3/31/14

GKC on Facebook

"The real great man"

"THERE is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great."

~G.K. Chesterton: Charles Dickens.

"The darker secret"

“ALL science, even the divine science, is a sublime detective story. Only it is not set to detect why a man is dead; but the darker secret of why he is alive.”

~G.K. Chesterton: The Thing.

3/26/14

"There was no Original Sin in Mary"

"WE do not say that every pink and blue doll from an Art Repository is a satisfactory symbol of the Mother of God. But we do say that it is less of a contradiction than exists in a person who says there is no Original Sin in anybody, and then calls it Mariolatry to say there was no Original Sin in Mary."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Thing.


Immaculate Conception, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
Oil on canvas, 1665-70; Museo del Prado, Madrid.

3/25/14

"And there Our Lady was"

FEARFULLY plain the flowers grew,
Like a child's book to read,
Or like a friend's face seen in a glass.
He looked, and there Our Lady was;
She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.

Her face was like a spoken word
When brave men speak and choose,
The very colours of her coat
Were better than good news . . .

"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.

"And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings,
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Ballad of the White Horse, Bk. I. The Vision of the King.

3/24/14

The Age of Reason

I

THE eighteenth century is an excellent illustration of a false historical fashion. It is the fashion of abusing a thing, first for one obvious reason, then for another quite opposite reason; and then leaving it alone with all its incompatible vices unreconciled and unexplained. Any one can describe that age as the age of powder and patches and high-heeled shoes and elaborate bows and mincing compliments. Anybody can describe it as the age of bludgeons and bloody noses and black patches over the eye, as in the pictures of Hogarth; of dirt and drunkenness and brutal sports. As details, they are both true; as generalizations, they cannot be both true. As philosophical explanations, they cannot come within a thousand miles of being true. As explanations, they can not explain anything; for they cannot explain each other.

We may call eighteenth-century people’s dressing and barbering and behaviour artificial, but that gets us no nearer to explaining why we have to complain of them the next moment for being a great deal too natural. For they were virile to the point of violence and anarchy. If it was the age of wigs, it was also the age of wigs on the green. It was not only concerned with the nice conduct of a clouded cane, but often with the nasty conduct of a loaded cudgel. If we only want to make a case against the eighteenth century, we can throw all these ill-matched things at it and leave them there in a heap. But that does not explain anything; not even our own antagonism or our own action.

I have had to deal with a similar fallacy in relation to religious history. I have pointed out that the people who only wanted to make a case against Christianity or the Middle Ages, or what not, were content simply to say that monks were too meek and Crusaders too fierce, and feudalism too crude and heraldry too complicated. In other words, they blamed the age for being as mild as the Confessor and as violent as Coeur de Lion, but they gave no reason for the same thing being two opposite things at once. Many of them, in criticizing what I said, have thought it quite enough to say that the two statements were quite true; and this in itself is also quite true. But you have not understood the thing until you have understood its contradiction; until (especially) you under stand even its misunderstanding.

The only way to understand an age, whether it be the Age of Reason or the Age of Faith, is to get behind these mere criminal charges, which are used to support each other and really destroy each other. It is to find some common spirit that can be polished in that particular way and coarse in that particular way. A mystical conviction is the cause both of the Franciscan being friendly and the Crusader being hostile. A rational conviction is the cause both of Dr Johnson being ceremonious and Dr Johnson being rude. But it is necessary to realize something of what that rational conviction really was; and the only spirit in which it is worth while to study history is the spirit which can feel a certain enthusiasm for the ideal of each time in turn.

The eighteenth century itself is not a century, as centuries go, that is specially attractive to me. There were not enough fairy-tales in it for my taste; certainly there were not anything like so many people believing in fairies then as there are now. It had no great understanding of children. The men of that time had forgotten the Holy Child of medieval times and had not yet heard of the Happy Child of modern literature. They could not imagine a Peter Pan, for they had lost the religious traditions both of Pan and of Peter. They had silenced all those subconscious voices which speak to simple people of the wonders hidden in this world. In short, they were ignorant of all the thousand things that only the ignorant ever know.

But though I should not be individually drawn to wards the Age of Reason as compared with many ages I think really much more reasonable, if I had to deal with that age I should deal with it more reasonably. I should not criticize it as its own rationalistic critics do. I should not pick out things here and there that happened to offend our modern taste, though in totally opposite ways. I should not blame Chesterfield for being foppish and Johnson for being slovenly; call a minuet stilted and a cockfight vulgar; and then heave a sigh and thank God that I live in better days. That is the way in which the stupidest sort of tourist criticizes a foreign country; he thinks everything is being done badly, be cause he has never tried to find out what people are trying to do.

I should begin at the other end and try to find out what the eighteenth century was trying to do. I should ask what spirit really prompted their more spirited efforts. The true historian does not want to be told the realities of the eighteenth century; that is, that they had stuffier bedrooms or stuffier cravats. The true historian wants to be told the ideal of the eighteenth century; the things that a man dreamed of in his stuffy bedroom or thought about when he had forgotten his stock. The mere facts about their vesture or ventilation are not really facts about them; they are rather facts about us. They are the things that we notice, because to us they are new even in being old. It may throw some light on our character or conditions that this or that detail stands out in a startling fashion from the other details. But it does not throw much light on the minds of our ancestors. The really valuable sort of historical imagination is to guess the things they were thinking about.

The religion of the eighteenth century was finely expressed in the motto of a group of Scottish debating societies famous as the Associated Societies of Edinburgh University. It was  Gloria hominis ratio et oratio: the glory of man is reason and speech. Their ideal was public spirit in the true sense of the publishing of things; the power of declaring aloud in the forum the secrets of the palace or the corruptions of the senate. There were secrets and corruptions enough, of course, as there are in all times; not so many, I think, as there are in our own time. But this was the vision, the ambition, the daydream. This was what an honest man wanted to be and a dishonest man pretended to be. The ideal type of that time was what Walpole called a Boy; what the Boy called a Patriot. He was to be a lucid orator denouncing courtiers and placemen; a tribune. He can only be under stood in the light of that great Latin literature which these men loved and studied.

We sneer at the old gentlemen quoting Horace while hobnobbing over their port; as if they only quoted Horace when he was hobnobbing over his Falernian. We forget that quoting Horace meant more often quoting great lines about Regulus defying torture for the Republic or the poet returning to the temples of the gods of Rome. Judged by its own moral ideal, which is the only just judgement, the eighteenth century was not so bad as we make out; possibly was not so bad as we are. We talk of its political corruption, but we talk of it because it was talked about. It was exposed and even punished. Great men like Marlborough, powerful men like Dundas, were really forced to resign; often even forced to disgorge. They were much less completely protected than corrupt politicians in our own time; and it is no very satisfactory proof of their artificiality and our realism that they powdered heads while we whitewash reputations.

II

It seems to me that it would be an extraordinarily interesting study of the mind of the eighteenth century to picture what that mind would really expect to see in the twentieth. There would be something very subtle in the comedy of a gentleman of the eighteenth century dealing with ladies of the twentieth century. It would be curious to note how he would be in some ways more coarse and in some ways more polished. He would probably be plainer in his speech, but more ceremonious in his movements. He would say things to the lady while bowing over her hand which the most sprightly hero of our recent fiction would hardly say to her while sitting on her head. When Marie Antoinette and her courtiers posed in the manner of the shepherds of Watteau, they were already talking about the dawn of a more enlightened and liberal age, and may well have wondered about the world in the twentieth century. When Hogarth was drawing some satiric series like the Stages of Cruelty, he may well have wondered whether the world would still be as barbarous in the twentieth century, or whether by that time reason and philanthropy would have prevailed. Naturally it would depend a great deal on the sort of individual who was precipitated from their age to ours; there were doubtless many commonplace cock-fighting squires who knew as little about the future then as our earnest social prophets know now. But there were already in the eighteenth century some idealists who would have been delighted to see the future triumph of humanity. They would also be a good deal disappointed if they saw it.

What is really interesting about the Age of Reason is that the political economists and practical reformers would every one of them believe what nobody now believes at all. They would not only have believed, most probably, that England would be more prosperous, more happy, and more equal in the twentieth century than in the eighteenth or nineteenth. They would also have believed that it would become more prosperous, free, and equal through commercial competition, through scientific selfishness, through the removal of all restrictions on trading, talking, or anything else. Nothing would have surprised a man like Bentham or a man like Godwin more completely than the discovery that liberty or Laissez Faire had not made a huge addition to human happiness by the beginning of the twentieth century. As a matter of fact, as applied, they have made a huge addition to human muddle and misery, and taken us round by a long detour (and a very dusty road) back to very much where we were before. We have to consider anew the nature of Liberty and its relation to Governments. In that sense we are all of us really back in the eighteenth century.

III

Unless I am much mistaken, modern people are going to have a reaction against democracy before they have tried it. We are always being told that the present system in highly organized industrial states is democracy; and that being so, it is hardly to be wondered at that democracy has become unpopular. But it is not really true that popular government has become unpopular. It is rather that people have ceased to think that in either sense our government is popular. The truth is that those who developed the democratic doctrine in modern times did not intend it for anything at all resembling the modern world, perhaps the most ancient of all possible worlds. They thought of the agricultural commonwealths of antiquity, and went back past even the Roman Empire to find the Roman Republic. But Rome was a republic when Rome was a village. Those eighteenth-century idealists often actually lived in villages; always in countries that were dotted with villages. They did not know what sort of a world of steam and steel their descendants were going to inherit. The French Revolution came before the Industrial Revolution. They were perpetually talking about the citizen, but they thought of him as a citizen and not merely as something in the city. They certainly had no conception of the colossal and complicated thing that we now mean by a city.

It is highly characteristic of the tone of the eighteenth century that they generally talked of London as ‘the town’. They said: ‘All the town is talking about my Lord Banglebury’s duel with Mr Pickles.’ In the sound and sense of the word there was something compact and comfortable; as of a world still small enough to know itself, like a village. When these people talked about democracy they did indeed mean the government of the people, by the people, for the people. But they meant the government of people they knew, by people they knew, for people they knew. They meant the government of people who knew each other, by people who knew each other, for people who knew each other. I think it highly doubtful whether any of the eighteenth-century democratic theorists, whether Payne or Jefferson or Condorcet, would have expected a vast and vague society like ours to be a democracy. I think they would have thought it, however reluctantly, a case for Caesar and the panem et circenses. But it is not, of course, merely the material side of society that has upset such calculations. It is much more the moral factor; which is also, in every sense, alas! a very material factor. It is what the scientific, or those who think themselves scientific, always call the economic factor. It can be expressed better in one word; and that word is not democracy but plutocracy.

It must always be remembered that the scale of financial action was then smaller even for the rich. The Court of Versailles did not handle such sums as any stockjobber will now waste on a week’s luxury. Kings and queens were richer relatively and not positively. And the size of economic operations today is a new and abnormal power in the history of the world. It covers much more of the surface of the world. It is international where the old luxury was almost local. But this vulgar and sprawling plutocracy does not deserve to be called a democracy, even by one who uses it as a term of abuse. The old classic spirit of democracy is much more present in the independent citizen who is ready to resist it, who in this respect is much more like the Stoic and Tribune admired by the Fathers of the Republic.

~G.K. Chesterton: from The Glass Walking Stick (Selections from the Illustrated London News)

"To urge the natural against the supernatural"

THE eighteenth century has been called the Age of Reason; I suppose there is no doubt that the twentieth century is the Age of Unreason. But even that is an understatement. The Age of Reason was nicknamed from a famous rationalist book. But the rationalist was not really so much concerned to urge the rational against the irrational; but rather to urge the natural against the supernatural.”
 

~G.K. Chesterton: The Well and the Shallows.

3/22/14

"Modern man cannot even keep his eyes open"

"THERE is a sense in which men may be made normally happy; but there is another sense in which we may truly say, without undue paradox, that what they want is to get back to their normal unhappiness. At present they are suffering from an utterly abnormal unhappiness. They have got all the tragic elements essential to the human lot to contend with; time and death and bereavement and unrequited affection and dissatisfaction with themselves. But they have not got the elements of consolation and encouragement that ought normally to renew their hopes or restore their self-respect. They have not got vision or conviction, or the mastery of their work, or the loyalty of their household, or any form of human dignity. Even the latest Utopians, the last lingering representatives of that fated and unfortunate race, do not really promise the modern man that he shall do anything, or own anything, or in any effectual fashion be anything. They only promise that, if he keeps his eyes open, he will see something; he will see the Universal Trust or the World State or Lord Melchett coming in the clouds in glory. But the modern man cannot even keep his eyes open. He is too weary with toil and a long succession of unsuccessful Utopias. He has fallen asleep."

 ~G.K. Chesterton: G.K.'s Weekly, Oct. 20, 1928. (Quoted in Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the definitive biography by Maisie Ward)

3/21/14

"Imperialism"

"I recently received a pamphlet from an honest Indian gentleman who has a new religion that will establish universal peace. I confess that the impression produced on my mind by the excellent Hindu humanitarian was that he might very well unite all human beings, if only all human beings were Hindus. But I hasten to add that this humanitarian illusion is very far from being confined to Hindus. It seems to me that exactly the same error is made by the most energetic and scientific humanitarians of the West—as by Mr. Wells and the upholders of a World State. What is the matter with internationalism is that it is imperialism. It is the imposition of one ideal of one sect on the vital varieties of men."

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, June 17, 1922.

3/19/14

"The average autochthonous Irishman"

"THE average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth."

~G.K. Chesterton: George Bernard Shaw.

Joseph

If the stars fell; night's nameless dreams
Of bliss and blasphemy came true,
If skies were green and snow were gold,
And you loved me as I love you;

O long light hands and curled brown hair,
And eyes where sits a naked soul;
Dare I even then draw near and burn
My fingers in the aureole?

Yes, in the one wise foolish hour
God gives this strange strength to a man.
He can demand, though not deserve,
Where ask he cannot, seize he can.

But once the blood's wild wedding o'er,
Were not dread his, half dark desire,
To see the Christ-child in the cot,
The Virgin Mary by the fire?

~G.K. Chesterton


St. Joseph with the child Jesus, by Guido Reni.
Oil on canvas, c. 1635; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

3/16/14

"The desire to know what is"

"THE present importance of the Book of Job cannot be expressed adequately even by saying that it is the most interesting of ancient books. We may almost say of the Book of Job that it is the most interesting of modern books. In truth, of course, neither of the two phrases covers the matter, because fundamental human religion and fundamental human irreligion are both at once old and new; philosophy is either eternal or it is not philosophy. The modern habit of saying, "This is my opinion, but I may be wrong," is entirely irrational. If I say that it may be wrong I say that is not my opinion. The modern habit of saying "Every man has a different philosophy; this is my philosophy and its suits me"; the habit of saying this is mere weak-mindedness. A cosmic philosophy is not constructed to fit a man; a cosmic philosophy is constructed to fit a cosmos. A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon. The first of the intellectual beauties of the Book of Job is that it is all concerned with this desire to know the actuality; the desire to know what is, and not merely what seems."

~G.K. Chesterton: Introduction to The Book of Job.



When the Morning Stars Sang Together,
by William Blake (from the Butts set).
Pen and black ink, gray wash, and watercolour,
over traces of graphite; June 1805.

"Scoundrels"

“IT'S not that we don’t have enough scoundrels to curse; it’s that we don’t have enough good men to curse them.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, March 14, 1908.

3/15/14

"Man is an exception"

"MAN is an exception, whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head."

 ~G.K. Chesterton: All Things Considered.

"Materialists and madmen never have doubts"

"FOR we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion. In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow. They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism. Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel. The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts.

"Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like; in the second the road is shut. But the case is even stronger, and the parallel with madness is yet more strange. For it was our case against the exhaustive and logical theory of the lunatic that, right or wrong, it gradually destroyed his humanity. Now it is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human. For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call their law the "chain" of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say "thank you" for the mustard."

 ~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy.


Amazon

3/10/14

"Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials"

"FOR we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion. In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow. They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism. Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel. The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts.

"Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like; in the second the road is shut. But the case is even stronger, and the parallel with madness is yet more strange. For it was our case against the exhaustive and logical theory of the lunatic that, right or wrong, it gradually destroyed his humanity. Now it is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human. For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call their law the "chain" of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say "thank you" for the mustard."

 ~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy.


3/6/14

"Life is so short"

“PESSIMISM says that life is so short that it gives nobody a chance; religion says that life is so short that it gives everybody his final chance.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Introduction to Nicholas Nickleby.

3/5/14

"A surprise"

"MAN is a creature; all his happiness consists in being a creature; or, as the Great Voice commanded us, in becoming a child. All his fun is in having a gift or present; which the child, with profound understanding, values because it is 'a surprise'. But surprise implies that a thing comes from outside ourselves; and gratitude that it comes from someone other than ourselves. It is thrust through the letter-box; it is thrown in at the window; it is thrown over the wall. Those limits are the lines of the very plan of human pleasure."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Poet and the Lunatics.

"To learn how to think"

"FOR this is one of the very queerest of the common delusions about what happens to the convert. In some muddled way people have confused the natural remarks of converts, about having found moral peace, with some idea of their having found mental rest, in the sense of mental inaction.... To become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think."
 

~G.K. Chesterton: The Catholic Church and Conversion.

3/3/14

"About sex"

"ABOUT sex especially men are born unbalanced; we might almost say men are born mad. They scarcely reach sanity till they reach sanctity."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Everlasting Man.

"Great literature"

"EVERY great literature has always been allegorical—allegorical of some view of the whole universe. The 'Iliad' is only great because all life is a battle, the 'Odyssey' because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Defendant.


Illustrations to the Book of Job:
"The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind"
by William Blake.