5/31/15

"It is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian"

"HERE again, therefore, we find that in so far as we value democracy and the self-renewing energies of the west, we are much more likely to find them in the old theology than the new. If we want reform, we must adhere to orthodoxy: especially in this matter (so much disputed in the counsels of Mr. R.J. Campbell), the matter of insisting on the immanent or the transcendent deity. By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference—Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation—Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.

"If we take any other doctrine that has been called old-fashioned we shall find the case the same. It is the same, for instance, in the deep matter of the Trinity. Unitarians (a sect never to be mentioned without a special respect for their distinguished intellectual dignity and high intellectual honour) are often reformers by the accident that throws so many small sects into such an attitude. But there is nothing in the least liberal or akin to reform in the substitution of pure monotheism for the Trinity. The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god who is a mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king. The heart of humanity, especially of European humanity, is certainly much more satisfied by the strange hints and symbols that gather round the Trinitarian idea, the image of a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice, the conception of a sort of liberty and variety existing even in the inmost chamber of the world. For Western religion has always felt keenly the idea "it is not well for man to be alone." The social instinct asserted itself everywhere as when the Eastern idea of hermits was practically expelled by the Western idea of monks. So even asceticism became brotherly; and the Trappists were sociable even when they were silent. If this love of a living complexity be our test, it is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian. For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence)—to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, Ch. VIII.—"The Romance of Orthodoxy."

5/30/15

"Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads"

"JOAN of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We KNOW that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, III.—The Suicide of Thought.

Capture of Joan of Arc, by Adolphe-Alexandre Dillens. 
Oil on panel, 1847-52; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Chesterton's birthday

GKC was born May 29, 1874, or so he believes...

"BOWING DOWN in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian."


~G.K. Chesterton: Autobiography, Chap. 1.

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5/28/15

Mormonism

There is inevitably something comic (comic in the broad and vulgar style which all men ought to appreciate in its place) about the panic aroused by the presence of the Mormons and their supposed polygamous campaign in this country. It calls up the absurd image of an enormous omnibus, packed inside with captive English ladies, with an Elder on the box, controlling his horses with the same patriarchal gravity as his wives, and another Elder as conductor calling out "Higher up," with an exalted and allegorical intonation. And there is something highly fantastic to the ordinary healthy mind in the idea of any precaution being proposed; in the idea of locking the Duchess in the boudoir and the governess in the nursery, lest they should make a dash for Utah, and become the ninety-third Mrs. Abraham Nye, or the hundredth Mrs. Hiram Boke. But these frankly vulgar jokes, like most vulgar jokes, cover a popular prejudice which is but the bristly hide of a living principle. Elder Ward, recently speaking at Nottingham, strongly protested against these rumours, and asserted absolutely that polygamy had never been practised with the consent of the Mormon Church since 1890. I think it only just that this disclaimer should be circulated; but though it is most probably sincere, I do not find it very soothing. The year 1890 is not very long ago, and a society that could have practised so recently a custom so alien to Christendom must surely have a moral attitude which might be repellent to us in many other respects. Moreover, the phrase about the consent of the Church (if correctly reported) has a little the air of an official repudiating responsibility for unofficial excesses. It sounds almost as if Mr. Abraham Nye might, on his own account, come into church with a hundred and fourteen wives, but people were supposed not to notice them. It might amount to little more than this, that the chief Elder may allow the hundred and fourteen wives to walk down the street like a girls' school, but he is not officially expected to take off his hat to each of them in turn. Seriously speaking, however, I have little doubt that Elder Ward speaks the substantial truth, and that polygamy is dying, or has died, among the Mormons. My reason for thinking this is simple: it is that polygamy always tends to die out. Even in the East I believe that, counting heads, it is by this time the exception rather than the rule. Like slavery, it is always being started, because of its obvious conveniences. It has only one small inconvenience, which is that it is intolerable.

Our real error in such a case is that we do not know or care about the creed itself, from which a people's customs, good or bad, will necessarily flow. We talk much about "respecting" this or that person's religion; but the way to respect a religion is to treat it as a religion: to ask what are its tenets and what are their consequences. But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance. The old religious authorities, at least, defined a heresy before they condemned it, and read a book before they burned it. But we are always saying to a Mormon or a Moslem—"Never mind about your religion, come to my arms." To which he naturally replies—"But I do mind about my religion, and I advise you to mind your eye."

About half the history now taught in schools and colleges is made windy and barren by this narrow notion of leaving out the theological theories. The wars and Parliaments of the Puritans made absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that Calvinism appeared to them to be the absolute metaphysical truth, unanswerable, unreplaceable, and the only thing worth having in the world. The Crusades and dynastic quarrels of the Norman and Angevin Kings make absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that these men (with all their vices) were enthusiastic for the doctrine, discipline, and endowment of Catholicism. Yet I have read a history of the Puritans by a modern Nonconformist in which the name of Calvin was not even mentioned, which is like writing a history of the Jews without mentioning either Abraham or Moses. And I have never read any popular or educational history of England that gave the slightest hint of the motives in the human mind that covered England with abbeys and Palestine with banners. Historians seem to have completely forgotten the two facts—first, that men act from ideas; and second, that it might, therefore, be as well to discover which ideas. The mediaevals did not believe primarily in "chivalry," but in Catholicism, as producing chivalry among other things. The Puritans did not believe primarily in "righteousness," but in Calvinism, as producing righteousness among other things. It was the creed that held the coarse or cunning men of the world at both epochs. William the Conqueror was in some ways a cynical and brutal soldier, but he did attach importance to the fact that the Church upheld his enterprise; that Harold had sworn falsely on the bones of saints, and that the banner above his own lances had been blessed by the Pope. Cromwell was in some ways a cynical and brutal soldier; but he did attach importance to the fact that he had gained assurance from on high in the Calvinistic scheme; that the Bible seemed to support him—in short, the most important moment in his own life, for him, was not when Charles I lost his head, but when Oliver Cromwell did not lose his soul. If you leave these things out of the story, you are leaving out the story itself. If William Rufus was only a red-haired man who liked hunting, why did he force Anselm's head under a mitre, instead of forcing his head under a headsman's axe? If John Bunyan only cared for "righteousness," why was he in terror of being damned, when he knew he was rationally righteous? We shall never make anything of moral and religious movements in history until we begin to look at their theory as well as their practice. For their practice (as in the case of the Mormons) is often so unfamiliar and frantic that it is quite unintelligible without their theory.

I have not the space, even if I had the knowledge, to describe the fundamental theories of Mormonism about the universe. But they are extraordinarily interesting; and a proper understanding of them would certainly enable us to see daylight through the more perplexing or menacing customs of this community; and therefore to judge how far polygamy was in their scheme a permanent and self-renewing principle or (as is quite probable) a personal and unscrupulous accident. The basic Mormon belief is one that comes out of the morning of the earth, from the most primitive and even infantile attitude. Their chief dogma is that God is material, not that He was materialized once, as all Christians believe; nor that He is materialized specially, as all Catholics believe; but that He was materially embodied from all time; that He has a local habitation as well as a name. Under the influence of this barbaric but violently vivid conception, these people crossed a great desert with their guns and oxen, patiently, persistently, and courageously, as if they were following a vast and visible giant who was striding across the plains. In other words, this strange sect, by soaking itself solely in the Hebrew Scriptures, had really managed to reproduce the atmosphere of those Scriptures as they are felt by Hebrews rather than by Christians. A number of dull, earnest, ignorant, black-coated men with chimney-pot hats, chin beards or mutton-chop whiskers, managed to reproduce in their own souls the richness and the peril of an ancient Oriental experience. If we think from this end we may possibly guess how it was that they added polygamy.

~G.K. Chesterton: All Things Considered

5/26/15

The Lawlessness of Lawyers

JUDGE PARRY is one of the men who have done mountains of good merely by being alive; while many judges act as if they were already dead, not to say ... but Judge Parry might misunderstand a misuse of theological imagery. He is somewhat anticlerical; which seems a waste of talent in a country where there is no clericalism. In his last book, Law and the Woman, I find much with which I do not agree, yet nothing which is not agreeable. Not only does he say everything with a disarming humour and candour; but even in error he never loses sight of the large fact: that sex relations do not depend on the exceptional action of law, but on the normal action of creed and custom. Alone among such lawyers he understands that the poor live on laughter as on a fairy-tale; and can be more scientifically studied in the fictions of Jacobs than the facts of Webb. I might pursue the view further than he on some points; as when he would infer the mere enslavement of women from some stories about the selling of wives. He is doubtless correct in detail; but the rhyme he gives to prove his point may almost be said to disprove it. He quotes a jolly ballad about a man who tried to sell his wife with a halter round her neck and, failing to do so, tried to hang himself in the halter rather than go on living with her. Obviously this is simply the fable of the grey mare; and does not mean that the man ruled his wife, but rather that she ruled him. I do not agree about divorce; but I am not going to argue about it here, or about any such problem of the sexes. This is partly because I should have to begin about the nature of a vow, and it feels like talking to a judge about the nature of an oath, and might almost be contempt of court. But it is more, I hope, for the manlier reason that I do want to argue about something else.

I think this delightful book might really mislead by a view of progress which over-simplifies history: the view that "the thoughts of men are widened by the process of the suns"—a monotonous process which cannot even widen itself. He begins his story of the subjection of women from the Bible story of Adam and Eve. He then proceeds at once to quote, not the Bible, but John Milton, and says it is almost exactly in the form "in which mediaeval man was wont to explain to mediaeval woman the kind of thing she really was." Now whatever Milton was, he was not mediaeval. He was, in his own opinion and in real though relative truth, highly modern and rationalistic. And he would have regarded his somewhat contemptuous view of woman as part of his emancipation from mediaevalism. Probably the very same attitude made him approve of divorce; and makes the difference between woman's place in his epic and her place in Dante's. On either side of that Gothic gateway of the Middle Ages out of which he had emerged (as he would have said) into the daylight, there had stood two symbolic statues of women, at least of equal importance in the scheme. One represented the weak woman by whom Satan had entered the world; the other the strong woman by whom God had entered the world. Milton and his Puritans deliberately battered and obliterated the image of the good woman and carefully preserved the bad woman, to be a standing reproach to womanhood. But they unquestionably thought their anti-feminist iconoclasm was a great step in progress; and the fact illustrates what an uncommonly crooked and even backward path the path called progress has really been. Nor is it difficult to discover, even in the writer's own account, whence this anti-feminism iconoclasm drew its force; which was certainly not merely from the Book of Genesis. Judge Parry says, perhaps disputably, that the rude Saxons had more legal regard for women than the Romans. But assuming for the sake of argument that the heathen Romans did give a low status to woman, they clearly cannot have got it either from the Hebrew Scriptures or the mediaeval Church. If he will ask where they did get it, he will probably also find where Milton got it. The truth is that there was an element of intellectual brutality in the Renaissance and revival of the pagan world. The very worship of power and reason embodied itself in a preference for the sex that was supposed superior in them. New tyrannies as well as new liberties were encouraged by the New Learning; and Cervantes was laughing at the unreal adventurer who fancied he was unchaining captives, at the very time when Hawkins, the real adventurer, was first leading negroes in chains.

Those chains may be linked up again presently in the chain of nay own argument: here I use the matter merely to show the danger of trusting each ethical fashion as it comes. There is one matter on which I would respectfully and seriously differ from Judge Parry; and that does not concern laws about women, but rather law itself. In praising the judgment in the Jackson Case, despite its technical irregularity, he speaks of a fine example of our judge-made law, and says: "But that is one of the sane and healthy attributes of our judicial system. There comes a breaking-point where a great judge recognizes that the precedents in the books are obsolete, and what has to be stated is the justice of the case according to the now existing standard of human righteousness." Now it is surely as plain as a pikestaff that this doctrine makes a small number of very wealthy old gentlemen in wigs absolute despots over the whole commonwealth. The Emperor of China was supposed to state the justice of the case. The Sultan of the Indies was supposed to judge by the existing standard of human righteousness. If the judges are not restrained by the law, what are they restrained by, which every autocrat on earth has not claimed to be restrained by?

Now there is certainly a case for personal and arbitrary government; and as there are good sultans, so there are good judges. I should not be afraid to appear before Judge Parry (if I may presume to imagine myself innocent) though he were surrounded with janissaries in a secret divan, or delivering dooms under an oak tree in a wild, prehistoric forest. I should not mind his having the power to skin me or boil me in oil; for I feel sure he would "recognize that these precedents were obsolete" and not do it. But it is by no means true that the confidence I should feel in Judge Parry would be extended to any judge who talked about obsolete precedents and human righteousness. Quite the contrary, if anything. I trust him because he often takes the side of the under-dog. I should not trust a man who always took the side of the opinion which happened to be top-dog. He understood, for instance, the case for "Pro-Boers"; but in the mafficking time a dozen great judges would have strained any law to make a case against Pro-Boers. Feminism was the fashion and may have produced some acts of justice; but Imperialism was also the fashion and might have produced any acts of any injustice. There is, let us suppose, an old statute that certain prisoners may be tortured for evidence; but the judges disregard it, and Judge Parry is satisfied. But there are three very vital reasons why he should not be satisfied. First, it encourages legislators to be lazy and leave a bad statute they ought to repeal. Second, they leave it so that it can be resharpened in some reaction or panic against particular people, who will be tortured. And third, and most important of all, the same judge who has said that prisoners must not be tortured for evidence may say some fine morning that prisoners may be vivisected for scientific inquiry; and he may have the same reason for saying the one as the other, the simple reason that such talk is fashionable in his set. And the set is very small and very rich; we are dealing strictly with fashion and not even, in any large sense, with public opinion. The standards of that world are often special and sometimes rather secretive. Judge Parry even quotes a "paradox" of Lord Reading to the effect that persons like himself should administer justice and not law. Law is narrow and national, and might possibly lead a British Minister to look no further than the British Parliament as an appropriate place for telling the truth. But justice, being international and surveying the world from China to Peru, perceives without difficulty the office of the one particular Parisian newspaper which has the right to insist on an explanation.

But the vital point is this. Judge Parry gives the instance of a judgment in which Mansfield, overriding certain remote precedents and quaint survivals, declared that there cannot be slaves in England. I am sorry to mention such a detail, but the fact is that the same judge made law is now declaring in the same way that there can be slaves in England. A magistrate has forbidden men to leave an employer, though the contract had admittedly terminated. Practical courts are overriding the obsolete and remote precedent of some man, far in the mists of mediaevalism, who is said to have made a free contract with a wealthier fellow-creature. They are disregarding the quaint survivals in our language, whereby the hand holding the tool is described as "his" hand. Our more vivid modern speech calls the man himself a hand; merely one of the many hands of his Briarean master. "There comes a breaking-point"; and it is liberty that is broken.

Whether the silent millions approve this judgment, or the other judgments, liberal or servile, feminist or anti-feminist, which Judge Parry quotes, I will not debate, but I leave the query to his very fair consideration. For if those silent millions spoke, I fancy they would surprise us in many matters, but most of all in the discovery of how little they think of all of us, judges, lawyers, literary fellows, and the rest. But I am very certain that Judge Parry would be found among the few, among the very few, who amid all the insolence of our inconsistencies have never lost that rare and even awful thing, the respect of the poor.

~G.K. Chesterton: in The Uses of Diversity (1920); a collection of essays from GK's weekly columns in The Illustrated London News and The New Witness

"A living Church"

“I HAVE another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me to-morrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One fine morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven. Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more. But imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture to-morrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare to-morrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see some truth that he has never seen before.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, IX.

GKC's church, the Church of St. Teresa
in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. Take the tour.


5/22/15

On Logic and Lunacy

THE idea of logic is so entirely lost in this phase of philosophical history, that even those who invoke it do so rather as the Athenians once invoked the Unknown God, or the men of the Dark Ages retained a dim respect for Virgil as a conjurer. The very people who say, ‘be logical’, will generally be found to be quite illogical in their own notion of logic. One of the last men who understood logic in its full and impartial sense, died only lately: the late William Johnson of King’s College, Cambridge; one of the finest minds of the age and an exact measure of the modern contrast between notability and notoriety. I mean that somehow the glory has departed from glory, and the first men of the time are often the last men to be advertised or even adequately admired. He was as incapable of intellectual injustice as of infanticide; and while he and I differed about a thousand things, even if I had regarded his view as ultimately leading to falsehood, I should always have known that it was free from the faintest tinge of fallacy. If there had been any weed of weak logic in his own argument he would have torn it up with as much joy as any weed in the garden of the enemy. For he liked that sort of weeding as an amusement and an art — a sort of art for art’s sake. And when I wander in the jungle of journalistic nonsense in which we all live to-day, his memory again and again returns.

Let us begin with a trifle that does not matter in the least. He loved to argue about trifles that do not matter in the least. Some journalist the other day shook the foundation of the universe and the British Empire by raising the question of whether a girl ought to smoke a cigar. But what I noted about his, and about the hundred eager correspondents who pursued this great theme, was that they wrote again and again some such sentence as this: ‘If you like a girl to smoke a cigarette, why can’t you be logical and like her to smoke a cigar?’ Now I do not care an ounce of shag whether she smokes a cigarette or a cigar or a corn-cob pipe or a hubble-bubble, or whether she smokes three cigars at once, or whether she is an Anti-Tobacco crank. But it is none the less true that when a man writes that sentence telling us to ‘be logical’, he shows that he has never even heard of the nature of logic. He might just as well write: ‘You like the look of a horse; why won’t you be logical and like the look of a hippopotamus?’ The only answer is, ‘Well, I don’t; and it is not illogical, because it does not in any way invade the realm of logic. A man has a perfect right to say that he likes the look of one thing and does not like the look of another thing; or even that he likes the look of a smaller thing, but does not like the look of a larger but somewhat similar thing. It is all a question of liking; and not in the least a question of logic. There is no logical compulsion upon him whatever to go on from the smaller to the larger and like them both. The man who uses this phrase attaches some queer particular meaning to the word ‘logical’; something that is dimly adumbrated in the words, ‘extremist’ or ‘going the whole hog’. But if my appetite is so small that I only require half a hog for breakfast, I am not any less of a logician because I refuse to eat the whole hog for breakfast. The obligation to eat the whole hog, if it exists, must be a mystical or moral or transcendental obligation; but it is not a logical obligation. It is not logical, because it has not been deduced from any premises; it has simply been stated without reference to any premises.

And that is what is the matter with the modern man who says, ‘be logical’. He cannot take his own advice, and therefore he cannot state his own first principles. But though his logic is nonsense as he states it, it does refer to some first principles if he could only state them. It all depends on the reason for approving of cigarettes or cigars or girls or any other strange creatures. What he really means, at the back of his muddled modernistic mind, is some thing like this: ‘If I approve of Jennifer smoking a cigarette because Jennifer can jolly well do anything she likes, and does, then it is illogical in me to object to her liking a cigar; or for that matter an opium-pipe or a pint of laudanum or a bottle of prussic acid.’ And this statement would really be quite logical, because the logical reason is given. Or if he said, ‘It is my first principle that women may do anything that men do; therefore I am bound in logic to pass the cigars to my daughter as much as to my son,’ then that also is perfectly reasonable as the application of a stated principle. But to say that a man is bound in logic to like a cigar as much as a cigarette whether in his own mouth or that of his maiden aunt or his maternal grandmother, is stark staring unreason; and shows that the speaker is entirely illogical in dealing with the two ideas of liking and logic.

This half superstitious veneration for logic, combined with a complete misunderstanding of it, is very common in those popular works of fiction which are the joy of my existence; the crime novels and the police romances and the rest. There is a queer notion that the detective, who is distinguished from all human beings by having the gift of reason, is bound in logic not to like anything or anybody. Even Sherlock Holmes (the friend of my childhood to whom I shall always pay a tribute of piety) is described somewhere, I think, as being incapable of falling in love because of his logical nature. You might as well say that he could not be expected to have much appetite for lunch, because of his proficiency in mathematics. There is nothing intrinsically illogical in having affections or admirations or appetites, so long as we recognize them reasonably as what they are. But the romantic tradition, as it exists in all the romances, is that the logician cannot be romantic. It may be remarked that the word ‘cold’ will always be found coupled with the word ‘logical’; I imagine the printers keep such words together in one block of type. But the cold logician, though be must not be romantic, is almost entirely a creature of romance. As a matter of fact and experience, most of the very logical people I have known have been very warm-blooded, affectionate or enthusiastic people. Most of the very good debaters were very warm debaters. Some of the closest reasoners in history were men of the most enthusiastic convictions; like St. Thomas Aquinas or the great French preachers and orators. The truth is, I think, that it was because the English were originally taught to have a prejudice against logic, that even when they half overcame the prejudice, there remained something alien in the admiration. They could be brought to feel a sort of awe in the presence of a really reasonable person; as if he were a sort of monster. The fact that a man could think could only be explained on the hypothesis that he was a Martian or the Man in the Moon; that he was a Clockwork Man; that he was The Thinking Machine. They began by thinking that reason is inhuman; and only gradually conceded that it is superhuman.

Is it not about time somebody preached the older doctrine; that reason is human? Is there not some thing to be said for those medieval Schoolmen and antiquated sages, who held that man is a rational animal; and even more rational than the other animals? The modern experiment of first sneering at logic for not being a practical thing, and then timidly praising it for being a priggish thing, seems to have resulted in the general loss of it as a normal function of the mind. It is as if the same Victorian English had supported their railway-trains by forbidding anybody to walk; and then, when all human limbs were paralysed, had deified two or three athletes as gods because they had the power of walking. Logic is as normal as legs; but legs can be neglected as well as logic. All that is needed is a little ordinary training and practice; the knowledge that inferences rest on their first principles, as men rest on their feet. But without it the world seems to be drifting into an intellectual dissolution and destruction, which is at its very wildest when some wild voice shrieks out of the chaos; ‘Be logical’. This strange cry apparently means that you cannot stroke a cat without stroking a tiger; or that you are bound to wish the house was on fire because you sit by the fireside.

~G.K. Chesterton: collected in All is Grist, XVII. (first published 1931)

Logic, by Lucca della Robbia.
Stone, c. 1437; Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence

5/16/15

"Most modern freedom is at root fear"

"NOW most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities. And Mr. Shaw and such people are especially shrinking from that awful and ancestral responsibility to which our fathers committed us when they took the wild step of becoming men. I mean the responsibility of affirming the truth of our human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority, an unshaken voice. That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child. From this high audacious duty the moderns are fleeing on every side; and the only excuse for them is, (of course,) that their modern philosophies are so half-baked and hypothetical that they cannot convince themselves enough to convince even a newborn babe. This, of course, is connected with the decay of democracy; and is somewhat of a separate subject."

~G.K. Chesterton: What's Wrong With the World. (1910)

"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly"

"THERE was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman—she understands. To say what she understands is beyond me; save only this, that it is not a solemnity. Rather it is a towering levity, an uproarious amateurishness of the universe, such as we felt when we were little, and would as soon sing as garden, as soon paint as run. To smatter the tongues of men and angels, to dabble in the dreadful sciences, to juggle with pillars and pyramids and toss up the planets like balls, this is that inner audacity and indifference which the human soul, like a conjurer catching oranges, must keep up forever. This is that insanely frivolous thing we call sanity. And the elegant female, drooping her ringlets over her water-colors, knew it and acted on it. She was juggling with frantic and flaming suns. She was maintaining the bold equilibrium of inferiorities which is the most mysterious of superiorities and perhaps the most unattainable. She was maintaining the prime truth of woman, the universal mother: that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

~G.K. Chesterton: What's Wrong With the World, Part IV, Ch. XIV.

 Dolly's Portrait, by Charles Courtney Curran (1861 – 1942).

"There is something in the universe more mystical than darkness"

"FAIRY TALES, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Red Angel.

● Continue reading The Red Angel

Instead Of Sleep, by Tatiana Deriy; 1973, Russian.

5/10/15

Cockneys and Their Jokes

A writer in the Yorkshire Evening Post is very angry indeed with my performances in this column. His precise terms of reproach are, "Mr. G. K. Chesterton is not a humourist: not even a Cockney humourist." I do not mind his saying that I am not a humourist—in which (to tell the truth) I think he is quite right. But I do resent his saying that I am not a Cockney. That envenomed arrow, I admit, went home. If a French writer said of me, "He is no metaphysician: not even an English metaphysician," I could swallow the insult to my metaphysics, but I should feel angry about the insult to my country. So I do not urge that I am a humourist; but I do insist that I am a Cockney. If I were a humourist, I should certainly be a Cockney humourist; if I were a saint, I should certainly be a Cockney saint. I need not recite the splendid catalogue of Cockney saints who have written their names on our noble old City churches. I need not trouble you with the long list of the Cockney humourists who have discharged their bills (or failed to discharge them) in our noble old City taverns. We can weep together over the pathos of the poor Yorkshireman, whose county has never produced some humour not intelligible to the rest of the world. And we can smile together when he says that somebody or other is "not even" a Cockney humourist like Samuel Johnson or Charles Lamb. It is surely sufficiently obvious that all the best humour that exists in our language is Cockney humour. Chaucer was a Cockney; he had his house close to the Abbey. Dickens was a Cockney; he said he could not think without the London streets. The London taverns heard always the quaintest conversation, whether it was Ben Johnson's at the Mermaid or Sam Johnson's at the Cock. Even in our own time it may be noted that the most vital and genuine humour is still written about London. Of this type is the mild and humane irony which marks Mr. Pett Ridge's studies of the small grey streets. Of this type is the simple but smashing laughter of the best tales of Mr. W. W. Jacobs, telling of the smoke and sparkle of the Thames. No; I concede that I am not a Cockney humourist. No; I am not worthy to be. Some time, after sad and strenuous after-lives; some time, after fierce and apocalyptic incarnations; in some strange world beyond the stars, I may become at last a Cockney humourist. In that potential paradise I may walk among the Cockney humourists, if not an equal, at least a companion. I may feel for a moment on my shoulder the hearty hand of Dryden and thread the labyrinths of the sweet insanity of Lamb. But that could only be if I were not only much cleverer, but much better than I am. Before I reach that sphere I shall have left behind, perhaps, the sphere that is inhabited by angels, and even passed that which is appropriated exclusively to the use of Yorkshiremen.

No; London is in this matter attacked upon its strongest ground. London is the largest of the bloated modern cities; London is the smokiest; London is the dirtiest; London is, if you will, the most sombre; London is, if you will, the most miserable. But London is certainly the most amusing and the most amused. You may prove that we have the most tragedy; the fact remains that we have the most comedy, that we have the most farce. We have at the very worst a splendid hypocrisy of humour. We conceal our sorrow behind a screaming derision. You speak of people who laugh through their tears; it is our boast that we only weep through our laughter. There remains always this great boast, perhaps the greatest boast that is possible to human nature. I mean the great boast that the most unhappy part of our population is also the most hilarious part. The poor can forget that social problem which we (the moderately rich) ought never to forget. Blessed are the poor; for they alone have not the poor always with them. The honest poor can sometimes forget poverty. The honest rich can never forget it.

I believe firmly in the value of all vulgar notions, especially of vulgar jokes. When once you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea. The men who made the joke saw something deep which they could not express except by something silly and emphatic. They saw something delicate which they could only express by something indelicate. I remember that Mr. Max Beerbohm (who has every merit except democracy) attempted to analyse the jokes at which the mob laughs. He divided them into three sections: jokes about bodily humiliation, jokes about things alien, such as foreigners, and jokes about bad cheese. Mr. Max Beerbohm thought he understood the first two forms; but I am not sure that he did. In order to understand vulgar humour it is not enough to be humorous. One must also be vulgar, as I am. And in the first case it is surely obvious that it is not merely at the fact of something being hurt that we laugh (as I trust we do) when a Prime Minister sits down on his hat. If that were so we should laugh whenever we saw a funeral. We do not laugh at the mere fact of something falling down; there is nothing humorous about leaves falling or the sun going down. When our house falls down we do not laugh. All the birds of the air might drop around us in a perpetual shower like a hailstorm without arousing a smile. If you really ask yourself why we laugh at a man sitting down suddenly in the street you will discover that the reason is not only recondite, but ultimately religious. All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of Man. They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.

Quite equally subtle and spiritual is the idea at the back of laughing at foreigners. It concerns the almost torturing truth of a thing being like oneself and yet not like oneself. Nobody laughs at what is entirely foreign; nobody laughs at a palm tree. But it is funny to see the familiar image of God disguised behind the black beard of a Frenchman or the black face of a Negro. There is nothing funny in the sounds that are wholly inhuman, the howling of wild beasts or of the wind. But if a man begins to talk like oneself, but all the syllables come out different, then if one is a man one feels inclined to laugh, though if one is a gentleman one resists the inclination.

Mr. Max Beerbohm, I remember, professed to understand the first two forms of popular wit, but said that the third quite stumped him. He could not see why there should be anything funny about bad cheese. I can tell him at once. He has missed the idea because it is subtle and philosophical, and he was looking for something ignorant and foolish. Bad cheese is funny because it is (like the foreigner or the man fallen on the pavement) the type of the transition or transgression across a great mystical boundary. Bad cheese symbolises the change from the inorganic to the organic. Bad cheese symbolises the startling prodigy of matter taking on vitality. It symbolises the origin of life itself. And it is only about such solemn matters as the origin of life that the democracy condescends to joke. Thus, for instance, the democracy jokes about marriage, because marriage is a part of mankind. But the democracy would never deign to joke about Free Love, because Free Love is a piece of priggishness.

As a matter of fact, it will be generally found that the popular joke is not true to the letter, but is true to the spirit. The vulgar joke is generally in the oddest way the truth and yet not the fact. For instance, it is not in the least true that mothers-in-law are as a class oppressive and intolerable; most of them are both devoted and useful. All the mothers-in-law I have ever had were admirable. Yet the legend of the comic papers is profoundly true. It draws attention to the fact that it is much harder to be a nice mother-in-law than to be nice in any other conceivable relation of life. The caricatures have drawn the worst mother-in-law a monster, by way of expressing the fact that the best mother-in-law is a problem. The same is true of the perpetual jokes in comic papers about shrewish wives and henpecked husbands. It is all a frantic exaggeration, but it is an exaggeration of a truth; whereas all the modern mouthings about oppressed women are the exaggerations of a falsehood. If you read even the best of the intellectuals of to-day you will find them saying that in the mass of the democracy the woman is the chattel of her lord, like his bath or his bed. But if you read the comic literature of the democracy you will find that the lord hides under the bed to escape from the wrath of his chattel. This is not the fact, but it is much nearer the truth. Every man who is married knows quite well, not only that he does not regard his wife as a chattel, but that no man can conceivably ever have done so. The joke stands for an ultimate truth, and that is a subtle truth. It is one not very easy to state correctly. It can, perhaps, be most correctly stated by saying that, even if the man is the head of the house, he knows he is the figurehead.

But the vulgar comic papers are so subtle and true that they are even prophetic. If you really want to know what is going to happen to the future of our democracy, do not read the modern sociological prophecies, do not read even Mr. Wells's Utopias for this purpose, though you should certainly read them if you are fond of good honesty and good English. If you want to know what will happen, study the pages of Snaps or Patchy Bits as if they were the dark tablets graven with the oracles of the gods. For, mean and gross as they are, in all seriousness, they contain what is entirely absent from all Utopias and all the sociological conjectures of our time: they contain some hint of the actual habits and manifest desires of the English people. If we are really to find out what the democracy will ultimately do with itself, we shall surely find it, not in the literature which studies the people, but in the literature which the people studies.

I can give two chance cases in which the common or Cockney joke was a much better prophecy than the careful observations of the most cultured observer. When England was agitated, previous to the last General Election, about the existence of Chinese labour, there was a distinct difference between the tone of the politicians and the tone of the populace. The politicians who disapproved of Chinese labour were most careful to explain that they did not in any sense disapprove of Chinese. According to them, it was a pure question of legal propriety, of whether certain clauses in the contract of indenture were not inconsistent with our constitutional traditions: according to them, the case would have been the same if the people had been Kaffirs or Englishmen. It all sounded wonderfully enlightened and lucid; and in comparison the popular joke looked, of course, very poor. For the popular joke against the Chinese labourers was simply that they were Chinese; it was an objection to an alien type; the popular papers were full of gibes about pigtails and yellow faces. It seemed that the Liberal politicians were raising an intellectual objection to a doubtful document of State; while it seemed that the Radical populace were merely roaring with idiotic laughter at the sight of a Chinaman's clothes. But the popular instinct was justified, for the vices revealed were Chinese vices.

But there is another case more pleasant and more up to date. The popular papers always persisted in representing the New Woman or the Suffragette as an ugly woman, fat, in spectacles, with bulging clothes, and generally falling off a bicycle. As a matter of plain external fact, there was not a word of truth in this. The leaders of the movement of female emancipation are not at all ugly; most of them are extraordinarily good-looking. Nor are they at all indifferent to art or decorative costume; many of them are alarmingly attached to these things. Yet the popular instinct was right. For the popular instinct was that in this movement, rightly or wrongly, there was an element of indifference to female dignity, of a quite new willingness of women to be grotesque. These women did truly despise the pontifical quality of woman. And in our streets and around our Parliament we have seen the stately woman of art and culture turn into the comic woman of Comic Bits. And whether we think the exhibition justifiable or not, the prophecy of the comic papers is justified: the healthy and vulgar masses were conscious of a hidden enemy to their traditions who has now come out into the daylight, that the scriptures might be fulfilled. For the two things that a healthy person hates most between heaven and hell are a woman who is not dignified and a man who is.

~G.K. Chesterton: from All Things Considered. (1915)

5/1/15

A Plea For Popular Philosophy

WHAT modern people want to be made to understand is simply that all argument begins with an assumption; that is, with something that you do not doubt. You can, of course, if you like, doubt the assumption at the beginning of your argument, but in that case you are beginning a different argument with another assumption at the beginning of it. Every argument begins with an infallible dogma, and that infallible dogma can only be disputed by falling back on some other infallible dogma; you can never prove your first statement or it would not be your first. All this is the alphabet of thinking... And it has this special and positive point about it, that it can be taught in a school, like the other alphabet. Not to start an argument without stating your postulates could be taught in philosophy as it is taught in Euclid, in a common schoolroom with a blackboard. And I think it might be taught in some simple and rational degree even to the young, before they go out into the streets and are delivered over entirely to the logic and philosophy of the Daily Mail.

Much of our chaos about religion and doubt arises from this—that our modern sceptics always begin by telling us what they do not believe. But even in a sceptic we want to know first what he does believe. Before arguing, we want to know what we need not argue about. And this confusion is infinitely increased by the fact that all the sceptics of our time are sceptics at different degrees of the dissolution of scepticism. ...

Now you and I have, I hope, this advantage over all those clever new philosophers, that we happen not to be mad. All of us believe in St Paul's Cathedral; most of us believe in St Paul. But let us clearly realize this fact, that we do believe in a number of things which are part of our existence, but which cannot be demonstrated. Leave religion for the moment wholly out of the question. All sane men, I say, believe firmly and unalterably in a certain number of things which are unproved and unprovable. Let us state them roughly.

(1) Every sane man believes that the world around him and the people in it are real, and not his own delusion or dream. No man starts burning London in the belief, that his servant will soon wake him for breakfast. But that I, at any given moment, am not in a dream, is unproved and unprovable. That anything exists except myself is unproved and unprovable.

(2) All sane men believe that this world not only exists, but matters. Every man believes there is a sort of obligation on us to interest ourselves in this vision or panorama of life. He would think a man wrong who said, "I did not ask for this farce and it bores me. I am aware that an old lady is being murdered down stairs, but I am going to sleep." That there is any such duty to improve the things we did not make is a thing unproved and unprovable.

(3) All sane men believe that there is such a thing as a self or ego, which is continuous. There is no inch of my brain matter the same as it was ten years ago. But if I have saved a man in battle ten years ago, I am proud; if I have run away, I am ashamed. That there is such a paramount "I" is unproved and unprovable. But it is more than unproved and unprovable; it is definitely disputed by many metaphysicians.

(4) Lastly, most sane men believe, and all sane men in practice assume, that they have a power of choice and responsibility for action....

Surely it might be possible to establish some plain, dull statement such as the above, to make people see where they stand. And if the youth of the future must not (at present) be taught any religion, it might at least be taught, clearly and firmly, the three or four sanities and certainties of human free thought.

~G.K. Chesterton: Daily News, June 22nd, 1907

Collected in The Man Who Was Orthodox: a Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. ChestertonA. L. Maycock (Editor)


"The essence of eternal tyranny"

“AN honest man falls in love with an honest woman; he wishes therefore, to marry her, to be the father of her children, to secure her and himself. All systems of government should be tested by whether he can do this. If any system—feudal, servile, or barbaric—does, in fact, give him so large a cabbage-field that he can do it, there is the essence of liberty and justice. If any system—Republican, mercantile, or Eugenist—does, in fact give him so small a salary that he can’t do it, there is the essence of eternal tyranny and shame.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, March 25, 1911.