Joan of Arc by G.K.Chesterton – The peasant warrior who surpasses Tolstoy and Nietzsche



Arcade Fire says to Joan of Arc “…tell the boys their time is through” referring to the Medieval Church as the boys. She may be to Arcade Fire a sort of feminist icon, because of what she did.

G.K. Chesterton, in “Orthodoxy,” the autobiograhy of his amazing journey from atheism to the Christian faith, essentially says the same thing to Joan of Arc. Chesterton also seems to say for her to “tell the boys” named Tolstoy and Nietzsche that she was not stuck at the cross-roads as they were, but surpassed their frozen intellectualism with her action.

Arcade Fire obviously admires Joan of Arc, as should we all. They express their love of her and their desire to know and follow her. Undoubtedly part of their admiration is because of what she did! Like Jesus who Chesterton sees as her secret “moral unity and utility,” she did not leave one written word behind, yet through action changed history. G.K. Chesterton wrote of her:

Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We KNOW that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing. It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one, and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre of my thoughts. (From Orthodoxy, Chapter 3)



Nietzsche had some natural talent for sarcasm: he could sneer, though he could not laugh; but there is always something bodiless and without weight in his satire, simply because it has not any mass of common morality behind it. He is himself more preposterous than anything he denounces. But, indeed, Nietzsche will stand very well as the type of the whole of this failure of abstract violence. The softening of the brain which ultimately overtook him was not a physical accident. If Nietzsche had not ended in imbecility, Nietzscheism would end in imbecility. Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.

This last attempt to evade intellectualism ends in intellectualism, and therefore in death. The sortie has failed. The wild worship of lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void. Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing and Nirvana. They are both helpless—one because he must not grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything. The Tolstoyan’s will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite’s will is quite equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads. The result is—well, some things are not hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads. (Orthodoxy, Chapter 3)

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


2 thoughts on “Joan of Arc by G.K.Chesterton – The peasant warrior who surpasses Tolstoy and Nietzsche

  1. Brian MacArevey says:

    Hey Bryan.

    Interesting post. I am not deeply familiar with any of the four characters that have appeared in it, but my interest has been heightened!

    I agree with the spirit of what Chesterton is saying (as I think I understand it). However, I have a few thoughts and questions.

    I have no desire to be a speculator. I want to be an actor. Yet, I often end up being inactive (or not active enough) for a couple of reasons.

    One, I am frequently very uncertain about what the right action is in a given situation. Two, I usually believe that most Christians are way too certain that their actions are right, when they probably aren’t. I can usually spot aspects of their actions that are proud, presumptuous and even outright evil. Thus, I struggle because I do not want to be “active” in ways that I believe are sinful.

    Yet, I am also hesitant to equate “philosophical speculation” with “inactivity”. In fact, to do philosophy or theology can itself be a prophetic ministry that is a necessary “activity”. Don’t you think? If people are acting wrongly, I believe that it is a worthwhile “activity” to seek to change the ways in which people think, so as to move communities to more faithful action.

    Basically, I tend to be really hard on myself for not being “active” enough; and maybe I should be. However I usually discount the work that I do that I believe could be categorized as “prophetic”, pulling down the idols of the modern, American Christian church’s imagination. This is important, especially if I am correct in my understanding that most of the activity of the American church is nothing but “wood, hay and stubble”.

    To be clear, I do not believe that it should be one or the other. I think that both are important, and that different levels of emphasis are appropriate; varying from individual to individual. It would seem as though Chesterton is downplaying the importance of philosophical work. Then again this is a small quote, and it would seem to contradict the fact that he himself was a theologian/philosopher if he did not see an important role for “speculation”.

    I think I have put out enough to start a conversation. Perhaps you could provide some insight into how one or more of the people from your posts would respond to my thoughts. Or maybe you have something yourself to say…

  2. Hey Brian,
    thanks for the comment and questions. I’ll see what i can do! For starters I’ll tell you the extent to my familiarity with these people.

    Strangely enough, I probably know the most about Joan of Arc, which is probably because if you read her story, which I did via Mark Twain’s book (which I’m posting about next), you pretty much know what there is to know. She lived a short life, her actions demonstrated who she was, and she left no writings that need to be understood. Her life exegetes her.

    The person in second place in my knowledge of them would be Chesterton. I’ve completely read The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, and Manalive, along with parts of other writings. But Chesterton is quite deep, often assumes the reader has other literary or historical knowledge, is sometimes hard to follow, and each re-reading reveals that I usually missed something previously. It does seem ironic, as you point out, that his work was “intellectual” in philosophy and theology. He was an essayist and a very popular public debater. I think that all of his work had a unified purpose that he hoped would greatly influence most all of the “institutions” of life. His writings were diversified and related to many different issues, but all based in what he would call “Orthodoxy” (biblically verified truth).

    The person in third place…is Tolstoy. I have completely read his book (it was short) “A Confession” which is a narration of his “conversion” to Christianity. It was a great read although it was probably 10 years ago and I don’t remember alot. I have read things about him and know of some of his writings. It is important to know that he was of the rich aristocracy and was married. My understanding is that his life was what i would call “experimental” as he sought to live things like pacifism, poverty, celibacy (I think I read that he tried that to cure his adulterous tendencies!). This would certainly seem to say that he sought to put his beliefs to action. I think that Chesterton would say that his life was unlike Joan of Arc’s because he never achieved a unified base or practice. I’m not sure that he even persevered in Christianity for his whole life.

    The fourth, Nietzsche, I know the least about. I’ve never read anything by him but hope to, and think there is value in reading and understanding what he was saying. So I don’t really have any informed reasons to agree or disagree with Chesterton’s assessment of him. I do get the impression from Chesterton that he admired him in some sense, saying that he “scaled staggering mountains.” My feeling in the end regarding Chesterton’s view of Nietzsche is the same as with Tolstoy, that he thought their lives did not, like Joan of Arc’s, exhibit “a secret moral unity” which of course Chesterton saw as the influence of Christ upon her.

    I think that Tolstoy and Nietzsche may have been better at revealing the truth regarding their times, with critiques thereof, but not in supplying answers. Of course Nietzsche’s solutions were in the realm of Atheism so Chesterton probably disagreed with them.

    I think in some ways each of these people engaged in prophetic types of roles. Joan of Arc’s prophecies regarding outcomes of battles literally came true, and she was enabled to know other things that certainly were biblically prophetic types of things. Reading Chesterton writings from a hundred years ago is an uncanny experience because it seems he is talking about America today. Nietszche was one of the first to see what Bonhoeffer later saw, that the “God of Christendom” “had died.” They explained this differently – N said we killed him, B said we outgrew him. I can’t really say anything about Tolstoy in this regard although he may have been in regard to materialism and pacifism.

    My “tentative!” answer to the question regarding “speculation” and “activity” is that there is no simple equation to employ. It may be nice if, like Joan of Arc, we simply received voices and visions at a young age with concrete predictions and instructions to follow. Of course she was obviously a vessel fit to hear and see, and courageously and boldly be obedient to these. But most of us need to tread the path of slow learning (and speculation) in order to have an understanding of what to do and then hopefully we will also be ready to do it. I don’t think we should just aimlessly do things without having a base of understanding as our foundation. Eugene Peterson says that pastors, preachers, evangelists, are generally in a hurry to get results, but that God is “never” in a hurry. It’s also worth noting that Jesus spent most of his life, nearly thirty years, in the “formation” stage, and only three or four in the “activity” stage. And even in the activity he spent a lot of “time out” in nights of prayer, that were essential for the ongoing activity.

    I a started reading a book recently that talks about the “school of the prophets” in the OT, and this book says that the Church should have some such “institution” today. I think it is a great idea!

    I appreciate the questions and think it has provided an opportunity to get into some topics that otherwise would not be discussed in this blog anyway.

    P.S. After posting this I found this short excerpt about Tolstoy so I added it in this edit:

    An excerpt from The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey:

    Pages 140-142: “A.N. Wilson, a biographer of Tolstoy, remarks that Tolstoy suffered from a ‘fundamental theological inability to understand the Incarnation. His religion was ultimately a thing of Law rather than of Grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision of God penetrating a fallen world.’ With crystalline clarity Tolstoy could see his own inadequacy in the light of God’s Ideal. But he could not take the further step of trusting God’s grace to overcome that inadequacy.

    I also found this by Yancey:

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