“The Complete Thinker” – Review

There are few people today who know G.K. Chesterton better than Dale Ahlquist. Besides being president of the American Chesterton Society and responsible for much of the renewed interest in Chesterton, Ahlquist has written many books on the twentieth-century maven including Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, and In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton (my review here).

Ahlquist’s mastery is even more impressive considering how incredibly prolific Chesterton was. He wrote plays, political commentaries, novels, essays, mysteries, and theological texts. In all he completed over eighty books, hundreds of poems and stories, and more than 4,000 essays.

When you dip your toes into this massive corpus, one thing becomes immediately clear: Chesterton’s skill at connecting many disparate ideas. He pulls equally from art, religion, beauty, politics, science, and philosophy. He was convinced that all these subjects are intertwined and that right-thinking about one led to right-thinking about the others. In one of his novels, for instance, he linked Darwinian evolution to political progressivism. In an essay, he tied the scientific theory of relativity to modernity’s favorite philosophy, relativism.

Chesterton was convinced that “thinking means connecting things” and in Ahlquist’s view, nobody did this better. Therefore if we want to become complete thinkers ourselves, then studying Chesterton is a great way. Ahlquist has produced a new book toward that end titled The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius press, 264 pages, hardcover).

The book is not “straight” Chesterton; it’s not just a collection of excerpts from Chesterton’s writings. That’s good, however, especially for beginners who are unfamiliar with Chesterton’s daunting style. Instead, the book is a guided tour through Chesterton’s major ideas with Ahlquist’s commentary throughout.

In one chapter titled “The Universe and Other Little Things,” Ahlquist shows how Chesterton tackled the paradoxical scale of the cosmos, one that is both shockingly vast and surprisingly cozy:

“Science boasts of the distance of its stars; of the terrific remoteness of the things of which it has to speak. But poetry and religion always insist upon the proximity, the almost menacing closeness of the things with which they are concerned.”

Other chapters tie together the problem of evil, war and peace, politics and patriotism, and the limits of language. Chesterton’s connections can be confusing at times, but that’s where Ahlquist’s commentary shines. It helps clarify Chesterton’s notoriously pithy paradoxes.

Surprisingly, what I liked most about the book was the Appendix. Titled “Chesterton vs. Darrow,” it recounts a forgotten debate between these two iconic, twentieth-century thinkers. Clarence Darrow was the Richard Dawkins of his day, representing progress, science, and the triumph of reason over faith. He’s best known as the lawyer who defended John Scopes in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Chesterton, of course, stood for religion and common sense, two things Darrow dismissed as superstitious and backward.

The topic of the debate was “Will the World Return to Religion?”, and in an interview with Catholic World Report, Ahlquist explained why he chose to include it in the book:

“Well, everyone seems to be familiar with Darrow’s shellacking of William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.” But no one knows about the time six years later when Chesterton used Darrow as a mop to clean the floor in a big debate in New York. Chesterton made the great agnostic look rather foolish, and Darrow fans would prefer to forget the incident. So I have reminded them of it.”

In the end, after hundreds of Chesterton quotes and excerpts, Ahlquist accomplishes his goal. In The Complete Thinker, he unveils the expansive genius of G.K. Chesterton which touched almost every topic under the sun. If you want to learn how to be a complete thinker, pick up this book and study under a true master.

Check out Jeff Miller’s review over at The Curt Jester.