Though sometimes a crank and often a curmudgeon, Chesterton never turned in revulsion against the disorders of his own age. On the contrary, he sought to redress them by means of a feisty and witty, punning and alliterating kind of journalism. In a torrent of essays published in the Illustrated London News and many other newspapers—they would eventually number more than fourteen hundred—Chesterton thundered against all manner of evil, mainly the maladies that afflicted the poor: the wage slavery that wedded workers to their jobs, the prohibitionism that robbed the destitute of convivial relief from drudgery, the nanny state that wanted to manage even the cleanliness of the needy, the eugenics programs that would keep the mentally deficient from marrying. He even devised a scheme, called distributism, for reallocating land.
Orthodoxy is the notable exception to his usual pattern of writing. It is not an anthology but a carefully argued and deceptively complex work whose title indicates that its moral concerns are also theological. It is a subtle account, in fact, of his own conversion, as he moved gradually from the claims of reason to those of faith.
In the book, Chesterton treats the most serious things in the lightest manner, probing depths when he appears to be skating on surfaces. He jauntily declares, for instance, that “solemnity flows out of men naturally,” like the seepage of a fetid pool, “but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.” Chesterton was impatient with Christian apologists of his time because they were so solemn: “It is plainly not now possible (with any hope of universal appeal) to start, as our fathers did, with the fact of sin.” For Chesterton, the conviction of sin depends on an assumed metaphysical order—a transcendent hierarchy of goods, over against which one can resist vices and promote virtues. The collapse of this order is the condition and thus the curse of our age.
The past century belongs to Chesterton because he was one of its most astute analysts. Orthodoxy remains his most prophetic book because he foresaw both the insane modernist rationalism and the lunatic postmodern emotivism that would engulf us. Yet Chesterton remained a happy pessimist because he was a Christian humanist. And his influence is alive and well after a century because he discerned one thing above all else: that humanity is a monstrosity, a wild and not a tame species.
Jean-Paul Sartre was oddly if unwittingly right. We have broken out of the closed circle of our animality. We do not fit seamlessly into the world; we stick out like a spike. But rather than constituting a futile and “sorry project,” as Sartre famously said, we are monsters in the precise sense of the Old French word monstre: a horror, a wonder, a marvel, a thing of God’s own making and remaking.