Books by Chesterton, Gilbert K.

Chesterton, Gilbert K. Heretics. London: John Lane, [1905] 1914. ISBN 0-7661-7476-X.
In this collection of essays, the ever-quotable Chesterton takes issue with prominent contemporaries (including Kipling, G.B. Shaw, and H.G. Wells) and dogma (the cults of progress, science, simple living, among others less remembered almost a century later). There is so much insight and brilliant writing here it's hard to single out a few examples. My favourites include his dismantling of cultural anthropology and folklore in chapter 11, the insight in chapter 16 that elevating science above morality leads inevitably to oligarchy and rule by experts, and the observation in chapter 17, writing of Whistler, that what is called the “artistic temperament” is a property of second-rate artists. The link above is to a 2003 Kessinger Publishing facsimile reprint of the 1914 twelfth edition. The reprint is on letter-size pages, much larger than the original, with each page blown up to fit; consequently, the type is almost annoyingly large. A free electronic edition is available.

September 2004 Permalink

Chesterton, Gilbert K. What's Wrong with the World. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, [1910] 1994. ISBN 0-89870-489-8.
Writing in the first decade of the twentieth century in his inimitable riddle-like paradoxical style, Chesterton surveys the scene around him as Britain faced the new century and didn't find much to his satisfaction. A thorough traditionalist, he finds contemporary public figures, both Conservative and Progressive/Socialist, equally contemptible, essentially disagreeing only upon whether the common man should be enslaved and exploited in the interest of industry and commerce, or by an all-powerful monolithic state. He further deplores the modernist assumption, shared by both political tendencies, that once a change in society is undertaken, it must always be pursued: “You can't put the clock back”. But, as he asks, why not? “A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.” (p. 33). He urges us not to blindly believe in “progress” or “modernisation”, but rather to ask whether these changes have made things better or worse and, if worse, to undertake to reverse them.

In five sections, he surveys the impact of industrial society on the common man, of imperialism upon the colonisers and colonised, of feminism upon women and the family, of education upon children, and of collectivism upon individuality and the human spirit. In each he perceives the pernicious influence of an intellectual elite upon the general population who, he believes, are far more sensible about how to live their lives than those who style themselves their betters. For a book published almost a hundred years ago, this analysis frequently seems startlingly modern (although I'm not sure that's a word Chesterton would take as a compliment) and relevant to the present-day scene. While some of the specific issues (for example, women's suffrage, teaching of classical languages in the schools, and eugenics) may seem quaint, much of the last century has demonstrated the disagreeable consequences of the “progress” he discusses and accurately anticipated.

This reprint edition includes footnotes which explain Chesterton's many references to contemporary and historical figures and events which would have been familiar to his audience in 1910 but may be obscure to readers almost a century later. A free electronic edition (but without the explanatory footnotes) is available from Project Gutenberg.

October 2007 Permalink