G. K. Chesterton quotations discussion #1

This series of threads (hopefully there’ll be more than just this 1) is where the OP contains a Chesterton quote, and then we discuss it - what we think it means, whether we agree with it or not, implications, etc.

Here is one I’d like to discuss.

A man must be partly a one-idead man because he is a one-weaponed man – and he is flung naked into the fight. In short, he must (as the books on Success say) give ‘his best’; and what a small part of a man 'his best ’ is! His second and third best are often much better. If he is the first violin he must fiddle for life; he must not remember that he is a fine fourth bagpipe, a fair fifteenth billiard-cue, a foil, a fountain-pen, a hand at whist, a gun, and an image of God.

Okay, first thing is, it seems that he actually means the opposite of what he is saying - he would never say that a man must not remember that he is an image of God.

Do you think he is saying that, rather than just focussing on what we are good at, we should also involve ourselves in the things we aren’t good at? Or am I reading too much into this?

What does it mean to remember we are an image of God / what implications does this have in practice?

Do you think that people should mostly focus on what they are good at, or not? Why would God give us talents in some fields but not others if He meant for us to do a bit of everything?

It’s ironic that you ask this question because I have just read this passage within the last day or so. There is some difficulty in interpreting Chesterton without its surrounding context. The quote comes from Chesterton’s Book, “What’s Wrong With the World” in the chapter called “The Universal Stick”.

What he is saying (in context of the chapter) is that serving in the traditional male role as family breadwinner, the man is confined to being the best accountant, bricklayer, or engineer that he can be. Society requires that of the man. But that is only one small part of who that man actually is.

The quote actually means that the man is not supposed to remind society (not himself) that he is far more than his occupation. Society really doesn’t care that the man is the fourth best bagpipe player, or the fiftteenth best billiards player, or as Chesterton (being a christian and later a catholic convert) that the man is also an image of God. Chesterton is saying that the man knows that he is the image of God, but, again, the whole of society doesn’t really care.

The idea of the whole chapter is that women (in the traditional homemaker/stay at home role) are not expected to be the best cook, maid, teacher, nurse, or storyteller. They only have to have a certain proficiency in a wide array of responisbilities. That was what expected of women. Remember that this book quote was originally published in 1910. Chesterton isn’t necessarily trying to inspire us to be more than our occupation as much as he is pointing out the wonderful multi-talented role that women have traditionally maintained.

God has certainly bestowed more than one talent on people. Some of those talents are developed into occupations where we are expected to give our best. Other talents are developed into hobbies where we might give our “all”, but that can’t touch someone else’s “best”.

Part of the philosophical basis of a Jesuit college education is the notion that a Catholic layman should be well grounded in a broad range of knowledge and not solely in knowledge related to a specific profession or endeavor. The quote from Chesterton is merely another way of saying the same thing.
We need not be the best at any one thing, nor should we devote ourselves to only that which we do best. We are called in any and all vocations to perform many roles. We must prepare ourselves for each role as best we may. We may never be very good at one or another thing, but we must do what we can.

In this same context Chesterton wrote that what is worth doing is worth doing badly. Meaning by this that even if you aren’t good at it, do it because it needs doing.

Do what you can, knowing that it is never enough.
Trust God for the rest.


PS: I read a quote once many years ago. “Poets lie to tell the truth.” Chesterton was after all a poet.

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