“The only thing surprising about common sense is how uncommon it has become.”-G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) has been dubbed the apostle of common sense. An apostle is sent to preach the Gospel — in ordinary and/or extraordinary ways. Chesterton did just that using common-sense arguments. “Critics recognized that he wrote in defense of the Christian faith but mistakenly presumed he was just doing it for show. When they finally realized that Chesterton actually believed what he wrote, they were shocked.” (Dale Ahlquist. The Apostle of Common Sense. P. 18)
Chesterton wrote about everything — politics, war, sex, art, literature, science, technology, philosophy, psychology, morality, history, and even economics. Basically, Chesterton had the unique ability to interweave paradox, wit, and common sense while writing about topics that helped the reader better understand God, themselves, society, and the world they lived in.
Chesterton’s Christ-centered friendship transformed his life and the lives of many other individuals — then and now. He eventually became Catholic fourteen years before his death. His written works still transform lives when we take the time to read and ponder their meaning. Be warned, Chesterton wrote a lot; he published 100 books, regular weekly columns in the London newspapers, his own paper entitled G.K’s Weekly, poetry, and short stories including a popular mystery series featuring priest-detective Father Brown. He even wrote a book about St. Thomas Aquinas that is considered to be the “best one ever written” according to renowned Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson. He published fifteen million words during his lifetime! (Catholicism: The Pivotal Players by Bishop Robert Barron) That’s a lot of words, but the meaning of the words is so much more important than the number!
If you want to read Chesterton, but don’t know where to start, refer to my Points to Ponder Section at the end of this article. Why read Chesterton? Etienne Gilson tells us that Chesterton “was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to the others, he apologized for being right, and he made up for by being witty.”
What is common sense? Why is it in short supply today? Bishop Robert Barron tells us that common sense is nothing other than an understanding and practice of natural law. But since when is a philosophy or law considered a virtue? Let’s investigate that further.
Modern day wordologists — the people who make up words and their definitions — suggest that common sense is the “wisdom of the common folk.” (Urban Dictionary) Sounds right until you read their definition of common folk: people who are “mostly ignorant, uneducated, foolish, often poor or middle class, not the type who attend Ivy League schools or who drives a Rolls Royce. They are persons of average capacities, abilities, education, intelligence, and wealth.” In other words, common folk do not think, look, talk, or walk like our educated, smart, wise, rich, and above-average folk. That definition helps prove Chesterton’s claim that common sense and the common man are under constant attack today! Urban Dictionary’s definition is painfully narrow-minded while trying to be broad. It unfairly portrays all common folk the same, and rather despicably!
Perhaps my father was right when he lamented that higher education (graduate degrees) knocked common sense out of me (and the writers of Urban Dictionary). At the time he said these words, I didn’t bother to ask him what he meant. Years later, I wish I had because Dad may have been a closeted Chestertonian. Consider the similarity between Dad’s words and those of G.K. Chesterton, who wrote: “The surprising thing about common sense is how uncommon it has become. And common things are the basis of common sense even though common things are not commonplace; they are terrible and startling, death for instance and first love.”
Why is Chesterton controversial when he merely seems to prop up the common folk and common sense? Here’s why! “Chesterton argued eloquently against all the trends that eventually took over the 20th century: materialism, scientific determinism, moral relativism, and spineless agnosticism. He also argued against both socialism and capitalism and showed why they have both been the enemies of freedom and justice in modern society. And what did he argue for? What was it he defended? He defended ‘the common man’ and ‘common sense.’ He defended the poor. He defended the family. He defended beauty. And he defended Christianity and the Catholic Faith. These don’t play well in the classroom, in the media, or in the public arena. And that is probably why he is neglected. The modern world prefers writers who are snobs, who have exotic and bizarre ideas, who glorify decadence, who scoff at Christianity, who deny the dignity of the poor, and who think freedom means no responsibility.” (Dale Ahlquist. The Apostle of Common Sense.) Today’s culture seems hell-bent on continuing down that same path, unfortunately; but that’s what happens when we lose common sense.
Harriet Beecher Stowe defined common sense another way: “Common sense is seeing things as they are; and doing things as they should be.” This gives credence to the grouping of common sense with other virtues. When understood as a virtue, we begin to realize that common sense allows us to do things as they should be. It allows us to see things more clearly! It gives us more insight into right and wrong. It recognizes sin and vice for what they are — evil. It recognizes right and virtue for what they are — good.
Common sense helps us discern right from wrong. It encourages us to sync our moral compass with God’s. Common sense helps us assess the morality and consequences of our choices and actions. Common sense allows us to see the differences between good and evil. Finally, common sense helps us to choose what is good for the sake of others.
You have already learned that the basic characteristic of any virtue is the habitual and firm disposition to do the good. (CCC p. 903) That is why common sense is a virtue. When attached to Christ and his grace, we naturally think, do, say and believe things more fully thereby increasing our common sense. “Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.” (Heretics by G. K. Chesterton) In other words, common sense knows better than to try to disprove the supernatural. Common sense urged the framers of the Constitution to put to paper inalienable rights of all people in order to form a more perfect union. These rights do not come from the government but from God Himself. The early fathers clearly demonstrated common sense as they wrote that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The virtue of common sense should cause us to stop, look, pray, and think before choosing because (borrowing from Chesterton) the act of defending common sense has even today all the exhilaration of a vice! Putting common sense to work helps us avoid the creation of unmanageable contradictions that hurt us. “The only thing surprising about common sense is how uncommon is has become” without us noticing the why, when and the how it happened. (my interpretation of Chesterton)
The companion virtues to common sense include gratitude, prudence and charity! Vices that oppose common sense include the lack of faith, hope, and love; selfishness; ingratitude; entitlement; and foolishness, disbelief; misinterpretation; and thoughtlessness. Common sense is lost through these vices and personal sin.
Is it easy to put on and have the virtue of common sense today? Is the self-arming of any virtue easy? The answer is no and never — for all the obvious reasons. That’s why and how saints have so much to teach us about this life and the next — especially with regard to faith, reason, and personal virtue! And that includes G.K. Chesterton — the apostle of common sense — who may one day join the ranks of sainted men and women including Saint John Paul ll, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Gianna, and Saint Maximillian Kolbe, among others. “Those who aspire to holiness become for us a way of knowing Christ, for Christ introduces himself to the world, not merely in abstractions or emotions or institutions but through the people he has called to be his friends.” (Bishop Robert Barron) Chesterton certainly invites us to put on common sense par excellence. G.K. invites us to be grateful to God for giving us unconditional love and life!
And so the campaign for the beatification of G.K. Chesterton has begun; the investigations that are necessary for beatification are still in the infancy stage: the production of prayer cards. Whether or not Chesterton is canonized by the Church, he still stands out as a rare genius when it comes to the practice of virtuous common sense!Points to ponder:
- Add G.K. Chesterton to your 2018 reading list. Where to begin? I would recommend picking up a copy of Dale Ahlquist’s book, G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense. This book provides a brief overview of fourteen Chesterton books. The summary of a specific book may pique your interest! Start with that one. Also, James Parker, writing in The Atlantic, has the following advice. “If you’ve got a couple of days, read his impish, ageless, inside-out terrorist thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. If you’ve got an afternoon, read his masterpiece of Christian apologetics Orthodoxy: ontological basics retailed with a blissful, zooming frivolity, Thomas Aquinas meets Eddie Van Halen. If you’ve got half an hour, read “The Blue Cross,” the first and most glitteringly perfect of his stories featuring the crime-busting village priest Father Brown. If you’ve got only 10 minutes, read his essay A Much Repeated Repetition.”
- Write down what you are grateful for each day of 2018, including personal hardships and challenges. Ponder how these challenges and hardships help increase your friendship with Christ.
- Practice common sense.
- Learn about Natural Law catholic studies and experts. The following is a very brief description of moral law derived from several sources. The Theory of Natural Law maintains that moral law transcends time, culture, and government. Universal moral code applies to all mankind regardless of time because God created each of us in His image and likeness. Because of sin, we need God’s grace to practice what is right and avoid what is wrong. God’s moral code is universal and has been imprinted in the hearts of every person; his moral code is the fundamental basis of any just society.
- Teach your children to be grateful for their lives.
- Teach your children to think about the consequences of their behavior.
- List the contradictions that confine, restrict and remove common sense (as a result of consumerism, materialism, relativism, individualism, socialism, capitalism, atheism, and so on.)
- Ponder how common sense fights off the -isms listed above?
Copyright 2018 Linda Kracht