I’ve Heard of Him: G.K. Chesterton

This article is, I hope, an “I’ve Heard of It” in name only, for I greatly hope that you all have actually read G.K. Chesterton.  A Catholic writer from the turn of the 20th century, his work ranges from philosophy to detective stories, all with a decidedly apologetic bent.

His ideas are reminiscent of C.S. Lewis, though of course the inspiration runs the other way; in fact, his writings contributed to Lewis’ conversion.  His influence continues to this day on people as disparate as Philip Yancey and Neil Gaiman.

Chesterton’s ideas are a mixed bag, sometimes brilliantly incisive, usually spot-on, and occasionally way out in left field.  That’s the way of prolific writers: one can’t be brilliant all the time.  What really sets him apart in my mind is not his ideas but his writing style.  In my opinion, he may be the best prose crafter of modern English.  His style is playful, but can deliver a message with great urgency, and always remains understandable, and both fluent and beautiful enough to warrant reading aloud.

I’ll share a few passages where he communicates his thoughts on language.

One of my first journalistic adventures, or misadventures, concerned a comment on Grant Allen, who had written a book about the Evolution of the Idea of God. I happened to remark that it would be much more interesting if God wrote a book about the evolution of the idea of Grant Allen. And I remember that the editor objected to my remark on the ground that it was blasphemous; which naturally amused me not a little. For the joke of it was, of course, that it never occurred to him to notice the title of the book itself, which really was blasphemous; for it was, when translated into English, ‘I will tell you how this nonsensical notion that there is a God grew up among men.’ My remark was strictly pious and proper; confessing the divine purpose even in its most seemingly dark or meaningless manifestations. In that hour I learned many things, including that there is something purely acoustic in much of that agnostic sort of reverence. The editor had not seen the point, because in the title of the book the long word came at the beginning and the short word at the end; whereas in my comments the short word came at the beginning and gave him a sort of shock. I have noticed that if you put a word like God into the same sentence as a word like dog, these abrupt and angular words affect people like pistol-shots. Whether you say that God made the dog or the dog made God does not seem to matter; that is only one of the sterile disputations of the too subtle theologians. But so long as you begin with a long word like evolution the rest will roll harmlessly past; very probably the editor had not read the whole of the title, for it is rather a long title and he is rather a busy man.

The Everlasting Man, pp. 155-156

It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard ones, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtletly in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

Orthodoxy, pp. 230-231

I think the laziness of long words also applies to long essays.  It’s hard to distill your ideas into one page; it’s easy to throw more words at it until it’s a rambling behemoth no one will ever think to read.  This is useful both to people who don’t really know what they’re talking about and people who know they don’t have sufficient justification for their opinions.  How else do Supreme Court justices manage to write hundred-page responses when they just ruled the law unconstitutional because it’s a conservative law and they’re liberal justices, or vice versa?  An opinion expressed in too many or too long words is of little more value than an opinion not supported at all.

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