Interview with Dale Ahlquist Regarding “The Wisdom of Mr. Chesterton”

Interview with Dale Ahlquist Regarding “The Wisdom of Mr. Chesterton” January 10, 2016
Chesterton (550x826)
[see the info-page for this book]

From Gilbert Magazine (Vol. 13, No. 5, March 2010, pp. 14-17; entitled, “‘Can I Get a Quote on That?’: An Interview With Dave Armstrong”). This periodical is published by the American Chesterton Society.

Dale Ahlquist is one of the leading experts on Chesterton today. He has written a few GKC books, did the delightful EWTN television shows about him, and is president of the American Chesterton Society. His words below will be in blue. Portions in green were not included in the final magazine edit of the interview.

* * * * *

Dave, you’ve been promoting Chesterton even longer than the American Chesterton Society. I recall when we put up our Web page, your Chesterton site was one of our first links.


Isn’t that something! I don’t recall mine being even older than your wonderful, “gold standard” Web site (that I have made many scores of links to through the years). I was honored also to find that my page was occasionally mentioned by the evangelical Protestant flagship magazine Christianity Today as a resource. It meant a lot to me because of my own evangelical past to be mentioned there at all.

This was back in the days of gasoline-powered computers.

Even before that: I had to ride a bike that was connected to a generator, to power my computer. Saved money on gasoline . . . good exercise too. :-)

When did you start your Web site?

I first put up my Web site (“Biblical Evidence for Catholicism”) in February 1997. The Chesterton page was there from the beginning.

Ours went up in November of that year.

Along with the Chesterton page, there were C. S. Lewis and Cardinal Newman pages, and they remain to this day. I had photographs of all three at the top of my home page. My intention from the start was to provide a sort of “storehouse of apologetic information.” These “author pages” constituted a big part of that goal of comprehensive links having to do with the great apologists of the past. I wanted to make clear the tradition of “reasoned Christianity” that I’ve sought to be a part of in my meager efforts.

I love the “instant information access” capability of the Internet, and used to spend many many hours collecting any links I could find about Chesterton (back when Yahoo was the big search engine: long before Google), and the others. I still will search the Internet for some new GKC material. I always enjoy it, and it is all in service to the Great Man: to share him with as many others as I can.

How did you first get interested in Chesterton?

I believe I first heard of him as a result of my interest in C. S. Lewis, who has been my favorite writer for over thirty years (though Chesterton may very well be now, after doing this book: it’s a close call!). He is often associated with Lewis, and, as you know, is widely regarded as the greatest Christian apologist in the first third of the 20th century, with Lewis being a sort of successor to him in the second third of the century. I remember an evangelical Protestant teacher at the non-denominational church I used to attend in the early 80s — ironically, no big admirer of the Catholic Church at all –, who more than once mentioned Orthodoxy as a wonderful book. I obtained a library copy around 1983 or so, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Lewis had also mentioned in his autobiography that The Everlasting Man was the book that influenced him the most. That was more than enough recommendation for me. I had read portions of that book in the mid-80s, but I actually didn’t read the whole thing (strangely enough) until just a few years ago. That was a good thing, though, because the elaborate analogical reasoning he uses in the book probably would have been partially inexplicable to me if I had read it in the early 80s.

I think Orthodoxy is the best introductory book because it is very straightforward and basic: almost the near-Catholic equivalent (in a way) of Lewis’ Mere Christianity, but with the object of explaining the necessity of tradition and orthodoxy. As such, it would have been the first thing I ever read specifically devoted to the notion of apostolic tradition: considered apart from a strictly biblical context. In retrospect, it probably laid the very first groundwork for my later conversion.

Did any of Chesterton’s other books play a role in your conversion?

Yes. I read several of Chesterton’s later-period Catholic books (The ThingThe Well and the ShallowsSt. Thomas AquinasSt. FrancisThe Catholic Church and Conversion) right before and just after my becoming convinced of Catholicism in October 1990. That was perfect timing, too, because they were great introductions to the “Catholic Mind,” so to speak.

Besides the obvious effect Chesterton had on your faith, what other kind of effect did he have on your thinking…and on your life?

Chesterton (in any and all of his writing) always affects me in the same way: the consciousness of the merging of reason and faith: all done in a witty, ingratiating, challenging style. Reason and faith are in exactly the right balance (he’s a lot like St. Thomas Aquinas in that respect, which is why he wrote such a great book about that great Doctor). The intellect need yield nothing in our walk with God, and the faith doesn’t have to be held without intellectual confidence, or with the tension of logical incoherence.

The other theme that I am very aware of whenever reading Chesterton is the simultaneous manifestation of both innocence and wisdom. It’s a rare combination. Usually the more we know, the more cynical we become. Knowledge obtained in particulars seems to not lead to wisdom, but rather, to pride or to various errors and false rationalizations. But Chesterton managed to attain to wisdom while maintaining his Christian idealism and innocence (seen above all, perhaps, in his great love of children and fairy-tales and romanticism). It’s quite extraordinary. These characteristics, along with his great humor and style, make him very appealing to read and learn from: not just the strength of his ideas and arguments, but the appeal of his person.

This is (however poorly I am expressing it) how he influences both my thinking and my life.

You are known as a Catholic apologist. Do you use Chesterton in your apologetics?

He is a wonderful model, particularly, for apologists like myself. Our task is to defend the faith while doing so with love and a certain style that can have appeal alongside the true message that we (hopefully) are seeking to spread far and wide. Chesterton is an inspiration to me also in the sense that he was a “popular level” apologist (as was C. S. Lewis). By that I mean that he wrote to and for the masses, not to scholars or academics. Indeed, he never obtained a college degree and took no formal courses in theology that I am aware of. Yet on the other hand, scholars like the renowned Thomist Etienne Gilson were almost at a loss for words in expressing their unbounded admiration for his deep wisdom and insights.

When I am accused by folks who think little of apologetics, of being “pretentious,” etc. because I’m not a scholar — never claimed to be!: I have a B.A. in sociology –, I invariably appeal to his example. Apologetics is not the equivalent of academics. It can be, and the more scholars and priests who do it, the merrier, but that is not the ultimate point of it; nor is it strictly necessary. It is in the service of everyday people trying to live out their faith, in greater understanding and confidence. The layman and the non-scholar can and should do apologetics alongside the scholar. The Church encourages it, and it is nothing new.

Generally, when I actually utilize Chesterton in my apologetics, it is because some pithy quotation or idea of his spontaneously comes to mind while I am writing. Then I will incorporate it (even if only in paraphrase form). For example, in a dialogue I was involved in just a few weeks ago, I utilized one of my favorite word-pictures of Chesterton. Here is how I expressed it:

We should all attempt to be objective; on the other hand, the nature of dogma restricts us, so that we can’t go in unlimited, unrestrained directions.

I follow Chesterton’s philosophy. He compared orthodoxy to a fence around a high hill, with steep cliffs on all sides. When it is there, the children feel more free to play because they don’t have to worry about falling off. Without it, they are not really free, because they could either fall off or else worry so much about doing so that they can’t have any fun. Thus, orthodoxy and dogmatic restriction frees the mind to be truly free, and itself.

This was derived by memory from Orthodoxy, chapter 9. The citation I used in my book appears under “Dogma (Catholic)”, on page 95:

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.

I decided to use all short quotations, single sentences in my book. But here’s the entire context of that aphorism, in a far better style than my expression of his basic idea:

Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

This thought had become part of my worldview, and so I could pull it out when I needed it, to illustrate a point I was making. This is generally how Chesterton influences my own apologetic method.

Another example of how I have used Chesterton in my apologetics I did the same thing occurred the other night when I had an exchange with a Catholic who was arguing that if he had ruled out Catholicism as true, he would sooner be an Arian than a Protestant. I strongly disagreed, on the grounds that Protestants (unlike Arians) were also trinitarians. I told him that Chesterton compared Protestants to Robinson Crusoe: always going back to the ship to get more stuff, so that they can survive. But at least they are borrowing from the right source. This idea came from the chapter [33] “The Idols of Scotland” in The Thing:

Whether it be called a Catholic tendency or no, all the movements of all the sects of late have been in the direction of trying to put together again those separate pieces that were pulled apart in the sixteenth century. The main feature of our time has been the fact that one person after another has recovered one piece after another, and added it to the new scheme by borrowing it from the old. There is one sufficient proof that there has indeed been a shipwreck. And that is that Robinson Crusoe has, ever since, been continually going back to get things from the wreck.

It was in my mind, and I could pull it up for use as an illustration of what I was trying to argue. Part of that passage also made it into my book [page 284, under “Reformation, Protestant”].

So, we finally get to the quotations. Chesterton is many things, but he is nothing if not good quotations. And yet some people just don’t seem to get that. Even in his own time he was dismissed by some as a mere epigrammatist. And now, some people are almost suspicious of any line that comes off as pithy. Why do you suppose that is?

Great question. I’ve never thought much about it, but here is what immediately comes to mind. Shakespeare is the source of the most well-known “quotations” in English, and he certainly isn’t dismissed simply because of that. Use of quotations of a writer suggests that he truly has something important to offer. I think the suspicion now is because wit has been mostly disconnected from wisdom. One-liners are the province of comedians rather than Solomon-like purveyors of wisdom, and the comedians are often cynical and hostile to traditional values. There is less love of truth: less seeking after it, and truth is often best expressed in short sayings. The less we truly believe in truth, the less we will admire the short, pithy, expression of it. In fact, one might argue that in a relativistic culture, such proverbial expression is almost passe, because everything is considered so complex and nuanced — sophistry and obfuscation often rule the day –, and lacking universal application, there remains no place for them. Chesterton perhaps touched upon some of these same notions in writing:

But no English school-boy is ever taught to tell the truth, for the very simple reason that he is never taught to desire the truth.

(What’s Wrong With the World, IV-11; p. 337 in my book)

There hasn’t been a good compilation of Chesterton quotes – especially short Chesterton quotes – for a long time. How did you go about putting together your book The Wisdom of Mr. Chesterton?

It was made vastly easier by the presence of virtually all of Chesterton’s writings online. I simply read most of the non-fiction books, or heavily skimmed them, at any rate, and selected sentences that I thought had general observational application (almost analogous to someone like Confucius), and cut-and-pasted. I love to organize and categorize, so it was an easy process for me. I didn’t find it difficult or tedious at all. I was determined not to rely on previous similar books, so that it would be an original compilation and not a derivative one. Once I start a project like this, I am self-motivated and a have a great desire to be as comprehensive as I can, so I just kept going and going till it was finished.

Did the topics choose themselves, or did you choose the topics?

More so the former. As I was collecting quotations, I categorized them as I went along, trying to be as briefly descriptive as I could of the contents. I love to do that as well. The art of being a Webmaster is similar in many ways to what goes into compiling a quotations book, so in that sense I had a lot of previous experience.

How large is your collection of Chesterton quotes that you did not use?

Not too large. Most of them were from the later books that I discovered were actually still under copyright in some countries; I didn’t know that when I began. I had to abide by “fair use” restrictions. But I discovered this early on so that most of the unused quotations were from Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, and also the Illustrated London News. I did retain these on Web pages, so the work was not in vain. Estimating roughly, there are about 200.

Give us one that didn’t make the final cut.

Here is one extraordinary long sentence about the Catholic Church, from The Everlasting Man (II-4). It is perhaps the best succinct description I’ve ever seen:

That is the only explanation I can find of a thing from the first so detached and so confident, condemning things that looked so like itself, refusing help from powers that seemed so essential to its existence, sharing on its human side all the passions of the age, yet always at the supreme moment suddenly rising superior to them, never saying exactly what it was expected to say and never needing to unsay what it had said; I can find no explanation except that, like Pallas from the brain of Jove, it had indeed come forth out of the mind of God, mature and mighty and armed for judgement and for war.

What I would give to write like that! Chesterton’s writing always seems to have an outward or implicit poetic aspect. That helps, no doubt, to make him so quotable.

I notice that other than the Illustrated London News, you haven’t tapped the uncollected writings at all.

I drew from the online (non-fiction) materials — virtually all of his books — and the six paperback copies of The Collected Works that I had in my own personal library. If finances weren’t an issue (apologists not being exactly a wealthy class), I probably would have purchased whatever else was available for the sake of greater comprehensiveness. But I did what I could with what I had.

Have you been a reader of Gilbert Magazine? If so, why haven’t you stolen quotes from us? If not, how can you look at your face in the mirror?

[chuckling] Actually, I don’t subscribe to any magazines, for lack of time. It’s enough to try to read my own books (some 2500 or so) and do the research I need to do for my various apologetic projects. I subscribed to it for a while. It’s excellent, as is everything connected with the American Chesterton Society.

Surely I could have drawn many quotes from your fine organization and Web site, but it was my desire, as I said before, not to be derivative at all: to come to it totally fresh, with no outside input. That precluded such a thing from the outset. I also did not use George Marlin’s 1986 book, The Quotable Chesterton.

Okay, I’ll come up with an appropriate punishment. In the meantime, what’s next for Dave Armstrong?

The next book coming up is a reply to the arguments of John Calvin, whose 500th birthday came in 2009. I wanted to give him a present. From April to December I replied section-by-section to the entire Book IV of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, itself about 500 pages. These replies will be abridged and edited into a more compact, readable form, for use as an apologetics tool; I’ve already written a book about Martin Luther. After that I’ll be putting together new volumes about the Blessed Virgin Mary and the justification / salvation issue, drawn from existing writings. The main writing is done; it’s all editing now. Then the task is to find a “real” publisher for them. I was fortunate enough to have this current book picked up in less than a year by Saint Benedict Press (recently merged with TAN Books).

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