Arguably, no other writer from the 20th century provided as much salience and portentous guidance on the meaning of life as G.K. Chesterton. Although not an academic in the same vein as C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, the English journalist, novelist, and essayist became famous for his ability to write voluminously while maintaining wit throughout this prose.
My only regret in reading Chesterton’s works is that I did not read them sooner. Know as the King of Paradox, Chesterton make use of a lot of juxtapositions of seemingly contrasting ideas to get his points across. Some may found this style confusing and daunting, however, the more one delves into his writings the greater appreciation and wisdom may be gained. Here’s three ways that G.K. Chesterton’s apparent paradoxes actually provide practical guidance for daily and ordinary living.
1. Thankfulness: the key to unlocking joy
Among the more famous of Chesterton’s quips goes as follows, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” The Englishman goes on to mention in Christmas and Salemenship that gratitude is also one of the most difficult duties humanity is able to achieve. Through the constant barrage of materialism and rampant sense of entitlement it is hard for people to be thankful for something that is believed that they deserve. What I have discovered in my home and work life that I am most at peace when I focus on the blessings instead of all the negativity. Despite being a daily struggle sometimes, being thankful leads to joy!
2. Weakness leads to strength
Another apparent paradox posed by Chesterton relates to the founding of the Catholic Church. In his work Heretics he declared,
“The historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. The first pope selected to lead the Church was Peter. Although a great disciple of Jesus, the Apostle had his foibles—most infamously his threefold denial of Jesus during the events of the Passion. Despite Peter’s limitations and weakness, Jesus promised that nothing will destroy the ‘rock of the Church,’ “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
Later in Heretics Chesterton juxtaposes weakness and strength again, “of being strong and brave. The strong can not be brave. Only the weak can be brave; and yet again, in practice, only those who can be brave can be trusted, in time of doubt, to be strong.”
3. Irrationality is rational, and rationality is irrational
If your head is hurting after reading this last subtitle please bear with me and do not feel bad, as it takes a couple of times for me to wrap my head about this clear conundrum, too.
In Heretics, Chesterton critiques the philosophy of positivism. In a nutshell, positivism is a system of thought that says all truths can only be verified through science and sensory input. This philosophy rejects all claims of metaphysics and theology. As a devout Catholic, Chesterton flat out dismisses positivism as being false. Instead, he believes that the supernatural is the basis for all of natural reality. He purported,
“A page of statistics, a plan of model dwellings, anything which is rational, is always difficult for the lay mind. But the thing which is irrational anyone can understand. That is why religion came so early into the world and spread so far, while science came so late into the world and has not spread at all. History unanimously attests that is is only mysticism which stands the smallest chance of being understood by the people.”
As a parent I notice that when I tend to act with my gut reaction or rely on my faith instead of strict logic, I develop a better relationship with my children. Now this is not to say there is no place for logic, rationality or science because it is vitally important to have a balance between religion and science. According to Chesterton, the foundation for truth has to be the “irrational” first. “Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural,” he stated.
The stark juxtapositions scattered throughout the prose of Chesterton has actually illuminated difficult situations in my life. According to the King of Paradox, “Paradox – Truth standing on her head to get attention.” Certainly, a vivid image, I hope you find some time this year to visit (or maybe even revisit) the works of G.K. Chesterton. If difficulties arise initially in understanding his examples, I promise you in time his “confusing Catch-22s” will help clarify for you life’s large and small questions!