About Beliefs

SOME time ago, when a stir was made by a rather striking book called Who Moved the Stone? which might almost be described, with all reverence, as a divine detective story and almost a theological thriller, a pugnacious little paper in Fleet Street made a remark which has always hovered in my memory as more mysterious than any mystery story in the world. The writer said that any man who believes in the Resurrection is bound to believe also in the story of Aladdin in the Arabian Nights. I have no idea what he meant. Nor, I imagine, had he. But this curious conjunction of ideas recurs to my mind in connexion with a rather interesting suggestion made by Mr. Christopher Dawson about what we may call the History of Science. On the face of it, the remark I have quoted from the pugnacious paper seems to have no quality whatever except pugnacity. There is no sort of logical connexion between believing in one marvellous event and believing in another, even if they were exactly alike and not utterly different. If I believe that Captain Peary reached the North Pole, I am not therefore bound to believe that Dr. Cook also reached the North Pole, even if they both arrived with sledges and dogs out of the same snows. It is a fallacy, therefore, even where the two things are close enough to be compared. But the comparison between the Gospel miracle and the Arabian fairy-tale is about the most unfortunate comparison in the world. For in the 
one case there is a plain and particular reason for thinking the thing true, or at least meant to be true. And in the other case there is a plain and particular reason for realizing that the tale is not only untrue, but is not even meant to be true.

The historical case for the Resurrection is that everybody else, except the Apostles, had every possible motive to declare what they had done with the body, if anything had been done with it. The Apostles might have hidden it in order to announce a sham miracle, but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham. In the case of the Apostles' testimony, the general circumstances suggest that it is true. In the case of the Arabian tale, the general circumstances avow and proclaim that it is false. For we are told in the book itself that all the stories were told by a woman merely to amuse the king and distract his attention from the idea of cutting off her head. A romancer in this personal situation is not very likely to confine herself strictly to humdrum accuracy, and it would be impossible more plainly to warn the reader that all the tales are taradiddles. In the one case, then, we have witnesses who not only think the thing true, but do veritably think it is as true as death, or truer than death. They therefore prefer death to the denial of its truth. In the other case we have a story-teller who, in trying to avoid death, has every motive to tell lies. If St. John the Baptist had wished to avoid being beheaded, and had saved his life by inventing a long string of Messianic or Early Christian legends on the spur of the moment, in order to hold the attention of King Herod, I should not regard any "resurrection myth" he might tell as a strong historical argument for the Resurrection. But, as the Apostles were killed as St. John was killed, I think their evidence cannot be identified by sound scholarship as a portion of the Arabian Nights.

I merely pause for a moment upon this wild and preposterous parallel as a passing example of the queer way in which sceptics now refuse to follow an argument and only follow a sort of association or analogy. But the real reason for recalling this strange remark about the Arabian Nights is to be found in a much more genuine analogy between Western Science and Eastern Sorcery. Nobody but a lunatic would look either for his facts or his faith in the Arabian Nights. But, oddly enough, there really was a touch of the Arabian magicians in the Arabian mathematicians. There really was a faint flavour of the Oriental wizardry about the quite genuine Oriental wisdom; even when that wisdom was really doing work for which the world will always be grateful, in geometry or chemistry, in mathematics or medicine.  Thus we find the paradox: that a man might, after all, look for some of the elements of science in the Arabian Nights, though he would hardly look there for anything very edifying or elevating in the way of the elements of religion. In short, the old dim, or even dark, connexion between Medicine and Magic has a sort of hidden meaning of great historical interest. It is developed by Mr. Dawson in an essay on the Eastern element in early mediaeval science, and occurs in a book of essays called Mediaeval Religion.

But this particular point is not concerned with religion, but is connected in a curious way with science. The point is this: that Magic (in the ancient sense) and Medicine (in the modern sense) are really in one way very like each other, because they are both very unlike the pure and abstract idea of Science as conceived by the Ancient Greeks. Science only means knowledge; and for those ancients it did only mean knowledge. They wanted nothing but the pleasure of knowing; they were particularly proud of knowing a great deal of utterly useless knowledge. Thus the favourite science of the Greeks was Astronomy, because it was as abstract as Algebra. And when the Philistine among them said: "What are the Pleiades to me?" the Philosopher really answered the Philistine by saying: "They are all the more to me because they are nothing to me." We may say that the great Greek ideal was to have no use for useful things. The Slave was he who learned useful things; the Freeman was he who learned useless things. This still remains the ideal of many noble men of science, in the sense that they do desire truth as the great Greeks desired it; and their attitude is an eternal protest against the vulgarity of utilitarianism. But there was and is another side of science, also to be respected, which was from the first represented by things like Medicine. And if there were some association of Medicine with Magic, it was because Magic was always extremely practical.

The modern Magician, often a most respectable gentleman, may have altered his opinion that sticking pins in the wax image of a politician would be a practical act of social utility. But so the modern Medicine-Man may have altered his opinion that the blood of badgers mixed with wine and salt is always an immediate cure for rheumatism. But there is nothing in this change of opinion on the mere fact or details that differs from any other modern change in medical method, as in curing consumption first by shutting all the windows and then by opening all the windows. The point is that both types of Medicine-Man were employed by people who wanted something prompt and practical, such as killing politicians or curing rheumatism. And the note of this sort of science, which Mr. Dawson traces to the East, is that it always boasts of possessing Power, as distinct from the other sort set upon enjoying Truth. We have most of us met the kind of theosophical mystic who is always whispering that he can show us the Path to Power; that if we will only say "I am Wisdom; I am Power" seventy-seven times before the looking-glass we shall control the cosmos. There was some such note even in mediaeval medicine. Mediaeval science was really more practical than Pagan science, but sometimes it did really sound a little too practical to be quite wholesome. So some modern hygienic idealists are rather more concerned about health than is quite healthy. It is hard to dwell perpetually on this element of power without poisoning it with some element of pride. So, queerly enough, Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp really has some remote relation with the miracles of science, though hardly any with the miracles of religion.

~G.K. Chesterton: As I Was Saying. (1936)

"About Beliefs" is included in In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton. 

A Patriotic Song

The Golden Hind went bowling
Nor'westward of the Main,
And Drake drank deep of Spanish wine
And spat the lees at Spain.
Till northward on the colder coasts
The savages came out
To hail the ship with tossing spear
And tomahawk and shout:
For the red gods and the witch-doctors
Had cursed the golden grape
Bidding him yield up Malvoisie
And wine in every shape.

  And need I say that Drake complied
  And poured the wine over the side,
  Invited all the Reds inside
  And let them ransack far and wide
  The ship that was his sinful pride
  For anything his men might hide,
  That so he might escape.

The top-sails of the Victory
Turned westward on a day
Great Nelson saw his sunrise land
Like a sunset fade away.
And pledged immortal beauty
And the isle beyond the foam
In the dark wine of Oporto
That his father drank at home.
His hand and glass were lifted
When they reached the rebel shore
And Hiram Hugginburg came forth
And bade him drink no more.

  And naturally Nelson ran
  To do his bidding and began
  To empty every cup and can
  And snatch the rum from every man
  Who (ignorant of Hiram's ban)
  Had broken with him the battle-van
  From the Nile to Elsinore.

Lo, of that leaping pennant learn,
Of those world-wandering graves,
In what more modest modern style
Britannia rules the waves.

  If, loyal to some foreign cause,
  We still are careful, clause by clause,
  Obeying other countries' laws.
  We never shall be slaves.

~G.K. Chesterton


On the Mythology of Scientists

WHAT I venture to criticize in certain men, whom some call scientists and I call materialists, is their perpetual use of Mythology. One half of what they say is so true as to be trite; the other half of what they say is so untrue as to be transparent. But they cover both their platitudes and their pretences by an elaborate parade of legendary and allegorical images. I read this in some remarks on Darwinism by one of the last surviving Darwinians: ‘Among the individuals of every species there goes on, as Malthus had realized, a competition or struggle for the means of life, and Nature selects the individuals which vary in the most successful direction.’ Now when men of the old religions said that God chose a people or raised up a prophet, at least they meant something; and they meant what they said. They meant that a being with a mind and a will used them in an act of selection. But who is Nature, and how does she, or he, or it, manage to select anything or anybody? All that the writer actually has to say is that some individuals do emerge when other individuals are extinguished. it hardly needed either Darwin or Darwinians to tell us that. But Nature selecting those that vary in the most successful direction means nothing whatever, except that the successful succeed. But this tautological truism is wrapped up in clouds of mythology, by the introduction of a mythical being whom even the writer regards as a myth. The reader is to be impressed and deluded by the vision of a vast stone goddess sitting on a mountain throne, and pointing at a particular frog or rabbit and saying, in tones of thunder, that this alone is to survive. All we know is that it does survive (for the moment), and then we pride ourselves on being able to repeat the mere fact that it does survive in half a hundred variegated and flowery expressions: as that it has survival value; or that it is naturally selected for survival; or that it survives because it is the fittest for survival; or that Nature’s great law of the survival of the fittest sternly commands it to survive. The critics of religion used to say that its mysteries were mummeries; but these things are in the special and real sense mummeries. They are things offered to a credulous congregation by priests who know them to be mummeries. It is impossible to prove that the priests know that there is no god in the shrine, or no truth in the oracle. But we know that the materialist knows that there is no such thing as a large fastidious lady, called Nature, who points a finger at a frog.

The particular case in which this mythological metaphor was used is of course another matter. It is, indeed, a matter which has involved at various times a great deal of this element of materialist mythology. To see what truth was really in it we should have to go back to the old Darwinian debate; which I have not the least intention of doing here. But I may observe, in passing, that this notion of Nature selecting things is specially incompatible with all that can really be said for their own case; and that the very name of natural selection is a most unnatural name for it. For it is their whole case that everything happened, in the ordinary human sense, by accident. We should rather call it coincidence; and some of us call it quite incredible coincidence. But, anyhow, the whole case for it is that one quadruped happened to have a longer neck, and happened to live at a moment when it was necessary to reach a taller tree or shrub. If these happenings happen to happen about a hundred times in succession, in exactly the same way, you can by that process turn some sort of sheep or goat into a giraffe. Whether this is probable or not is another question. But the whole Darwinian argument is that it is not a case of Nature selecting, any more than of God selecting, or any one else selecting, but a case of things falling out in that fashion. We are quite ready to discuss trees and giraffes in their place, without perpetual references to God. Could the materialists not so far control their rhetorical and romantic sentimentalism as to do it without perpetual reference to Nature? Shall we make a bargain: that we will for the moment leave out our theology, if they will leave out their mythology?

But the mythological habit is not entirely and exclusively confined to men of science, or even to materialists. This sort of mythology is rather generally scattered over the modern world. The popular form of the mythological is the metaphorical. Certain figures of speech are fixed in the modern mind, exactly as the fables of the gods and nymphs were fixed in the mind of pagan antiquity. It is astonishing to note how often, when we address a man with anything resembling an idea, he answers with some recognized metaphor, supposed to be appropriate to the case. If you say to him, ‘I myself prefer the principle of the Guild to the principle of the Trust,’ he will not answer you by talking about principles. He can be counted on to say, ‘You can’t put the clock back,’ with all the regularity of a ticking clock. This is a very extreme example of the mental break down that goes with a relapse into metaphor. For the man is actually understating his own case out of sheer love of metaphor. It may be that you can not put time back, but you can put the clock back. He would be in a stronger position if he talked about the abstraction called time; but an all-devouring appetite for figurative language forces him to talk about clocks. Of course, the real question raised has nothing to do with either clocks or time. It is the question of whether certain abstract principles, which may or may not have been observed in the past, ought to be observed in the future. But the point is here that even the man who means that we cannot reconstruct the past can hardly ever reconstruct his own sentence in any other form except this figurative form. Without his myth, or his metaphor, he is lost.

Another mass of metaphors is drawn from the phenomena of morning, or the fact that the sun rises; or, rather (I grovel in apology to the man of science), appears to rise. It is a perfectly natural metaphor for poets; or, indeed, for all men, in that aspect in which all men are mystics. That there is a mystery in these natural things, which the imagination understands more subtly than the reason, is true enough. Nor have I any contempt even for mythology considered as mythology. But when we want to know what somebody wants to do, when we ask a free-thinker what he thinks, and why he thinks it, it is a little tiresome to be told that he is waiting for the Dawn, or engaged at the moment in singing Songs Before Sunrise. One is tempted to retort that Dawn is not always an entirely cheerful thing, even for those who have exercised their free thought upon the conventional traditions of their own society. There is such a thing as being shot at Dawn.

I do not mean for a moment, of course, that we should do without myths and metaphors altogether. I am constantly using them myself, and shall continue to do so. But I think we ought all to be on our guard against depending on them as a substitute for reason. Perhaps it would be well to have a Fast Day, on which we undertook to abstain from every thing but abstract terms. Let us all agree that every Friday we will do without metaphors as without meat. I am sure it would be good for the intellectual digestion.

G.K. Chesterton: Come to Think of It, XXIII. 

"The equality of men"

"CARLYLE said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men."

~G.K. Chesterton: Heretics.

"The democracy of the dead"

"TRADITION may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, Chap. IV.



"Something that He hid from all men"

"JOY, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, Chap. IX.

"War is a dreadful thing"

“WAR is a dreadful thing; but it does prove two points sharply and unanswerably—numbers, and an unnatural valor. One does discover the two urgent matters; how many rebels there are alive, and how many are ready to be dead.”

~G.K. Chesterton: What's Wrong with the World.