June 16, 2004

Saint Francis of Assisi, by G.K. Chesterton

Having enjoyed Chesterton's The Everlasting Man and Saint Thomas Aquinas, I opened this autobiography of St. Francis eagerly. And I enjoyed it, and I learned quite a bit about St. Francis, but it definitely left me wanting more.

Compared to Thomas, of course, Francis is a saint of a different color. Apparently there's not all that much biographical information available about St. Thomas; not surprisingly, as he spent most of his time thinking and writing. The difficulty in writing about St. Thomas is that to explain why he was and is important you need to get into serious matters of philosophy and theology--and to do that in a book intended for a popular audience without losing them is no mean feat.

The problem of writing about St. Francis is far different. Here there is a vast wealth of material, a plethora, possibly even a superfluity of story and legend from which to draw. At the same time, Francis is a far more popular saint than Thomas; everyone has at least the notion that Francis got on well with birds and suchlike creatures, even if they know nothing else about him. With Thomas, Chesterton didn't need to worry much about people's preconceptions; here he does.

Consequently, Chesterton's avowed intent in this book is to illuminate the saint's character. He tells us, in dribs and drabs, the bare biographical details; he shares with us a handful of anecdotes which illustrate his points. And he spends quite a lot of time telling us, somewhat abstractly, what St. Francis was like, and perhaps more time telling us what he wasn't like. But he doesn't tell us many stories about things Francis actually did, because he's more concerned that we have the proper grounding to appreciate such stories and not misunderstand them.

Unfortunately, this approach means that the narrative is somewhat detached. For example, the early biographies of Francis tell of a number of miracles God worked through him during his life. In the chapter where Chesterton addresses this, he spends most of his time talking about how strange it is that your average historian will read such a biography, discount the miraculous on the ground that it's nonsense and that the author must be lying, credulous, or a simpleton, and yet presume the remainder of the work to contain worthwhile historical detail. Surely, says Chesterton, if the author is unreliable, he's unreliable?

Well, and so, but I'd have liked to hear more about Francis' miracles.

I gather from some comments that Chesterton lets drop that he wrote this book during a period when Saint Francis was quite a popular figure in England, and books containing the kinds of stories Chesterton mostly left out were perhaps all too easy to come by. Chesterton clearly assumed that his audience had already read such books, or that having finished his they might go on to do so, and therefore it was more important to provide something they did not than to simply duplicate them.

I can't argue with that; but it does mean that the book, though valuable, didn't satisfy me, and that I'm probably going to have to find something else to read about St. Francis.

Chesterton, darn him, would undoubtedly be pleased.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 16, 2004 07:43 PM

Craig Clarke said:

Wow, I had not heretofore realized there was so much more to the Chesterton canon than light mysteries. Thanks.

Lars Walker said:

Not only is there more, to the canon, Craig, but the other stuff is (imho) better. I must confess I've always found the Father Brown stories a little contrived, even (or perhaps especially) when the lesson is one I agree with. But in Chesterton's non-fiction work you get a cornucopia of delightful, quirky observations on almost any subject in the world. You won't agree with him all the time (in fact if you're a Protestant you'll be offended now and then, and his statements on the Jews are frequently just potty), but he's never dull. And sometimes he'll tell you something that flips your world upside down. He's an author who gives good value for money.

Will Duquette said:

Craig, take a look at the G.K Chesterton page on Ex Libris (you can just click on Chesterton's name in the post title). There are a fair number of other books of his listed there (many with my reviews) plus a link to the American Chesterton Society, which lists many more, including e-texts.

Will Duquette said:

Lars,

It's funny, but I've had the same thought. Chesterton's most widely known for his mysteries and other fiction, and I've always liked his nonfiction better. I feel the same way about Mark Twain--Life Along The Mississipi and Roughing It are both gems, but I've never had any great love for
Huckleberry Finn.