Guide: Joseph Pearce


Welcome to the Hesperides Books podcast. We’re very happy to have Joseph Pearce with us today, who is the author of many books, on all parts of the Western canon and on the Western canon itself. For our purposes he is the author of an excellent biography of Chesterton, called Wisdom and Innocence, and further details of all his books can be found at www.jpearce.co. Joseph, your book is particularly nice to read because not only do you tell us about Chesterton, but you clearly love Chesterton. This is actually quite typical, he is often described as a genial writer, why is it that people like Chesterton so much? 

Joseph Pearce: Well, you know, I sometimes say to people, when people ask me: I’ve not read Chesterton, where should I start? and I say—and I don’t believe I’m being mercenary—that a good place to start is my biography. And that’s because not only does it obviously give Chesterton’s life chronologically, as a biography should, and therefore the context of the times in which he lives, but I actually do quote from the major works, a paragraph here, a paragraph there. So you’re actually getting snippets. Otherwise, Chesterton has so many different topics that, when someone asks me, you really need to know more about the person asking. Do you like poetry or prose, do you like history or do you like fiction or non-fiction? Are you interested in politics? You need to have answers to those questions before you can answer this, so that’s why I just default and direct people to my biography. And I do say, as well, that was an act of thanksgiving, that biography, my first book as a Catholic. An act of thanksgiving to God for giving me Chesterton. Because Chesterton under Grace was the most important influence upon my own conversion. And also, again, thanksgiving to Chesterton, therefore, for giving me God. So that book was an act of love and an act of thanksgiving. 

Chesterton says that the book, Orthodoxy, isn’t meant to be an ecclesiastical treatise, but is itself a ‘lovely autobiography,’ I think he calls it. So, actually, it’s apt to start discussing the book by discussing Chesterton’s life and understanding a little bit about how the themes and ideas came to develop before he published the book in 1908. He wrote his own autobiography. In it he said that his childhood was a happy childhood. Is that the case? 

His childhood certainly was a happy childhood. His parents were happily married, and he had an idyllic childhood with his brother, not unproblematic, but certainly it was a happy childhood. 

But Orthodoxy is haunted and you can tell this—this is an interesting discussion itself—1908, when Orthodoxy was written, was also the year in which Chesterton wrote The Man Who Was Thursday. And it’s very interesting to see the two books side by side because, quite clearly, The Man Who Was Thursday is overshadowed by Chesterton’s experience at art school and that, really, Orthodoxy is his autobiographical emerging from the darkness and pessimism and decadence of the art school—he went to Slade School of Art, part of the University of London at the beginning of the 1890s. So you know, the fin de siècle, art school in the age of Wilde, you could probably imagine the rest… 

So, in many respects, yes, his childhood was happy; but Orthodoxy is an autobiographical treatment of his emergence from the doldrums into which he moved because of the impact, not just of the decadence but of, for instance, radical pessimist philosophers such as Schopenhauer. 

Let’s focus a little bit on how he gets into decadence. So he, before he moves to the Slade, is at St Paul’s School, which is a top independent boarding school in London. He isn’t a very good pupil. He finds a place at the bottom of the class and says he’s happy there. He doesn’t care all that much about academic success, but he is intellectually switched on. He’s part of a debating club that gives him lots of pleasure, and they form a magazine called The Debater. When he goes to Slade all his friends go off to Oxford and Cambridge, and he’s at art school in London on his own, fairly miserable. Could we focus a little bit on how he then gets into decadence and the kind of aesthetic rejection of ordinary morality? 

You’re correct, Orthodoxy is certainly a quasi-autobiography, it’s an intellectual progress, a pilgrim’s progress, if you like, from this radical pessimism and decadence to a Christian conversion. In an autobiography he wrote, which was his actual autobiography, just before he died in 1936, he makes it clear that he has never been tempted to the particular vice of Wilde. 

So it looks as if he didn’t actually become part, for instance, of any homosexual practices or things like that. But he says that other types of perversion, of sin—although the impression you get is mostly in the mind. I don’t think that Chesterton was out in the red-light districts or anything like that. Most of it was interior, that he was full of dark and morbid ideas, certainly influenced by, as I say, the ideas such as Schopenhauer, when he said atheism is, for him, a leap of faith, to be able to believe that anything existed beyond the mind, to him, was a leap of faith. Atheism, in some sense, was too credulous: the only thing we’re really sure about is the fact that my mind exists, and anything else could just be some phantasm that’s being projected by my mind. So that was the, if you like, the ground zero, the doldrums that he was in. 

And then he emerges from that with basically, what you might call a fundamentalist optimism; even if the mind is the only thing that exists, and even if trees and sunsets and sunrises are a product of the imagination, they are good things. You know, I’m going to be grateful for the fact that this beauty exists irrespective of where its source is. And he says, basically, ‘I was saved with one thin thread of thanks.’ It was thanksgiving, it was gratitude, that saved him from this radical pessimism. 

He is still, at this stage, not a Christian, even. He doesn’t come from a particularly Christian background, and the milieu he finds himself in, as we’ve described, isn’t Christian, is in fact hostile to Christianity. Then he finds himself leaving Slade, deciding not to be an artist—which is another difficult part of his life—and he ends up working in a publisher’s. Will you tell us a little bit about that time in his life? 

Yes, you’re right, so his parents were, sort of, vaguely Christian. I mean, their theology, such as it was, was probably close to Unitarianism. So he certainly wasn’t raised in an orthodox Christian home. But there’s something about a Christian culture that might actually have some element of pervasiveness, even in an agnostic environment. For instance, in some of his young poetry, he’s clearly enamoured of the person of Saint Francis of Assisi. He’s, haunted by St Francis throughout his life, so, if you like, he’s being accompanied by these Christian iconic figures, even if he doesn’t himself have the Christian faith. 

So, yes, obviously there’s a wonderful essay I would recommend by Chesterton called ‘The Diabolist’, which gives an account of an encounter he had with a Dorian Gray-type person at the Slade School of Art. It’s recoiling in horror against that sort of decadence that leads him, I think, out of the Slade School of Art. He just didn’t want to be in that milieu any longer for his own health and sanity. He needed to get out of there, just because his strength—he actually is a very good artist—but his other strength was literature. As you say, in the Junior Debating Club at St Paul’s they read widely, they debated widely, they wrote widely. Ao, finding himself falling into the publishing world was really providential because this is clearly where his strengths lie. As a reader of great literature and, of course, as we discover fairly quickly by 1900 when he’s first published, as a writer about literature—who immediately becomes a household name because his writing style is so unique and entertaining, and people want to read him. 

He’s prolific as a journalist. He writes for as many publications as he can, to the point that people are worried he will burn out because of nervous exhaustion or won’t have a chance to realise his obviously enormous talent. Around this time, in 1900 or 1901, he meets his wife-to-be, Frances Blogg. There are a few figures in Chesterton’s life who are enormously important in the development of his thinking and, especially, of his Christianity, and we won’t have time to discuss them all in the detail they deserve to be discussed in. But Francis Blogg his wife is one of them and is incredibly important because she is actually a practising Christian. 

She is and what she does is she brings the element of, should we say, psychological stability to Chesterton. That’s not to say that Chesterton is unstable, he’s not unstable, but he has, sort of, been all over the place. You know, if you look at Chester’s art, he’s a caricaturist and that says, psychologically, a great deal about him. Everything he does, he’s done with spontaneity and at speed. So whether it’s art, he’s never going to meticulously paint a landscape or a portrait that takes this intense concentration over a period of time. He’s going to do something quickly and it’s going to be brilliant but fast. 

That’s why he insisted he was a jolly journalist; he could turn out essays very quickly. But if you look at some of his other work, you can see that it, particularly his poetry, suffers because he doesn’t take the necessary time. So this is all preamble because that sort of personality needs someone like Frances Blogg to actually give him a settled space, a home, not just in a physical sense but in a psychological sense, and he becomes very dependent on her for all the everyday domestic aspects of things. 

And you’re right, one of the things that is very much an aspect of Frances is her deep Christian faith. She’s a very settled Anglican and she has a lived Christian faith, and that is important to Chesterton. I think Chesterton starts to embrace Christianity as an idea, perhaps before he actually believes, as a desirable thing even if he didn’t have the faith, and that’s largely due to Frances and also, around the same time as he meets Frances, he meets Hilaire Belloc, and Hilaire Belloc’s another significant influence on Chesterton’s move towards Christian orthodoxy. 

He’s someone who is quite difficult to get a handle on. He has so many ideas and is so extraordinarily energetic, but Hilaire Belloc is a Catholic with a French background, and he’s someone who Chesterton almost immediately hits it off with and then quite quickly becomes associated with. He’s called Chesterbelloc by George Bernard Shaw, the ‘four legged beast’.


Would you tell us a little bit about Hilaire Belloc and how he influenced Chesterton and what that influence was? 

Yes, so I think what you see in the relationship between Chesterton and Belloc—and you’re right, George Bernard Shaw gave them the title the Chesterbelloc, two halves of a pantomimed elephant, he calls them; they’re seen so much together that they’re two halves of the same beast. So they were seen synonymously, and I think the dynamic is, at the beginning, in other words the early 1900s, Chesterton is really largely almost a disciple of Belloc, but as Chesterton rose in faith and wisdom, Belloc actually becomes more dependent upon Chesterton. I think, by the end, Belloc is much more in need of Chesterton than Chesterton is of Belloc, although they remain great friends. 

But at the beginning, and this is very important, not only does Belloc—Belloc is 4 years older, but the actual age difference is much greater because, by the time that they first meet in 1900, Belloc had served in the French army, he’s traipsed across the United States in pursuit of his love, Elodie, who he will eventually marry, he’s married by this stage, he has children by this stage and he’s published at this stage, he’s already published a biography of Danton, the French revolutionary leader, and a volume of poetry. So it’s much more than the 4 years. Belloc’s the man of the world and the other thing is that Chesterton embraces Belloc’s view of Europe, so this European faith is, sort of, broadening Chesterton’s understanding of Christendom.

I think he gets that from Belloc at the beginning but also, and this is more of a negative consequence, Belloc was very romantically attached to the French Revolution and the way I tried to explain this to my friends in America is, you know, to be a patriot in America, you have to subscribe to the Republic, right? The American Republic. If you don’t subscribe to the American Republic, you’re not a patriot, you’re not really an American. Certainly in the early 1900s, to be a patriotic Frenchman, you have to support the Republic, right? The French Revolution. So Belloc has this sort of romantic attachment to the revolution, which Chesterton imbibes and subscribes to. And that, I think, is one of the weak points in both of their writings, this somewhat naïve—actually, in Orthodoxy, he talks about the Jacobins having more pedigree than the Jacobites. So there’s that negative side, but Belloc has a first-class honours degree from Oxford in history, so also he deepens Chesterton’s understanding of history, particularly European history. 

And finally, also very importantly, Belloc was already basically critically economically a distributist. He’s embraced the economic and political philosophy rooted in Catholic social teaching. Specifically, the Papal encyclical called ‘Rerum Novarum’ by Pope Leo XIII, and also Belloc actually knew the ageing Cardinal Manning and Cardinal Manning was a great social figure, a great friend of the poor and a great thinker on social issues. So Belloc basically gave to the young Chesterton a knowledge of history and knowledge of Europe, knowledge of politics and a knowledge of economics. So Belloc broadens Chesterton.

If you like, Frances Blogg stabilises him, gives him a home and a base, and Belloc broadens him so he can actually see more widely. So these two people, again, right at the turn of the century, 1900, when Chesterton was first published, they’re the two people that are really transforming Chesterton into this bigger thing that we come to see in Orthodoxy. 

We might say a little bit here about the charge of anti-Semitism that’s often levelled at Chesterton and that he’s generally taken to have adopted from Belloc. 

Well, I think that’s slightly unfair on Belloc, although perhaps it might be partly true. Belloc certainly was more antagonistic towards the Jews naturally than Chesterton was. But it’s very important here that we understand the context. It’s very difficult for us to understand the way people discussed the Jewish question prior to the rise of the Nazis and prior to the Third Reich and prior to the Holocaust, right? 

Once Chesterton and Belloc saw where anti-Semitism could lead, when they saw the rise of Hitler—both of them were horrified by Hitler—they basically retracted some of the things they said earlier about the Jews. But you see, Winston Churchill said things against the Jews, all sorts of people were talking about there being a Jewish question. And because Belloc wrote a book called The Jews—and what I would say, by the way, was that, from the perspective of, say, an authentic, real, hardline anti-Semite, The Jews is a very wishy-washy, soft, neither-here-nor-there middle-of-the-road type approach—so even when Belloc is at his most antisemitic, he’s not an anti-Semite in the way that the Nazis were. So it’s important for us to make that distinction, but nonetheless, there were one or two things that Chesterton and Belloc said that, certainly when taken out of context, will make us wince and should make us wince because they were not only ill-advised, they were lacking charity. 

To just talk about a third figure who Chesterton met not long before he published Orthodoxy, the figure who was actually to receive him into the Catholic faith, Father John O’Connor, who is a Catholic priest Chesterton met while on holiday with his wife and who was to have an enormous influence on Chesterton thereafter.  

JP: Yes, I mean, this was the first priest that Chesterton had really known, an Irishman who was based in Yorkshire. And what Chesterton got from Father O’Conner was this understanding of the connection between wisdom and innocence. My biography of Chesterton is called Wisdom and Innocence: a Life of G.K. Chesterton because that’s a paradox, many of us think: well, you have to choose between wisdom and innocence, right? You can’t have both, but of course, innocence is not the same thing as naivete, right? The opposite of innocence is not wisdom, it’s guilt. In other words, we have to have a natural innocence, even if you know what evil is, even if you’ve been very evil. We have to know that innocence is better than guilt, that purity is better than impurity, that living without sinning is better than sinning. 

So that’s innocence, and then there’s wisdom, and Chesterton says of the Catholic priests, what they hear in confession is a whole catalogue of other people’s sins that are being brought out to them. 

So there’s this connection between wisdom and innocence. Father O’Connor becomes the model, in some sense, for Chesterton’s fictional detective, Father Brown, who becomes, probably in terms of remunerative income, the most popular thing Chesterton writes. And he’s based upon Father O’Connor, and the first volume of Father Brown stories is called The Innocence of Father Brown. And then a later volume is called The Wisdom of Father Brown. And it’s not because Father Brown has ceased to be innocent, that he has wisdom. On the contrary, the two go hand-in-hand in someone who’s seeking holiness. Ultimately, it is the idea that sanity and sanctity are synonymous, right? 

 And so the sanctity is the innocence, or at least the quest for innocence, the belief in innocence, and then sanity, of course, is wisdom. So sanity and sanctity, wisdom and innocence, we see it in Father Brown, Chesterton’s bringing them together, and that was modelled on Father John O’Connor. 

Would you like to tell us about his first forays into the topic of Christianity and the Catholic Church? 

I think what begins to happen, he writes a book, I think in 1904, called Heretics, where he basically criticises many of his contemporaries, famous people such as George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling and others, for their heresy. In other words, the things about their philosophy and their view of the world, their view of life which is, in Chesterton’s view, incorrect. And so, what we have is, sort of, a via negativa, if you like, that he’s coming to Christianity through realising that all of the anti-Christian perspectives are wrong, that there’s something unbalanced about all of these various approaches to reality that have rejected Christianity. 

And so, this is what is played out in Orthodoxy. He comes to see all these attacks on Christianity are self-contradictory. And at the end, all of these ideas are so, so full of holes that the only thing left standing is the traditional Christian church and, therefore, by default, it’s true because all the attacks upon it, evidently, are untrue. So there’s this via negativa to Chesterton’s approach to Christianity. 

And, of course, we mustn’t forget the presence of the Christian faith of his wife, Frances, in the background, just doing it, being it, practising it, and Chesterton says of, in his biography of William Cobbett, he says William Cobbett’s wife was the powerful silence in his life. Frances is that powerful silence in the background so, while Chesterton is fencing with all his contemporaries with their ideas and what’s wrong with their ideas, in the background there’s this powerful Christian silence. Again, paradoxically, it’s the silence that speaks. 

You say Heretics is the via negativa, Orthodoxy is the positive statement of his philosophy.

He basically says that he’s responding to someone that wrote a review of Heretics and said, ‘I will take Chesterton’s attacks on heresy seriously when he deigns to give us his own orthodoxy.’ So, rather than just attacking everybody else, what do you actually believe? And as Chesterton says, well, ‘As someone who needs not the least provocation to write a book, that was all I needed.’ And Orthodoxy, of course—I see parallels with C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity—because what he’s trying to do here is to make a defence through reason of the fundamental Christian position. He’s not a Catholic and so he’s trying to find what Lewis would call the highest common factors. Absolutely, emphatically not the lowest common denominators, where, basically, Christianity disappears into the zeitgeist, but what it is that makes Christianity different from the zeitgeist. What it is that, if you like, is the presence of the heiliger geist, not the zeitgeist, that highest common factor.  What Chesterton does, he takes the Apostles’ Creed, right? He says, ‘The Apostles’ Creed is the statement of what it is to be a Christian, as believed by the apostles, and that’s the orthodoxy that I am defending in this book.’ 

Okay, and that takes us nicely to Orthodoxy. At the beginning of the book, he opens with a story, an allegory about a man who thought he had discovered a new island but really ended up at Brighton. What does he mean by this? 

JP: Well, basically, that he fearlessly went out in pursuit of the unknown and discovered what was already known. In other words, that the only thing that’s truly original is sin, and only the original sin, not all the copycats since then. So the original sin of pride is original, everything else isn’t. It’s the same thing with the quest for truth. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle if you like, Augustine, Aquinas, and theologically and philosophically, it’s all encapsulated in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and, very importantly, the church he established, which has that magisterial, that teaching authority, throughout the centuries. What Chesterton discovers is not something new, which he was looking for. So he’s like the yachtsman who goes out in exploration of the South Sea island that’s never been discovered and then lands and thinks he’s discovered it and realises that all the things he’s discovered have already been discovered. In fact, what it is, are the old Christian ideas that he had only now realised were true. So, he’d come home. You know, people who are converts to Christianity always feel as if they’ve come home. There’s a series on EWTN, The Journey Home and there’s the Coming Home Network. So, I think, ultimately, when someone discovers Christianity, they are also actually coming home, even if they haven’t actually been there before. 

He goes on from this point to talk about madness and the root of madness, and he says, ‘The root of madness is not actually irrationality.’ He says that poets don’t go mad—which we might quibble with—but he says that, in fact, the mad people are, generally speaking, great reasoners. And this is obviously a Chestertonian paradox. Could you help us to unpack exactly what he means by that? 

Yes, the example he gives, as opposed to the poet doesn’t go mad (and I agree that we could quibble with that, some poets certainly have) but he uses the example of a chess player. In other words, pure reason—well, it’s not even pure reason, it’s pure logic, which is not the same thing as pure reason, that’s the point. Pure logic, in itself, is more likely to drive you mad than a broader understanding of the rational cosmic. And, certainly, one definition of madness is someone who plays chess against himself, right? If you’re playing both sides in a game of chess, then you’re on a slippery slope to insanity. So, I think that’s what Chesterton’s getting at. Madness, often, is taking one aspect of reason, if you say, in the case of chess, logic, one aspect of reason and then running with it to such a degree that it becomes the whole of reason. So, you take one aspect and make it the whole, that’s when you become insane. So what you have to do is to keep all the various facets of the rational cosmos in balance with each other and in communion with each other, and that is orthodoxy. 

Yes, I think you see that very clearly when you think about the ways in which a paranoid individual might reason and the kind of reasons they would produce to justify their belief that they were being spied on by the government or whatever else it might be. He also suggests that the modern world, if not quite mad, has gone deeply awry in something like this way, the modern world as a whole, and that this has produced relativism, scepticism and so forth. What kinds of process have led to that, according to Chesterton? 

Well, basically, it’s a process of reductionism. Once you start abandoning the tenets of orthodoxy, the tenets of faith, you’re left flailing in the dark and you’re also left in a process of reductionism that leads to a reductio ad absurdum. So, you know, radical pessimism, Schopenhauer. If you’re going to insist that we can only believe that which we can absolutely prove, then through a process of reduction, you end with nothing exists except mind. Clearly, at this point, your philosophy, which is, ‘follow the rational process the whole way,’ has actually also been a reductionist process the whole way. So the modern world has fallen away from the richness of the fullness of truth, which is Christian orthodoxy, into various, fragmented, reductionist misunderstandings of orthodoxy. That’s why these various different schools of thought always accuse of Christianity of being two mutually contradictory things, like being too puritanical or not puritanical enough etc. 

Actually, instead of going to the modern world, the adult world of grown-up scepticism and rationality, he advocates a going backward, a going back to the stories of childhood, to fairy tales. He says that these are the things that shaped his ultimate attitudes to life and he thinks that they are essentially correct. Could you talk to us a little bit about The Ethics of Elfland, the chapter in his book? 

Yes, The Ethics of Elfland, the chapter in Orthodoxy, which is my personal favourite, has been hugely influential actually, before we talk about what it says. The Ethics of Elfland was a major influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, on C.S. Lewis. A lot of the great works of literature produced in the twentieth century, such as The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings, at least in part, are due to the influence of this chapter. That, in itself, is something worth noting. The key thing here is we have to distinguish, and Chesterton does and it’s very crucial that we do, between that which is childlike and that which is childish. So, in the Gospel, Christ says, ‘Unless you become like little children, you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven.’ So, unless we’re childlike, we can’t attain the fullness of truth, right? But Saint Paul says, ‘When I was a child, I thought like a child, and now I’m no longer a child, I’ve put away childish things.’ So, we’re also meant to grow up. We’re meant to grow up without growing weary, sceptical, cynical. In other words, we’re meant to grow up, cease being childish, while remaining childlike; to retain that innocence while attaining wisdom. So, that is the crucial thing here, and what he says about fairy stories—and this is beautiful—he basically says it’s not earth that judges heaven, it’s heaven that judges the earth. Therefore, it’s not the earth that judges fairyland, it’s fairyland that judges the earth—and he’s not saying that heaven is fairyland, by the way. 

The point is, what fairy stories show us is not just how things are—and they do, as Tolkien says and other people have said, that fairy stories hold up a mirror to man or the mirror of scorn and pity to man. So they hold up a mirror to show us who we are, but they also show us who we should be and who we shouldn’t be. The important thing about fairy stories is that they show us the flawed, broken reality, but they also show us the fullness of reality: healing, and also the consequences of refusing healing, which is wickedness. So, it’s a physical mirror, but it’s also a metaphysical mirror, a mirror that shows us a moral perspective. That’s why fairy stories are valuable, not because they are an escape from reality, they are an escape from a reductionist reality into a fuller understanding of reality. 

He goes on, after discussing fairy stories and the ways in which we can learn from them—and in fact, they formed his basic attitudes—he goes on to another of his favourite topics, which has come up in his writing before, and is most fully worked out here, optimism and pessimism. 

Yes, optimism and pessimism, for Chesterton, are two extremes, both of which are wrong. Again, to remind ourselves, he wrote The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel I thoroughly recommend, by the way—it’s the greatest of Chesterton’s novels—in the same year he wrote Orthodoxy. Reading the two side-by-side is a very interesting exercise because you see what ideas are really important to him. Two of the philosophers in The Man Who Was Thursday, one’s an optimist and the other’s a pessimist, and the novel, sort of, shows that both views are wrong. I mean, for instance, a radical optimistic position would be the ideas of someone like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that there’s no such thing as original sin, that we’re all basically a good, healthy tabula rasa, and it’s only civilisation which corrupts us. That if, somehow, we could get back to the garden, then everybody would be happy. In this world, we could have paradise on earth. That is a naïve optimism, and then the pessimism is that radical scepticism that leads to cynicism. So, again, these two extremes are nowhere near the via media of reality which is found in orthodoxy. 

The reality of orthodoxy, as he sees it, is that you should be absolutely optimistic, absolutely pessimistic, you should be fully both and he sees that—

Well, I mean, only in a paradoxical sense, that the two taken by themselves and in conjunction with each other, as apparent contradictions, point to a deeper truth. In other words, taken apart, optimism by itself is wrong and incorrect, pessimism by itself is wrong and incorrect, but you bring the two together… It’s a paradox like the first shall be last and the last shall be first, right? That, logically, is a load of nonsense. Jesus Christ says it but, logically, the first is not last and the last is not first, by definition. But if they’re brought together in some sort of paradoxical collision. ‘What is love? Love is putting the other person last,’ right? The first shall be last is the act of self-sacrificial love, right? So, when you see it in that sense, the paradox comes alive. 

So yes, pessimism. Orthodoxy insists that there is original sin, and Chesterton spends quite a lot of time on the absolute primal reality of original sin, that we are broken and we are prone to sin. We are prone to darkness and to wickedness, right? So, that’s pessimistic. It’s much more pessimistic than the Rousseauian view of the noble savage. But if you take that radical pessimism, original sin, and put it together with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—in other words, redemption, then yes, we are broken, yes, that pessimistic understanding of it is true, that we are not a naturally good people who are not prone to evil. We are prone to evil but there’s a path we can take which unites us with perfection, unites us with God, and Christ shows us the perfect human being. Can we ever be as perfect as Christ? No, but the more that we try to be as perfect as Christ, the better, more Christ-like we become, the better we become and the happier we become and the more fully real we become. Because if Christ is who he says he is, and a large part of Orthodoxy is to show us that he is who he says he is, then he is the perfect human being. So the more we become like Christ, the more fully human we’re becoming, and the more fully human we’re becoming, the happier we become. It’s because we’re still prone to sinfulness, but through grace and through keeping our eyes on heaven, we can come to sanctity. Again, to reiterate, the crucial around conversion was what Chesterton showed me, and it’s what this book shows me, shows us. I was raised a modern person—I mean, even though I’m older than you, relatively modern—I was raised that you have to choose between faith or reason, right? ‘You can have faith, and therefore you have the comforts of religion, but you’ve got to abandon reason to get that comfort.’ Or, ‘You can have reason, but in that case, you have to abandon faith and live in this, sort of, rather uncomfortable world of hopelessness, ultimately, because what is there to hope in?’ So you have to choose between faith and reason, and what Chesterton showed me—and of course, he’s pursuing orthodoxy—is that faith and reason are indissolubly married. That faith, the Christian faith, orthodoxy, is in conformity with reason; and reason, if it’s not going to become irrational, has to be in conformity with orthodoxy. So this marriage of faith and reason, that’s what Chesterton’s doing in Orthodoxy and that’s what is crucial in our own day and age; because there’s still this schizophrenic idea that we have to be one or the other, we can’t be both. Chesterton bridges that gap. 

He says that, in fact, if you don’t accept orthodoxy and you go about society trying to improve it, without accepting the tenets of the Christian faith, and you are, say, a liberal, you actually end up making society worse. You actually end up making it illiberal, and again—paradoxically, as ever—if you took the dogmas that Chesterton takes as the foundations for reason, then you would achieve true freedom and you would achieve a true progress within society. Could you tell us a little bit about why he thinks those social consequences will come about through a lack of faith? 

Well, there’s a wonderful paradox, a paradoxical statement by Edmund Burke, that liberty itself must be limited in order to be possessed. Or the other way of looking at it, Oscar Wilde says in one of his poems, ‘Anarchy is freedom’s own Judas,’ alright? So the absence of law, liberalism taken as an end in itself, freedom as an end in itself, ends up in slavery, and you can see it in a practical individual sense, the slavery of sin. Basically, if we want to do what we like, we become addicted to our bad habits, right? Whatever that is, sex, drugs, rock and roll, whatever, but we become addicts. If you’re an addict, you’re not free. An addict is not free. The addict might say, ‘I want to free to take my next fix,’ but he’s abandoned his freedom in pursuit of something which has now possessed him. He’s become possessed, so he’s a slave. If we want to have freedom, we have to accept and embrace a limitation upon our freedom. We have to follow the path of virtue, and again, the easiest way of saying this is, ‘What is anarchy?’ If you have no law at all, you don’t have, you know, a hippy Garden of Eden, what you have is the gangs taking over. If there’s a vacuum that’s left by the absence of law, the most ruthless step into the vacuum and then you have gang law and you have that sort of activity, and then some strong man comes in, who basically says, ‘We’re done with this anarchy,’ and then you have tyranny, right, you have totalitarianism. So, you see this being played out, well, throughout the whole of history. 

I mean, go back to Augustin, you know, the City of God and the City of Man, these are always in conflict. At best, there’s a tension; at worst, there’s a war, and that’s why the Catholic Church or the Church on Earth is the Church Militant, right, the Church at war, we are Miles Christi, soldiers of Christ. There is no path to peace in this world because there’s always going to be many people who will not embrace the path of sanctity, that are going to demand the right to do what they want. As long as those people are there, and they’re always going to be there, you’re going to have this chaos in real politics. In politics, but, and this is the but, the more that Christianity is respected and practised, the more justice there is in society, the less that Christianity is respected and trusted and practised, the more injustice you have. Again, you look at history, look at the French Revolution, look at the rise of the Nazis, look at the atheism with the Marxists, right, and you’re looking at tens of millions of people slaughtered, you know, ‘Be my brother or I’ll crack your skull.’ 

One of the things I’d like to pick up on in the final chapter is how Catholic Chesterton sounds at times. He talks about faith as being based in the authority of the church and the truth as being demonstrated in the authority of the church, in the way that, as a child, you can trust your father because he’s shown you so many truths before. How important do you think that is as a justification for the truth of Chesterton’s position, and how interesting do you think it is that he’s, ostensibly, not a Catholic at this time and yet he’s propounding that kind of argument for God’s existence? 

Well, I mean, the paradox of Chesterton’s position is he was a Catholic long before he became a Catholic. Most people that read Orthodoxy thought that Chesterton was a Catholic, the same thing actually with most people when they read C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress, which was Lewis’s own quasi-autobiographical progress towards Christian belief, believed he was Catholic and Lewis was horrified. It would be another fourteen years before Chesterton’s receiving of the church, but he’s not fourteen years away from the church when he writes this. The delay is because he did not want to become a Catholic without Frances, without his wife coming with him. As I said, he was very dependent upon her, and this absolutely world-changing step, this abysmal step, if you’re crossing the abyss from one world to the other, is not something he wanted to do without her because he was worried it would put this abyss between them, right? In the end, he felt absolutely morally compelled to take the step without her, and it’s the only thing in their marriage he did without her, and she was in tears, tears of joy or tears of sadness, probably both, when she attended his reception to the church. But two or three years later, she becomes a Catholic herself. Then, for the last years of their life, they’re united in the creed—so, thanks be to God for that—but that was the delay. 

This book is essentially a Catholic book, it’s certainly orthodox, so, high church Anglicans, at least in the early twentieth century, could probably subscribe to everything in it, and although I’m sure they have to gloss one or two things, Protestant evangelicals would agree with most of it. He doesn’t talk too much about sacramental theology and things like that, but for instance, a passage I like from the final chapter, where he basically says the allegation that Christianity lit the dark ages, he says, ‘on the contrary, Christianity was the only thing that let us out of it. It was the bridge between one civilisation and the next was Christianity,’ particularly, of course, Benedictine Christianity, the monasteries that kept the light of civilisation going when non-Christian barbarians took over. So there’s that, and then the most important thing I love about it, and this absolutely ties in with the end of The Man Who Was Thursday, is when he says at the end that the one thing that Christ concealed from us is his mirth. I mean, this is not just delightful but it’s almost shocking because you read the gospel and there’s the shortest sentence in the gospel is ‘Jesus wept’, right? There’s no ‘Jesus laughed’. Okay, but we can’t really believe that God, who surely must be the source of all joy and all happiness, does not smile and laugh. 

Again, if you look at the Imago Dei, what makes us different from the other creatures and what is the image of God in us, that which distinguishes us from other creatures, the good, the true and the beautiful. So the ability to love, to rationally choose to lay down our lives for someone else, to overcome the natural tendency to selfishness, right, so the good. 

The true, true reason, to actually be able to abstract the work out, you know, how far the sun is from us, how long it takes light to get to us, to reason.

And then the beautiful, right, that sees that something is alive, and I don’t mean biological life, a sunset is alive, right? 

I see the good, the true and the beautiful in the words of Jesus Christ, ‘I am the way’ of goodness. ‘I am the truth’ of reason. ‘I am the life’ of beauty, of creation and creativity. In other words, this is God, the creator of man, the creator, alright? So, we can love, the good, we can reason, the true, we can create and we can see beauty, we can do beauty, we are creative, like God but we can also laugh. No other creature laughs. Humour is something, part of the Imago Dei in us, and it’s also in this book. He says, ‘Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly and the Devil fell by the force of his own gravity.’ In other words, pride is taking ourselves too seriously. Holiness is taking ourselves lightly, so that we can fly towards the one who makes us. So, the fact that he ends with the ultimate happy ending, not just the man laughing but God himself laughing. 

That’s taken us to the end of the book. How was Orthodoxy received when it came out?

Well in some ways it was a watershed moment because Chesterton was very popular before he wrote Orthodoxy and, if you like, came out as a Christian. Once he came out as a Christian, there was a hostility but that might be, for most people, going too far, but there was now a mistrust. Chesterton was good fun when he was throwing out paradoxes about things that didn’t really matter, writing an essay about cheese or ‘what I found in my pocket’ or running after one’s hat. These are all delightful, and there’s actually some very good philosophy thrown in, but these were all delightful. Now he’s getting serious, and talking about orthodoxy and Christianity, so the secular world never quite trusted him again, but of course in the Christian world he became a champion. He was hugely influential, for instance, on the conversion of Ronald Knox shortly afterwards, on Maurice Baring. Actually, around the time that Chesterton wrote this book, Maurice Baring came into the church. Tolkien was received into the church in 1900, so before this, but this came out when he was sixteen years old, and he was devouring Chesterton. When Lewis discovers Chesterton, The Everlasting Man is the first, not the first book he reads, that’s a book of essays, but the most important book in his conversion but, of course, he knows Orthodoxy. 

So Chesterton becomes a champion of Christian orthodoxy. When I wrote my book, Literary Converts, the Catholic literary revival really begins in 1798 with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and Wordsworth. That Romanticism, this rejection of the cynicism and the empiricism of the Enlightenment, the scientism of the Enlightenment, and leapfrogging over all of that and rediscovering the mediaeval, so neo-mediaevalism is there, the manifestation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Oxford Movement, the Gothic Revival in architecture. Then that’s all very important upon Newman’s conversion, and then Newman’s conversion is 1845, and then you have what are called the Newman period from 1845, Newman’s reception to the church, to his death in the 1890s. The period from 1900 to 1936 is the Chesterton period. He is the giant and everything seems to revolve around him, and when I wrote my book, Literary Converts, looking at the writers who became Catholics, it was astonishing how many of them, to one degree or another, had been influenced by the reading of Chesterton, and, of course, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are two giant books that these people were referring to. So, this book is crucial to twentieth century history, certainly literary history, and to the Catholic revival and the Christian revival generally. I mean, Lewis never become a Catholic, for instance, and he was converted largely due to the influence of Chesterton. So Chesterton is a giant and this book is one of the most important books he wrote, so I’m really pleased that we’ve had time to discuss it. 

And Chesterton is, himself, very conscious of that tradition in Orthodoxy, even before we get to The Everlasting Man, he’s full of praise for the mediaeval period and holds it up against the classical era as a period in which people understood everything, I think he says, even if they’re at war about everything else. If people have read and enjoyed Orthodoxy and it is their first Chesterton, where would you suggest they go next? I know you spoke at the beginning about how that is an impossible question, but I will pose it nevertheless. 

Yes, well, I’d say if they want a panoramic overview, I would suggest they read my book, Wisdom and Innocence. If they liked Orthodoxy, in other words, if they enjoy Chesterton’s jousting with heresy and error and defending the faith, Christian apologetics, then the other great book would be The Everlasting Man, which was published in 1926, I believe, so a long while after this, after Chesterton becomes a Catholic. Also, his biography of Francis of Assisi is wonderful and his biography of Thomas Aquinas is wonderful. So, if it’s specifically the Catholic apologetics that interests people because they enjoyed Orthodoxy, then they would be the next obvious ones to take a look at. 

Joseph, thank you very much. I think we’ll leave it there, but you’ve been a wonderful guide through Chesterton’s life and through the book and I will, just again, mention your website, www.jpearce.co, a useful place to find your work on Chesterton and your other work. There are various other media appearances on there that would be very illuminating for anyone who’s enjoyed this. 

Yes, if people want to find out what I’m up to, then that’s the place to go. 

Thank you very much. 

My pleasure, thanks for having me. 

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