Saturday, January 10, 2015

GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy - A brief review

OrthodoxyOrthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chesterton is a witty thinker with some interesting and provocative ideas.  When you first start this book, the freshness of his approach is striking and impressive.  But … it gets old, fast.  His excessive use of paradoxical metaphorical writing is clever the first few times you encounter it; but it wears on you the next 5 thousand times you encounter it.  I mean, really, it seems as if every other sentence is some kind of cutesy parallel inversion of some statement or claim.

His turns of phrase and his witticisms are much too clever by half, meaning his overdoing it in this regard diminishes his arguments after a while.

But enough on the overbearing style of his writing, what about the content?  And here I give Chesterton his props.  His defense of orthodoxy is creative and persuasive … mostly.  I think he makes some good arguments, but I think he is his own worst enemy in the sense that by pounding his arguments so incessantly, he inevitably falls into the trap of making the reader think he is slicing and dicing an argument in so many different ways because there is some weakness inherent to it.  And, indeed, I think there are some weaknesses which cause an honest thinker to question the legitimacy of his claims.

For one, the debater's trick he uses to mischaracterize or unfairly pigeon-hole the arguments of his rivals diminishes his own arguments.  He has a tendency to twist his opponents' arguments to mean things that he can argue against, but which are really not the meanings put forward by his opponents at all.  In essence, he is quite skillful at taking incomplete bits and snippets of an oppositional argument and then using them to set up a more comprehensive intellectual straw man that he then beats down.  In a sense, this debating style is quite effective rhetorically, but it rings hollow and disingenuous in terms of its substance.

I could go into detail and give many examples of what I mean by the above critique, but I just don't feel like it's worth it.  Just read the work and you'll get a good sense of what I mean.

And the shame of it is that his core idea doesn't really need all that rhetorical bamboozling and cleverness.  For those who want to find a fascinating debater's defense (and a novel one at that) of Christian orthodoxy, you'll enjoy this read.  But for those who are looking for an intellectually honest defense of orthodoxy, you might find this read a bit problematic and troubling.

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