Sometimes Chesterton’s brilliance leaves me breathless with awe, but most of the time he leaves me feeling like an intellectual midget (not a feeling I particularly enjoy). All Things Considered has moments of genius, but at times it reads like garbled nonsense. Chesterton’s own assessment of himself was that he “suffered from a simplicity verging on imbecility” so maybe that explains it.
Chesterton excuses himself in the book’s introduction by saying that “This is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current subjects for it is mostly concerned with attacking attitudes which are in their nature accidental and incapable of enduring. Brief as is the career of such a book as this, it may last twenty minutes longer than most of the philosophies that it attacks.”
He was right in saying that the book would be outdated twenty minutes after publishing because many of the subjects of the article have long been forgotten. Nevertheless nuggets of gold are sprinkled throughout the book and patient digging turned up the following treasures:
On journalism: For the journalist, having grown accustomed to talking down to the public, commonly talks too low at last, and becomes merely barbaric and unintelligible. By his very efforts to be obvious he becomes obscure. He leads in to darkness by excess of light.
On reformers: It is a fact that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be a reformer; that the man who thought everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better… It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with startled indignation… The pessimist can be enraged at wrong, but only the optimist can be startled [enough to want to change it].
On Shakespeare: Nobody could say that a statue of Shakespeare, even fifty feet high, on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, could define Shakespeare’s position. It only defines our position towards Shakespeare. It is he who is fixed. It is we who are unstable.
On Joan of Arc: It is not for us to explain this flaming figure in terms of our tired and querulous culture. Rather we must try to explain ourselves by the blaze of such fixed stars.
Believe it or not, I have more quotes to share later. I think this post has gone on quite long enough.