Tag Archives: G K Chesterton

G K Chesterton: Glimpses of Francis of Assisi


St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

These are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading G. K. Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi (New York: Doubleday, 2001; orig. pub. George H. Doran Company, 1924).

Chesterton’s book is full of quirky and penetrating insights on Francis, the culture of his time, and the movement he started.Though Chesterton was no academic, he saw deeply into his subject, as he did into Thomas Aquinas, the subject of his other famous short biography–which the great student of medieval philosophy Etienne Gilson described as “without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas.” Continue reading

Chesterton on Chaucer: The testimony of two biographers


One of the modern figures I think I will be using in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants as guides into the Middle Ages for today’s readers is the early 20th century author and apologist G. K. Chesterton. Among Chesterton’s works are biographies on St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi and a work of literary criticism on Chaucer.

I will post, below, the assessments by two of Chesterton’s biographers of his Chaucer work. But first I can’t resist repeating the famous story about how the brilliant academic medievalist Etienne Gilson responded to Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas. Remember that Chesterton himself had no academic degree in medieval philosophy or any other related topic. Here’s how biographer Maisie Ward reports Gilson’s response: Continue reading

G. K. Chesterton argues for the truth of Christianity . . . from asceticism


G. K. Chesterton, “Christianity and Rationalism” (1904, The Clarion), G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works, vol. 1, pp. 373 – 380.

The following argument for the truth of Christianity comes from the Blatchford controversies, a civil exchange between anti- and pro-Christians in the pages of Robert Blatchford’s Clarion, 1904, from which G. K. Chesterton’s contributions have been culled and published in vol. 1 of his Collected Works:

“The Secularist says that Christianity has [376] been a gloomy and ascetic thing, and points to the procession of austere or ferocious saints who have given up home and happiness and macerated health and sex. But it never seems to occur to him that the very oddity and completeness of these men’s surrender make it look very much as if there were really something actual and solid in the thing for which they sold themselves. They gave up all pleasures for one pleasure of spiritual ecstasy. They may have been mad; but it looks as if there really were such a pleasure. They gave up all human experiences for the sake of one superhuman experience. They may have been wicked, but it looks as if there were such an experience.” (375 – 6) Continue reading

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] Continue reading

The monks did it: Mining medieval resources


My, how time flies. (In the words of the immortal Groucho Marx: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” But then again, in the words of the immortal Douglas Adams: “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so.”) Last May my Patron Saints for Postmoderns was not yet published, I was hoping against hope that my book proposal Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants [maybe Medieval Wisdom for Today’s Christians?] would be accepted by a publisher, and I was posting a blog entry over at Christianity Today’s history blog eagerly anticipating my first Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Now Patron Saints has been out for many months, Medieval Wisdom is due to the publishers (Baker Books) next December, and the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo is again just around the corner as May approaches. Here’s my CT blog post from last year anticipating my first Congress:

The Monks Did It

If we move beyond a piecemeal approach to medieval Christianity, we can mine the rich vein of its spiritual, intellectual, and practical resources.

by Chris Armstrong

Medieval_writing_desk.jpg

This weekend I am attending the 44th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. This is the largest and most prestigious international gathering for medievalist scholars, convening over 3,000 scholars in over 600 sessions of papers, panel discussions, roundtables, workshops, and performances.

Frankly, though I am no medievalist, just thinking about being there is making me drool.

What’s an American church history geek doing attending a meeting that will feature hundreds of highly technical papers in a field I hardly know, based on texts in languages I’ve never learned – Latin, Old English, Old Norse? Continue reading

C S Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers: The three amigos and their three Dantes


What C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers felt the Divine Comedy has to say to us today.
Chris Armstrong | posted 3/09/2010 11:40PM

The Three Amigos  and Their Three DantesC. S. Lewis was a scholar and professor who became one of the premier lay theologians of the 20th century. He chose to communicate the truths of Christian faith both in essays and in fiction writing, with powerful effects that have resonated into the 21st century.

Lewis’s friend Charles Williams, arguably the linchpin of the “Inklings” literary circle to which Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others belonged, also wrote both essays and imaginative literature with a deeply Christian message.

Dorothy Sayers, detective novelist, playwright, and essayist, corresponded with both Lewis and Williams. And she developed her own powerful Christian apologetic, which she also expressed in both nonfiction and fiction.

These three “literary Brits” shared more than a lively Christian faith, the writing of imaginative literature, and a strong mutual regard. Together they launched a holy war on their era’s scientific materialism and the spiritual declension that accompanied it. Each lifted up in their writings a rich, world-embracing Christian vision against the grey deadness of secularization. For each, this was a life-and-death battle, with the future of the Western world hanging in the balance. They saw their age’s new creed of hard-nosed scientific pragmatism draining the world of spirit and meaning—indeed, as Lewis put it, threatening to tear out of us our very hearts, abolishing humanity itself.

In that precarious moment of Western history, on the war-torn front of secularization, Lewis, Williams, and Sayers took cues from the venerable four-star general of 20th-century Christian literary antimodernism, journalist and amateur medievalist G. K. Chesterton. To be precise, although they never came to share Chesterton’s Roman Catholic faith, Lewis, Williams, and Sayers took a very “Chestertonian” approach to their own antimodern campaign: they turned for help to the pulsating, faith-filled energy of the medieval worldview.

This was hardly historical dilettantism. Each of the three was a professional medievalist with an Oxford University connection. Lewis was an Oxford (and later Cambridge) professor of medieval and renaissance literature whose imaginative works similarly marinated in the medieval. Williams was a polymath editor at Oxford University Press and sometime lecturer on Milton who dwelt long and lovingly on medieval themes in his poetry, plays, and novels. And Sayers did her graduate work at Oxford in medieval French and found time between writing detective novels and translating Dante’s Divine Comedy to publish translations of other medieval works.

Nor was their Chestertonian medievalism slavish. That jovial Catholic had looked to such figures as Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, and to a medieval-guild-based economic vision of homesteading and small crafts. But Lewis, Williams, and Sayers found their inspiration in a medieval source that Chesterton had left largely unmined. Litterateurs all, they sat together at the feet of a different medieval master: the great 13th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

The Living Cosmos

Interestingly, while the three Oxonians joined in loving Dante, they could hardly have been more varied in their devotion. Each found in the great Florentine poet a distinctive tonic for the ills of modernity.

For Lewis it was Dante’s vivid rendering of the medieval cosmology—the “Discarded Image” of a pre-scientific age—that captivated him, transposing his own worldview into a more spiritual key. In the planetary spheres of Dante’s Ptolemaic universe Lewis found, not accurate science, but a vividly sacramental sense of the aliveness of all things, to be treasured in the face of much that was deadening in modernity. Lewis fell in love with the living cosmos and the individuality of the planets themselves, rooted in Pagan mythology but thoroughly Christianized by medieval authors. “The characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology,” he said, “seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols.”

Michael Ward, in his book Planet Narnia, has now convincingly argued that the medieval planets (including the sun) make up the hidden pattern of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Carefully peeling back the layers of Lewis’s lifelong fascination with this older cosmology, Ward shows that even in his childhood, he was gripped by a fascination with the medieval idea that the planets are themselves living beings—something like angels or guardians of the heavenly realms. Lewis recorded in Surprised by Joy that when he was ten years old, “the idea of other planets exercised upon me a peculiar, heady attraction.”

It was Dante’s great Comedy, however, which Lewis found to be “the highest point that poetry has ever reached,” that plunged Lewis into full-blown infatuation with the Ptolemaic universe. In a 1930 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis described the Paradiso as “like the stars—endless mathematical subtility of orb, cycle, epicycle and ecliptic, unthinkable & unpicturable, & yet at the same time the freedom and liquidity of empty space and the triumphant certainty of movement.” The whole poem felt important to him; “its blend of complexity and beauty is very like Catholic theology—wheel within wheel, but wheels of glory, and the One radiated through the Many.”

Ward shows us that Lewis treasured Dante as the only poet to have infused the medieval model of the heavens with “high religious ardour.” Adds Ward: “Dante is no longer alone in this latter respect, because Lewis has joined him.” He did so in the hidden structure of the Narnian Chronicles, in the living, throbbing cosmos of the Space Trilogy, and in his erudite but accessible lectures on the medieval worldview, published as The Discarded Image.

Romantic Theology

For Charles Williams it was Dante’s lifelong obsession with the girl Beatrice that drew him to recover an older “Affirmative Way” of faith—the ancient Christian spiritual road of the “affirmation of images,” in which earthly things lead us on to spiritual realities. He found this Way embodied compellingly in the story of how Bice Portinari (Beatrice) became the poet Dante’s muse and spiritual guide. Williams drew from this exemplum a rich theological picture of how God works a kind of divine alchemy through human relationships, turning the mundane material of romantic love into the heavenly gold of salvation. Williams worked out this theme in his masterly exegesis of Dante’s work, The Figure of Beatrice. And he used this Dantean theme, along with his idea of “co-inherence”—the human possibility of indwelling each other to the point of redemptively sharing each other’s sufferings—to forge a “romantic theology.”

But Williams was not a romantic in the popular sense of a starry-eyed idealist. In his novels he also painted sin in all its hues—those stories contain some of the most penetrating and harrowing portrayals of human sinfulness in modern literature. And in this, too, he was formed by reading Dante. Dante was deeply Augustinian, and so in his Purgatorio and Inferno he showed the shades of sin and levels of depravity as so many variations on the theme of disordered love. In his novels and his Figure of Beatrice, Williams explored the many wrong turnings and sordid alleys of this Dantean/Augustinian disorder.

The Drama of the Soul’s Choice

For Dorothy L. Sayers, working in the wartime shambles of European life and mores, it was Dante’s striking and forceful rendering of humanity’s moral condition that made her blood rise and her pen flow over. The brilliant Sayers was an accomplished novelist, translator, and literary critic, who had been among the first class of women students at Oxford to receive their Masters’ degrees. Her area of scholarly specialty was “modern languages”—to be precise, medieval French. When she first encountered Dante, she had already translated key texts in that area. Then she read Williams’s Figure of Beatrice and the Comedia itself (which she started in a London bomb shelter as German V1 rockets screamed down over the city) and was stirred deeply.

Sayers loved Dante’s story-telling skill, the earthiness and vividness of his spirituality, and his masterful use of the fine details of everything from astronomy to Thomist theology in constructing his poem. And so she made the translation of Dante her last great life-work. But for her, Dante’s value went beyond his literary mastery. His moral worldview presented an antidote to modern malaises: She saw wartime Europe descending into passivity, blame-shifting, and an alarming susceptibility to propaganda. And there stood the Comedia, towering over world literature as “the drama of the soul’s choice”—a gripping, multi-layered narrative poem whose very theme is moral responsibility. For Sayers, the Comedia was a “tract for our times.”

May we read Lewis, Williams, and Sayers now as what they were: conduits of medieval wisdom for a modern, or postmodern, age. And may we also follow their footsteps to the feet of the master, Dante Alighieri.

Chris Armstrong is associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary St. Paul, author of Patron Saints for Postmoderns (InterVarsity Press), and a senior editor of Christian History & Biography.

Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History & Biography.

The distinctive Dantes of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers


Here’s a rough introduction to next week’s contribution to Christianity Today‘s history blog. The rest of the article will touch on such works as Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, Williams’s Figure of Beatrice, and Sayers’s translation of the Divine Comedy:

C. S. Lewis was a scholar and professor who became one of the premier lay theologians of the 20th century. He chose to communicate the truths of Christian faith both in essays and in fiction writing, with powerful effects that have resonated into the 21st century.

Lewis’s friend Charles Williams, arguably the linchpin of the “Inklings” literary circle to which Lewis, Tolkien, and others belonged, also wrote both essays and imaginative literature with a deeply Christian message.

Dorothy Sayers, detective novelist, playwright, and essayist, corresponded with both Lewis and Williams. And she developed her own deeply individual and powerful Christian apologetic, which she also expressed in both nonfiction and fiction.

These three “literary Brits” shared more than a lively Christian faith, the writing of imaginative literature, and a strong mutual regard. Together they launched a literary holy war on their era’s scientific materialism and the spiritual declension that accompanied it. Continue reading

“Yes, Virginia, there is a usable Medieval past”: G K Chesterton as medievalist


As I was preparing to teach “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry” last year, I went in search of modern authors who find the medieval period still useful for us today. I quickly discovered that some of my favorite authors–Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and others–had been avid “miners” of the Middle Ages–spelunking for wisdom that the modern age so desperately needs. One particularly useful essay in my search is a piece by Ian Boyd, “Chesterton’s Medievalism,” published in Studies in Medievalism: Inklings and Others and German Medievalism III n. 304 (Winter/Spring 1991): 243-255.

Though this is a scholarly essay with all the appurtenances, it proved readable, useful, and stimulating to this non-specialist (I am neither a medievalist nor an expert in Chesterton, or indeed literature!) I hope you’ll find it so as wellat least the bits of it that I took notes on.

The central insight of Chesterton’s that Boyd describes is golden: we must be neither romantic about the Middle Ages (“seeing them by moonlight,” as Chesterton said) nor dismiss them as hopelessly pre-modern. But it is appropriate and helpful to read the Middle Ages through our own modern (and we could add, postmodern) questions, so long as we recognize that the resulting portrait will be a sort of partly modern, partly medieval hybrid. This is, in fact, what the word “medievalism” in this journal’s title means: any appropriation and re-imagining, by folks from a later time, of the ways and means, look and feel, highways and by-ways of the Middle Ages.

So, here we go with Boyd on Chesterton on the Middle Ages (in note form):

First point: GKC’s medievalism is not as romantic and unconditional as critics sometimes have said.

Second point: what distinguished a bad from a good medievalist in GKC’s view was their ability to understand and engage with the problems of their own day: “He insists on the paradox that genuine medievalism is closely connected to contemporary political issues, declaring roundly that medieval history is useless unless it is also modern history, and mocking both the romantic [247] antiquarian who haunts Melrose by moonlight and the Don Quixote figure who fails to understand his own age. But always C insists that the sign of genuine medievalism is an ability to see the contemporary world with fresh vision. In C’s view, Cobbett, Carlyle, Hood, Ruskin, and Kenelm Digby are true medievalists, because when they look to a medieval past, whether real or imaginary, they look to it only in order to understand better their own age. The false medievalist is recognized by his blindness to the problems of his own day.” (246-7) Continue reading

How do I hate thee, modernity? Let the Inklings count the ways


Tom Bombadil as depicted in The Lord of the Ri...

Tom Bombadil, from The Lord of the Rings. Now there's an antimodern fellow!

My forthcoming Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants will draw on a group of 20th-century British Christian imaginative writers who also happened to be scholars of the Middle Ages. G K Chesterton, C S Lewis, Charles Williams, J R R Tolkien, and Dorothy L Sayers faced the many tentacles of modernity with a sense of alarm deepening into cultural embattlement. And they sought in medieval faith and culture antidotes to modern malaises.

(A clarifying note: I use the term “Inklings” of this group, recognizing that this is a loose usage. “The Inklings” is the name adopted by the group of writers who met in C S Lewis’s rooms at Oxford to read aloud their works to each other and engage in stimulating discussions and debates. I have stretched the group to include Chesterton, who pre-dated them, and Sayers, who was a friend of Lewis’s but never attended a meeting of the all-male group. All shared Christian faith and profound similarities in cultural and literary outlook, though the group certainly represented a wide variety of opinion on any number of important topics.)

A couple of years ago, as I prepared to teach a new course titled Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry at Bethel, I sketched out one of those “mind maps”–a diagram with a single organizing concept at the center, surrounded by connecting lines and circles containing related concepts. The central concept was “Anti-modernism among the Inklings.” Here are the surrounding circles, in no particular order: Continue reading

Summary of chapter 7: Heart religion as a medieval tradition


Charles Williams was captivated by Dante Alighieri’s belief that he had been led to salvation by a young woman with whom he had become infatuated with when he was a boy. From Dante’s vision of Beatrice, Williams elaborated a “romantic theology.” Chesterton discovered a similar romantic dynamic in the life of “God’s troubadour,” Francis of Assisi. Lewis described his conversion as the surprising discovery of joy. Each of these writers was drawing on a distinctively medieval tradition of affective theology, exemplified especially in such late-medieval mystics as Julian of Norwich. Continue reading