Expert expounds Chesterton’s philosophy of literary criticism


Photo by: Elizabeth Wagner

On Nov. 9, president of the American Chesterton Society and leading Chesterton scholar Dale Ahlquist delivered a lecture entitled “G.K. Chesterton: A Critic’s Critic” in the Gentile Gallery.

Ahlquist shared with his invested audience five criteria of an ideal critic, and he argued that G.K. Chesterton met all of these requirements.

Beginning his lecture, Ahlquist lamented that Chesterton as a literary critic has been overlooked, saying, “We have the problem of the 300-pound writer who has fallen through the cracks.”

He went on to quote Chesterton’s view of the ideal literary critic, saying, “the critic should be like God,” and he expounded upon this confoundingly simple statement, speaking on the five criteria of a truly God-like critic.

First, this critic is “creative” in both the traditional sense of the word and in that he appreciates creation. The critic “should try to be able to find the hardest of all languages, which is the language of praise. … Critics would almost be always right if they would only refrain from being critical,” he said.

Second, a critic should be “a giver of light.” Ahlquist said, “The critic has to be able to reveal the deeper meaning of things and to be able to convey that meaning … to shed light on light, to make us see what we’ve been staring at all along.”

Third, a critic should be “true” in his criticism and must be careful to both recognize what is there and point out what is missing: “He must not be a liar,” said Ahlquist simply.

Fourth, the ideal critic is “sympathetic.” Ahlquist explained that the greatest critics are artists themselves because “an outsider can never truly be sympathetic … to be purely objective is to remain an outsider … to understand, to see and to feel is on the inside.”

Fifth and finally, a literary critic is a “judge.” Ahlquist said, “Justice affirms and protects what is right; it doesn’t merely condemn what is wrong … but the most important thing about a critic’s judgment or justice is that a critic is rewarding the righteous.”

Ahlquist spoke on Chesterton as this ideal literary critic, saying, “He does not represent the artist; he represents the audience … He’s not telling the audience what they should think; he’s telling the audience what they do think.”

Ahlquist ended his lecture with specific examples of Chesterton’s literary criticism, particularly referencing his writings on Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens.

Sophomore Julianna Lamb was enthusiastic, saying, “It’s the best talk so far … He was funny, he was articulate and he opened our minds to more Chesterton literature and authors beyond that. Now I want to read Dickens!”

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