The Metaphysics of Chesterton

by Father Leonard Feeney, M.I.C.M.

Chesterton was a man of few ideas made expansive by a gorgeous imagination and a complete and accurate set of moral sympathies. He said the same things over and over again, but in so many different ways, and loved the same things over and over again, but from so many different angles, that he never found it needful to create a brave new world in order to be either courageous or original.


In person Chesterton was a large man who was something of a strain on his clothes. Tidiness he persistently ignored in favor of comfort. Everyone who got near him was tempted to rearrange him, or at least to giving thought as to how it could be done. Eventually Chesterton gave up the idea of expecting to be held together in ordinary attire by ordinary threads and buttons, and went around wearing a cloak. The simplicity with which one could secure a sort of stylish seclusion by the tying of a single knot or the fastening of a single hook appealed to Chesterton. A cloak was a garment calculated to reveal not how he was fashioned, but where he was to be found.

In point of kindliness, Chesterton had one of the biggest hearts that has ever lived. And yet I am told the doctors found it undersized physically when they examined him in one of his illnesses. Nothing daunted, he went right on using what share of heart he had to love the world largely and lavishly until the hour of his death. This is what is known as a paradox.

When Chesterton stood up he was impressive. But it was even more marvelous to watch him sit down. He sat down with an air of supreme humility, as if totally collapsing in the arms of God. In the difficult assignment of being both huge and human he needed lots of support. Once seated, he would doze and dream a great deal, and seemed constantly distracted by the incessant rush of his own thoughts.

As humility was Chesterton’s outstanding moral virtue, so what he chose to call “sanity” was what he wanted most for the mind. He was far too humble to suppose that one could appropriate sanity as an assured possession without offering plenty of credentials. And so he undertook to outline what he meant by sanity perhaps more carefully than any man of his generation. One of his contemporaries, George Bernard Shaw, said sanity was the specialty of the superman. This pseudo-preternaturalism annoyed Chesterton, and his reply was devastating. “Shaw criticizes human nature,” he said, “as though he himself did not possess it.” Another contemporary, H. G. Wells, offered hope that sanity might blossom in some brain of the future. Chesterton was quick to analyze this mixture of biology and guesswork masquerading as prophecy, and he exposed it to relentless ridicule. In the end he made more of a monkey out of Wells than Evolution ever had.

The sanity which interested, and indeed fascinated, Chesterton was the sanity which has already occurred in the world, whose proof is in tradition, whose roots are in the past, whose record is in history. That welter of things which men of all times have accepted as lovable and true he labeled Orthodoxy. Of this Orthodoxy he was prepared to act as Defendant. He did so in one hundred and two books, (1) writing as many as eight in a single year. He felt Orthodoxy to be a cause to which one should be loyal. He called it the Flag of the World. He thought laughter was a good air in which to float the Flag of the World. He conceived laughter as something more than a human roar that went rollicking up to the skies; he believed it to be a divine delight that had descended to Earth and was shaking it. He was prepared to trace its tremors everywhere and said its source was in the mirth of God. When criticized on this and other points for not being serious, he made his brilliant and never-to-be-forgotten distinction between the serious and the solemn man.

So much for the “physics” of Chesterton.


It will surprise many of my readers to find me associating the notion of metaphysics with the name of Chesterton. One is wont nowadays to associate it more readily with a name like Maritain, perhaps because of the alliteration. But it is my conviction that Chesterton could destroy many of our so-called metaphysicians right in the territory of their own thinking. By way of becoming “pure mentalities” they pretend to have gotten rid of all emotion in thought. They tolerate Chesterton only because of the scintillation of his ideas. They do not approve of him, as is evidenced by the fastidious way in which, kid-gloved with logic, they handle realities which he was prepared to rush at with bare hands, and in the full panoply of his powers. One or other of them will occasionally quote Chesterton, but it is always with a smile — a little, soft, academic smile, as if to say: “Pardon this fantastic interruption in my otherwise reliable ratiocination. It will allow us to indulge in the delicate pleasure of depreciation. It may also serve to relieve the tension of the classroom.”

By way of defending Chesterton against these intellectual isolationists, I may say that his laughter was not an emotion in the sense in which they take the word unfavorably. It was not a frivolous attitude of mind which prejudiced thought, as in the case of a mere comedian. It was rather the fruit of thought — often of some very grim thought — and it occurred to him by way of a spontaneous explosion which he thought it unwise to resist. When he described himself as “a well-meaning hippopotamus,” he did not do so by way of ridiculing the notion of “rational animal,” but by way of showing that ideas which get on very well together in the abstract order do so less sociably when outfitted to exist. Logic deals with essences, laughter with existences. Essences may be proved, but existences must be affirmed. Once affirmed, existences can never be identified by definition, only by description, and if description be forbidden to touch them, then something metaphysical gets lost. Laughter is one way of restoring it. When a reality has been reached which is prepared both to define and describe itself with the triumphant affirmation: “I am Who am!” then logic and laughter both subside in an eternal stillness. The mind has at last arrived at the world’s most serious secret. There is nothing left to do but blindly deny or boldly adore.

If it be objected against laughter that it is more of an observer than a critic, it must also be said of it that it leaves ideas fully delineated as the mind first found them, completely focused for action. Under such a favorable spotlight what takes place is something in the nature of a prizefight. But whereas logic wants to follow the contestants around in the rôle of referee shouting rules, laughter is content to sit back as a spectator and cheer for whatever happens. For ideas in action are not only never fully sociable, but there are times when one idea threatens to knock out another so completely as to leave no mystery between them. Laughter enjoys this hugely, for it is utterly a fanatic, known in sports parlance as “a fan.” Chesterton was not only willing to admit he was a fanatic, he boasted of it. For a fanatic is merely an enthusiastic witness giving testimony. A fanatic is not a partisan making a perverted report. That Chesterton was never a partisan, I am prepared to show.

It is clear from the early pages of his Autobiography that Chesterton’s home was not a place notably given to despondency. His parents were kindly, lovable people, and nothing in his early training drove him to despair. Puritanism of a sort was there, but it was not that extreme Puritanism which makes everything pleasurable a sin. Puritanism had done much more harm to houses in Chesterton’s neighborhood than it had to his own. Puritanism had, for instance, transferred conviviality from the village tavern to the village bar-room; from a place where a man might sleep off his intoxication to a place where he gets thrown out for being drunk. Puritanism was the cause of Chesterton’s “hell-instructed grocer” who ruined the business of innkeepers by making customers of over-bibulous duchesses furtively drinking in their dressing-rooms. Nothing of this coarseness had touched Chesterton’s own household. It was a household in which he was reasonably contented and to whose inhabitants he was always scrupulously loyal. In this last he differs greatly from those debunkers of Puritan culture lately derived from Boston, Mass., U. S. A., who air their grudges in melancholy novels that ruin the reputations of their families.

But if Chesterton’s home was, on all simple, substantial counts, a happy one, it had not nearly as much happiness as he wanted to put there once he became an adolescent and had begun to read. As soon as he found from his reading what European homes in general, and English homes in particular, had been in the past, he sought to improve his own, not in the manner of an interior decorator with a new motif, but rather as one who would refurnish it with things that had wrongfully been taken from it by that sad trick of history known as the Protestant Reformation. Within the four walls in which Chesterton proposed to live, he wanted more dining done, more dancing, dreaming and diversion, even more drinking, and particularly more religious devotion. What that devotion was to be in terms of dogma he was not at once ready to say. But that some chill between man and God had occurred right at his own fireside, he was alert and generous enough to see. If this be called partisanship, then the word has no decent meaning.

Later in life, when Chesterton married and made a home of his own, he restored to it much of what he had been deprived of in his youth. But there was one bright item which, by the strange will of God, he was not able to restore. And that was a child. And yet never once, by the slightest petulance or resentment, did he make his own childlessness the measure of a home’s true worth. With every talent in his power — by story, by treatise, by poetry, by apostrophe, by prayer, by the writing of nursery rhymes and the drawing of pictures — he sought to please, and pay tribute to, the child. He even went boldly to the defense of the child unborn. He literally blasted Dean Inge of London for his moral stand on the prevention of children. “The trouble with the Dean of St. Paul’s,” he wrote in words as accurately as I can recall them, “is not that he is merely anti-Catholic, he is anti-Christian. He thinks pride is a virtue and humility a vice. This temper of mind governs all he does, and lately when he brought it to bear on the subject of birth-control, it never even remotely occurred to him to consider that his own birth might have been prevented.”

So certain was Chesterton that partisanship had never influenced his own thought, that he was prepared to criticize it vigorously when he saw it tampering with the thought of others. Arnold Lunn, some time before his conversion to the Catholic Church, wrote a book called Roman Converts. It was a very patronizing book in which Lunn sought to make nice adjustments between the motives which led men like Newman and Ronald Knox into the Church, and those which drove men like Tyrrell out of it. In one unfortunate paragraph, Lunn, who boasted otherwise of being a sportsman, so forgot his sense of fair play as to call God’s Mother “the patron of a party,” remarking that Christ was “never a party leader.” Chesterton fairly leapt at this cheap remark and tore it to shreds. In a burst of magnificent indignation, he wrote a poem called “A Party Question.” “Who made that inn a fortress?” he shouted in defense of Our Blessed Lady. And he ended by calling the phrase Lunn had used, “That little hiss that only comes from Hell.” Chesterton could afford to be chivalrous on this particular subject, because twenty-five years before his own conversion to Catholicism, in the days when he was religiously no more than a young agnostic, he paid the “Party Question” this youthful and pathetic tribute:

Hail, Mary! Thou blest among women;
Generations shall rise up to greet.
After ages of wrangle and dogma,
I come with a prayer to thy feet.
Where Gabriel’s red plumes are a wind
In the lanes of thy lilies at eve,
We pray, who have done with the churches;
We worship, who may not believe.

Chesterton is classified in literature most frequently as a controversialist. Some prefer to label him simply: a journalist. “Defendant” would be a good name for him, but hardly a genre in which to put a writer. “Literary man” is far too loose a term to fit him. True, he excelled in many and varied styles of literature, particularly as an essayist, and very valuably in the field of literary criticism. T. S. Eliot, for instance, believes there has never been a better critic of Dickens than Chesterton. But Chesterton was scarcely a literary man in the sense in which Maurice Baring is one, or Max Beerbohm, or the late F. V. Lucas. One archbishop, even during Chesterton’s lifetime, was all for calling him a Doctor of the Church. However unofficial, this compliment may be taken as more than a mere pleasantry. For if the requirements of a Doctor of the Church are eximia scientia et sanctitas, surely something perilously near to both must be ascribed to a man who could roam without an imprimatur through all Catholic theology, hagiology and apologetics and never make a statement which the most meticulous Ultramontane could suspect of heresy; and who could fill a hundred books with an almost beer-garden joviality and never write a line that would cause a child to blush. It would be nice to have a St. Gilbert taking rank with St. Augustine, St. Bernard and St. Thomas, but the proposal, however exciting, had best be left to the justice and generosity of the Pope.


And so, for want of a better rating, Chesterton must fall back into classification either as a poet or a philosopher. By way of escaping this “dilemma,” we might make a third choice and say he was a mystic. Indeed, there are in Orthodoxy (his most brilliant book) abundant passages that illustrate the mystical quality of his mind. But his was an imaginative rather than an illuminative mysticism. It was not achieved — and it is no criticism of his morals to say so — by that rigid asceticism of the senses which leaves the mind devoutly dark and patiently prepared to receive the pure light of the supernatural. Chesterton’s was the colorful approach to mysticism: to mystery by way of magic, to angels by way of fairies, to God the Father by way of Mother Goose. Chesterton saw, and rightly, a serious psychological necessity in Mother Goose; but she is hardly the sacred religious need expressed in the Lord’s Prayer. True, there is, as Chesterton points out, a marvelous asceticism achieved in every simple choice of charity (a man who chooses one woman to be his wife renounces all other women), but this is the choice of charity in the moral order, more properly called charitableness. It is not the infused, supernatural Charity spoken of by St. Paul, which is strictly theological and in which no choice is given: no choice but the pure surrender to the terror and bewilderment of being chosen.

It is also to be noted about the mysticism of Elfland, that it can devise no clear symbol even for what it wants to say in the order of poetry. It is a damnable business to undo a beautiful piece of imaginative writing by pointing out its logical flaw, but that is what we must do with Chesterton precisely at the point where he is trying to show the superiority of imagination over reason. He says, in Orthodoxy, at the end of his well-known chapter on “The Maniac”:

That transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much of the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.

This, however fascinatingly spoken, is arbitrary symbolism of the very worst kind. For it is not the visual clarity of the moon — that soft clarity which is the delight and companionship of lovers — which causes lunatics. It is rather the imperceptible gravity of the moon, that tugs at temperaments as it does on tides. But inasmuch as relatively few temperaments are as unstable as water, the weight of the moon may be disregarded while the wonder of the moon remains. True, the moon may not light up the rest of the world as brilliantly as the sun does, but in all its shapes, from crescent to full disc, it is the best form in which to look at light itself. The real lunatic is not the moon-gazer nor the star-gazer, but the one who tries to outstare the sun. Furthermore, in Christian mysticism, the moon is Our Lady. “Pulchra ut luna” is God’s own phrase for her: a symbol with a divine guarantee.

If one could go through the whole of Chesterton’s works and gather together the great number of brilliant and accurate things he has said on the subject of epistemology, psychology, cosmology and ethics, one would have a book full of philosophic wisdom which no philosopher could afford to ignore. But unfortunately the journalist in Chesterton clouded much of what was the true philosopher. In his effort to study the universal within the local — which is the philosopher’s task — he frequently became too local, and at times hopelessly insular. Chesterton is in great part untranslatable, which no philosopher can afford to be. His deepest thought is sometimes so bound up with superficial English idiom, or manners, or even politics, that one is often required to know the inside of the mind of some nonentity like J. H. McCabe or F. E. Smith before one can get to what Chesterton himself is saying. The discriminating reader will, of course, make allowances for these provincialisms, especially since they occur within the orbit of such large and valuable thinking. But, alas, philosophy is a science that cannot be safely entrusted to the discriminating mind. It is at once the philosopher’s strength and weakness that he must safeguard his most tenuous judgments with a sort of universal language, which at its best can travel instantaneously from mind to mind independently of time and place, and at its worst is a jargon of such words as: virtualiter, potentialiter, aequivalenter, eminenter, that capture a minimum of idea and are almost the ruination of speech.


Some criticism similar to that which I have made of Chesterton as a philosopher, must also be made of him as a poet. No poet of the twentieth century (with the exception of Hilaire Belloc) had a better command of the traditional forms and subsidiary styles of verse than had Chesterton. He could write a ballade or a rondeau as well as any man who ever lived. In satire, burlesque and parody he was superb. Likewise the number of utterly wonderful things he has said about poetry (not in any one place, but scattered throughout his work, sometimes in a detective story, sometimes in a treatise on economics) ought to be collected and put in one book. Mr. F. J. Sheed told me he thought of making such a collection some day. I hope he will. It might well begin with the accolade Chesterton gives the poet for being “the only man in the world who knows what he wants to say, and can say it.”

But when it came to writing poetry himself, in serious fashion, Chesterton was altogether too committed to a single manner: the grandiose. He was often sublime in his verse, but rarely exquisite. He was constantly the troubadour thumping out a great theme. When the material suited his mood, as it did in Lepanto or The Ballad of the White Horse, all went well. But all did not go well in his simpler verse, or rather I should say, in his verse that ought to have been simpler.

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born

is, I protest, utterance too apocalyptic to suit the plain fact of a donkey, even the humble little beast who carried Our Lord in triumph through the streets of Jerusalem. I myself once wrote a poem on a donkey, so I may be presumed to know his requirements in verse. At least my donkey is a creature who may be more calmly recognized.

Hitched by a halter to a rail,
He twitched his ears and twirled his tail;
In every lineament and line
He was completely asinine.

Let my stanza be only the tribute from one donkey to another; at least a donkey remains somewhere in the arrangement, not merely a nightmare on the subject of Palm Sunday.


Poor Chesterton! If he be, in the unrestricted sense, neither poet, nor philosopher, nor mystic, then where shall we place him? Must he be the “tattered outlaw” of all categories simply because none could contain him? No. I believe there is one rating he deserves, without any reservation. Chesterton was one of the world’s greatest metaphysicians.

If it be objected that metaphysics is, after all, only philosophy (a competence from which I have already removed Chesterton), then I shall object again that metaphysics is not, after all, only philosophy. Metaphysics is what Aristotle — who never used the word metaphysics — called “the first philosophy.” It could as readily be called “the first poetry” or “the first mysticism.” Briefly, metaphysics is the preoccupation of the mind with being as being, with thing as thing. Briefly, metaphysics is what Chesterton called “Aristotle’s colossal common sense.”

Technically, here is the way the “first philosophy” is handled. The logician discovers in metaphysics the contingency of things, their essential insufficiency to exist by themselves: hence his distinctions between essence and existence, potency and act, imperfection and perfection, accidents and substance. The poet discovers in the same metaphysics the forms by which potencies have been actualized: hence his attention to the integrity, clarity and proportion by which contingent things endeavor to image the pure act from which they originate. The mystic derives from metaphysics a loving interest in the undeserved gift which all contingent beings are both to themselves and to those who behold them; hence his tributes of adoration, gratitude and humility. For being as being has three intrinsic attributes (three transcendental notes) which are inseparable from it: it is true, it is beautiful and it is good. Indeed, it has a fourth inseparable note which is almost the undoing of the other three. It is one. Wherefore, no mere logician can be a perfect metaphysician, any more than a mere poet can, or a mere mystic. Each has only a one-third interest in the subject of being; the logician in ens qua verum, the poet in ens qua pulchrum, the mystic in ens qua bonum. The logician will tell you himself, as he must, that he has no pure ontology. His ontology is necessarily clouded by the analogies in which he words it. The pure logos of anything is known to God alone. Likewise does the poet cloud the pure beauty of things with his metaphors, and the mystic the pure goodness of things with his symbols. But the complete metaphysician is the “compleat angler” who fishes for being qua being with every bait at his disposal. What cannot be caught with analogy can sometimes be taken by metaphor, or by symbol, or vice versa in any order. How wonderful if all three should work together! In such a metaphysician as Chesterton I believe they did, at least far more strikingly than they do in most men. (2.)

In page after page, in book after book, I find examples of this metaphysical harmony in Chesterton’s perceptions. As soon as he was able to think, he plunged right into the heart of “the first philosophy.” When his tooth ached, along with inquiring, “Why have I a toothache?” he also inquired, “Why have I a tooth?” and, indeed, “Why have I anything?” His fondness in early childhood was more than for wood you could whittle, water you could drink, and soap you could wash with; it was for “the toughness of wood, the wetness of water, and the magnificent soapiness of soap.” Nothing could be more metaphysical than this.

Almost the very first utterance Chesterton the writer made to the world was the declaration of his own contingency, the confession of his own utter needlessness to anything or anybody. So unnecessary did he consider himself to the universe around him that he immediately rejected Pantheism as a religious creed because it deprived him of a God to whom he could be grateful for his existence. “I want to adore the world,” he said, “not as one likes a looking glass, because it is oneself, but as one loves a woman because she is entirely different.” The gift of life he defined as “a kind of eccentric privilege” for which we owe an infinite gratitude. He declared he found everywhere “the sense of the preciousness and fragility of the universe, the sense of being in the hollow of a hand.” He scorned the pessimist who criticizes this world “as if he were house hunting, as if he were being shown over a new set of apartments.” He would not allow any low estimate of our beloved universe to be made. He wrote: “While dull atheists came and explained to me that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind.” The Materialist, he agreed, did explain the cosmos, but “with a sort of insane simplicity” which forced Chesterton to say that, “it was not much of a cosmos” when any innocent beholder could suggest a so much better one.

Chesterton was literally entranced with the thingness of things, with facts as facts, not deviously explained, but bravely accepted as they are. He wrote a whole book about things as things, and called it Tremendous Trifles. He believed that the very repetition of things was a delightful argument for design. “One elephant with its absurd trunk is a wildly amusing sight,” he wrote, “but for all elephants to have trunks suggests a conspiracy.” Even in their grotesque form, he was anxious to preserve the most fantastic and useless pieces of creation. If someone said: “Camels in various places are totally diverse: some have six legs, some have none, some have scales, some have feathers,” Chesterton vowed he would reply: “Then what do you mean by a camel? What makes you call them camels?”

Chesterton brought this simple metaphysical outlook to the deepest experiences of his life. Merely to be in the presence of any human being, however lowly, caused him pleasure. Merely to know that any woman could be his wife astonished him. Here is his charming stanza (from the poem “The Beatific Vision”) written, with that detached devotion which is the essence of pure love, to Frances Blogg Chesterton.

But what shall God not ask of him
In the last time when all is told
Who saw her stand beside the hearth,
The firelight garbing her in gold.

“The first philosophy” will not cause a prophet or a superman. It will not create a new cosmos, devise a new civilization, or evolute a new era. Hence, little of our modern thinking is done in terms of it. But it will give one a healthy, happy, hilarious outlook upon things as they are, capable of making every ordinary thing appear as a portent. “It is to the ordinary man that odd things seem extraordinary,” wrote Chesterton, “to the extraordinary man they are simply ordinary.” Chesterton preferred to be, and always was, in however extraordinary a way, the ordinary man. “A thing worth doing at all is worth doing badly” was one of his profundities in the realm of common sense. He refused to allow the oddness of the world to be destroyed by familiarity. He felt the short space of a man’s life was not time enough in which to exhaust the strangeness of the world, or alter his own position in it as a stranger. Rather than lose a sense of the strangeness of things (which metaphysics calls “their contingency”) he was prepared to look at the universe standing on his head.

I have not read all of Chesterton’s books. But I have read enough to know that his outstanding talent was the one I have indicated, and that I can expect abundant manifestations of it wherever I turn in his writings. And so, before I leave him, I pay him a great compliment, indeed one of the greatest I think I could possibly pay. I call him “the laughing metaphysician.” He laughed loudly at himself, which is humility; and he made others laugh, which is charity.

1. This total is generous enough to include ten items which are more pamphlet-sized than book-sized. But it does not include fourteen books in which he collaborated, three books contracted for but not published, nor the great number of introductions he wrote for other peoples’ books.

2. In fairness to my reader, I think I must say that, as far as I myself am concerned, this is a speculative arrangement, not a practical one. The metaphysical scheme I here outlined seems to me sound enough, but, unfortunately, except in the case of geniuses and saints, it is unfeasible for the general run of us. It is thoroughly unfeasible for me. Unlike Chesterton, I cannot say that I discovered the Doctrine of Original Sin before it was revealed to me. Without my Faith, I should certainly be prone to cope with the ignorance, ugliness and iniquity of man by equalizing in him the functions of philosopher, poet and mystic. But, alas, I know from Revelation that Original Sin has lessened the wonder and warmth of the human mind and left it with little more than a sense of curiosity. At least it is in terms of mere curiosity that nearly all education is now pursued. Curiosity, if thorough enough, will make a fairly good logician (e.g., Mr. Mortimer Adler). The logician wants problems to solve. He regrets the point where problems threaten to become mysteries, where curiosity must cease and let contemplation come in. But, unfortunately again, contemplation can never return to the human race wholesale, and never in the full pristine innocence in which Adam enjoyed it when he surveyed everything with a child’s insight and went around calling the animals by name. With our loss of the power of contemplation, the simple beauty and goodness of things has disappeared. We are left with nothing but the cold truth on our hands: “the bitter truth,” “the hard painful truth,” that must be pieced together by the patient study not of things in themselves, but of things in their causes. Apart from the liturgy of the supernatural, which is safeguarded by the Church, and the special illumination of Grace, which is the free gift of the Holy Spirit, I find no reliable poetry or mysticism in this world. And so I am content to amble along with the philosophers as my best guides, knowing that they have taught me all I know, and hoping that Faith will fulfill in me what their dialectics never can.

(The Leonard Feeney Ominibus, Sheed and Ward, New York, 1943)


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