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26th of February 2018

Moral Values

G.K. Chesterton and the Rehabilitation of Eros - The Imaginative Conservative

We should consider G.K. Chesterton the great liberator and purifier of eros, fighting for its rights in the great civilizational turmoil of his times, and doing it in a strict accordance with the great philosophical and theological tradition of the West, not only Christian—but also Pagan…

“There are more than enough considerations that might keep us from committing ourselves to the subject of love. After all, we need only leaf through a few magazines at the barber’s to want not to let the word ‘love’ cross our lips for a good long time.”[1] These words, serving as the opening sentences of Josef Pieper’s philosophical masterpiece On Love, though published in 1972, seem to have lost nothing of their actuality; love is a dangerous subject to treat. Seemingly ubiquitous (especially now, in the era of its alleged “liberation”), it can physically tire the eye and the ear of the author; rare and impossibly elusive at a closer look, it can exhaust him mentally, and leave him bitterly disappointed for a very long time. And yet, it is quite impossible not to treat it; being the source and animating inspiration of all our volitional acts (“principium omnium voluntiarum affectionum” says St. Thomas[2]), and thus defining us in action as subjects, it interests us supremely—not to mention that it carries a deeper mystery; and indeed, even in the Pagan tradition of the Ancients we can find traces of this primordial intuition: love is what the world results from.[3]

But how is it related to Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and can he even help us in this matter? Superficially, at least, the answer should be in the affirmative. Chesterton was a Christian writer, and if Christianity contributed anything truly original to the world of thought (apart from existential metaphysics, but we do not have to trouble ourselves with trifles here), it was the theory of love (as Etienne Gilson observed, here the Christian thinkers found but little helps in the Greeks[4]), examined and handled from all possible angles: theologico-mystical (with St. Augustine), purely theological (with. St. Thomas Aquinas), purely mystical (with St. Bernard of Clairvaux), and—finally—purely philosophical (with Jacques Maritain). However, if we look at the matter more closely, it becomes perplexingly problematic. Chesterton seldom ever wrote about love, and especially about love metaphysically considered (he surely wrote about love between man and woman, like in The Superstition of Divorce, but he would rather talk about marriage than love as such), and his quite peculiar (for some, at least) disinclination to deal openly with the matters of the Cross has not gone unnoticed.[5] Disinclination being a fact, what some critics has made of it is another matter; and there is at least one great example of how deep understanding of the question Chesterton possessed, and how subtly he could write about it when he chose to—and in The New Jerusalem it was precisely “the pale pattern of the Cross” Chesterton placed at the foundation of the Western civilization,[6] this “pale pattern” being not altogether disconnected from “the plantations of pale crosses seeming to crop up like living things” in the small villages and towns of France Chesterton saw during his journey to Palestine,[7] and thus—with the cross of his brother, a British soldier, who died in France in 1918 just before the First World War ended. Yet, it has to be admitted, such fragments are—in Chesterton’s writings—indeed very rare, and he seems to have been preoccupied with different matters

What matters? Could there be anything more important than the Love Sacrificial that redeemed mankind, and could have redeemed it with a single drop of blood, or “a single cry of pity,”[8] and in which all Christians now participate as “co-redemptors”?[9] Well, in the absolute sense no; but relatively? The problem of love is a complex one; and the Love of the Cross, though definitely of the supreme importance in Christian vision of love, was never the only aspect of this vision. There is the agape, love sacrificial, but there is also eros, possessive love (one that wants to assimilate, not to give[10]); and love indeed, as Josef Pieper, in his masterpiece already mentioned, never tires to instruct us.[11] Perhaps for some, this observation seems a bit banal, but it should not; in the history of the Western culture, especially after the Reformation, the status of eros has been a subject of a heated debate, with the conclusions usually not too beneficial for its cause. The Protestant mentality has always treated eros with suspicion and doubt. Andres Nygren, a prominent Luthern theologian (and the bishop of Lundt), went as far as to deny (not explicitly, but definitely practically) eros the title of love,[12] and Karl Barth (we do not need to introduce Karl Barth) openly stated that “every moment of tolerance (sic!) for eros-love would be a decidedly unchristian moment.”[13] We are dealing here with the hate of the self (a phrase originally coined by Luther himself[14]) of an almost heroic character, a cult of disinterestedness bordering (or, as Josef Pieper would say—more than just bordering) on sheer moral impossibilism.[15] Obviously, it is not agape, the Love Sacrificial, that is the problem here; it is precisely eros, self-love, that is. It is the classic example of what Chesterton called “the old Christian virtues gone mad”[16]; of so valuing the higher thing as to completely devalue the lower. Would it have not been natural thus if Chesterton, in his treatment of the problem of love, had felt inclined to deal rather with eros, not agape? To try to supplement what was lacking, not to further develop the over-developed? Chesterton’s disinclination to write about sacrificial love was not a result of his theological negligence, but of the acute sense of observation—of the fact that he knew his own culture, Protestant culture, well.

Knowing this, we might examine some of Chesterton’s most famous passages in a different light—and definitely in a wider context. Let us first examine some of them. In Orthodoxy, for example, Chesterton lays considerable stress on the notion of happiness; in “The Suicide of Thought,” while debating the various voluntarists of his age (most notably George Bernard Shaw, whom he accused of puritanism, which in this context tells a lot), he accuses them that by abandoning the old “standard of the desire for happiness” they betrayed reason, and a little bit further he concludes (in the typical manner of his):

The real difference between the test of happiness and the test of will is simply that the test of happiness is a test and the other isn’t. You can discuss whether a man’s act in jumping over a cliff was directed towards happiness; you cannot discuss whether it was derived from will. Of course it was. You can praise an action by saying that it is calculated to bring pleasure or pain to discover truth or to save the soul. But you cannot praise an action because it shows will; for to say that is merely to say that it is an action.[17]

Obviously, the most apparent aim of this passage is negative in character; it is proving that Shaw’s voluntarism is in itself philosophically, intellectually, futile and dissatisfying. But there is something deeper in that too, which finds confirmation and development in the further parts of the book. Thus in “The Ethics of Elfland” the motive of personal happiness returns, and while describing his intellectual “journey to fairyland” Chesterton says that

[T]he strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness [emphasis added] is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom.[18]

Chesterton felt grateful, but he did not stop there; gratefulness was in his case but a result, not a cause, a sign, not the principle. The principle, the ultimate reality, was happiness – a state so precious that worthy of every effort; worthy of agreeing to most incomprehensible restrictions, and obeying most incomprehensible laws (for “an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition”[19]); here, the case is clear, and happiness becomes—in a sense at least—the most important factor in life, the indisputable center of existential orientation. In this context, the first of the cited fragments acquires a new significance; and it seems quite possible that one might see a positive aspect to it, hidden—as it were—behind the immediately accessible veil of controversy.

For what is Orthodoxy ultimately? “A slovenly autobiography”—in Chesterton’s own words,[20] but not just a simple autobiography, but an autobiography that also serves, in the words of William Oddie, as a manifestation of the “theological equilibrium” of the Chesterton’s intellect,[21] his first truly mature work that was to remain a permanent basis (in not as to letter, then definitely as to spirit) of his literary works; in other words—a story of intellectual maturation, told not in the terms of events, but of ideas. And what does Chesterton communicate in his story, what does he tell other young people who strive to find themselves? “What we have to teach the young man of the future, is how to enjoy himself. Until he can enjoy himself, he will grow more and more tired of enjoying everything else. What we have to teach him is to amuse himself.”[22]—these words, written for the radio address Chesterton delivered in 1936 (so belonging to what might be called his “late” writings) sum the thing up quite efficiently. What a young man striving to find himself in the world has to do, is to learn to be happy, to learn to want to be happy—and stop being ashamed of it, regardless of what Mr. Bernard Shaw, and the culture that he represents, tells him.

Why is it so important for our case? Now, as might be suspected, because this is precisely the definition of eros as conceived in the classic perspective of Western thought; eros is not just mere egocentrism, a lowly desire to subordinate the world to your needs, but something quite different; “the desire for full existence, for existential exaltation,” the cry of the creature that lings for its Creator.[23] Or, in other words, a desire for happiness properly so called. Every creature is a beggar before God, as C.S. Lewis reminds us.[24] Of course, this grand desire works in different ways; it diversifies itself into a manifold of urges, and indeed—into love of “nature, wine, singing”[25] (this only confirms the fact that love is intrinsically analogous, and as vast as being itself), into enjoyments of simple bodily pleasures, but all of these urges “point to” (so to speak) one single thing; and this thing sublime. And it is because of that that the great Christian mystics could for centuries maintain what Etienne Gilson summed up with his usual elegance: “the whole Christian conception of love is this: that all human pleasure is desireable, but none ever suffices.”[26]

Now if we look at Chesterton’s writings from this perspective—what do we get? For example, everybody knows Chesterton loved doing things for pure pleasure—even if it seems to us now dangerously like guilty pleasure. He loved a good smoke; he loved a good drink; he battled Prohibition, Teetotalism, Puritanism and, incidentally, Islam—all in the name of drinking; he frequently referred to the fact that Christianity “made wine a sacrament”[27] and drew far-reaching conclusions from that. But what was the true motive here—the true meaning of this peculiar crusade? Now precisely this: That the “love” of drinking, which is—in most cases—just pleasure for its own sake, is the manifestation of a larger desire; that they have at their background something thrilling and mysterious—and though this “something” is not identical with them, nay—it surpasses them almost infinitely, in ordinary circumstances men do not possess any other manner of expressing it. If not seen in this light, Chesterton’s anti-teetotalist campaign might seem a little excessive; a little nonsensical, even; but the point is that it should be seen in this light.

Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.[28]

Now, there is no time or point to dwell upon this matter for too long, but if we read this famous passage from Heretics with proper care and attention—does it not allude precisely to this, in so far that it is in the nature of eros that being happy means striving to be happy, and the happier we are here on earth the more we long for some other happiness, that is not from this world? This is why for the Greeks eros was a powerful spiritual force, a theia mania, inspiring men to transcend the limitations of existence and reach for the divine[29]—but also, as it would seem, something different; for could it really be just an accident that Socrates revealed the mysteries of this mania in a friendly conversation at a feast?

And, incidentally, is this fact irrelevant for the question of drink as such?

Anyway, the whole matter seems worth considering; especially Chesterton. I have no illusions I will convince anybody after such a short examination. But perhaps it would be beneficial at least to try reading Chesterton’s works in this perspective and see what happens? Maybe nothing; but maybe something. Definitely, though only incidentally, what we could achieve, is a more piercing insight into the eros-agape relation as defined in our culture according to two contrasting perspectives, the Protestant one, and the Catholic one (neither one of which being either fully Protestant and fully Catholic, by the way of parenthesis). We could definitely better understand the reason why William Oddie called Orthodoxy (quite rightly, in my opinion) “an essentially Christian and Catholic” book.[30] And we might see more of this face of Gilbert Keith Chesterton that he has not yet been given a proper occasion to reveal in full (though, of course, people have seen glimpses of it, and not in few places)—the great liberator and purifier of eros, fighting for its rights in the great civilizational turmoil of his times, and doing it in a strict accordance with (and, in a sense, in the name of) the great philosophical and theological (and simply religious) tradition of the West, not only Christian—but also Pagan. Of course, I am not saying that he did it in the same manner as Plato or Thomas Aquinas, or Josef Pieper (for that matter); he did it as he did all things—in his own way, as a journalist and popular writer. But he did it nonetheless.

And this is perhaps the most interesting element of the matter.

Well, obviously, there is another very interesting element that we should not omit; for is it not just a tad paradoxical to say that Chesterton, a Christian writer, and a defender of the “old morals” fought for eros in what proved to be the beginnings of the contemporary civilization, with its almost madly acquisitive character, the civilization of desires unrestrained, of “sexual revolution,” casting aside the old prudery and bigotry and producing (so painstakingly) a new man—a man finally at ease with his libido? Could there be anything more “erosic” (or simply erotic, in quite a wider sense) than this?

Well, I suppose it is the unique trait of Chesterton as a controversialist—that he was extremely skillful at raising good questions; and if the good question is raised, perhaps the best we could do is sit down, and try to answer it.

For—could there?

Author’s Note: This essay is of a popular character, and was never intended to be anything else; if I decided to keep the endnotes, it was not to increase my authority, but rather to suggest to the Reader some possibilities of further rumination as to this immensely interesting and existentially involving topic. 


[1]Josef Pieper, On Love, trans. Richard and Clara Winston in: Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), p. 145.

[2]Questiones disputate de caritate, 21.

[3]Josef Pieper, The Platonic Myths, trans. Dan Farelly (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011), p. 38. Pieper writes about the famous passage from Plato’s Timaeus, which states that the Demiurgos made the world “because he was good”; but is it not true what Jacques Maritain wrote in his Preface to Metaphysics—that good and love are inseparable? In any case, humanity from the times immemorial conceived love to be what it became in the intuitions of the poets; “all that is.”

[4]Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, trans. A.H.C. Downes (Notre Dame: University of Norte Dame Press, 2015), p. 269.

[5]Mark Knight, Chesterton and Evil (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), p. 76.

[6]Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (United States: Watchmaker Publishing, 2010), p. 17.

[7]Ibidem, p. 15.

[8]Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne, trans. Michael Cuddihy and Elizabeth Hughes (Eugen, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2011), p. 246.

[9]Ibidem, p. 247.

[10]Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics, trans. unknown (London: Sheed & Ward, 1943), p. 72.

[11]Pieper, On Love, p. 222.

[12]Andres Nygren, “Agape and Eros,” trans. Philip S. Watson in: Alan Soble ed., Eros, Agape and Philia (St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 1989), p. 93.

[13]Pieper, On Love, p. 216.

[14]Ibidem, p. 211.

[15]Ibidem, p. 214.

[16]Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy (United States: Popular Classics Publishing, 2012), p. 18.

[17]Ibidem, pp. 23-24.

[18]Ibidem, p. 33.

[19]Ibidem, p. 34.

[20]Ibidem, p. 7.

[21]William Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 383.

[22]Gilbert Keith Chesterton, In Defense of Sanity, ed. Dale Ahlquist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), p. 379.

[23]Pieper, On Love, pp. 233-234.

[24]C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Collins: London, 2012), p. 4.

[25]Pieper, On Love, p. 146.

[26]Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, p. 271.

[27]Gilbert Keith Chesterton, “The Patriotic Idea” in: Lucian Oldershaw ed., England: A Nation Being the Papers of the Patriots’ Club (London and Edinburgh: R. Brimley Johnson, 1904), p. 7.

[28]Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Heretics (Mineloa, New York: Dover Publications, 2006), p. 53.

[29]Pieper, On Love, p. 155.

[30]Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, p. 379.

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