Selected Quotes from
G.K. Chesterton

If anyone can supply attributions for any of the quotes which don't have them, please let me know.

(The dates in square brackets after certain quotations refer to Chesterton's "Illustrated London News" column. He wrote a weekly column from 1905 until his death in 1936.)

It is quite unlike anything else. It is a thing final like the trump of doom though it is also a piece of good news; or news that seems too good to be true. It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious Maker of the world has visited His world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man who made the World. That such a higher personality exists behind all things had always been implied by the best thinkers as well as by all the beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort has ever been implied by any of them...

The most that any religious prophet had said was that he was the true servant of such a being. The most that any visionary had ever said was that men might catch glimpses of the glory of that spiritual being; much more often of lesser spiritual beings. The most that any primitive myth had ever suggested was that the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the Creator was present at scenes a little subsequent to the supper-parties of Horace, and talked with tax collectors and government officials in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire, and that this fact continued to be firmly asserted by the whole of that great civilization for more than a thousand years--that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word. ...It makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative religion.
The Everlasting Man (Dodd and Mead, 1925), pp. 334-335.

It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem.
The Point of a Pin in The Scandal of Father Brown.
Nothing is so remote from us as the thing which is not old enough to be history and not new enough to be news. The End of the Armistice
It is the beginning of all true criticism of our time to realize that it has really nothing to say, at the very moment when it has invented so tremendous a trumpet for saying it. The Proper View of Machines from The Illustrated London News, February 10, 1923.
The Byzantines hammered away at their hard and orthodox symbols, because they could not be in a mood to believe that men could take a hint. The moderns drag out into lengths and reels of extravagance their new orthodoxy of being unorthodox, because they also cannot give a hint-- or take a hint. Yet all perfect and well-poised art is really a hint.
Believe me, it is not failing to speak out with promptitude and energy that is the matter with you; it is having nothing consistent or valuable to say.--Matthew Arnold, quoted by GKC
The life of a thinking man will probably be divided into two parts-- the first in which he desires to exterminate modern thinkers, and the second in which he desires to watch them exterminating each other... Suppose, for instance, there is an old story and a new sceptic who is skeptical of the story. We have only to wait a little while for a yet newer skeptic who is skeptical of the skeptic. He will probably find the old notion actually a help in his new notion. This process is an abstract truth applying to anything, apart from agreement or disagreement.
Journalism only tells us what men are doing; it is fiction that tells us what they are thinking, and still more what they are feeling. If a new scientific theory finds the soul of a man in his dreams, at least it ought not to leave out his day-dreams. And all fiction is only a diary of day-dreams instead of days. And this profound preoccupation of men's minds with certain things always eventually has an effect even on the external expression of the age. [1922]
For good or evil, a line has been passed in our political history; and something that we have known all our lives is dead. I will take only one example of it: our politicians can no longer be caricatured. [1923]
Correctitude implies nowadays a formal or fastidious use of words; and what is wanted is not so much the correct as the living use of words. It is the memory of the meaning of a word which is the life of the word.
The Party System was founded on one national notion of fair play. It was the notion that folly and futility should be fairly divided between both sides. [1924]
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types--the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution. [1924]
But those dealing in the actual manufacture of mind are dealing in a very explosive material. The material is not merely the clay of which man is master, but the truths of semblances of truth which have a certain mastery over man. The material is explosive because it must be taken seriously. The men writing books really are throwing bombs. [1924]
What is education? Properly speaking, there is no such thing as education. Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. Whatever the soul is like, it will have to be passed on somehow, consciously or unconsciously, and that transition may be called education. ... What we need is to have a culture before we hand it down. In other words, it is a truth, however sad and strange, that we cannot give what we have not got, and cannot teach to other people what we do not know ourselves. [7/5/24]
It was the mystical dogma of Bentham and Adam Smith and the rest, that some of the worst of human passions would turn out to be all for the best. It was the mysterious doctrine that selfishness would do the work of unselfishness. [8/9/24]
When men have come to the edge of a precipice, it is the lover of life who has the spirit to leap backwards, and only the pessimist who continues to believe in progress. [11/8/24]
A lady mathematician, who was also something of a mystic, once talked to me for about half an hour about what she called "The Spiral of Progress." For her, I suppose, the dome would be surmounted neither by a cross nor by a cock, but by a corkscrew. [2/14/25] [Continued in later column] Only I gravely doubt whether her sort of corkscrew will ever find its ultimate and divine fulfillment in drawing any sort of cork. For her the heavens at which the sacred spiral pointed were full of vast mathematical diagrams drawn in dotted lines of stars. There was no probability that there would appear there among the clouds that Divine Bottle for which Rabelais was the reward of life.
This is the perpetual and pitiful tragedy of the practical man in practical affairs. He always begins with a flourish of contempt for what he calls theorizing and what people who can do it call thinking. He will not wait for logic--that is, in the most exact sense, he will not listen to reason. It will therefore appear to him an idle and ineffectual proceeding to say that there is a reason for his present failure. Nevertheless, it may be well to say it, and to try and make it clear even to him. [2/29/25]
But there is another strong objection which I, one of the laziest of all the children of Adam, have against the Leisure State. Those who think it could be done argue that a vast machinery using electricity, water-power, petrol, and so on, might reduce the work imposed on each of us to a minimum. It might, but it would also reduce our control to a miniumum. We should ourselves become parts of a machine, even if the machine only used those parts once a week. The machine would be our master, for the machine would produce our food, and most of us could have no notion of how it was really being produced. [3/21/25]
We all have a little weakness, which is very natural but rather misleading, for supposing that this epoch must be the end of the world because it will be the end of us. How future generations will get on without us is indeed, when we come to think of it, quite a puzzle. But I suppose they will get on somehow, and may possibly venture to revise our judgments as we have revised earlier judgments. [8/15/25]
Video meliora, proboque; Deteriora sequor.--Ovid. "I see the better way, and approve it; I follow the worse." [quoted by GKC]
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Last modified: 13th May, 1996
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.