leave a comment

So I’m going to start my Chesterton commentary where I started all those years ago, with Orthodoxy. This book, one of Chesterton’s earlier books and one of the most popular (today) outside of his Father Brown mystery stories, is simply a good place to start. Chesterton has ideological themes that run throughout all his works, and most of them can be found in Orthodoxy. A free electronic version can be found here. So let’s hop right in, shall we.

After a brief preface, Chesterton introduces the book in the first chapter titled “Introduction in Defense of Everything Else.” I mostly like this chapter, so we’ll talk about the unfortunate bits first.

Chesterton wrote almost all of his major works between 1900 and his death in 1936. He was, in many ways, a great man of his time. As far as I can tell, Chesterton rose above the party politics of his age and advocated for a unique vision of justice in a relentless and untiring way. He was (again, as far as I can tell) well liked by the other great literary figures of his age including H.G. Wells and G.B. Shaw. But Chesterton was a man of his age, and while I can’t think of a time when he was malicious, he certainly was not immune to the imperialism and racism of his time.

So, for example, Chesterton talks about “the western man.” If you want Chesterton’s ideal of the western man, you can read the context for yourself. For now, I will merely say that Chesterton is dealing not with what “the western man” is, but rather with what Chesterton would like him to be. Chesterton is imposing his own philosophical preferences onto everyone in “the west,” and this would be innocuous if it were not that by specifying “the western man” Chesterton was positing an “eastern man” who was different. Europeans obviously felt themselves superior to non-Europeans (remember, at this point the world was mostly carved up into European spheres of influence), and this was only possible because everyone thought Europeans were somehow intrinsically different from non-Europeans. Talking about a “western man,” Chesterton is inadvertently supporting this project.

Chesterton also makes an offhand reference to civilized religion, by which he seems to mean Christian Orthodoxy. The implication of this is that all non-Christian religions are uncivilized. Again, at this period Europeans were violently dominating and exploiting the rest of the world. And while it is true that colonialism made non-European economies more developed (read: more like European economies), it’s also true that such development could have occurred without the literal rape and murder of millions of people. Direct colonialism was one of the darkest most disgraceful periods in human history, and pointing to its economic benefits as justification for it is like pointing out the wage increases that followed the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Yeah, there were benefits, but humanity still probably would have been better off without it.

So those are the major issues I had with this chapter. Hopefully I won’t need to jump into Chesterton’s colonialism in every chapter, but it does need to be acknowledged if we want an balanced appraisal of Chesterton’s work

I’ll also note in passing that Chesterton, like most people even today, assumes way more uniformity throughout Christian history than is warranted. The Protestant Reformation made Christians of all stripes more organized and uniform, and that’s why people today think of Christianity as organized and uniform. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the splintering of Christian organization during the reformation did not actually result in much more diversity of opinion and practice among Christians themselves. Protestants, after all, tended to take up many of the threads that had already been present in pre-Counter Reformation Catholicism and ran with them just a bit further. Anyway (got off on a tangent there, didn’t I), the point is Christianity has always been much more diverse than it is usually given credit for, and Chesterton assuming otherwise here.

So those were the bad bits. While these phrases and ideas stemmed mostly from the rancid swamp of colonialism, they were throw away phrases that aren’t really important to the structure of the point Chesterton was trying to make. These bits need to be acknowledged, but we’ve done that, so in my next post, appearing in one week, I can get to the good stuff.


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