Chesterton a seer of science? Is it not enough that he is a seer of philosophy and theology? When, in 1933, he published his book on St. Thomas Aquinas, the most eminent Thomists were astonished at his perceptiveness and clarity. Etienne Gilson called him a genius, and Jacques Maritain declared that he had, by an extraordinary intuition, accomplished in a short while what professional philosophers had labored to accomplish for half a lifetime.
But Stanley L. Jaki, a Hungarian-born Benedictine priest now Distinguished Professor at Seton Hall University, knows what he is doing. Chesterton was not, as many people imagine, ignorant of science or unsympathetic to it. Jaki points out that Chesterton grew up "at a time when it was impossible not to take notice of science." Chesterton himself wrote that science was in the very air of Victorian England and that even boys were impressed with the "picturesque aspects" of it. [End Page 730]
In Orthodoxy, his early work of Christian apologetics, Chesterton remarks that he read the scientists and skeptics of his day, not only Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, and Herbert Spencer, but also men little known in our day, like Charles Bradlaugh. He had no quarrel with Darwin but only with some of his disciples (not including Huxley, whom he called "that great and good man"). He was not knocked sideways by that bête noire of the Victorians, evolution: "a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time."
Anyone who thinks that Chesterton was a scientific nitwit ought to be informed of a fact that Jaki has noted. Martin Gardner, whose scientific credentials are above suspicion, paid Chesterton one of the greatest compliments he could. In the 1957 edition of Great Essays in Science, Gardner reprinted part of a chapter of Orthodoxy, thus putting Chesterton in the company of Darwin, Einstein, Eddington, Whitehead, and Russell. Gardner was "startled" by Chesterton's perceptions of sciences and scientific method.
Jaki submits that Chesterton opposed not science but scientism, one definition of which is "the claim that only the scientific . . . method yields knowledge and reliable value judgments." Darwin made no such claim, but Spencer (who found the Iliad such a bore that he could not get past the sixth book) made it all the time. Chesterton also opposed that kind of popular science that declared that Science says this or that, when in fact only some scientists say this or that. The newspapers of his day, Chesterton remarked, were full of statements made in the name of science, "without the least pretense of scientific proof or even of any scientific authority." The result was a smug readership, ignorantly dropping the names of great scientists. Chesterton wrote wittily that very few people applied themselves to higher mathematics so that they could agree with Einstein.
Jaki is extremely well trained in both theology and science and has written prolifically about them: Chesterton, A Seer of Science is his seventeenth book. It is clearly written and thoroughly documented, and readers interested in Chesterton or science can learn much from it.