The Mistake About Chesterton: Christopher Hitchens’ Review of the Ian Ker Bio
Christopher Hitchens may not have experienced the death bed conversation to Christianity that he seems to have feared, but he did spend his final days reading Ian Ker’s bio of GK Chesterton, which suggests that Christianity continued to fascinate and intrigue Hitchens right up to the end, even as he remained eager to denigrate and dismiss it. “Confrontation with GKC,” Hitchens sums up toward the end of his review of Ker’s biography, “has been enjoyable even if the main elements of the debate have come to seem extraordinarily archaic.”
As much as I enjoyed the review, I’m not sure it amounts to a genuine confrontation with GKC. For Hitchens, Chesterton’s moral and political vision is archaic simply because it is Catholic. This Hitchens simply takes to be self-evident, though in fact it is precisely what needs to be established if Hitchens is going to deliver a TKO to Chesterton’s Catholicism.
Throughout the review, a pattern of “what the one hand giveth, the other taketh away” repeats itself. Chesterton is praised for his charm and poetic talent, but then shown to be under the pernicious influence of a religion that poisons everything. Thus, for example, Hitchens praises Chesterton’s “magic faculty of being unforgettable” as a poet, only to condemn Lepanto and “The Secret People” for identifying the English people with Catholicism. Hitchens goes on to condemn Chesterton’s literary criticism on similar grounds:
Chesterton hoped to show that the English had seen through the Protestant Reformation, and would survive it because they liked those who laughed. Yet the life of the great Samuel Johnson, we learn, was constrained because of “the absence of the pleasures of religion” in it. There’s something weirdly self-regarding about that formulation, especially coming as it does from a man who believed that the great English strength—deployed all along a rampart of joviality and confidence that extends from Chaucer’s Tabard Inn to Charles Dickens’s own prospect of Kent and the Medway—is founded on mirth. The sort of mirth that puffs away fanaticism and narrowness need have no connection to “the pleasures of religion.” Behind this crude camouflage, we can see being wheeled into position a large block of stone or paper, incised or authored by Cardinal John Henry Newman but helped along by Chesterton’s own main force, on which all the needs and promptings and moral suasions of the English people will need to be sternly written down.
As with the poetry, Chesterton’s literary criticism is undermined by his slavish adherence to Catholicism.
Hitchens rightly recognizes that Chesterton understands Catholicism to be at odds with all other schools of philosophy — whether liberal, socialist, theosophist, or Protestant. (This understanding is particularly apparent in The Ballad of the White Horse, toward the end of which Chesterton prophesies that the heathens who attacked Wessex with sword and lance would one day wage war against Christendom with pen and paper.) The other essential point here is that, no matter what he is writing about – whether Prussia, Shaw, capitalism, or even rotten apples – Chesterton understands his subject through the lens of Catholicism.
A genuine confrontation with Chesterton would require one of two things on Hitchens’ part. Either Hitchens would need to show that Catholicism as understood by Chesterton is untenable, morally blameworthy, or the like, or he would need to show that viewing the world through the lens of Catholicism leads Chesterton into error or confusion. Hitchens does make a few feeble attempts at both, but rather than addressing the strongest arguments of his opponent — as any serious polemist must do — Hitchens merely throws rhetorical rocks at Chesterton.
Hitchens throws his first rock at Chesterton’s great poem, Lepanto:
. . . by making it seem as if [Protestants] were to be condemned for their neutrality and abstention at Lepanto, he confines his chosen people inside the enclave that had been fashioned for them by some rather strict Catholic intellectuals: intellectuals who were later to get themselves on the wrong side of Europe’s most important quarrel by being shady on the question of Fascism.
Now, it may be that certain Catholic intellectuals were at the time “shady” on fascism. (I don’t claim to know one way or the other.) What is clear, however, is that Chesterton was not shady on fascism — as Hitchens should have learned from the biography itself. Hitchens reports that, following his trip to Rome, Chesterton equivocated between liberalism and fascism:
In the late 1920s and early ’30s, [an alliance between distributism and Catholicism] was actually an unpromising initiative, as Chesterton failed to note when he traveled to Rome and saw Mussolini and formed the verdict that while Fascism could be criticized as hypocritical to the point of flagrance, the same could surely be said of liberal democracy. This shows the moth-eaten fringe of absurdity that always hung around his political reflections, as it did his vastly draped and histrionic form.
In fact, Chesterton not only did not equivocate between fascism and liberalism; he openly identified as a liberal. Here is the relevant passage from Ker’s biography (p. 660):
The truth was that Mussolini did “openly what enlightened, liberal and democratic governments” did “secretly,” which, unlike Mussolini, were “acting against their principles.” And Chesterton “personally” preferred “to live in a world of reality”, where freedom of speech was openly prohibited rather than secretly prevented, where the choice of candidates for parliament was openly rather than secretly limited. The criticism of Fascism was that it appealed to “an appetite for authority, without very clearly giving the authority for the appetite”: it had “brought order into the State”, but this would not be “lasting” unless it also “brought back order into the Mind”. Mussolini talked of “the mistake of ruling by the Majority; and the superiority of an intense and intelligent minority;” but the problem was that, while “after all there is only one majority . . . there are a great many minorities.” In this sense Fascism invited rebels “in principle”, since any minority could “claim the same superiority to Fascism which Fascism claimed to Communism”. Mussolini himself had reacted “too much against the Liberalism of the nineteenth century”, for what was wrong with Liberalism was not Liberalism but “Liberals who were not even true to Liberalism.”
I think it is clear from this passage that Hitchens is badly misrepresenting Chesterton. The early remarks about fascism are intended not as praise for Mussolini, but as a critique of England’s betrayal of liberal democracy — which makes perfect sense, given that Chesterton was an Englishman, not an Italian. Chesterton’s point isn’t that fascism is superior to liberal democracy — quite the contrary, Chesterton’s critique of fascism is quite thorough; his point is that the betrayal of the liberalism that he himself embraces was itself responsible for the rise of fascism.
Later in the essay, Hitchens attempts to discredit Chesterton — and, by extension, Catholicism — by insisting that Chesterton’s faith caused him to misunderstand Nazism as a Protestant heresy. Here I think there is some truth to Hitchen’s remarks. Chesterton tended toward free association in his political and religious musings. At times free association led to startling insights; at other times, Chesterton strained credulity. This was one of them. Not every heresy is a Protestant heresy — certainly not Nazism — yet Chesterton writes:
The racial pride of Hitlerism is of the Reformation by twenty tests; because it divides Christendom and makes all such divisions deeper; because it is fatalistic, like Calvinism, and makes superiority depend not upon choice but only on being of the chosen; because it is Caesaro-Papist, putting the State above the Church, as in the claim of Henry VIII; because it is immoral, being an innovator of morals touching things like Eugenics and Sterility; because it is subjective, in suiting the primal fact to the personal fancy, as in asking for a German God, or saying that the Catholic revelation does not suit the German temper; as if I were to say that the Solar System does not suit the Chestertonian taste. I do not apologize, therefore, for saying that this catastrophe in history has been due to heresy.
Surely Chesterton’s analysis is faulty, but so what? It is not as though he is speaking on behalf of Catholicism in characterizing Nazism as a Protestant heresy. Nor, incidentally, was he speaking on behalf of Catholicism when he attributed all of Shaw’s intellectual shortcomings to his puritanical heritage — also a faulty analysis. Chesterton was not infallible and it is no secret that he tended to play fast-and-loose with facts. The point is that the analysis quoted above is uniquely Chestertonian and not generally Catholic. Moreover, the critical question is whether or not Chesterton’s faulty analysis led him to support or dismiss the threat of the Nazis, which he didn’t; he was, in fact, an outspoken opponent of Nazism, calling it a “catastrophe”.
Hitchens never manages to strike a death blow against Chesterton, let alone Catholicism, in the review. Instead, Hitchens takes his own liberal individualist tradition for granted, as though it were simply objective, true, and unassailable and Chesterton’s Catholicism “extraordinarily archaic.” Hitchens seems to imagine himself debating a foe on par with Creationists and fundamentalists. And yet if Catholicism were such an intellectual dwarf, Hitchens should have no trouble grappling with it. So why then does he reach for rhetorical rocks instead?
The notion that the bible teaches that the earth was made in a literal seven days and therefore conflicts with evolutionary science is simple to grasp and quite clearly false. The notion that classical liberalism oversimplifies things by pitting science against faith and the individual against the community is subtle and therefore somewhat more difficult to grasp, let alone refute. Hitchens makes no effort to confront the genuine threat that Chesterton and Chesterton’s Catholicism poses to his atheistic faith. The reason for this is, I think, clear: Hitchens remained, to the end, unable to see, let alone acknowledge, let alone refute, genuine alternatives to his own worldview. For all his literary brilliance, Hitchens retained up to the end the small-mindedness of the fundamentalists he abhorred and failed to truly grapple with the subtlety and sophistication of Chesterton’s Catholicism.