G.K. Chesterton: A Gallery of Beloved Enemies

Misguided Superman Fan: George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) 

"He is something of a pagan,” said Chesterton of George Bernard Shaw, “and like many other pagans, he is a very fine man.” The assessment hints at the complexity of their relationship.

The prolific playwright, critic, essayist, and Irishman G.B. Shaw first met Chesterton in 1901. They disagreed about nearly everything, but they remained friends for a tumultuous yet playful 35 years.

Of Shaw’s more than 50 plays, American audiences are most familiar with Pygmalion, on which the musical My Fair Lady is based. The themes in that story-class division, the power to remake oneself-barely hint at the author’s deeper, and to Chesterton’s mind more dangerous, ideas about the world.

To frame their differences simply, Shaw believed in man, or Nietzsche’s Superman, while Chesterton believed in the Son of Man. Shaw, a socialist, looked for society to develop the values of humanism and thereby help a superhuman “life-force” become a god. Chesterton, who believed that all life owed its existence to God, called society back to Christian humility.

Chesterton debunked Shaw’s theories on many occasions, always with humorous grace. In 1905, Chesterton gave Shaw his own chapter in Heretics. In Orthodoxy, published in 1908, Chesterton writes, “I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon and Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Supermen. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.”

Shaw could dish out challenges, too. In a 1908 letter he told Chesterton to write plays rather than newspaper columns, threatening to “destroy” his credit “until starvation and shame drive you to serious dramatic parturition.”

Instead of a play, Chesterton gave the public George Bernard Shaw (1909), a biography with the preface: “It is indefensibly foolish to attempt to explain a man whose whole object through life has been to explain himself.”

Chesterton and Shaw began a series of public debates in 1911 that continued until 1928. Their last public debate received the apt and ironic billing “Do We Agree?” Chesterton claimed that it would take his friend 300 years to agree with his views, if he could live that long, but he would “certainly” agree.

Despite their creative goading, Chesterton, in his Autobiography, completed just weeks before his death, wrote movingly of their relationship: “I have argued with him on almost every subject in the world, and we have always been on opposite sides, without affectation or animosity. . . . It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.”

—Zachry O. Kincaid


World-Shrinking Writer: Rudyad Kipling (1895–1936)

"Mr. Kipling does certainly know the world,” Chesterton wrote; “he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet.”

An international celebrity in Chesterton’s day, Kipling was a renowned storyteller and poet. His tale of a young boy named Mowgli, in The Jungle Book, remains a classic. But Kipling’s internationalism, Chesterton believed, inevitably led to a program of “making the world smaller"—robbing the world of its wonder by conquering it. And Kipling did love conquest.

Born in Bombay in 1865, Kipling began his writing career as a teenage reporter for Anglo-Indian newspapers. On the side, he began to write the short stories and poetry that would eventually win him fame—and the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1907. He always heartily supported British imperialism.

He returned to England in 1889, married, and began to travel the world—a pastime for which he would become almost as famous. This lifestyle provided fodder for Kipling’s stories of remarkable, far—off lands but also, in Chesterton’s opinion, made Kipling unable to truly know any place.

Chesterton wrote, in Heretics, “He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice. He has been to England a great many times; he has stopped there for long visits. But he does not belong to it, or to any place.”

Even worse, Kipling destroyed the awe of the universe by becoming its tourist. “The telescope makes the world smaller; it is only the microscope that makes it larger,” Chesterton wrote. “Before long the world will be cloven with a war between the telescopists and the microscopists. The first study large things and live in a small world; the second study small things and live in a large world.”

Chesterton’s greatest hope for fighting this trend lay with the common people who cared more for enjoying the world than examining it. These true traditionalists would watch, “possibly with a smile of amusement, motor-car civilization going its triumphant way, outstripping time, consuming space, seeing all and seeing nothing, roaring on at last to the capture of the solar system, only to find the sun cockney and the stars suburban.”

—Darren Sumner


Aimless Progressive: H. G. Wells (1866–1946)

He is so often nearly right,” says Chesterton of H.G. Wells, “that his movements irritate me like the sight of somebody’s hat being perpetually washed up by the sea and never touching the shore.”

Wells had a gift for projecting alternate realities, displayed in novels such as The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). He seemed always to be working out a philosophy of human progress, though he frequently depicted that progress leading to terribly destructive ends.

Politically, Wells began as a socialist, much like his close friend George Bernard Shaw. He later ran unsuccessfully three times as a Labor Party parliamentary candidate. He visited Lenin, Roosevelt, and Stalin to discuss, respectively, the advantages of evolutionary collectivism, the encouragement of the New Deal, and the errors of isolationism.

This fervor dwindled to disenchantment. He became convinced that no institution could completely “reconstruct the world"—least of all the organized church, which he believed had buried the pure message of Jesus under “weary theology.” Chesterton faulted Wells for al ways “coming from somewhere rather than going anywhere” (an idea supported by the title of Wells’s last major work, Mind at the End of Its Tether). Because Wells had no clear destination, all of his attempts to map out human progress must fail.

In Heretics, Chesterton cites Wells as saying, “Nothing endures, nothing is precise and certain. There is no abiding thing in what we know.” Chesterton, by contrast, was sure that only those who believed in abiding truth could comprehend true progress. “If the standard changes, how can there be improvement which implies a standard?” he asks. “Progress itself cannot progress.”

Wells said that if he made it to heaven, “it would be by the intervention of Gilbert Chesterton.” And despite Chesterton’s criticism of his friend’s philosophy, he nonetheless called Wells “the only one of many brilliant contemporaries who has not stopped growing.”

—Zachry O. Kincaid


Atheist Editor: Robert Blatchford (1851–1943)

“Mr. Blatchford’s philosophy,” Chesterton claimed, “will never be endured among sane men.” Still, Chesterton expended considerable energy refuting it.

Robert Blatchford edited the Clarion, a socialist London newspaper. He used the paper to promote his atheistic views, prompting Chesterton to respond with a defense of Christianity. Their civil yet forceful debate occurred entirely in print and lasted nearly two years (1903 and 1904).

Blatchford, a determinist, argued that free will is a sham if God created men’s and women’s minds. He also denied all miracles and attempted to deny all dogmas.

Despite his inflexible opinions, Blatchford was cordial, sincere, and magnanimous in the debates, as Chesterton frequently points out. Blatchford willingly opened the pages of his paper to allow the opposition to respond to his published attacks on Christianity—every week for six months. Blatchford even called on a friend to gather and edit the Christian response, rather than do it himself.

Chesterton wrote three essays for the Clarion, published over three weeks in the summer of 1904. He dashed the anti-Christian arguments one at a time, addressing issues from the Fall to free will, from miracles to asceticism.

Blatchford suspected the historicity of Christianity because it shares much with other religions and cultures—flood stories, crucifixions, divine incarnations. Chesterton wrote that he would think it odd if other peoples did not have some “muddled version” of the true nature of things.

Chesterton also agreed with Blatchford’s charge that Christianity has produced wars, cruelty, and bloodshed. Chesterton, however, did not consider this a reason to doubt the religion. Does not human nature fight for what it believes to be most important, most beautiful, and most true? We should be troubled if Christianity had not produced some severe conflicts.

Chesterton concluded the debates with the observation that “if I gave each of my reasons for being a Christian, a vast number of them would be Mr. Blatchford’s reasons for not being one.” He also called Blatchford’s God and My Neighbour his favorite textbook of theology.

The responses to Blatchford helped to establish Chesterton as a champion for the faith and laid the groundwork for both Heretics and Orthodoxy.

—Darren Sumner

By Zachry O. Kincaid, Darren Sumner

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #75 in 2002]

Zachry O. Kincaid is director of publications at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill. Darren Sumner is a Web content editor at Big Idea Productions.
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