talk given at 2017 Louisiana Chesterton Conference
Every Man a Detective
There is a Father Brown in each of us. In each of us, there is a personality driven by intrigue, by an interest in the unsolved and for the supernatural. For Chesterton, this is called wonder, specifically the gospel of wonder, and it is what propelled much of his own life as an author and Christian.
Wonder is likewise important to cultivate in our own lives. Wonder leads us to questions, asking questions and seeking answers to questions that not only pertain to our time, but questions which pertain to all times, to all people in all places. But wonder is quite natural for us as humans. It’s nothing we have to go out and find, nothing we need to purchase from a department store, nothing that will be more a part of us if only we had the latest Apple iPhone or a search engine more powerful than Google. Every man is a detective; the universe is your crime scene. We call this philosophy. And though the word philosophy has acquired too stuffy of a connotation in modern times, we are all philosophers in the general sense. Mortimer Adler in his book Six Great Ideas, begins,
“It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives.” (Adler 3)
The Catholic scholar and priest James V. Schall states it this way:
“The real discovery is not that we have questions, but that we have answers to such questions. Our minds cannot be satisfied with mere questioning, even though to question is to start to seek an answer.” (Schall 98)
But we as moderns, whether or not we are Christians, have stifled wonder, the origin of philosophy. We may even say we have killed her, or at the least we have bound her and thrown her into a dark dungeon, guarded night and day by the sleepless watchmen Industry and his brother Research. We have therefore no care for the mysterious. In so doing, we have killed, or at least turned to stone deaf and dumb, those poets and philosophers who are most equipped to stoke the fire of wonder in our human bellies and give us a holy discontent with the two-fold darkness that comes with being human: ignorance and sin. We have placed every Plato, Aristotle, Eusebius, Dante, Aquinas, and the whole cast of characters and works of Western intellectual tradition once again in a holding cell and given them each a barrel of hemlock to satisfy their wondering. They have been a nuisance to our society.
But, still, you and I are here because we are detectives of a sort, truth-seekers and hopefully truth-tellers. And we have, for many of us, stumbled upon a man who has told the truth more beautifully than most, and he has told it with more wit and wisdom than the majority of contemporary authors twice over.
So, what specific question has driven you here to this conference? Why are you here today? Did you want to see if Dale Ahlquist is as good looking in real life as he is on video? Did you want to verity that the world’s only free-standing statue of G.K. Chesterton was actually here in Ponchatoula, Louisiana? Well, consider both mysteries solved. Dale is far better looking in real life and the statue outside is real.
As a teacher, author, and school headmaster, one of the questions that has driven my own work over the past decade is why there has been a mysterious disappearance of some of the most cherished voices of the past. This is what personally propels me here today, what propels us each year to host this conference, to publish, to teach. It is the same thing that C.S. Lewis says was one of his most important tasks as a teacher.
I am propelled here today because I want to ask and help answer the question “Who killed G.K. Chesterton?” Chesterton’s own death is not a mystery. We quite know how he died. What is a mystery though, and an important one not only to solve but to reverse in as much as we can, is why the greatest poets and philosophers in history, especially Chesterton, have largely disappeared from the town square, vanished from popular influence, and evaporated from the academic imagination. To account for the mysterious disappearance of such a man as G.K. Chesterton, we must do what Father Brown has taught us: we must get to the heart of man. We must investigate the citizens of the town and consider with vulgarity and humility how such an atrocity has occurred. If Chesterton has disappeared from the town square, vanished from popular influence, and evaporated from the academic imagination, our investigative work ought to be that of Father Brown’s. And therefore, we begin by asking the question, “What would compel men to commit such a crime?”
A Brief History of Chesterton’s Prominence
The extent of Chesterton’s popularity in his own time should be considered. Chesterton was not one of those authors who posthumously gained renown while being ignored and made irrelevant during his life. Quite the opposite. Chesterton was immensely popular in his own time. It was in the early 1900s, near the beginning of his writing career and particularly his publication of several literary essays and verse, when he began to establish his reputation, especially among the British intellectuals of the time. In 1903 Chesterton was one of three distinguished and regular reviewers for the Daily News, eventually being given a weekly Saturday column. Chesterton remarked of his growing popularity that he was amused “in the phrase of the time, as having a Saturday pulpit, rather like a Sunday pulpit. Whatever were the merits of the sermons, it is probable that I had a larger congregation than I have ever had before or since.”
Chesterton’s book on the poet Robert Browning published in 1903 was his first major publication to elevate his career to a new status. His broad popularity is even at the heart of the origins of the Father Brown series. Father Brown as a literary character who, in Chesterton’s words, was inspired by a man whom Chesterton knew, Father John O’Connor. Father John O’Connor, who was at the time a curate at St. Anne’s in Yorkshire and a fan of Chesterton’s work, first reached out in a letter to Chesterton in February 1903 to thank him for his literary talents and to let Chesterton know that Father O’Connor thanked God “for having gifted you with the spirituality which alone makes literature immortal.” Chesterton would go on to say that Father O’Connor was “the intellectual inspiration for [the Father Brown] stories; and of much more important things as well.” (Ker 138)
For a large portion of the first half of the 20th century G.K. Chesterton enjoyed the kind of platform and honor due his name, the kind of social awareness we should have of a man with such an intellect, wit, and wordcraftiness as G.K. Chesterton. From the early 1900s until his death, he would go on to publish many more popular works across literary genres, as well as participating in and winning many essay contests. He influenced some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.
But today we would be hard-pressed to find a school that has just one of Chesterton’s essays or books as required reading, at any level. Sure, we may find an abundance of British Literature courses, and we may even convince a few of those teachers or professors that one cannot understand British Literary tradition unless one reads and understands Charles Dickens, but we would be hard pressed to find an English teacher well-versed in Chesterton, the man who is our key to understanding Dickens. Like the King James Bible in a Shakespeare course, don’t expect to find Chesterton in a university-level British Literature course or even in a theology or journalism course. We may find a college class on pretty much any topic, but don’t hold your breath for a course on Chesterton or even a course which incorporates Chesterton. For example,
David Beckham at Staffordshire University
Oprah Winfrey at University of Illinois-Urbana
Circus Arts at Triton College
How to Win a Beauty Pageant at Oberlin College
The phallus at Occidental College (which may be mistaken with Accidental College)
Maple Syrup at Alfred University
Alien Sex at the University of Rochester
And before you think, okay well those are all seemingly no-name and mostly small private colleges. They can spend their money on whatever weird thing they want:
American Pro Wrestling at MIT
UFOs in American Society at Temple University
The Simpsons and Philosophy at UC Berkeley
The Sociology and Fame of Lady Gaga at University of South Carolina
Zombie Studies at the University of Baltimore and Ole Miss
The American Vacation at the University of Iowa
Cyberfeminism at Cornell
The Beatles at UCLA
Campus Culture and Drinking at Duke
Chesterton’s absence is not an indicator of a world gone right but a world gone mad. In less than a century, one of Western civilization’s greatest writers has vanished from the public square, absent now from the public forum and any formal institution that could otherwise be a platform for his resurrection: the home, the church, the school, and the library. As Chesterton said,
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered...it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”
So it is true of Chesterton’s absence: the modern world is not so much devoid of story but filled with stories devoid of common sense, sexuality devoid of community, universities devoid of integrity, philosophy devoid of wisdom, and mystery devoid of the supernatural, that instead of being wonder-filled, today’s mysteries have their origins in modern skepticism and contemporary ingratitude and cynicism. We know from reading Chesterton that the purpose of a mystery is not so that ignorance would remain. Quite the opposite. The purpose of a mystery is so that we would be enlightened, illumined to the truth. This is what we see in St. Paul’s own theology of mystery: it’s doesn’t carry with it the connotation of concealment but revelation.
When we do somewhat of a Father Brownian investigation, we can account very simply for the mysterious disappearance of Chesterton from the public imagination and from academic influence. Chesterton is a prophetic voice at war with the modern gods. That is to say, because Chesterton did not worship the idols of our day, he is not allowed a seat at the table, in the classroom, on the news, in the pulpit, or in the theater. In a brief essay on the American Chesterton Society website, Dale captures the reason for Chesterton’s disappearance when he writes, “the world has immortalized [Chesterton’s] opponents and forgotten Chesterton, and now we hear only one side of the argument, and we are enduring the legacies of socialism, relativism, materialism, and skepticism.”
James Schall states, “Tell me what you read and I will tell you what you are.” We may also say the opposite: tell me what you don’t read and I will tell you what you are not. Chesterton is in large part the remedy to our modern ills, and yet because we are a people who love our ills, we reject the remedy. Charles Dickens said, “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Ignorance and sin are likewise cheap, and we moderns like it. So that’s where we reside. And that’s where the best among us, the most saintly among us, and especially the incarnate God, condescends to meet us. We push the historical lights, authors like Chesterton, to the furthest corner of the city of man, and yet he breaks through to us once again.
We too will one day be in the grave, and our lives will not be counted by what kind of men and women we had become from birth to death but what kind of men and women we have passed to the next generation, what voices, ideas, and virtues we promoted as being worthy of ongoing attention and care.
The recovery of Chesterton to the public imagination will be just as mysterious as our investigation of his disappearance, just as centered on the vagaries of the human heart, and it is conferences like these, organizations like The American Chesterton Society, magazines like Gilbert and St. Austin Review, that count for the recovery of great voices. Finally, to solve the mystery of Chesterton’s disappearance and see this crime as readers of history and of culture, we must do what Chesterton calls us to do as we read any detective story: that we would be happy and surprised by the revelation of and reversal into truth if only we are first fools.
Let us be fools and we may once again hear from those poets and philosophers we have for too long neglected. Let us be fools so that we may search out the wisdom of the past, the clues to humanity and the good life which reside among the democracy of the dead. Brothers and sisters, Chesterton is still far too absent; we are not yet fools.