… it is utterly useless to study a great thing like the Franciscan movement while remaining in the modern mood that murmurs against gloomy asceticism. The whole point about St. Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy.
Chesterton’s book Saint Francis of Assisi was published in 1923, about two decades after the publication of Heretics (1905) and a decade before the publication of Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox (1933). From the very beginning of this short book, we come into contact with a rare kind of sympathy the author shows for his subject. But Chesterton’s deep sympathy for St. Francis is also accompanied by another sympathy for the spirit of his time and the largely-secular audience of his writing. Thus, from the very beginning, he addresses the difficulty of his task of writing about something that he believes to be subject to distortion and dismissal. His task is to make St. Francis visible for us, and that means making him visible–not as a madman, but–as a saint. Until the end of the book, he maintains both sympathies, a sympathy with the religious perspective and a sympathy with a materialist perspective.
Chesterton’s strategy for producing an image of St. Francis arises out of his belief that the visibility of a character like St. Francis depends on successfully grasping the beginning of his story. The attitude that distorts or dismisses such a story is an attitude that deprives the story of its beginning. Understanding the beginning is, in turn, about more than knowing the event of St. Francis’s birth; it is about understanding the world into which Francis entered. A decade later, in another book, when he puts the characters of St. Francis and St. Thomas side by side, it is that attention to the narrative beginning that enables him to argue for the similarity of these two saints.
We may concede to our contemporaries that in any case it is not a story that ends well. We do not insist that in their version it should begin well. What we complain of is that in their version it does not begin at all.
Recognizing the beginning of the story is akin to recognizing a forcefield, or a moment in history that carries within it a set of cultural forces and tendencies. The world into which St. Francis entered, Chesterton tells us, was a world that had replaced paganism with Christianity, over-correcting “the mistake of nature-worship,” or what is also described as the mistake of being all too natural. Nature-worship had “inevitably produced things that are against nature.” The preservation of the nature of human, in that world, had taken the form of a socially coordinated restraint expressed through Christianity. In that world, the life of St. Francis was an exceptional instance, a unique act of bringing nature, life, or the sensible world back into tradition. The intensity of his life could be described with reference to the paradoxes he brought into that world, the elements of the image being produced by Chesterton–the image of someone who radically accepts and radically revolutionizes, a wiseman and a fool, both practical and childlike, someone who is intensely with-nature and at the same time outside it.
If we mean by what is practical what is most immediately practicable, we merely mean what is easiest. In that sense St. Francis was very impractical and his ultimate aims were very unworldly. But if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed.
An adequate understanding of the life of St. Francis, Chesterton argues, requires adopting the proper attitude that can suspend or overcome modernist prejudices. But that attitude itself can give rise to a different kind of dogmatism embodied by certain Franciscans. Just as he insists on the distinction between pagans and paganism, Chesterton insists on the distinction between Francis and Franciscans. To insist on the attitude itself–to claim the sympathetic attitude as sufficient–is to forget the necessity of thinking, moving from and to the origin, the ground, the reason behind the attitude; to take the mood of St. Francis as the essence–to forget how and why that mood arises–makes us susceptible to dogmatism. The final chapter places St. Francis within a larger “catholic common sense.” Francis was a great man, Chesterton writes, but his singular greatness has a place within a larger common sense. His life, especially in its outward and contingent elements, cannot be turned into a universal recipe, or worse a new religion.
It is unrealistic to expect an author to live up perfectly well to their own ideals, to always hit the target even when they have correctly identified the target. Perhaps Chesterton himself failed to adopt a sufficiently large framework of common sense, a failure indicated in his occasional remarks on Islam. I don’t want to discuss that aspect of the work. What I will remember of this book, and what will bring me back to it, is a way of remembering Francis, a way of being inspired by Francis, that neither submits to the spirit of the age, nor turns the singular life of Francis into a universal law. A way of seeing the singularity, irreplaceability, and significance of the life of Saint Francis. A logical next step after reading this book would be to read Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox (1933), about which I hope to write something soon.