Skip to comments.G.K. Chesterton vs Clarence Darrow
Posted on 04/01/2013 7:13:25 PM PDT by HerrBlucher
Question: I understand that at some time around 1930 G.K. debated Clarence Darrow in New York City and did quite well. Where is this reported at any length? Is a transcript available? What else is known of this debate? How can I find more information about it? Thank You for your response. - Duane
Answer: In January of 1931, during his second trip to America, Chesterton did indeed debate with Clarence Darrow, at New York Citys Mecca Temple. The topic was Will the World Return to Religion? There is no known transcript of the proceedings, but perhaps the following clippings will give you the flavor.
THE FOLLOWING is a passage from Chesterton As Seen by His Contemporaries, complied by Cyril Clemons, Webster Groves: International Mark Twain Society, 1939, pp. 66-68.
Mr. Joseph J. Reilly attended a debate at Mecca Temple in New York City, between Chesterton and Clarence Darrow, which dealt with the story of creation as presented in Genesis.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the Temple was packed. At the conclusion of the debate everybody was asked to express his opinion as to the victor and slips of paper were passed around for that purpose. The award went directly to Chesterton. Darrow in comparison, seemed heavy, uninspired, slow of mind, while G.K.C. was joyous, sparkling and witty . quite the Chesterton one had come to expect from his books. The affair was like a race between a lumbering sailing vessel and a modern steamer. Mrs. Frances Taylor Patterson also heard the Chesterton-Darrow debate, but went to the meeting with some misgivings because she was a trifle afraid that Chestertons gifts might seem somewhat literary in comparison with the trained scientific mind and rapier tongue of the famous trial lawyer. Instead, the trained scientific mind, the clear thinking, the lightning quickness in getting a point and hurling back an answer, turned out to belong to Chesterton. I have never heard Mr. Darrow alone, but taken relatively, when that relativity is to Chesterton, he appears positively muddle-headed.
Although the terms of the debate were determined at the outset, Darrow either could not or would not stick to the definitions, but kept going off at illogical tangents and becoming choleric over points that were not in dispute. He seemed to have an idea that all religion was a matter of accepting Jonahs whale as a sort of luxury-liner. As Chesterton summed it up, he felt as if Darrow had been arguing all afternoon with his fundamentalist aunt, and the latter kept sparring with a dummy of his own mental making. When something went wrong with the microphone, Darrow sat back until it could be fixed. Whereupon G.K.C. jumped up and carried on in his natural voice, Science you see is not infallible! Whatever brilliance Darrow had in his own right, it was completely eclipsed. For all the luster that he shed, he might have been a remote star at high noon drowned by the bright incandescent are light of the sun. Chesterton had the audience with him from the start, and when it was over, everyone just sat there, not wishing to leave. They were loath to let the light die!
Clarence Darrow wrote the author shortly before his death, I was favorably impressed by, warmly attached to, G.K. Chesterton. I enjoyed my debates with him, and found him a man of culture and fine sensibilities. If he and I had lived where we could have become better acquainted, eventually we would have ceased to debate, I firmly believe.
THE FOLLOWING is excerpted from the February 4, 1931, issue of The Nation. Here Henry Hazlitt gives his impressions of the debate:
In the ballot that followed, the audience voted more than two to one for the defender of the faith, Mr. Chesterton of course, and if the vote was on the relative merits of the two debaters, and not on the question itself, it was surely a very just one. Mr. Chestertons argument was like Mr. Chesterton, amiable, courteous, jolly; it was always clever, it was full of nice turns of expression, and altogether a very adroit exhibition by one of the worlds ablest intellectual fencing masters and one of its most charming gentlemen.
Mr. Darrows personality, by contrast, seemed rather colorless and certainly very dour. His attitude seemed almost surly; he slurred his words; the rise and fall of his voice was sometimes heavily melodramatic, and his argument was conducted on an amazingly low intellectual level.
Ostensibly the defender of science against Mr. Chesterton, he obviously knew much less about science than Mr. Chesterton did; when he essayed to answer his opponent on the views of Eddington and Jeans, it was patent that he did not have the remotest conception of what the new physics was all about. His victory over Mr. Byran at Dayton had been too cheap and easy; he remembered it not wisely but too well. His arguments are still the arguments of the village atheist of the Ingersoll period; at Mecca Temple he still seemed to be trying to shock and convince yokels.
Mr. Chestertons deportment was irreproachable, but I am sure that he was secretly unhappy. He had been on the platform many times against George Bernard Shaw. This opponent could not extend his powers. He was not getting his exercise.²
A NOTE ON THE VOTE from an article by Timothy S. Goeglein in Catholic Heritage, Jan-Feb, 1996, p. 28.
At the debates close, those in the hall were asked to vote for the man they thought had won the debate. Darrow received 1,022 votes. But Chesterton received 2,359 votes, a decisive win.
EXCLUSIVE! A BRIEF RECOLLECTION REPORTED HERE FOR THE FIRST TIME.
The Quotemeister recalls listening to a brief report on the debate delivered sometime in 1953 by a Jesuit priest at Marquette University. Father Madigan, who had been in the audience for the debate, recalled that Chestertons rebuttal began with, It may come as a surprise to you, Mr. Darrow, and perhaps to all of you in the audience, but I agree entirely with everything you have said. According to Madigan, this approach threw Darrow into utter confusion.
You don't tug on superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask off the old lone ranger, and you debate Chesterton. Chesterton took on, and usually won, debates with notable Atheists of the day such as Bertrand Russel, Beranard Shaw, HG Wells, and Robert Blatchford.
Chesterton was truly one-of-a-kind.
Steyn has the wit and mental alacrity. If he were to more fully and shamelessly incorporate the virtues of Christianity into his repertoire, he would justly be considered the heir of Chesterton and Lewis.
Thanks for this article. Fascinating, HerrBlucher!
Oops! Thought I had it carefully reviewed...oh well. Yes, you Don't debate Chesterton.
Dale Ahlquist is Chesterton’s Boswell. He is a brilliant expositor of Chesterton’s wisdom.
For anyone who’s interested, his program runs SundY nights at 9 pm on EWTN.
Yes he is, and quite the public speaker with a great sense of humor. I met him at the Chesterton conference in Reno last year.
Poor Clarence! He should have run and hid.
He had no idea what he was up against until it was too late. 300 pounds of brilliance, wit, charm, and knowledge. Darrow likely had the idea that anyone that defends Christian Orthodoxy must be an ignorant cretin, I am sure he figured he would dispose of Chesterton with ease. What is interesting is those who lost to Chesterton always had great praise for him afterward and some became his friends. Chesterton could eviscerate you and make you feel good about it...lol!
Chesterton Ping please.
G.K. Chesterton, one of the 20th centurys most famous converts, entered the Catholic Church. Explaining why I am a Catholic, he wrote: there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.
Chesterton on birth control/population control: In 1925 Chesterton wrote an introduction to Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol in which he said that The answer to anyone who talks about the surplus population is to ask him, whether he is part of the surplus population; or if not, how he knows he is not.
Chesterton on birth control/population control:
In 1925 Chesterton wrote an introduction to Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol in which he said that The answer to anyone who talks about the surplus population is to ask him, whether he is part of the surplus population; or if not, how he knows he is not.
Chesterton on God and atheists: "If there were no God,there would be no atheists."
Chesterton on God and atheists:
"If there were no God,there would be no atheists."
[Why I Am Catholic}: A [Chesterton] Poem and a Prayer for Michaelmas
G. K. Chesterton: "Who is this guy and why havent I heard of him?"
How the Great Wind Came to Beacon House, Chap 1 of Manalive by G. K. Chesterton
Film and Audio Recordings of G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton on "The Human Family and the Holy Family"
Why I Am A Catholic by G. K. Chesterton
"The God In The Cave" | From The Everlasting Man (G. K. Chesterton) Part 1
Alternatives to Assigned Readings
Aquinas vs. Luther: A Brief Excerpt from Chesterton
Social Reform versus Birth Control
Thank you for this post.
I wish there were more specifics about substance of the debate. For the most part, it seems Chesterton won because he came off as “nicer” than Darrow. That almost sounds like today’s debates, in which style often defeats substance. The only real clue about what happened was that Darrow was apparently debating a straw-man instead of Chesterton; and Chesterton apparently didn’t let him get away with it.
No doubt there was a large component of "the nice guy won." I think we all naturally favor the man that remains calm, witty, and humorous. And yes, Darrow did attack the "straw man" of a strictly literal approach to the Bible. That was his hammer against William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial and likely he assumed, since Chesterton was Orthodox Christian, that Chesterton would take the same approach.
That is why Darrow was completely thrown when, after making his case that a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible was silly, Chesterton agreed and then proceeded to defend Orthodox doctrine sans the literalist approach.
Darrow also came to defend science but found that his opponent was far more knowledgeable about science than he was.......
Mrs. Frances Taylor Patterson also heard the Chesterton-Darrow debate, but went to the meeting with some misgivings because she was a trifle afraid that Chestertons gifts might seem somewhat literary in comparison with the trained scientific mind and rapier tongue of the famous trial lawyer. Instead, the trained scientific mind, the clear thinking, the lightning quickness in getting a point and hurling back an answer, turned out to belong to Chesterton. I have never heard Mr. Darrow alone, but taken relatively, when that relativity is to Chesterton, he appears positively muddle-headed.