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Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist

June 23, 2020


Chapter 2: Wonder

  • “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.’ It makes us look at everything with a new appreciation.”


Chapter 3: The Riddles of God

  • “The mystic is the man who tries to address the doubts and solve the riddles. The mystic is not the man who makes mysteries but the man who destroys them.”
  • ‘God is not a symbol of goodness; goodness is a symbol of God.’
  • “Paradox is not a compromise of two opposing ideas, each giving in to a middle ground that is neither one nor the other, as pink is neither red nor white. It is not dualism (as in the philosophy of Hegel), where you have a thesis and an antithesis and put them together to produce a synthesis. It is not the Oriental yin-yang, where reality is composed of a metaphysical balance of opposite forces. And it is not an oxymoron, or contradiction in terms, which is simply nonsense like ‘round square’ or ‘tiny giant’ or ‘jumbo shrimp’ or ‘tight slacks’”
  • Chesterton says, ‘By paradox, we mean the truth inherent in a contradiction… [in the paradox] the two opposite cords of truth become entangled in an inextricable knot… [but it is] this knot which ties safely together the whole bundle of human life.”
  • “The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything with the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid and succeeds only in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious and everything else becomes lucid.”
  • “Chesterton is not against reason; what he is against is skepticism in all its forms, especially in the proud agnostic who claims he is relying only on reason when really he only equates reason with doubt. The skeptic begins by doubting. There is nothing reasonable about that. His only use of reason is to reinforce his doubt, and thus, says Chesterton, he ‘sinks through floor after floor of a bottomless universe.’”
  • “In order to fulfill our deepest desire, to meet all our needs, to answer all our questions, in other words, to embody truth, Christ has to be a paradox. We would accept nothing less. And nothing less would be able to accept us. It must be God and man combined in one person.”


Chapter 4: The Signature of Man

  • “The problem is this. We worship the new instead of the eternal. And when we worship the new, we are always changing our allegiances, because there will always be something newer.”
  • “The notion that every generation proves the last generation worthless and is in its turn proved worthless by the next generation, is an everlasting vision of worthlessness.”
  • “We cannot really be rejuvenated by becoming more and more jaded.”
  • “You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. TO love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. It may be an airy, philosophical, and disinterested lust… but it is lust because it is wholly self-indulgent.”


Chapter 5: The Daily Truth

  • Honesty is never solemn; it is only hypocrisy that can be that. Honesty always laughs, because things are so laughable.”


Chapter 6: Words About Words

  • “Art, he said, is only successful when ‘the work has passed from mind to mind.’”
  • “’ Anything beautiful always means more than it says.’ And, ‘Pleasure in the beautiful is a sacred thing.’”
  • “We have everything backward. We think marriage and the family is something boring and prosaic, even though the home is where most of life’s exciting and dramatic things happen. We turn our attention to bizarre and jarring events that happen to those who live on the fringe of life, even though these things are disappointing and sometimes diabolical.”
  • “It is always the fool, the greenhorn, the innocent, who has the great adventures, who gets the most out of life. The one who is gullible, who is ‘taken in’, as it were, is the one who gets to see the inside of everything, while the skeptic is kept out.”
  • “What makes a great work of literature interesting is that it is always about the state of a person’s soul. It is about life at the crossroads. What choice will the character make? We cheer him on, hoping he will make the right decision.”
  • “Nothing is important except the fate of the soul.”
  • “…a good book is not an escape from life, but a means of bringing life closer and making what is already precious even sweeter and dearer.”


Chapter 7: Talking in Rhyme

  • “Our parents have taught us certain truths, certain commandments; we, in turn, teach them to our children. If we do not teach them, soon comes ‘the detail of the sinning and the denial of the sin’. The moral tradition of the human race is never secure. It is active, hard work. We can never take it for granted.”


Chapter 8: Uneducating the Educated

  • “When we step out of the home, when we pass from private life to public life, we are passing from a greater work to a smaller one, and from a harder work to an easier one. And that is why most modern people wish to pass from the great domestic task to the smaller and easier commercial one. They would rather be in the business world serving the minor needs of a hundred different people than meeting all the major needs of just one person, which includes serving meals, conversation, and moral support.”


Chapter 9: Science and Secondary Things

  • “We can use science to predict how the physical will behave, or if we will behave. Science simply cannot account for free will, nor should it attempt.”
  • “Our religion should not contradict our science, because our religion should not contradict anything in our lives. Religion is what keeps everything in its proper place.”


Chapter 10: A Short History of History


Chapter 11: Feminism and Other Fads

  • “Chesterton says that a fad is like a heresy. It is the exaltation of something that, even if it is true, is secondary or temporary. And it is set against the things that are essential and eternal.”
  • “It is the traditional things, the permanent things, that have always kept men free. Family and faith and friends. Chesterton says, tradition is the truth of the common people. It is always distrusted by snobs.”
  • “Worldly wisdom is narrow and limited, and it passes away.”


Chapter 12: The “D” Word

  • “Chesterton believes that the common sense of the common man is more trustworthy, more practical, and more just than any system run by ‘the corrupt and evasive muddlers who are called practical politicians.’”
  • “All government, says Chesterton, is an ‘ugly necessity’.  And so is commerce. But if either of these two ugly necessities grows too large, they become enemies of democracy. The people no longer control them, they control the people.”
  • Democracy, an ideal which is simply to excess, but which has been applied to a society ‘which is complex to the point of craziness.’”
  • “If we elevate individual rights over the family, we end up giving all the power in a society to government and to industry because the individual will be dependent on one or both of those entities and will ironically lose all his independence and liberty, even while affirming his so-called rights. For democracy to work, the family must be recognized as the primary unit of society and the primary focus of society.”
  • “By not doing things for ourselves we lose control over our lives, we lose our freedom. We become passive and weak and out of control. When that happens, we are then controlled by big outside forces, by the demagogues of big government and big business who play to our weaknesses, our passions, and our fears.”
  • “We have cut ourselves off from our common heritage, and from each other. It has left us passive about things that matter (like our family and our faith) and left us passionate about things that don’t matter (like entertainment and sports and money).”
  • “In politics and economics, the goal, quite simply, is human happiness. Chesterton says, ‘there is no obligation on us to be richer, or busier, or more efficient, or more productive, or progressive, or in any way worldlier or wealthier if it does not make us happier.”
  • “A society can only continue to decline when it is so indifferent to the consequences of wage slavery, to the incredible gaps between the rich and the poor, and so willing to create a welfare state that it encourages the destruction of families.”
  • We cannot be vague about what we believe in, what we are willing to fight for, and to die for.”


Chapter 13: Puritans and Pagans

  • “The optimist thinks everything is good except the pessimist, and the pessimist thinks everything is bad except himself.”
  • “The puritan tries to make innocent things seem guilty; the pagan tries to make guilty things seem innocent.”
  • “Sin is in a man’s soul, not in his tools or his toys.”
  • “The puritans emphasize the spiritual to the neglect of the physical. Both miss the point of the Incarnation. God created a physical world and said it was good. He created us in his image. We are both physical and spiritual beings. And though we have taken a good world and misused it, though we are sinners, God himself redeemed us by becoming flesh.”


Chapter 14: The Art of Defending the Christian Faith

  • “Wisdom is about not compromising truth. And innocence means not compromising goodness.”
  • “The skeptic always begins the conversation by telling us what he does not believe. So, the best defense, in this case, is attack: simply to turn it around and ask, ‘What do you believe?’”
  • “There are, according to Chesterton, three typical arguments that the skeptic offers against Christianity: first, that humans are mere animals, just a variation on the same biology shared by the rest of the animal kingdom; second, that religion originally arose out of ignorance and fear; third, that organized religion has ruined societies with bitterness and gloom.”
  • “All the legends of mankind point back not to prehistoric fear but to paradise.”
  • “Chesterton turns the argument around. He challenges the skeptic to give an explanation: first, of why man towers over the brutes; second, why there is a vast human tradition of some ancient happiness; and third, of why there are such joyous and colorful customs in those countries of Catholic culture.”
  • “When they say, for instance, that Christianity can’t be true because there are many myths from other cultures that closely parallel the Christian story, we can respond: if Christianity is true, if Jesus really is the Son of God, isn’t it perfectly natural that other cultures would have some hint of this great fact.”
  • ‘A new philosophy generally means in practice the praise of some old vice.”
  • “Chesterton shows that it is truth that answers error, but also that it is humility that answers arrogance. It is kindness that answers cruelty. It is gentleness that answers wrath. And just as it is goodness that answers a lack of goodness, it is humor that answers – this is important – a distinct lack of humor.”


Chapter 16: Ten Thousand Reasons

  • “…doubt gets us nowhere, that religion makes us joyful about things that matter, while the new philosophies make us sad about things that don’t matter.”
  • “If we keep sin a secret it keeps doing its deadly deeds in the dark. If we do not confess our personal sins, we fall farther and farther away from God until we deny him altogether. When we rationalize our behavior, when we justify our misdeeds, we in effect replace god with ourselves.”
  • “Attempting ‘to change the world from the inside’ means trying to change people only by changing their minds.”
  • “There is a difference between power and authority. The church does not act with power; it acts with authority. If fact, about the only times it has really failed in its mission, has been when it has tried to use power.”
  • “Authority is something we choose to recognize, to honor, and to obey. Power is something that is merely coercive or restrictive, something that leaves us with no choice.”


Chapter 17: A Sacramental Understanding

  • “We need forgiveness in order to have another chance to be good.”


Chapter 18: Saints and Sinners

  • “We make our lives complicated by not being saints. Sin has complicated things from the beginning. But if we let Christ deal with us, he will even deal with our sin.”
  • “The truth that God has revealed is universal. We know it is true even when we deny it and run away from it. The saint runs toward it. He pursues the truth to its fullest extent. The mysticism of the saints is simply a profound appreciation of the truth that is achieved through contemplation and action.”
  • “The first step to goodness is confession. The first step to confession is humility.”
  • “While the saint is certainly superior to us, he is never conscious of his superiority. Chesterton says the saint is only more conscious of his inferiority than we are of ours.”
  • “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”
  • “Although the saints love justice, they denounce vengeance. They know that vengeance is something too great for man. ‘Vengeance is Mine’, says the Lord; ‘I will repay.’ The saints take god at his word.”
  • “Saints have virtue, they don’t always have respectability.”


Chapter 19: Moments Filled with Eternity

  • “Just as the institution of religion helps us survive our moods about divine love, so the institution of marriage is there to get us through our moods about earthly love. And, of course, there is a connection between divine love and earthly love, seen in those ‘moments filled with eternity’”
  • “In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage where no one would do it, except for necessity or honor.”
  • “I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when compatibility becomes unquestionable.”


Chapter 20: Recovering the Lost Art of Common Sense

  • “‘A tradition is generally a truth’, and, ‘common sense often comes to us in the form of a tradition.’”
  • “Men do not differ about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”
  • “Christianity is the religion that is most at one with common sense. It proclaims basic truths that can be relied on; that the world is real; that our actions have consequences; that truth itself is something solid and absolute; that we didn’t just make up.”
  • “The temptation of the philosophers is simplicity rather than subtlety.’
  • “The commands of Christ, says Chesterton, may sound impossible, but they are not insane. They are, rather, ’sanity preached to a planet of lunatics.’”
  • “If men cannot save themselves by common sense, they cannot save each other by coercion.”
  • Fundamental Truths…
    • First: our whole approach to life should be filled with wonder and gratitude.
    • Second: truth is paradoxical.
    • Third: we are created in the image of God, which means we are also creators.
    • Fourth: we have a responsibility to pass truth to our children.
    • Fifth: temporary trends must never take precedence over permanent things.
    • Sixth: democracy operates on the principle of common sense, the idea that people really can rule themselves if they truly have the freedom and independence to do so.