Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

12/4/2012 (4 years ago)

Catholic Online (

Chesterton noticed that joy is something that goes beyond science: science can describe it, but not fully answer the why of it

As Aidan Nichols states in his book A Grammar of Consent, "Chesterton's writings contain what appears to be a novel argument for the existence of God.  This argument may be termed the argument from joy."  An argumentum e gaudio.


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

12/4/2012 (4 years ago)

Published in Year of Faith

Keywords: existence of God, proofs of God, joy, Chesterton, Andrew M. Greenwell, joie de vivre, joie d'etre

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Gilbert Keith Chesterton, with his leonine shock of hair, walrus-mustache, ample girth, his cigar in hand, and his ready and elfish grin, seems the most unlikely of men to turn to to find a proof for God's existence.  But such a view would belie a lack of familiarity with the man.  It would be to judge a book by its cover, and a natural philosopher by his clothes.

As Aidan Nichols states in his book A Grammar of Consent, "Chesterton's writings contain what appears to be a novel argument for the existence of God.  This argument may be termed the argument from joy."  An argumentum e gaudio.

For Chesterton, joy was the appropriate response to being--that everything, rather than nothing, is--and this experience of joy, and the gratitude it engenders, was a window into the transcendent.

As Chesterton saw it, joy was something more than mere happiness, more than mere the experience of pleasure.  For him, in Aidan Nichols's words, "joy is the reaction to the fact that there should be such a thing as existence as such."  Joy, the chara of the Scriptures, was, in Chesterton's eyes, a sort of cousin to the wonder, the thaumata, of the philosophers.  This joy in existence as such contained "an implicit affirmation of the doctrine of creation, and hence of the truth of theism."

Chesterton noticed that joy is something that goes beyond science: science can describe it, but not fully answer the why of it.  Science cannot tell us why there is being as such rather than no being at all.  Chesterton observed that one could conclude from this either that joy has no meaning (which is hardly plausible) or (what is very probable) that joy had all the meaning in the world. 

Now, Chesterton, who himself might have been called a dumb ox, was as philosophically astute as the original dumb ox, St. Thomas Aquinas.  (One might recall here that the Thomist scholar Etienne Gilson considered Chesterton's biography on St. Thomas Aquinas "as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas.")  Though philosophically astute, Chesterton did not in any way write a philosophical treatise on joy.  His proof must therefore be distilled from his works-his essays, apologetical works, literary criticism, detective stories, plays, biographies, and verse--and his life. 

Chesterton had a joie de vivre, a joy of living, but a lot of men, including pagans and Enlightenment philosophers, have that.  Chesterton had something more than that: he also had a joie d'ętre, a joy of being.  And it reflects itself in his works.

For example, in his poem Ballad of the White Horse, a ballad of the days of King Alfred, G. K. Chesterton has a passage where he refers to "joy without a cause."  To understand the context, this phrase comes in a scene where the Blessed Virgin Mary comes to King Alfred the Great at the nadir of his struggle against the Danes:

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?

The supernatural encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary has its effect, and King Alfred goes to gather up his chiefs:

Up across windy wastes and up
Went Alfred over the shaws,
Shaken of the joy of giants,
The joy without a cause.
. . . .
And he set to rhyme his ale-measures,
And he sang aloud his laws,
Because of the joy of the giants,
The joy without a cause.

This joy has no earthly cause; hence, it is "without a cause."  The earth is the wrong place to find it.  This means that one who searches for its cause must open out into the infinite, upon He that is without cause: God, the Great Uncaused.  For Chesterton, the existence of God was the only thing that rendered his joie d'ętre intelligible.

As Chesterton framed it in his novel The Poet and the Lunatics:

"Man is creature; all his happiness consists in being a creature; or, as the Great Voice commanded us, in being a child.  All his fun is in having a gift or present; which the child, with profound understanding, values because it is a 'surprise.'  But surprise implies that a thing came from outside ourselves; and gratitude that it comes from someone other than ourselves."

Gift.  Joy.  Thanks.  Those are Chesterton's three themes that underlie his joie d'ętre.

Chesterton knew that there is an intimate connection between the experience of joy and the experience of grace or gift.  One might say that he recognized that the experience of joy is a natural analogue of supernatural grace.  It is not coincidence that the Greek word for joy--chara--is linguistically related to the Greek word for grace--charis--and the Greek word for giving thanks--eucharisto.

In his biography of St. Francis of Assisi, Chesterton links joy with the mystic's awareness that being was not something that could be taken for granted, but that being is a gift that God brought out of nothing.  A mystic like St. Francis beholds, as he sees God and nothing else, the "the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else" but God.  He then appreciates not only "everything," but also the "nothing of which everything was made." 

Everything is a gift brought out from nothing, ex nihilo, by God the Creator of all things.  The mystic is, as it were, brought to the time "when the foundations of the world are laid," and there he joins "with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy" and expresses a spiritual joie d'ętre.  Thank God--He that is--that He included us in his to be!

In Chesterton's book Orthodoxy, one encounters a fully-developed philosophy of joy which is capped with a theology of joy. 

For Chesterton, the modern philosophies were absolutely wrong because of their sorrow.  "The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I still felt depressed even in acquiescence." 

Certainly one of those modern philosophers was Nietzsche who had a horrible fault, Chesterton thought.  And that was his inability to laugh.  The best he could do was sneer.  This, certainly Chesterton must have believed, arose from Nietzsche's inability to appreciate the common things of life, in particular that most common thing we share with all creation: being.  No wonder Nietzsche thought God was dead!  Nietzsche had no joie d'ętre, and it drove him to philosophical insanity. 

Chesterton would not let the modern philosophers get him down.  He had heard another report.  "But I had heard that I was in the wrong place," he says in Orthodoxy, "and my soul sang for joy like a bird in spring."

Wrong place?  What did Chesterton mean?

What Chesterton meant is that for all the joie de vivre we find on earth, in the temporal life, the earth is not the right place to look for the joie d'ętre.  Every thing was the "wrong place," as the right place was where there was no thing from which every thing came to be.  It is at the interstice between Creator and created where we get our joie d'ętre.  If there is no Creator, then being is not a gift, and there is no joy in it, and there is no possible One to whom we can give thanks. 

Chesterton saw that the experience of joy at the very thought that there was being rather than nothing, found its perfect answer, its supernatural companion in the Christian faith and in the Gospels. 

Grace--supernatural joy--built on nature--natural joy.  Joie de la grâce built on joie d'ętre.  It was a perfect fit.

"Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial . . . . . praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. . . . . Joy ought to be expansive . . . . Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man's ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small.  . . . . Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian."

In the book Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch, the morose Kafka commented on reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy and The Man who was Thursday: "Er ist so lustig, dass man fast glauben könnte, er habe Gott gefunden." "He is so joyful, that one might almost believe that he had found God."

Yes, Kafka was right.  Chesterton had found God, and then he had found Jesus and His Church, and all this through joy, an inerrant guide.  He found Him first naturally in the joie d'ętre which seemed to escape the melancholy Kafka.  He found Him yet again, in a higher key, in the joie de la grâce of the Gospels and the Catholic Faith. 

As Cardinal Ratzinger--himself a fan of Chesterton--put it in his book Light of the World, "My life has always been traversed by this conviction: it is Christianity that gives joy and makes it grow."  Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his most recent book that the Gospel story begins with the angel Gabriel's salutation to Mary (often translated as "Hail"), but which is better rendered as: Rejoice!  (Luke 1:28: chaire)

Chesterton's life was nothing but an incarnation of one phrase in St. Paul's epistle to the Philippians:  "Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!"  (Phil. 4:4)

Gift.  Joy.  Thanks.  What a way to live!


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


'Help give every student and teacher Free resources for a world-class moral Catholic education'

Copyright 2017 - Distributed by THE CALIFORNIA NETWORK

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for DECEMBER 2016
End to Child-Soldiers: That the scandal of child-soldiers may be eliminated the world over.
Evangelization: Europe: That the peoples of Europe may rediscover the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Gospel which gives joy and hope to life.


More Year of Faith

The Happy Priest on the Baptism of the Lord and our own Baptism Watch

Image of

By Fr. James Farfaglia

The consideration of Jesus' baptism, gives us an opportunity to remember our own baptism.  If you do not know the date of your own baptism, it is a good idea to go through your personal files and find out when it occurred.  CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic ... continue reading

Regret of Judas or Repentance of Peter?

Image of

By Fr Samuel Medley, SOLT

I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. HYTHE, KENT, UK (Catholic Online) - I didn't steal any cookies mommy! says a little boy whose mother asked him if he was hungry, wiping the ... continue reading

Pentecost: St Cyril of Jerusalem on The Living Water of the Holy Spirit Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online

The Spirit makes one man a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one man's self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches ... continue reading

The Wedding Invitation of Jesus: We are Called to Live the Nuptial Mystery Watch

Image of There will be no giving or taking in marriage in the kingdom to come because the very purpose and meaning of marriage itself will be fulfilled. (See, e.g. Mk. 12:18-27) We will be living in the fullness of the Communion of Love with the Trinity. The symbol will give way to the eternal reality, the Sacrament will be fulfilled in the fullness of communion. All of human love will be completed in the Love which lasts forever.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

It is not accidental that the Bible, from beginning to the end, uses marriage as a metaphor and a symbol to reveal the plan of God for the whole human race.  Marriage was God's plan from the beginning as we see in the first book of Genesis. Throughout the Old ... continue reading

The Sower. The Seed. The Field. Understanding the Christian Mission Watch

Image of

By Deacon Keith Fournier

"A sower went out to sow. And, as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for ... continue reading

Reflection on the Catholic Catechism: Understanding the Bible Watch

Image of

By Michael Terheyden

How we interpret the Bible is of immense importance! It directly affects what we believe about Christ, the Church, and our faith, but it is also related to many of the grave problems in our society and the world. Yet, despite the gravity of this situation, we have good ... continue reading

Christ the King, the Year of Faith and the Catholic Counterculture Watch

Image of On this Solemnity of the Feast of Christ the King, the Year of Faith inaugurated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI comes to a ceremonial end. However, in reality, it cannot and will not end, because Jesus Christ is King! The Year of Faith was only the beginning for those who choose to live the Life of Faith.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

We celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is one of many opportunities the Catholic Church year offers to each one of us to consider the creature called time, receive it as a gift, and begin to really live our lives differently.  This is one of ... continue reading

The Bones of Peter, the Successor of Peter: Close of the Year of Faith Watch

Image of The bones of St. Peter the Apostle

By Deacon Keith Fournier

On the Solemnity of the Feast of Christ the King, the Sunday which marks both the end of the Church Year and the end of the Year of Faith, inaugurated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis greeted thousands of the faithful and presided over Holy Mass and the ... continue reading

Fr Randy Sly on Becoming a House of Prayer Watch

Image of Jesus drives the money changers from the temple. 

With hearts clear and focused on our Lord, we can follow the advice of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Everything starts with prayer. Love to pray--feel the need to pray often during the day and take the trouble to pray. If you want to pray better, you must pray more. The more you pray, the easier it becomes. Perfect prayer does not consist of many words but in the fervor of the desire which raises the heart to Jesus. (Fr. Randy Sly)

By Father Randy Sly

Becoming a House of Prayer is the best discipline we can take on. St. Ephraem of Syria states that Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy ... continue reading

Jesus Weeps and Offers the Path to Peace Watch

Image of

By Deacon Keith Fournier

If this day you only knew what makes for peace- but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. They will smash you to the ground and your ... continue reading

All Year of Faith News


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Hebrews 8:6-13
6 As it is, he has been given a ministry as far superior as is the ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 85:8, 10, 11-12, 13-14
8 I am listening. What is God's message? Yahweh's message is peace for ... Read More

Gospel, Mark 3:13-19
13 He now went up onto the mountain and summoned those he wanted. So they ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for January 20th, 2017 Image

St. Fabian
January 20: Eusebius, born just a few years after Fabian's ... Read More