Science & Culture
G. K. Chesterton
Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s most significant work for our project is St. Francis of Assisi.
G. K. Chesterton was one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary voices. He was a prodigious author who wrote more than eighty books, contributed to hundreds more, composed hundreds of poems and short stories, wrote five novels, and penned several plays. He wrote thousands of newspaper essays for the Daily News, London Illustrated News, and his own newspaper, G. K.’s Weekly.
In popular culture, the Father Brown series is classic (see Image 1). The lead character in fifty-two short stories, Father Brown solves his crimes through strict reasoning more concerned with spiritual and philosophic truths rather than scientific details, making him a vivid counterbalance to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, whose stories Chesterton read and admired. Father Brown has an extensive and illustrious presence, both in the original form and adaptations, including a German character. He was featured in radio and television programs, including in a thirteen-episode series that appeared in both the United Kingdom and in the United States. The film Father Brown (1954, directed by Robert Hamer), released in the U.S. as The Detective, stars Alec Guiness and Peter Finch. During the making of the film, a small boy mistook Guinness for an actual priest, an event that may have played a part in Guinness's later conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Chesterton based the character on Father John O’Connor, a parish priest in Bradford, England who was important to Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism. O'Connor recounted their relationship in his 1937 book, Father Brown on Chesterton, which was published shortly after Chesterton's death.
Literary and social critic, historian, journalist, playwright, novelist, Catholic apologist, theologian, debater, and mystery writer, G.K. Chesterton was considered a spiritual mentor by a remarkable list of figures including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, Mahatma Gandhi, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Ronald Knox. His play Magic was a favorite of Ingmar Bergman who adapted it into his film The Magician (1958).
Mahatma Gandhi was profoundly affected by Chesterton's September 18, 1909, column in the Illustrated London News in which he argued for a specifically Indian solution to the subcontinent’s problems. Gandhi immediately translated it into Gujarati and used it as the basis of his influential 1909 pamphlet/book, Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule).
C. S. Lewis cited Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man as the best popular defense of the Christian position that he was aware of (see Image 2). It was an important contribution to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. Reading Chesterton helped Lewis deal with the problem of self-love and pride, both conceptually and personally. At one point, Lewis quoted the following from the book: “A great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is, the better he knows it.”
Chesterton tells us that he enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Saint Francis of Assisi, beginning with the story his parents read to him when he was a small about a man who gave up all his possessions, even the clothes he was wearing on his back, to follow Christ in holy poverty. When Chesterton was about twenty he had a crisis of faith. At first intrigued by the work of the Decadents, especially Oscar Wilde, ultimately he turned from them and renewed his commitment to Christianity.
In July 1922 Chesterton converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, choosing Francis as his confirmation name in honor of his childhood and lifelong friend (St. Francis) as well as his wife and lifelong partner (Frances, see Image 3). In the following year he published the biography St. Francis of Assisi. In the first chapter he writes the following:
He was to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ.
He and fellow Catholic and poet Hilaire Belloc developed the concept of distributivism, an economic system described as somewhere between capitalism and communism.
Father John O’Connor’s Father Brown on Chesterton is freely available through Gutenberg Canada at http://www.basilica.org/pages/ebooks/Fr.%20John%20OConnor-Father%20Brown%20on%20Chesterton.pdf
For information related to Chesterton’s influence on Gandhi see, http://americanchestertonsociety.blogspot.com/2009/01/gandhi-reference.html
"Saint Francis, by G K Chesterton" (ebooks and online version of text) http://saints.sqpn.com/saint-francis-by-g-k-chesterton/
"G. K. Chesteron," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._K._Chesterton
"Who is this Guy and Why Haven't I heard of Him?" The American Chesterton Society, http://184.108.40.206/wordpress/?page_id=40
Image 1: Book cover of Penguin's Father Brown collection, 1981 edition. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father_Brown
Image 2: Photo of C. K. Chesterton that appeared in a Catholic News Agency article, "Possible sainthood cause for Chesterton sparks excitement," by Kevin Jones.
Image 3: A book resulting from scholarly papers given at a conference on Lewis and Chesterton. Source: http://www.amazon.com/G-K-Chesterton-C-S-Lewis-Riddle/dp/0802836658
Image 4: Chesterton with his wife, Frances. Source: http://walkawhile.tripod.com/id6.html
Image 5: C. K. Chesterton with a little girl. Source: http://www.fedbybirds.com/2010/11/ask_gkc.html