Book Review: The Universe According To G.K. Chesterton

The Universe According To G.K. Chesterton:  A Dictionary Of The Mad, Mundane, And Metaphysical, edited by Dale Ahlquist

Admittedly, this book is a bit slight.  More to the point, this book is admitted to be a bit slight by the person who edited this book from many of the writings of G.K. Chesterton, a man who was nothing if not an extremely prolific writer [1].  In fact, this book’s editor notes that people are still trying to sort out all of Chesterton’s works and catalog them, which means that those scholars who appreciate his work and wish to write about it and use it as research have much work to do.  It also means that graduate students looking for original research have much to do with the Chesterton oeuvre that would count as original research, thankfully.  Chesterton was a larger than life person–both literally and intellectually, and this book is a lot less slim than he was, although it makes for an interesting example of how fond he was at definitions.  The fondness for defining terms, sometimes in ways that are strikingly insightful and some in ways that are subjective and not grounded in reality, is a tendency of Chesterton’s work that this particular book exhibits, and it is likely that a deeper examination of Chesterton’s writings will provide more examples of this tendency.

The contents of this volume itself are organized in a very straightforward fashion.  After a short introductory section by the editor, the definitions included in this book are shown in alphabetical order, some of them with photos.  The book as a whole is only about 120 pages long, and each of the definitions is given with a citation of the source among the body of Chesterton’s writings.  Some of the definitions are short and pithy, and some of them are much longer.  Definitions are taken from the wide context of the author’s writings, including his novels and stories as well as his works of literary criticism and his theological and philosophical and historical writings.  The definitions have a wide range of quality as well, but even at their most head-scratching, the definitions provided usually give something for the reader to think about and ponder about, even where the reader may disagree strongly with the tenor of the definitions that is provided.  For example, the author’s known Catholicism gives his definition of that religion a particular quality that is unsupported by the facts and evidence of the author’s own partisanship.

Overall, this work is a diverse one and is full of a great deal of wit and originality.  One can easily imagine many of these entries having been first used as bon mots in debates or spirited dinner conversations.  Some of the definitions are of the author’s time, but a great many of them remain particularly relevant even today.  There is a clear sense that in many respects, and this includes his comments on Germany, for example, that the author was a prophet about the 20th century with a great deal of insight into the societal trends and larger historical patterns we would see.  Particularly heartwarming to this reader is the way that Chesterton skewers Calvinism in several of the definitions, pointing out its abstraction and its general lack of human warmth, at least when one engages in theological debate with many Calvinists, as has been my own fate as well.  I am not sure how many readers will be introduced to Chesterton through this little book, but those who are will likely find enough here to make them curious about some of his other works, of which there are many, thus giving them the worthwhile habit of becoming more familiar with his immense body of work.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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