ale Ahlquist’s The Complete Thinker, an intellectual biography of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), details the wide scope and persuasive nature of Chesterton’s thought. Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society and author of such books as G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, and In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton. After a lifelong apprenticeship, as such titles indicate, Ahlquist knows his master’s over four thousand essays, eighty books, and hundreds of poems more fully than most critics.
The Complete Thinker begins by lamenting our not learning about Chesterton in schools. Students are taught about the Scopes Monkey Trial, where Clarence Darrow roundly defeated William Jennings Bryan. They do not learn about a debate five years later, where Chesterton famously (at the time) beat Darrow. His work was exceptionally controversial and consistently influential.
Around every corner in Ahlquist’s biography we find a gifted and paradoxical mind graciously trying to persuade a public that only intermittently adopted or comprehended his paradoxes. He was a radical without a revolution. Captivated by high ideals, he celebrated the storming of the Bastille and praised Christ’s triumph on Calvary. He defended William Jennings Bryan’s progressive, populist movement, and the conservative agenda of the Salvation Army. His mission, in short, was the advancement of fair ownership, Christian virtue, and democracy.
He was a proponent of guilds and an opponent of inequality. This talk of guilds isn’t as reactionary as it sometimes sounds, as his interest in the Middle Ages was more idealistic than nostalgic. Dale Ahlquist looks closely at Chesterton’s take on political economy, revealing how Belloc’s ideas about the restoration of property led him into a prudent rejection of communist and capitalist extremes. Chesterton did not want to go back to a feudal society. We cannot know exactly how he would have structured his ideal polity. But, in What’s Wrong with the World, he clearly admires certain neglected republican and medieval ideals. “The Christian ideal,” says Chesterton, “has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. It is, of course, the same in the case of the French Revolution.” Many peers saw him as unforgivably orthodox, yet his prophetic attacks on eugenics, plutocracy, and the servile state testify to his value as a social thinker.
Chesterton developed into an adept mystery writer at a time when his work as a journalist, art critic, and pundit were highly demanded. William James, philosopher and psychologist, and T.S. Eliot, poet and playwright, praised his book on Charles Dickens.
His The Man Who Was Thursday, Manalive, and the “Father Brown” stories were notable achievements. For his adept use of dialectic, and his novel take on intuition, future mystery writers would be indebted. As Jorge Luis Borges, novelist and poet, perceptively recognized, “Chesterton is one of the foremost writers of our time, not only because of his happy inventiveness, visual imagination and childlike or godlike cheer so evident in all his writing, but also because of his rhetorical skill and the sheer brilliance of his craft.”
Throughout this thoroughly researched and sympathetically disposed biography, Dale Ahlquist understands that he is promoting an exceptional Edwardian mind. It was a mind in which William Cobbett and Dorothy Day could cooperatively stand for the common good. It was simultaneously radical and orthodox, flippant and sincere, democratic and traditional. Ahlquist argues that G.K. Chesterton transcends limitations peculiar to modernity, and in the process shows us how to think coherently. This is a large claim, and if Ahlquist were reviewing this review, he would probably retort that Chesterton was a large man, corpse and corpus, and that if anyone could achieve such a feat, it would be the radically orthodox republican who wrote detective fiction and philosophical treatises, championed localism everywhere from America to Palestine, supported the platforms of William Jennings Bryan and Pope Leo XII, and made an impact on both the avant-garde artists and old traditionalists of his age. The Complete Thinker, Dale Ahlquist’s intellectual biography of Chesterton, is the work of an apprentice out to honor his master. From the outset, Ahlquist plainly states his views. He believes Chesterton is one of the most perceptive English writers since Shakespeare, and the academy has ignored him to the peril of their own credibility. As a critic, according to Ahlquist, correct first principles inform GKC’s aesthetic and political and metaphysical positions. In short, Chesterton holds a holistic view of goodness, truth, and beauty. This is what makes him the complete thinker par excellence. And, as much as many admire Chesterton, this high praise will doubtless prove too much for some readers.
His trips to America were occasions for debate, lecture, and humorous observation. What I Saw in America, his reflections on our peculiar practices and comical idiosyncrasies, demonstrates the very powers of analysis Ahlquist celebrates. Passing by countless wooden houses in the expansive Midwest, Chesterton considers the implications of an immigrant nation, a property owning republic, a puritan heritage. For Chesterton, aesthetics and theology and politics were all related. They could not be separated.
And his vision of an ownership society found sympathetic American writers. Herbert Agar, the poet and historian, was one such writer. Agar won the Pulitzer Prize for The People’s Choice, a distributist history of the American presidency, and would go on to start Free America, a magazine of decentralist communitarian ideals, with contributors Allen Tate, Dorothy Day, and Ralph Borsodi. Chesterton’s mind, at least the works that came from it, influenced many thinkers who provided localist alternatives to the New Deal. Dale Ahlquist’s biography is as agreeable an inspection of the outer reaches of that mind as devotees are likely to encounter. As for skeptics, they should turn elsewhere for a careful consideration of their concerns.