COMMON SENSE 101: LESSONS FROM G. K. CHESTERTON. By Dale Ahlquist (Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 1339, Ft. Collins, CO, 80522, 2006), 316 pp. PB. $16.95.
If G. K. Chesterton had lived 75 years later, would he have been a radio talk-show host? He certainly had the personality and wit and love of verbal jousting. In his day (the first third of the twentieth century) he was, in fact, a popular lecturer and debater.
He was first and foremost, however, a journalist, who wrote in an impressive range of forms: literary criticism, opinion pieces and editorials, political and social commentary, Christian apologetics and even fiction and poetry.
The breadth of his literary output — “an ocean of words” — makes it difficult for the contemporary reader to decide where to begin reading. By way of introduction, Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, has published a second collection of essays in which he presents major themes in Chesterton’s writings.
Ahlquist’s first volume of such essays, G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense (Ignatius Press, 2000), has the same title as the series of half-hour television programs that he recorded for EWTN (assisted by actor Chuck Chalberg who, in period costume and make-up, impersonates Chesterton and recites passages from his works). Each chapter of these “Common Sense” books is the transcript of one of those programs.
Ahlquist is a genial guide, who begins each essay with some appropriately paradoxical musings of his own. Here is a typical example, from the chapter, “Uneducating the Educated”:
“What is the point of sending our children to school? If you put this question to the children themselves, they would probably answer that there is no point. Unfortunately, considering the present state of our educational system, that is probably the right answer. And one child who never grew up, G. K. Chesterton, thought it was the right answer a long time ago. In his view, ‘The purpose of Compulsory Education is to deprive the common people of their common sense.’”
Chesterton, of course, is the real star of the show, and these essays are simply occasions for quoting him at length and repeating some of his more striking insights and arguments.
Chesterton’s works have held up so well — some of them for a century now — because he was not just a clever commentator but also and primarily a profound thinker. His infectious sense of joy and amazement in considering everyday things — which prompts Ahlquist to describe him as “an overgrown elf” — was actually due to the philosophical habit of mind that Aristotle calls “wonder”. He marveled, not only that things should be as they are, but that they should be at all.
Chesterton the metaphysician (if you will allow the expression) is behind the scenes of the dazzling puppet theater of paradox and comedy the reader finds on the surface of his prose. He helps us to unlearn the convenient formulas that apply only within the man-made world and to open our minds and hearts to the fullness and mystery of creation as God made it.
This approach informs Chesterton’s commentaries on the family as the bedrock of civilization, on parental authority in education, and on subsidiarity (especially in economic questions). His critiques of phenomena such as materialistic science, feminism and contraception have proved to be prophetic.
For preachers and catechists, these “lessons” in common sense from G. K. Chesterton can serve as valuable exercises in apologetics: examples of how to discover spiritual concerns in everyday things. For anyone these essays can be an enjoyable “refresher course” in right reason.
Michael J. Miller