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Patrick A Daley
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Heretics is somewhat neglected in Chesterton's oeuvre, possibly because it is an early work (1905), and many of the writers discussed are out of fashion now. Yet, I believe Heretics contains not only his best writing, but it already establishes the main themes of his life's work.
Technically, it is a book of literary criticism, but from an unusual point of view, that of his subjects' philosophy.
"I am not concerned with Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a heretic--that is to say, a man whose philosophy is solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong." (p. 22)
Brilliant though he was, Shaw expected reality to conform to an inhuman ideal:
"He has all the time been silently comparing humanity with something that was not human, with a monster from Mars, with the Wise Man of the Stoics, with the Economic Man of the Fabians, with Julius Caesar, with Siegfried, with Superman. Now, to have this inner and merciless standard may be a very good thing, or a very bad one, it may be excellent or unfortunate. but it is not seeing things as they are." (pp. 62-63)
This is excellent writing, whether we entirely agree or not. It may be a little unfair to Shaw, but it is fair to life.
Chesterton is often called an optimist. But he knew the other side, as anyone reading Alzina Stone Dale's life, The Outline of Sanity, can find out. Joy in living, good beer, conversation, balance, sanity, these were achievements, not just nature.
I have managed to find a couple of books by George A. Moore, including his autobiographical novel portraying the Paris of the Impressionists of the 1870s and 1880s, Confessions of a Young Man. One tends to regard it as a memoir, and Chesterton did so. Chesterton attacks his egoism, the interest in the world as related to his own temperament:
"We should really be much more interested in Mr. Moore if he were not quite so interested in himself. We feel as if we were being shown through a gallery of really fine pictures, into each of which, by some useless and discordant convention, the artist had represented the same figure in the same attitude. 'The Grand Canal with a distant view of Mr. Moore," "Effect of Mr. Moore through a Scotch Mist,' 'Mr. Moore by Firelight,' 'Ruins of Mr. Moore by Moonlight,' and so on seems to be the endless series." (pp. 131-132)
That has to be one of the funniest sentences ever written, and I could barely type it for laughing. A bit later on the page, Chesterton gives his vision of originality:
"Thinking about himself will lead to trying to be the universe; trying to be the universe will lead to ceasing to be anything. If, on the other hand, a man is sensible enough to think only about the universe; he will think about it in his own way. He will keep virgin the secret of God; he will see the grass as no other man can see it, and look at a sun that no man has ever known."
There is no space to mention all the wonderful writing in Heretics. I will mention his often expressed view of the narrowness of the larger world, where one can choose one's companions, as opposed to the nation, the neighborhood or the family, where one has to take people the way they are, with all their foibles.
"The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day he was born." (p. 190)
As always, Chesterton's ideas are eminently discussable! No commentary of mine could do justice to the variety, wisdom, and good humour in this book. The best thing would be to find a copy and read it.
I have the John Lane edition, 1905.