G.K. Chesterton and the Joy of Living
Christians live by creeds. A Catholic, for example, follows the Apostle’s Creed as a summation of his faith. And, of course, the most basic set of principles that bind us all is the Ten Commandments, which forms the foundation for all Christian moral teaching. In so many ways, we find ourselves in a world of rules—we must go to church on Sundays; we must avoid sin; we must fear the Lord. But one of the unwritten rules of Christianity often escapes us—that human life is a sacred gift from God that must be enjoyed. Although we remember this every once in a while—for example, when a beautiful sunrise takes our breath away—most of the time, we don’t know what it is to truly enjoy our day-to-day lives. The true joy of living, unfortunately, is often swallowed up by the banality of following endless creeds, lists of rules, and by the pursuit of empty pleasures that never, in the end, give us any real joy.
G.K. Chesterton, however, believed that the “creeds” and “lists of rules” that so many of us associate with spiritual deadness can, when properly understood, lead us to a radically new appreciation of the joy of life. The problem, Chesterton thought, is that too few of us truly appreciate what we have been given—the deep-down wildness and beauty of life. Life, Chesterton believed, is at bottom a magical thing, which is nowhere better described than in fairy-stories. As he put it, “ The supreme adventure is not falling in love. The supreme adventure is being born… by the act of being born, we step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words… we step into a fairy-tale.”
This world, Chesterton tells us, is a strange and wondrous place, containing beauties far too deep for words, of which our jaded souls have sadly forgotten. We have taken beautiful things—like friendship, and true love—and have devalued them with the carelessness and monotony of modern life. But the “creeds” and “rules” of Christianity, says Chesterton, are really at heart a way of reminding us of the lost beauty of life: just as no one will guzzle well-aged wine by the bottle, but instead will savor it one glass at a time; so the Christian will not commit adultery, but will remain faithful to the one whom he loves. And so, in the paradoxical manner for which Chesterton is famous, he reminds us that the seemingly onerous rules of Christianity were not meant to devalue life and its pleasures, but instead to fill us anew with the true joy of living.
“The Apostle of Common Sense”
G.K. Chesterton was a turn-of-the-century Catholic apologist, moderately famous in his own day and ours for his celebrated Father Brown mysteries, as well as for several minor Christian classics, including Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. In his native England, he had built a reputation for himself as an incorrigibly gregarious and contrarian gadfly, engaging in numerous popular debates and scuffles with such literary eminences as George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, and H.G. Wells. He was well-known in Britain as the Catholic Church’s most articulate defender, and even today, it’s difficult to find a priest who doesn’t know his Chesterton backwards and frontwards. C.S. Lewis, the revered author of the Chronicles of Narnia, largely credits Chesterton with his conversion to Christianity. As Lewis later wrote, “He had more sense than all the other moderns put together… [when] I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, for the first time I saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” In what is perhaps his most famous work, Orthodoxy, he described the path that brought him from agnosticism to Christianity:
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers… How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?
Chesterton concluded that Christian theology was the answer to the question. The Church, he claimed, gave the world a set of principles and an institution to feel at home in, while the principles themselves keep us constantly amazed by the world in which we live. Moreover, without Christianity, our world would eventually become so boringly normal that no one would be able to appreciate it. He asserted, at the time, that he would never get the chance to write the sort of romance novel he had described. But in 1912, he did, with the short novel Manalive. The book is really an extension of Orthodoxy, in that it explains how our earthly lives can be filled with astonishment and excitement. Finding true Christianity, he argues, is really quite a lot like discovering that New South Wales is really Old South Wales—it is like coming home again, and knowing the place for the first time. Christians, he says, can paradoxically come to a real appreciation of the wonderful beauty and mystery of life in this world, “by breaking the conventions, and keeping the Commandments.”
The Great Wind of God
Manalive’s humorous plot revolves around Innocent Smith, a middle-aged man who literally is thrown by a great gust of wind into a boarding house with eight disillusioned tenants. There, his antics—climbing trees, jumping over walls, picnicking on the roof, and so on— transform the lives of its inhabitants, making them each feel like every day was their birthday. What previously had been mundane became purposeful, even unique. Six of the characters decide to get married, in the span of a day. The wonder of it all is not that Smith is telling them to do all this, but that in the process of trying to rationalize his actions, they discover and interpret his message. In such a scene, Innocent’s main supporter, Michael Moon, tells the others: “I don’t think [sending Smith to an asylum] is necessary. Because [we’re all] in one now. Why, didn’t you know? I thought we all really knew.” In classic Chestertonian style, Moon realizes that “all habits are bad habits. Madness doesn’t come by breaking out, but by giving in; by settling down in some dirty, little, self-repeating circle of ideas; by being tamed.” This method of learning—self-discovery— is intended to signal that these truths are all hidden within each of us. We need only, he says, to adjust our outlooks to find them.
But all the fun stops when Smith unexpectedly fires a gun at a scientist, claiming that he did so only “to give life,” not to take it. Why would Smith, who had become the most beloved man in the house, do such a thing? The book turns into a sort of mock trial that sets out to prove why Smith is, in a sense, “innocent” of attempted murder, polygamy, desertion, and burglary. Michael Moon defends Smith, while an American doctor serves as the prosecution. They read collected affidavits in support of their sides, and we, along with the book’s characters, embark on a quest to solve the riddle of Innocent Smith’s life, without any guidance from Smith himself. In the finest Chestertonian (and, indeed, Christian) tradition, the book becomes a quest to find out what we already know.
Step One: Definitive Death, the Will to Live, or Enjoyment of Existence?
If Chesterton’s paradoxes are confusing the first time you read them, then you are probably reading them correctly—they need quite a bit of explanation in order to gain an understanding of what Chesterton is getting at. This happens in the course of the mock trial, in which we learn how to radically live and appreciate life.
In the early 1900s, as is the case today, many among the intellectual elite regarded death as the end of man’s existence. They fatalistically believed that the purpose of one’s life is to, in the end, die. In effect, there would be no enduring meaning to human life. Good deeds, pleasure, friendship, and other such banalities were “trivial and soon tasteless bribes to bring us into a torture chamber”— death. They consequently believed God was also dead; nonexistent, since any type of immortality was impossible. They dreaded looking up at the stars at night, seeing only the vast immensity of the cosmic machine— “the universe black with white spots.”
It is no wonder, then, that Chesterton begins Smith’s life story with his college days in Cambridge, specifically taking us back to a discussion with a famed professor of his, Dr. Emerson Eames. As a young student, Smith doubted that there was a purpose to life, and so became paralyzed with fear. He desperately reached for some explanation for the “vulgar people who want to enjoy life as they enjoy gin,” yet can never find happiness. Hoping to find an answer to his burning questions, Smith brought his troubles to his professor, Dr. Eames. The professor, unfortunately, was not much help: he patiently explained to Smith that if there really was a merciful God, he would strike us dead immediately, because human life is both purposeless and painful, somewhat akin to a puppy slowly drowning in water. “All thinkers are pessimist thinkers,” Dr. Eames told him.
Unfortunately for Dr. Eames, Smith understood him perfectly—all too well, as a matter of fact. After reflecting for a bit on the professor’s words, Smith removed a gun from his coat pocket and pointed it directly at his teacher’s head. Wildly brandishing his gun and blathering on about the futility of life, Smith forced Eames out onto the balcony, on which the professor clung to a gargoyle, holding on for dear life. Making sense in a mad sort of way, Smith told his professor that he was doing him a favor by putting him out of his misery: “It’s not a thing I’d do for everyone!” he shouted. “The only cure for life,” he told Eames, “is death”: his macabre yet brutally logical interpretation of his professor’s philosophy. But then, before he finished his mad justification for murder, something astonishing happened: the sun began to rise. The soft, yellow light fell onto the streets, rooftops, and spires of Cambridge, transforming the previously grim landscape into a sort of fairyland. “The copper ornaments, green enamel, sea-blue slates of a church roof, and the scarlet tiles of a villa had something oddly individual and significant about them… and arrested the rolling eyes of Emerson Eames as he looked round on the morning and accepted it as his last.”
For the first time in Eames’s life, he began to care about more than just the outward appearance of the halls and houses of Cambridge: now, he cared about the people who lived in them as well. He saw them all, as it were, in a new light. Quite unexpectedly, he sang aloud: “I thank the goodness and the grace/ That on my birth have smiled/ And perched me on this curious place/ A happy English child.” Something happened to Smith, too, who decided not to kill his professor after all—instead, he ordered Eames to “thank God for the villas and vulgar people and puddles and pots and pans and sticks and rags.” Eames wholeheartedly did so, after which Smith (an excellent marksman) fired two shots that whizzed by Eames’s head, put down his gun, and let his professor go.
In that moment of sunrise, both Smith and Eames discovered something new about life: the sheer joy of existence itself. Before that moment, Eames had not loved his life; rather, he had stubbornly clung to it because he feared death. But Eames realized that true living meant more than merely avoiding death: instead, it meant choosing life. As he awaited his imminent death there on the balcony, his eyes shone to see, really see, for the first time, everyday beauties that he had never before noticed: “gray clouds that turned pink, and the little gilt clock in the crack between the houses.” Smith confessed that if he had never seen that gleam in his professor’s eyes, he would have certainly gone ahead with his plan, killing both himself and his teacher, as he saw nothing in life that he would have missed. And so, Smith and Eames went to the brink of death together, and discovered that there was something about life that made it worth the living.
After his brush with death, Eames raced around the streets of Cambridge, noticing all of the wonderful little things that he had never noticed before—he spent hours, for example, scrutinizing a few villas that, inexplicably, had spotted blinds on the windows. Neither Smith nor Eames any longer gave a thought to defining death: rather, they merely concluded that death (whatever it is) keeps humanity young, as knowing that we will have to one day face it forces us to love and truly appreciate life. In this way, they reasoned, God created death to keep our hearts youthful at this, the beginning of our eternal human journey. And so, in this rather odd fashion, both Eames and Smith came eventually to Christianity, through the barrel of a gun and a sunrise. Joy, they discovered, was at the core of existence, and so they concluded that the Christian message of hope, love, and eternal life just had to be true.
This, of course, is meant to be a fantastical example. Chesterton does not mean for us to take to shooting at people in order to make them happy. Instead, Innocent Smith serves as an example of how to break free of the monotony and meaninglessness of modern life, radically reinventing the humdrum reality of this world and seeing, back behind it all, the God who created it in the first place. We too, Chesterton says, can live life as if we were clinging to a gargoyle four stories up with a pistol pointed at our heads. In short, we can come to love the beauty of life so much that we would hate to leave it. In this way, death, paradoxically, can keep us young, and instead of clinging fearfully to life, we can choose it, merely for the joy of living. Chesterton never says it better:
I don’t deny that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet. The intellectuals among whom I moved were not even alive enough to fear death… Until a pistol-barrel was poked under their very noses they never knew they had been born. For ages looking up in eternal perspective it might be true that life is learning to die. But for these [people] it was just as true that death was their only chance of learning to live.”
Step Two: Going Around the World to Get Home
As that dawn in Cambridge began, so did a new life for Innocent Smith. He decided that he would become a gift-giver, surprising the world into joy, and “hold[ing] a pistol to the head of the Modern Man.” This is what he did to the doctor at the boarding house, which spurred the trial. But another charge brought against him was desertion; that he abandoned his wife and kids to pursue his own interests abroad. On a sudden whim, it seemed, Innocent Smith had run out the door of his house shouting that he would find a better wife with “redder hair” and a better house with a “finer” garden. For any normal human being, this would have been quite good evidence of desertion; for Smith, however, it was all part of a larger plan.
Innocent Smith began taking “the round road” home that day. He decided that in order to truly value his wife, children, house, and garden, he would have to find out what it felt like to really have a home. In other words, he needed to break through the mere labels and figures that are “home and family,” and learn what it feels like to want to come back to something. In typical humorous Chesterton fashion, Smith does this by interacting with people he meets along the way, from France, Russia, China, and California, and discussing with them the meaning of home and heaven.
The purpose of his journey, he tells the Frenchman, is to undergo a revolution, but in the sense of revolving: “like every repentance,” a return. He asserts, “I’m going to turn the world upside down, too. I’m going to walk upside down in the cursed upside down land…But my revolution, unlike the earth’s, will end up in the holy, happy place, the celestial, incredible place—the place where we were before.” Just like Dr. Eames’s life was transformed by seeing Cambridge in a new light, Smith wanted to see his home and his family, too, for what they really were.
Finding himself a bit later on in Russia—another country that knew something of revolutions—he is questioned about his intentions. If he has already broken with convention, the Russian asks him, and freed himself from his attachment to his home, then why shouldn’t he take greater advantage of his newfound freedom? As the Russian tells him, “you have a right to leave it all behind, like the clippings of your hair, or the parings of your nails. Having once escaped, you have the world before you.” Smith, however, would have nothing of it. In fact, the Russian’s question makes him finally realize how terribly wrong it is for a man to run away from his wife: it is very dangerous, he concludes, because then “nobody can find him, and we all want to be found.” The Russian disagrees quite strongly with his, arguing that all the “most original modern thinkers”—Ibsen, Gorki, Nietzsche, and Shaw—“would all say rather that what we want most is to be lost…to break with the past and belong to the future.” This, clearly, is a fundamental philosophical claim that challenges the tenets of Christianity. In light of this, Smith’s journey takes on new layers of meaning, because he is testing the real value of Eden in our lives—a sacred, meaningful homeland. Is it really so, Chesterton asks, that it is in human nature to want to leave our homes, and become, as the Russian says, lost? Clearly, Chesterton believes it is not, and argues that the best way to prove it isn’t so is to leave home and find out.
Before leaving home, Innocent Smith was unable to feel a real connection with his family. Although he did honestly love his wife and children, “they seemed not only distant but unattainable… [and] I seemed like a cold ghost.” That is why he wanted to become a revolutionary: “to become a pilgrim to cure myself of being an exile.” And this revolution, unlike those of the French and the Russians, prevailed in the end. As he grew closer to England, he desired his family and his homeland more and more. As a result, he realized that “God has given us the love of special places, of a hearth and of a native land, for a good reason.” God gave us houses and gardens and families to love so that we would not be tempted to worship “eternity…the largest of the idols—the mightiest of the rivals of God.” Standing on a precipice in the Sierras, Innocent Smith finally realizes that the abyss of nothingness below him is the precise opposite of familiarity. We have homes, he concluded, so that we can “love one spot and serve it…so that this one spot might be a witness against all the infinities and the sophistries; that Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere; is something and not anything.” Having a home to come back to, Smith discovered, is a basic human desire, making up an essential part of who we are.
Of course, loving one’s family and home is not necessarily a Christian virtue. But oftentimes, Chesterton surmised, we all fail—believers and non-believers alike—to recognize the true value of what we have been given. Like Innocent Smith, we can love our families and our homes, yet not truly appreciate them. And the best way to cure this, Chesterton said, is to “leave” them—perhaps not by really traipsing around the globe, but at least by making a concerted effort to see them in a new light. All too often, we fail to appreciate what we have until we are in danger of losing it—the challenge, Chesterton says, is learning how to appreciate what we have before we lose it, whether to death or mere boredom: our homes, our families, our wives, our husbands, our friends, our children, and, indeed, our lives.
These weren’t Innocent Smith’s only bizarre actions. He broke into his own house, and was charged with burglary. He remarried his own wife on several occasions, and was accused of polygamy. Odd as these actions may be, you will by now have guessed why he did them—in order to truly appreciate what he already had, instead of futilely longing for what he did not need. And he did them, in a sense, to feel the joy of the Commandments of God: not to covet your neighbor’s goods, but your own goods; and not to covet your neighbor’s wife, but to instead love your own wife. By breaking into his own house and drinking his own cheap wine, he felt the thrill of having what he already had. And by pretending not to be married, he reminded himself that he was. And what a joy it is to be married, to have your own home, and your own goods, and to be alive! Smith followed the Commandments in the most “innocent” way possible for anyone on earth.
Yet, even now, he may seem like something of a madman to you. He did, after all, destroy nearly all our preconceived notions of normalcy, imparting the surprise and excitement of vigorous life to what we are used to thinking of as boring old “creeds” and “rules.” But this, in fact, is the way that God should be followed—with exhilaration and a sense of joyful mystery. Modern life, all too often, has forgotten about exhilaration and mystery. Even those things (indeed, especially those things) that were once pursued as precious and sacred have been devalued, and now appear commonplace and pedestrian to our jaded and wearied eyes. We are left, finally, no longer appreciating what we have, but instead eternally longing for what we do not have, seeking to satisfy an unquenchable thirst in our souls. Paradoxically, Chesterton suggests, this is because we have lost our appreciation for what we have been given, thinking as we do that such “simple things” are too backwards and unsophisticated for we modern men and women. In this context, Chesterton would argue, “keeping the rules” can actually be wilder and altogether more adventurous than breaking them. It is precisely this that Chesterton, wearied of modern “sophistication,” tried in his own life, and it is because of this that he discovered the true joy of living, and, unexpectedly, the reality of God and the love of Christ. Chesterton discovered a Joy that permeated and filled the entire world; indeed, that was so deep and strong as to have come from another world altogether. As Innocent Smith declared, “You live by customs, but we by creeds. You are steadfast as the trees, because you do not believe. I am as fickle as the tempest because I do believe.” And this last paradox, Chesterton would have us believe—this fickle tempest-life brought about by the sheer joy of living—is, indeed, Christianity.
Jordan Teti '08, Fiction and Poetry Editor, is a Government concentrator in Wigglesworth.