Wisdom and Innocence: A Life Of G.K. Chesterton
© 1996 Joseph Pearce
“I cannot help but thinking you were England — the Merry, chivalrous, simple-hearted, fearless England that I loved.” – an old friend’s letter to Chesteron
Mention the name G.K. Chesterton today, and most who have a glimmer of recognition will venture that he was a Christian apologist. Chesterton was no theological pendant, however; at the peak of his career, which he still occupied at the time of his death, he was a bestselling author, editor, and journalist recognized by many as something unique. More than that, however, he was fun, with an amiability that led even his antagonists to maintain warm relations with him even as they heatedly debated through public newspapers. Pearce’s title, Wisdom and Innocence alludes to a core dynamic expressed in the life of Chesterton — the embrace of romance and reality, wonder and wisdom, faith and reason. The same man who could earn praise from medieval scholars for his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas and hold public debates against H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell might just as easily entertain a house of small children single-handedly the same night, with equal joy.
Although Chesterton was baptized into the Anglican church, his parents were merely bowing to social convention when they brought him before the fount and priest; they were hazy Unitarians and spiritualists. In his youth, Chesterton experimented with the occult, becoming convinced that there was something more than the material world, and had a distinct appreciation for what we might now call the divine feminine. Chesterton did not write a Surprised by Joy equivalent about his embrace of Christianity via the Anglican church, but the tipping point occurred when he was beginning to teach and met a young nihilist who believed in nothing, not even the possibility of truth. Judging by letters Chesterton wrote thereafter, encountering this man was a staring-into-the-abyss movement that set him searching for meaning and order. He found it in the Anglo-Catholic movement of the Anglican church, and his sympathy for Catholicism would only strengthen over the years, until he finally converted and became one of the Church’s most vocal champions.
Chesterton didn’t unsheath his pen only to defend the Church on theological grounds, however. For him, the Catholic faith undergirded western civilization, and even the material expression of society – the organization of the means of production, for instance – -had a religious importance. From an early age Chesterton held the large industrialists of the day in contempt, and critiqued capitalism first from the left, and then later from Catholic theology. Marx may have cheered the fact that the family had been destroyed as an economic unit, but for Chesterton this was the crux of the problem. He objected and resented to the fact that so much land and property were pooling into the hands of a few titanic industrialists and their bankers. To take away a man’s economic independence, to reduce him to a proletarian laboring for nothing but money – to force him and his children to abandon a home for a hovel, and spend their energy for another besides improving their own home and familial enterprise, was to undermine human dignity and tarnish a creature made in the image of God. In general, Chesterton found modernity absurd, unhealthy, and (in the case of fascism) regressive. He regarded the strident nationalism of the early 20 century as a return to tribal barbarism, and a betrayal of the cosmopolitan aura of the Roman and Catholic world. His early denouncement of Hitler, at a time before democratic leaders were eying the ill-shaven Austrian with envy for his energy, earned Chesterton kudos after the evils of Hitler’s regime became apparent.
Wisdom and Innocence is an incredible biography, a review of not only GKC’s life, but his work. Pearce is exhaustive, poring into Chesterton’s poetry and smaller stories as well. Pearce also visits Chesterton in the company of his friends and rivals. Chesterton and an Anglo-French writer named Hillaire Belloc were especially close, united in their love for their faith, literature, and wine, and Chesterton himself inspired many who became friends His two chief friendly antagonists were George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, who shared his concern about the power of tycoons but little else. This book is nearly as big as its subject, and well worth reading for anyone who has a serious interest in Chesterton. The depth which it goes into may be a little much for very casual readers, however: it had chops scholarly enough to merit Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn granting Pearce an interview for his later biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Life in Exile.