Archive for the ‘G. K. Chesterton’ Category


Obstinate Orthodoxy – G. K. Chesterton

December 16, 2013
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the most profound and prolific authors of the 20th century, composing over one hundred novels, essays, plays, and non-fiction books -- not to mention over 4,000 essays. Chesterton was a prophet, and he warned about many of the societal ills we now face decades before they actually came to pass. He knew where all the modern errors came from, as well as where they were going.

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the most profound and prolific authors of the 20th century, composing over one hundred novels, essays, plays, and non-fiction books — not to mention over 4,000 essays. Chesterton was a prophet, and he warned about many of the societal ills we now face decades before they actually came to pass. He knew where all the modern errors came from, as well as where they were going.

One of the trends Chesterton found most disturbing in his day was so-called “birth control” — a concept that was being popularized by Margaret Sanger in Chesterton’s lifetime. Chesterton used very strong language to condemn birth control, which he knew was merely “a scheme for preventing birth in order to escape control.” Here are a few choice Chesterton quotes on so-called birth control:

“Normal and real birth control is called self control.” (“Social Reform vs. Birth Control”)

  1. “Birth Control is a name given to a succession of different expedients by which it is possible to filch the pleasure belonging to a natural process while violently and unnaturally thwarting the process itself.” (“Social Reform vs. Birth Control”)
  2. “We can always convict such people of sentimentalism by their weakness for euphemism. The phrase they use is always softened and suited for journalistic appeals. They talk of free love when they mean something quite different, better defined as free lust. But being sentimentalists they feel bound to simper and coo over the word “love.” They insist on talking about Birth Control when they mean less birth and no control. We could smash them to atoms, if we could be as indecent in our language as they are immoral in their conclusions.” (“Obstinate Orthodoxy” – The Thing)


I HAVE been asked to explain something about myself which seems to be regarded as very extraordinary. The problem has been presented to me in the form of a cutting from a very flattering American article, which yet contained a certain suggestion of wonder. So far as I can understand, it is thought extraordinary that a man should be ordinary. I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term; which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and chivalry as laws rightly controlling them, and the rest of the normal traditions of our race and religion.

It is also thought a little odd that I regard the grass as green, even after some newly-discovered Slovak artist has painted it grey; that I think daylight very tolerable in spite of thirteen Lithuanian philosophers sitting in a row and cursing the light of day; and that, in matters more polemical, I actually prefer weddings to divorces and babies to Birth Control. These eccentric views, which I share with the overwhelming majority of mankind, past and present, I should not attempt to defend here one by one. And I only give a general reply for a particular reason. I wish to make it unmistakably plain that my defence of these sentiments is not sentimental. It would be easy to gush about these things; but I defy the reader, after reading this, to find the faintest trace of the tear of sensibility. I hold this view not because it is sensibility, but because it is sense.

On the contrary, it is the skeptics who are the sentimentalists. More than half the “revolt” and the talk of being advanced and progressive is simply a weak sort of snobbishness which takes the form of a worship of Youth. Some men of my generation delight in declaring that they are of the Party of the Young and defending every detail of the latest fashions or freaks. If I do not do that, it is for the same reason that I do not dye my hair or wear stays. But even when it is less despicable than that, the current phrase that everything must be done for youth, that the rising generation is all that matters, is in sober fact a piece of pure sentimentalism.

It is also, within reason, a perfectly natural piece of sentiment. All healthy people like to see the young enjoying themselves; but if we turn that pleasure into a principle, we are sentimentalists. If we desire the greatest happiness of the greatest number, it will be obvious that the greatest number, at any given moment, are rather more likely to be between twenty-five and seventy than to be between seventeen and twenty-five. Sacrificing everything to the young will be like working only for the rich. They will be a privileged class and the rest will be snobs or slaves.

Moreover, the young will always have a fair amount of fun under the worst conditions; if we really wish to console the world, it will be much more rational to console the old. This is what I call facing facts; and I have continued to believe in most of these traditions because they are facts. I could give a great many other examples; for instance, chivalry. Chivalry is not the romantic, but the realistic, view of the sexes. It is so realistic that the real reasons for it cannot always be given in print.

If those called free-thinkers are sentimentalists, those called free-lovers are open and obvious sentimentalists. We can always convict such people of sentimentalism by their weakness for euphemism. The phrase they use is always softened and suited for journalistic appeals. They talk of free love when they mean something quite different, better defined as free lust. But being sentimentalists they feel bound to simper and coo over the word “love.” They insist on talking about Birth Control when they mean less birth and no control.

We could smash them to atoms, if we could be as indecent in our language as they are immoral in their conclusions. And as it is with morals, so it is with religion. The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self-evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. It is the ignorance and not the knowledge that produces the current notion that free thought weakens theism. It is the real world, that we see with our own eyes, that obviously unfolds a plan of things that fit into each other. It is only a remote and misty legend that ever pretended to explain it by the automatic advantage of the “fit.”

As a fact, modern evolutionists, even when they are still Darwinians, do not pretend that the theory explains all varieties and adaptations. Those who know are rather rescuing Darwin at the expense of Darwinism. But it is those who do not know who doubt or deny; it is typical that their myth is actually called the Missing Link. They actually know nothing of their own argument except that it breaks down somewhere. But it is worth while to ask why this loose legend has such power over many; and I will proceed to my suggestion. I have not changed my mind; nor, indeed, have they changed their mind. They have only changed their mood.

What we call the intellectual world is divided into two types of people–those who worship the intellect and those who use it. There are exceptions; but, broadly speaking, they are never the same people. Those who use the intellect never worship it; they know too much about it. Those who worship the intellect never use it; as you can see by the things they say about it. Hence there has arisen a confusion about intellect and intellectualism; and, as the supreme expression of that confusion, something that is called in many countries the Intelligentsia, and in France more especially, the Intellectuals. It is found in practice to consist of clubs and coteries of people talking mostly about books and pictures, but especially new books and new pictures; and about music, so long as it is very modern music; or what some would call very unmusical music.

The first fact to record about it is that what Carlyle said of the world is very specially true of the intellectual world– that it is mostly fools. Indeed, it has a curious attraction for complete fools, as a warm fire has for cats. I have frequently visited such societies, in the capacity of a common or normal fool, and I have almost always found there a few fools who were more foolish than I had imagined to be possible to man born of woman; people who had hardly enough brains to be called half-witted.

But it gave them a glow within to be in what they imagined to be the atmosphere of intellect; for they worshipped it like an unknown god. I could tell many stories of that world. I remember a venerable man with a very long beard who seemed to live at one of these clubs. At intervals he would hold up his hand as if for silence and preface his remarks by saying, “A Thought.” And then he would say something that sounded as if a cow had suddenly spoken in a drawing-room. I remember once a silent and much-enduring man (I rather think it was my friend Mr. Edgar Jepson, the novelist) who could bear it no longer and cried with a sort of expiring gasp, “But, Good God, man, you don’t call that a THOUGHT, do you?”

But that was pretty much the quality of the thought of such thinkers, especially of the freethinkers. Out of this social situation arises one sort of exception to the rule. Intelligence does exist even in the Intelligentsia. It does sometimes happen that a man of real talent has a weakness for flattery, even the flattery of fools. He would rather say something that silly people think clever than something which only clever people could perceive to be true. Oscar Wilde was a man of this type. When he said somewhere that an immoral woman is the sort of woman a man never gets tired of, he used a phrase so baseless as to be perfectly pointless.

Everybody knows that a man may get tired of a whole procession of immoral women, especially if he is an immoral man. That was “a Thought”; otherwise something to be uttered, with uplifted hand, to people who could not think at all. In their poor muddled minds there was some vague connection between wit and cynicism; so they never applauded him so warmly as a wit, as when he was cynical without being witty.

But when he said, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” he made a statement (in excellent epigrammatic form) which really meant something. But it would have meant his own immediate dethronement if it could have been understood by those who only enthroned him for being cynical.

Anyhow, it is in this intellectual world, with its many fools and few wits and fewer wise men, that there goes on perpetually a sort of ferment of fashionable revolt and negation. From this comes all that is called destructive criticism; though, as a matter of fact, the new critic is generally destroyed by the next critic long before he has had any chance of destroying anything else. When people say solemnly that the world is in revolt against religion or private property or patriotism or marriage, they mean that this world is in revolt against them; or rather, is in permanent revolt against everything.

Now, as a matter of fact, this world has a certain excuse for being always in that state of excitement, apart from mere fuss and mere folly. The reason is rather an important one; and I would ask anyone who really does want to think, and especially to think freely, to pause upon it seriously for a moment. It arises from the fact that these people are so much concerned with the study of Art. It collapses into mere driveling and despair, because they try to transfer their treatment of art to the treatment of morals and philosophy. In this they make a bad blunder in reasoning. But then, as I have explained, intellectuals are not very intellectual.

The Arts, exist, as we should put it in our primeval fashion, to show forth the glory of God; or, to translate the same thing in terms of our psychology, to awaken and keep alive the sense of wonder in man. The success of any work of art is achieved when we say of any subject, a tree or a cloud or a human character, “I have seen that a thousand times and I never saw it before.”

Now for this purpose a certain variation of VENUE is natural and even necessary. Artists change what they call their attack; for it is to some extent their business to make it a surprise attack. They have to throw a new light on things; and it is not surprising if it is sometimes an invisible ultra-violet ray or one rather resembling a black ray of madness or death. But when the artist extends the eccentric experiment from art to real life, it is quite different. He is like an absent-minded sculptor turning his chisel from chipping at the bust to chipping at the bald head of the distinguished sitter. And these anarchic artists do suffer a little from absence of Mind.

Let us take a practical case for the sake of simplicity. Many moderns will be heard scoffing at what they would call “chocolate-box art”; meaning an insipid and sickly art. And it is easy to call up the sort of picture that might well make anybody ill. I will suppose, for the sake of argument, that we are looking sadly at the outside of a chocolate-box (now, I need hardly say, empty) and that we see painted on it in rather pallid colours a young woman with golden ringlets gazing from a balcony and holding a rose in the spot-light caused by a convenient ray of moonlight. Any similar touches may be added to the taste or distaste of the critic; she may be convulsively clasping a letter or conspicuously wearing an engagement ring or languidly waving farewell to a distant gentleman in a gondola; or anything else I can think of, calculated to cause pain to the sensitive critic. I sympathise with the critic’s feeling; but I think he goes quite wrong in his thinking.

Now, what do we mean when we say that this is a silly picture, or a stale subject, or something very difficult to bear, even when we are fortified by chocolates to endure it? We mean it is possible to have too much of a good thing; to have too many chocolate-boxes, as to have too many chocolates. We mean that it is not a picture, but a picture of a picture. Ultimately it is a picture of innumerable pictures; not a real picture of a rose or a girl or a beam of moonlight. In other words, artists have copied artists, right away back to the first sentimental pictures of the Romantic Movement.

But roses have not copied roses. Moonbeams have not imitated each other. And though a woman may copy women in externals, it is only in externals and not in existence; her womanhood was not copied from any other woman. Considered as realities, the rose and the moon and the woman are simply themselves. Suppose that scene to be a real one, and there is nothing particularly imitative about it. The flower is unquestionably fresh as the young woman is unquestionably young. The rose is a real object, which would smell as sweet by any other name, or by no name. The girl is a particular person, whose personality is entirely new to the world and whose experiences are entirely new to herself. If she does indeed choose to stand in that attitude on that balcony holding that botanical specimen (which seems improbable), we have no right to doubt that she has her own reasons for doing so. In short, when once we conceive the thing as reality, we have no reason whatever to dismiss it as mere repetition. So long as we are thinking of the thing as copied mechanically and for money, as a piece of monotonous and mercenary ornament, we naturally feel that the flower is in a special sense an artificial flower and that the moonlight is all moonshine. We feel inclined to welcome even wild variations in the decorative style; and to admire the new artist who will paint the rose black, lest we should forget that it is a deep red, or the moonshine green, that we may realise it is something more subtle than white. But the moon is the moon and the rose is the rose; and we do not expect the real things to alter. Nor is there any reason to expect the rules about them to alter. Nor is there any reason, so far as this question is concerned, to expect the woman to alter her attitude either about the beauty of the rose or the obligations of the engagement-ring. These things, considered as real things, are quite unaffected by the variation of artistic attack in fictitious things. The moon will continue to affect the tides, whether we paint it blue or green or pink with purple spots. And the man who imagines that artistic revolutions must always affect morals is like a man who should say, “I am so bored with seeing pink roses painted on chocolate-boxes that I refuse to believe that roses grow well in a clay soil.”

In short, what the critics would call romanticism is in fact the only form of realism. It is also the only form of rationalism. The more a man uses his reason upon realities, the more he will see that the realities remain much the same, though the representations are very different, And it is only the representations that are repetitions. The sensations are always sincere; the individuals are always individual. If the real girl is experiencing a real romance, she is experiencing something old, but not something stale.

If she has plucked something from a real rose-tree, she is holding a very ancient symbol, but a very recent rose. And it is exactly in so far as a man can clear his head, so as to see actual things as they are, that he will see these things as permanently important as they are. Exactly in so far as his head is confused with current fashions and aesthetic modes of the moment, he will see nothing about it except that it is like a picture on a chocolate-box, and not like a picture at the Post-Futurist Gallery. Exactly in so far as he is thinking about real people, he will see that they are really romantic. Exactly in so far as he is thinking only about pictures and poems and decorative styles, he will think that romance is a false or old-fashioned style. He can only see people as imitating pictures; whereas the real people are not imitating anything. They are only being themselves– as they will always be. Roses remain radiant and mysterious, however many pink rosebuds are sprinkled like pips over cheap wallpapers. Falling in love remains radiant and mysterious, however threadbare be the thousandth repetition of a rhyme as a valentine or a cracker-motto. To see this fact is to live in a world of facts. To be always thinking of the banality of bad wallpapers and valentines is to live in a world of fictions.

Now the main truth about all this skeptical revolt, and all the rest of it, is that it was born in a world of fictions. It came from the Intelligentsia, who were perpetually discussing novels and plays and pictures instead of people. They insisted on putting “real life” on the stage and never saw it in the street. They professed to be putting realism into their novels when there was less and less of it in their conversation, as compared with the conversation of the common people. And that perpetual experiment, and shifting of the standpoint, which was natural enough in an artist seeking for certain effects (as it is natural in a photographer hovering round and focusing and fussing with his camera), was wholly inapplicable to any study of the permanent rules and relations of society. When these people began to play about with morals and metaphysics, they simply produced a series of mad worlds where they might have been harmlessly producing a series of mad pictures. Pictures are always meant to catch a certain aspect, at a certain angle, in a certain light; sometimes in light that is almost as brief as lightning. But when the artists became anarchists and began to exhibit the community and the cosmos by these flashes of lightning, the result was not realism but simply nightmare. Because a particular painter, for a particular purpose, might paint the red rose black, the pessimist deduced that the red rose of love and life was really as black as it was painted. Because one artist, from one angle, seized a momentary impression of moonlight as green, the philosopher solemnly put on a pair of green spectacles and declared that it was now a solid scientific certainty that the moon must be crawling with maggots, because it was made of green cheese.

In short, there might have been some value in the old cry of art for the artists; if it had meant that the artists would confine themselves to the medium of art. As a fact, they were always meddling with the medium of morals and religion; and they imported into them the unrest, the changing moods and the merely experimental tricks of their own trade. But a man with a solid sense of reality can see that this is utterly unreal. Whatever the laws of life and love and human relations may be, it is monstrously improbable that they ought to be changed with every fashion in poetry any more than with every fashion in pantaloons. It is insane that there should be a new pattern of hearts or heads whenever there is a new pattern of hats. These things are realities, like a high tide or a clay soil; and you do not get rid of high tides and clay soils by calling roses and moonlight old-fashioned and sentimental. I will venture to say, therefore, and I trust without undue vanity, that I have remained rooted in certain relations and traditions, not because I am a sentimentalist or even a romanticist; but because I am a realist. And I realise that morals must not change with moods, as Cubism must not mean chopping up real houses into cubes, or Vorticism swallowing real ships in whirlpools.

I have not changed my views on these things because there has never been any reason to change them. For anybody impelled by reason and not by running with a crowd will, for instance, perceive that there are always the same arguments for a Purpose and therefore a Personality in things, if he is a thinking person. Only it is now made easy for him to admit vaguely that there may be a Purpose, while denying that there is a Personality, so long as he happens to be a very unthinking person. It is quite as certain as it ever was that life is a gift of God immensely valuable and immensely valued, and anybody can prove it by putting a pistol to the head of a pessimist. Only a certain sort of modern does not like any problem presented to his head; and would dislike a plain question almost as much as a pistol. It is obvious common sense, and obviously consonant to real life, that romantic love is normal to youth and has its natural development in marriage and parenthood as the corresponding conditions of age. None of the nonsense talked about this, that or the other individual irritation or licence has ever made any difference to that solid social truth, for anyone who cares whether things are true, apart from whether they are trite. It is the man who cannot see that a thing is true, although it is trite, who is very truly a victim of mere words and verbal associations. He is the fool who has grown so furious with paper roses that he will not believe that the real rose has a root; nor (till he discovers it with an abrupt and profane ejaculation) that it has a thorn.

The truth is that the modern world has had a mental breakdown; much more than a moral breakdown. Things are being settled by mere associations because there is a reluctance to settle them by arguments. Nearly all the talk about what is advanced and what is antiquated has become a sort of giggling excitement about fashions. The most modern of the moderns stare at a picture of a man making love to a lady in a crinoline with exactly the same sort of vacant grin with which yokels stare at a stranger in an outlandish sort of hat. They regard their fathers of another age exactly as the most insular would regard the foreigners from another country. They seem mentally incapable of getting any further than the statement that our girls are shingled and short-skirted while their silly old great-grandmothers wore ringlets and hoops. That seems to satisfy all their appetite for satire; they are a simple race, a little like savages. They are exactly like the sort of cockney tripper who would roar with laughter because French soldiers wore red trousers and blue coats, while English soldiers were dressed properly in blue trousers and red coats. I have not altered my lines of thought for people who think in this fashion. Why should I?


G.K. Chesterton and ‘The Dumb Ox’ 2 – Ian Ker

October 22, 2013
All that Lutheranism was unreal -- yet `Luther was not unreal': `He was one of those great barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world.' `a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther would invisible', it was `not altogether untrue to say... that Luther epoch; and began the modern world'. It was said that Luther 'publicly burned the Summa Theologica and the works of Aquinas':

All that Lutheranism was unreal’ — yet “Luther was not unreal: He was one of those great barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world.” “On a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther would be almost invisible…” “It was not altogether untrue to say… that the Luther epoch began the modern world.” It was said that Luther “publicly burned the Summa Theologica and the works of Aquinas.”

These two saints (Francis of Assiss and Thomas Aquinas) were `in the most exact sense of the term, Humanists; because they were insisting on the immense importance of the human being,’ because they were `strengthening that staggering doctrine of Incarnation’. The more `rational or natural’ they became, the more `orthodox’ they became. Both `the Thomist movement in metaphysics ‘with its recovery, thanks to Aristotle, whom Thomas had `baptized’ and miraculously `raised… from the dead’, of `the most defiant of all dogmas, the wedding of God with Man and therefore with Matter’ — and also `the Franciscan movement in morals and manners’ were `an enlargement and a liberation’, both were `emphatically a growth of Christian theology to to , within’ and `emphatically not a shrinking of Christian theology under heathen or even human influences’.

Both Francis and Thomas `felt sub-consciously that the `hold’ of Christians was `slipping on the solid Catholic doctrine and discipline, worn smooth by more than a thousand years of routine; and that the Faith needed to be shown under a new light and dealt will’ from another angle’. It had become `too Platonist to be popular. It needed something like the shrewd and homely touch of Aristotle to turn it again into a religion of common sense.’

Christian theology `tended more and more to be a sort of dried up Platonism; a thing of diagrams and abstractions … not sufficiently touched by that great thing that is by definition almost the opposite of abstraction: Incarnation’. The Platonic influence was definitely tending towards a Manichaean philosophy, which existed outside the Church in the `fiercer’ form of the Albigensian heresy and inside the Church in the `subtler’ form of an Augustinianism that ‘derived partly from Plato’ .

Thomas’ ‘Optimism’ was in direct opposition to all this pessimism it about the body and the material: `He did, with a most solid and colossal conviction, believe in Life…’. Against `the morbid Renaissance intellectual who wondered `To be or not to be — that is the question’, the `massive medieval doctor’ would `most certainly have replied `in a voice of thunder’: To be — that is the answer.’ He was `vitally and vividly alone in declaring that live is a living story, with a great beginning and a great end’.

The whole Thomist system rested on `one huge and simple idea’, that of what Thomas called in Latin Ens, unfortunately translated by the English to `being’, which, Chesterton complained, `has a wild and woolly sort of sound’, whereas Ens `has a sound like the English word End’: `It is final and even abrupt; it is nothing except itself.’ And it was upon `this sharp pin-point of reality’ that `There is an is’, that Thomas had reared ‘the whole cosmic system of Christendom’.

Thomas was not `ashamed’ to say that his reason was `fed’ by his senses and that as far as his reason was concerned he felt `obliged to treat all this reality as real’. For him there was `this primary idea of a central common sense that is nourished by the five senses’. As `one of the great liberators of the human intellect’, he `reconciled religion with reason.. . expanded it towards experimental science. . . insisted that the senses were the windows of the soul and that the reason had a divine right to feed upon fact that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies’. It was Thomas who was the real `Reformer’, while the later Protestants like Luther, for whom the reason was `utterly untrustworthy’, were `by comparison reactionaries’.

Now because Thomas `stood up stoutly for the fact that a man’s body is his body as his mind is his mind; and that he can only be a balance and of the two’, this did not in the least mean he was a materialist in the modern sense, for this conviction was `specially connected with the startling sort of dogma, which the Modernist can least accept; the Resurrection of the Body’.

But, although Thomas’s argument for revelation was `quite rationalistic’, it was also `decidedly democratic and popular’: for he thought that `the souls of all the ordinary hard-working and simple-minded people’ were `quite as important as the souls of thinkers and truth-seekers’, and he wondered how the masses as opposed to the intellectuals could `find time for the amount of reasoning that is needed to find truth’. He believed in `scientific enquiry’ but he also had `a strong empathy with the average man’, concluding that Revelation was necessary since `men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner; or most men would not receive them at all’. In a similar way, because he had a `strong sense of human dignity and liberty’, he insisted on free will: `Upon this sublime and perilous liberty hang heaven and hell, and mysterious drama of the soul.’

The `materialism’ of Aquinas was nothing other than `Christian humility’, for he was `willing to begin by recording the facts and sensations of the material world, just as he would have been willing to begin by washing the plates and dishes in the monastery’. Anyway, Christianity had brought about a revolution in the human attitude towards the senses, toward sensations of the body and the experiences of the common man’, which could now be regarded `with a reverence at which great Aristotle would have stared, and no man in the ancient world could have begun to understand’:

The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a gibbet. It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs of something that was more than man. Plato might despise the flesh; but God had not despised it.

Since `there was in Plato a sort of idea that people would be better without their bodies; that their heads might fly off and meet in the sky in merely intellectual marriage, like cherubs in a picture’, it was not surprising that there was in the pre-Thomist Augustinian world `an emotional mood to abandon the body in despair’.

Yet, once `the Incarnation had become the idea that is central in our civilization, it was inevitable that there should be a return to materialism, in the sense of the serious value of matter and the making of the body’. And indeed there was in Thomas an unmistakably ‘positive’ attitude to creation, a mind `which is filled and soaked as with sunshine with the warmth of the wonder of created things’. He was positively `avid in his acceptance of Things; in his hunger and thirst for Things’:

It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One. I do not mean things to eat or drink or wear, though he never denied to these their place in the noble hierarchy of Being; but rather things to think about, and especially things to prove, to experience and to know.

Aquinas passionately believed in the reason, but he also thought that everything that is in the intellect has been in the senses’. And he was a philosopher who remained `faithful to his first love’, which was `love at first sight’: `I mean that he immediately recognized a real quality in things; and afterwards resisted all the disintegrating doubts arising from the nature of those things.’

Underlying this philosophical realism was `a sort of purely Christian humility and fidelity’, which ensured that he remained `true to the first truth’ and refused `the first treason’, unlike the many philosophers who `dissolve the stick or the stone in chemical solutions of skepticism; either in the medium of mere time and change; or in the difficulties of classification of unique units; or in the difficulty of recognizing variety while admitting unity’.

But Thomas remained `stubborn in the same obstinate objective fidelity. He has seen grass and gravel; and he is not disobedient to the heavenly vision.’ Even `the doubts and difficulties about reality’ drove him `to believe in more reality rather than less’: `If things deceive us, it is by being more real than they seem.’ If things seemed have a relative unreality’, it was because they were `potential and not actual’, `unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks’.

No , other thinker, Chesterton asserts, was `so unmistakably thinking about things and not being misled by the indirect influence of words’. There was an `elemental and primitive poetry that shines through all his thoughts; especially through the thought with which all his thinking begins. It is an intense rightness of his sense of the relation between the mind and the thing outside the mind.’ The `light in all poetry, and indeed in all art’ was the `strangeness of things’ — that is, their `otherness; or what is called their objectivity’.

For Aquinas, `the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards’ not `inwards’, because `the images it seeks are real things’. Their. `romance and glamour’ lay in the fact that they were `real things; things to be found by staring inwards at the mind’. Far from the mind being ‘sufficient to itself’, it was ‘insufficient for itself’: `For this feeding upon fact is itself, as an organ it has an object which is objective; this eating of strange strong meat of reality.’

Aquinas understood that the mind was ‘it merely receptive, in the sense that it absorbs sensations like so much blotting-paper; on that sort of softness has been based all that cowardly materialism, which conceives man as wholly servile to his environment’. But neither did he think that the mind was `purely creative, in the sense that it paints pictures on the windows and then mistakes them for a landscape outside’: `In other words, the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage.”

It was in fact `a matter of common sense’ that Thomism was `the philosophy of common sense’. For Thomas did not `deal at all with what many now think the main metaphysical question; whether we can prove that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real’. And that was because he `recognized instantly… that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative, or else never answer any question, never ask any question, never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask’. It was true in a sense that one could be `a fundamental skeptic’ — but then one could not be `anything else’, and certainly not `a defender of fundamental skepticism’.

In his robust rejection of skepticism, Chesterton is anxious to emphasize, Aquinas supported `the ordinary man’s acceptance of ordinary truisms’. Unlike contemporary intellectuals who despised the masses, Thomas,`the one real Rationalist’ who was given to `the unusual hobby of thinking’, was `arguing for a common sense which would… commend itself to most of the common people’.

Chesterton concludes his remarkable evocation of the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas — a mind, as perceived by him, so highly congenial ‘ to his own in its insistence on the fact of being, in its commitment not only to reason but also to common sense (with its consequent affinity to the common man), in its love of the limitation of definitions — on a dark and sinister note. For there came a day when, `in one sense, perhaps, the Augustinian tradition was avenged after all’ — not that either Augustine or the medieval Augustinians `would have desired’ to see that day.

Nevertheless it was an Augustinian friar who took his revenge on Thomism three centuries after Thomas: `For there was one particular monk in that Augustinian monastery in the German forests, who may be said to have had a single and special talent for emphasis; for emphasis and nothing except emphasis; for emphasis with the quality of earthquake.’ And that emphasis was on the Augustinian emphasis on `the impotence of man before God, the omniscience of God about the destiny of man, the need for holy fear and the humiliation of intellectual pride, more than the opposite and corresponding truths of free will or human dignity or good works’. It was this tradition that

came out of its cell again, in the day of storm and ruin, and cried out with a new and mighty voice for an elemental and emotional religion, and for the destruction of all philosophies. It had a peculiar horror and loathing of the great Greek philosophies, and of the scholasticism that had been founded on these philosophies.

It had one theory that was the destruction of all theories; in fact it had its own theology which was itself the death of theology. Man could say nothing to God, nothing from God, nothing about God, except an almost inarticulate cry for mercy and for the supernatural help of Christ, in a world where all natural things were useless. Reason was useless. Man could not move himself an inch any more than a stone. Man could not trust what was in his head any more than a turnip. Nothing remained in earth of heaven, but the name of Christ lifted in that lonely imprecation; awful as the cry of a beast in pain.

Chesterton’s searing indictment of Martin Luther is as striking as Newman’s own great, extended denunciation in the last of his Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification (1838) of Luther’s alleged religion of feelings. Chesterton insists that nothing `trivial’ had `transformed the world’. One of the `huge, hinges of history’, Luther’s `broad and burly figure enough to blot out for four centuries the distant human mountain of Aquinas’. Not that Luther’s pessimistic theology of `the hopel all human virtue’ was a theology that modern Protestants wouli dead in a field with; or if the phrase be too flippant, would be anxious to touch with a barge-pole’. All that Lutheranism was’: unreal’ — yet `Luther was not unreal’: `He was one of those great barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world.’ `a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther would invisible’, it was `not altogether untrue to say… that Luther epoch; and began the modern world’. It was said that Luther ‘publicly burned the Summa Theologica and the works of Aquinas’:

All the close-packed definitions that excluded so many errors and extremes; all the broad and balanced judgments upon the clash of loyalties or the choice of evils; the liberal speculations upon the limits of government or the proper conditions of justice; all the distinctions between the use and abuse of private property; all the rules and exceptions about the great evil of war; all the allowances for human weakness and all the provisions for human health; all this mass of medieval humanism shrivelled and curled up in smoke before the eyes of its enemy; .and that great passionate peasant rejoiced darkly, because the day of the intellect over.


G.K. Chesterton and ‘The Dumb Ox’ 1 – Ian Ker

October 21, 2013
Thus it was `the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most'. The `popular poetry of St Francis and the almost rationalistic prose of St Thomas' both contributed to `the development of the supreme doctrine which was also the dogma of all dogmas'. They were `both great growths of Catholic development, depending upon external things only as every living and growing thing depends on them; that is, it digests and transforms them, but continues in its own image and not in theirs'.

Thus it was `the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most’. The `popular poetry of St Francis and the almost rationalistic prose of St Thomas’ both contributed to `the development of the supreme doctrine which was also the dogma of all dogmas’. They were `both great growths of Catholic development, depending upon external things only as every living and growing thing depends on them; that is, it digests and transforms them, but continues in its own image and not in theirs’.

In G. K. Chesterton’s study of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas is a man of mystery. Born into a noble family, Aquinas chose the life of a humble friar. Lumbering and shy, his classmates dubbed him “the Dumb Ox” – but he grew up to lead a revolution in Christian thought. Possessed of the rarest brilliance, he found the highest truth in the humblest object, and led a life of almost unparalleled genius. Ian Ker relates the background and the book, taken from his magisterial biography of Chesterton which I bought for $33.95 and is now 23 bucks. I must stop buying books when I want them and learn to wait a year.


In July 1933 G. K. Chesterton attended a lunch at Claridge’s Hotel in London  by the Royal Society of Literature for the Canadian Authors’ Association. Kipling proposed the toast and Chesterton seconded. He began by acknowledging that his listeners would be `much puzzled at my occupying any space — so much space — in this august assembly, and must be wondering what he could add to what Kipling, a `great literary genius’, had already said. He could hardly `pose as a newspaperman’ — ‘one reads of newspaper men slipping in through half-closed doors’ — and ‘no one could possibly think of me as slipping through a half-closed door’ He had traveled in Canada `in the miserable capacity of one giving lectures’ — but he hesitated to call himself a lecturer for `fear some of you may have attended my lectures’. In fact, he had twice visited Canada and enjoyed the `overwhelming’ hospitality of the Canadian Authors’ Association: `The Canadian Literature Society rushed out to welcome any stray traveler, and in the confusion I was mistaken for a literary man. I tried to explain I was merely a lecturer, and one of the first things for a lecturer to do is talk about things he does not understand, such as Canada.’

In September Chesterton published the last of his half-dozen or so of his Major works, St. Thomas Aquinas. Even Shaw was enthusiastic about the project. `Great news this’, he wrote to Frances, `about the Divine Doctor. I have been preaching for years that intellect is a passion that will finally become the most ecstatic of all the passions; and I have cherished Thomas is a most praiseworthy creature for being my forerunner on this point.’

The previous year he (Shaw) had sent Chesterton a copy of his irreverent, not to say blasphemous, latest book, The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God, with the flippant message: ‘Tell the Vatican that something must be done about the Bible. It is like the burden on [Pilgrim's Progress's] Christian’s back at present; only it won’t come off.’

After rapidly dictating about half the book to Dorothy Collins, and without consulting any authorities, Chesterton suddenly asked her to go to London and buy some books about the Divine Doctor. When she asked what books, he replied, ‘I don’t know.’ Father O’Connor came to the rescue, supplying her with the names of standard and recent works on the subject. Chesterton `flipped them rapidly through’, the only way Dorothy Collins had ever see him read a book. He then dictated the rest of the book to her, without consulting any of the secondary works, which remained unmarked except for one little sketch of Thomas in the margin of one of the books.

However, Étienne Gilson, the French Thomist philosopher and historian of medieval philosophy, and the pioneer of the twentieth-century Thomist revival along with Jacques Maritain, said ruefully on its publication, `Chesterton makes one despair. I have been studying St Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book.’ After Chesterton’s death, he wrote that he considered the book as being `without possible comparison the best book ever written on St Thomas’: `Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement.’ Chesterton’s `so-called “wit” had put the scholars to `shame’. He had `guessed’ all that they had `tried to demonstrate’ and that they had tried `more or less clumsily… to express in academic formulas’.

In Gilson’s view he was `one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed’. To Father Kevin Scannell, who had been O’Connor’s curate and who inherited his Chesterton collection, Gilson wrote: `My reason for admiring his “Thomas Aquinas” as I do, precisely is that I find always right in his conclusions about the man and the doctrine even though in fact he knew so little about him.’ He always felt that Chesterton was `nearer the real Thomas’ than he was even `after reading and teaching the Angelic Doctor for sixty years’. Of course, Chesterton’s knowledge was very limited compared to Gilson’s, but it would be a mistake to conclude that his portrait of Thomas was some kind of purely inspired stroke of genius. For, Dorothy Collins tells us, `he had read the Summa in his youth.’

St. Thomas Aquinas begins with an extended contrast between and Francis of Assisi. Physically, they were opposites. Francis and lively little man; thin as a thread and vibrant as a bow-string; his motions like an arrow from the bow’: `In appearance he must have been like a thin brown skeleton autumn leaf dancing eternally before the wind; but in truth it was he that was the wind.’ Thomas, on the other hand was `a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet’. Unlike the fiery and even fidgety’ Francis, Thomas was `so solid that the scholar schools which he attended regularly, thought he was a dunce’.

As the son of a middle-class shopkeeper, Francis spent his `whole life’ in `revolt against’. the mercantile life of his father’: `he retained none the less, something of the quickness. . . which makes the market hum like a hive. In the common phrase, fond as he was of green fields, he did not let the grass grow under his feet.’ In American slang, Francis was `a live wire’ — or rather, since `there is no such thing as a live wire’ (a typically modern `mechanical metaphor from a dead thing’), he was `a live worm’, indeed `a very live worm’: `Greatest of all foes to the go-getting ideal, he had certainly abandoned getting, but he was still going.’

By contrast, Thomas came from the leisured class, and his work always had `something of the placidity of leisure’: He was a hard worker, but nobody could possibly mistake him hustler.’ Chesterton had to admit that, `while the romantic glory of St. Francis has lost nothing of its glamor for me’, he had `in later years grown to feel almost as much affection, or in some aspects even more, for this man who unconsciously inhabited a large heart and a large head, like one inheriting a large house, and exercised there an equally generous if rather more absent-minded hospitality’: `There are moments when St Francis, the most unworldly man who ever walked the world, is almost too efficient for me.’

Just as Chesterton had assaulted the post-Christian imagination with images of a startlingly unfamiliar Christ, so too he makes sure that we understand what Thomas did when he `calmly announced’ to his aristocratic family that he was becoming a Dominican friar, a `new order founded by Dominic the Spaniard’ — ‘much as the eldest son of the squire might go home and airily inform the family that he had married a gypsy or the heir of a Tory Duke state that he was walking tomorrow with Hunger Marchers organized by alleged Communists’. There was no objection to his becoming a monk — monasticism had become established  and respectable — but when he said `he wished to be a Friar. . . his brothers it him like wild beasts’. The paradox was that Thomas, unlike Francis had nothing of the beggar or vagabond about him — and yet he insisted on being `established and appointed to be a Beggar’.

But, `while the two men were thus a contrast in almost every feature, were really doing the same thing. One of them was doing it in the world of the mind and the other in the world of the worldly.’ Yet it was same great medieval movement. . . it was more important than the Reformation…. it was the Reformation’. For, Chesterton explains, the Protestant Reformation was merely `a belated revolt of the thirteenth century pessimists. It was a back-wash of the old Augustinian Puritanism against the Aristotelian liberality.’

But neither Francis nor Thomas was `a backwash’. Both were uniquely suited for a new age: `The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed, that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age.’ Each generation instinctively sought its saint: `not what the people want but rather what the people need.’ Thus it was `the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most’. The `popular poetry of St Francis and the almost rationalistic prose of St Thomas’ both contributed to `the development of the supreme doctrine which was also the dogma of all dogmas’. They were `both great growths of Catholic development, depending upon external things only as every living and growing thing depends on them; that is, it digests and transforms them, but continues in its own image and not in theirs’. Both saints `doing the same great work; one in the study and the other in the street’:

They were not bringing something new into Christianity, in the sense of something heathen or heretical into Christianity; on the contrary, they were bringing Christianity into Christendom. But they were bringing it back against the pressure of certain historic tendencies, which had hardened into habits in many great schools and authorities in the Christian Church; and they were using tools and weapons which seemed to many people to be associated with heresy or heathenry. St. Francis used Nature much as St Thomas used Aristotle; and to some they seemed to be using a Pagan goddess and a Pagan sage…. Perhaps it would sound too paradoxical to say that these two saints saved us from Spirituality; a dreadful doom. Perhaps it may be misunderstood if I say that St Francis, for all his love of animals save us from being Buddhists; and that St Thomas, for all his love of Greek philosophy saved us from being Platonists. But it is best to say the truth in its simplest form; that they both reaffirmed the Incarnation, by bringing God back to earth.

For `the historical Catholic Church began by being Platonist; by being rather too Platonist’, with the result that unfortunately `the purely spiritual or mystical side of Catholicism had very much got the upper hand in the first Catholic centuries’, with the consequence that various things weighed down what we should now roughly call the Western element; though it has as good a right to be called the Christian element; since its common sense is but the holy familiarity of the word made flesh’.

After all, a Christian, as opposed to a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist, `means a man who believes that deity or sanctity has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses’. Francis’s ‘readiness. . . to learn from the flowers of the birds’ far from anticipating `the Pagan renaissance’, instead pointed back to the New Testament and forward to `the Aristotelian realism of the St Thomas Aquinas’. By `humanizing divinity’, Francis was not ‘paganizing divinity’, since `the humanizing of divinity is actually the strongest and starkest and most incredible dogma in the Creed’:

St Francis was becoming more like Christ, and not merely more like Buddha when he considered the lilies of the field or the fowls of the air; and St Thomas was becoming more of a Christian, and not merely more of an Aristotelian when he insisted that God and the image of God had come in contact through matter with a material world.


Is Humanism a Religion? G.K. Chesterton

August 19, 2013
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) considered himself a mere "rollicking journalist," though he was a prolific and gifted writer in virtually every area of literature. A Catholic convert of strong opinions and enormously talented at defending them, his exuberant personality nevertheless allowed him to maintain warm friendships with people -- such as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells -- with whom he vehemently disagreed. His writing has been praised by Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Karel Capek, Marshall McLuhan, Paul Claudel, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Sigrid Undset, Ronald Knox, Kingsley Amis, W.H. Auden, Anthony Burgess, E.F. Schumacher, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Welles. To name a few. T.S. Eliot said that Chesterton "deserves a permanent claim on our loyalty."

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) considered himself a mere “rollicking journalist,” though he was a prolific and gifted writer in virtually every area of literature. A Catholic convert of strong opinions and enormously talented at defending them, his exuberant personality nevertheless allowed him to maintain warm friendships with people — such as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells — with whom he vehemently disagreed. His writing has been praised by Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Karel Capek, Marshall McLuhan, Paul Claudel, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Sigrid Undset, Ronald Knox, Kingsley Amis, W.H. Auden, Anthony Burgess, E.F. Schumacher, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Welles, to name more than a few. T.S. Eliot has said that Chesterton “deserves a permanent claim on our loyalty.”

There is a certain problem or challenge to modern thought. It is the problem of whether Humanism can satisfy humanity. The question really is whether Humanism can perform all the functions of religion. “Is Humanism a Religion?” first appeared as Chapter 3 in The Thing, 1929


Modern science and organization are in a sense only too natural. They herd us like the beasts along lines of heredity or tribal doom; they attach man to the earth like a plant instead of liberating him, even like a bird, let alone an angel. Indeed, their latest psychology is lower than the level of life. What is subconscious is sub-human and, as it were, subterranean: or something less than earthly. This fight for culture is above all a fight for consciousness: what some would call self-consciousness: but anyhow against mere subconsciousness. We need a rally of the really human things; will which is morals, memory which is tradition, culture which is the mental thrift of our fathers.

The fact is this: that the modern world, with its modern movements, is living on its Catholic capital. It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendom; including, of course, many truths known to pagan antiquity but crystallized in Christendom. But it is not really starting new enthusiasms of its own. The novelty is a matter of names and labels, like modern advertisement; in almost every other way the novelty is merely negative. It is not starting fresh things that it can really carry on far into the future. On the contrary, it is picking up old things that it cannot carry on at all. For these are the two marks of modem moral ideals. First, that they were borrowed or snatched out of ancient or mediaeval hands. Second, that they wither very quickly in modern hands.

Mr. Norman Foerster’s book, American Criticism might almost have been meant for a text-book to prove my point. I will begin with a particular example with which the book also deals. My whole youth was filled, as with a sunrise, with the sanguine glow of Walt Whitman. He seemed to me something like a crowd turned to a giant, or like Adam the First Man. It thrilled me to hear of somebody who had heard of somebody, who saw him in the street; it was as if Christ were still alive. I did not care about whether his unmetrical poetry were a wise form or no, any more than whether a true Gospel of Jesus were scrawled on parchment or stone. I never had a hint of the evil some enemies have attributed to him; if it was there, it was not there for me.

What I saluted was a new equality, which was not a dull leveling but an enthusiastic lifting; a shouting exultation in the mere fact that men were men. Real men were greater than unreal gods; and each remained as mystic and majestic as a god, while he became as frank and comforting as a comrade. The point can be put most compactly in one of Whitman’s own phrases; he says somewhere that old artists painted crowds, in which one head had a nimbus of gold-colored light; “but I paint hundreds of heads, but paint no head without its nimbus of gold-colored light.” A glory was to cling about men as men; a mutual worship was to take the form of fellowship; and the least and lowest of men must be included in this fellowship; a hump-backed Negro half-wit, with one eye and homicidal mania, must not be painted without his nimbus of gold-coloured light.

This might seem only the final expansion of a movement begun a century before with Rousseau and the Revolutionists; and I was brought up to believe and did believe that the movement was the beginning of bigger and better things. But these were songs before sunrise; and there is no comparison between even sunrise and the sun. Whitman was brotherhood in broad daylight, showing endless varieties of radiant and wonderful creatures, all the more sacred for being solid. Shelley had adored Man, but Whitman adored Men. Every human face, every human feature, was a matter of mystical poetry, such as lit like chance torchlight, hitherto, a face here and there in the crowd. A king was a man treated as all men should be treated. A god was a man worshiped as all men should be worshiped. What could they do against a race of gods and a republic of kings; not verbally but veritably the New World?

Here is what Mr. Foerster says about the present position of the founder of the new world of democracy: “Our present science lends little support to an inherent ‘dignity of man’ or to his ‘perfectibility.’ It is wholly possible that the science of the future will lead us away from democracy towards some form of aristocracy. The millennial expectations that Whitman built upon science and democracy, we are now well aware rested upon insecure foundations… The perfection of nature, the natural goodness of man, ‘the great pride of man in himself’ offset with an emotional humanitarianism — these are the materials of a structure only slightly colored with modernity. His politics, his ethics, his religion belong to the past, even that facile ‘religiousness’ which he hoped would suffuse and complete the work of science and democracy… In the essentials of his prophecy, Whitman, we must conclude, has been falsified by the event.”

This is a very moderate and fair statement; it would be easy to find the same thing in a much fiercer statement. Here is a monumental remark by Mr. H.L. Mencken: “They (he means certain liberal or ex-liberal thinkers) have come to realize that the morons whom they sweated to save do not want to be saved, and are not worth saving.” That is the New Spirit, if there is any New Spirit. “I will make unconquerable cities, with their arms about each other’s necks,” cried Walt Whitman, “by the love of comrades, by the lifelong love of comrades.” I like to think of the face of Mr. Mencken of Baltimore, if some casual comrade from Pittsburgh tried to make him unconquerable by putting an arm around his neck.

But the idea is dead for much less ferocious people than Mr. Mencken. It is dead in a man like Aldous Huxley, who complained recently of the “gratuitous” romancing of the old republican view of human nature. It is dead in the most humane and humorous of our recent critics. It is dead in so many wise and good men to-day, that I cannot help wondering whether, under modern conditions of his favorite “science,” it would not be dead in Whitman himself.

It is not dead in me. It remains real for me, not by any merit of mine, but by the fact that this mystical idea, while it has evaporated as a mood, still exists as a creed. I am perfectly prepared to assert, as firmly as I should have asserted in my boyhood, that the hump-backed and half-witted Negro is decorated with a nimbus of gold-colored light. The truth is that Whitman’s wild picture, or what he thought was a wild picture, is in fact a very old and orthodox picture. There are, as a matter of fact, any number of old pictures in which whole crowds are crowned with haloes, to indicate that they have all attained Beatitude.

But for Catholics it is a fundamental dogma of the Faith that all human beings, without any exception whatever, were specially made, were shaped and pointed like shining arrows, for the end of hitting the mark of Beatitude. It is true that the shafts are feathered with free will, and therefore throw the shadow of all the tragic possibilities of free will; and that the Church (having also been aware for ages of that darker side of truth, which the new skeptics have just discovered) does also draw attention to the darkness of that potential tragedy. But that does not make any difference to the gloriousness of the potential glory. In one aspect it is even a part of it; since the freedom is itself a glory.

Anyone believing that all these beings were made to be blessed, and multitudes of them probably well on their way to be blessed, really has a sound philosophic reason for regarding them all as radiant and wonderful creatures, or seeing all their heads in haloes. That conviction does make every human face, every human feature, a matter of mystical poetry. But it is not at all like modern poetry. The most modern of modern poetry is not the poetry of reception, but of rejection, or rather, of repulsion.

The spirit that inhabits most recent work might be called a fury of fastidiousness. The new man of letters does not get his effect by saying that for him a hump-backed Negro has a halo. He gets his effect by saying that, just as he was about to embrace finally the fairest of women, he was nauseated by a pimple above her eyebrow or a stain of grease on her left thumb. Whitman tried to prove that dirty things were really clean, as when he glorified manure as the matrix of the purity of grass. His followers in free verse try to prove that clean things are really dirty; to suggest something leprous and loathsome about the thick whiteness of milk, or something prickly and plague-stricken about the unaccountable growth of hair. In short, the whole mood has changed, as a matter of poetry. But it has not changed as a matter of theology; and that is the argument for having an unchanging theology.

The Catholic theology has nothing to do with democracy, for or against, in the sense of a machinery of voting or a criticism of particular political privileges. It is not committed to support what Whitman said for democracy, or even what Jefferson or Lincoln said for democracy. But it is absolutely committed to contradict what Mr. Mencken says against democracy. There will be Diocletian persecutions, there will be Dominican crusades, there will be rending of all religious peace and compromise, or even the end of civilization and the world, before the Catholic Church will admit that one single moron, or one single man, “is not worth saving.”

We all took it for granted that all our descendants would take it for granted. I said the discovery of brotherhood seemed like the discovery of broad daylight; of something that men could never grow tired of. Yet even in my own short lifetime, men have already grown tired of it. We cannot now appeal to the love of equality as an emotion. We realize that in most men it has died, because it was a mood and not a doctrine. And we begin to wonder too late, in the wise fashion of the aged, how we could ever have expected it to last as a mood, if it was not strong enough to last as a doctrine. And we also begin to realize that all the real strength there was in it, which is the only strength that remains in it, was the original strength of the doctrine. All the other revolts against the Church, before the Revolution and especially since the Reformation, had told the same strange story.

Every great heretic had always exhibit three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church’s bundle or balance of mystical ideas. Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third (and most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favorite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea. With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things.

The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or skeptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed “Psalms” or “Gospels”; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? Yet it was long before it even occurred to those who brandished this one piece of Church furniture to break up all the other Church furniture that anybody could be so profane as to examine this one fragment of furniture itself. People were quite surprised, and in some parts of the world are still surprised, that anybody should dare to do so.

Again, the Calvinists took the Catholic idea of the absolute knowledge and power of God; and treated it as a rocky irreducible truism so solid that anything could be built on it, however crushing or cruel. They were so confident in their logic, and its one first principle of predestination, that they tortured the intellect and imagination with dreadful deductions about God, that seemed to turn Him into a demon. But it never seems to have struck them that somebody might suddenly say that he did not believe in the demon.

They were quite surprised when people called “infidels” here and there began to say it. They had assumed the Divine foreknowledge as so fixed, that it must, if necessary, fulfill itself by destroying the Divine mercy. They never thought anybody would deny the knowledge exactly as they denied the mercy. Then came Wesley and the reaction against Calvinism; and Evangelicals seized on the very Catholic idea that mankind has a sense of sin; and they wandered about offering everybody release from his mysterious burden of sin. It is a proverb, and almost a joke, that they address a stranger in the street and offer to relax his secret agony of sin.

But it seldom seemed to strike them, until much later, that the man in the street might possibly answer that he did not want to be saved from sin, any more than from spotted fever or St. Vitus’s Dance; because these things were not in fact causing him any suffering at all. They, in their turn, were quite surprised when the result of Rousseau and the revolutionary optimism began to express itself in men claiming a purely human happiness and dignity; a contentment with the comradeship of their kind; ending with the happy yawp of Whitman that he would not “lie awake and weep for his sins.”

Shelley and Whitman and the revolutionary optimists were themselves doing exactly the same thing all over again. They also, though less consciously because of the chaos of their times, had really taken out of the old Catholic tradition one particular transcendental idea; the idea that there is a spiritual dignity in man as man, and a universal duty to love men as men. And they acted in exactly the same extraordinary fashion as their prototypes, the Wesleyans and the Calvinists. They took it for granted that this spiritual idea was absolutely self-evident like the sun and moon; that nobody could ever destroy that, though in the name of it they destroyed everything else.

They perpetually hammered away at their human divinity and human dignity, and inevitable love for all human beings; as if these things were naked natural facts. And now they are quite surprised when new and restless realists suddenly explode, and begin to say that a pork-butcher with red whiskers and a wart on his nose does not strike them as particularly divine or dignified, that they are not conscious of the smallest sincere impulse to love him, that they could not love him if they tried, or that they do not recognize any particular obligation to try.

It might appear that the process has come to an end, and that there is nothing more for the naked realist to shed. But it is not so; and the process can still go on. There are still traditional charities to which men cling. There are still traditional charities for them to fling away when they find they are only traditional. Everybody must have noticed in the most modern writers the survival of a rather painful sort of pity. They no longer honor all men, like St. Paul and the other mystical democrats. It would hardly be too much to say that they despise all men; often (to do them justice) including themselves.

But they do in a manner pity all men, and particularly those that are pitiable; by this time they extend the feeling almost disproportionately to the other animals. This compassion for men is also tainted with its historical connection with Christian charity; and even in the case of animals, with the example of many Christian saints. There is nothing to show that a new revulsion from such sentimental religions will not free men even from the obligation of pitying the pain of the world. Not only Nietzsche, but many Neo-Pagans working on his lines, have suggested such hardness as a higher intellectual purity. And having read many modern poems about the Man of the Future, made of steel and illumined with nothing warmer than green fire, I have no difficulty in imagining a literature that should pride itself on a merciless and metallic detachment. Then, perhaps, it might be faintly conjectured that the last of the Christian virtues had died. But so long as they lived they were Christian.

I do not therefore believe that Humanism and Religion are rivals on equal terms. I believe it is a rivalry between the pools and the fountain; or between the firebrands and the fire. Each of these old intellectuals snatched one firebrand out of the undying fire; but the point is that though he waved the torch very wildly, though he would have used the torch to burn down half the world, the torch went out very soon. The Puritans did not really perpetuate their sublime exultation in helplessness; they only made it unpopular. We did not go on indefinitely looking at the Brooklyn crowds with the eye of Whitman; we have come with singular rapidity to regard them with the eye of Dreiser.

In short, I distrust spiritual experiments outside the central spiritual tradition; for the simple reason that I think they do not last, even if they manage to spread. At the most they stand for one generation; at the commonest for one fashion; at the lowest for one clique. I do not think they have the secret of continuity; certainly not of corporate continuity. For an antiquated, doddering old democrat like myself may be excused for attaching some slight importance to that last question; that of covering the common life of mankind. How many Humanists are there supposed to be among the inferior crowd of human beings? Are there to be, for instance, no more than there were Greek philosophers in an ordinary rabble of jolly pagan polytheistic Greeks? Are there to be no more than there were men concentrated on the Culture of Matthew Arnold, among the mobs who followed Cardinal Manning or General Booth?

I do not in the least intend to sneer at Humanism; I think I understand the intellectual distinction it draws, and I have tried to understand it in a spirit of humility; but I feel a faint interest in how many people out of the battered and bewildered human race are actually expected to understand it. And I ask with a certain personal interest; for there are three hundred million people in the world who accept the mysteries that I accept and live by the faith I hold. I really want to know whether it is anticipated that there will be three hundred million Humanists in Humanity. The sanguine may say that Humanism will be the religion of the next generation, just as Comte said that Humanity would be the God of the next generation; and so in one sense it was. But it is not the God of this generation. And the question is what will be the religion of the next generation after that, or all the other generations (as a certain ancient promise ran) even unto the end of the world.

Humanism, in Mr. Foerster’s sense, has one very wise and worthy character. It is really trying to pick up the pieces; that is, to pick up all the pieces. All that was done before was first blind destruction and then random and scrappy selection; as if boys had broken up a stained-glass window and then made a few scraps into colored spectacles, the rose-colored spectacles of the republican or the green or yellow spectacles of the pessimist and the decadent. But Humanism as here professed will stoop to gather all it can; for instance, it is great enough to stoop and pick up the jewel of humility. Mr. Foerster does understand, as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not understand, the case for humility. Matthew Arnold, who made something of the same stand for what he called Culture in the mid-nineteenth century, attempted something of the same preservation of chastity; which he would call, in a rather irritating manner, “pureness.” But before we call either Culture or Humanism a substitute for religion, there is a very plain question that can be asked in the form of a very homely metaphor.

Humanism may try to pick up the pieces; but can it stick them together? Where is the cement which made religion corporate and popular, which can prevent it falling to pieces in a debris of individualistic tastes and degrees? What is to prevent one Humanist wanting chastity without humility, and another humility without chastity, and another truth or beauty without either? The problem of an enduring ethic and culture consists in finding an arrangement of the pieces by which they remain related, as do the stones arranged in an arch. And I know only one scheme that has thus proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome.


Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man 4 – Ian Ker

March 1, 2013
If the Christian claim seemed mad, `a tall story', still the `madhouse' of Christianity was 'a home to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home.’ The `riddle' remained: that `anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing'.

If the Christian claim seemed mad, `a tall story’, still the `madhouse’ of Christianity was ‘a home to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home.’ The `riddle’ remained: that `anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing’.

Christianity is a revelation, “a vision received by faith; but it is a vision of reality.” That is why it is not a mythology. But nor is it a philosophy “because, being a vision, it is not a pattern but a picture.” In that sense, “it is exactly, as the phrase goes, ‘like life’.”

It does not offer, for example, ‘an abstract explanation’ of the problem of evil. It optimistically says that existence is good, but it also at the same time pessimistically says that there is something wrong with the world.

But, if Christianity is neither a mythology nor a philosophy, it is their “reconciliation because it realization both of mythology and philosophy.” It is both “a true story, a philosophy that is like life.” But above all, it is a reconciliation because it is something that can only be called the philosophy of stories. It provides a philosophical justification for the “normal narrative instinct.”

For, just as a man in an adventure story has to pass various tests to save his life, so the man in this philosophy has to pass several tests and save his soul. It is the ‘ordeal of the free man’, and “it is this deep and democratic and story-telling instinct” that “is derided and dismissed in all the other philosophies,” whether fatalistic or detached or skeptical or material mechanical or relative.

And this, Chesterton insists, is “why the myths and the philosophers were at war until Christ came.” The philosophers were the “more rational” certainly, but the priests were more popular because they” told the people stories, the philosophy of which the philosopher did not understand.” This only “came into the world with the story of Christ,” which met the mythological search for romance by “being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story, in which the ideal figure became the historical figure.” 

Chesterton now turns to the history of Christianity, which “has had a series of revolutions and in each of them Christianity has died.”  But because Christianity has “a God who knew the way out of the grave,” it “has died many times” but “risen again.” At the end of all the European revolutions, “the same religion has again been found on top.” The Faith is always converting the age, not as an old religion but as a new religion.  It has “returned again and again in this western world of rapid change and institutions perpetually perishing.”  So often “the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs,” but always “it was the dog that died.”

Both the Oxford Movement, for example, and the French Catholic revival in the nineteenth century were “a surprise, a puzzle.”  Always there have been attempts to dilute Christian doctrine, but “again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine.”  Christianity  “has not only been often killed but it has often died a natural death through old age.” Nevertheless “it has survived its own weakness and even its own surrender.”

Indeed, it seems, “the Church grows younger as the world grows old.”  The Church refuses to go along with “the tide of apparent progress” because it is alive:  “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” On the other hand, “there was many a demagogue or sophist whose wild gestures were in truth as lifeless as the movement of a dead dog’s limbs wavering in the eddying water; and many a philosophy uncommonly like a paper boat, of the sort that it is not difficult to knock into a cocked hat.”

In his conclusion, Chesterton makes us see Christianity afresh as though for the first time, not through making it grotesque, but through invoking the image of the popular newspaper, so despised by the intellectuals, and therefore apparently so ill-suited to his theme. The Gospel, he says, “is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person.”

It was “a piece of good news; or news that seemed too good to be true: It declares that really… there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths: the Man Who Made the World.”

Muslims were simply monotheists “with the old average assumption of men — that the invisible ruler remains invisible,” “along with the customs of a certain culture.” It is “a necessary and noble truth” but not “a new truth.” Confucians and Buddhists again are simply “pagans whose prophets have given them another and rather vaguer version of the invisible power; making it not only invisible but almost impersonal.”  Their “temples and idols and priests and periodical festivals … simply mean that this sort of heathen is enough of a human being to admit the popular element of pomp and pictures and feasts and fairy-tales,” having more sense than Puritans.

But their priests have no sensational secret like what those running messengers of the Gospel had to say. “Nobody else except those messengers has any Gospel; nobody else has any good news; for the simple reason that nobody else has any news.” Ages after the first announcement of the good news, the runners are still running: “They have not lost the speed and momentum of messengers; they have hardly lost, as it were, the wild eyes of witness the last proof of the miracle is that `something so supernatural should have become so natural.” But he, Chesterton, has not “minimized the scale of the miracle, as some of our milder theologians think it wise to do.”

On the contrary, he has “deliberately dwelt on that incredible interruption, as a blow that broke the very backbone of history.” He sympathized with Jews and Muslims who considered this to blasphemy: a blasphemy that might shake the world. But it did not shake the world; it steadied the world.’

But the mystery remained: “how anything so startling should have remained defiant and dogmatic and yet become perfectly normal and natural.”  What seemed at first “so outrageous” was really “so solid and sane.” If the Christian claim seemed mad, “a tall story,” still the “madhouse” of Christianity was “a home to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home.” The “riddle” remained: that “anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing.”

If the whole thing was this `tall story’, then how could it `have endured for nearly two thousand years’? But it has endured, and, as a result, `the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in it, more healthy in its instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, then all the world outside. For it was the Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ; and the soul of it was common sense.’ And, as Chesterton had argued earlier in the book, “Christianity is at one with common sense; but all history shows that this common sense perishes except where Christianity is there to preserve it.”


Chesterton‘s The Everlasting Man 3 – Ian Ker

February 28, 2013
Chesterton and wife Frances in 1922

Chesterton and wife Frances in 1922

Instead of the platitudes one associates with moralists, a person reading the Gospels for the first time “would find a number of strange claims…a number of very startling pieces of advice; a number of stunning rebukes; a number of strangely beautiful stories.” Instead of platitudes, for instance, about peace, such a reader would find several ideals of non-resistance, which taken as they stand would be rather too pacific for any pacifist.

But, on the other hand, our reader would not find a word of all that obvious rhetoric against war which has filled countless books. There is nothing that throws any particular light on Christ’s attitude towards organized warfare, except that he seems to have been rather fond of Roman soldiers.

Indeed it is another perplexity… that he seems to have got on much better with Romans than he did with Jew: truth is, Chesterton concludes, the Jesus of popular conception is ‘‘a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man’‘and impossible to reconcile with the real Jesus of the Gospels, ‘‘ a strolling carpenter’s apprentice’‘who ‘‘ said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Chesterton gives examples of how it is the Church that explains the riddles of the Gospel. The assertion, for instance, that the meek inherit the earth was not at all “a meek statement’‘, but rather ‘‘a very violent statement; in the sense of doing violence to reason and probability.” But as a prophecy it would one day be fulfilled in monasticism: ‘‘The monasteries were the most practical and prosperous estates and experiments in reconstruction after the barbaric deluge; the meek did really inherit the earth.”

Again, the story of Martha and Mary found its fulfillment in ‘‘the mystics of the Christian contemplative life.” If the Gospels could be read as though they were ‘‘ as new as newspaper reports, they would puzzle and perhaps terrify us as much more than the same things as developed by historical Christianity:  “For instance, Christ after a clear allusion to the eunuchs of the eastern courts, said there would be eunuchs of the kingdom of heaven. If this does not mean the voluntary enthusiasm of virginity, it could only be made to mean something much more unnatural or uncouth.”

As an example of  “the originality of the Gospel.” Chesterton takes the “exaltation of childhood”, as strong and as startling as any. But the literary style itself of Jesus was also highly original: “It had among other things a singular air of piling tower upon tower by the use of the a, fortiori …”.  And above all, his speaking as though he were divine was absolutely unique: ‘‘ of no other prophet or philosopher of the same intellectual order, would it be even possible to pretend that he had made such a claim.

The case of Jesus Christ was unique: only a “monomaniac” could make such a claim, but no one thought that ‘‘ the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was a horrible half-witted imbecile’‘. However, in spite of the Sermon on the Mount, there was a “quality running through all his teachings” that seemed to Chesterton  “to be neglected in most modern talk about them as teachings; and that is the persistent suggestion that he has not really to come to teach’‘– but rather “to die”.

And, when the moment came for him to die, it was “the supremely supernatural act, of all his miraculous life, that he did not vanish,” that he did not miraculously disappear. On that Good Friday, Chesterton notes that it is ‘‘the best things in the world that are at their worst, the priests of a true monotheism and the soldiers of an international civilization.”

Although ‘‘ Rome was almost another name for responsibility’‘, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate “stands for ever as a sort of rocking statue of the irresponsible:  “He who is enthroned to say what is justice can only ask, “What is truth?”

And the Jewish priests who were “proud that they alone could look upon the blinding sun of a single deity… did not know that they themselves had gone blind.” Of the crucifixion itself Chesterton refuses to speak — for

if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never undertand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.

Chesterton had in fact dared to speak of this terrible paradox in Orthodoxy.

When giving Peter authority over his Church, Christ used the two symbols of rock and keys. What he meant by saying that on the Peter he would build his Church was another example of something that  could only fully expand and explain itself afterwards, and even long afterwards.”. But the other image of the keys, Chesterton suggests, “has an exactitude that has hardly been exactly noticed.”

Its “peculiar aptness” lay in the fact that the early “Christian movement” claimed to possess that a key that could unlock the prison of the whole world; and let in the white daylight of liberty.” The Christian creed was like a key in three ways: a key is above all things a thing with a shape. It is a thing that depends entirely upon keeping its shape. The Christian creed is above all things the philosophy of shapes and the enemy of shapelessness.”

Chesterton presses home the analogy:  “A man told that his solitary latchkey had been melted down with a million others into a Buddhist unity would be annoyed. But a man told that his key was gradually growing and sprouting in his pocket and branching into new wards or complications, would not be more gratified.”

Secondly, the point about a key is that it either fits or does fit the lock. If it fits the lock, then it is pointless to ask for ‘‘ a simpler key that has a less ‘‘ fantastic shape’‘. And, thirdly, to complain about the key having the ‘‘elaborate pattern” that is necessary to open the lock is like complaining about Christianity ‘‘being so early complicated with theology’‘.

If Christianity had “faced the world only with the platitudes about peace and simplicity some moralists would confine it to, it would not have had the faintest effect on that luxurious and labyrinthine lunatic asylum’‘.  The creed was complicated, because the problem with the world was “a complicated problem.”

Although it did seem ‘‘ complex” like the key, there was ‘‘ one thing about it that was simple. It opened the door. “The truth was that the “purity” of the creed was “preserved by dogmatic definitions and exclusions.” “It could not possibly have been preserved by anything else.”

The enlightened modern liberals who deride the Athanasian dogma of Co-Eternity of the Divine Son’‘as “a dreadful example of barren dogma” are the same people who like to ‘‘ offer us as a piece of pure and simple Christianity, untroubled by doctrinal disputes … the single sentence, “God is Love”. “But the dogma is there to protect that very sentence.” The barren dogma is only the logical way of stating the beautiful sentiment. Never has the vital importance of defined doctrine been more compellingly expressed:

For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved? If through that unthinkable eternity He is lonely, what is the meaning of saying He is love? The only justification of such a mystery is the mystical conception that in His own nature there was something analogous to self-expression; something of what begets and beholds what it has begotten. Without some such idea, it is really illogical to complicate the ultimate essence of deity with an idea like love.

It was “the defiance of Athanasius to the cold compromise of the Arians that was the trumpet of true Christianity.”

It was emphatically he who really was fighting for a God of Love against a God of colorless and remote cosmic control; the God of the stoics and the agnostics…. He was fighting for that very balance of beautiful interdependence and intimacy, in the very Trinity of the Divine Nature, that draws our hearts to the Trinity of the Holy Family. His dogma, if the phrase be not misunderstood, turns even God into a Holy Family.

Islam, on the other hand, was ‘‘ a barbaric reaction against that very humane complexity… that idea of balance in the deity, as of balance in the family, that makes that creed a sort of sanity, and that sanity the soul of civilization.” For Islam was “a product of Christianity; even if it was a byproduct; even if it was a bad product.”

There was one thing that pagan mythology and philosophy had in common: “both were really sad. “Christianity brought hope into the world. And it was a dogmatic Christianity that did this because of its very liberality. Modem theological liberals cannot understand that “the only liberal part of their theology is really the dogmatic part.”

If dogma is incredible, it is because it is incredibly liberal. If it is irrational, it can only be in giving us more assurance of freedom than is justified by reason. “The doctrine of free will may seem irrational, but it is hardly liberality to deny personal freedom. Without the dogmas of dogmatic Christianity, monotheism turns into monism and consequently into despotism:

It is precisely the unknown God of the scientist, with his impenetrable purpose and his inevitable and unalterable law that reminds us of a Prussian autocrat making rigid plans in a remote tent and moving mankind like machinery. It is precisely the God of miracles and of answered prayers who reminds us of a liberal and popular prince, receiving petitions …

It is the Catholic, who has the feeling that his prayers do make a difference, when offered for the living and the dead, who also has the feeling of living like a free citizen in something almost like a constitutional commonwealth. It is the monist who lives under a single iron law who must have the feeling of living like a slave under a sultan.

Indeed I believe that the original use of the word suffragium, which we now use in politics for a vote was that employed in theology about a prayer. The dead in Purgatory were said to have the suffrages of the living. And in this sense, of a sort of right of petition to the supreme ruler, we may truly say that the whole of the Communion of Saints as well as the whole of the Church Militant, is founded on universal suffrage.

What theological liberals really mean is that “dogma is too good to be true ‘‘too liberal to be likely.”


Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man 2 – Ian Ker

February 27, 2013
Chesterton explained that pagan mythology was “a search” that combined “a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt”. And yet there remained “an indestructible instinct, in the poet as represented by the pagan, that he is not entirely wrong in localizing his god”. It was all right to call these pagan myths “foreshadowings” so long as one remembered that “foreshadowings are shadows”: “And the metaphor of a shadow happens to hit very exactly the truth that is very vital here. For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture. These things were something like the real thing; and to say that they were like is to say that they were different.”

Chesterton explained that pagan mythology was “a search” that combined “a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt”. And yet there remained “an indestructible instinct, in the poet as represented by the pagan, that he is not entirely wrong in localizing his god”. It was all right to call these pagan myths “foreshadowings” so long as one remembered that “foreshadowings are shadows”: “And the metaphor of a shadow happens to hit very exactly the truth that is very vital here. For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture. These things were something like the real thing; and to say that they were like is to say that they were different.”

The pagan was not an unbeliever like an atheist, but neither was he a believer like a Christian. He felt “the presence of powers” about which he could only guess. His myths were never “a religion, in the sense that Christianity or even Islam is a religion”. Certainly, they satisfied “some of the needs satisfied by a religion; and notably the need for doing certain things at certain dates; the need of the twin ideas of festivity and formality”. But, although myths provided the pagan with “a calendar”, they did not “provide him with a creed”.

When St Paul was in Athens, he discovered that the Greeks had “one altar to an unknown godBut in truth all their gods were unknown gods.” It was only when St Paul told them who it was “they had ignorantly worshipped” that “the real break in history” came. Paganism, then, was “an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone” and without the restraints of reason. For reason was “something separate from religion, even in the most rational of these civilizations”. Mythology and philosophy ran “parallel” and did not “mingle till they met in the sea of Christendom”.

But nevertheless the pagan “found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things”. The pagan knew that when he worshipped he was “doing a worthy and virile thing”: he was “doing one of the things for which a man was made”. But the fact remained that it was an “imaginative experiment” that “began with imagination”, and therefore there was “something of mockery in it, and especially in the object of it”. This mockery became “the almost intolerable irony of Greek tragedy”.

It was not surprising that one “feels throughout the whole of paganism a curious double feeling of trust and distrust.” For pagan mythology was “a search” that combined “a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt.” And yet there remained “an indestructible instinct, in the poet as represented by the pagan, that he is not entirely wrong in localizing his god.”

It was all right to call these pagan myths “foreshadowings” so long as one remembered that “foreshadowings are shadows”: “And the metaphor of a shadow happens to hit very exactly the truth that is very vital here. For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture. These things were something like the real thing; and to say that they were like is to say that they were different.”

For polytheism was “never a view of the universe satisfying all sides of life; a complete and complex truth with something to say about everything. It was only a satisfaction of one side of the soul of man, even if we call it the religious side; and I think it is truer to call it the imaginative side.” Precisely, then, because “mythology only satisfied one mood”, the pagan “turned in other moods to something totally different”.

But the mythology and the philosophy never collided and “really destroyed the other”, nor was there ever “any combination in which one was really reconciled with the other. They certainly did not work together; if anything the philosopher was a rival of the priest.”

Chesterton now begins his task of trying to make us see Christianity afresh as though for the first time, however grotesquely he has to depict it. And first of all he points out that the whole of Christianity rests on this “single paradox” — “that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.” Every Christmas proclaims an “association … between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars”.

And “this combination of ideas has emphatically… altered human nature.” “It would, be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast.”

Again, Christmas, that feast so important to Chesterton, “is in one sense simple thing”, but, like all the truths of Christianity, “it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and drama.”

Christmas celebrates “the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills”, when “the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicing in a fortress or an outlaw”s den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out”. The “subterranean chamber” where Jesus was born was literally “a hiding-place from enemies”, enemies who “were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky”:

It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance in enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world, of  shaking the towers and palaces from below…

Jesus’ followers, too, were paradoxically both “despised and … feared”:

Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrand slanderers; but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical  society, being martyred in a languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbors, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild.

What Chesterton calls “the combination of ideas that make up the Christian and Catholic idea” was “already crystallized in the first Christmas story”. The “three distinct and commonly contrasted things.. . are nevertheless one thing; but this is the only thing which can make them one.”

The first is the human instinct for a heaven that shall be as literal and almost as local as a home. It is the idea pursued by all poets and pagans making myths; that a particular place must be the shrine of the god or the abode of the blest… The second element is a philosophy larger than that of Lucretius and infinitely larger than that of Herbert Spencer. It looks at the world through a hundred windows where the ancient stoic or the modern agnostic only looks through one.. And the third point is this; that while it is local enough for poetry and larger than any other philosophy, it is also a challenge and a fight. While it is deliberately broadened to embrace every aspect of truth, it is still stiffly embattled against every mode of error.

This trinity of truths” was symbolized … by the three types in the old Christmas story; the shepherds and the kings and that other king who warred upon the children”.

Chesterton now turns to the figure of Christ himself. And he begins by pointing out that there is the obvious difficulty that the New Testament is no longer the New Testament: It is not at all easy to realize the good news as new.” Challenging the usual stereotypes, Chesterton insists on us looking at the actual person we read about in the Gospels:

We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character.

This, Chesterton insists, is … very nearly the reverse of the truth”.

The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts.

But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. The popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God…. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath.

But if we turn to the Gospels themselves, what do we find? Somebody reading them for the first time, suggests Chesterton, would find that “part of the interest” of the story would consist in its leaving a good deal to be guessed at or explained”: “It is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather-chart of their own.”

Nor is there anything “meek and mild” about Jesus the exorcist: “It is much more like the tone of a very business-like lion-tamer or a strong-minded doctor dealing with a homicidal maniac.” Indeed, the real Christ of the Gospels is “actually more strange and terrible than the Christ of the Church”. Then there are the “puzzles” in “a very strange story”, like “that long stretch of silent life of Christ up to the age of thirty. It is of all silences the most immense and imaginatively impressive”.

How is it that “he who of all humanity needed least preparation seems to have had most”? The truth is that the Gospel story is not “easy to get to the bottom of”. It is anything but the “simple Gospel” that people like to contrast with the Church: “Relatively speaking, it is the Gospel that has the mysticism and the Church that has the rationalism. As I should put it, of course, it is the Gospel that is the riddle and the Church that is the answer. But whatever be the answer, the Gospel as it stands is almost a book of riddles.”


Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man 1 – Ian Ker

February 26, 2013
Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians `still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.

Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians `still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.

H. G. Wells’s best-selling The Outline of History had been published in serial paperback form in 1919 and then as a hardback in 1920. Wells’s `outline’ was quite simple: through the centuries man had evolved from a primitive animal form to the civilized man of the twentieth century who would finally establish world peace and prosperity. The book was a best-seller — although its view of history was certainly rather remarkable, given its publication only one year after the end of the horrors of the First World War and ten years before the Great Depression began with the Wall Street crash of 1929, only to be followed ten years later by the Second World War. Wells had naturally been dismissive of Christianity, attacking the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, published in September 1925, was at least in part a response to Wells.

Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith. They are in a state of `reaction’: ‘They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being Anti-Christians. They are not `far enough away not to hate ‘Christianity, nor are they ‘near enough to love it’. And so, `while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian’.

But the `worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic … ‘. The `anti-clericalism’ of post-Christians `has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet.’ It is only when one is `impartial’ that one can `know why people are partial to it’. And Chesterton `seriously’ recommends `those in whom a mere reaction has thus become an obsession’ to imagine the Apostles as if they were pagans, `to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages’.

Living in a country full of churches, post-Christians need `to walk past a church as if it were a pagoda’ rather than `to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go inside … or to go outside and forget’. Chesterton is quite candid about his apologetic method: to `invoke … the imagination that can see what is there’. For Christianity makes very serious claims that it would be absurd to dismiss with contempt. Consequently, `when its fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candor and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence’.

If that is not possible, then `we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt.’ The `heavy bias of fatigue’ made it `almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar’.

If, for example, one has lost `the sane vision’ of who man is, then one `can only get it back by something very like a mad vision; that is, by seeing man as a strange animal and realizing how strange an animal he is’. In short, `it is exactly when we do regard man as an animal that we know he is not an animal’. Only then can we recover our sense of `wonder’ at the nature of man. And so, Chesterton’s avowed purpose is `to strike wherever possible this note of what is new and strange, and for that reason the style even on so serious a subject may sometimes be deliberately grotesque and fanciful’.

For his aim is `to help the reader to see Christendom from the outside in the sense of seeing it as a whole, against the background of other historic things; just as I desire him to see humanity as a whole against the background of natural things’. When both Christianity and humanity are `seen thus, they stand out from their background like supernatural things’.

After this introduction, Chesterton does indeed begin with man himself, about whom the `simplest truth. is that he is a very strange being; almost thing grows from a seed, or something smaller than itself. They seem to forget that every seed comes from a tree, or from something larger than itself.’ In the case of religion, it was much more likely that monotheism preceded polytheism, that `religion did not originally come from some detail that was forgotten, because it was too small to be traced’: `Much more probably it was an idea that was abandoned because it was too large to be managed.

There is very good reason to suppose many people did begin with the simple but overwhelming idea of one God who governs all; and fell away into such things as demon-worship almost as a secret dissipation.’ In paganism God `is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident’. He is `the higher deity’ who `is remembered in the higher moral grades and is a sort of mystery’.

What seemed clear to Chesterton was that `there was never any such thing as the Evolution of the Idea of God. The idea was concealed, was avoided, was almost forgotten, was even explained away; but it was never evolved.’ Polytheism itself seems often to have consisted of `the combination of several monotheisms’, while Confucianism seems to be `a rather vague theism’ in which `a simple truth’ seems to have `receded, until it was remote without ceasing to be true’.

The fact that there was `a strange silence’ about God certainly suggested `the absence of God’ — but not necessarily the `non-existence’ of God: there was `a void’ but not `a negation’. There was `an empty chair’ or rather `an empty throne’. And Chesterton invokes his favorite image of the back: `it was as if some immeasurable presence had turned its back on the world.’ There was `in a very real sense the presence of the absence of God’, which one could feel, for example, `in the unfathomable sadness of pagan poetry’.

There was the implication that the gods of the pagans were `ultimately related to something else, even when that Unknown God has faded into a Fate’. For `what was truly divine’ seemed `very distant, so distant that they dismissed it more and more from their minds’. But what was quite clear was that they knew there was something wrong with the world: `These men were conscious of the Fall, if they were conscious of nothing else…’. Still, God `really’ had been `sacrificed to the Gods; in a very literal sense of the flippant phrase, they have been too many for him’.

Chesterton rejects any glib notion of religious pluralism: `We are accustomed to see a table or catalogue of the world’s great religions in parallel columns, until we fancy they are really parallel.’ But these so-called religions — which `we choose to lump together’ — `do not really show any common character’. True, Islam followed Christianity and `was largely an imitation of Christianity.

But the other eastern religions; or what we call religions, not only do not resemble the Church but do not resemble each other.’ Indeed, Confucianism was not even a religion, and could no more be compared with Christianity than `a theist with an English squire’. Christianity was bound up with the idea of a Church, while Confucianism and Buddhism were `great things’ but could not be called ‘Churches’ – any more than the English and French peoples could be called `nomads’ although they were `great peoples’.

The truth was that, `humanly speaking’, `the world owes God to the Jews’. And the world also owed it to the Jews that they refused `to follow the enlightened course of Syncretism and the pooling of all the pagan traditions’: `It is obvious indeed that his [God's] followers were always sliding down this easy slope; and it required the almost demoniac energy of certain inspired demagogues, who testified to the divine unity in words that are still like winds of inspiration and ruin.’

While the rest of the world `melted’ into a `mass of confused mythology,’ this God of the Jews, `who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind’. It was the Jews who had enabled the world, which `would have been lost’ otherwise, `to return to that great original simplicity of a single  authority in all things’.

It was to this `secretive and restless nomadic people’ that the world owed `the supreme and serene blessing of a jealous God’. An example of the secretiveness of the Jews, who `stood apart and kept their tradition unshaken and unshared’, was the way they had `kept a thing like the Book ofJob out of the whole intellectual world of antiquity. It is as if the Egyptians had modestly concealed the Great Pyramid.’ And Chesterton cannot resist the ultimate paradox: `He [the God of the Jews] was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe.’


Psalm 8: The Greatness Of God, The Dignity Of Man

February 1, 2013

How great is your name, Lord, through all the earth.

How great is your name, O Lord our God,

through all the earth!

Your majesty is praised above the heavens;

on the lips of children and of babes

you have found praise to foil your enemy,

to silence the foe and the rebel.

When I see the heavens, the work of your hands,

the moon and the stars which you arranged,

what is man that you should keep him in mind,

mortal man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him little less than a god;

with glory and honour you crowned him,

gave him power over the works of your hand,

put all things under his feet.

All of them, sheep and cattle,

yes, even the savage beasts,

birds of the air, and fish

that make their way through the waters.

How great is your name, O Lord our God

through all the earth!

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,

as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,

world without end.


How great is your name, Lord, through all the earth.

The Impulse Of Art And The Uniqueness Of Man
Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race-horse a Post-Impressionist. All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature.

In other words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone. How he came there, or indeed how anything else came there, is a thing for theologians and philosophers and scientists and not for historians. But an excellent test case of this isolation and mystery is the matter of the impulse of art. This creature was truly different from all other creatures; because he was a creator as well as a creature. Nothing in that sense could be made in any other image but the image of man.

But the truth is so true that, even in the absence of any religious belief, it must be assumed in the form of some moral or metaphysical principle….The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts.

He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself.

Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique.
G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man


Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 4 – Ralph C. Wood

January 28, 2013
Chesterton's understanding of human existence is as unsentimental as it is profound. He envisions the invisible and unknowable God as having assumed human form in Jesus Christ -- the Lord who drank the cup of suffering in order to heal our sinful desire to reject it our wish to avoid the paradoxical nearness of good and evil. Most sin results from our refusal, like Gregory's, to travel this troublous path, seeking easier and more obvious ways, whether as individuals or communities. Martyrdom, Chesterton suggests, is the glad and joyful willingness to die by participating in God's own affliction.

Chesterton’s understanding of human existence is as unsentimental as it is profound. He envisions the invisible and unknowable God as having assumed human form in Jesus Christ — the Lord who drank the cup of suffering in order to heal our sinful desire to reject it our wish to avoid the paradoxical nearness of good and evil. Most sin results from our refusal, like Chesterton’s character Gregory’s, to travel this troublous path, seeking easier and more obvious ways, whether as individuals or communities. Martyrdom, Chesterton suggests, is the glad and joyful willingness to die by participating in God’s own affliction.

Despite Chesterton’s slaughter of perhaps the most sacred of all Enlightenment bovines, Hitchens might have found a strange point of contact in Chesterton’s idea of divine presence in the world. In God Is Not Great and elsewhere, Hitchens heaps scorn on the “God” whom William Blake ridiculed as Old Nobodaddy — namely, the Big Guy in the Sky who jumps in and out of his creation like a heavenly factotum, answering the imperatives of those whose pleas are sufficiently abject, managing the universe like a divine designer, and thus appearing all too akin to Feuerbach’s divinity, the deity invented all too much in our own image.

Hitchens fails to discern that thoughtful Christians also abominate such a heavenly projection of human desire. For him, however, it is ludicrous to believe in either a Creator or Redeemer when the world is so evidently a botched job: “Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder.”

“Unhappiness and disorder,” especially as they derive from the natural world, are Chesterton’s own native ground. “Nightmare” is the single most frequently occurring trope in the whole of his work. It occurs most notably in his only novel that can be likened to a masterpiece. The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). It’s subtitle, “A struggle with Nightmare,” refers to Chesterton’s own struggle with nihilism during the Mauve Decade of the 1890s, when such decadents as Beerbohm, and Lytton Strachey dominated British literary culture. Chesterton was driven almost to suicide by their mockery of all morality. He also feared that the Impressionists may have been right — that everything is merely an affair of veils and shadows, mirages and chimeras. His lifelong spiritual horror is expressed most memorably by the novel’s protagonist:

Was there anything apart from what it seemed? …. Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood … that final skepticism which can find no floor to the universe.

Syme’s fear that the cosmos constitutes a huge Void, an infinite Nada that comes from Nada and returns to it, is actually worsened by the novel’s resolution. Syme had thought himself to be a double agent in the employ of Sunday, the master of six so-called “philosophical policemen.” Sunday has recruited these six detectives so that they might pose as anarchists and thus subvert a cell of bomb-throwers by unmasking their nihilist notions no less than their terrorist plots. Each of the six thought-sleuths has been given a secret code name matching the days of the week; Syme is thus “the man who was Thursday.” Yet in the end Syme discovers that the other alleged anarchists are, like him, counterspies of ideas!

The macabre quality of the novel derives from our not knowing who is good and who is evil, or even how we might distinguish between them. At the same time, we are made to enjoy the many hilarious undeceptions of these would-be deceivers. Mime and slapstick are piled atop the farcical and the grotesque, in a veritable farrago of nonsensical incidents whose implausibility is their essence. Most outrageous of all is the revelation that the Prime Detective is also the Presiding Anarch — a single figure named Sunday. The one who seemed to be the embodiment of good is the same as one who seemed to be the quintessence of evil.

In a mock-epic chase, Sunday mocks his pursuers as if he were an unfeeling prankster, a cat playing with the mouse that it will soon devour. Chesterton makes clear that here Sunday is wearing the mask of Nature, the visor of the brutal Darwinian realm that, as Tennyson famously said. remains “red in tooth and clan, Far from being a distant Newtonian divinity, he is utterly near, too close to identify with anything created, yet invisibly present in the roughshod and quite impersonal actions of Nature.

Hence the novel’s real terror, a fright that might have attracted a more patient atheist than Christopher Hitchens. Like the ancient patristic theologians, Chesterton instinctively understood that our first knowledge of God must always remain apophatic (vocab: apophatic – of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not (such as `God is unknowable’): we know who God is by knowing who he is not. He transcends and negates every human category, even being itself:

“I? What am I?” roared the President, and he rose slowly to an incredible height, like some wave about to arch above them and break. “You want to know what I am, do you? …. I tell you this, that you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the topmost cloud before the truth about me. You will understand the sea, and I shall still be a riddle; you shall know what the stars are, and not know what I am. Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf — kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophies. But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay.”

Ker comes close to discerning the significance of this most controversial scene, and yet he finally fails to see that, when Sunday at last cataphatically reveals himself, he no longer appears as the mask of darkness but as the visage of light.

“His face frightened me,” Gabriel Syme confesses, “as it did everyone; but not because it was brutal, not because it was evil. On the contrary, it frightened me because it was so beautiful, because it was so good.” The face of divine goodness is terrible in its beauty because it also frightening in its truth. Syme thus admits that evil often produces unintended good, just as good often becomes the occasion for inadvertent evil.

Such contradictions inhere in God’s good creation, Syme shouts, not in lament but praise. The world’s endemic suffering is not the mark of its godlessness; such affliction is indeed the will of God — paradoxical and exceedingly difficult though this claim must surely remain. Only “by tears and torture,” only in being “broken upon the wheel,” only in “descend[ing] into hell,” Syme affirms, can we both discern and embrace the deepest and truest things — bravery and goodness and glory. To reject this dark admixture of good and evil prompts us to pluck the tares from the wheat, to winnow evil from good according to our own measure, to seek perfection but wreak destruction.

A single character refuses to acknowledge the paradox that only in anguish do we encounter life in its otherwise unfathomable goodness. Julian Gregory, the true nihilist and sole terrorist who never took a code name, alleges that Sunday has permitted his speciously appointed detectives to suffer this contradiction while remaining immune from their misery and distress. “’Have you’ [this true anarch] cried in a dreadful voice, ‘have you ever suffered?’” Demanding a theodicy from Sunday, Gregory is given something at once far better and far worse – a verbal theophany amidst darkness such as occurred at Mt. Sinai and again at Mt. Golgotha:

As [Gregory] gaze, the great face [of Sunday] grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain [Julian] seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”

Chesterton prepares readers for this stunning climax when, early in the novel, the disguised Sunday recruits Syme as a double agent. Syme complains that he is both inexperienced and unfit for such a difficult calling. Sunday replies that Syme’s willingness to serve is quite sufficient. “I don’t know any profession,” Syme again objects, “of which merely willingness is the final test.” “I do,” Sunday replied — “martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day.”

Such jaunty exchanges lie at the heart of Chesterton’s darkly comic novel. His understanding of human existence is as unsentimental as it is profound. He envisions the invisible and unknowable God as having assumed human form in Jesus Christ — the Lord who drank the cup of suffering in order to heal our sinful desire to reject it our wish to avoid the paradoxical nearness of good and evil. Most sin results from our refusal, like Gregory’s, to travel this troublous path, seeking easier and more obvious ways, whether as individuals or communities. Martyrdom, Chesterton suggests, is the glad and joyful willingness to die by participating in God’s own affliction.

This is no ventriloquizing of Newman at his most `dogmatic.” This is dogma plumbed to its ultimate depths. To rob Hitchens of his claim that “Jesus is Santa Claus for adults” is like stealing candy from babies. It is dangerous for Christians to have such unworthy opponents, lest a smug self-righteousness result. Even though he sometimes falters, as when he glorifies allegedly Christian warfare, Chesterton will endure because he engages not with atheistic midgets but with the equivalents of what Paul Ricoeur called the giant “masters of suspicion”: Nietzsche and Marx and Freud.


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