Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton

My Short Summary:

Orthodoxy is Chesterton’s autobiography explaining his journey to faith.

[…to be continued…]

Chapter 1: In Defence of Everything Else

In Chapter 1, Chesterton explains why he wrote Orthodoxy – as a response to the challenge of G.S. Street who pointed out that Chesterton exposed the flaws of several philosophies in his previous book, Heretics, without ever telling us his own philosophy. As a result, Chesterton humbly gives us his philosophy

“I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me” (1)

by comparing it to the farcical tale of an English yachtsman who set sail, and due to a miscalculation, succeeded in discovering England, though in truth it had already been discovered. Chesterton will liken himself to this man in saying that his attempts to search for truth merely led him to discover that which had already been discovered over 1800 years before:

“Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it” (4). “One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively the more extraordinary truths” (3).

Chesterton claims to focus this “slovenly autobiography” on one important point:

“These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles’ Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics… the word “orthodoxy” is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed” (5).

Chesterton says a couple pages earlier that his faith answers a “double spiritual need… which Christendom has rightly named romance” (2).

“But nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable” (3).

Other links:


Chapter 2: The Maniac

Chesterton begins Chapter 2 by challenging the common notion that a man will succeed if he believes in himself. Chesterton states that the opposite is true – “a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself” (6) because men are not to be trusted. “Complete self-confidence,” writes Chesterton, “is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness” (7).

“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (7).

Next, Chesterton builds off this idea to develop a picture of insanity. Insanity is not from an imaginative mind and a lack of reason, but arises in “the man who has lost everything except his reason” (11). Chesterton is not attacking logic, he “only says that this danger does lie in logic” (9).

“Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason” (9).

“Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite” (9).

“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits” (10).

“The strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction” (12).

“How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it” (12).

How to answer someone who says they are Jesus –> “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be!” (13).

Chesterton demonstrates his view of insanity with the example of the materialist. Although the materialist believes he is using his logical, reasonable mind to free man from the restrictions of religion, the materialist is in fact far more restrictive that a spiritualist. Whereas the Christian is free to see order in the universe, the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle” (16).

Chesterton draws parallels between the madman and the materialist and concludes that both hold a position that is “unanswerable and intolerable”.

“The chief mark and element of insanity; we may say in summary that it is reason used without root, reason in the void… without the proper first principles” (19).

Chesterton says the the answer is mysticism: “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health” (20). The mystic always has “one foot in earth and the other in fairyland”… “He has always cared more for truth than for consistency” (20). “The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand” (20). The mystic retains his imagination, and thereby retains his sanity.

“As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health… the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing” (20-1).

“Mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility” (21).

Other posts:


In Chapter 3, Chesterton shows how the modern philosophies are self-contradictory. These men have good hearts, but just in the wrong place. He compares them NOT to vices, but to old Christian virtues gone mad” (22).

Chesterton’s first example is humility that is in the wrong place. He argues that modesty has moved from the organ of ambition to the organ of conviction, “where it was never meant to be” (23). He adds how a man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but never about the truth, but a man is now confident in himself and doubtful about the truth. The “new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn” (24).

“We are on the road to producing men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table” (24).

Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all” (25).

The second example is the philosophy that there is no validity in human thought. This philosophy is marked by skepticism, materialism, and evolution. Yet Chesterton explains how evolutionary theory would certainly not destroy religion, but does, as a system, destroy itself. There can be no reason, no differentiation between good and bad logic, for both are simply “movements in the brain of a bewildered ape” (25).

The third example is pragmatism and the theory of progress. The pragmatist bent on progress says that what was good in one age is wrong in another, and while this could be true in some senses, that sense in which it can be true does not extend to the truth. The truth must be absolute, but the pragmatist requires that truth be relative to the individual or society. Pragmatism, Chesterton observes, is about human needs, but the self-contradictory problem of pragmatism is that it is not practical (or pragmatic) to be a pragmatist; as humans, one of our first human needs is to be something more (28).

Pragmatism = philosophic approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.

“If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard?” (27).

Chesterton pauses at this point, before analyzing a final philosophy, to show that these modern philosophies are not only mad, they are suicidally mad; that is, they kill themselves because they contradict themselves.

The final example of modern philosophies is the elevation of will over reason. Once again, those who elevate the will seek to provide freedom by giving everyone the freedom to choose as he wills. And yet Chesterton shows that every act of the will is necessarily particular and not general because in choosing one thing, one rejects everything else.

“The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits” (32).

In the final pages of the chapter, Chesterton admits that this chapter is “the first and dullest business of this book,” and yet one recognizes that it is important to show the helplessness of these philosophies in order to demonstrate how much better Christianity can answer life’s questions. With his example of Joan of Arc, he provides the reader with a glimpse at the end of the chapter of what he will discuss in chapter six on the paradoxes of Christianity—that Christianity proves itself to be the norm, the standard, the mean between two extremes.

Other posts:

Chapter 4: The Ethics of Elfland

In this chapter, Chesterton explains his view of the world – his “first and last philosophy” that he learnt in the nursery was fairy tales because fairy tales represent that which is entirely reasonable, grasping the difference between what is logically necessary and what is simply magic.

“If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit” (42).

“We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there are really laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities” (43).

Chesterton explains how fairyland teaches us that we can know the cosmos, but not ourselves.

“Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the go; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself” (46).

Fairyland helps explain the beauty of obeying odd commands and conditions simply by reminding us how incomprehensible the gift is that we have received.

“In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone” (48).

“Existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision” (49).

Finally, Chesterton uses the examples of the color of the flowers and the rising of the sun to suggest that these things are not laws that just happened, but both are magical in that they both suggest that something was done.

“So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot” (51).

“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. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore” (52).

I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician” (53).

“Thus I have said that the stories of magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege” (56).

“To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been” (56).

Chesterton concludes his chapter with five points that summarize his reflection on these topics:

  1. “this world does not explain itself” (57).
  2. “magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it” (57).
  3. despite the world’s defects, he thought this magical purpose beautiful.
  4. “the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint” (57).
  5. he had a “vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin” (57).

Another Summary of Chapter 4 I found on Youtube:

  • Chesterton’s main thesis is that existence is a wonderful miracle. Scientists and modern people speak of the laws of nature. But Chesterton observes that this is a lie. There are laws of logic and reason. We cannot imagine one plus one equalling three. But we can imagine trees growing golden candlesticks instead of fruit. Chesterton points out that naturalists have assumed by the mere fact of repetition – trees grow fruit, the sun rises and falls – that nature is governed by necessity. But Chesterton shows that this is an unproven leap of faith. To the contrary, fairy tales admit that existence is based on an arbitrary, mysterious miracle. Why did Cinderella’s mice turn into horses? Magic. Why do eggs turn into birds? Likewise magic. Materialists may scoff at such “superstitious” explanations. But as Chesterton ably demonstrates, it is the materialist’s blind faith in the supposed mechanical necessity of nature’s repetition that leaves him in the dark. Only those governed by the ethics of elfland can see the truth and wonder of it all.

Other Links:

Chapter 5 – The Flag of the World

Chesterton dismisses the pure optimists & pure pessimists in this chapter as impossibilities, for the optimist is not optimistic about the pessimist, just as the pessimist is not pessimistic about himself (58). Rather, “a man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted… he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration… our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval” (59).

We must heartily hate the world enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it is worth changing (64). “We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening” (64).

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind” (63).

“Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic about the world” (67). This answered Chesterton’s dilemma. He knew we must find a way of loving the world without trusting it, to love the world without being worldly (71).

“The Christian optimism is based on the face that we do not fit in to the world” (72).

It all explained why Chesterton “could feel homesick at home” (73).

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Chapter 6 – The Paradoxes of Christianity

The purpose of this chapter is to show “that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth” (75).

He uses the example of the human body. Two arms, two legs, two ears, two eyes, two nostrils, two lobes to the brain and more might lead one to expect that a man has two hearts, and yet he would obviously be mistaken. It is the reality of the universe that it is nearly perfectly logical, and yet not quite. Christianity, however, is “wrong” in all the ways the world goes wrong, which Chesterton argues as perhaps the strongest reason why it is right.

Chesterton explains that the most surprising thing, the thing that led him to reconsider Christianity, was not an apology by Christians, but the contradictory reasons for which the rationalists rejected it. One rejected it because it was too pessimistic, while the next because it was too optimistic. He gives nine more examples (too meek yet too murderous; its morality was common to all humanity and therefore not exclusive yet morals changed from era to era; it attacked the family and then forced family upon the culture; it degraded women’s intellect yet was criticized for appealing only to women; it was too simple yet too pompous; it was too plain yet too colored; it restrained sexuality too much yet also restrained it too little; there was disunity, everyone believing his own thing, yet too much in agreement; it despised Jews yet was despised itself for being too Jewish).

“I never read a line of Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now” (77).

For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons” (78).

Even still, Chesterton was not convinced, but thought if Christianity was wrong, “it was very wrong indeed” (81). Then an idea struck him regarding many men who spoke of one man. Some called him too short, others too tall; some called him too fat, others too slim; some too fair/light, others too dark. Perhaps, Chesterton thought, the man was just the right size, shape, and color, and those who spoke of him were merely doing so out of perspective. The tall man thought him short, while the short man thought him tall. The key fit, and as he applied it to Christianity, he found that all those places where it was critiqued, the perspective of the one who criticized it was too far in one direction or the other.

“Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad – in various ways” (83).

Courage is almost a contradiction it terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers (86).

Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points (88).

One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul (88).

By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists (89-90).

Thus, the double charge of the secularists, though throwing nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light on the faith (90).

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 (91).

It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own (94).

It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands (94).

 Other links:


Chapter 7: The Eternal Revolution

Chesterton talks about the notion of progress and provides 3 requirements:

1. The ideal must be fixed – too often man changes the his ideal in pursuit of progress rather than changing the real to make it conform to the ideal (101).

“Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does not mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.” (99).

2. It must be composite – It cannot be one thing which swallows up the rest, but rather it must be “a definite picture composed of these elements in their best proportion and relation” (107).

3. We must keep watch even in Utopia, lest we fall as we did from Eden – because men are prone to leave things as they are if they do not want them to change, but things change on their own (109). For example, “if you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post” (108). The only way to maintain the old white post is to paint continually a new white post. If one desires things to remain as they are, one must constantly be in revolution (107). Chesterton notes how Christianity explains this phenomenon – man’s tendency to backslide is just a manifestation of original sin and the fall (109).

In summary, the Utopia that Chesterton envisioned was only answered in the New Jerusalem (114). In summary, then, Chesterton’s chapter argues that one must wage an eternal revolution against the “progress” of the world and instead aim to maintain the ideal of the New Jerusalem and work towards achieving it.

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… To St. Francis, Nature is sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved” (105).

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 (111).

“I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment” (111).

Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly (113).

Laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity (114).

Chapter 8: The Romance of Orthodoxy

Chesterton’s main point in this chapter:

“almost every contemporary proposal to bring freedom into the church is simply a proposal to bring tyranny into the world” (117).

Chesterton takes on a common worldly maxim:

There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: “the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach.” It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach (121)… So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged as this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught (122).

For example, Chesterton compares Buddhism and Christianity. He demonstrates how Buddhism looks intently inwards, while Christianity stares “with a frantic intentness outwards,” a truth demonstrated by their art, in which Buddhist saints have eyes shut, while Christian saints have eyes open (123).

A miracle simply means the swift control of matter by mind (120).

All modern philosophies are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword which separates and sets free. No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls (125).

For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence) – to us God Himself is a society… Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart… For it is not well for God to be alone (128).

Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king (131).

In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God (131).

They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist (131).

Other links:

Chapter 9: Authority and Adventurer

Chesterton answers one important question in this chapter:

“why cannot you simply take what is good in Christianity, what you can define as valuable, what you can comprehend, and leave all the rest, all the absolute dogmas that are in their nature incomprehensible? This is the real question; this is the last question; and it is a pleasure to try to answer it” (135).

Chesterton’s answer to the question:

I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden (150).

Chesterton answers that he believes in Christianity (from a purely intellectual viewpoint)…

“for the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.” I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts (136).

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased (138).

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

The greatest disaster of the nineteenth century was this: that men began to use the word “spiritual” as the same as the word “good.” They thought that to grow in refinement and uncorporeality was to grow in virtue. When scientific evolution was announced, some feared that it would encourage mere animality. It did worse: it encouraged mere spirituality. It taught men to think that so long as they were passing from the ape they were going to the angel. But you can pass from the ape and go to the devil (146).

The Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one (147).

The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare tomorrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see some truth that he has never seen before (148).

Every man is womanized, merely by being born (148).

Orthodoxy makes us jump by the sudden brink of hell; it is only afterwards that we realize that jumping was an athletic exercise highly beneficial to our health (150).

I have come into my second childhood (151).

The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall (151).

His final example is, not surprisingly, a final paradox. Christianity is accused of being sorrowful, while Paganism is joyful. But once again Chesterton argues that Christianity has struck this seemingly impossible balance of two opposite passions that blaze alongside one another (140). Christianity is sorrowful when appropriate, but Chesterton argues that this is only an “innocent interlude” (152); joy, on the other hand, ought to be “the permanent pulsation of the soul” (152).

So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear (153).

Joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian (153).

And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. 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 (154).


Chapter summaries & study guide questions by Kyle Rapinchuk

Study Guide by Joseph Grabowski

Study Guide by Notre Dame Website

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