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Robert Hickson

21 May 2015
Saint Andrew Bobola, S. J. (d. 1657)

G.K. Chesterton's View of Tolstoy's Aspiration to Simplicity

--Epigraphs-About Tolstoi it is not necessary [now in 1910 and just after his death] to say
much....His life, as everybody knows, was sharply divided into two parts: his
career as an artist, as a writer of books and of stories, and his career as a
propagandist: as a prophet of certain ideas concerning religion, life and property.
During this latter phase he preached the uselessness of art and the futility of great
works of art, such as Shakespeare's tragedies, Beethoven's symphonies, etc. From
cradle to grave there was a consistent vein of inconsistency in Tolstoi's character:
he was well aware of it himself, and the proof of this is the manner in which he
confessed it, by leaving his home, and making for a monastery shortly before his
death, an act which invested his end with so tragic a solemnity. He had preached
the renunciation of property, the severance of man from all his possessions, and he
had not (owing to his circumstances) been able or willing to carry out his doctrine
in practice. But he hankered after the ideal, and as he felt death approaching, he
made the final effort to be true to his principles, and death met him on the way.
(Maurice Baring, The Russian People (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1911), pp.
276-278the book itself was dedicated to Gilbert K. Chesterton.)

As a personality, he [Count Lev (Leo) Tolstoi, 9 September 1828--20 November

1910, aged 82] stood out in Russian life among his contemporaries as a man who
always dared to say what he thought, however violently his opinions conflicted
with the views either of those in authority or of his contemporaries in general. By
so doing he gave to the whole country, at a time when scarcely anybody dared to
speak his mind, a signal example of civic courage. The result was that nobody
dared to touch him. He was excommunicated by the Church, but as Mr.
Chesterton pointed out in a luminously sensible article, it would have been
strange had he not been excommunicated, since the cardinal point of his
creed was that the Church was not only wrong, but perniciously wrong. He
expressed his opinion in terms which to any member of his Church [the Russian
Orthodox Church] must have been grossly offensive and rankly blasphemous. In
any case he was a seeker after truth, and in his restless striving after an ideal
which he never realized, his many contradictions and inconsistencies, his
imperious desire, his self-dissatisfaction, his strength and his weaknesses, he is
typical of Russia. His death made less impression on the mass of the educated
population than that of Dostoievski [b. 11 November 1821--d. 9 February 1881,
aged 59]....When Tolstoi died, they [the Russians] felt they had lost a great man,
one of their national glories, but when Dostoievski died they felt (from Tolstoi,
who said so, to the man in the street) that they had lost a friend and a brother. A
friend of mine who lives in St. Petersburg told me that when Tolstoi died [in the
winter of 1910] he asked his cook (a woman) what was the opinion in the market

about Tolstoi's death. She said, 'We think he ought to be buried like a dog.' There
was no such dispute over Dostoievski's death; and no Russian ever had a funeral
attended by so many different classes of the population, linked by so deep a
common sorrow. That is why Dostoievski is supremely important in the history of
the Russian people. He was the people's friend, and he loved what they loved. He
expressed this love better than Tolstoi or Turgeniev, or any other writer, since the
death of Pushkin [in 1837, aged 36, dying of wounds incurred from a duel].
(Maurice Baring, The Russian People, pp. 277-279my emphasis added.)
The religion of Christ has, like many true things, been disproved an extraordinary
number of times....[But] we must protest against a habit of quoting and
paraphrasing at the same time. When a man is discussing what Jesus meant, let
him state first of all what He said, not what a man thinks He would have said
if He had expressed Himself more clearly. (G.K. Chesterton, Tolstoy and the
Cult of Simplicity, in Varied Types (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company,
1905), pp. 137, 141my emphasis added. A shorter set of only Twelve Types,
which had also included Tolstoy and the Cult of Simplicity, had been published
three years earlier, in 1902, and in London by Arthur L. Humphreys; whereas the
later 1905 Varied Types has added seven additional figures to its contents, to
include an essay on Alfred the Great, pp. 199-206.)
The Russians [seen from the vantage point of 1911]...are so often dissatisfied
with the religion which is provided by the [Russian Orthodox] Church and her
ministers, and are led to strike out a line for themselves and to found sects [as
Tolstoi himself did]. There is no country in the world [as of 1911] where sects
have played so large a part as in Russia, and where sects have so strange [a
quasi-Christian] and so violent a character. Leroy Beaulieu [the great French
scholar of a multi-volume Russian History] devotes eleven long chapters to the
study of the Russian sects. (Maurice Baring, The Russian People (London:
Methuen & Co. LTD., 1911), p. 352my emphasis added to this passage in a
book which Baring has even respectfully dedicated to G. K. Chesterton himself)
When in 1902 G.K. Chesterton first published his essay Tolstoy's Cult of Simplicity in a book
of twelve of his collected essays, he was only twenty-eight years of age, and it was then only two years
after he had first met Hilaire Belloc in a London Soho Pub in 1900. Although Chesterton would finally
be received into the Catholic Church only some twenty years later (in the summer of 1922), he already
showed us his vivid perspicacity about Christianity and about certain quasi-Christian and heretical
religious sects, to which he also already applied his generous paradoxes and his affectionate ironies.
Already as a young man he could teach us very much about literature, even about certain Russian

authors and their religious creeds and moral codes even though he knew neither the Russian
language nor Russia's specific historic culture very well, much less to the depths already (and
increasingly) grasped by Maurice Baring, his future and soon deeply beloved friend, who was also born
in 1874.
Only five years after Chesterton had re-published his earlier 1902 essay, Tolstoy's Cult of
Simplicity, in his Varied Types1 in 1905, Tolstoy himself was to die, aged 82. In that November of
1910, moreover, Tolstoy was to die in a sudden and a sad way, while attempting still to live out his
belatedly discovered spiritual ideals, which were derived, in part, from his own astringent interpretation
of Christ's Sermon on the Mount.
In his almost 20-page essay on Tolstoy's Cult of Simplicity, Chesterton will first of all and very
gradually lead us to consider his own civilization in 1902 and some of the wholesome and
unwholesome forms of simplicity men were then seeking, to include the search after a false
simplicity (133) as in the case of Tolstoy's own seeing how much he can reject (128my
emphasis added) of traditional Christianity and of the Church. (We see such Catholic sects now, too!)
For, Tolstoy's later ethics and stern asceticism were in contradistinction to a more humane and
generous disposition: namely, as to how much one could (and should) gratefully accept of the historic
culture and the sacraments of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The forms of simplicity Chesterton which characteristically demurs at, or even politely
reproaches, are those that display haughty ingratitude and what we might call a reductive and
constrictive spirit or even a monistic and pejoratively ideological truncation. That is to say, those
unspacious and suffocating doctrines that result in mind-forged manacles (in William Blake's own
poignant words coming from his short melancholy poem, entitled London).
Early in his 1902 (and 1905) essay, Chesterton speaks of a heroic desire to return to nature
(128) and even the aim of being...more natural than it is natural to be. (133) For he thought that It
would not only be more human, it would be more humble of us to be content to be complex. (133) He
acknowledged the difficulty in trying to understand Tolstoy: It is difficult in every case to reconcile
Tolstoy the artist with Tolstoy the almost venomous reformer. (132my emphasis added)
1 G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1905), pp. 125-144. All further references will
be to this edition; and page references will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of the text. Added emphasis
will also be indicated in the parentheses, if applicable. Because of the spelling-variants in the texts we are using, the
spelling Tolstoy shall also sometimes be cited in its alternate form, Tolstoi.

Chesterton also pauses to consider this new sect of Christians (136) the Tolstoians as those
who may roughly be described as the new Quakers. (140my emphasis added) When we then
consider the doctrines of the original and later 17th-century Quakers in England, we may better
understand why Tolstoy's religious faith entirely rejected the human need for any spiritual mediation:
to include, especially, the mediation of the Church herself, her priests, sacraments, dogmas
(irreformable doctrines), rituals, and binding affirmations of Creed and Moral Code, and the like. For,
in the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), their doctrine of the inner light and the inner voice
was affirmed as truth and thus man was believed to be able to have a simple and direct communication
with God without other (and often encumbering) mediations.
When we consider Chesterton's fuller argumentation in his essay on Tolstoy, we shall better come
to understand why this larger rejection of the Church is so; and thereby also come to see some of the
fruits of their [the Quakers'] confidence in human nature (136) as well as in their doctrine of
mildness and non-resistance (135) which was often paradoxically lived out and expressed with an
unmistakable pluck. (135) As in the Fighting Quakers! (We may here now also remember and
honor Major General Smedley Butler, U.S.M.C. (1881-1940) the valorous and candid Fighting
Quaker from West Chester-Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who was much beloved by his fellow Marines,
and later came to realize that War is a Racket.) But let us now return to Tolstoy and his inclinations.
In his examination of simplicity and of the conception of the return to simplicity (128),
Chesterton says at the outset of his essay and with his own light and exquisite irony that he is not
concerned, however, with
A mere fashion of false innocence, like that of the French aristocrats before the
Revolution, who built an altar to Pan [the miscegenized, part man-part goat,
lecherous, woodland-and-pasture pagan god], and who taxed the [French]
peasantry for the enormous expenditure which is needed in order to live the
simple life of peasants. (125my emphasis added)
Nonetheless, as of 1902, and often enough in both reductionist and incommensurate ways,
Chesterton was convinced that
The whole world is certainly heading for a great simplicity....The simplicity
towards which the world is driving is the necessary outcome of all our systems
and speculations and of our deep and continuous contemplation of things....The
more consistently things are contemplated, the more they tend to unify
themselves. The simplification of things is always sensational. Thus monotheism
is the most sensational of things [especially in its Triune Affirmation, sub Gratia
Divina]....Few people will dispute that all the typical movements of our time [e.g.,

Darwinism, Marxist Dialectical Materialism, Freudianism] are upon this road

towards simplification....And all the great writers of our time represent in one
form or other this attempt to re-establish communication with the elemental,
or as it is sometimes more roughly and fallaciously expressed, to return to
nature. (125-127my emphasis added)
Then, as he approaches the path proposed by Tolstoy, Chesterton characteristically offers his own
examples of simplified return to nature:
Some think the return to nature consists in drinking no wine; some think that it
consists in drinking a great deal more than is good for them. Some think that the
return to nature is achieved by beating swords into ploughshares; some think it is
achieved by turning ploughshares into very ineffectual British War Office
bayonets [or very effectual Maxim guns, according to H. Belloc's Captain
Blood in The Modern Traveller (1898)!] It is natural, according to the Jingo, for a
man to kill other people with gunpowder and himself with gin. It is natural,
according to the humanitarian revolutionist [as in some Russian Sects], to kill
other people with dynamite and himself with vegetarianism. It would be too
obviously Philistine a sentiment [on my part!], perhaps, to suggest that the
claim of either [or any!] of these persons to be obeying the voice of nature is
interesting when we consider that they require huge volumes of paradoxical
argument to persuade themselves and anyone else of the truth of their
conclusions. (127my emphasis added)
Turning now to the specific case of some then-well-known authors and how they purportedly
sought simplicity, Chesterton adds:
But the [literary] giants of our time are undoubtedly alike in that they approach
by very different roads this conception of a return to simplicity. Ibsen [the
Norwegian dramatist] returns to nature by the angular exterior of fact, [the Belgian
Count, Maurice] Maeterlinck by the eternal tendencies of fable. [Walt] Whitman
[the American poet of the expansive Leaves of Grass] returns to nature by seeing
how much he can accept, Tolstoy [returns to nature and to a putative simplicity]
by seeing how much he can reject. (128my emphasis added)
Despite some of his own seeming ambiguities or unintentional equivocations about the created
order of nature and thus the Natural Law, to include the Natural Moral Law Chesterton says:
The grandeur of nature is that she is [in her laws?] omnipotent [sic] and unseen,
that she is perhaps ruling us most when we think she is heeding us least.
Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, said the Hebrew poet. It may be said with
all reverence that it is behind man's back [like a trailing tail] that the spirit of
nature hides. It is this consideration that lends a certain air of futility even to all
the inspired simplicities and thunderous veracities of Tolstoy. We feel that a
man cannot make himself simple merely by warring on complexity; we feel,
indeed, in our saner moments, that a man cannot make himself simple at all [by
nature]. A self-conscious simplicity may well be far more intrinsically ornate than

luxury itself. Indeed, a great deal of the pomp and sumptuousness of the world's
history was simple in the truest sense [cf. the oculus simplex and the corpus
lucidum as presented in Matthew 6:22: Lucerna corporis est oculus. Si fuerit
oculus tuus simplex, totum corpus tuum lucidum erit.) It was born of an almost
babyish [or childlike!] receptiveness; it was the work of men who had eyes to
wonder [the mirandum] and who had ears to hear [and thus to accept]. (129130my emphasis added)
Reminding us that King Solomon himself had folly and not only wisdom and innocence,
Chesterton comes closer to his specific analysis of Tolstoy and of his pinched attitude to plenitude, or
even to a graciously beautiful array and abundance of fragility (and thus vulnerability):
Tolstoy, we feel, would not be content with hurling satire and denunciation at
Solomon in all his glory. With fierce and unimpeachable logic he would go a
step further [perhaps, even going after Christ's Lilies of the Valley?]. He would
spend days and nights in the meadows stripping the shameless crimson coronals
off the lilies of the field. (130)
It is a piercing image of a demented and wasteful desecrator! And Chesterton's own disciplined art
of irony knows well how to impart this point (and parable), and to make it memorably seep into one's
gratefully magnanimous human heart.
Turning to a book of Tolstoy's writings recently published, Chesterton thus has an occasion to
consider some more of Tolstoy's later opinions and even some of sterner and graver rejections:
The new collection of Tales from Tolstoy, translated and edited by Mr. R. Nisbet
Bain [a gifted polyglot and scholar], is calculated to draw particular attention to
this ethical and ascetic side of Tolstoy's work. In one sense, and that the deepest
sense, the work of Tolstoy is, of course, a genuine and noble appeal to
simplicity....But the truth of the matter is, that an artist [here a literary artist]
teaches far more by his mere background and properties and landscape, his
costume, his idiom, and techniqueall the part of his work, in short, of which
he is probably entirely unconscious, than by the elaborate and pompous [even
prophetic] moral dicta which he fondly imagines to be his opinions. The real
distinction between the ethics of high art and the ethics of manufactured and
didactic art lies is the simple fact that the bad fable has a moral, while the good
fable is a moral. And the real moral of Tolstoy comes out constantly in these
stories [the tales edited by Bain], the great moral which lies at the heart of all
his work, of which he is probably unconscious, and of which it is quite likely that
he would vehemently disapprove. (130-131my emphasis added)
Chesterton then delays us a little longer to prepare his larger and more trenchant evaluation. But
first he indirectly speaks of the cold white light of morning that shines over all the tales (131) of
Tolstoy, which have a folklore simplicity (131) that unconsciously discloses the love one might
almost say the lust for the qualities of brute materials, the hardness of wood, and the softness of

mud, the ingrained belief in a certain ancient kindliness sitting beside the cradle of man. (132
my emphasis added) Yes, these influences are truly moral. (132) But, Chesterton then adds:
When we put beside them the trumpeting and tearing nonsense of the didactic
Tolstoy, screaming for an obscene purity, shouting for an inhuman peace,
hacking up human life into small sins with a chopper, sneering at men,
women, and children out of respect to [i.e., for an abstract] humanity,
combining in one chaos of contradictions an unmanly Puritan and an
uncivilised prig, then, indeed, we scarcely know whither Tolstoy has vanished.
We know not what to do with this small [pusillanimous, begrudging] and noisy
moralist who is inhabiting one corner [or perhaps more?] of a great and good man.
(132my emphasis added)
It was in this context that Chesterton reluctantly then said:
It is difficult in every case to reconcile the great artist with Tolstoy the almost
venomous reformer. It is difficult to believe that a man who draws in such noble
outlines the dignity of the daily life of humanity regards as evil that divine act
of procreation [of a child's new life] by which that dignity is renewed from age
to age. It is difficult to believe that a man who has painted with so frightful an
honesty the heartrending emptiness of the life of the poor can really grudge
them every one of their pitiful pleasures, from courtship to tobacco. It is difficult
to believe that a poet in prose...can deny so elemental a virtue as that which
attaches a man to his own ancestors and [to] his own land. It is difficult to believe
that a man who feels so poignantly the detestable insolence of oppression
would not actually, if he had the chance, lay the oppressor flat with his fist
[because of Tolstoy's principled creed of non-resistance and passivism!]. All,
however, arises [even his implicit Manicheism?] from the search after a false
simplicity, the aim of being, if I may so express it, more natural than it is
natural to be. It would not only be more human, it would be more humble
[and thus grateful] of us to be content to be complex. The truest kinship with
humanity would lie in doing as humanity has always done, accepting with a
sportsmanlike relish the estate to which we are called, the star of our happiness,
and the fortunes of the land of our birth. (132-134my emphasis added)
Now our magnanimous and forgiving and somewhat playful and over-optimistic Chesterton
will lead us to consider Tolstoy's unusual relation to Christ and to Christianity as a Creed and as an
The work of Tolstoy has another and more special significance. It represents the
re-assertion of an awful common sense which characterised the most extreme
utterances of Christ....The command of Christ [like the invitations of the Sermon
on the Mount] is impossible [without Grace, and by virtue of Nature alone], but it
is not insane; it is rather sanity preached to a planet of lunatics. If the whole world
were suddenly stricken by a sense of humour it would find itself [with enabling
Grace!] mechanically fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount. It is not the plain facts
of the world [not even Our Fallen Human Nature or its sinful propensities?] which
stand in the way of that consummation [of the Sermon on the Mount], but its

passions of vanity and self-advertisement and morbid sensibility. It is true that

[without Grace] we cannot turn our cheek to the smiter, and the sole and single
reason [sic] is that we have not the pluck. Tolstoi and his followers [in his
heretical quasi-Christian sect] have shown that they have the pluck, and, even if
we think they are mistaken, by this sign [by their sustained pluck] they conquer.
Now we shall see how Chesterton considers and explicates with fairness some of their doctrines:
Their theory has the strength of an utterly consistent thing [or a mind-forged
ideology?]. It represents that doctrine of mildness and non-resistance [to evil]
which is the last and most audacious of all the forms of resistance to every
existing authority. It is the great strike [a peaceful strike] of the Quakers which
is more formidable than many sanguinary revolutions. If human beings could
only succeed in achieving a real passive resistance they would be strong with the
appalling strength of inanimate [and thus inhuman?] things, they would be calm
with the maddening calm of oak or iron, which conquer without vengeance and
are conquered without humiliation. The theory of Christian duty enunciated by
them is that we should never conquer by force, but always, if we can, by
persuasion....In fact, the [Liberal] policy recommended by this school [Tolstoian
sect] for dealing with the bovine stupidity and bovine fury of this world is
accurately summed up in the celebrated verse of Mr. Edward Lear:
There was an old man who said, 'How
Shall I flee from this terrible cow?
I will sit on a stile and continue to smile
Till I soften the heart of this cow.'
Their [sentimental and delusional?] confidence in human nature [and the
essentially Rousseauean view of the natural goodness of human nature?] is
really honorable and magnificent; it takes the form of refusing to believe the
overwhelming majority of mankind, even when they set out to explain their own
motives. (135my emphasis added)
Lest we think Chesterton to be too much of a sympathetic and over-optimistic Liberal here, and
rather too sentimental about these effectively Pelagian Tolstoians who themselves embrace some
admittedly Gnostic (even Manichean) elements in their doctrinal depreciations of the Goodness of
Creation and the Goodness of a sustained and sustaining Divine Providence in their ethos, we should
now further reflect upon his deeper discernments concerning their public doctrines and deviations:
But although most of us would in all probability tend at first sight to consider this
new sect of Christians as a little less outrageous than some brawling and absurd
sect in the Reformation, yet we should fall into a singular error in doing so.
(136my emphasis added)

In any case, he adds:

It cannot be amiss to consider this [Tolstoian] phenomenon as it really is. [For,]
The religion of Christ has, like many true things, been disproved an
extraordinary number of times....It was disproved again...only a few years
before its ...supremely striking embodiment, the religion of Puritanism [and thus
the dark and seductive genius of Calvinism]...We all agree that these schools of
negation were only interludes in its history. (137-138my emphasis added)
Passing then on and beyond the great irreligionists (138) of the nineteenth century and in his
own day in 1902-1905, both of which are made to look...humdrum (138), we must now face, says
Chesterton, something more subtle and more deftly and latently, as well as patently, subversive:
A newer race of sceptics [about the religion of Christ] has found something
infinitely more exciting to do....They have disputed not only the elementary
creeds, but the elementary laws of mankind, property, patriotism, civil obedience.
They have arraigned civilisation as openly as the materialists [and hence
dialectical materialists] have arraigned theology; they have damned all
philosophers even lower than they have damned the saints. Thousands of modern
men move quietly and conventionally among their fellows while holding views of
national limitation or landed property that would have made Voltaire shudder
like a nun listening to blasphemies. And the last and wildest phase of this
sarturnalia of scepticism, the school that goes furthest among thousands who go
so far, the school that denies the moral validity of those ideals of courage or
obedience which are recognised even among the pirates, this school bases itself
upon the literal words of Christ....We are faced with the phenomenon that a
set of religionists whose contempt for all the ideals of family and nation would
evoke horror in a thieves' kitchen, who can rid themselves of those elementary
instincts of the man and the gentleman...of our civilisation, [yet] cannot rid
themselves of two or three remote Oriental anecdotes written in corrupt
Greek....This value which we have above suggested unquestionably belongs to
the Tolstoians, who may be roughly described as the new Quakers. (138-140
my emphasis added)
These Tolstoians, with their strange optimism, and their almost appalling logical courage [based
on false premises],...offer a tribute to Christianity which no orthodoxies could offer. (140) But howso,
we ask, inasmuch as their own theory of non-resistance (140) to evil is not marked and validly
supported by any Christian obviousness and necessity (140)? It turns out that the Tolstoians have
distorted and misrepresented an extraordinary number of statements about the New Testament, of
which the accuracy is by no means so striking as the [presumptuous] confidence [they display]. (141)
With his own acute irony, Chesterton then proceeds to show how the Tolstoians abuse language:
To begin with, we must protest against a habit of quoting and paraphrasing at
the same time. When a man is discussing what Jesus meant, let him state first of

all what He said, not what the man thinks He would have said if He had
expressed Himself more clearly. (141my emphasis added)
As Chesterton shows in an example that claims to quote Christ's own words fully and accurately,
he comments: It [the Tolstoian passage] is a simple and unadulterated untruth. (141-142)
Summarizing the implications of such linguistic abuse, Chesterton adds:
In a pamphlet [i.e., in this same Tolstoian pamphlet] in which plain printed words
cannot be left alone [without being gravely tampered with], it is not surprising if
there are mis-statements upon larger matters. Here is a statement clearly and
philosophically laid down which we can only content ourselves with flatly
denying. The fifth rule of our Lord is that we should take special pains to
cultivate [as in the new and inclusive ecumenism?] the same kind of regard for
people of foreign countries [and of other faiths?], and for those who do not belong
to us, or even have an antipathy to us, which we already entertain towards our
own people, and those who are in sympathy with us. I should very much like to
know where in the whole of the New Testament the [Tolstoian] author finds this
violent, unnatural, and immoral proposition. Christ did not have the same kind of
regard for one person as for another. We are specifically told that there were
certain persons whom He specially loved. It is most improbable that He thought of
other nations as He thought of His own. The sight of His national city [Jerusalem]
moved Him to tears, and the highest compliment He paid was, Behold an
Israelite indeed [i.e., Nathaniel, in whom there is no guile (John 1:47); for
Nathaniel was specially known to be sine dolo]....Christ commanded us to have
love for all men, but even if we have equal love for all men, to speak of having
the same love for all men is merely bewildering nonsense. If we love a man at
all, the impression he produces on us must be vitally different to the impression
produced by another man whom we love. (142-143my emphasis added)
Irrepressible in his wit, Chesterton also impishly notes:
To speak of having the same kind of regard for both [i.e., for both men whom we
profess to love] is about as sensible as asking a man whether he prefers
chrysanthemums or billiards. Christ did not love humanity; He never said He
loved humanity; He loved men. Neither He nor anyone else can love humanity; it
is like loving a giant centipede. And the reason that the Tolstoians can even
endure to think of an equally distributed affection is that their love of humanity
is a logical love, a love into which they are coerced by their own theories, a love
which would be an insult to a tom-cat [and a spiritual frigidity, to boot!]. (143-144
my emphasis added)
In his concluding paragraph to his patient and slowly developed analysis of a Sect, Chesterton
returns to some firmer commentary about the disorder and insolence of a false simplicity:
But the greatest error of all [made by the Tolstoians] lies in the mere act of cutting
up the teaching of the New Testament into five rules. It precisely and ingeniously
misses [in its simplicity] the most dominant characteristic of the teachingits
absolute spontaneity. The abyss between Christ and all his modern interpreters is

that we have no record that He ever wrote a word [much less Five Rules of
Reductive Summary!], except with His finger in the sand. The whole is the history
of one continuous and sublime conversation....It was not for any pompous
proclamation,...It was for a few splendid and idle words that the Cross was set up
on Calvary, and the earth gaped, and the sun was darkened at noonday. (144)
After considering G.K. Chesterton's reflections on the distortions of truth and on the allure of false
simplicity and of a purported return to nature (including the dark parts of nature) as he saw
these seductive and destructive dangers over a hundred years ago, we may also now try to apply the
cautionary insights to our current situation especially to the situation of the Catholic Church. We
should try to consider what both Maurice Baring and G.K. Chesterton would draw our attention to, in
light of the cultural and revolutionary history of Russia and its many idiosyncratic and often
incommensurately pluralistic, religious sects.
In his own picking and choosing and private mixture (the etymological meaning of
Idiosyncrasy in Greek), Tolstoy chose to reject many elements of Historic Christianity and its unique
claims about the Incarnation, the Blessed Trinity, Mary the Mother of God, the Priesthood, and the
unique Sacraments of the Church as part of the Indispensable Supernatural Order of Grace:
Indispensable ad Vitam Aeternum amidst the lax lures and risks of our inordinately conforming (even
pandering) to the World and missing thereby our true end and more abundant life, after all.
Amidst the seemingly more inclusive-ecumenical Catholic Church today, there seems to be
growing many kinds of partly Catholic Sects or what my mentor, Josef Pieper, politely used to call
the spread of Non-Catholic Catholics. The basis of Unity appears no longer to be the Truth. There
seems to be, implicitly at least, a Higher Good than Truth. That putatively higher good then reveals
itself as senitivity, feeling, and tolerance. (Even in some courtrooms today, moreover, the truth is no
longer a Defense perhaps it is a hint of where we are heading, not only in National Security
Over my rather many years as a Catholic, I at least have seen the unaccountable (and purportedly
merciful) multiplication of nominally Catholic Sects and a diminution of what we used to call our
Common Faith, as distinct from the lowest common denominator of what we all agree upon in of
own freedom of conscience. One's own Private Mixture, after all, and, finally, The Religion of Your

May we now be spared from the newly meretricious simplifiers and from what the French, in
their own Revolution, once called the ideologically reductive, terribles simplificateurs. For such
slothful and tepid simplifiers often enough pick and choose even Our Lord's own words, omitting
especially His sterner and unmistakably challenging words.


2015 Robert Hickson