Defending Chesterton

My friend Austin Bramwell has taken his frustrations with Chesterton into public. Chesterton doesn’t offer a deep coherent philosophy, Bramwell regretfully informs us. And Bramwell feels guilty for feeling this way about Chesterton. I am here to assuage his guilt but to modify his assessment.

But before I proceed to talk about Bramwell’s attitude towards Chesterton, I would like to discuss a philosophical essay as a type of writing. Oftentimes, liberal arts students are assigned with them to assess their ability to think critically and lay out their reasoning in a written form. However, only a few students know how to write a philosophy paper well. Below, I will give you some effective tips that are based on my experience of writing on philosophy and brought me top grades during my classes.

Understand the difference between philosophical writing and other papers

Every intelligent essay writer knows that a philosophy paper is not similar to papers and essays written in other subjects. It is not a paper where you can just review what other scholars already said on your topic. It is also not a creative writing piece that shows off your literary ability to express yourself. No personal feelings are encouraged here. So, a philosophical paper is solely a defense of a particular thesis statement based on concrete arguments.

Choose your topic wisely

The second thing that is worth your attention is your essay topic. You need to set the frames for it to choose the most appropriate argument later. Therefore, before you start shaping your thesis statement and backing it up, narrow your topic down to the extent that will allow you to comprehend it entirely. If you need ideas of philosophy topics for essays, contact the essay writing service to get the full list to your email.

Formulate your thesis

The third issue that I cannot overlook when talking about how to write a philosophy reflection paper is a thesis formulation. Besides precision and clarity that is always required from a thesis statement, it also has to demonstrate your position on a certain issue unequivocally. Therefore, you will need to spend much time working on this part of your essay. Remember, a stellar philosophical thesis statement should take just one short sentence.

Find proper arguments to support your position

As you move to the backing up of your main essay idea, be sure you select only adequate evidence. Oftentimes, students whose thesis statements contain popular opinions on certain philosophical concepts, think that they do not need to choose strong arguments for their essays. Thus, they end up writing week papers and get low grades. To avoid that, choose a limited number of arguments, but develop them thoroughly.

Do not rush when it comes to writing

Finally, when all your notes and an essay outline are in one place, you can start writing your philosophy paper. Arrange your time wisely so that you could have at least a few days for writing. In such a case, you will not need to hurry and write everything at the last minute. Also, your reasoning is likely to be more consequent and clear if you have enough time for editing, proofreading, and rereading your final draft.

Do not be afraid to edit what you wrote, use synonyms to the most repeated words and idioms you avoided earlier (just remember to review their meaning before adding them to your text).

Finally, please keep in mind that your paper is all that can show the audience your position and your argumentation. Your professor will not be able to guess what you wanted to say but did not mention, neither will they ask you to clarify your point of view after you submit your final piece of writing. Hence, do your best to lay your thoughts out coherently and precisely. There is no second chance to make the first impression of your essay.

Bramwell says,

In other words, Chesterton is an irrationalist. His seeks to paralyze the intellect in order to make room for awe. Admittedly, there can be no religion without awe (at least I think that’s right). Still, if Cowling is right, Chesterton opposes the traditions of natural theology and faith seeking understanding. His Christianity tries to keep reason permanently cabined.

This is an exaggeration of a tendency in Chesterton’s main body of work, but it is clearly contradicted by his absolute love for Aquinas’ natural theology, not as a bauble of Catholic intellectual history, but as it is: a philosophical explanation that begins at the beginning of all things.

In any case, Bramwell concludes:

All those Chesterton lovers experience themselves as having completed a long and thrilling philosophical adventure. But it rarely seems that they can remember the itinerary. What makes Christianity in the end so much more satisfying? The answer never sounds very convincing when Chesterton himself isn’t saying it. He creates the feeling of philosophical achievement without the reality.

Well that is pretty damning. But I think Bramwell and perhaps some Chesterton fans are overstating Chesterton’s intentions. We’ll get to that shortly. First let’s address why someone might never have liked Chesterton.

First, there is no getting over Chesterton’s style. Bramwell happens to like writers like Steven Pinker. If someone told me, “I really go for Chopin and other dark classics” I wouldn’t be surprised that they didn’t like Lady Gaga.

Secondly there is a kind of repetition in Chesterton, one that pissed off George Orwell. Orwell thought Chesterton a master stylist, but also a propagandist. “Every book that he wrote, every paragraph, every sentence, every incident in every story, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the Pagan,” Orwell griped the same year he wrote 1984.

I think this is also an exaggeration, but Orwell does get to the point that should solve Bramwell’s dilemma. Bramwell is looking for an exposition of Christian ideas over and against modern novelties. But Chesterton is rather a publicist and a polemicist on behalf of those ideals. He is not joining some great conversation with Dun Scotus, Aristotle, and Fredrick Nietzche. Rather he is in a constant scrum with Bertrand Russell, Benjamin Kidd, Cecil Rhodes, H.G. Wells, Sidney Webb, Edward Carpenter, W.T. Stead, etc… Notably, only half those names live on and most are dimmer than Chesterton’s. Judged in that company he is sterling. When was the last time you saw an H.G. Wells insight applied to anything? If Chesterton were alive today a similar list would be something like, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Karen Armstrong, Thomas Friedman, Marty Peretz, Stephen Hawking, and Jonathan Chait. If I were going to produce a polemic against Karen Armstrong’s book The History of God – and I dearly would like to – you might be satisfied with a clever review. You wouldn’t chastise me for failing to produce the Summa Theologica. To criticize Chesterton in this regard seems unfair. Besides The Everlasting Man, his books are mostly recycled newspaper material. Next to a considered book of philosophy, Chesterton seems a little smug. Next to a cartoon and letters to the editor and in response to his actual opponents, he’s not only a genius, but a delightful one.

The third thing that rubs people wrong about Chesterton is the performative quality to his prose. He isn’t just trying to defeat his opponent’s argument, but to embarrass him good-naturedly. That may be a problem but it is especially noticeable now that we reject all the nonsense he fought in his day like eugenics, state-socialism, the social Gospel, Christian Science. As I said, his audience wasn’t History or even smarty-pants people from 100 years in the future like Bramwell. His audience are the people that wrote letters to *G.K.’s Weekly* and other newspapers. He cast himself as the defender of common sense and what he believed to be Europe’s common faith against a number of bad ideas that would go on to have bad careers.

Let’s take what I think are two representative passages from Chesterton and see if we can’t gain something on their own merits. The first is from Eugenics and Other Evils.

Most Eugenists are Euphemists. I mean merely that short words startle them, while long words soothe them. And they are utterly incapable of translating the one into the other, however obviously they mean the same thing. Say to them “The persuasive and even coercive powers of the citizen should enable him to make sure that the burden of longevity in the previous generations does not become disproportionate and intolerable, especially to the females?”; say this to them and they sway slightly to and fro like babies sent to sleep in cradles. Say to them “Murder your mother,” and they sit up quite suddenly. Yet the two sentences, in cold logic, are exactly the same. Say to them “It is not improbable that a period may arrive when the narrow if once useful distinction between the anthropoid homo and the other animals, which has been modified on so many moral points, may be modified also even in regard to the important question of the extension of human diet”; say this to them, and beauty born of murmuring sound will pass into their faces. But say to them, in a simple, manly, hearty way “Let’s eat a man!” and their surprise is quite surprising. Yet the sentences say just the same thing.

This seems like perfectly good polemic and little more. It shows common sense about language and thought, which Chesterton would take as the highest compliment.

The following is from The Everlasting Man:

There are people who say they wish Christianity to remain as a spirit. They mean, very literally, that they wish it to remain as a ghost. But it is not going to remain as a ghost. What follows this process of apparent death is not the lingering of the shade; it is the resurrection of the body. These people are quite prepared to shed pious and reverential tears over the Sepulchre of the Son of Man; what they are not prepared for is the Son of God walking once more upon the hills of morning. These people, and indeed most people, were indeed by this time quite accustomed to the idea that the old Christian candle-light would fade into the light of common day. To many of them it did quite honestly appear like that pale yellow flame of a candle when it is left burning in daylight. It was all the more unexpected, and therefore all the more unmistakable, that the sevenbranched candle-stick suddenly towered to heaven like a miraculous tree and flamed until the sun turned pale. But other ages have seen the day conquer the candle-light and then the candle-light conquer the day. Again and again, before our time, men have grown content with a diluted doctrine. And again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine. And we only say once more to-day as has been said many times by our fathers: `Long years and centuries ago our fathers or the founders of our people drank, as they dreamed, of the blood of God. Long years and centuries have passed since the strength of that giant vintage has been anything but a legend of the age of giants. Centuries ago already is the dark time of the second fermentation, when the wine of Catholicism turned into the vinegar of Calvinism. Long since that bitter drink has been itself diluted; rinsed out and washed away by the waters of oblivion and the wave of the world. Never did we think to taste again even that bitter tang of sincerity and the spirit, still less the richer and the sweeter strength of the purple vineyards in our dreams of the age of gold. Day by day and year by year we have lowered our hopes and lessened our convictions; we have grown more and more used to seeing those vats and vineyards overwhelmed in the water-floods and the last savour and suggestion of that special element fading like a stain of purple upon a sea of grey. We have grown used to dilution, to dissolution, to a watering down and went on forever. But Thou hast kept the good wine until now.’

This seems like a perfectly usable Christian apologetic tactic even today. It tries to clear the decks of nonsense that reduces Christianity to a set of changeable moral sentiments. It is a prelude to C.S. Lewis’s “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” formula that was also aimed at a large popular audience. The description of Calvinism as a “second fermentation” strikes me as elegant and winning. Is it purple? You bet. But this is nearly the climax of his argument. I’d take something in the above style over the dreariness in god is Not Great. And I think Bramwell would too.

Chesterton is taking us on a thrilling philosophical journey, but it is through the op-ed pages rather than through the libraries of Oxford. And the fact is common people make novel ideas even more exotic, and perhaps more dangerous. That is the thrilling part of it.

UPDATE: I finally remembered this delightful takedown of Chesterton’s fetishists which is perfectly on point. “Chesterton’s Ghost Appears, Suggests Fans Find ‘Other Interests’”

“He told me that ‘it’s one thing to inspire people like Michael Collins, Gandhi, C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther King, but quite another to inspire a generation of Catholics under-50 to be plain annoying.’”

Of Collins, et al, Chesterton told Griffin, “They were inspired and they did something. I’d prefer you not be inspired and do anything.”

Chesterton joked that while his friends Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton led lives that convinced people to help the poor and commune with God, that he, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy were quickly becoming the patron saints of people ‘who just read all the time.’

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