Influence of G.K. Chesterton on McLuhan


G.K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)

After posting a link to Nicholas Carr’s review of Douglas Coupland’s new biography of McLuhan, I decided to pull out my copy of an older, well regarded biography by W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding. While rather aimlessly perusing through the biography I was struck by Chesterton’s significance for the development of McLuhan’s thought:

By Michael Sacasas   –   January 26, 2011

Nearly forty years later [from his time in Cambridge], McLuhan said: “I know every word of [Chesterton]: he’s responsible for bringing me into the church. He writes by paradox – that makes him hard to read (or hard on the reader).” Chesterton and St. Thomas Aquinas, he said, were his two biggest influences. He loved Chesterton’s rhetorical flourishes, imbibed his playfulness, turned his impulse to try out new combinations of ideas into the hallmark of the McLuhan method. (54)

No doubt many have said the same about McLuhan’s paradoxical and gnomic style as well as the relative (un)ease McLuhan presents for the reader.

The significance McLuhan gives to Aquinas parallels his estimation of Plato and Aristotle. Speaking of an influential Cambridge professor, McLuhan wrote:

“Lodge is a decided Platonist, and I learned [to think] that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion.

Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Christian doctrine”. (53)

Aristotle, of course, is the philosopher whose thought Aquinas brought into synthesis with Christian doctrine, and among Chesterton’s expansive corpus is a short, insightful biography of Aquinas, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.

Demonstrating early on his characteristically wide-ranging and, in Gordon’s words, “synthesizing impulses,” McLuhan links Platonism with Protestantism:

Plato was, of course, a Puritan in his artistic views, and his philosophy when fully developed as by the 15th century Augustinian monks (of whom Luther was one) leads definitely to the Calvinist position. (51)

And while Aristotle, Thomas, and Chesterton receive high marks from McLuhan, Protestants get a lashing:

“Catholic culture produced Don Quixote and St. Francis and Rabelais . . . Everything that is especially hateful and devilish and inhuman about the conditions and strains of modern industrial society is not only Protestant in origin, but it is their boast (!) to have originated it”. (55)

These insights and formulations from McLuhan give us a sense that in his religious thought and cultural criticism he is after something we might simply call joy. The link between his cultural criticism and religious thought is explicit and centered on Chesterton:

“He opened my eyes to European culture and encouraged me to know it more closely. He taught me the reasons for all that in me was blind anger and misery” . . . . (56)

He goes on to write,

“You see my ‘religion-hunting’ began with a rather priggish ‘culture-hunting.’ I simply couldn’t believe that men had to live in the mean, mechanical, joyless, rootless fashion that I saw in Winnipeg” . . . .

“It was a long time before I finally perceived that the character of every society, its food, clothing, arts, and amusements are ultimately determined by its religion – It was longer still before I could believe that religion was as great and joyful as these things which it creates – or destroys”. (56)

His criticisms of Protestantism and its consequences also circle around the affective sensibilities he perceives it to engender. In a letter McLuhan writes of “the dull dead daylight of Protestant rationalism which ruinously bathes every object from a beer parlour to a gasoline station . . . “ (56)

In all of this, the appeal of Chesterton who appears continuously mesmerized by the sheer gratuity and giftedness of existence becomes apparent.

Borrowing Chesterton’s own words and re-applying them to Chesterton himself, McLuhan noted that he “had somehow made a giant stride from babyhood to manhood, and missed that crisis in youth when most of us grow old.” (59) Likewise, Gordon is correct in reapplying McLuhan’s words regarding Chesterton to McLuhan himself,

There is no hue of meaning amidst the dizziest crags of thought that is safe from his swift, darting pursuit. (60)

And ultimately, it appears that it was the pursuit of joy.



8 Responses to “Influence of G.K. Chesterton on McLuhan”

  1. 1 Mark Stahlman


    The Coupland reviewer was David Carr, not Nicholas Carr — both of whom likely “know nothing” of McLuhan’s work.

    Because Chesterton was the topic of McLuhan’s early essay, calling him a “practical mystic” and because he was also a convert to Catholicism, the link is an easy one.

    Far more pointed (and largely ignored, including in every McLuhan biography) is the link to Hiliare Belloc. I’ve confirmed with Andrew Crystall (who wrote his PhD on McLuhan based on materials from the Ottawa archives, partly at my suggestion) that McLuhan also read every word of Belloc — who happened to be Chesterton’s “best friend” and the one he credited with his own conversion.

    In Belloc those who bother to check it out (i.e. wish to know something of McLuhan’s work) will find an even sharper polemicist and, perhaps, a more talented satirist — pointing to McLuhan’s own adoption of “mennippean” satire.

    Take a look at Belloc’s 1929 “Survivals and New Arrivals” and its discussion of Neo-Pagans, then consider the rise of the “Global Village” — clearly a pagan habitat.

    While Protestanism might be the 16th century expression of 5th century Platonism and the 18th century Industrial Revolution was its ultimate “fruit,” the 20th century James Joyce was writing about the pagan FINN and as McLuhan ends “Take Today” (his last major published work) —


    This is McLuhan’s restatement of Belloc’s point about the neo-Pagan revival, which is the dominant “new arrival” with which we still live today. Just ask any ARTIST (whether they know anything of McLuhan’s work or not)!

    Mark Stahlman
    Brooklyn NY


  2. Mark, the influence of Chesterton is clear, whereas that of Hillaire Belloc is unproven. Perhaps the evidence of the latter exists in the National Archives in Ottawa, which not many of us have had a chance to work through. I know that Philip Marchand, the author of the first biography of McLuhan (McLuhan: The Medium & the Messenger, 1989) had extensive access to those archives and also organized a portion of them. He mentions Hillaire Belloc not all and Terrence Gordon mentions him only once in his biography, and only to point out that McLuhan was reading him while studying at Cambridge. Belloc is mentioned only thrice in McLuhan’s published letters, but only as an indication that he was reading him. If you and Andrew wish to prove the point, why not write up your argument and have it published in a credible peer-reviewed academic journal. That is the way of scholarship, without which knowledge claims such as the one you’ve posted here remain unproven.

    BTW, David Carr might know nothing of McLuhan’s work, but Nicholas Carr, the author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and “The Shallows” clearly knows a lot. Witness his Guardian article at and blog: ……Alex


  3. 3 Mark Stahlman


    Good idea! My two sources on the close following by McLuhan of Belloc are Eric McLuhan (i.e. his son) and Andrew Crystall (i.e his most diligent PhD author). Something by (one or both of) them would certainly add to the scholarship on the early McLuhan influences.

    However, as everyone I’ve contacted with knowledge of those times has remarked, you would be very hard put to place a piece of paper between Belloc and Chesterton on the essentials — specifically regarding HERESY.

    Based on these well understood historic facts, why the “censorship” of the Belloc influence? Could it be “embarassing” for those who wish to separate McLuhan from his more “inconvenient” interlocutors? What are people afraid of?

    My suggestion is simple — read Belloc. If you come away from “Survivals and New Arrivals” with the sense that McLuhan rejected this influence — which he certainly read — then present your own findings.

    However, to do this you will also need to read McLuhan’s own disquisitions on neo-Paganism. I’d suggest starting with his 1954 “Eliot and the Manichean Myth as Poetry” and his “The Heart of Darkness” review of “Melville’s Quarrel with God” (1952) (both which I’ve retyped and posted on McLuhan lists, if you’d like copies).

    Then you might follow the trajectory of McLuhan’s own student Leon Surrette. His 1979 “A LIght From Eleusis” or his 1996 “Literary Modernism and the Occult Tradition” would be illuminating. Even more up-to-date, try Peter Liebregts’s
    2004 “Ezra Pound and Neoplatonism.”

    Don Theall was among the few McLuhan scholars who directly confronted these issues. (The other is Bob Dobbs.) McLuhan’s robust interest in the “occult” (i.e. neo-Paganism) and its far-flung influences lead Theall to accuse HMM of having a “split-personality,” given his daily attendance at Mass.

    Do you think that McLuhan’s interest in Joyce, Pound and Eliot was simply “literary”? Do you think that their own manifest neo-Paganism had nothing to do with McLuhan’s own concentration on these authors?

    When McLuhan championed the artist as the “antenna of the race,” what signal do you think he believed the Symbolists and the Modernists were picking up? Ozzie and Harriet?

    Could it be neo-Paganism — Belloc’s “New Arrival”? You betcha!

    The reasons why these topics have been avoided is obvious. It might lessen McLuhan’s “popularity” if he were understood to be, like Belloc, a “heresy hunter.” Since popularity is the basis of “business,” we certainly wouldn’t want to diminish the McLuhan cottage industry upon which McLuhan “scholars” depend, would we?

    Ultimately, McLuhan understood that the cultural shift away from Christianity to neo-Paganism was ENVIRONMENTAL and not the work of this or that individual participant in the “freemasonry of the arts.”

    If the “fruit” of the Gutenberg Galaxy was Protestantism and the Industrial Revolution, then what was the FRUIT of ELECTRIC MEDIA?

    Could it be neo-Paganism — Belloc’s “New Arrival”? You betcha!

    Mark Stahlman
    Brooklyn NY


  4. 4 kab13


    If you have any inclination to formalize your argument about Belloc’s influence on McLuhan, I have a Call for Papers out on “Picking through the Rag and Bone Shop of a Career.”

    We haven’t had anyone propose a project that fits the theme better than your work here.

    If you don’t take up the work, perhaps you could encourage Andrew Crystal to.

    Thanks for this conversation, both of you.



  5. Kevin – thank you for the excellent suggestion. That’s a perfect way to establish the fact of Hillaire Belloc’s influence on McLuhan, if it exists and if it’s worth establishing. Mark, maybe you might co-author a paper with Andrew Crystall, who I agree is an astute McLuhan scholar. Since he’s probably on a tenure track stream in his university job in New Zealand, the publication might have a side-benefit for him…..Alex


  6. 6 Mark Stahlman


    Excellent idea and I like your rag-and-bones approach!

    Who wants to read another story about McLuhan and Innis or even Pound or Wyndham Lewis?

    Belloc would certainly liven things up and there might even be something useful to discuss in terms of his French “style” in Anglophonic clothing.

    I’ll discuss your offer with Andrew and we’ll get back to you.

    Mark Stahlman
    Brooklyn NY


  7. Actually it was Nicholas Carr:

    Interesting reflections on Belloc’s influence.


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