Q&A: Why Catholics should listen to G.K. Chesterton when it comes to history

Even experts struggle to categorize the man of the thick mustache, tiny glasses and iconic hat that was often seen wearing a cape and smoking a cigar — and rightly so. G.K. Chesterton could write with ease on almost any subject ranging from politics, history and economics, to literature, philosophy and theology.

“He said something about everything, and he said it better than anybody else”, as Dr. Dale Ahlquist, one of the most respected Chesterton scholars in the world, put it. The modern approach to history is no exception, Ahlquist assures. For that reason, he believes Catholics should listen to what Chesterton had to say on the subject and proposes “unlearning” much of what they might have learned in school.

Ahlquist spoke to the Denver Catholic in anticipation of his St. John Paul II Lecture Series presentation in Denver titled, “Unlearning Our History Lessons: Chesterton on History,” Oct. 22.

Dr. Ahlquist is President of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and The Chesterton Schools Network, publisher of Gilbert! Magazine, and creator of the EWTN series The Apostle of Common Sense. He has written five books on Chesterton.

Denver Catholic: What makes G.K. Chesterton stand out from other great thinkers of the past century and why is he still important in our time?

Dale Ahlquist: Chesterton was accomplished in every literary genre and combined clear and comprehensive thinking with clever writing. He’s important because he’s prophetic and as timely as ever.

DC: How would you describe the contemporary approach to history in our public education system and why is it worth ‘unlearning’?

DA: The modern academic approach to history is deconstructive, just like it’s approach to literature. It takes things apart until they don’t make any sense. We also have the modern weakness of thinking modern history more important than old and older history — so that we have no idea where we came from, much less how we got here. Modern history is more about forgetting than remembering.

DC: What is most unique about Chesterton’s approach to history that makes it worth implementing?

DA: History tells a story. It has a point. Chesterton argues eloquently that Christ is the hinge of history. Everything turns on the fact that God himself entered history.

Dr. Dale Ahlquist is President of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and The Chesterton Schools Network, publisher of Gilbert! Magazine, and creator of the EWTN series The Apostle of Common Sense. He has written five books on Chesterton.

DC: G.K. Chesterton wrote prolifically on a wide variety of subjects. How can educators provide a Catholic education that produces great Catholic thinkers, capable of engaging and leading in the present culture?

DA: Chesterton should be taught in our Catholic schools. The problem is that he is bigger than any of our narrow disciplines; he keeps spilling over into the department next door. It’s our compartmentalized way of thinking —and of teaching — that has kept Chesterton out of the classroom.

DC: Chesterton’s cause of canonization was recently stalled. Do you think there were just reasons to do so? Why should he still be canonized?

DA: It was a great disappointment that the Bishop of Northampton said he would not proceed with the cause, but what was really disappointing were his stated reasons. We had previously and thoroughly addressed these before — but we will continue to.

We think Chesterton should be numbered among the saints for many reasons. First of all, there is a worldwide devotion to him. Secondly, he has brought hundreds if not thousands of people into the Catholic Church. I’m one of them. Thirdly, he demonstrated heroic virtue in his lifetime. And here’s a fourth reason: we need more lay saints, more models of lay spirituality, and examples of Catholic joy.

DC: Is there anything else you would like to add regarding your talk or Chesterton in general?

DA: Read Chesterton. Pray for his intercession. Come to the talk!

Saint John Paul II Lecture Series
“Unlearning Our History Lessons: Chesterton on History”
Dr. Dale Ahlquist
Refectory at St. John Vianney Seminary
Oct. 22, 7 p.m.
RSVP at archden.org/lecture.

COMING UP: What is your question about G.K. Chesterton?

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Dale Ahlquist is the President of the American Chesterton Society. The G.K. Chesterton Conference will be at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, July 27-29. For more information: https://www.chesterton.org/36th-annual-chesterton-conference

Here are three questions:

1. Why was G.K. Chesterton once so popular?
2. Why did he stop being popular?
3. Why is becoming popular again?

Now the answers:

1. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English author of books, poems, plays, and essays, who wrote about everything and did so with great wit and verve and insight. People bought newspapers just to read his columns and bought radios just to hear his voice. Immensely quotable (“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”) and immensely immense (300 pounds), he stirred the literary world with his paradoxes (“A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.”) and his puns (“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”) and both (“Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”). Even though he was not a Catholic, he created a beloved character in detective fiction who happened to be a Catholic priest: Father Brown. He wrote one of the last great epic poems in the English language: The Ballad of the White Horse. He debated some of the leading intellectuals of his day: George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow. He conducted two extended speaking tours of the U.S., and every one of his lectures was front page news and was sold out. And he had the same success in Spain, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and the Holy Land.

2. He stirred the literary world again in 1922 when he was received into the Catholic Church. His conversion was world wide news, but in some people’s minds he went from being a writer to being a Catholic writer. Though he had always pointed to God (“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”), he was now pointing to Rome. After his death, he naturally disappeared from the newspapers, but then he disappeared from the classroom, where his books were once taught. The world became a more depressing place after World War II, and Chesterton’s message of hope and joy was not what a jaded and despairing world wanted to hear. His battle against fads and fashions gave way to… fads and fashions. His writing, which dealt with the big questions, fell out of favor in a climate that wanted to deal with the small questions.

3. After two generations grew up with no exposure to Chesterton, a new generation started to rediscover him. They found him to be prophetic (“The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality: and especially on sexual morality.”) and timely (“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”) and profound (“The most ignorant of humanity know by the very look of earth that they have forgotten heaven.”) He speaks the truth plainly (“Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it.”) but also poignantly (“When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights.”). And he’s still refreshingly funny. (“It is a the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)

The American Chesterton Society has played a role in the Chesterton revival. Gilbert magazine and “The Apostle of Common Sense,” a well-watched series on EWTN helped popularize Chesterton. We have also hosted a major conference that has been held in a different city every year. This year we are going to be in Colorado Springs. The three day event features outstanding speakers on a wide range of topics from literature, history, philosophy, economics, and faith and reason. But in a Chestertonian spirit, the conference is filled with much laughter and convivial debate. It is an event like nothing else on earth.

It is open to everyone, from the novice to the well-read. Everyone will find something to fascinate them and inspire them.