When I had the privilege of making the announcement in August, 2013, that the Catholic Church was going to appoint an investigator to look into the possibility of opening the Cause for G.K. Chesterton, there was an immediate and widespread response around the world. While it was generally positive, in fact, uproariously positive, there was also a surprising number of people who were anxious to appoint themselves Devil’s Advocate, as if Satan does not have an easy enough time getting recruits for his work.
The most recent self-appointment is Mr. Steven Drummel, who has made the case that Chesterton cannot be counted among the saints because of his obvious intemperance. The trouble with attacking a giant is that though one imagines the large target as easy to hit, the result is often that one simply gets crushed for his efforts. Mr. Drummel has written an interesting and provocative piece, but he has done himself no favors by going after the giant G.K. Chesterton, first by pointing out that he was in fact a giant, but then by blaming him for it. I’m afraid he has only ended up making himself look. . . small.
My first reaction after reading Mr. Drummel’s piece was not something that Chesterton said (which is usually my first reaction to anything), but something that Jesus said: “The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard. . .!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matt. 11:19)
Wisdom is justified by her deeds.
Let us be clear. G.K. Chesterton was a virtuous man. His goodness drew other people to him, made him one of the most admirable figures of his time, made would-be enemies into friends, and made people change their own lives. That goodness still has the same effect almost 80 years after his death. It exudes from his writings. One cannot read a lot of Chesterton without the firm realization: “A good man wrote this.” He not only speaks the truth, he speaks it in love, and he speaks it from goodness. His incredible spiritual insight comes from an intimate friendship with God. Father Robert Wild in his recent book The Tumbler of God, argues persuasively that Chesterton should be counted not only among the great mystics, but among the saints. I have been promoting Chesterton’s cause for years, because I have come to know his holiness and his goodness, seeing it not only evident in his life and his words, but as part of a growing cult of devotion to him. His heroic virtue continues to draw a new generation to Chesterton—and to God. I have a list of hundreds of people who have become Catholic as a result of reading Chesterton. I am on that list. I have been reading Chesterton for 33 years and I still have not read everything he wrote. No one has. But I’ve read more than just about anyone. His books represent only a fraction of what he wrote. He was primarily a journalist, and in his mountain of throwaway newspaper columns, Chesterton hides nothing. He reveals himself utterly, writing honestly and truthfully and fairly (and always a under a deadline). What he reveals is goodness. No one is going to tell me that I am reading a glutton and a drunk.
But Chesterton did in fact defend drinking (and smoking!), which is a shock for a society that is still afflicted with the puritanism of its past. Chesterton was writing during Prohibition in America (and with Prohibition being threatened in his native England). He was as incredulous that such a thing could happen as we are now about some of the insane laws that have been forced on us today. “The custom of drinking fermented liquor,” he writes, “is an ancient, normal, and nearly universal custom of mankind, and rather especially of the most civilised part of mankind.” He stood up for the local pub as a place of joyful conviviality. It was not a place of solitary drunkenness, like an American bar. The so-called “temperance” societies of his time were in fact abstinence societies. He regards on forced abstinence as a social evil with nasty repercussions because it goes against a natural and normal tradition and will provoke an over-reaction against it. But even the evils associated with drink he considers minor in comparison with the abuse of other freedoms: “I could never see why a man who is not free to open his mouth to drink should be free to open it to talk. Talking does far more direct harm to other people.”
Chesterton certainly understands the importance of temperance: “The great value of temperance is not that it increases restraint, but that it increases enjoyment.” He says it is unnatural to be drunk. And it is evil. “The real case against drunkenness is not that it calls up the beast, but that it calls up the Devil.”
Mr. Drummel makes far too much of the bit of textual evidence he has unearthed to shore up the case for Chesterton the Glutton and the Drunk. The one account of Chesterton possibly being tipsy and actually falling (which happened in the dark, and in 1911, long before his conversion) is shored up by. . . well, by nothing. There are simply no other accounts of Chesterton being drunk. None. Chesterton is not one who called up the Devil.
He and his beloved wife Frances enjoyed arguments about many things. Theirs is one of the great love stories. Their occasional arguments about alcohol were jovial like their other arguments. Neither Chesterton nor Frances was ever in good health (she often with worse maladies than he). There were two times in his life when his doctor had him refrain from alcohol for a period, and the greatest difficultly for Chesterton during these times did not come from having to abstain himself, which he did dutifully, but from not being able to offer a drink to his guests. He poked fun at Frances not allowing it and still claiming it was a Christian household! To suggest that there was alcoholism in their household is not just irresponsible speculation. It is calumny.
“Drink when you are happy,” he advises, “not when you are miserable.” Chesterton was not a miserable man. He was a happy man. His joy is one of the greatest witnesses to his faith. He knew how to enjoy God’s good gifts, too. But he always defended keeping everything in its proper proportion, which is the basis for his philosophy of art and economics and everything else. Hence his famous line: “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” The way Mr. Drummel wagged this line in front of us, suggests that he is also accusing of Chesterton of hypocrisy along with these other vices. And that’s a pity.
Chesterton drank no hard liquors (“I have no objection to vodka except that I once tasted it.”) He drank beer when he was thirsty (“Let a man walk ten miles steadily on a hot summer’s day along a dusty English road, and he will soon discover why beer was invented. The fact that beer has a very slight stimulating quality will be quite among the smallest reasons that induce him to ask for it. In short, he will not be in the least desiring alcohol; he will be desiring beer.”), and claret because he enjoyed it (See the essential GKC essay: “Wine When it is Red”), which is why he drank it out of a tumbler.
As for over-eating, there are some accounts of Chesterton eating absent-mindedly if food was in front of him, and the fact that he loved beef and disliked vegetables (but not as much as he disliked vegetarianism!) but this does not constitute gluttony. It is true that George Bernard Shaw, chewing on grass, lived much longer than Chesterton. But Shaw was wrong about almost everything. And who would you rather be? But again, the evidence of gluttony is simply not there, other than the photographic evidence that Chesterton was fat, along with his wonderful jokes on himself about his great size: “It is impossible to be fat in secret.” And: “I enjoy myself more than other men because there is such a lot of me having a good time.” But with his great size came great humility: “I know that the thin monks were holy, but I am sure that the fat monks were humble.”
Perhaps the most disingenuous part of Mr. Drummel’s piece is that he so quickly prevents the fat saints from coming to Chesterton’s defense. He says that Thomas Aquinas wasn’t really fat and John XXIII was only fat by some other means than eating. But the same could be said for Chesterton in both cases. Thomas had his thin and athletic period (So did Chesterton), but he also had his sedentary period where he was mostly sitting and writing and had to have part of the table cut out in front of him to accommodate his stomach (not even Chesterton came to this). Furthermore, Thomas’ poor health gave him an early death, but not before he wrote more than one man could conceivably write in one lifetime, and all of it overflowing with truth (except for Chesterton, who did the same thing). As for the John XXIII comparison, that he “ate like a bird,” Chesterton’s secretary, Dorothy Collins, said she was amazed at how little Chesterton ate. Also, Chesterton’s lifelong friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley maintained that Chesterton did not eat that much and that his weight problem was due to a glandular condition. Even Chesterton’s physical collapse in 1914 has never been fully understood. The descriptions of his symptoms as well as the cause of them are mysterious and contradictory.
However, we must face the cruel fact that Chesterton indulged in what is currently the greatest evil on the face of the earth (at least in the eyes of those who worship health): he smoked. A confirmed tobacco user. An enjoyment he joyfully defended. He made the sign of the cross with his match before his lit his cigar. He called his cigar “a Parnassian pleasure” and tobacco smoke “the Ichor of mental life.” If you don’t know what the words “Parnassian” or “Ichor” mean, look them up.
We are a living in a new age of Prohibition, and the idea of a tobacco user being canonized is simply unimaginable. Of course, we might point out that St. Pius X enjoyed snuff. St. Damian smoked a pipe. So did Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (though the pipe was airbrushed out of his mouth in the famous photo that hung in St. Peter’s Square at his beatification. Puritans lurk in the Vatican as well as on Catholic websites.) Pope Benedict XVI, who is not yet canonized, smokes cigarettes. But it will probably kill him and then keep him out of heaven.