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Seeker of Truth

A mind as wide as the legendary waistline.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By EDWARD SHORT
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There was a great deal about Foch that was intensely and peculiarly French. Nobody but a Frenchman would have launched that direct and yet dazzling epigram in the midst of the Battle of the Marne: “My right gives way; my left retreats; situation excellent; I attack.” Where that phrase was so typically French is that it has three separate meanings, and they are all true. A superficial person will take it as a fine piece of fanfaronade, a romantic defiance and refusal to accept defeat. A more sagacious person will see that it is a piece of irony almost worthy of Voltaire. .  .  . The most sagacious person of all will observe that it was also a piece of cold, hard, scientific fact. It really was true that the Germans pursuing the Allied retreat on one side, and checking the attempted envelopment on the other, created the strain and the weak point at which Foch suddenly struck. That is the French genius; to say things that only look witty and are also wise. That is the achievement of all French literature and philosophy; it is the supreme and splendid triumph of looking shallow, and being deep.

Given his marked differences with the Modernists, it is ironic that Chesterton should have grown up in the same Bedford Park neighborhood as Yeats. Chesterton and Yeats make for an instructive contrast: Although inspired rhetoricians, they could not have taken more different roads philosophically. In 1922 Chesterton converted to Rome, what he called the “rock of reality,” while Yeats left the Protestant agnosticism bequeathed him by his father to convert to the table-tapping and hocus-pocus of Madame Blavatsky. Chesterton and Yeats also differed in their view of the common man: Yeats, the last hurrah of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy that had produced Swift and Burke, always took a seigniorial line with his Roman Catholic countrymen, speaking of them by turns as having been born in the peasant’s cot / Where men forgive if the belly gain, fumbling in a greasy till, adding the halfpence to the pence / and prayer to shivering prayer, and as base-born products of base beds. Chesterton, by contrast, exulted in the common man. Indeed, as Yeats’s friend Ezra Pound once observed, “Chesterton is the mob.”

On this theme, which runs throughout Chesterton’s work, Ker is revelatory. As he points out, “Aversion to the masses, Chesterton dares to suggest, is really aversion to their ‘energy. The misanthropes pretend that they despise humanity for its weakness. As a matter of fact, they hate it for its strength.’ ” For Chesterton, only the humble can appreciate the “colossal vision” of “things as they really are.” The intellectuals who looked down on the common man—especially such progressives as Carlyle, Shaw, and Nietzsche—were heretics in his eyes precisely because they discounted the common man’s dignity.

The amount of lasting work that Chesterton produced—despite his delight in the bonhomie of Fleet Street—is impressive. One can point to his novels, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908); to his great Father Brown stories; to his critical studies of Robert Browning and Charles Dickens; and to his wonderfully witty essays, his “tremendous trifles,” in which he managed to pack such a wealth of insight. His marriage to Frances Alice Blogg in 1901 transformed his life. In 1909 she removed her convivial husband to Beaconsfield, far from the beckoning public houses of London. She also moved him towards Catholicism. A devout Anglo-Catholic, Frances introduced her husband to many aspects of Christian orthodoxy of which he was ignorant. Without her influence, it is fair to say, Chesterton might never have managed his greatest work, including Orthodoxy (1908), The Everlasting Man (1925), St. Francis of Assisi (1924), and St. Thomas Aquinas (1933), the last of which Etienne Gilson considered the best book ever written on the subject.

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