Review – The Story of the Family

G.K. Chesterton on the Only State That Creates and Loves Its Own Citizens

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Overview

Synopsis Chesterton Society President Dale Ahlquist gathers the great Catholic journalist's thoughts on family together into one convenient and thought provoking book.

Author Edited by Dale Ahlquist, based on the works of G.K. Chesterton
Publisher Ignatius Press
Genre Theology/Politics

Length 237 Pages

Release Date April 5, 2022

Is there any forgotten writer who has seen a greater rediscovery than G.K. Chesterton? He has become a fascinating figure in modern life as a Christian apologist and political philosopher. He’s known as the “Apostle of Common Sense,” and his books have returned to prominence in the past two decades as a result of breaking out into the wider Christian intellectual ecosystem, as one of the 20th century’s most joyful and sensible thinkers.

Born into a Unitarian family, Chesterton escaped his youth of occultism and suicidal depression by embracing faith in the Church of England and rallying for Distributist economic solutions. In 1922, he underwent one of the most scandalous conversions to Roman Catholicism since Cardinal John Henry Newman half a century before him. He was one of the most beloved thinkers of his time and renowned worldwide as a fiction writer and public representative for the Christian faith, facing an establishment predisposed to scientific materialism, marxism, and atheism.

May 29 is G.K. Chesterton’s 150th birthday, and what better way to celebrate that day than to examine one of the best recent collections of his work to reach the market? In addition to this, what better time of the year to read a book about family than that special period between Mother’s and Father’s Day?

Review

Dale Ahlquist is a man who is no stranger to praise. His role as the President of the Chesterton Society and the former host of EWTN’s Apostles of Common Sense has made him a global expert on the life of G.K. Chesterton and helped bring him back into global attention. While he is currently promoting the release of his new annotated edition of Chesterton’s masterpiece The Everlasting Man, he recently edited a new collection of essays focusing on one of Chesterton’s great interests — family.

The concept of family is old and sacred for Christians. Among Roman Catholics, marriage is one of the church’s seven sacraments, and child-rearing is considered a core aspect of that tradition’s philosophy of life. This reverence has been carried down into Evangelical Christianity and secular culture as well, but has faced significant challenges and abuses in the past century. In modern life, the concept of the family has faced much change. There has been much effort in recent decades (understandably in many cases) to be more inclusive and redefine the traditional notion of family away from exclusively heterosexual childrearing couples to single-parent families, LGBTQ+ couples, polygamous relationships, and adoptive surrogate families.

The concept has also faced direct ideological attacks. Free love advocates castigate marriage as oppressive. Marxists proclaim it as an anti-revolutionary institution that must be done away with. Modern culture treats marriage and family as arbitrary and cheap. Activists promote anti-natalism among the young, encouraging young people to believe child rearing is a net negative amid catastrophic climate change and late capitalism. Feminist heroes like Simone de Beauvoir advocate against even allowing women to have the choice to embrace motherhood and domestic life. Major political parties downplay its importance or align behind presidential candidates with histories of divorce and adultery.

In short, the traditional family has few allies and many adversaries, facing attacks from all sides. Its current defenders, emerging from the recent trend of Trad culture on TikTok, often fetishize the aesthetics and treat submission as a life goal rather than embracing the love and rewards of a healthy, realistic relationship. Yet, the family survives entirely because it’s realistic and desirable. It’s the base state of humanity and necessary for the survival of the species, despite most people’s wishes.

Chesterton Defends The Family

It was this state of affairs that Chesterton continually returned to addressing for decades across his career, decrying the evils of divorce, birth control, and free love, while criticizing feminism for playing into the hands of industrial capitalism at their own expense. In his eyes, the domesticity of the family was an unqualified good, and the only defense society held from handing off the most important responsibilities in life to the uncaring hands of the state. The family built loving bonds based on trust and affection and created babies to honor the great chain of civilization a generation further, allowing common people to lead rich and godly lives.

“When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy tale.” (47)

Chesterton defines the basic idea of family as “the founding of a family must be on a firm foundation” and “that the rearing of the immature must be protected by something patient and enduring. (93)

Thus, all attempts to break these chains — by “officializing” busybody technocrats, an “idle intelligentsia,” industrialists, Bolsheviks, and Nazis — were attempts to disrupt an unqualified good. The only meaningful replacement for the traditional family would be the state and capitalist wage system, both of which would be cruel, coercive, and insufficient.

“Officialism itself will be only rigid in its action and will be exceedingly limp in its thought (34) … The care of all such things will pass into their hands because there will be nobody else to notice such a trifle as a living soul born alive into the world. The total control of human life will pass to the state, and it will be a very totalitarian state.” (55)

Edited By Dale Ahlquist

Chesterton wrote few systematic works on the family as a whole, shy of The Superstition of Divorce, but wrote about it consistently enough that Ahlquist can produce a comprehensive yet repetitive patchwork text. Each chapter begins with dozens of quotes and then breaks down into abridged versions of many of Chesterton’s most famous essays, many from popular works like Heretics and What’s Wrong With The World.

This makes the book come off as stilted and jittery compared to his more lengthy works like Orthodoxy and Everlasting Man, but this isn’t uncommon by Chesterton’s standards. Of the 80 books he wrote, many were just collections of his published essays like The Well And The Shallows and All Things Considered, with only shallow semblances of thematic continuity between articles. There’s plenty of room for works like The Story of the Family to curate and publish dozens of the more than 8,000 Chesterton essays floating in the ether, particularly as more enter the public domain each year. Ahlquist does so here excellently and draws upon many of Chesterton’s most topical thoughts.

The chapters are loosely arranged based on overarching themes of family, love and sex, divorce, birth control, public education, and work. Chesterton returns to the same ideas and talking points frequently, but among the most common is the idea domestic life is a far deeper and less narrow life than that of the modern man, which requires specialization and a willingness to live voyeuristically and rootlessly. He proposes the world traveler is far more cowardly than the man who embraces the adventure of learning to get along with his prickly difficult-to-love family, as the traveler lives a detached life without the hardship of negotiation and maturity.

Chesterton vs. Modernity

Chesterton sees, in the enemies of the family, a dangerous pride that threatens to bind people to yolks that Christianity frees them from. He argues divorce, birth control, and capitalism are seeding chaos and disunity into the modern family, leading men to take their vows unseriously and women to despise their femininity.

“I do not deny that women have been wronged and even tortured; but I doubt if they were ever tortured so much as they are tortured now by the absurd modern attempt to make them domstic empresses and competitive clerks at the same time. I do not deny that even under the old tradition women had a harder time than men; that is why we take off our hats.” (213)

It is obviously worth addressing that Chesterton’s ideas and solutions will not be for everyone. He is still considered highly controversial, even among Roman Catholics. He is remarkably nuanced and empathetic, but uncompromising and harsh by modern standards. Entire cottage industries exist to criticize Chesterton’s faults and eccentricities. He gives little space to his progressive and protestant critics, even when his values broadly intersect with them as an anti-capitalist Christian.

He certainly wasn’t afraid to grab the third rail, throwing caution to the wind in the name of truth. As the recent Butker speech backlash shows, traditionalist Catholic ideas don’t mix well with modern culture. Much controversy could likely be made by merely quoting the book, but there are also valuable reflections in it. You could dedicate entire lectures to his quote that every man is a beast by woman’s standards and every woman is insane by masculine standards (68), either by tearing into them or asking your spouse if it’s true.

As Chesterton dutifully reminds us elsewhere, “I never discuss anything else except politics and religion. There is nothing else to discuss.”

Ahlquist ends the collection with Chesterton’s 1933 call for Catholic revival, saying “Catholic civilization must be restored or it must be scrapped.” His hope was for a resurgence of “justice, freedom, property, and the family” to free the modern world from its burdens. As he argues, “the home is not a prison,” nor an “asylum,” nor is it a trap for the “weak-minded nor incapable.” It is a deeply dignified institution fit only for the brave. Domesticity is difficult, but also a great adventure – one men and women (in ideal healthy relationships) share equally in their burdens. It is a freedom that protects us from the worst excesses of the government, corporations, and our human nature.

Positives

+ Excellent Snippets of Chesterton's Essays
+ Comprehensive and Thought Provoking Topics
+ Timely Release

Negatives

- Somewhat Lacking Through-Line
- Overabundance of Punchy Quotes
- Somewhat Repetitive
- Controversial Subject Matter (Particularly for non-Catholics)

The Bottom Line

Dale Ahlquist does a remarkable job providing a systematic exploration of the crucial topic of traditional families and their value.

 

Writing 9

Editing 8

8.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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