First Encounters: What Chesterton Has Taught Me Already

Feb 24, 2014

I'm pretty new to G.K. Chesterton. I spent most of my life never having heard of him, but as I've become more intentional about recovering Classical Christian education within my home, I've realized that I simply can't move forward without reading him.

As often happens when we embark on the intellectual life, I have come face to face with my own intellectual inadequacy. My ability to take on the ideas of great thinkers like G.K. Chesterton is woefully lacking. With an eye toward taking my intellect to a new level, I set myself a goal for 2014: to take on Chesterton's work with intentional vigor.

Jumping in a cold lake is easier to do all at once- tiptoeing in, wading up to the knees, and hoping my body will acclimate to the chill of the water is always the more painful approach. Keeping that in mind, I decided there was only one way to approach Chesterton in 2014: all in. And because I work better with accountability and friends to hook arms with, I created Weekends with Chesterton, an online community, to dive in with me.

I'm only steps into this journey, but Chesterton has lots to teach me. Here are three things he has taught me in my first encounters with his work:

1. Big ideas cannot be consumed; they must be contemplated. A single line of Chesterton is enough to provide food for thought for an entire week. What I'm learning from others at Weekends with Chesterton is that even those who have read and studied him for years are finding enough to contemplate in just a few short sentences every week. 

One will never be able to say they have "done" Chesterton. All they can say, really, is that they have encountered him, and that they would do well to encounter him again.

If reading has become an uncommon habit in modernity (and it has), then slow reading has become almost unheard of. We've all become accustomed to ignoring books altogether, or approaching them as we might a trip through the drive-through window at the local fast food joint. We consume them, hardly stopping to really apprehend any one great idea. But great ideas, prolific authors, and the books that have potential to change us and make us more fully human- those cannot be consumed.

Contemplation requires time, attention, and rest. 

Sir Francis Bacon said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." That chewing and digesting takes time, and much of Chesterton's work definitely calls for such careful attention.

2. Taking Chesterton out of context is fruitless. How many times have we heard the Chestertonian quip, anything worth doing is worth doing badly? Often it is erroneously quoted to counter either perfectionism or sloth.

However, when Chesterton wrote that, he wasn't talking to either perfectionists or sluggards. He was talking to specialists. He was addressing the modern man's tendency (which has become a standard in our time) to turn over thinking and decision-making to the so-called experts. He was debunking the idea that man is made to professionalize those practices that every common man ought to do for himself.

"I am always suspicious of the expert who knows he is an expert," Chesterton says, "Far better to seek the wisdom of the common, the ordinary, and the humble- for God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble."

He was pleading the case for a more fully human and fully sane life. He was making the case for the common, ordinary man (or woman), which is a theme that runs as a golden thread throughout his various works.

That is just one example of how Chesterton's work is pulled out of context and misinterpreted. Indeed, most of Chesterton's short quips can be grossly misunderstood if they are not read within the context in which G.K. wrote them. 

3. Common sense just isn't all that common. I think most of us implicitly know this, but reading Chesterton will confirm it. Chesterton often begins his essays with a blunt and startling position. The reader wonders how he will possibly defend such a statement, and then, reading on, witnesses as he does just that (and does it quite well).

Chesterton's thinking is so clear. He takes the reader from point A to point B to point C, and the reader realizes that, in fact, there was no other possible line of thinking that would make sense. What he posits often flies in the face of so many common modern ideas, that we are left to realize one thing: common sense just isn't that common.

If I've learned all of this from Chesterton in the short time I've been intentionally encountering his work, I wonder what he will teach me over the next year. I don't know, but I'm excited to find out!

(If you'd like to join in our Chestertonian conversations, we'd love to have you: Weekends with Chesterton are posted every Saturday morning, and everyone is welcome.)

Sarah Mackenzie

Sarah Mackenzie

Sarah Mackenzie is a smitten wife, a homeschooling mama of six (including twins!), and the author of Teaching from Rest: a Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace. She writes about books, babies, and heaps of grace at Amongst Lovely Things and serves as Editor-in-Chief at Scholé Sisters, a community for mothers committed to modeling delight, nurturing minds, and ordering loves. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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