The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind Of G.K. Chesterton, by Dale Ahlquist
In reading this book there was the frequent feeling that the author was overselling his case in Chesterton’s greatness, and even more so in the greatness of the Roman Catholic Church whose larger agendas he lamentably served. My response to this book was somewhat complex, as might be imagined. I came to appreciate, for one, the way that the author was highly inspired by Chesterton and the wide variety of his writings, only some of which are slightly familiar to me . Anyone who can write movingly on pocket lint has a great deal of personal respect as someone who likewise seeks profound meaning in the triviality and mundane qualities of my existence. On the other hand, I saw in the author’s continual attempts to use the intellect and skill and humility of Chesterton to bolster the protean cultural agendas of the Roman Catholic Church as distinctly unwelcome and deeply ominous. I was left, therefore, with a profound desire to know Chesterton better from his own writings to the extent that is possible while also remaining deeply suspicious of his supposed friends, like this author and others who would use his writing and thinking as popish apologetic writings.
In taking 250 pages to examine the complete nature of Chesterton’s thinking, the author examines a great deal of very serious matters. Probing questions of education, including how to think, as well as the importance in seeking and remaining grounded in truth and wrestling with the limits and frequent imprecision of language, the author then turns to questions of evil, sin, the universe and other little things (like elephants!). The author explores Chesterton’s well known love of paradox in looking at old and new, East and West (Chesterton was a perceptive and early critic of the Buddhism that has become increasingly popular in the West), and war and peace. The author examines Chesterton’s insights into politics, economics, health, life and death, and hope. Towards the end of the book the author examines such issues as being, through Chesterton’s noted literary criticism, and his insights into the exception proving the rule, before including a rare discussion of Chesterton’s decisive but forgotten demolishing of the scientific and philosophical arguments of Clarence Darrow. In the course of these demonstrations of the larger nature of Chesterton’s thinking, the author shines light on a variety of works by Chesterton himself, ranging from philosophical and theological ones to comical sketches and insightful literary criticism on Shakespeare and others, to prescient insights into politics, economics, and international relations. The author even manages to tackle the issue of Chesterton’s bulky weight, showing him to have been a large person but not a glutton, and a prolific writer who nevertheless considered himself slothful, both of which I can relate to all too well, sadly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given my own perspective, Chesterton comes off much better than the author. This book shines when the author puts down his own pen and lets Chesterton speak (or, in this case, write) for himself. In all too many cases, though, the author takes issue with those who would appreciate some aspects of Chesterton’s thinking without appreciating others, apparently feeling that one need appreciate all of the facets of a complicated man in order to truly appreciate any of them. Should I demand to be treated likewise as a similarly complicated and “complete” thinker? Would that be just or humble of me to do so? Again, the author comments on Chesterton’s remarkable humility and his enjoyment in catching people off-guard by taking them seriously and agreeing with them where possible, but unfortunately the author shows himself to be not nearly as great-minded as the subject of his effusive adoration. The author manages the rare achievement of making the reader want to read a lot more of Chesterton and a lot less of himself, although this may not be so upsetting of a conclusion given his high regard for Chesterton, something both the author and I can agree on congenially, however much the author’s strident Catholicism makes me feel deeply uncomfortable.
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