It’s telling that Christopher Hitchens spat his dying venom…

at Chesterton, whose greatness is undiminished by Hitchen’s dim, dumb resort to Godwin’s Law.

Elsewhere, Innocent Smith also does an even better autopsy on Hitchens’ last essay:

Hitchens remained, to the end, unable to see, let alone acknowledge, let alone refute, genuine alternatives to his own worldview. For all his literary brilliance, Hitchens retained up to the end the small-mindedness of the fundamentalists he abhorred and failed to truly grapple with the subtlety and sophistication of Chesterton’s Catholicism.

Scratch a New Atheist, find a fundamentalist.

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  • Tim

    I always found Chesterton somewhat annoying.

    There, I said it. And I don’t quite understand the appeal of Christopher Hitchens, but that doesn’t seem as controversial to say here.

    • John C

      I too find Chesterton difficult to read, although I keep trying. Something about his style which I find baffling. I usually read a few pages, and then quietly put the book back on the shelf.

      • Tim

        Same here. Though I did manage to finish his book on Thomas Aquinas and enjoyed it.

      • Try an audiobook, or reading aloud.

      • Rosemarie


        IMHO, Chesterton’s argument against women’s suffrage was rather weak. IIRC, it was something to the effect that women shouldn’t vote because democracy is for men, not women. Men treat each other democratically while a woman has autocratic rule over her children as “queen of the home.” Therefore democracy is for men and autocracy for women.

        So does this mean that a father’s authority over his children, particularly his sons, is open to democratic debate? So women don’t act “democratically” amongst each other in a group? (Actually, psychologists say they do, even more so than men.) Seems like Chesterton was comparing apples and oranges.

        He did make some interesting points about feminism, though,, even if this particular argument was weak. Maybe he should have just argued that women would vote for the cutest guy in the race. Unfortunately, there is some truth to that (see Clinton, Bill).

        • Ryan C

          That’s an unfair simplification.

          Chesterton’s real argument against female suffrage is that it involves women in supporting things like the death penalty, war, torture, etc….

          He simply felt that women should not be entangled in such disgusting, unpleasant matters. He wanted half of the human race to be neutral and oriented towards the family rather than the state.

          Apparently when he was writing, most women did not want the right to vote.

          • Rosemarie


            He went into that as well. Still, he did try to argue that women are autocrats, which may be true of mothers but also of fathers. Female friendship, meanwhile, is quite egalitarian. So that aspect of the argument was definitely weak.

            Of course, he also said that female suffrage was not a major issue for him. He was more concerned about other results of feminism, like women entering the work force. So maybe he didn’t put as much effort into his argument against women’s suffrage because he was not so concerned about it.

      • Rachel K

        I find him a hard read, too. I like reading excerpts of his, but an entire book of Chesterton is just too much for me. I’ve tried audiobooks, and they didn’t work. Brilliant ideas, impenetrable writing style.

  • Mike

    I’ve heard it said that trying to read Chesterton is like trying to learn a new language, so to speak (though I’ve never mastered another language, so I can’t speak to the validity of the comparison). It’s difficult at first (especially since Chesterton sprinkles his pages with all kinds of allusions that are unfamiliar to modern readers). That said, once you learn his style, it is very rewarding.

    Chesterton is my favorite writer by far, but it is true that it can be difficult for some to read him. That said, I believe it is well worth the effort.

  • Noah D

    Well…I guess he picked ‘madman’.

  • Al

    … to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

  • John C Wright

    All I can say is that Chesterton is not that difficult to read, not compared to other literary greats — Milton has much more complicated syntax and obscure allusions, TS Eliot is more obscure, and James Joyce is a madman compared to Chesterton.

    Let me quote, and you may judge, Here is the opening of his semiscientifictional fantasy NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL, which takes place in the far future year of 1984:

    “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called “Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.”

    or, again, here is the opening of his famous work of apologetics ORTHODOXY:

    “The only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. When some time ago I published a series of hasty but sincere papers, under the name of “Heretics,” several critics for whose intellect I have a warm respect (I may mention specially Mr. G.S. Street) said that it was all very well for me to tell everybody to affirm his cosmic theory, but that I had carefully avoided supporting my precepts with example. “I will begin to worry about my philosophy,” said Mr. Street, “when Mr. Chesterton has given us his.” It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation. But after all, though Mr. Street has inspired and created this book, he need not read it. If he does read it, he will find that in its pages I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.”

    Or, here finally, where two poets in Saffron Park are arguing about law and chaos. The style is mildly elevated, but hardly unreadable:

    Gregory resumed in high oratorical good humour.

    “An artist is identical with an anarchist,” he cried. “You might transpose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a few shapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

    “So it is,” said Mr. Syme.

    “Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox. “Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”

    “It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!”

    “Must you go?” inquired Gregory sarcastically.

    “I tell you,” went on Syme with passion, “that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,’ it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria’; it is the victory of Adam.”

    Gregory wagged his heavy, red head with a slow and sad smile.

    “And even then,” he said, “we poets always ask the question, ‘And what is Victoria now that you have got there?’ You think Victoria is like the New Jerusalem. We know that the New Jerusalem will only be like Victoria. Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt.”

    “There again,” said Syme irritably, “what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting.”

  • Sage

    Chesterton’s style is so dense, so inverted and strange, that it is not surprising so many people find him unpleasant to read. He’s such a hero among conservative Catholics that we often will not countenance that sort of reaction, but it really is reasonable. Chesterton is so unique, you just can’t expect he’s going to appeal to everybody, and it’s not a real failing to find his style needlessly obscure.

    Speaking for myself, Orthodoxy was crucial in my conversion, while Everlasting Man, while brilliant, is in many places a downright offense against clarity of expression and of organization. His tangents don’t even appear to be tangents until whole paragraphs have slid by, and one finds oneself crossing his eyes from the effort of trying to follow the thread of his argument.

    Most of the points he makes in that particular text could be made in ways that didn’t make your head hurt, but Chesterton enjoyed words in the way that a sommelier loves wine, swishing them about and extracting every possible flavor. Most people’s verbal pallets aren’t that fully developed, and the fact is that there’s nothing wrong with preferring the ten-dollar bottle that you like rather than the 100-dollar bottle that the experts say you’re supposed to like. If you’re more likely to actually drink the ten dollar bottle, then it’s the best one for you.

  • Speaking as a Protestant, I disagree that there’s a “fundamentalist’ lurking beneath the modern atheist’s veneer. It’s an idolator. The ones who worship “nature” are at heart the worshipers of Ba’al; those who worship the state are worshipers of Moloch; Carl Sagan and his Cosmos worshipers are incognito worshipers of the Hindu Purusha. Carl Sandburg, himself a modern sociaalist, caught the idea in “Today I worship the Hammer”.

    BTW, as far as I’m concerned, the use of “fundamentalist” by everyone from the Pope on down to the idolatrous street is just an echo of the foolish American media that invented “Islamic fundamentalism” at the time of the Iranian Revolution to insinuate that those horrible Evangelicals, whose grandparents had voted for FDR, were abandoning the Democratic Party in Jimmy Carter’s hour of need, and therefore deserved to be lumped with Islamic crazies as “un-American”. Smearing people as “fundamentalist” (and perhaps Chesterton might be anachronistically called a Roman Catholic “fundamentalist”) is simply the McCarthyism of the Left.

    But, you are right that Hitchens was a small-minded man.