Reading Notes and Questions for G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
Orthodoxy (1908)

Robert Harris
April 6, 1999


Orthodoxy is an account of how Chesterton, as a young agnostic, developed a personal philosophy based on a thoughtful analysis of the world as he experienced it. That philosophy, to his surprise, turned out to be orthodox Christianity.

Things to Think About as You Read

1. Pay attention to Chesterton's tone. For example, "If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter" (18). His style is often abrupt, no-nonsense, and sometimes abrasive; and that lends color and force to his writing.

2. What we like to think of as postmodern ideas appear to be older than we assume. Look for signs of the postmodern malaise, such as the death of authority (39) and the death of reason (39, 43).

Notes and Questions

Pages 24-31

Madmen and materialists show similarities in the following ways:

1. Their hyper-rationalism and spiritual contraction

2. Their limited view of the world (and of reality) which is believed without doubts

Page 29. Believers are free to believe or doubt or question, but materialists are not. They never doubt.

Page 30. Determinists are free to believe in determinism, but then not free to do or choose anything else: everything else is determined. (To be fully logical about it, if determinism is correct, then one is predetermined or fated either to believe in it or not--there is no freedom to choose to believe or disbelieve and therefore no sense in reasoning about it. Thus, determinism represents an escape from personal rational responsibility.)

Page 35. "The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone" (35). Chesterton here says that the virtues must work in combination, putting each other in tesion or balance.

Page 36. Imagination--the intellectual act of comprehending that things are larger than we are--makes us humble.

Page 38. One traditional view is that reason serves as a foundation for faith. Here, however, Chesterton says that reason itself is a matter of faith. (You must have faith that the mind can understand the world and reason about it and draw conclusions that are accurate.)

Page 39. "Reason swaying upon her throne." The death of authority leads to the destruction or death of reason. This cause and effect is one of the features of postmodernism.

Page 40. "If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard?" In other words, everyone who believes in the possibility of the improvement of the lot of mankind believes in standards. (You must be able to measure something against a standard or you cannot know whether the thing has gotten better, worse, stayed the same or simply become different.)

Page 43. "The ultimate authority, they say, is in will, not in reason." When reason, value, and authority are gone, only power is left. This is another postmodern idea--the belief that there are really no true values, only political power.

Page 45. "When you choose anything, you reject everything else." The exercise of choice, of will, requires structure and limits.

Pages 46-47. "For all the denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind." All criticism implies standards and values--even the modern substitution of unacceptable for wrong or evil.

Page 60. "The test of all happiness is gratitude." Comments on this assertion.

Page 64. "I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism; saying that everything is as it must always have been." Chesterton here is noting the modern scorn for wonder.

Page 70. "I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself." Some philosophers have maintained that nothing can explain itself whether it is the world or mankind. Therefore, the explanation must come from outside the universe or the person.

Page 76. Comment on Chesterton's claim that wives are always trying to turn their husbands into someone else.

Page 90. Note that Chesterton's reading of books by atheists, rationalists, and evolutionists had the opposite effect that their authors intended, leading him to see how powerful, important, and credible Christianity is.

Page 111. Here Chesterton says of Nietzsche, "Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense." Comment on the use of language to obscure rather than clarify thought.

Page 114. "Managed in a modern style the emancipation of the slave's mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation of the slaves." Comment on the implications of this idea as it relates to advertising.

Page 115. "A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also necessary for rebellion." What can we rebel against when everything is permitted?

Page 131. Compare Chesterton's comments here about how language can obscure thought to those of George Orwell in his essay, "Politics and the English Language."

Page 146. "There are men who will ruin themselves and ruin their civilization if they may ruin also this old fantastic tale." In problem-solving theory, this is called the "lose-lose" strategy--the poorest one, because it solves the "problem" by destroying the solver as well.

"I have known people who showed that there could be no divine judgment by showing that there can be no human judgment, even for practical purposes." Here's another concept that has been identified as part of the postmodern world: the attack on judgment. Chesterton ascribes the motive for this to a desire to attack God.

Page 150. Chesterton sums up: "I believe in Christianity quite rationally and upon the evidence."

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com