An Informal Review of “Orthodoxy” by GK Chesterton

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by GK Chesterton

While trying to fill my new Kindle Paperwhite I’ve been scanning the free downloads section and came across “Orthadoxy” by GK Chesterton. It wasn’t even close to what I expected, but I came away very glad I read it.


It is not a systematic theology (as I thought it would be) book but a testimonial of the intellectual process by which the author turned from frustrated agnostic into a faithful Christian. It was a very interesting, enjoyable read full of great imagery and creative language, but was sometimes intellectually overwhelming. At times (more often than I would care to admit), I found myself barely hanging on as he explained how his mind processed big ideas like depression, ethics, faith and paradox. I felt like a computer running a program it was never designed for (or Lucy in that famous scene with the chocolates on the conveyer belt).

As I read I often felt like I was living out the poisoned cup scene from The Princess Bride (one of my favourites!). Do you remember it? (Here’s it is on YouTube)

Vizzini: Let me put it this way: have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?

Wesley: Yes.

Vizzini: Morons.

Wesley: Really! In that case, I challenge you to a battle of wits.

Vizzini: For the princess? To the death? I accept!

Wesley: Good, then pour the wine…Inhale this, but do not touch.

Vizzini: I smell nothing

Wesley: What you do not smell is iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid and is among the most deadly poisons known to man.

Vizzini: Hmm

Wesley: All right: where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink and who is right and who is dead.

Vizzini: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine it from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own cup or his enemies. Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach or what he is given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known that I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Wesley: You’ve made your decision then?

Vizzini: Not remotely! Because Iocane comes from Australia. As everyone knows, Australia is entirely peopled with criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them as you are not trusted by me. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

Wesley: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

Vizzini: Wait ’til I get going! Where was I?

Wesley: Australia.

Vizzini: And you must have suspected that I would have known the poison’s origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me!

Wesley: You’re just stalling now.

Vizzini: You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? You’ve beaten my giant, which means that you’re exceptionally strong…so you could have put the poison in your own cup, depending on your strength to save you, so clearly I cannot choose the wine in front of you. But you’ve also bested my Spaniard, which means you must have studied and in studying you must have learned that man is mortal, so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Wesley: You’re trying to trick me into giving away something. It won’t work.

Vizzini: It has worked! You’ve given everything away! I know where the poison is!

Wesley: Then make your choice…

I’m guessing that GK Chesterton and Vizzini could have been good friends because they seem to think alike (and I wouldn’t want to be on a committee with either of them!).

Favourite Quotes

So instead of a formal “review” I thought I’d share some of my favourite quotes from the book that either made me laugh (or more often) pause to think. There were many more than this highlighted on my new Kindle Paperwhite (have I mentioned that I got a new Kindle Paperwhite?), but I found each of these to be worth sharing:

“Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.” (Pg 6)

“Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.” (Pg 9)

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors…. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.” (Pg 40)

“Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once.” (Pg 49)

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” (Pg 52)

“Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic about the world. The coincidence made me suddenly stand still.” (Pg 67)

“A woman loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation. Birth is as solemn a parting as death.” (Pg 70)

“Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong. It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything. It seems a sort of secret treason in the universe. Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable. It escapes the rationalists, but it never escapes till the last moment.” (Pg 74)

“The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades.” (Pg 80)

“Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all…. We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath and love to run wild.” (Pg 88)

“…if there is a wall between you and the world, it makes little difference whether you describe yourself as locked in or as locked out.” (Pg 89)

“The real problem is—Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.” (Pg 91)

“I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing.” (Pg 93)

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.” (Pg 105)

“…all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.” (Pg 108)

“…we have almost up to the last instant trusted the newspapers as organs of public opinion. Just recently some of us have seen (not slowly, but with a start) that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are, by the nature of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men.” (Pg 108)

“Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.” (Pg 111)

“If the great paradox of Christianity means anything, it means this— that we must take the crown in our hands, and go hunting in dry places and dark corners of the earth until we find the one man who feels himself unfit to wear it.” (Pg 112)

“…the chief mark of our epoch is a profound laziness and fatigue; and the fact is that the real laziness is the cause of the apparent bustle. Take one quite external case; the streets are noisy with taxicabs and motorcars; but this is not due to human activity but to human repose. There would be less bustle if there were more activity, if people were simply walking about. Our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous.” (Pg 117)

“…any man who preaches real love is bound to beget hate.” (Pg 125)

“Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.” (Pg 127)

“…to a Christian existence is a STORY, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he MIGHT be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man “damned”: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.” (Pg 129)

“We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type. All other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever undomestic, either as a profligate or a monk.” (Pg 137)

“Science knows nothing whatever about pre-historic man; for the excellent reason that he is pre-historic.” (Pg 137)

“I looked at the New Testament. There I found an account, not in the least of a person with his hair parted in the middle or his hands clasped in appeal, but of an extraordinary being with lips of thunder and acts of lurid decision, flinging down tables, casting out devils, passing with the wild secrecy of the wind from mountain isolation to a sort of dreadful demagogy; a being who often acted like an angry god— and always like a god.” (Pg 139)

“Christianity is a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions may blaze beside each other.” (Pg 140)

“How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.” (Pg 141)

“But the ordinary agnostic has got his facts all wrong. He is a non-believer for a multitude of reasons; but they are untrue reasons. He doubts because the Middle Ages were barbaric, but they weren’t; because Darwinism is demonstrated, but it isn’t; because miracles do not happen, but they do; because monks were lazy, but they were very industrious; because nuns are unhappy, but they are particularly cheerful; because Christian art was sad and pale, but it was picked out in peculiarly bright colours and gay with gold; because modern science is moving away from the supernatural, but it isn’t, it is moving towards the supernatural with the rapidity of a railway train.” (Pg 143)

“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” (Pg 153)

“There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” (Pg 154)