Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, recently sent out this letter:
Some time ago, I had the privilege of editing a book called In Defense of Sanity – The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton. Two distinguished English gentlemen, Joseph Pearce and Aidan Mackey, were joined by this undistinguished and troublesome American, in choosing the so-called “best” essays of Chesterton out of the more than 5,000 that he wrote. While we had no trouble defending the essays we included in the collection, we found ourselves unable to defend the essays that we left out! Fortunately, the book is not about the three of us defending our selections, but rather it is about Chesterton’s defense of all the sane and simple things that are under attack today in our insane modern world.
One of the primary things that Chesterton defends is. . . one of the primary things: the family. We included Chesterton’s classic essay on the institution of the family from his 1905 book Heretics. This is where Chesterton responds to those who attack the family for being “uncongenial.” The surprising thing is that Chesterton actually agrees that the family is uncongenial, but that is precisely why it is so important. In a family, we have to get along with a group of people we did not choose to live with, which happens to be same situation in our relationship with the rest of the world: “The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.”
But the revolt against the family has continued for the last one hundred years. Thirty years after Chesterton wrote that essay, he found himself still defending the institution of the family in an essay for the Illustrated London News (an essay that we did not --but could have-- included in the “best” essays collection).
He points out that the family is the foundational human institution, more important than the State, more important than the social laws and customs and committees that have developed along with our society. Yet the family is treated with less respect than the any of those other lesser institutions. Even if we occasionally quarrel with the authority or the decisions of those other institutions, we don’t simply dissolve them based on our bad moods. And yet, in spite of the lip service we pay to the ideal of marriage, it seems that whenever a particular marriage hits a rough spot, when one or both spouse loses interest, changes their outlook, loses their desire or finds a different desire, when a marriage descends into pit of despair where husband and wife are uncommunicative, unsupportive, unfaithful, we sigh and say, “Well, it would probably be better if they just split up, so that they can start over.”
Chesterton says “Nobody dreams of applying that sort of washy sentiment to any of the other institutions. Nobody says that, so long as the sight of the policeman at the corner of the street still thrills me like the sight of a soldier watching, sword in hand, over the fatherland, so long and no longer I may tolerate the policeman and allow him to regulate the traffic; but if, in some empty and dreary hour, I grow cold towards the policeman, I feel no gush of inspiration at the sight of his boots, I even feel suddenly that I do not like his face - then, all is over between me and the policeman; I no longer recognize his function in the State; I become a philosophic anarchist and he becomes an unintelligible tyrant. Nobody says this; for the obvious reason that Government or the State would never have existed at all, for forty-eight hours, if it was dissolved by any change of emotion or the momentary loss of our purely imaginative appreciation of its value.”
Every human institution depends on “some rule of fidelity and continuity, that could be counted on to rise superior to mere moods and emotions.” It applies to the principle of private property as well as public order. If my neighbor loses interest in his garden while I gain interest in it, the garden does not become my possession simply because his admiration for it becomes intermittent while I lie awake thinking about it.
And yet, says Chesterton, “The Family is the only institution that is discussed in this senseless sentimental fashion; and, therefore, the Family is the only institution that has very nearly ceased to exist. Those other institutions, those much more official, oppressive, and even tyrannical institutions, do continue to exist. And that is because they have laws and loyalties that are supposed to survive changes of sentiment.”
All of Chesterton’s arguments in defense of marriage and the family are as valid and timely as ever. Just as we cannot use sentiment to do away with the institution of marriage with divorce, neither can we use sentiment to alter the institution of marriage by redefining it as a relationship that can exist between members of the same sex. As Chesterton points out, marriage precedes the State; it is a more primary institution than the State and has a more primary authority than the State. In the days ahead we must raise our voices in defense of this primary institution of marriage and prevent that other institution, the State, from collapsing and destroying its own foundations through the triumph of sentiment over reason.
American Chesterton Society
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And here is a full listing of the Table of Contents of In Defense Of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton, edited by Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey.