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G.K. Chesterton’s Commitment to Political Nuance

May 29, 2008

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” — G.K. Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936)

Chesterton was a tremendously prolific writer of Christian and Catholic apologetics, philosophy, biography, poetry, detective and fantasy fiction. Chesterton’s political and religious views were and continue to be difficult to pin down. Living in our own era of simplistic dichotomies in virtually every sphere of society, it is worth remembering Chesterton’s stubborn commitment to nuance and complexity. Though deeply conservative, he was never authoritarian. Consider the way his defense of tradition was steeped in the values of participatory democracy:

Tradition is only democracy extended through time. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.

Paradoxically, the man best remembered as an apologist for orthodox Christianity and Catholicism begins to sound a bit like the anarchist skeptic Utah Phillips, whom I wrote about yesterday. Indeed, though coming from a much different set of commitments, and highly critical of the kind of socialism Phillips embraced, Chesterton too was deeply critical of capitalism and modern industrial values. He found in his British patriotism and religious orthodoxy grounds to denounce British imperialism and economic injustice.

Chesterton provided one of the best descriptions of saints that I have ever heard, one that I think well fits both he and Utah Phillips, and all of the great women and men I’ve remembered on this humble blog in posts in the category of hagiography:

[The saint is] a medicine because he is an antidote…. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exagerrating whatever the world neglects.”


Quotes taken from Wikipedia and Robert Ellsberg’s entry on Chesterton in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time, pp. 235-237.

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