Marshall McLuhan: We must separate G. K. Chesterton’s moral insights from his Victorian literary medievalism


Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher and literary critic who gave us ‘The medium is the message” and “the global village,” had some penetrating things to say about G. K. Chesterton in the introduction to the little book Paradox in Chesterton, by Hugh Kenner (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948). I think he got Chesterton both very right and very wrong. Right in talking about Chesterton’s moral thought. Wrong in trying to separate that thought from various aspects of his literary imagination and literary style.

Basically, McLuhan thought we should all dump Chesterton the Victorian literary medievalist in favor of Chesterton the “master of analogical perception and argument who never failed to focus a high degree of moral wisdom on the most confused issues of our age.”[1]

This does not mean that McLuhan saw Chesterton as a systematic moral philosopher (which he certainly was not). McLuhan enjoined editors to produce, “not an anthology which preserves the Victorian flavor of his journalism by extensive quotation, but one of short excerpts which would permit the reader to feel Chesterton’s powerful intrusion into every kind of confused moral and psychological issue of our time.” Why? Because “he seems never to have reached any position by dialectic or doctrine, but to have enjoyed a kind of connaturality with every kind of reasonableness.”[2]

McLuhan is quite hard on Chesterton’s Victorian literary medievalism, as were many contemporary and later critics. He saw that frame of Chesterton’s work as derivative, low-quality, and not inherent to the great writer’s metaphysical-moral thought (his clear-sightedness into the many moral conundrums of his age, rooted in metaphysical insight):

“So very impressive is this metaphysical side of Chesterton that it is always embarrassing to encounter the Chesterton fan who is keen about The Ballad of the White Horse or the hyperbolic descriptive parts of Chesterton’s prose. In fact, it might be the kindest possible service to the essential Chesterton to decry all that part of him which derives so obviously from his time. Thus it is absurd to value Chesterton for that large and unassimilated heritage he got from [medievalist and all-round wacko] William Morris—the big, epic dramaturgic gestures, riotous colour, medieval trappings, ballad themes and banal rhythms. Morris manages these things better than Chesterton ever did: and nobody wants to preserve William Morris.”[3]

McLuhan extends the observation to what he feels are Chesterton’s debts to pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian quasi-neo-medievalists. In the following, the Canadian thinker begins to sound like one of those carping critics of Tolkien or of Lewis’s children’s books—that such books amount to an unbecomingly childish evasion of reality:

“There is also a lot of irrelevant pre-Raphaelite rhetoric in Chesterton. From Rosetti came those pale auburn-haired beauties who invariably haunt his stories. The tiresome alliteration is from Swinburne. From Edward Lear came the vein of anarchic [xx] nursery wisdom which served the Victorians as a strategy for keeping sane. By acting insane in a childish way, a kind of temporary equilibrium was maintained: but it was also an evasion of that world of adult horror into which Baudelaire gazed with intense suffering and humility. For the Victorians the nursery was the only tap-root connecting them with psychological reality.” He then takes a pot-shot at A. A. Milne, snorting about the “cul-de-sac in which the faux-naif of the Christopher Robin variety invariably winds up.” But McLuhan then redeems himself at least a bit, in my eyes, by admitting in passing that “for Chesterton the rhetoric and dimensions of childhood had also their true Christian vigor and scope.”[4]

But then McLuhan forges on with his dismantling of Chesterton as literary artist, identifying in Chesterton an unfortunate tendency toward the back-slapping heartiness of the Stevensonian romance or of Kipling. He saw that stylistic element as a kind of affected “optimistic reaction to the intellectual languor of the later Victorians” and remarked, “Wine, Water and Song is typical of Chesterton’s sympathy with that sort of lugubriously self-conscious jollity. But just how unessential it was to him is plain from the [xxi] fact that Chesterton really was happy” while Kipling (for example) never was.”[5]

McLuhan also tries to mark as inessential to Chesterton various quirks he picked up from other Victorian influences such as Whitman and Browning. “But the conclusion which it seems necessary to draw from these Victorian aspects of Chesterton is simply that he was not sufficiently interested in them to make a genuinely personal fusion of them. Had they been necessary to his primary awareness of things, he would have been obsessively limited by them in that drastic way in which a Stevenson or a Pater is limited and ‘dated.’”[6]

“In a word, Chesterton was not a poet. The superstition that he was is based on the vaguely uplifting connotations of ‘the poetic’ prevalent until recently. He was a metaphysical moralist. Thus he had no [xxii] difficulty in imagining what sort o psychological pressures would occur in the mind of a fourth-century Egyptian, or a Highland clansman, or a modern Californian, popping himself inside of them and seeing with their eyes in the way that makes Father Brown unique among detectives. But he was not engaged in rendering his own age in terms of such varied experience, as the artist typically is. . . . [T]his distinction must always remain between the artist who is engaged in making a world and the metaphysician who is occupied in contemplating a world. It should also relieve the minds of those who from a sense of loyalty to Chesterton’s philosophical power have felt obliged to defend his rhetoric and his verses as well.”[7]

Well, I’ve entered McLuhan’s argument from the middle, and I need at this point to retrace my steps a bit. What I really think this brilliant Catholic eccentric was getting at is this:

Is there a moral order or structure to the universe? Yes. I suppose we could call it, though McLuhan doesn’t, the natural law or natural moral law.

Do moderns acknowledge that order or structure? No.

Did Chesterton? Yes.

Did he do it with the tools of the scholastic, the systematician? No. He saw it, well, naturally. An awareness of that moral order suffused his thinking. He knew it in his bones. And it helped him sort through the atrocious messes of the modernists who denied that order. He was a “moral metaphysician.” And that was his greatest strength.

So far so good, and I agree. The second part of McLuhan’s argument, however, makes me wonder. McLuhan thinks we may separate Chesterton’s essential intuition of moral order from various facets of his Victorian literary medievalism. His Ballad of the White Horse. His jaunty alliterative verse. And so forth. But can we really? McLuhan acknowledges, as I’ll show below, that Chesterton was in a deep sense a Thomist. He also says that Chesterton was a Thomist not by virtue of systematic study, but by virtue of a kind of unwavering and essential vision of universal moral order.

But here’s the question, was that vision ever, for Chesterton, unclothed by his sense of the wondrousness of creation in its particularity? Did he have, so to speak, an un-literary mode in which he thought about morality? I don’t think so. If you’ve read any of Chesterton’s essays, then you know that they are gems not just of clarity, but of imagination and literary construction. Did he indulge the prolixity typical of the Victorian novelist? Certainly he did. Did he get carried away at intervals by his own sonorous rhetoric? Yes, that too. But the point is that the literary mode was Chesterton’s native mode, and to try to separate his moral thought from that mode is, I think, a mistake.

Furthermore, this is a mistake rooted in a misunderstanding of the medieval worldview Chesterton sought to revive and apply to our own modern situation.

It was the strength of that medieval worldview, says Lewis in his 16th Century Literature, to think always and at the same time in both the universal and the particular. Medievals vacillated in their thinking and talking between boots and angels, pigs and prophecy, with stunning rapidity and naturalness. If the particularity of boots and pigs is the natural domain of literature and literary style, and if Chesterton’s central, moral, metaphysical insight was inherently a medieval one, then may we separate that “essence” from the “accidents” of his medievalism? I don’t think we can, contra McLuhan.

Now, to support this view of his argument from McLuhan’s text:

McLuhan begins the essay by identifying Chesterton’s “unwavering and metaphysical intuition of being,”[8] and by insisting that in Chesterton’s thought, this intuition was “always in the service of the search for moral and political order in the current chaos. He was a Thomist by connaturality with being, not by study of St. Thomas. And unlike the neo-Thomists his unfailing sense of the relevance of the analogy of being directed his intellectual gaze not to the schoolmen but to the heart of the chaos of our time.”[9]

In other words, Chesterton had an insight into the moral order of the universe, and this insight was essentially medieval—to be specific, high-medieval—in nature. The medieval world “was an organic and closely-knit society in which the individual enjoyed a very high degree of psychological if not physical security, because of the universal acceptance of the moral and social implications of the Divine order mirrored simultaneously in physical nature, human nature, and political organization.”[10]

Then on to Thomas: “[I]n the thirteenth century St. Thomas was situated in the midst of a world in which psychological and symbolic awareness of order was almost the only awareness. His great rational synthesis represented a maximum degree of abstraction and withdrawal from that psychological plane of symbolic perception. But . . . St. Thomas never rejected that psychological order. He took it for granted. He was sustained and nourished by it. And he never questioned or denied its value. In fact, the degree and scope of his rational synthesis is inconceivable without it.”[11]

This orderliness, which joined nature, morality, politics in one grand unity, did not survive much beyond Thomas. “St. Thomas was followed by a host of rationalizers who were not so much nourished by the great symbolic cultural unity of the previous centuries as irritated by some contemporary rationalizer.”[12] And soon we come to the “usual suspect,” Descartes:

“What Descartes really did was to make explicit the fact which had been prepared by centuries of decadent scholastic rationalism: the fact that a complete divorce had been achieved between abstract intellectual and specifically psychological order [McLuhan insists throughout his essay on using this term “psychological” apparently to stand for the entire metaphysical moral order; I find this odd]. Henceforth men would seek intellectually only for the kind of order they could readily achieve by rationalistic means: a mathematical and mechanistic order which precludes a human and psychological order. Ethics and politics were abandoned as much as metaphysics.”[13]

Pausing for a moment: this was pretty much C S Lewis’s point in The Abolition of Man, I think: Man, having dispatched with God, proceeded smartly to lose, as well, himself.

In any case, the result of this Cartesian rationalizing move was society-wide chaos of a moral and political sort. The darkness of materialism, of scientific totalitarian systems, of world wars. “[H]uman moral, psychological, and political chaos has steadily developed, with its concurrent crop of fear and anger and hate. The rational efforts of men have been wholly diverted from the ordering of appetite and emotion” [14] (as that ordering enterprise was so powerfully marshaled, for example, in Thomas’s contribution to the “seven capital vices” tradition that I have been examining these past two weeks at the Calvin Seminar on the Seven Deadly Sins under Rebecca DeYoung and Robert Kruschwitz). And, McLuhan adds, this abdication means the field of “discover[ing] order in man’s psychological [xvi] life has been left entirely to the artist”[15]—a sub-point that strays from his analysis of Chesterton, but an interesting one.

Essentially McLuhan characterizes most modern Thomists as “contemplat[ing] an already achieved intellectual synthesis” rather than being “sustained by that synthesis, plung[ing] into the heart of the chaos.”[16] Thomas himself, McLuhan reminds us, built up his synthesis on the foundations of an assumed psychological and social order “in an age of dialectical confusion.” He faced his own cultural chaos. So “we can be similarly sustained and nourished in an organic way by [Thomas’s] speculative synthesis while we face the problem of creating a practical moral and social order.”[17] We need, not contemplation, or at least not speculation, but rather action. And “[t]his is where Chesterton comes in. His unfailing sense of relevance and of the location of the heart of the contemporary chaos carried him at all times to attack the problem of morals and psychology. He was always in the practical order.”[18]

In all of this, McLuhan seems sensible. But in this odd belief that somehow “the artist” in Chesterton—at least as forged through his most obvious influences in the stream of Victorian medievalism—can and should be abstracted from Chesterton’s moral thought . . . that’s what I’m having trouble with.

What do you folks think?


[1] McLuhan, “Introduction,” Paradox in Chesterton, by Hugh Kenner (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948), xxii.

[2] Ibid, xix.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, xix-xx.

[5] Ibid, xx-xxi.

[6] Ibid, xxi.

[7] Ibid, xxi-xxii.

[8] Ibid, xi.

[9] Ibid, xii.

[10] Ibid, xiii.

[11] Ibid, xiv.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, xv.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, xv-xvi.

[16] Ibid, xvi.

[17] Ibid, xvii.

[18] Ibid, xviii.

10 responses to “Marshall McLuhan: We must separate G. K. Chesterton’s moral insights from his Victorian literary medievalism

  1. peter berkman

    fyi–– ong was a student of mcluhan’s (who was catholic, not paranoid), not the reverse.

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