Archive for the ‘G. K. Chesterton’ Category

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G. K. Chesterton on Rallying the Really Human Things 2 — Vigen Guroian

June 27, 2014

[The] cosmos may be farcical or it may be pathetic but it has not [even] the dignity of tragedy.

[The] cosmos may be farcical or it may be pathetic but it has not [even] the dignity of tragedy.

Vigen Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia and the recipient of the University of Virginia Student Council Distinguished Teacher Award for 2010-2011. Vigen and his wife live in Culpeper, Virginia on five acres of rolling countryside where they enjoy tending their large perennial and vegetable gardens, keeping bees, and strolling down a wooded “Wordsworthian Walk” of their own creation. 

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Chesterton observes that secular humanism “is using, and using up, the truths that remain out of the old treasury of Christendom.” The deposit of moral truths set adrift by a disintegrating Christendom is thus gradually degraded, reduced to ideological half-truths and sappy clichés.

The modern world is not [wholly] evil. [Indeed], in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered . . . it is not merely vices that are set loose. . . . But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly [than the vices], and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

Consider the Christian virtue of charity, for example. Instead of the selfless seeking of another’s good, charity becomes sugary sentiment. It is invoked to deny that forgiveness entails judgment and repentance, or that sin even exists. In due course, secular humanism may rob or empty all of the virtues of their true and vital meaning.

The final outcome of such a process can be seen in what has been done to the religious notion of the dignity of human life. It has been uprooted from its biblical ground and the garden of the church. Its deep human meaning, nurtured by the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei, withers and fades from memory. A desiccated concept of human dignity is embraced instead. And ironically, or rather tragically, that concept is deployed to justify acts that contradict traditional moral teaching.

Chesterton says that the humanism of the secularist leads morality down a perilous path, a path that he tells us in Orthodoxy is paved with pragmatism and relativism. Man is told “to think what he must and never mind the Absolute.” “But precisely one of the things he must think,” adds Chesterton, “is the Absolute.” Otherwise, the whole of the rest of the world is an illusion. Both pragmatism and relativism embrace an outlook “just as inhuman as the determinism” to which they often vehemently object. “The determinist (who, to do him justice, does not pretend to be a human being) makes nonsense of the human sense of actual choice.”

But pragmatism and relativism “make nonsense of the human sense of fact.” The road they pave leads to the devil’s version of the Emerald City, where nothing is what it seems, words are no longer tools of truth but instruments of raw power, and the moral compass is abandoned because there are no true poles of good and evil or right and wrong.

This suicide of thought, as Chesterton calls it, leads inexorably toward the denial of the existence of the good — or of anything that is really and permanently human. In 1905, in a book titled Heretics, Chesterton anticipates with uncanny prescience what postmodernism at the turn of the twenty-first century boldly declares. “Modern morality,” he writes, seems only capable of making a case for itself by pointing out “the horrors that follow breaches of law.”

Premarital sex may be inadvisable because one risks pregnancy or AIDS. One probably shouldn’t lie because lying undercuts the social trust that is the precondition for getting what one really wants. All of these “prohibitions” are subject, of course, to alteration or negation if means may be found to avoid negative consequences. In other words, modern morality is consequentialist. More than that, it is morbidly consequentialist, having lost a sure vision of the goodness of goodness.

In the end, images of automobile accidents, pictures of people dying from AIDS, and photographs of aborted fetuses won’t necessarily stop people from drinking and driving, engaging in casual or “unprotected” sex, or escaping the inconvenience of having a child by having an abortion. At the Creation, God did not say: I will make the seas with clean water, not polluted water, and the land arable and not desert because it would be a disaster for the environment otherwise. He made the seas clean and the land habitable because it was good that they be so. A vision of the good has far greater power to move men and women to do the right thing than all the horrible images we may conjure up to terrify them into doing it.

In Heretics, Chesterton observes: “A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.” 

Modern people, he says, have grown so modest about the good that they no longer believe they can be certain of what it is. Erroneous notions of tolerance are fostered by secular humanism in its final stage as it gives itself over to nihilism. Even ordinary people voice the opinion that our principal moral obligation is not to believe too strongly in any moral conviction.

“A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment has, in our time, fallen on our . . . civilization,” writes Chesterton. “All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the good man. [Yet] a definite part of the modern world has come . . . to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions.” Under the aegis of secular humanism, an idea which is inherently absurd gains support: that human flourishing may be achieved without defining what is human or what is good for human beings. Chesterton continues:

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond about talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”

He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor in morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Many would agree that Chesterton has got hold of something disturbing about the modern temper. His diagnosis, prescient in his own time, is confirmed in ours. What drew the venom of his adversaries and continues to offend many is his prescription. Secularism needs to be replaced by faith, he says unabashedly, and relativism by firm standards of right and wrong. In the simplest terms, Chesterton proposes a return to dogma, a proposal that sounds exceedingly strange to moderns, who think that tolerance and an indiscriminant commitment to “diversity” are the highest goods of civilized life.

Joseph Wood Krutch on the modern temper I want to explore what a return to dogma means and what its importance is for Chesterton’s Christian humanism. But before doing so, it may be useful and instructive to examine in counterpoint the views of one of Chesterton’s younger contemporaries. In perhaps his best-known book, titled The Modern Temper and published in 1929, the American literary and social critic Joseph Wood Krutch ruthlessly flayed the illusions of the liberal humanism of his day, illusions to which he himself had earlier adhered.

In that book, Krutch concluded that the collapse of Western civilization is inevitable, even if the course is long and winding. Krutch’s analyses of the modern crisis shared much in common with Chesterton’s. But whereas Chesterton saw through the crisis to hope, Krutch crouched in despair.

Krutch’s despair is especially poignant because he understands its source. His liberal and secular creed does not permit belief in the truths and verities of traditional religion. Liberated reason must do without dogma. Krutch also recognizes the terrible irony in this situation. For without faith and certitude, there is no stopping the new barbarians who are knocking down the fortress walls of the civilization he loves. With melancholic honesty Krutch writes in his book’s foreword:

I have neither celebrated the good old days nor attempted to prove that mankind is about to enter a golden age. I am sure that those who hold conventional religious opinions will find my book in many ways offensive and I fancy that many who are militantly rationalistic will be disgusted by my failure to share their optimism concerning the future of a rationalistic humanity. . . .

Certainly if any modern temper like that herein described does actually exist it is very different from that scientific optimism, which, though it is being widely popularized at the present moment, really belongs to nineteenth century thought and certainly one of its most distinguished features is just its inability to achieve either religious belief on the one hand or exultant atheism on the other.

Unlike their grandfathers, those who are its victims do not and never expect to believe in God; but unlike their spiritual fathers, the philosophers and scientists of the nineteenth century, they have begun to doubt that rationality and knowledge have any promised land into which they may be led.

There is something at once noble and pathetic about this declaration. For Krutch concedes that he himself has contributed to the subversion of the foundations of liberal society. This is because he and other secular liberals are unable to believe in or to commend to others the truths and moral principles that inspire a free society and give men and women reasons to defend it. “The world may be rejuvenated in one way or another, but we will not,” Krutch confesses. “Skepticism has entered too deeply into our souls ever to be replaced by faith, and we can never forget the things which the new barbarians will never need to know.”

Scientific enlightenment, says Krutch, makes it no longer possible to hold to the classical and biblical belief that the virtues participate in a larger transcendent purpose. Human ignorance and fear imagined a meaningful universe masked in mystery and headed toward salvation; we must now conclude that the universe is impersonal and indifferent to human purpose or suffering. “It is no longer [possible] to believe or tell tales of noble men because we do not believe that noble men exist [nor the gods they would obey]. The best we can do is achieve pathos and the most that we can do is to feel sorry for ourselves. . . . [The] cosmos may be farcical or it may be pathetic but it has not [even] the dignity of tragedy.” The human cause, says Krutch, “is a lost cause . . . [as] there is no place for us in the natural universe.” But for the stoic Krutch, “we are not, for all that, sorry to be human. We should rather die as men than live as animals.”

In the final analysis, Krutch’s humanism collapses upon itself. The humanist who values human freedom so highly ironically subverts freedom’s transcendent foundations with a deadly embrace of naturalism or radical historicism. Under either, freedom is an illusion, much as God is a projection of the human mind. We are left to believe and behave as if there is more than there really is—that our humanity is special and our freedom is real—because to believe and act in any other manner would be unpleasant. “We have discovered the trick which has been played upon us,” Krutch declares, “and . . . are [at least] no longer dupes.”

A return to dogma
So far as I am aware, Chesterton did not review The Modern Temper. But let me speculate as to how he might have answered Krutch. I suspect that Chesterton would have begun by observing that Krutch rejects religious revelation and truth too hastily. Even as he claims that theism has been irreversibly demythologized, Krutch himself is caught in the myth of secularist liberalism. He is like a man blindfolded who thinks that the object of his criticism has disappeared, or like the child who thinks that he has hidden from his playmates by covering his eyes with his hands. In The Modern Temper, Krutch criticizes both Chesterton and T. S. Eliot for taking “refuge” in Roman and Anglican Catholicism, “whose dogmas, if accepted without argument, provide the basis which pure reason cannot discover.”

However, if one reads Chesterton carefully and fairly (and Eliot as well) one sees that his diagnosis of modernity is neither romantic nor reactionary. Chesterton knows that Christendom is gone and that the church no longer stands at the center of culture. Indeed, he chides those who continue to think triumphantly that England is still a Christian nation. 

Nowhere does he suggest that his aim is to put the old Christendom back together again, in England or anywhere else. Krutch’s honesty and despair, in fact, support Chesterton’s contention that secular humanism at the ship’s helm has at great peril thrown overboard the spiritual ballast of civilized life and broken religion’s moral compass. As the ship rocks and tips to the deep, the humanist’s talk of there being “no precise moral ideals . . . [sounds] ludicrous.” For progress cannot be charted without sure points of reference and a compass.

Chesterton writes:

I do not . . . say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say that it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word that could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

Here, surely, is the nub of the matter. Chesterton’s turn to dogma is not what it sounds like to the ears of secularists, modern and postmodern. He does not say that we must believe in dogmas or else the worst. He does not force dogma down our throats. He does not offer dogma as a bulwark against regress or decline. Rather, dogma—religious truth affirmed in consensus, established in authority, and declared as norm in public debate— is bound to reemerge precisely because human beings cannot live and prosper in a world in which truth is thought not to exist. In Heretics Chesterton explains:

Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

A postmodern world requires a Christian humanism grounded in philosophical realism. Chesterton judges that people are ready for it, for a fraud has been perpetrated. The skeptics contradict themselves. They oppose dogma dogmatically and deny their own humanity in doing it. They claim to be empirical but deny the testimony of lives lived in faith. The seeds of suspicion they sow can also sprout, however, into fresh seedlings of belief.

When will we know that the rally for the really human things has begun in earnest? With the return of dogma, of course. And Chesterton is as sure of a return to dogma as he is that birds need air in which to fly and that fish need water in which to swim. At the close of Heretics, he sounds what Robert Royal has called “the battle charge for the kind of struggle” that must necessarily ensue if humanity is to avoid the abyss of postmodern nihilism and return to a God-centered vision of human nature and destiny.

This is what Chesterton says:

Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the skepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them limits and their plain and defiant shape. . . . We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us.

The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We will be defending not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for the visible prodigies of the invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be those who have seen and yet have believed.

Chesterton challenges us with one final paradox. Without dogma, there is merely descent into chaos and nothingness. With dogma, we may become demons in bellicose combat over many truths and many gods. For in a sinful world dogma comes into combat with dogma. Nevertheless, dogma, the right dogma, may also enable us to be godlike, to recognize ourselves as creatures made in the image of the one God who must live in the unity of his truth revealed in the flesh of a man who lived twenty centuries ago.

Contrary to so much of what claims to be Christian in our culture, we are called to believe not in order to gain peace but to know the truth. Dogma is religious truth, but it hardly guarantees peace. The first and last lesson of Christian humanism is this: by our own efforts alone, we cannot sew together the cloth of peace from our sinful and tattered human nature. Real peace, like real humanity, is a transcendent gift, which we will enjoy only when we wholly accept and faithfully obey the God who has become really human.

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G. K. Chesterton on Rallying the Really Human Things 1 — Vigen Guroian

June 26, 2014
Chesterton’s life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This provided him a vantage point from which to see the line that was being crossed in his time. The old idealistic liberal humanism born of the Renaissance and Enlightenment was giving way to a militant, anti-theistic secularism, whose child is nihilism. He judges that all of the principal spheres of culture, the family, education, economic life, and politics are being hollowed out and vacated of moral conviction by the solvent of rationalism and the blindness of positivism. I do not think that he would have been surprised by the radical historicism, skepticism, and relativism espoused by contemporary postmodernists like Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty and embraced naïvely by many ordinary people today.

Chesterton’s life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This provided him a vantage point from which to see the line that was being crossed in his time. The old idealistic liberal humanism born of the Renaissance and Enlightenment was giving way to a militant, anti-theistic secularism, whose child is nihilism. He judges that all of the principal spheres of culture, the family, education, economic life, and politics are being hollowed out and vacated of moral conviction by the solvent of rationalism and the blindness of positivism. I do not think that he would have been surprised by the radical historicism, skepticism, and relativism espoused by contemporary postmodernists like Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty and embraced naïvely by many ordinary people today.

Vigen Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia and the recipient of the University of Virginia Student Council Distinguished Teacher Award for 2010-2011. Vigen and his wife live in Culpeper, Virginia on five acres of rolling countryside where they enjoy tending their large perennial and vegetable gardens, keeping bees, and strolling down a wooded “Wordsworthian Walk” of their own creation.  For many years I kept this essay as a “page,” on prominent display at payingattentiontothesky. The contrast of Christian and secular humanism seemed to me to be acutely important.

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We need a rally of the really human things; will which is morals, memory which is tradition, culture which is the mental thrift of the fathers.” That was the judgment of G. K. Chesterton some seventy years ago in an essay titled “Is Humanism a Religion?” In order to rally the really human things, Chesterton proposed a new Christian humanism, while he simultaneously warned of the dangers and deceptions of a popular secular humanism that behaved as if it were a religion.

Chesterton distinguished this modern secular humanism from a much older tradition of Christian humanism, with which he strongly identified. The headwaters of this Christian humanism are the writings of such ancient church fathers as Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom, Saint Augustine and Gregory the Great. The stream is replenished by such late-medieval and early-Renaissance figures as Dante, Erasmus, and Thomas More. Chesterton extols the efforts of these humanists. “I doubt,” he writes, “if any thinking person, of any belief or unbelief, does not wish in his heart that the end of medievalism had meant the triumph of the Humanists like Erasmus and More.”

In recent decades “secular humanism” has become a term of opprobrium among conservative Christians who identify it with the forces they believe are undermining the religious foundations of Western civilization. Chesterton’s criticism is aimed more specifically at the philosophical outlooks of significant writers of his own time, including Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. He admires all of these men for their often insightful social criticism and their literary talent. But he ultimately rejects their brand of humanism because it is entirely anthropocentric.

True humanism, argues Chesterton, is theocentric. Christian humanism honors the fact that, though created of dust, the human being is the only creature made by God in his very own image and likeness. Christian humanism answers humankind’s need to be redeemed from a fallen condition in which this image is tarnished, and in which death works like a rust that destroys even the most beautiful bronze statue.

Because it knows the difference between God and man and the effects of sin, Christian humanism rejects the spurious notions of human progress and perfection espoused by secular humanists. Christian humanism builds upon the human person’s “inner-directedness” toward the transcendent. It nurtures and disciplines this yearning (eros) for the divine life—for truth, goodness, and beauty—that God has planted in every human being.

Christian humanism is grounded in the doctrine of the Incarnation and gains its special character from that doctrine. God in Christ affirms our enfleshed and historical existence and gives meaning to it in spite of death. Within human culture and through the elements of this material world—bread and wine, oil and water, flesh and blood—the incarnate Son saves us body and soul from sin and death. God has given human beings compelling reasons to labor with him and within and through this physical world to redeem the whole of creation.

These Christian facts, Chesterton agues, are the inspiration of Christian humanism, which stands in contrast to man-centered philosophies of life that embrace matter to the exclusion of spirit, or else reject the material world in a flight to something deemed “spiritual.” Such secularist philosophies are not necessarily atheistic, but they cannot sustain either faith in a personal God or belief in the dignity, freedom, and eternal worth of the human person. The loss of this faith is the principal symptom, argues Chesterton, of the decline of the Christian paradoxical imagination.

The loss of the Paradoxical Vision and the Crisis of Secular Humanism
In the introduction to his edited volume The New Religious Humanists, Gregory Wolfe argues that in the history of Western culture “religious humanism has made only infrequent appearances and has rarely occupied center stage.” He explains that it “is a mode of thought that tends to arise when cultural cohesion is threatened by large social and intellectual upheavals.”

He regards the time in which we live as one such moment. Wolfe adds that Christian humanism mediates the human and divine and the temporal and the eternal through paradox and thus avoids the Gnostic proclivities of secular ideology.

On the face of it, the term religious humanism seems to suggest a tension between two opposed terms — heaven and earth, so to speak. But this is a creative, rather than a deconstructive, tension. Perhaps the best analogy for understanding religious humanism comes from the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which holds that Jesus was both human and divine. In the paradoxical meeting of Christ’s two natures is the pattern by which we can begin to understand the many dualities we experience in life: flesh and spirit, nature and grace, God and Caesar, faith and reason, justice and mercy.

Chesterton is perhaps the most articulate twentieth-century practitioner of this Christian paradoxical imagination. He judges that a serious breakdown of the fundamental moral suppositions deposited by biblical faith and the classical tradition is underway and accelerating. He believes that this declension is due to a loss of conviction in our culture about the reality of the Incarnation—that God truly became a human being in Jesus Christ—with all the import that that event has for human existence.

For Chesterton, the doctrine of the Incarnation is the hinge that holds together what is, for the Christian, a vision of the world that is essentially paradoxical. And he is astonishingly adept at employing this vision in his cultural criticism and Christian apologetics. The Incarnation sheds light where sin deceives and despair darkens the human horizon. Sin causes us to experience spirit in opposition to matter, faith in conflict with reason, life defeated by death. But the Incarnation reveals these apparent contradictions as paradoxes.

Contradiction may signal futility, but paradox is pregnant with the possibility of resolution and harmony. Paradox is an ally of truth. The good news of the Christian Gospel is that the God who is spirit became flesh, that infinite being became finite existence, that the immortal One became mortal man in order that death might be undone and humanity drawn into eternal life.

God in his being and act unties the Gordian knot of sin. The errors of pagan religion and the falsehoods of atheistic and antihuman secularism are exposed by the Incarnation and replaced by its paradoxical truth. This divine and human truth opens a way for man, an alternative to the escape of the soul from matter and time or the embrace of mere flesh and finitude in a courtship with personal extinction.

Chesterton believes that the collapse of this wonderful vision of man in his relation to both heaven and earth lies at the heart of the modern crisis of meaning. Indeed, what makes Chesterton instructive today is that he lived on the cusp of postmodernity. Modernity was the result of a five-hundred-year process in which the dual Christian truth about the dignity and degradation of human existence, illuminated by the Incarnation, held together by the paradoxical imagination, was split apart. 

Secularist humanism emerged from this fractured truth and has not known how to put it back together, even when it has desired to do so. It seems doomed, rather, to fly from one pole of that truth to the other. On the one hand, it seeks to affirm, through some form of idealism or other, the “divinity” of human life, yet it rejects the doctrine of the Incarnation. On the other hand, it is drawn toward the opposite pole of naturalism and relativism and forgets the crucial difference between finitude and sin—and the distinctions between error and contravention of higher law.

Chesterton sums up:

Where is the cement which made religion corporate and popular, which can prevent [humanism] falling to pieces in a debris of individualistic tastes and degrees? What is to prevent one Humanist wanting 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 in an arch. I know of 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 to Rome.

In its late-Renaissance and Enlightenment origins, secular humanism is still a “mitigated” Christian humanism in which God is driven to the borders of human life and enterprise. Grace is redefined as “the supernatural varnish of those acts whose perfect rectitude the reason of the upright man suffices to assure,” notes Jacques Maritain. Eventually, nature becomes the sole norm, as perfection entails not a transcendent participation in the life of God but is rather completely imminent. The modern idea of progress emerges, justified by an unquestioning faith in reason and modern science. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this secular humanism embraces a complete human autonomy that needs neither God nor grace.

Chesterton’s life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This provided him a vantage point from which to see the line that was being crossed in his time. The old idealistic liberal humanism born of the Renaissance and Enlightenment was giving way to a militant, anti-theistic secularism, whose child is nihilism. He judges that all of the principal spheres of culture, the family, education, economic life, and politics are being hollowed out and vacated of moral conviction by the solvent of rationalism and the blindness of positivism. I do not think that he would have been surprised by the radical historicism, skepticism, and relativism espoused by contemporary postmodernists like Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty and embraced naïvely by many ordinary people today.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton quips:

“At any street corner we meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Everyday one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table, leave aside making a sure distinction between right and wrong.”

He concludes that secular humanism is the gathering “place” of forces that undermine the really human things and open the gates for antihuman ideologies dressed in shepherd’s clothes. This new humanism is especially subversive and damaging to Christian faith and Western culture because it is parasitic. It exploits and expends the religious and moral capital of biblical faith and is incapable of replenishing that capital.

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Chesterton and the Thereness of It 3 — Fr. Richard Neuhaus

May 23, 2014

 

He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“

He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“

No League of Tribes
Another and more serious obstacle to the appreciation of Chesterton is his alleged anti-Semitism. Joseph Pearce’s forthright treatment of that charge should put it to rest once and for all. Chesterton shared conventional English prejudices about Jewish influence, prejudices which today would be called anti-Semitic. This was exacerbated early on in life when a Jewish financier brought a lawsuit that entangled his family and friends in considerable unpleasantness. But, as a prominent rabbi wrote upon Chesterton’s death, “When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit. Blessing to his memory!”

Long before anyone could know the unspeakable horror to which it would lead, GKC was appalled by the barbarism of the Nazis, and particularly by their anti-Semitism. In 1933 he wrote that a measure of nationalism, understood as patriotism, can be a good thing. “But the racial spirit is a restless spirit; it does not go by frontiers but by the wandering of the blood. . . .

You can have a League of Nations; but you could hardly have a League of Tribes. When the Tribe is on the march, it is apt to forget leagues — not to mention frontiers.” He was among the first to perceive the connections between racial theory, eugenics, anti-Semitism, and the tribal impulse toward Lebensraum. He did not live to see his perception confirmed by World War II and the Holocaust.

Today it is often forgotten how very respectable were eugenics and related racial theories at the beginning of the century. In 1913, Chesterton vigorously attacked the Mental Deficiency Act, which had the strong support of the Church of England. The public committee advocating its passage was headed by the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Bishop Barnes of Birmingham was a spokesman on behalf of the Christian case for eugenics, and he proposed: “Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually eugenic society. . . . When religious people realize that, in preventing the survival of the socially unfit, they are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road, their objections to repressive action will vanish.” Chesterton recoiled with all his being from the notion of a eugenic society, spiritual or otherwise.

On these questions, too, his Catholic spirit was brought to bear. He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the Protestant and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“ Near the end of his life, he responded to a letter writer who brought a long list of charges against the Catholic Church, including its tolerance of a vast horde of criminals, prostitutes, and other disreputable types who hang on to its fringes.

True enough, says Chesterton, and an interesting fact it is. “They cannot get the Church’s Sacraments or solid assurances, except by changing their whole way of life; but they do actually love the Faith that they cannot live by. . . . If you explain it by supposing that the Church, though bound to refuse them Absolution where there is not amendment, keeps in touch with them and treats their human dignity rather more sympathetically than does the world, Puritan or Pagan . . . that also probably refers to a real fact. It is one of the facts that convince me most strongly that Catholicism is what it claims to be. After two thousand years of compromises and concordats, with every sort of social system, the Catholic Church has never yet become quite respectable. He still eats and drinks with publicans and sinners.

David Fagerberg and I were both Lutherans who later entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Unlike Fagerberg, I was not conscious of Chesterton being a major influence in that decision, but perhaps he was by my side on the journey more than I realized. Certainly I look forward to good conversation with him in that inn at the end of the road, over a steak, a pint of ale, and a fine cigar. But, for the purposes of this preliminary reflection, let me leave it to Mr. Fagerberg: “Chesterton said saints are medicines because they are antidotes, claiming the saint restores the world to sanity by exaggerating what the world neglects. 

Chesterton was this author’s antidote: the one who exaggerated things which had been neglected. . . He can feel like a walking overstatement to someone who does not need the elixir, but to someone who does, he is an exact dosage. I have not written this for the purpose that it necessarily have the same effect on anyone else, only to repay my own debt by honoring a friend.” Chesterton is a very good friend to have in the communion of sinners made saints.

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Chesterton and the Thereness of It 2 — Fr. Richard Neuhaus 

May 22, 2014
Chesterton invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of his own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.

Chesterton invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of his own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.

The Chief Idea
Even as a boy, Chesterton says, he had this intuition that any theory or attitude that deadened the experienced wildness of things must, to that extent, be false. “I had a strong inward impulse to revolt. . . . But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.”

That was Chesterton the schoolboy. As an old man, shortly before he died in 1936, he wrote about what “I hope is not pompous to call the chief idea of my life. I will not say the doctrine I have always taught, but the doctrine I should always have liked to teach. That is the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted.”

Perhaps it is more a sensibility than a doctrine, but anyone who has read much Chesterton knows he taught it, and continues to teach it, with powerful effect. A life lived well is a life lived in response to grace, and from gratitude flows the wildness of wonder enough for an eternity.

He was impatient with the prissy, the proper, the excessively neat. Which no doubt explains in part his affinity for Hilaire Belloc. Pearce tells the delightful story of novelist Henry James paying a visit to GKC, which is interrupted by the arrival of Hilaire Belloc, just back from tramping through Europe and in a typically raucous mood: “Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the tradition of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-paneled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.”

Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were regular and friendly sparring partners in diverse forums, and one encounter produced this from Chesterton: “Shaw’s misunderstanding of Shakespeare arose largely from the fact that he is a Puritan, while Shakespeare was spiritually a Catholic. The former is always screwing himself up to see the truth; the latter is often content that truth is there.” Chesterton was much impressed by the thereness of things, and it had everything to do with his becoming a Catholic.

Before his conversion, he wrote to an Anglican friend: “As you may possibly guess, I want to consider my position about the biggest thing of all, whether I am to be inside it or outside it. I used to think one could be an Anglo-Catholic and really inside it; but if that was (to use an excellent phrase of your own) only a Porch, I do not think I want a Porch, and certainly not a Porch standing some way from the building. A Porch looks so silly, standing all by itself in a field.”

Later, he would write his mother to explain his conversion: “I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honor and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals; but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think . . . that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by the one fighting form of Christianity.”

Immediately after Chesterton’s reception into the Church, Belloc wrote him about his own reasons for being Catholic. The words of Belloc are, in tone and substance, surely Chestertonian: “And as to the doubt of the soul, I discover it to be false: a mood, not a conclusion. My conclusion-and that of all men who have ever once seen it — is the faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”

A Good Argument
Today such sentiments might grate against ecumenical sensibilities. As a faithful son of the Church, Chesterton, and I suppose Belloc, would have gone along with the development of doctrine at the Second Vatican Council which recognizes that, while the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time, there are many beyond its boundaries who are, whether they know it or not, “truly but imperfectly in communion” with the Catholic Church.

At the same time, I expect he would be impatient with styles of ecumenism that are reduced to niceness and take the edge off “the one fighting form of Christianity.” Not that Chesterton was a quarrelsome person. On the contrary, all testify to his civility and affability in the many disputes he relished. The trouble with a quarrel, he said, is that it interrupts a good argument.

A good argument must be about truth, and ecumenism that is more about negotiating differences than about discovering the truth is not very interesting. I have no doubt that Chesterton would agree with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who writes that our disputing ancestors “were in reality much closer to each other when in all their disputes they still knew that they could only be servants of one truth which must be acknowledged as being as great and as pure as it has been intended for us by God.”

Also, the alternatives to Catholicism that Chesterton knew were the Church of England and the Methodist chapel, anodyne forms of the faith unsuited to his spirited mind and soul. Were he an American, he might have found his fighting form of the faith in, say, the Southern Baptist Convention or Missouri Synod Lutheranism. But there the fights are about such a small and selective part of all the truths in the world. So still today it would likely be the case that Chesterton could settle for nothing less than the capacious trysting place and company of combat that is the Catholic Church.

While he said that tradition is the democracy of the dead, he did not have any use for democratic governance in the Church. The Church is about truth, and truth is necessarily hierarchical. It is a very different matter in the civil realm. There Chesterton was a great democrat, but he didn’t think much of the way democracy worked in aristocracy-ridden England. The problem, he said, is that, while the people get to vote, they don’t get to pose the questions to be voted on. 

If things continue as they are, “There will be less democratic value in an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much alike that he would not mind choosing them blindfold — and then for a great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.”

As the chief voice of the Distributist League, GKC advocated, with wavering energies throughout his life, an alternative to both capitalism and socialism. He understood himself to be in line with Catholic social teaching, specifically the teaching of Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, and tried to be definite about the kind of capitalism that must be opposed.

“When I say ‘Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: ‘That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.’“ He recognized that “capitalism” can mean many different things. “Lenin and Trotsky believe as much as Lloyd George and Thomas Aquinas that the economic operations of today must leave something over for the economic operations of tomorrow. And that is all that capital means in its economic sense. In that case, the word is useless. My use of it may be arbitrary, but it is not useless.”

The ideas of economic distributism were never thoroughly developed, and perhaps could not be. But he relentlessly insisted that there had to be a better way in which ordinary people could take charge of their life and property, or, in the language of contemporary Catholic social teaching, be “the artisans of their own destiny.” 

The impulse of distributism, one might suggest, is to work out more fully the economic implications of the doctrine of subsidiarity-or as the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus puts it, “the subjectivity of society.” Today’s admirers of Chesterton who are also proponents of democratic capitalism tend to forgive him his economic views. In fact, those views may not be so distant as many think from what is rightly affirmed in today’s capitalism, which is notably distant from what Chesterton meant by the term.

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Chesterton and the Thereness of It 1 — Fr. Richard Neuhaus 

May 21, 2014
Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.” A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world.

Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.” A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world.

Another page becoming post, as I am cleaning up my site. This is a great combination: Neuhaus & Chesterton. A fairly long piece so I have divided it into three posts.

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I try not to read too much Chesterton, or at least not too much at one sitting. He has a way of insinuating himself into a writer’s manner, leading either to pretension or despair. To try to write like him makes one look silly, and knowing that you can’t write like him is very depressing. These thoughts are brought to mind by Joseph Pearce’s great big new biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius). Mr. Pearce is clearly in love with his subject, so there is nothing here aimed at deflating Chesterton’s reputation, which will no doubt disappoint bien pensant readers for whom a worthy biography must expose the unworthiness of the life examined.

Biography as pathography is all the rage. The same critics might also complain that there is an inordinate amount of direct quotation of Chesterton, but I am inclined to the view that it is perfectly in order when it is Chesterton who is quoted — especially when much of the material is culled from private letters and other sources previously unpublished.

Pearce’s Chesterton is very much the Catholic Chesterton. And, as the title indicates, so is another recent biographical study by David W. Fagerberg, The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis are frequently compared as Christian apologists, and one meets people beyond numbering who were decisively influenced by these writers in their course of conversion.

In the case of Chesterton, however, the conversion is, more often than not it seems, not just to Christianity but to the Catholic Church. The phrase “just to Christianity,” of course, puts one in mind of Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College has suggested (“The Second Coming of C. S. Lewis,” FT, November 1994) that there was a certain guile in the “mereness” of Lewis’ Christianity.

Lewis combined the intellectual panache of Oxford and Cambridge with a one-size-fits-all Christianity that required no uncomfortably specific decisions about church, sacraments, and the sometimes embarrassing baggage of the Christian community through time, also known as tradition. I think there is considerable merit in Jacobs’ argument, and it has a great deal to do with why Lewis, unlike Chesterton, is so very popular with Protestants, and especially evangelical Protestants.

Chesterton exulted in the specific, the particular, the thus and soness and thereness of things. What others viewed as embarrassments of the Catholic tradition he embraced as an opportunity to demonstrate that something manifestly wrong was, upon closer examination, but the shadow side of something greatly right. 

From childhood on, it seems that Chesterton had a keen appreciation that almost everything could be perceived as being otherwise. That is to say, the way we perceive reality is not abstractly universal but dramatically contingent. The key thing is to see what is there. This understanding is at the heart of his Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, a book that the distinguished Thomist, Etienne Gilson, called one of the greatest ever written on the Angelic Doctor. (I had long been familiar with Gilson’s praise of the book but thought it was in the nature of a courteous aside or maybe a book blurb. Pearce provides the full text of what Gilson said, and his praise of Chesterton’s treatment of Thomas obviously reflects his very considered judgment.)

To say that Chesterton’s reality was dramatically contingent is in no way to suggest that he would have any sympathy for the fashions of postmodernity in which reality is “socially constructed.” Quite the opposite is the case. For Chesterton, the “truth” was never in quotation marks. It was more like Dr. Johnson’s kicking the stone in response to Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical construction of reality. Although in Chesterton’s case it was a matter of being kicked by the stone, by the very thereness of things. From early on, he was aware of the seductive possibilities of being deceived by worlds of our own imaginative creation. Although it is not the point that Pearce is making, this is evident in a passage on Chesterton and homosexuality.

As a schoolboy, Chesterton encountered the usual homoerotic undercurrents, and was fascinated for a time by a fellow who played at being a diabolist. GKC later wrote, “I have since heard that he died; it may be said, I think, that he committed suicide; though he did it with tools of pleasure, not with tools of pain. God help him, I know the road he went; but I have never known or even dared to think what was that place at which he stopped and [so I] refrained.”

We can play at being devils or the Devil’s playmates. It can even be exciting. But it is false and therefore it is deadly. Long before John Paul II and Vaclav Havel popularized the phrase, Chesterton’s was a passion to “live in the truth.” The phrase is but a riff on the words of Jesus, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” The alternative to being free is to be dead. Chesterton was exuberantly free. And, he would quickly add, he was free because he was bound to be free, being bound by the truth.

The Master of Paradox
To speak of being bound to be free is to indulge a trope that, let it be admitted, Chesterton sometimes overindulged, his beloved paradox. It is no disrespect to note that frequently the Chestertonian paradox does not bear close logical examination, being more verbal sleight of hand than substance.

On the other hand, a man standing on his head and waving his legs, which is Chesterton’s image for a paradox, doesn’t bear close logical examination either. The spectacle, if it means anything at all, is to point to something in the vicinity of the spectacle. But the paradoxical phrase “bound to be free” does stand up to the most rigorous examination, if it is understood that the binding is to the truth. For Chesterton, Christianity, by which he means Catholic Christianity, frees because it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.

Paradox, Chesterton insisted, does not obfuscate but illuminates. When praised for his mastery of the paradoxical trope, Chesterton responded that God, not he, is the master of paradox. His friend Maisie Ward explained it this way: “What it amounted to was roughly this: paradox must be of the nature of things because of God’s infinity and the limitations of the world and of man’s mind. To us limited human beings God can express His idea only in fragments. We can bring together apparent contradictions in those fragments whereby a greater truth is suggested. If we do this in a sudden or incongruous manner we startle the unprepared and arouse the cry of paradox. But if we will not do it we shall miss a great deal of truth.” Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.”

A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world. But to pull this off you have to actually live in the trysting place, which means to live in the truth, which means to live in Christ, which means to live in the Church that is the presence of Christ through time. The Church, he asserted, is ever so much larger from the inside than from the outside. To the modern mind and its notion of freedom, becoming a Catholic was to enter into an obedience that narrowed one’s horizons.

Chesterton contended that precisely the opposite is the case. Obedience (from the Latin obedire) means responsive listening, and the invitation of the Church is an invitation to the high road of freedom. How could there be anything confining about listening and responding to an invitation to dance with all the truths in the world? Obedience, for Chesterton, is not a matter of closing down one’s critical faculties but of putting them in proper order. Doctrine and dogma provide a framework for intellectual inquiry that is otherwise random, impulsive, and idiosyncratic. “To become a Catholic,” he wrote, “is not to leave off thinking but to learn how to think.”

David Fagerberg treats insightfully the ways in which those who resist entering into the trysting place of Christ and his Church often seem to be fearful of a closed and confining space. One might say they are claustrophobic. Fagerberg agrees with Chesterton, however, in suggesting that the more common phenomenon is that people resist because they are agoraphobic. They are afraid of the wide-open public spaces that freedom calls home. The Catholic Church does not so much provide a refuge and resting place as it launches one into all the worlds — spiritual, mystical, intellectual, historical — that are engaged by all the truths in the world. Faith as adventure is at the heart of Chesterton’s exuberance.

Chesterton surely understood that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, but his characteristic accent was on the wildness in God’s mercy. If you are living in the truth, you can with defiant, almost swashbuckling, confidence take on all comers. James Joyce, not the most orthodox of Catholics, said the Catholic Church is Here Comes Everybody. I don’t know if Chesterton ever commented on that way of putting it, but my hunch is that he would have rather liked it. A church that is not marked by paradox, that trims history and the excesses of life and thought to fit its preferences — in short, a church that is not wild — could not be the trysting place of all the truths in the world.

 

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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)

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.”

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