by Aidan Nichols
Second Spring, 240 pp., $19.95
It is said that the study of metaphysics is dying because people no longer want to study things that cannot be changed. One sees this in the popularity of the Serenity Prayer, in which the thing most feared is not, as with the Lord’s Prayer, the temptation to sin, but rather the inability to control one’s circumstances: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
Had G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) lived to read the Serenity Prayer (it emerged shortly after his death), he would have found it ironic that the orison earned fame as the mantra of the recovery movement. Coming of age in an era when preening poets went Wilde wearing carnations the color of the bilious liquor they imbibed, Chesterton recognized early on that the true subversion was sanity. “Revolt in the abstract is—revolting,” says his protagonist Gabriel Syme in The Man Who Was Thursday (1907). “It’s mere vomiting. . . . The most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.”
Such an appreciation of the artfulness of “things going right” characterizes the brand of metaphysical realism that Aidan Nichols, the English Dominican priest and prolific author, identifies as central to Chesterton’s worldview. In G. K. Chesterton, Theologian, he traces the origins of that realism back to the literary giant’s personal background and his reactions to the leading cultural figures of his time. Nichols’s Thomistic talent for systematizing leads him to find connections between Chesterton’s use of paradox, his demonstration of God’s existence (the “argument from joy”), his understanding of man as imago dei, and his Christology.
While his subject has been called The Apostle of Common Sense, Nichols stresses that “metaphysical realism is not merely the upshot of a commonsense epistemology.” It is also “the fruit of the doctrine of creation, which declares things to be intelligibly planned by the divine mind who called them ‘good.’” As Chesterton wrote in a 1910 essay,
The primordial things—existence, energy, fruition—are good so far as they go. . . . The ordinary modern progressive position is that this is a bad universe, but will certainly get better. I say it is certainly a good universe, even if it gets worse.
From this core philosophy, Chesterton, in his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, was able to critique the “madness” of his “thoroughly worldly” contemporaries. Their errors stemmed not from irrationality but rather from the narrowness of the data they admitted into the realm of reason, as Nichols observes:
Within their own limited terms of reference, lunatics are often cogently rational. . . . Chesterton takes the mark of madness to be the “combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.” Madmen are in “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.”
In modern terms, he saw the prominent scientific rationalists of his day, as well as modernist Christians (“new theologians [who] dispute original sin”), as conspiracy theorists—the intelligentsia’s equivalent of the black-helicopter/tinfoil-hat crowd. While his arrows were aimed at contemporaries such as George Bernard Shaw and Ernst Haeckel, one does not have to look far to find modern-day examples of the blinkered mindset he describes: Witness Richard Dawkins saying that he would cling to his nonbelief in God even if it meant having to posit that an outer-space alien designed human life. Chesterton is seen by many as an answer to such New Atheists because, in Nichols’s words, “metaphysical realism, as an account of cosmic order hospitable to the Christian doctrine of creation, can improve on the materialist account: Whereas Christians are free to believe that there are large areas of ‘settled order and inevitable development’ in the universe, materialists, Chesterton points out, cannot allow the slightest incursion of spirit or miracle.”
Still, despite the New Atheists’ media stardom, the most popular modern heresy, at least in terms of book sales, is not materialism but solipsism—the Me-centered philosophy of Oprah, Chopra, The Secret, etc. While New Atheists see the New Age movement as merely a subset of religious superstition, Chesterton saw the solipsism of his day—and the Kantian subjective turn that provided it with its pseudo-philosophical ground—as the flipside of materialism. The two “have something in common,” Nichols writes, quoting from Orthodoxy: “The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives.”
One is reminded of the solipsistic science-fiction author Philip K. Dick who, when asked by a college student in 1972 to give a definition of reality, gave a purely negative reply: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” By contrast, Chesterton counters both the narrow negativism of solipsism and the equally narrow perspective of what modern materialists call the “reality-based community,” as he insists “reason is itself a matter of faith.”
Nichols explains, “Naturally, by ‘faith’ here Chesterton doesn’t mean specifically Christian faith. He is speaking of a philosophical faith grounding confidence in the fundamental reliability of the human mind and its most refined instrument, which is language.” Both materialists and solipsists share an odd collective aphasia. In their refusal to accept the Word that transcends everything men can know, they deny the means by which men can know anything.
Nichols details how Chesterton’s desire to harmonize faith and reason eventually led him to St. Thomas Aquinas. His 1933 biography of the saint “follows the movement of Thomas’s own thought as it finds in the finite being presented through the senses a way to the fontal being which pours itself out in all that is.” But Aquinas was more than a philosopher; he was also a mystic. Chesterton understood him because he shared his sense of the numinous. An analysis of Chesterton’s mystical insights would support Nichols’s assertions that his theology speaks to today’s Christians.
Nichols, however, is by his own admission “not . . . a mystic,” and this limitation occasionally leads him to an un-Chestertonian closed-mindedness. For example, he omits any mention of the 1907 “Introduction to the Book of Job”—the closest Chesterton ever came to biblical exegesis. Likewise, he gives short shrift to his subject’s most profound novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, a work whose theme of theodicy built upon the points Chesterton made in his Job essay—particularly his observation that “the riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” In his curt comments on Thursday, Nichols claims,
The key to that novel is that the men who represent cosmic order in society are pursued, harried, by those who suppose them to be really anarchists. In this way, the representatives of order who police the world for its health and safety are able to bear witness that they too have suffered, and this gives them a moral cachet in the eyes of all who consider themselves the victims of order.
But that is not quite true. The sufferings of the policemen in Thursday are not for the purpose of giving them cachet in the eyes of the story’s lone “real anarchist,” Lucian Gregory. Rather, they exist so that the believer might use his God-given free will to unite himself to Christ, whose victory comes through suffering, and thereby reject the lies of the original anarchist, for whom the similarly named Lucian is a mere stand-in.
Nichols’s avoiding extended analysis of Thursday is all the more strange because the book’s true message actually affirms his grammar of Chesterton’s theology. In fact, G. K. Chesterton, Theologian is extraordinarily valuable precisely because Nichols’s grammar, applied to Thursday, not only brings the novel into fuller focus, but also reveals the prophetic quality of Chesterton’s religious understanding. For example, he rightly draws the reader’s attention to the way Chesterton marries his metaphysical realism to his appreciation of symbol as “an equally far-reaching way of displaying what is involved in the real.” In The Everlasting Man, Nichols writes, “the Incarnation of the Word makes possible precisely such a union . . . [linking] a universal philosophy that abstracts from concrete things in the search for general and underlying structures, on the one hand, and on the other, a mythopoetic imagination that discerns divine presence and action as the matrix of the most important concrete things.”
Such an observation adds depth to the epiphany of the Thursday protagonist Gabriel Syme, who intuits that all visible creation is sacramental—real in itself, yet symbolic of an invisible reality that is personal:
“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—”
This message is far more pertinent to Thursday than Nichols’s purported “key to that novel.” Omitting it, he misses an opportunity to show how Chesterton presages the similarly sacramental account of creation that Pope John Paul II would give more than 70 years later in his addresses on the “theology of the body.”
In “the mystery of creation,” John Paul said, the world began “by the will of God, who is omnipotence and love. Consequently, every creature bears within it the sign of the original and fundamental gift.” In a joyful paradox that would not be out of place in Orthodoxy, the pope adds that this gift is centered upon man: “Man appears in creation as the one who received the world as a gift, and it can also be said that the world received man as a gift.”
Despite overlooking this affinity between Chesterton and John Paul, Nichols’s grammar leads to a deeper understanding of both. He highlights a passage from Orthodoxy describing how “all creation is separation”: “It was the prime philosophic principle of Christianity that this divorce in the divine act of making . . . was the true description of the act whereby the absolute energy made the world.” John Paul drew upon the same point in his theology of the body to show how, in the Genesis creation accounts, man’s ability to give himself in love is contingent upon his realization of his “original solitude”—the “separation” of which Chesterton speaks, which, in the late pope’s words, “permits him to be the author of genuinely human activity.”
The first man’s recognition of his solitude is linked, John Paul says, with his recognition of his “dependence in existing” in which he faces, for the first time, the “alternative between death and immortality.” For Chesterton, such “isolation” marks the “root horror” endured by Thursday’s Syme. As John Paul notes, however, it is only through recognizing one’s self as having a separate identity that true interpersonal communion is possible: “In this solitude, [man] opens up to a being akin to himself.”
Here too, Chesterton seems to be completing John Paul’s sentences, as he writes of Syme’s joy in discovering that one of his seeming enemies is actually a fellow policeman: “There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.” But Chesterton’s next line in some sense even surpasses John Paul because it shows what he had that the theology of the body, for all its genius, utterly lacked—humor: “That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.”
Shortly before his death, Chesterton wrote that one of his favorite tributes came from a thoroughly secular psychoanalyst who told him, “I know a number of men who nearly went mad, but were saved because they had really understood The Man Who Was Thursday.” There’s serenity for you.
Dawn Eden is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.