Ideas: Quoting G. K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a journalist, author and what can be best described as a complete thinker. He wrote over 100 books and over 5000 newspaper columns. His gift for aphorism has made him familiar to many by his eloquence if not by his name. He wrote about everything because he believed that everything was in one way or another connected. He took delight in arguing without losing his temper, his reason, or even the friendships he had with his fellow debaters.

There is a modern revival of his works going on today, so if you enjoy and/or are challenged by what you read here, please visit The Society for Gilbert K. Chesterton. There’s lots to explore including more quotations, lectures, etc. and even an annual conference. They’ve even got the Chesterton Schools Network of high schools which offer classical education through a Catholic lens. I used to be on the American Chesterton Society board of directors, and believe that this guy (who’s been dead since 1936) probably knew more about the today than most people now alive. The past can often reveal much of what has yet to happen as well as explain a lot of what’s going on right now.

1. The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.

2. If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?

3. The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.

4. Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.

5. In the end it will not matter to us whether we fought with flails or reeds. It will matter to us greatly on what side we fought.

6. The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside of us.

7. It is of the new things that men tire… of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young.

8. A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.

9. The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.

10. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.

11. Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man.

12. Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.

13. The test of all happiness is gratitude.

14. We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.

15. Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

16. Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.

17. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

18. Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery, you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.

19. Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

20. Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.

21. Contemporary society has become dry, not for lack of wonders but for lack of wonder.

22. No man who worships education has got the best out of education… Without a gentle contempt for education no man’s education is complete.

23. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralyzed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.

24. Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.

25. Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

26. We grow conservative as we grow old it is true. But we do not grow conservative because we find so many new things spurious. We grow conservative because we find so many old things genuine.

27. Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.

28. We are learning to do a great many clever things … The next great task will be to learn not to do them.

29. Chaos is dull.

30. There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.

(Note: the graphic of Chesterton is from an old cigarette card. Packs of cigarettes used to have trading cards, sometimes of sports figures, and this was from a set of literary figures. Imagine a time when smoking cigarettes and famous literary figures went together.)

Cover for the book Worth Remembering by David Zach

Finding Long Term Value in Short Ideas

This is a sampler from my continually growing database of over 4000 quotations. I’ve been collecting these since junior high. These were selected not with a modern sensibility of sensitivity or inclusion, but with a notion of timelessness and truth regardless of the source. Each of these are about the future, even if that future was from a very long time ago.

This all started when I found a packet of 3×5 cards in my dad’s office. Each one had a quotation on it. He explained that quotations were really useful, because you didn’t have time to read everything, so look for ideas worth remembering. If possible, see how others had taken complex ideas and gotten the essence of it in just a few lines. Yeah, my dad was a smart guy.

A few years ago, I published some of my favorites in a small book which I used for audience giveaways and as a thank you for clients. You can find it on Amazon for 99 cents: Worth Remembering: The Future Value of Old Ideas.

1. A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in human history – with possible exception of handguns and tequila. Mitch Ratliffe

2. When science discovers the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed to find they are not it. Bernard Baily

3. First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII—and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure. Douglas Adams

4. The industrialized world has a different kind of poverty, a poverty of loneliness, of being unwanted, a poverty of the spirit. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

5. The surest sign that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is that they’ve never tried to contact us. Woody Allen

6. The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. Lily Tomlin

7. The trouble with cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it. Marshall McLuhan

8. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Oscar Wilde

9. All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Leo Tolstoy

10. Without books, God is silent, justice dormant, natural science at a stand, philosophy lame, letters dumb, and all things involved in darkness. Thomas Bartholin

11. And the same age saw Learning fall, and Rome. Alexander Pope

12. There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. Joseph Brodsky

13. Literature is my utopia. Helen Keller

14. I cannot live without books. Thomas Jefferson

15. Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. Elie Wiesel

16. Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us all without words?
Marcel Marceau

17. Only intuition can protect us from the most dangerous individual of all, the articulate incompetent. Robert Bernstein

18. Prediction is difficult, especially about the future. Neils Bohr

19. No one really knows enough to be a pessimist. Norman Cousins

20. Torture numbers and they will confess to anything. Gregg Easterbrook

21. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. C. S. Lewis

22. When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near. Will Durant

23. Decadence can find agents only when it wears the mask of progress.
George Bernard Shaw

24. You can never get enough of what you really don’t need. Eric Hoffer

25. Where there is no vision, the people perish.Proverbs 29:18

26. Who guards the guardians? Juvenal

27. There is hope for the future because God has a sense of humor and we are funny to God. Bill Cosby

28. If the stars should appear just one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore! Ralph Waldo Emerson

29. This too shall pass. Dante Alighieri

30. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
II Timothy 4:7

31. Perhaps in time the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

32. People change and forget to tell each other. Lillian Hellman

33. To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.
James P. Carse

34. College isn’t the place to go for ideas. Helen Keller

35. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2

36. You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. James Baldwin

37. I love little children, and it is not a slight thing when they, who are fresh from God, love us. Charles Dickens

38. I actually think that to become really mature is to return to the age of five, to become able to recapture the capacity for absorption, for learning, the tremendous hunger to master skills that you have at five years. Eric Hoffer

39. Real futurists have children. Bruce Sterling

40. Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now bump, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there is really another way if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. A. A. Milne

41. Play so that you may be serious. Anacharsis

42. God gave us our memories so that we might have roses in December. James M. Barrie

43. Won’t you come into the garden? I would like my roses to see you. Richard Brinsley Lord Sheridan

44. It is a great mistake for men to give up paying compliments, for when they give up saying what is charming, they give up thinking what is charming. Oscar Wilde

45. A man of courage flees forward, in the midst of new things.Jacques Maritain

46. The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. Eden Phillpotts

47. How beautiful the leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days. John Burroughs

48. Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars. Henry van Dyke

Reading: In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 1933

Some books become a favorite just for a single line. It’s the essence of this 42 page essay, published as a book. In Praise of Shadows is an poetic defense of the Japanese aesthetic and the act of thinking differently from whatever dominates. He notes that the West has never delighted in shadows and thereby fails to see so much of the beautiful. That’s a bit of overstatement, but for now we’ll go with it.

Tanizaki says that in the West, everything has to be lit up and cleaned up. All details are noted, even when elaborately covered. He praises the honesty of a bare bulb. He praises age and patina. He praises what we try to ignore.

Japanese music is one of reticence, but when recorded and amplified, loses its charm. Even in conversations, voices are meant to be softer, the pauses more important than the content.

Paper, invented by the Chinese, becomes just a tool for most of the West; an efficient thing, neglecting the potential of the texture, color, warmth. Instead of inviting us into the moment, it is reduced to the momentary.

Toilets. The famed novelist begins his essay with the aesthetic of the Japanese toilet. He notes that their ancestors made poetry of everything in their lives, and made that room the most poetic. The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with such sentiment. (If you get the chance, stay at The Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. It was my first encounter with localized Japanese architectural style. When I redesigned my own bathroom, it was one of the inspirations.)

One of my conclusion from this isn’t that the West is wrong, it is that it is too often incomplete and, in its accumulative nature, denatures the essence, leaving out what takes time to consider. In that at least we are not alone. Ignorance and arrogance curses us all. Impatience only makes it worse.

Ries and Trout in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, also have a singular memorable line: cherchez le creneau, conveniently translated from the French into “Look for the hole.” Look where others are not looking, see what others are not seeing. I don’t think this is about geography, it’s about self-imposed limitations, which we all have. Sometimes we build them up into an entire corporation, sometimes into an entire culture, but more often than not, those things we are not seeing are just within ourselves.

[Note: the links to buy the books goes to I do not get any remuneration from sales. I just think that we should support small, local businesses, especially small, local bookshops. We might pay a little more, but consider it a very local taxation to pay for nice, walkable neighborhoods.]

Review of Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch. Please support local bookstores by by buying the book through this link – for which I get no remuneration. I just like local bookstores. (I consider buying local as a sort of taxation for having nice neighborhoods, like Bay View, WI.)

I would put this in my list of top ten books you need to read. And, it’s a short book, only 163 pages.

How do we find truth in an age of information? This is vital because the economy is based on information – and bad information can harm, if not destroy, the economy. Rauch says there are five approaches that people take to find or argue for the truth:

  1. The Fundamentalist Approach: God (or some other unassailable authority figure) has given me the truth and I will give it to you. Arguments ensue but unless you are that god or unassailable authority, your arguments are irrelevant.
  2. The Egalitarian Approach: All sincerely held ideas are of equal value. If I sincerely believe that aliens are among us in the form of Pugs, who are you to doubt me? If I sincerely believe that you are wrong, again, who are you to doubt me because my ideas are as valid as any – and any evidence to the contrary is just as absurd or relevant. This approach quickly goes nowhere.
  3. The Radical Egalitarian Approach: Because some people have been held out of the discussion, they get first place back in line. This approach is quite often quite popular with those who have either been held out of the line, or didn’t know the line was there.
  4. The Humanitarian Approach: This can be combined with any of the other approaches, but adds that you must not cause harm with your words. And, the recipient of your words gets to determine how harmful your words are. One sees this used when some protest group says that words are literally violence.
  5. The Liberal Science Approach: In any argument, no one gets final say and no one gets special status. Even if you have special status, say you’re speaking on behalf of a god, a college president, or you’re a charismatic-type leader of a group, you do not get to win the argument based on those roles – you have to win the argument on the merit of your ideas ands the skills of presentation. And, even if you win the argument today, but someone finds contrary argumentation tomorrow, the argument can begin again. For many this approach is exhausting. We want rest and repose, but what we get is life. In the end, Rauch says that this is the only one that can work.

As this was written back in 1995, there have been others who have approached this question of truth-finding in an age of information, but this is a clear book and it is short. It has stood the test of a few decades to still have validity.

Twice I have bought this book for executives who have found themselves confronted by absurd but popular ideas from members/faculty/students. I thought it might give some long-term insights on how to have an argument with radicals. Sadly, I doubt it had any real effect, or that it was even read.

Medieval Books as Art & The Secret Lives of Color

When an old technology is replaced by a new technology, the old one doesn’t go away, it returns in the form of an art. Marshall McLuhan (approximately)

Sometimes, the old technology starts out as an art too. An article about the creation of Medieval Manuscripts. This article is a nice, concise history of books from Medieval and Renaissance times.

Just as I think that because of technology, we may see the return (eventually) of ideographic typography (think: hieroglyphics and the likes of Japanese kanji) I do think that the survival of physical books may depend upon those things having enhanced qualities, some of which will be done by hand. Manuscript, as the article explains, means manu=hand, script=to write.

A beautiful example of a modern book that is not done by hand but is a visual, sensory delight is The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. Each page is edged in the color described, and even the colored dots on the cover have a gloss varnish and shadow effect, making it appear as if there were holes in the cover, revealing each color. Slightly smaller than a typical hardcover, the satiny feel to it makes it a delight to hold. I think this is one of the best (modern) designed books I have seen. Oh, and the content is fascinating too, meaning that the writing is also well designed. If this were a digital book, it would miss most of the fun and all of the art.

Scroll to Top