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G.K. Chesterton prophesied that the attack on the family would intensify, and his writings were an attempt to provide ammunition for those who would be on hand when his prophecy came true. And now we have Dale Ahlquist to give us the best of Chesterton’s writings on the family in what we hope will prove to be the worst of times.
The Story of the Family: G.K. Chesterton on the Only State That Creates and Loves Its Own Citizens, ed. Dale Ahlquist (235 pages, Ignatius Press, 2022)
“Without the family we are helpless before the state.” No single line better captures G. K. Chesterton on the importance of the family, vis a vis the state, than that. Of course, the family is important for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the state—and everything to do with the fact that the family truly is the “only state that creates and loves its own citizens.”
Before proceeding any further, it must be stipulated that the family that G.K. Chesterton and Dale Ahlquist—president of the American Chesterton Society—have in mind is the traditional nuclear family of a married father and mother, plus children, as opposed to the various forms and formulations of working families, single-parent families, same-sex families, co-habitating families, no-child families, and communal families. The list probably could, and will, go on.
No doubt another list could number other potential and actual bulwarks against an intrusive state, but surely it is the traditional nuclear family that is the natural—and most important—bulwark.
The “story” that is told in these pages is the story of Chesterton’s growing awareness that the family was under attack even in the “modern” world of his day. Part of that attack was the inevitable result of increasing mobility and urbanization, which separated the nuclear family from the extended family that included grandparents. In fact, it might well be argued that not until the nineteenth century was such a separation possible in great numbers; therefore not until the 19th century was the full burden of child-rearing placed on the shoulders of parents minus grandparents.
In any case, Chesterton’s main focus was always on the much more direct attack that was largely the result of the sexual revolution of the 20th century, a revolution that he prophesied would prove to be much more powerful and much more permanent that the Bolshevik Revolution. The former coincided with our fallen human nature; the latter flew in the face of one’s natural desire to own and control one’s own piece of property.
Chesterton also prophesied that the attack on the family would intensify. And it has. Given those prophecies, Chesterton’s writings were an attempt to provide ammunition for those who would be on hand when that attack did intensify. And now we have Mr. Ahlquist on hand to give us the best of Chesterton in what we hope will prove to be the worst of times.
Are these times truly the worst of times? Only time will tell. Thankfully, we have Chesterton—and Ahlquist—around to help us back to sanity. To be sure, nothing of great consequence will happen overnight. But good things will happen, if we pay attention to Mr. Chesterton. Surely they will.
Have we reached bottom? Not long ago to say that men can have babies produced laughter. Quite recently, a Biden appointee was asked at a congressional hearing if men could have babies. She paused for a second or two and then simply replied, “yes.” No one laughed or so much as snickered. One can only hope that someone on the committee at least quietly shuddered.
Chesterton was already worried about the loss of sanity in his age, even if it’s unlikely that even he could have imagined where we are today. But he surely did see where things were heading. And as he looked he continued to worry, even as he continued to laugh.
How did it all begin? Chesterton’s answer was simple, direct, and accurate: “The disintegration of rational society started with the drift from the hearth and the family.” And the solution? The answer “must be a drift back.”
To prod that drift along, Dale Ahlquist, the country’s most important and prolific keeper of the Chestertonian flame, has assembled everything from Chesterton poems to pithy quotes to complete essays on the family. In fact, each chapter opens with a poem and is then followed by a series of Chesterton (mostly) one-liners before being punctuated with a solid essay or two on everything from sex, marriage, divorce, work, education, and even the “world.”
It is tempting to turn the remainder of this review into a running series of choice Chesterton quotations, if only to demonstrate the depth of his worries, as well as his ever-present sense of humor and accompanying sense of sanity. Such a temptation will be largely, but not entirely, resisted.
My solution to this temptation was to open the book to two random pages before letting Mr. Chesterton take it from there. The chapter that I happened upon is titled “Babies . . . and Birth Control.” As far as Chesterton is concerned, the “normal and real birth control is called self control.”
Abortion as birth control? “God Himself will not help us to ignore evil, but only to defy it and defeat it.”
And then here is Chesterton at his genuinely angriest and, at once, openly funniest. At issue was the matter of promoting abortion in the name of advancing eugenics. Chesterton’s answer was to “treat men as we treat animals . . . Let all babies be born; and then let us drown those we do not like.”
There, all further temptations shall be summarily resisted. Let it simply stand that the subject of the family and its central importance was one about which G.K. Chesterton was deeply worried, deadly serious, joyfully enthralled, and seriously amused.
And marriage? For Chesterton, it was a “duel to death, which no man of honor should decline.” OK, I cheated here. Not only did I sneak in one more line, but it came from an entirely different dive into the book.
Still, what must be stressed, no matter the page or the topic, is the matter of the “drift.” And not just the drift of Chesterton’s argument or Ahlquist’s telling of the story, but the societal “drift” back to the family that must occur, if there truly is to be a revival of the West… not to mention the rest of mankind.
To be sure, nothing of great consequence will happen immediately to restore the family, just as nothing of consequence happened immediately, much less instantly, to weaken it.
The original drift has been long and gradual and down. The reverse drift will be long and gradual and not without its ups and downs, hopefully to be followed by a long-standing up.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that such a drift may not happen at all. The only certainty is that if it does occur, G.K. Chesterton will be a crucial part of this story. He’s too sane and sensible, too terribly honest and too terribly funny not to be.
On occasion, Chesterton was accused of being little more than a jokester, and therefore he was sometimes dismissed for being not nearly as serious as he should have been. His response to each charge was this: “The opposite of funny is not serious; the opposite of funny is not funny.”
Of course, one can be funny and serious—and not just at the same time, but on the same subject. Yes, Chesterton was always serious and often funny. And yes, the drift from the family and toward the state is no laughing matter. Still, a drift in the other direction will be even more decisive and long-lasting if it is buoyed by a Chestertonian sense of purpose and accompanied by a Chestertonian sense of humor.
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