An Analysis of Chesterton and Nietzsche
Imagine the lame giant of the Victorian age stumbling about in the darkness, wrestling with an unseen opponent. It pries the crushing grip of a hand from its throat only to discover the hand is its own. Imagine two explorers on opposites sides of a great ocean. Anchors are weighed, and each explorer sets out to see just beyond the horizon, to sail beyond the sunset. They collide amidships in the midnight fog and breeze, but they continue their journeys. They reach land, utter words of praise and thanks, plant their flags and claim their claims only to discover that they had each returned to "conquer" their homelands. G.K. Chesterton and Friedrich Nietzsche embarked on cyclical
journeys. Using their explorations in "Orthodoxy" and Beyond Good and Evil, their courses can be mapped toward self discovery. A dynamic relationship exists in examining and understanding their similar philosophical motivations and the resulting overlapping arguments. They both launch scathing attacks on reason; they conceal their ultimate meanings through complexity: one through paradox, the other with the metaphor of the mask; they both advocate the reawakening of a child-like sense of wonder, and ultimately, they found their ethical systems on courage. Using the same philosophical tools, each thinker carves out a completely unique niche into intellectual history: one within the framework of orthodox Christianity, the other as a forefather of modern Existential thought.
Chesterton set "Orthodoxy" in the context of a personal statement of faith and as a retort to Mr. G.S. Street's critique of his earlier work "Heretics." Street claimed that "Heretics" did not provide the reader with a sense of Chesterton's Orthodoxy (Ho11is 8). Orthodoxy
"0perated as an informed yet extremely powerful
Christian apology. Chesterton asked the fundamental
question, "How can we contrive to be at once
astonished at the world and yet at home in it?"
Chesterton believed that Victorians had lost the ability to experience the wonder of the world and still feel welcomed by it simultaneously. The familiar and the unfamiliar could and should exist without hostility.
This thought made most Victorians shudder, because according to Chesterton, Victorian society had gone mad because his society relied too heavily upon reason. A great
chasm existed between reason and intuition, and Victorians
did not throw many bridges over the darkness to cross the gap (Lea 93). Instead, they wa11owed in reason and it made
them mad. "Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad, but chess players do.. ." (Chesterton 219). Mad people held
blindly to a "reasonable" ideology. These ideologies were
fundamentally based upon the denial of the filth and waste in human existence. "They essentially deny human sin, which they can see on the street" (Chesterton 217). Chesterton attacked philosophies that totalize, that essentially made incomprehensible, concepts comprehensible by inscribing them within the bounds of reason.
Nietzsche claimed that all knowledge was falsification. Thought was the supreme act of ego; it was an act of possession. Abstract concepts, people, places became objectified and subject to a rational truth (Nietzsche 23). "Philosophy always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise" (Nietzsche 16). Beyond Good and Evil was a critique of the rational basis for morality. "Truth" became the great assimilator when it fell prey to reason. Good, evil, and truth were given meaning through reason. Nietzsche began with the question, "Supposing truth were a woman, what then?", because all supposed objective truths would be shaken if this one assertion were "true" (Nietzsche 1). Truth and morality were obsolete because they were reasonable (Nietzsche 12).
Chesterton's attack was not focused at a particular group. He saw emptiness in materialism and Darwinism
which objectified the universe in the term cosmos (Chesterton 22). He also accused modern religions of being spiritually contracted.
"They are universal in the sense that they take one
thin explanation and carry it very far. But a
pattern can stretch forever and still be a small
pattern" (Chesterton 25).
Nietzsche claimed that reason had become
synonymous with nature and that nature taught humanity its need for limitations, its desire for narrowness (Nietzsche 102). The true task of each individual was to break free from such limits. Ironically, Nietzsche himself gladly accepted some limitations, his belief in raw sensibility. "All evidence of truth comes from the senses" (Nietzsche 88). In Chesterton's estimation, Nietzsche's adherence to a doctrine of sensuality made Nietzsche mad.
It was not the limitations that reason imposed upon society to which Chesterton objected most profusely, for he acknowledged that intelligent ideas confine the mind. They forced the mind to operate within a specific framework (Chesterton 226). Reason sought to eliminate doubt, to destroy mystery, and this G.K. Chesterton could not tolerate. The source of Nietzsche's madness was not the fact that he had boxed himself up within an idea, but that the box was absolute and offered no means of escape (Chesterton 229). Chesterton sought to preserve the most profound mystery of the universe through mysticism in order to make everything else logical. Reason was simply a matter of faith.
"To utilize reason at all requires a certain
Christians, depend on faith" (Hill 232).
In this manner doubt was not destroyed by the Victorians; it was simply misplaced. Victorians doubted Divine reason instead of their own. Rather than doubt modern scientific rational truth, it was easier to call into question a truth beyond human understanding, beyond proof. A sense of powerlessness, paralysis and apathy was the result (Chesterton 235). This same discovery led Nietzsche to believe that philosophy, the tyrannical drive," was killing God and, with God, human passion (Nietzsche 66).
Both Nietzsche and Chesterton agreed that reason was a
tool. Where Nietzsche sought to transcend this tool and be
free, Chesterton attempted to reconcile and re-establish the connection between reason and intuition, between thought and action.
favor of the simplicity of singularity" (Hill 242).
In order to communicate the complex relationship between reality and reason, reality and faith, G.K. Chesterton reveled in the power of paradox. Put simply, a paradox was "truth turned on its head" (Hollis 26). In accepting a paradox, one was forced to deal with inherent contradictions without having the ability to synthesize, a quality also characteristic of life. Christianity was at its heart the supreme paradox. Christ himself was fully human and fully divine; the orthodoxy that surrounded his teaching was thus pragmatic and mystical simultaneously. According to Chesterton only Christianity was so steeped in paradox that God was actually able to revolt against Himself asking, "Why have you forsaken me?". "Christianity declared it was a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite" (Chesterton 297). God was distant, separate, unassailable, but with faith in God came a sense of wholeness and universality. The chain of paradoxes was as endless and diverse as life itself. Perhaps "Orthodoxy" itself serves as the best testimony to Chesterton's cyclical use of paradox. He attempted to create heresy and ended advocating orthodoxy (Chesterton 214).
Nietzsche concealed ultimate meanings in his writing in order to prevent his work from being distilled into objective truths. His writing was and continues to be often misunderstood. It resisted all attempts at universal comprehension because it was masked (Nietzsche 229).
"Every profound spirit needs a mask; even more,
around every profound spirit a mask is growing
continually" (Nietzsche 51).
The reader was invited to engage the text only at a tangent to Nietzsche's intentions and ideas: through the mask of harsh language he had donned when writing the book. Thus, communication was a method of concealment as well as a method of relaying basic information (Nietzsche 92). Perhaps Chesterton failed to see the face behind the mask when he questioned Nietzsche's courage and conviction.
"Nietzsche was not at all bold. He never put his
own meaning before himself in bald abstract words...
Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical
metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said 'beyond
'more good than good and evil'.. .Had he faced his
thought without metaphor he would have seen that it
was nonsense" (Chesterton 309).
Ironically, both authors stress the need for courage to enact their moral/philosophical views. Nietzsche's fierce desire not to be understood, even by a formidable mind like Chesterton, was a supreme act of courage. True courage stemmed from an ability to exercise one's Will to Power which was the will of life (Nietzsche 203). The ability to slough off the morality of the herd, Christianity, and act upon one's own will, to freely choose, became more important than what was chosen. "Thus an occasional will to stupidity" (Nietzsche 84). To be a master was to show courage where slaves fell victim to morality because they were too weak or too afraid to live authentically and independently (Nietzsche 209). To live passionately, to authentically relate to other individuals, one must assert one's ego in the interests of self preservation. Most people did not "mature" in this manner. In Nietzche' s estimation "a man's maturity consists in having found again the seriousness of a child at play" (Nietzsche 83). Chesterton was a coward. He could have been a master but became a slave, and a spokesman for other slaves and slavery itself!
For all Nietzsche's rallying cries for courageous action to would be masters, little action resulted. Nietzsche's courage was hollow and ineffectual to Chesterton. He compared Nietzsche to Joan of Arc to prove his point.
Where the will was liberating to Nietzsche, Chesterton found freedom in possessing the courage to accept orthodoxy and 'its manifold paradox. Nietzsche's freedom was ephemeral at ,best. Inherent in the concept of will was a desire for self limitation. A choice, once made, was an acceptance of something and a rejection of everything else. "Art is limitation. The essence of every picture is a frame" (Chesterton 243). In essence, freedom had enslaved itself (Chesterton 240). All choices had the same moral weight if Nietzsche was correct in stating that the choice itself was singularly important. Hitler's decision to commit genocide and a decsion to eat a ham sandwich cannot be separated (Chesterton 246). Change itself had become unchangeable; it had become institutionalized and, thus reified in the Marcusian sense of the word.
Only the bastion of orthodoxy preserved an element of
eternal revolution to Chesterton. In order to accept the
conflicts embedded in the living tradition, Christians must
have courage. They must "seek life in a spirit of furious
indifference to it. Desire life like water but drink death
like wine" (Chesterton 297). He refuted the apathy and resignation of late Victorians like Matthew Arnold by by claiming that the source of their despair was an inability
to find meaning in the universe, a basic lack of courage (Chesterton 362). As a devoted advocate of democracy, he
the Christian tradition as a compliment rather than an
insult. To this he added that tradition and democracy were
merely expressions of the same ideal. Tradition was
democracy extended through time, "the democracy of the dead" (Chesterton 251). Tradition taught Chesterton that humanity had Fallen from Grace. As we were created we were separated from God. We Fell to Earth and with this Fall we became free but obligated to acknowledge an ethical covenant that was broken when we were created. Chesterton's ethical argument was based on a courage of restraint as well as action. Ethics depended on action and inaction. (Chesterton 260). Tradition reminded each generation of its ethical obligation. Each generation, was free, of course, to ignore the teachings of tradition. Understanding and accepting the fact that humanity was separate from God and, thus, ethically fallen and morally responsible was the key to Chesterton's sense of joy.
As a child G.K. discovered ethics, mysticism, and a
sense of adventure through fairy tales (Chesterton 252).
Mothers and fathers were the first source of loving authority and children were protected by their teachings.
He suggested that conversion, acceptance of orthodoxy, was like entering a second Childhood. This echoed Nietzsche's desire to regain" the seriousness of a child at play" with
one great distinction. Catholic doctrine erected walls, but they were the walls of a playground not a prison. Children
were born upside down and Christianity set child-like adults on their feet (Chesterton 363). Joy meant to have the courage to abandon one's self and float with the flux of life, to exult in monotony, to dare to look upon each
experience as if it never happened before and will never
happen again, to laugh and revel in levity. Christianity was a living teacher of joy in the moment and of eternity.
Chesterton thought Nietzsche's greatest fault was his
inability to laugh (Chesterton 364).
"This is the last essential of the Victorian. Laugh
at him as a limited man, a moralist, a
conventionalist, an opportunist, a formalist. But
remember also that he was really a humorist and may
be laughing at you " (Victorian 78).
Both men ardently desired to uncover a true mode of
relation. They were separated by joy and passion. Perhaps
this division can be articulated more clearly using
Chesterton's rediscovery of his own Christian ethic: the sin of suicide and the glory of the martyr. Suicide was the
ultimate act of ego. "The man who kills himself, kills all
men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world" (Chesterton 276). Whereas the martyr sacrificed himself for the sake of the world, an act of love, of supreme recognition that something exists outside one's self (Chesterton 277). To Nietzsche, however, martyrdom was a pathetic act of slavery and only suicide brought solace to him. "The thought of suicide is a powerful comfort: it helps one through many a dreadful night" (Nietzsche 91).
Joy and passion do not necessarily oppose one another. Nevertheless, they are separate and distinct modes of relation. Shrouded in complexities, it may well be impossible to tell whether G.K. Chesterton was secretly laughing, beneath his paradoxes, whether Nietzsche was sneering behind his mask.
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