George Bernard Shaw


"He is something of a pagan," said Chesterton of George Bernard Shaw, "and like many other pagans, he is a very fine man." The assessment hints at the complexity of their relationship.

The prolific playwright, critic, essayist, and Irishman G.B. Shaw first met Chesterton in 1901. They disagreed about nearly everything, but they remained friends for a tumultuous yet playful 35 years.

Of Shaw's more than 50 plays, American audiences are most familiar with Pygmalion, on which the musical My Fair Lady is based. The themes in that story—class division, the power to remake oneself—barely hint at the author's deeper, and to Chesterton's mind more dangerous, ideas about the world.

To frame their differences simply, Shaw believed in man, or Nietzsche's Superman, while Chesterton believed in the Son of Man. Shaw, a socialist, looked for society to develop the values of humanism and thereby help a superhuman "life-force" become a god. Chesterton, who believed that all life owed its existence to God, called society back to Christian humility.

Chesterton debunked Shaw's theories on many occasions, always with humorous grace. In 1905, Chesterton gave Shaw his own chapter in Heretics. In Orthodoxy, published in 1908, Chesterton writes, "I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon and Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Supermen. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."

Shaw could dish out challenges, too. In a 1908 letter he told Chesterton to write plays rather than newspaper columns, threatening to "destroy" his credit "until starvation and shame drive you to serious ...

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