The Midwest Chesterton News is a newsletter published by John Petersosn of Barrington, Illinois, and some very devoted Chesterton admirers. Their society has an annual conference in Milwaukee. This is a very lively newsletter, the inspiration for another newsletter from St. Paul, Minnesota, called Generally Speaking, as well as of The Defendant from Western Australia and All Things Considered from Ottawa, Canada. In the Fall of 1997, the Midwest Chesterton News, Generally Speaking, and All Things Considered combined to form a new journal entitled, Gilbert! (1377 Goodrich Ave., St. Paul, MN., 55105).
Since 1989, I have contributed a monthly column called naturally, Schall on Chesterton, to this newsletter. I remain a great admirer of the British journalist G. K. Chesterton, one of the wisest men I know. I have been more than struck by the sanity and insight, even foresight, that he displayed ever since he began writing early in the 1900's. Though he died in 1936, he remains one of the most quoted writers in the English language even today. He seems to have been a man whom everyone loved, yet also a man who had an uncanny knack of seeing reality, of putting things just right. He wrote more things than most of us could ever read, all of which are interesting, amusing, profound.
Here, I will include twenty Chesterton columns by way of introduction both to Chesterton. I find him to be one of my own greatest teachers. After these columns, I want to include two longer essays, one entitled "G. K. Chesterton: Journalist," that, in a shortened form, appeared in the Chesterton Review from Canada (itself one of the best on-going efforts to account for Chesterton); the second appeared in Dossier and is entitled, "Orthodoxy: Chesterton on the 'Delight of Truth.'".
These columns are: 1) "The Purpose of Intellect," 2) "Theses and Essays," 3) "On Creeds," 4) "Babies," 5) "The First Day of a New Creation," 6) "On the Best Book Never Written," 7) "The Horror," 8) "The Campaign against the Ten Commandments," 9) "The First Day of a New Creation," 10) "The Dullness of Chaos."
11) "On Not Wrecking Divine and Secular Things," 12) "Belloc on Chesterton," 13) "The Only Virtue," 14) "The Coming of Christ," 15) "The Divine Vulgarity of the Christian Religion," 16) The Great Temptation of the Catholic in the Modern World," 17) "At Christmas Dinner," 18) "The Natural Home of the Human Spirit," 19) "Wilde and Wilder," 20) "What Science Cannot Comprehend,"
21) "G. K. Chesterton -- Journalist," 22) "Orthodoxy: Chesterton on the 'Delight of Truth.'"
Other essays on Chesterton: "On Things Worth Doing Badly," Introduction to Vol. IV, G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works (Ignatius Press); "The Sanity of Gilbert Chesterton," Social Survey, Melbourne, October, 1977); "The Rarest of All Revolutions: G. K. Chesterton on the Relation of Human Life to Christian Doctrine," The American Benedictine Review, December, 1981; "The Last Medieval Monarchy: Chesterton and Belloc on the Philosophical Import of the American Experience," Faith & Reason, Summer, 1988; "The Inexpressible Value of Existence," in What Is God Like? (Liturgical Press/Michael Glazer); "On Doctrine and Dignity: From Heretics to Orthodoxy," in Another Sort of Learning (Ignatius).
1) From Gilbert! I (November, 1997).
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
THE PURPOSE OF INTELLECT
On April 26, 1924, in the Illustrated London News, Chesterton began a column with this question from Mr. H. G. Wells, to wit: "Why is there not more esprit de corps among intellectuals, especially of the academic and scientific sort?" (CW, XXXIII, 316-20). Anyone who has read Chesterton as long as I have will have no difficulty in imagining the potential humor implicit in this apparently earnest question. Chesterton will examine just what might follow if the status of being an "intellectual" is to be decided by intellectuals' own sense of their belonging together. He will, of course, hint that anyone who even asks this question about sticking together will, ipso facto, in his own very question indicate that he does not understand what intellect might be. Briefly, the cry "we intellectuals have to stick together" means "we intellectuals do not understand intellect."
It seems that Wells was up in arms over Mr. William Jennings Bryan's attempt to deal with Darwinists. Chesterton hints that if indeed the American Fundamentalists succeed in ridding our academic institutions of Darwinism, by that very fact alone, Darwinism's major premise will be defeated, since, to recall another famous Chesterton quip, "the survival of the fittest means the survival of those who have survived."
Thus, if fundamentalism wins over the Darwinian professors, fundamentalism is by that fact alone fitter than the professors, a proposition that few Darwinists would dare to contemplate. But this is not all, what is even worse is that the major objection to Darwin comes not from religion, which can manage to finesse it a bit, but from science itself. The theory as it was originally proposed is full of flaws. So the fundamentalists, in Chesterton's view, do not need to overthrow the Darwinian professors but just look up their critics in science itself.
Chesterton's way of putting the problem is this: "It seems a pity that the poor old skeleton of the Missing Link should be laboriously burnt by theologians, when so very little of it has been left by biologists." Chesterton always loved talking about the skeleton of the missing link, since he could not see what he could possibly "link" if he was in fact missing. Thus, Chesterton did not understand why Wells, an academic, would feel so much in need of calling academics to the barricades when the theologians had no need of refuting a theory that was well on its way to refutation by the very people who brought it up in the first place.
Chesterton does point out, however, that academics are always quite selective about which fellow academics they call to support them. He noted that one of the most famous poets, or academics, of Wells' time was an Italian by the name of Gabriel D'Annunzio, who also just happened to have lead a notorious bombing raid on the City of Fiume in a dispute about Italian possession of the area. Chesterton wondered why Wells, on the basis of his own principles, did not call other academics to the barricades to defend D'Annunzio. Could it be, Chesterton wondered, that academics were very selective in what causes they embraced and only called for help for the ones they themselves advocated?
Now, while Chesterton had great fun with Bryan and the Fundamentalists, with Wells and the Darwinists, he took just a brief moment to explain why it was not a good idea -- the implicit assumption of Wells -- for all academics to stick together. If we have a world in which all academics are busy sticking together, we can be pretty sure we live in an ideological world in which there is very little intellectual activity and very much coercion and peer pressure.
"There cannot be a real combination of intellectuals because of the purpose of the intellect," Chesterton observed. Clearly, it would seem obvious that to be an intellectual, so-called, would presuppose some clarity on what the intellect was. Only if we did not quite understand that purpose, could we propose for it a purpose -- that is, to gather together all intellectuals under some cause or other -- that was alien to the very nature of intellect.
What then is this "purpose of intellect?" "The purpose of the intellect is to come to conclusions, or rather to convictions." The fact is that we all have "intellects." What it means to be a rational animal is that one has an intellect. We do not in fact go around hawking and harping the notion that we are great just because we have intellects as a power given to us by nature. Everyone has such a power, and it does no good to hype that fact against those creatures that do not. The only person who might understand what it means to have an intellect is one who has one.
We are concerned rather with what the intellect, when it acts, does. And what it does is come to conclusions. It is the instrument of making dogmas, as Chesterton said elsewhere. An intellect that refuses to come to a conclusion is one that refuses to be an intellect. We are aware that in this multicultural, relativist world, one of the off-shoots of this theory is that no conclusions are conclusions, but only variable opinions, restricted to time and place. This is but another way of saying that the modern world is against intellect.
What we care about, even if we are relativist multiculturalists, is not whether we have an intellect, but whether what our intellect concludes to is true. We passionately care about that, or we at least should. Obviously, the picture of a rabid multiculturalist holding the truth of a multiculturalism in which nothing is true but this theory that maintains nothing is true is amusing. "I know," Chesterton admits, "there is a very solemn and impressive school of intellectuals who appear to have no intellects. They worship the intellect like an idol; and all the more because it is to them an unknown god." The "unknown god," of course, recalls St. Paul in Athens, speaking to the descendants of the original, and worthy, intellectuals.
The fact is that we do not "worship" intellect as such. We might thank God that we exist and exist as beings with intellects. Lord knows, we did not give ourselves our own intellects, let alone give to ourselves our very being what we are. What the intellect is, is not the product of our own making. But once we realize that it is given as part, the defining part, of what we are, we begin to realize that it has a purpose or function that we are responsible for using and using properly. "But those who use the intellect like a tool will always prefer the product to the process." What is more important in practice is what conclusions we come to when we use our minds.
This being the case, Chesterton concludes, when people group themselves together, it is because of agreement or disagreement about what they hold to be true. The fact that they are "intellectuals" as such means nothing. The intellectuals' "corporate enthusiasm will be for those with whom they agree, and not those with whom they differ." This means then that the great divides among us are not between those who have some title of "intellectual" and those who do not, but over what this or that group of intellectuals or ordinary folks holds to be true. The fact that academics are "intellectuals" does not, by itself, prevent them from holding the silliest of things, the logic of which will simply not hold up.
We have intellects. The purpose of the intellect is to know. The purpose of the intellect is to know whether what we know is true or not, whether it does or does not conform with reality, a reality that our intellect did not itself make. The purpose of human fellowship is to join together in those things that we know, in our own minds, are true. The purpose of intellectual dispute is calmly to examine things held to be true and to resolve, by means of principle, essentially that of contradiction, what whether what we hold is or is not true. The only title any human being, intellectual or otherwise, has for respect, once we know the respect due to each simply for what he is, is whether what we hold is true. A kingdom divided against itself cannot hold. That is, intellectuals as a group can and have conspired against the truth. Chesterton was aware of all of this in 1924 when he reminded us of "the purpose of intellect."
2) From Midwest Chesterton News, October, 1996.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
ON THESES AND ESSAYS
Just when I thought that I had the importance and delight of the essay pretty well figured out, I ran across an essay of Chesterton that made me doubt the line of thought I have often used to praise Chesterton himself. The occasion for these reflections was a very nice book review of my Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays, by Professor James Finn Cotter at Mt. St. Mary's College, in Maryland. Cotter remarked, with much eloquence, that "the personal essay is a most creative form of human expression when it comes to reaching out to the reader. It is natural, authentic, and unique, and it cannot be easily faked, like a poem or a story. When read aloud, an essay touches our emotions directly and makes us think more clearly."
My Idylls and Rambles (Ignatius Press, 1994) itself contained a defense of the essay and argued that it was quite the most delightful of all forms of writing. I rejoiced that Belloc and Chesterton wrote essays with such humor and insight. I even cited Stevenson and Hazlett as favorite essayists. Now, I know that some people prefer poetry or the novel or the solid book to the short essay. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot enjoy every form that comes along, if it is good. I knew that the early essay in French was an "effort", an "attempt" or a "try" at explaining or accounting for something. Its genius is that it is open to every topic and mood, whimsical or solemn.
The day after I read Cotter's review, I decided to do a column for the Midwest Chesterton News. About a year ago, as I mentioned in an earlier column, I bought several volumes of the Collected Works, but I had noticed that I had not read any of Volume XXXV, 1929-31. So I opened up the book rather arbitrarily to the column of March 2, 1929, on "Buddhism and Christianity", a most pertinent topic considering John Paul II's remark on Buddhism in Crossing the Threshold of Hope and his Ut Unum Sint. Just as I was about to begin my essay on Buddhism (hold your breath), however, I thumbed backward to the Chesterton column of February 16, 1929. Its title was, I could hardly believe it, "On the Essay"! I, being only fourteen months old when it was written, had never seen this essay before; it was like discovering gold in your own backyard. I thought maybe Professor Cotter might like a copy of it, so I xeroxed it. I figured I knew exactly what Chesterton would say in his essay.
Then I read Chesterton's essay "On the Essay" only to discover that he did not at all say what I assumed he would say. He did say, much to my consolation, that he himself indulged in the essay all his life and loved it as a form of writing. Chesterton began his essay, however, with this quite upsetting sentence for someone, like me, prepared to exalt the essay at all costs: "There are dark and morbid moods in which I am tempted to feel that Evil re-entered the world in the form of Essays." "Wow!" I thought to myself, that is quite a surprising remark -- evil re-enters the world in the form of essays! Here I had been thinking that the essay could save the world and I discover the Devil as its author!
It has been my experience, as devoted readers of the Midwest Chesterton News well know by now, however, that whenever Chesterton talks about evil, I had better pay attention; something momentous is about to happen. The plot thickens when Chesterton remarked that the essay came into English letters from the French via Francis Bacon. Chesterton added, "I can only believe it. I always thought he (Bacon) was the villain of English history." It was Bacon who taught the English that knowledge is purely positive, purely useful.
So what's up with the essay, the form of literature Schall likes most? Is the truth now out, that, as many of his best friends have darkly hinted for years, Schall himself is a cooperator in the Evil that re-enters history, no small problem as even Schall recognizes?
Chesterton admitted that "I take my greatest literary pleasure in reading them (essays); after such really serious necessities of the intellect as detective stories and tracts written by madmen." Well, you just have to laugh at such a remark. We readers of Father Brown know about Chesterton and detective stories; we readers of Orthodoxy know of Chesterton and madmen; we readers if a hundred of his books know about Chesterton and essays. So here Chesterton is telling us that essays are something of a serious intellectual problem through which evil re-entered the modern world. Why so?
Chesterton maintained that the essay is a modern invention -- though it was known to the Romans, I think, say to Horace and Cicero. Most readers know that I also do a monthly column in Crisis entitled "Sense and Nonsense". Needless to say, I have always understood that this title comes from Chesterton. Let us see how it works into our present plot:
There is any amount of sense and nonsense talked both for and against what is called medievalism. There is also any amount of sense and nonsense talked for and against what is called modernism. ... But if a man wanted the one real and rational test, which really does distinguish the medieval from the modern mood, it might be stated thus: The medieval man thought in terms of the Thesis, where the modern man thinks in terms of the Essay.
The man who wrote a Thesis, stated what he held and then proceeded to prove it by known, orderly, logical rules. The man who writes the essay holds nothing so definite.
Chesterton said that he enjoys Stevenson, but he worried about the man who preferred, as Stevenson said in a famous essay, the travel to the arrival at the end of the road. Chesterton always preferred the flagons at the Inn at the End of the World. In logic, Chesterton pointed out that if the end of travel were not more important, no one would ever set forth. The travel itself may well be diverting enough, but it cannot be the end or purpose of the journey. The essayist, not the thesis maker, has unfortunately become our moral philosopher. He, like the traveller, has nothing definite in mind when he sets out or when he concludes. "After a certain amount of wandering the mind wants either to get there or to go home," Chesterton observed. "It is one thing to travel hopefully, and say half in jest that that it is better than to arrive. It is another thing to travel hopelessly, because you know you will never arrive." Needless to say, the medievals travelled hopefully, knowing by their theses to where they would arrive, while the moderns travel hopelessly, not having anywhere to go.
Chesterton thus was able to take that which he himself wrote thousands of times, the very essay, and subject it to critical examination about what it did and what he was doing. Chesterton found an element in modern letters that is, because of its inconclusiveness, "indefinite and dangerous." For he understood that it is dangerous for the mind not to do what the mind does of its nature, that is, come to conclusions, on the basis of a thesis, of an open argument. In this sense, Chesterton understood that the "article", the unit of argument in St. Thomas' Summae, was a far different proposition from the essay that only rambled on about one's own feelings.
Now I do not think there is anything particularly wrong with feelings or rambling, but it is not to be done for its own sake. Chesterton saw that evil re-enters in the world when the world is so proposed to us that all there is in it is travel, no goal. The evil is fuzziness, the inability to make a decision or to live by one when made, the certainty of uncertainty that paralyzes the mind and the culture.
In writing an essay, we can deal with theoretical or practical matters. This is the liberty of the essay. But properly to present theoretical matters we must put forth a theory and arrive at a conclusion based on that theory. If we substitute the looseness of the essay for the rigor of the thesis and the argument, we will end up simply roaming and wandering about the intellectual landscape.
After I read this essay of Chesterton on the essay, I asked myself, is Chesterton, in his essays, guilty of the fault that he attributes to the heritage of Bacon, of letting evil into the world because the essayist could not make up his mind about what he was arguing? I thought of the many times in these pages that I have reflected on, analyzed, commented on, one or another Chesterton essay. I realized that what was to me always unique and striking about Chesterton's essays, what made them different, was that his essays, while always revealing a good amount of wonderment and delight, were always theses. He always knew what the mind was for. Even in his playful essays, in his "attempt" to wander about within an experience or an event, Chesterton came to a clear conclusion based on principled argument. Chesterton managed to combine the virtue of the medieval thesis with the modern essay. He was so delightful, so perceptive that he taught the truth, in both sense and nonsense, under the guise of evil re-entering the world.
3) From Midwest Chesterton News, May, 1995.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
We have heard the complaint, no doubt, that religion, particularly the Christian religion, is so negative. It seems always to be telling us what we cannot do, not what we can do. We want a "positive" religion; we do not want to worry about "don'ts". Just give us the "do's". Having propounded this well-known thesis, we proudly content ourselves with our liberality, our progressivism in things to be done.
Such is a very common complaint, and yet, when examined, a very superficial one. When we sort it out, when we think of why the Ten Commandments "forbid", at least those that apply to us human beings and our relations to each other, we will realize that these negative dicta are the most positive things we could imagine. In the one positive Commandment, besides that of "keeping holy the Sabbath", we are told to "honor" our father and our mother. Now this positive command is rather more demanding than if we were simply told "Not to Dishonor Them". It is as if we were told -- and the Greek philosophers do tell us this -- that there is no way we can repay our parents for what they have given to us, that to honor them is an obligation that really never ends. The positive Commandment to "honor" our Father and our Mother is, in fact, the most difficult of things to do.
On the other hand, take the law of driving. The basic law of the State of California is simply, "Drive Safely." This command is stated positively, but, as it stands, it is not really of much help. The negative laws -- "STOP", "DRIVE SLOWLY", "SPEED LIMIT, 25 MPH" -- give us the freedom and knowledge of what actually to do. Even these negative commands always have to be interpreted in the light of "Drive Safely". The negative commands tell us what actually to do when we drive safely.
Now I bring this consideration of law and Commandment up because I purchased, at a reduced price, Volume XXXII, of Ignatius Press' Collected Works of Chesterton (1989). These are the columns from The Illustrated London News from 1920-22. The very first essay in this volume is dated January 3, 1920. Like so many of Chesterton's essays that I had never read before, on reading it, I just wanted to cheer, it is so well put.
This particular essay was given the title, "Negative and Positive Morality". As the essay was written just after the Great War and during the time of New Year's resolutions, Chesterton noted that a "resolution" was a formal statement of hope. A resolution specifies what specifically we have to do to change ourselves, year after year. Thus, finding ourselves rather difficult suddenly to change, we will probably have to deal with our recurrent sins -- "for the soul and its sins are in every sense a problem of eternity."
Chesterton, referring to World War I, furthermore, remarked that in being relieved and grateful for the end of the War, we should notice that our gratitude is greatest when our escape from evil is very narrow. Likewise, our resolutions of hope that we change ourselves, that we recognize our sins, indicate to us the narrowness of the gap that stands between ourselves and the evil we could do if we would, if we did not observe the Commandments.
We must further recognize that when we say "yes" to something, we at the same time say "no" to something else. Every "yes" is a "no". If we say "yes" to this, we say "no" to that; it cannot be otherwise. "The silliest sort of progressive complains of negative things," Chesterton continued. But the fact is that what we say "no" to defines in the simplest and more graphic way to what it is that we say "yes". When this "silly" progressivism becomes a "campaign against the Ten Commandments", it indicates that it does not understand what is going on when things are commanded not to be done. "The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity." Why is this so?
Why, in other words, are the Ten Commandments, mostly negative statements to be sure, rather signs of humanity and liberality than signs of gloom and narrowness as they are commonly thought to be? This is the reason Chesterton gives us, in one of his finest sentences: "It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted, precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden." The Lord did not list all the positive things that we should be doing because the list would never end and, besides, we are supposed to find out the positive things for ourselves. We are supposed to be surprised by the myriad of good things that are.
Thus, if we were to be commanded simply, "Do good", instead of "Thou shalt not", we would never end with the good things that we should or could do, the most things that are permitted to us because the whole world is given to us. The natural law, in fact, already tells us "Do Good and Avoid Evil," so revelation adds what we need to know so that we will not be confused about the most essential things that we ought not to do.
Chesterton, by way of example, offered a marvelous list of good things we might possibly be commanded to do if, because we could not get the point otherwise, we insisted on having our commandments stated positively: Thou shalt first "pick dandelions on the common". Then the list would go on for a month with other things we might do before we come to, Thou shalt "throw pebbles into the sea, ... sneeze, ... make snowballs, blow bubbles, play marbles, make toy airplanes, travel on Tooting trains." The list would simply never come to an end before we come to consider the things we ought not to do, things that might make finding any ordered good in things impossible.
In comparison with what we might do and are permitted to do, then, the Ten Commandments display "that brevity that is the soul of wit". Thus, "it is better to tell a man not to steal than to try to tell him the thousand things that he can enjoy without stealing." And if we insist that there are some things that we cannot enjoy unless we steal them, we at the same time deprive someone else of enjoying what we have stolen from him. Our "yes" is someone else's "no". By not observing the commandment, we insist that what is not ours is ours. We give the same right to someone else to steal from us; we end up in a war of all against all because we do not observe the negative commandment which lets everyone enjoy what is his.
Chesterton next, to clarify the point more graphically, takes up the problem of the positive side of the Fifth Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Kill". Now the commandment simply tells us not to kill anyone, including the mythical "Mr. Robinson" of Chesterton's example. What happens positively when we do not kill this Robinson? Well, basically, Robinson continues to live and do all those things for which Robinson is noted, things that we cannot imagine. Mrs. Robinson, no doubt, is delighted to have old Robinson still around. Robinson himself is delighted to be around, though he does not know the narrow escape he had by our observing the "Thou Shalt Not" of the Commandment.
Chesterton thought of the Great War in the same way as he did of Robinson, that, however destructive, it saved Western Civilization, Christendom, from something worse, from nothingness. It was still around though it might have been destroyed by Prussianism. "Nothing is negative except nothing; and it is not our rescue that was negative, but only the nothingness and annihilation from which we were rescued." Thus, if the civilization is not destroyed, if Robinson is not killed, what results is civilization and Robinson, which, in both instances, is positive not negative.
Thus, if someone obeys the Commandment and does not get rid of Robinson, the negative prohibition means that Robinson positively lives. "And to say it is not a positive good and glory to have saved him from strangling is to miss the whole meaning of human life. It is to forget every good as soon as we have saved it...." The point about the good we save is precisely the activities, the life, that continue in being. The important thing about not killing Robinson is not killing him, but the things that good old Robinson does of which we probably have no idea.
Consequently, we are really to fear that good things can be lost or destroyed. The things that are, all that is good, we are permitted, provided in our pursuit and choice of them, we obey the commandments, for these are the limits and guidelines by which we can really have, really enjoy what is good. We can only have Robinson, if we do not kill him. We can only have our property, if someone does not steal it. We can only have our wife if someone else does not covet her. All these "Shalt Not's" are resolutions by which we are free to enjoy the thousands of things that we are permitted to do, the end of which we shall never reach. This very experience indicates to us why we are, in the same revelation that gives us the Ten Commandments, given also the promise of eternal life.
But what is the most penetrating reflection that Chesterton gives to all these considerations of the positiveness of negative morality, of the reasons why the "campaign against the Ten Commandments" is so "silly"? It is because we can appreciate most what we nearly lost. We do not realize the wonder of an existing thing until we recognize that it might not exist, indeed, that it might not exist at our hands. The Ten Commandments are the other side of our realization of the wonder of existing things, the good things we let be and we choose because they are good. And this is Chesterton's great line: "We adorn things most when we love them most; and we love them most when we have nearly lost them." This is what the Ten Commandments are really about.
The Commandments prevent us from losing things that we love most. We love them but we do not really see them as the goods they are until we nearly lose them. We can lose everything that is good if we do not observe the Commandments that are specifically designed to keep in being what is good. When we see that what we love is almost lost, we adorn it in thanksgiving; we respond to the beauty of what is with the added beauty of our own recognition of what is given to us, of what we almost lost because we did not observe the Commandments.
4) From Midwest Chesterton News, March, 1996
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
ON THE BEST BOOK NEVER WRITTEN
In the "Introduction" to The Everlasting Man (Collected Works, Vol. II), Chesterton begins with the famous sentence about two ways of getting home. The most efficient way is never to leave home in the first place. But if someone stays home all the while, he may never realize just how unique his home is. The other way to get home is for someone to go around the world, seeing how different everything is, until he comes back to where he started, finally to recognize its utter uncommonness. Chesterton then confesses that he once tried to write a book on this very theme about going around the world to reach home, but that he never managed to finish it. This is the book he called "the best book he never wrote."
Needless to say, this image of the two ways of "getting home" serves as the analogy by which Chesterton discusses the uniqueness in the universe of both man and the Church. Neither man nor the Church are noticed for what they are because they are said, on too superficial examination, to be just like something else. That is, man is "just like" the animals and the Church is just like "religion". But how very different each is within these categories is minimized or overlooked or not noticed. And what is disregarded is, as Chesterton explains, the most striking things about them.
Chesterton remarked in a "Preliminary Note" to this book that there comes a time when ordinary people need to talk about whether popular or scientific positions, like evolution or comparative religion theories, really make sense as explained. Chesterton insisted on what he called "the reasonable right of the amateur to do what he can with the facts which the specialists produce." Chesterton implies, naturally, that science is not exempt from logic and religion is not exempt from consistency, lack of either of which Chesterton happens to be a genius in noticing in either scientists or parsons.
I realize that I have not read The Everlasting Man in a long time. Somehow, it has never been one of my favorite Chesterton books, but the more I look at it now, the more I begin to like it. By chance, I had been rereading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity on an airplane to Phoenix. In the first part of this still amazing book, Lewis brings up the fact that our initial human experience in, say, listening to people argue, is that first there is some law or rule that they expect others to obey -- "I's not fair", "I was here first." Secondly, human beings, even while knowing this law, often do not observe it. And when questioned about why they did not observe it, they will always have a "reason" of some sort to which they appeal.
Lewis remarks in this context that in fact Christianity has nothing to say to people who are not aware in their reason or in their experience that they themselves have done something wrong. What to do about this sense of having done something wrong, something personally wrong, however, provides the very entry of Christianity into the moral world. Christianity comes as a remedy for something that we ought to be aware of, something the perplexes and unsettles us. Thus, we are told to "repent" at the very beginning of the Gospel, as if it presumed that everyone has something to be sorry for and they are looking for a way to do something about it.. The Pharisees are scandalized because Christ forgives sins, sins they blindly do not see in themselves.
The memory of his remark of Lewis made me pay particular attention to the following sentence of Chesterton in the "Introduction" to The Everlasting Man: "When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do." The Church is unique among the religions because it proposes to do something about the sin we already recognize to be such an enigmatic part of our experience.
The Church is even more unique because it does not propose to eradicate sin from the world but to be there all along to forgive when sins are committed. The Church cannot provide a method to infallibly get rid of sin because it cannot get of free will, which lies at the origin of all sin, and, for that matter, of all repentance.
Thus, the Church does not say that sin is determined to happen from all eternity. It does not say that it is an illusion. It does not say that it can simply be ignored or forgotten without repentance and the sacrament. Moreover, the Church does not affirm that there is nothing wrong. Nor does it call evil good. And it does not locate the source of this something wrong outside the human will, in property configurations or in matter or in the fact of sex, none of which in itself is evil or sinful..
Chesterton suggests that if we are Christians we will know these things about human life, about sin and forgiveness. They will be familiar to us because they constitute part of the home we live in, but often do not recognize in its extraordinariness. He also remarks that someone totally from outside of Christianity, some Chinese gentleman perhaps, might also see that Christianity's particular doctrines are quite unique, not really posed in any other tradition.
The man least likely to recognize the importance and wonder of his spiritual home, however, will be "the man who now (is) most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into an ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginnings, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard." As the Holy Father intimates in his teaching on the Third Millennium, we are a civilization filled with people precisely "weary of hearing what it has never heard."
We live in a time in which many, many Christians cannot recognize their own home. This is why something like the General Catechism of the Catholic Church or Crossing the Threshold of Hope are such amazing books because they describe home so well to those who never left it and so clearly to those who had never heard of it before. But the utter uniqueness of either man or Christianity cannot be seen by Christians who have slipped into a kind of practical skepticism or personal sinfulness that prevents them from seeing what they really in fact need as human beings in the world -- a teaching that recognizes a law, that recognizes that we break the law, that we need forgiveness, that a source of this forgiveness has been revealed to us. The boredom of the world is caused by not being able to see the newness of what is already at home. The world is full of those unable or unwilling to see what they already have. The Good News has already arrived and many of us are too weary to notice.
5) From Midwest Chesterton News, February, 1996.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
A memorable essay in The Well and the Shallows (1935) is entitled "Babies and Distributism" (Collected Works, III, pp. 439-41). It may well be the most defiantly counter-cultural essay of our times, to be matched only by Flannery O'Connor's remark that birth control is the most spiritual doctrine of the Church. Neither Chesterton nor Flannery O'Connor had children of their own. Both wrote in disdain of the intellectuals, secular and ecclesiastical, of their era who advocated this practice. Both wrote knowing that their position would be rejected. Both understood that the Church's position had something profoundly right about it, something at the heart of human reality. Pius XI's Encyclical Casti Connubii ("On Christian Marriage") had appeared on the last day of December, 1930, some four years before Chesterton wrote this essay.
Knowing the bitterness of opposition to what he maintained, and having seen this opposition develop mostly as he knew it would, Chesterton's essay today reads almost like reading direct revelation. The whole of our time, so it thought, "knew" the Church was wrong. Chesterton knew the Church was right, even before the issue really developed in the convoluted manner we know it today. Intellectual reputations were made, much publicity was gained, by openly opposing what the Church taught. All sorts of devious theories have had to be invented in order to justify this opposition. Almost every day, even yet, theologians and professors will be quoted to the effect that the Church will, must, ought to change its views.
In the meantime, the present Holy Father, as did his predecessors before him, repeats, clarifies, and demonstrates both why it will not change this position and what it is defending -- human life and human love. Moreover, our times live out in the lives of those who will not accept the Church's teaching what it means to defy what is the truth in these matters. The destruction of the family is in the news every day but we choose not to make too many connections. It is too much to bear to think the Church, even on empirical grounds, has been right all along, as it has been.
What is remarkable about Chesterton's short essay, I think, is not only his clear insight into what would happen if we denied the truth of the Church's position, which is the position of reason, but also his own personal reaction to the public policy of birth control. Chesterton was a mild and gentle man. He rarely was annoyed. Indeed, in this essay, he recounted this very serene quality of his own soul. Atheists did not particularly annoy him as he could understand the narrow logic by which they limited themselves. Even Bolsheviks were people with the same narrow minds but who at least were against something that needed to be corrected. But for the proponents of birth control, Chesterton only had, as he tells us, "contempt."
When Chesterton had "contempt" for something, we can be sure that something was radically wrong with the position. He was one of those men who could both explain what was wrong and even sense it, feel it. A good man can often uncannily recognize the face of something that is really evil; he can see its evil because he can see where it leads and what it prevents, something close to the heart of God. We should never forget that human babies, from the moment of their conceptions, are very near the heart of God. Their angels look on His very face.
Chesterton gave three reasons for his "personal contempt" about this issue. He lived before the days in which those who proposed eliminating babies in wombs called themselves advocates of "choice" instead of killers of human lives, which is what they objectively are. Choice is a verb and must have an object. "To choose" cannot be understood without its object. To be "pro-choice" does not mean in practice to be "for free will" as if it referred to some sort of theoretical dissertation on the human faculty. It means in context always choosing to kill an already incipient human life at some stage of its already begun development. This current abuse of the language would have driven this gentle man into a rage, I am sure.
But Chesterton had something of the same language problem already in 1935. His first reason for opposing it had to do with the very phrase "Birth Control". Chesterton could not stand lying with words. He would not have minded it so much had its advocates called it "Birth Prevention", for that is what it was; but to call it "birth control" was simply a gross abuse of language. "I despise Birth-Control," he wrote,
first because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly word. It is also an entirely meaningless word, and is used so as to curry favor even with those who would at first recoil from its real meaning. The proceeding these quack doctors recommend does not control any birth. It only makes sure that that there shall never be any birth to control. ... Normal people can only act so as to produce birth; and these people can only act so as to prevent birth.
What "Birth Control" means, to use the language precisely, is "Birth Prevention". Chesterton thought the very word was a lie and intended to be a lie.
The second reason Chesterton had personal contempt for "Birth Control" was because of the thing itself. Chesterton is very blunt and frank here. He saw "Birth Control" to lack the courage of its convictions which even the Eugenicists have. At least the consistent Eugenicist would follow the example of dealing with animals where we let all the off-spring be born then choose which ones we want to keep. This would be a better position, Chesterton thought, than the "Birth Prevention" system which prevents or kills all birth.
In a reflection that may have something to do with the reason why many western countries have to rely on foreign labor, Chesterton wrote,
By the weak compromise of Birth-Prevention, we are very probably sacrificing the fit and only producing the unfit. The births we prevent may be the births of the best and the most beautiful children; those we allow, the weakest or worst. Indeed, it is probable; for the habit discourages the early parentage of young and vigorous people; and lets them put off the experience to later years, mostly for mercenary motives.
Chesterton thought that the "Birth Prevention" and Eugenic movements were hiding their real program. They treat human beings in principle as we treat the animals, that is, we keep or kill only what we want for our own ideological or mercenary motives.
The most important reason the Birth-Control mentality bothered Chesterton was as follows: "my contempt boils over into bad behavior when I hear the common suggestion that a birth is avoided because people want to be 'free' to go to the cinema or buy a gramophone or a loud-speaker. What makes me want to walk over such people like door-mats in that they use the word 'free'." When human babies are not preferred to material possessions, this preference is not a sign of freedom but of servitude. Material possessions are not signs of freedom; children are.
Chesterton put the issue with much eloquence, by establishing what it first and what is second, what is important and what is its cause. "A child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom," Chesterton wrote.
He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. They can feel that any amusement he gives (which is often considerable) really comes from him and from them, and from nobody else. He has been born without the intervention of any master or lord. He is a creation and a contribution; he is their own creative contribution to creation.
Chesterton here clearly reminded us of our priorities, of what is essential, of what is merely a means.
Chesterton already saw back in the 1930's how words and ideas would be abused to further anti-human priorities and realities. At the heart of reality is the child, the baby. This is the sign of freedom. The child is a new will in the world. What we have forgotten is precisely the wonder of this will when it is protected and wanted by its parents against the world, if necessary. No state or authority can interfere with this parental freedom to establish its own family in which its babies are to be born.
The child is the parents' contribution to creation. The new free will and mind in the world represent that potential innovative force by which the material possessions needed to support us can be invented and come into being in the first place. The ultimate wealth is the human mind and will as it refreshingly comes to be in each new human birth. Human beings do not want to be free from children, their children. Babies teach us what stands at the heart of reality -- "the sign and sacrament of personal freedom."
6) From Midwest Chesterton News, November, 1994.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
Chesterton very often returned to the idea that man is, by nature, a creed-making animal. Needless to say, this position is provocative, since we moderns often pride ourselves about not having any "creed" to restrict our style. What is peculiar about man, among other things, however, is that he smokes in spite of warnings of the Surgeon General that it is bad for his health -- although the scientific status of the present Surgeon-General (Elders) admittedly makes one suspect that if she is against it, it must be vital for one's continued well-being. It is thus one thing to have a creed and deliberately break its provisions and another thing to maintain that there is nothing to break, that there is nothing we can establish as a standard, whether we keep it or not.
The mind has its own peculiar function, however, a function that is its own proper activity. This function is, in Chesterton's view, that of making dogmas. Creeds are organized and coordinated lists of dogmas or doctrines. They state as clearly and as accurately as is possible just what it is we understand about some subject -- be it God, man, earth, or society. To forbid a mind to make a dogma or establish a doctrine that is true is to forbid it to be a mind. The mind seeks to know the truth. When it knows a truth, the mind seeks to formulate and state it, as if stating what the dogma is, is itself vital both to the creed's integrity and to our lives. We seek accurately to translate creeds into differing languages so that the same idea or understanding of a doctrine or a dogma will be accurately comprehended against the background of legitimately differing languages.
Chesterton wrote two columns about creeds in the Illustrated London News in November of 1927 (XXXIV, pp. 408-12; 421-24). In both essays, he was amused that the popular ideas about creeds -- namely, that they are "crumbling" and that men are becoming "weary" of them -- are both quite wrong. Chesterton maintained that if you asked the next ten, fifty, or a thousand people you met whether the "creeds" were crumbling, they would admit that they are because that is what they have heard repeated over and over. But these same people would not really be examining what is going on all around them. The fact is that people want to hear about dogmas and are eager to listen to disputes about them. Though we probably at first sight think exactly the opposite, people are "entirely interested in doctrinal matters and not in merely moral matters."
Thus people are not particularly interested in whether "Tommy is a good boy," but they are intrigued about rumors of whether the Dean of St. Paul's is "a Christian or a Platonist or a Pyrrho-Buddhist." What is, no doubt, amusing about that last remark is that we must today also examine whether bishops and deans profess, that is, agree with, the dogmas they are committed to hold by virtue of their office or whether they have gone off on some or other outlandish or dangerous tangent. Everyone sees that the importance of creeds is clearly manifest by the thoughts and actions of those who profess to uphold them but do not in practice.
"People are not merely interested in morality, or even merely in religion. They are intensely interested in theology -- if possible even more than in religion." What does this mean that people are more interested in theology than in morality or religion? Obviously, it means that people want to know, not merely to follow as in ritual or to act as in morality. What we do and what we think are intimately related. The most interesting and important thing we can know about someone, Chesterton said in his famous essay on "Why I Am Not a Socialist", is what he thinks, how does he see the world? Only when we know someone's "creed" will we be prepared to know how he might act in the world.
This is not to deny, of course, as E. Michael Jones in his Degenerate Moderns and Paul Johnson in his The Intellectuals put it, that we can also tell much about why people hold the theories they do by looking at how they live their lives. What appears at first sight to be an extraordinarily convoluted theory often becomes quite intelligible when we look at the kind of life that is being justified. Lives reveal theories; theories influence lives. Those who demonstrate in practice no relation between mind and act or act and mind are hardly human, again not forgetting that we are beings who can be wildly inconsistent. We have a society filled with people who are against smoking on the grounds that it is injurious to human health, but who are pro-choice when it comes to killing incipient human life.
Chesterton told the story of his friend, Bernard Shaw, who was once asked to be on a discussion panel. The rules of the panel forbad any discussion of religion and politics. Shaw retorted, that "he never discussed anything else except politics and religion." Chesterton added, "I also can claim that I never discuss anything except politics and religion." And Chesterton added,
"There is nothing else to discuss." By this of course, Chesterton meant that there are some things that are "discussable" and some things that are not. As Aristotle said, nobody debates about whether to begin the Trojan War. It is already over. We can only seek the facts of what happened, not whether to begin it.
Chesterton thought that probably people were "intensely interested in theology -- if possible more than in religion." Why would he say this? It is, I think, because theology means precisely word or thought about God, the attempt to unravel and clarify what we mean by or know of the highest Being. The knowledge of whether God exists is one thing, interesting enough as it is. But the real interest comes when, once knowing of the existence of a beginning source or cause, we commence our wondering about what sort of a being or reality this origin or end might be. So we try to formulate what we think, what we conclude, what we articulate.
When we begin to do this articulating, we are in the creed making business, whatever we call it. "A creed means what anybody believes, and generally lends something of its definite character even to what he disbelieves. That the Creator is indifferent to creed is itself a creed. Even that the Creator does not exist at all is in essence a creed." This is why it is important especially for those who claim that they are free of odious creeds to identify their own creed so that we can examine them for their validity. We can in fact state in creedal form any claim to deny the need of a creed. No one is more pitiful or more dangerous than the "creedless" professor or parson. Chesterton had the uncanny ability to perceive and articulate the hidden creeds of those who had no creeds.
What might also sound strange to us on first reading is Chesterton's insistence that morality is not very interesting. We hear a lot about the notion that we should not bother about the differing creeds or statements of what people believe but look to their deeds. Samuel Johnson, I believe, once quipped that if a man denies in theory the validity of private property while he is visiting our house, we should count the silver after he leaves. It is true that by their fruits you shall know them. What is not true is that these fruits come from some sort of mindlessness that has no relation to a thought that might have caused them. If we really only were interested in actions with no perception of the thoughts that caused then, "the result would be a torrent of tedium, a howling wilderness of boredom." We would eliminate "mysticism" and the consciousness of our inner lives. The attention to deeds without to the thought behind them would be only moralising, something men find "the dreariest experience on earth." By eliminating any discussion of creed, creeds of even those who claim not to have any, we would at the same time get rid of what men "find really interesting," namely, "the disputes about dogmas and creeds." That is to say, we would rid ourselves of serious discussions about what is true.
In his second November article on creeds, Chesterton remarked that on having watched the situation from his "first to his second childhood", the fact is that creeds, far from crumbling, seem in fact to be "the hardest and most indestructible material made by man, if they were made by man." Chesterton was not here talking about the truth of creeds, though that is obviously the key question. He simply pointed out that men have been reciting the Nicene Creed, for instance, for almost seventeen centuries now. The new General Catechism still explains the centrality and indeed the truth of the creeds by which Catholicism identifies itself. It identifies itself by stating clearly what it holds to be true. And it does this after the manner in which the mind functions, that is, by making intelligible propositions of what it is that is the point of the doctrine.
What is in fact constantly crumbling, Chesterton thought, was not the creeds but the criticism of the creeds, that is, the grounds upon which this criticism is based. Chesterton had remarked someplace in Orthodoxy, I believe, that any stick is all right to beat the creed-making Church with, even contradictory positions. Thus, if the creed is said to be wrong because science has proved that it is untenable, what happens when the scientific position that was said to be the basis of the refutation of the creed is itself what is changed or untenable? "The first skeptic says something is wrong because something else is right," Chesterton explained. "If the second thing is not right, then there never was any reason to believe that the first thing was wrong. If I say Paul Jones was wicked because he was a pirate, and then go on to prove that piracy is perfectly innocent and respectable -- well, then it follows that there was never any particular objection to Paul Jones, and there is an end to it."
The creeds are the stable things. Indeed, it turns out that even the objections to creeds that claim to be true are themselves claims to be true. They may reappear from time to time in a certain new garb but with essentially the same position. Chesterton found that heresies rather frequently showed up unbeknownst to those who had forgotten the dogma against which a heresy was first directed. "It is not the creed, but the criticism that is always crumbling away, age after age." We live in a world in which we constantly look for something new. We live in a world in which what turns out to be most new and refreshing is something very old, something that states as carefully as it is given to the human intellect and human word to state it, what is true of God, world, man, and society. What angers many in our time is that we did not invent these doctrines that mind discovers and formulates when the mind does what it is supposed to do. That is to say, what angers many is that the creeds give us a criterion by which we can escape from being prisoners of the dominant ideologies and fads of our time. We need the liberty the creeds in order to see that the criticisms of the creeds are what are always crumbling.
7) From Midwest Chesterton News, April, 1995.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
We cannot help today but be conscious of the degree to which law or ideological pressure imposes on language, requires us to say certain things in certain ways or forbids us from saying them in other customary or normal ways. We have to utter the boring "happy holidays" because "Merry Christmas" hints that Christ is important. We have to affirm that active homosexuals live noble lifestyles. We have to pretend that we are all morally equal, no matter what we do, a position that puts vice and virtue on the same level and allows no moral discourse about whether there be virtue and vice in the first place. We are more and more dominated by a coerced public language totally out of harmony with what actually goes on in reality and with what we actually think. We all begin to lie about the important distinctions of right and wrong because we are allowed no other way of speaking about them. No public discourse will mean what it says.
Things that are perfectly intelligible and clear are, for political reasons, said to mean something else when they really don't. If I say, for instance, that "man is a rational animal; he laughs, he cries, he floats on his back in the river," I am said arbitrarily to exclude from this sentence the feminine half of the human race. Therefore, I must not say that "man is a rational animal; he laughs, he cries, he floats on his back in the river." Rather, I must say awkwardly, that "the human being is a rational animal; he/she laughs; she/he cries, he/she floats on her/his back in the river." Preposterous, really.
Of course, in my original sentence, as any fair minded person knows, I have not either in logic, grammar, or intention excluded half of the human race. Nothing exists in that original sentence that would not include each member, male or female, adult or child, of the human race. In order to think that it does, one must have been deprogrammed or educated out of the normal understanding of words and their relation to concepts. Words can have different meanings. We can understand them when they do. The word "man" can and does refer to a concept that prescinds from, without denying, the distinction of male and female. Every language for thousands of years has recognized this multiple meaning for words.
The proper English pronoun that refers to this concept, "man", is "he". It makes the same adjustment that the word "man" does when it means either the generic human being prescinding from the distinction of male and female or the male. Neither word, man or he, when used for the abstract concept, in any meaningful sense to anyone who understands the language, excludes females since it does not talk about males or females as such. Both words, "man" and "he", in context are designed to talk of human nature without averring to the sexual distinction, but without denying it either. We can do this easily and clearly and habitually. Not to have this mechanism at our disposal makes our speech stilted, silly even. University lectures and academic journals have become boring, unending repetitions of unnecessary and confusing hes/shes in all their splendid ideology.
Another variety of this same problem occurs when we use words to cover up what we are really doing or talking about. The most obvious candidate in this category is what is known, with incredible paradox, as the "choice" movement. Today, if I say that I am for "choice", it does not mean that I have some elaborate theory about free will. It means rather, to put it clearly, that I think it all right to kill babies in wombs. The word "choice", by itself, does not tell us what is going on, except when we come to know how it is used. "To choose" never stands by itself. I always have to choose something, this or that. Simply to have the power to choose, which is what all rational creatures have by their nature, tells us nothing at all about what individuals will do with their wills.
The "pro-choice" movement, thus, is not some debating club organized to combat radical determinism. It is rather a theoretical justification for killing certain human beings (euthanasia is also a part of this same movement) on the sole basis that we want to (choose to) do so. There is not the slightest scientific evidence that what we kill is not a human life in its initial form, already complete from the moment of conception.
Likewise, if I am opposed to the "pro-choice" movement", it does not mean that Schall is suddenly to be ranked with those philosophical systems that maintain that we must do what we do, that there is no freedom in the cosmos or in ourselves. In the "pro-choice" movement, choice does have a very particular, individual, tiny object that is impossible to separate from the power of choice itself in the act of its choosing. Every "to choose" of this type is to put an action in the world that kills a begun human life. The language cannot mean anything else in this usage. It cannot simply mean I am for "the power of choice", against which stand only theoretic determinists. If I am "for choice", it means both that I can justify the power of free will and understand that the object of choice, what it chooses, determines whether it is being used for good or evil. When what I choose is to terminate the life of another innocent human being, my choice is evil, even though the fact that I have this power remains good. If I try to hide from myself what I objectively do by some theory of privacy, I am in utter self-deception about myself, about what I do, about choice, about the world itself.
Recently, someone gave me a copy of Loyola University Press sample collection of G. K.'s Weekly. I am not adept enough to figure out who wrote the unsigned editorials and columns in this remarkably quaint and fascinating journal. But Chesterton does write a signed column or essay almost regularly. On October 17, 1931, he did a column called "The Horror". Needless to say, I was curious to find out just what this "horror" was. I thought at first it might be perhaps Hitler, or even some account of an English ghost or politician.
But the column in 1931 turned out in fact to be about this very topic of the proper use of language that has become so convoluted some sixty years later. The very first sentence of this essay reads: "Nearly all newspapers and public speakers are now entirely occupied with finding harmless words for a horrible thing" (325). What else is "pro-choice" but precisely "harmless words" designed to cover up "a horrible thing"? Political and polite society does not allow us to use the real words that give the true picture of what is happening.
Recently, however, I read The Quotable Paul Johnson, which George Marlin, Richard Rabatin, and Heather Richardson Higgins edited. In it, I read these absolutely clear under the heading "Abortion Industry":
The abortion industry has been given a green light to do, in effect, what it wills. A fully formed child can be ripped from its mother's womb, screaming and gasping for breath, and then coldly butchered on the waiting slab by men and women -- "specialists" -- whose sole job in life is performing such lawful operations.
Here the language does not "find harmless words for a horrible thing." Rather, the language finds horrible words for a horrible thing. In other words, the language does what it is supposed to do. It tells the truth about what goes by using appropriate and accurate words.
Chesterton, in his day, was still dealing with prohibition. In 1931, we were prohibiting alcohol. Today we prohibit smoking; just as we also prohibit parents from knowing when their daughters go to an abortion clinic on the grounds of privacy. Thus, when we cannot hide the results of our choices, an impossibility in any case, we cover ourselves with the mantle of privacy, that is, we lie even to ourselves.
Here, then, we are interested in the use of words to lie to us about what is going on. Chesterton himself had a kind of genius for seeing through the veneer of a language that deliberately lies to us about what it means. He could see the ironies to which this deliberately obscuring usage could lead us. "Everybody was taught to use the word 'temperance'," he remarked in the same essay, "to mean refusing to any man even the chance to be temperate. They talked about Birth Control when they meant preventing birth, just as they talked about Liquor Control when they meant forbidding liquor."
"Birth control", that systematic blockage that especially liberal Catholics want to defend unto the death, was itself a most amusing phrase to Chesterton. He had quipped someplace else that "birth control", when examined for the actual meaning of the words, meant precisely "no birth" and "no control". This entertaining remark, no doubt, contains the essence of the papal position, that there should be a relation between our actions and their consequences that is under our control, under our own wills. Contraceptives, abortions, RUD's, and all the myriads of similar paraphernalia simply do what Chesterton said they did; they prevent births without demanding any sort of control in the sexual act itself, which is where human relation and self-rule exist in this case.
The Liquor Control Commission evidently thought to solve a problem not by temperance, by allowing us to rule ourselves, but by forbidding that about which temperance usually exists, that is, food, drink, and sex. Again, we noticed that Chesterton was protecting a philosophy by protecting words. He saw that words were being used to foster a new philosophy, one that retained on the surface words that sounded like the old morality but which were in fact the new determinism disguised as choice or control. Abortion, after all, is itself the result of a failure not only of control but even of the devices or, more often, the will to use them. The minute we place the problem in the wrong place, we will never solve it, or if we do solve it, we will have to use methods all out of proportion to the way human beings ought to rule themselves.
The "horror" that Chesterton already saw in 1931 is today a part of our very culture. We lie to ourselves in order not to have to admit to ourselves what we are actually doing. We then pass laws and enforce customs and language that prevents us from penetrating back to that reality which words are designed to indicate and describe. If we call abortion an "industry" protected by law, with highly paid practitioners who serve the law by their trade, we will begin to think we are dealing with something like General Motors or the Restaurant Industry. What we are doing, as Paul Johnson so graphically said, is butchering human beings for no other reason than because we choose to do so and it is legal. What would Chesterton have called such an "industry". He would have called it what it is, a "horror".
8) From Midwest Chesterton News, September, 1996.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
THE ONLY REAL HAPPINESS POSSIBLE TO MAN
My friend David Yost in Monterey, California, called to my attention two brief passages from Chesterton, one from Dickens and the other from an essay "On Sentiment", found in John Guest's collection of Chesterton essays. In the meantime, I also came across in the November, 1994, issue of The Chesterton Review, in which is reprinted Chesterton's 1905 column from The Daily News entitled, "The Alphabet of the Liberal". I want to say something about all three of these items.
The title of this particular essay I am writing now is taken from the Dickens book, in which Pickwick's spectacles are described as being fixed in "that grave surprise that may be seen in babies; that grave surprise which is the only real happiness that is possible to man" (CW, XV, 92, italics added). Yost recalled this passage in Dickens because he had read a sentence in my Idylls and Rambles, that went, "The capacity to be surprised comes close to the very definition of our dignity."
I have often pondered this surprising "surprise", this grave surprise that touches our dignity and constitutes our only true happiness. It is rooted in the fact that we are finite beings called to eternal life, something we could in no way imagine for ourselves but yet which is offered to us through no merit of our own. The grave surprise of the baby is, as Chesterton often noted, caused by the fact that the baby has never seen anything at all before. To the baby the world is fresh with grave and delightful things that come to him from nowhere about whose presence before him he shows in his face, eyes, and voice a "grave surprise"..
In Chesterton, I believe, we can find several sources for his famous remark that if a thing is "worth doing, it is worth doing badly." It occurs for sure in What's Wrong with the World, perhaps the Chesterton book most pertinent to our current familial disorders. I did a class on Thomas Aquinas during the Spring Semester. One day I was somehow reminded of this passage. We had been reading together Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas. I said to the class one day, "Listen to this statement from Chesterton and tell me the example he used to prove its validity." Naturally, the class looks at such a professor as if he were temporarily deranged or suffering from incipient Alzheimer's disease. I read the passage, "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." Again I asked them, "what is the example to illustrate this principle?" The statement is obviously paradoxical and ironic. The class come up with nothing. Then after some pause, I asked them whether they wanted me to tell them? They nod. "Dancing," I announced, somewhat wickedly, to be sure, as this is their field, not mine. I could see their faces brighten when they get the implications of the paradoxical answer.
In 1905, Chesterton remarked that there were some things that we did not want done at all unless they were done well, indeed "exceedingly well". I now recall seeing some of these examples before -- they are things like "playing on the violin, walking on a tight-rope, discovering the North Pole, looping the loop, performing duties of the public analyst, hangman, Astronomer Royal." One can only smile at this remarkable list.
I often remind my classes that Aristotle said that there are two things we should all be able to do but not do well. They are playing the flute and cooking. I then ask them why Aristotle would say such a thing. Usually someone will have it figured out, namely, that if we play the flute very well, or cook exceedingly well, we will not have any time left over to do the thousands of other things that are worth doing. It is the difference between the well-rounded man and the expert.
Chesterton goes on in this very Aristotelian spirit: "There are a number of fundamental things that we desire all sane men to do for themselves, whether they are done superlatively well or no, such as "laughing, playing with toys if immature and with children if adult, talking, blowing one's nose, making love, earning a living, saying one's prayers." Again, this is an equally remarkable list of things we all prefer to do by ourselves. Chesterton then adds the principle involved: "These are normal human functions, and we prefer that they should be done badly by the man himself than well by anybody else." Thus, Chesterton added, that we really do not want to pay some "expert" to write our love letters. "We do not want other people to choose our wives, unless we are sociologists, and thus in our second infancy." No wonder we love Chesterton. Who else tells us what we obviously need and want to know about ourselves?
In Idylls and Rambles, speaking of Belloc's love of The Diary of a Nobody, Yost underscored this passage, "it seems that he (Belloc) saw in it (the hero of The Diary of a Nobody) a kind of Christ figure, of the fallible and failing man who somehow was the object of redemption." This passage reminded Yost, a Professor of International Relations at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, of a passage from "On Sentiment", a copy of which he kindly send me.
Chesterton had remarked that the ending of Sir James Barrie's Peter Pan was unsatisfactory. Peter Pan is an elf who never changes, but he falls in love with a normal little human girl. He is given the choice of becoming mortal to live with her or remaining an immortal without her. Either choice would have been noble, but Peter Pan wants to compromise. So he prefers to remain an elf but wants to come back every year to visit Wendy for a day. Of course, time does not exist for the elf and Wendy rapidly becomes an old woman.
The issue that Chesterton points out, the one that David Yost cited to me, is that Peter Pan, and consequently often we ourselves, do not understand the true implications of our happiness and our human condition. The true alternative that Peter Pan had is this: He could have chosen one or the other, but not both, to become human or remain an immortal -- Chesterton added, "the evil comes when we waver about weighty matters." Chesterton continued:
He (Peter Pan) might have said that he was a god, that he loved all (mortals) but could not live for any; that he belonged not to them but to multitudes of unborn babes. Or he might have chosen love, with the inevitable result of love, which is incarnation, and the inevitable result of incarnation, which is crucifixion; yes, if it were only crucifixion by becoming a clerk in a bank and growing old. But it was a fork in the road and even in fairyland you cannot walk down two roads at once.
These are remarkable words, that if we choose love, we choose incarnation. If we choose incarnation, we choose crucifixion. And finally, that every ordinary, insignificant life, as well as every life of the great, involves the daily job, the growing old, dying.
The only real happiness possible to us comes to us with the surprise that is beyond the crucifixion that each of us must endure in our own lives. If a thing like living our normal lives is worth doing badly, because it means living at all, this is because we are finite, fallible, fallen creatures. We live within a love that leads to incarnation; we live within an incarnation that leads to crucifixion. We live within a crucifixion that leads to resurrection -- not to be gravely surprised at our condition
is to miss understanding the only real happiness possible to man.
9) From Midwest Chesterton News, April, 1996.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
THE FIRST DAY OF A NEW CREATION
The Ottawa Chesterton Society Newsletter has republished (January, 1996) an essay of Chesterton from December 28, 1935, in the Illustrated London News. Reading this essay, I was particularly struck by the following line, a line, I must say, that is close to the heart of what Chesterton stood for: "Gratitude, being nearly the greatest of human duties, is also nearly the most difficult." When I cited this sentence to a friend, I at first wondered just why gratitude would the the most difficult of human duties. It seemed to me at the time that it was because gratitude implies that so much of what we are and have does not originate in ourselves. We are reluctant to acknowledge this fact and think that it is better to claim authorship or ownership of as much as we can rather than to acknowledge what we have received.
But as I reread this sentence, however, what I now find most striking is Chesterton's calling gratitude precisely a "duty". We recall Christ's wonderment about the "other nine" who did not return to thank him on being cured. That is, one in nine, on the average, do not give thanks, a ration I have found to be actually about the way it is We like to think, however, that if we have a "duty" to something, especially to give thanks, that would mean that it is not pure.
A couple of weeks after Christmas Mass at the old Novitiate in Los Gatos, in California, on Christmas Eve this year, my two little grand nieces and grandnephew each wrote me a dear note of thanks for saying the family Christmas Mass. Now, I know that the idea of writing Uncle Jim was not original with the kids themselves. Their mother had a hand in it. She was teaching them something, the duty of thanks. We need to be alerted to things that we ought to acknowledge.
Suddenly, we find, with Chesterton, that the whole world is a place filled not so much with ourselves but with others to whom we "owe" thanks. Somehow, if we do not actually articulate the thanks we "owe", we are missing something fundamental about being human. Our very existence is something for which thanks are due. This is Chesterton's primal insight.
In The Everlasting Man, we find a chapter entitled "The Strangest Story in the World." The end of this Chapter contains Chesterton's own account of the meaning of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. If we look back at Chesterton's Chapter title, we see that the words are carefully chosen. The world had never seen a story like this before. It strikes anyone who hears it for the first time as precisely "strange". It does not conform to our experience, however much it might conform to what we would want if we could have it.
Chesterton speaks in almost apocalyptic terms in this passage. The glorious yet somber humanity of the ancient world came to an end in this very grave wherein Christ, now crucified, was buried. "It was the end of a very great thing called human history, the history that was merely human" (Collected Works, II, p. 345). Chesterton affirms here, of course, that what follows is something that is not "merely human". It is something that bears the character of gift and sacrifice done for us, in our behalf. The ancient heros had lived. They were now dead.
Chesterton then concludes his Chapter with these extraordinary lines:
On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they had hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in the semblance of a gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but of the dawn.
These poetic lines are revelatory to us -- "the world died that very night." They recall Genesis and something more than Genesis. The empty tomb and the stone rolled away are things seen with eyes of the friends, the witnesses. Chesterton's words are graphic. Mere human history has ended. What is seen is no longer this history; a new heaven and a new earth are already there.
We regard these events. On the third day, the friends come at daybreak. Suddenly, we can look back with new insight on Chesterton's notion of the "duty" of gratitude, of why it is the "greatest" of human duties in a world in which the old human history is dead. We can understand too why this "duty" is so difficult, because it suggests that the terms of what it is we might most want, the truth of what happened to cause the empty tomb and the stone rolled away, are not results of our own planning and organization, of our own accomplishments except in so far as we are invited to accept them as a gift. The end of a history that is "merely" human in fact needed to end. This is not the world for which we are created and destined.
The "Strangest Story in the World" in fact has a happy ending, in the cool of not the evening but of the dawn. When I think of why Chesterton used the term "duty" of gratitude, it was not because he thought gratitude was coerced or ought not to proceed from our freedom and delight. Rather it was because of the very real danger that, unless we are initially taught and guided to do those things for which we will be thankful, we will likely miss them. If the ancient human history has ended, it does not mean that the great events that marked its ending have been accepted in the only way that they can be accepted, after the manner of gifts, for which we give thanks. The "world that died that resurrection night" was a world that led nowhere, that soon lost its ability even to enjoy itself.
Indeed, it is difficult to give thanks, to know gratitude. If the great sign above the gates of Hell are, as Dante said, "abandon all home all ye who enter here", the great banner floating over the Gates of Paradise surely read, "You are first loved, then you are." The Resurrection dawn is the completion of that ultimate truth according to which we can be joyful at all, according to which we can acknowledge that someone else redeemed us, but that we are, none the less, redeemed. The only "duty" we could possibly have before such events and such happenings in the world, old and new, is indeed that of gratitude.
10) From Midwest Chesterton News, October, 1990.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
ON THE DULLNESS OF CHAOS
The other day I received from New York a copy of the 1986 British Penguin edition of The Man Who Was Thursday. A young friend spotted it in a book store and figured I would like it. How do you give thanks for such unexpected gifts?
What interests me here is the first Chapter of The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). The book began with a poem dedicated to Edmund Clerihew Bentley, Chesterton's lifetime friend. Chesterton explained that out of all the arguments and mysteries of their youth and in spite of the fantastically wrong theories of our intellectuals -- "Science announced nonentity / And art admired decay..." -- it was now possible to talk calmly of ordinary things, their wonder and their mystery. The poem ended:
Yes, there is strength in striking root,
And good in growing old.
We have found common things at last,
And marriage and a creed,
And I may safely write it now,
And you may safely read.
But these are exactly the things that are not safe at last, the common things, marriage and the Creed, though they are the things that we most want and whose wonder most needs explanation to us.
The plot began in an extraordinary ordinary suburb of London called Saffron Park. Already here is Chesterton's theme that the most extraordinary things in existence are the ordinary human beings we meet every day in the ordinary places in which they dwell. We mostly do not notice how extraordinary it is, just to be. "A man who stepped into its social atmosphere felt as if he had stepped into a written comedy."
The story began with a kind of sunset that was so unusual that everyone remembered it. "It looked like the end of the world." The colors were so fantastic and varied that they covered up the sun "like something too good to be seen." The clouds and light cast a glow over Saffron Park that made it seem mysterious. "It expressed that splendid smallness which is the soul of local patriotism." All of this took place in an ordinary suburb on a day that might have been any day.
In this suburb lived a radical anarchist poet who believed, "with a certain impudent freshness" the old cant "of the lawlessness of art and the art of lawlessness." Into this suburb improbably came another poet, a poet of "order." The poet of revolt had a following of "vaguely emancipated women" who had some protest against "the male supremacy." But these were clearly not ordinary women. "These new women would always pay to a man the extravagant compliment which no ordinary woman ever pays to him, that of listening while he is talking."
The anarchistic poet had a sister, Rosamund, who was much taken with the poet of order, so different he seemed than her brother. "Mr. Syme," she said to the poet of order, "do the people who talk like you and my brother often mean what they say? Do you mean what you say now?" To which Syme responded, "Do you?"
The heart of the initial encounter between the poet of anarchy and the poet of order had to do with Lucian Gregory, the anarchic poet's remark that "an artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway."
The Underground Railway is, of course, the London Subway. And true to form, the poet of order thought that in fact that the London subway was the most poetical thing in the world. Gregory, the anarchist, thought the world would be more romantic if the next stop after Sloane Square would not be Victoria, as it was, but say Baker Street or Baghdad. Whether we know it or not, we are involved here in St. Thomas's proof for God's existence, the one from order, about why things do reach their ends.
Syme, the poet of order, was sure that it was more wondrous if the subway actually went to where it said it was going than if it just went anywhere. "Chaos is dull," he continued,
because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Baghdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No take your books of mere poetry and prose, let me read a time-table, with tears of pride.
The opposite of chaos is order. We do not want to go just anywhere, but to somewhere. Syme felt that coming to Victoria was not unlike that "hairbreadth escape" from a world of chaos in which nothing gets anywhere, in which men have not the will or capacity to order their world because they do not love the smallness that made it the extraordinary place it is.
But Gregory, the anarchist, thought that man would be unhappy to learn that the New Jerusalem looked just like Victoria Station. "The poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt." To this, Syme retorted, "Being sick is a revolt." And he explained,
It is things going right, that is poetical! Our digestion, for instance, going sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars -- the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.
The anarchist, of course, could hardly comprehend the poetical wonder of the fact that in us things go right and we do not even notice it. It is not merely how the Underground Railway gets from Sloane Square to Victoria, but how our blood gets from our heart to our toes.
Rosamund was watching Syme who was discussing whether he or the anarchist or she was "sincere" in their questions. "She was looking at him (Syme) from under level brows; her face was grave and open, and there had fallen upon it the shadow of that unreasoning responsibility which is at the bottom of the most frivolous woman, the maternal watch which is as old as the world." The maternal unreasoning responsibility protects what is simply because it is, the fierceness for being and life.
To return to Chesterton's poem and his recollection of his endless youthful all night discussions with Bentley and his friends when they, as all young men should, were trying to figure out what dogmas were true, Syme is described walking with Rosamund in the garden. "For he (Syme) was a sincere man, and in spite of his superficial airs and graces, at root a humble one. And it is always the humble man who talks too much; the proud man watches himself too closely." The proud man watches himself too closely -- whether this is the ultimate defense of loquaciousness, I do not know. But it is the defense of Chesterton's long conversations to find the truth which required the humility of watching what is, of watching the Underground from Sloane Square actually rumble into Victoria, of knowing that his digestion worked best when he did not notice that it worked at all, of knowing that the New Jerusalem will not be a chaotic thing in which nothing in particular matter, but it will be a particular place to where our aims have always been directed.
Chaos is dull. "The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it." This is what St. Thomas said. We will not be bored in the Streets of Heaven if we are delighted when the train from Sloane Square arrives at Victoria and not at Baghdad.
11) From Midwest Chesterton News, September, 1992.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
ON NOT WRECKING DIVINE OR SECULAR THINGS
The Chesterton Review (May, 1992) reprinted a Chesterton essay entitled "The Roots of the World." The essay was originally published in The Daily News in London on August 17, 1907. This would be about the time Chesterton was writing Orthodoxy.
The essay begins with a kind of narrative parable. Father Boyd in his little introduction remarked that this was a very famous essay and that Chesterton used such parables "as a way of teaching moral truths." I suspect that he used it also as a way to teach the metaphysical truths upon which moral truths are based.
Essentially, Chesterton argued that the whole universe is connected, the highest things with the lowest things and the lowest with the highest. What you cannot do is change God, but you may just change yourself or the world if you try to change God into something other than He is. That is to say, the logic of changing one thing will necessarily result in changing something in the world. If you think wrongly about God, you will think wrongly about man.
The story is a sort of re-telling of the Fall in Genesis. There is a garden in which is growing an odd star-shaped flower that a little boy is commanded not to pull up by the roots. He can pick the flowers but not pull the plants up by the roots.
Naturally, the little boy, shades of the young Augustine, wants nothing more in this world than to pull up the flower by its roots. The elders on the scene give him a number of not very good reasons for not pulling up the plant. But the boy has a very "silly" reason for wanting to pull up the plant, whatever the reasons for not doing so are. He explains that "the Truth demanded that he should pull the thing up by the roots to see how it was growing."
The boy's parents and tutors never really gave him the full reason for the prohibition which was that pulling up the plant by its roots "would kill the plant, and that there is no more Truth about a dead plant than about a live one." In other words, it would have been helpful perhaps for the parents to have given the boy an accurate reason for the prohibition, but even if they did not do so, the prohibition stood. Since the dead plant will not reveal the truth about itself, the boy risked the punishment for violating the prohibition and risked losing the truth itself that could not be discovered by his method.
It seems that one dark night the boy slipped into the garden and started pulling up the plant by the roots. Suddenly strange things began to happen. First, the boy could not succeed in pulling up the plant, but as he pulled, the great chimney of his house collapsed. He pulled again and the stables fell down. Cries of agony began to be heard. The castle itself fell down. This chaos seemed to frighten the boy but he managed to say nothing about the strange incident of the flower. He still did not want to obey the prohibition.
The boy grew up and decided to try again to uproot the plant. He was a politician and ruler now. He surrounded himself with a group of strong men and announced, "Let us have done with the riddle of this irrational weed." So they all began to pull it out with great force. Suddenly, the Eiffel Tower fell, the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty. "St. Paul's Cathedral killed all the journalists in Fleet-street." The ruler recalled his earlier experience in the garden.
In their efforts, these strong men had managed to pull down half of the buildings of their country, but they still could not pull up the roots. Finally, the man gave up his project in frustration but he called his pastors and masters. He blamed them for not telling him that he could not root up this plant and that if he tried, he would ruin everything else. All they had told him was not to do it. He now saw the results but would not admit his responsibility.
This parable, of course, is about Christianity and the efforts of secular men to rid themselves of it. In attacking religion, the secularists end up by not eliminating religion but they do manage to pull up the roots "of every man's ordinary vine and fig tree, of every man's garden." Somehow there is a connection between religion and ordinary life.
We are warned about this relationship and we are given some half-baked reason for it. If we think the reasons to be wrong or not what we would do, we go ahead and try to uproot religion, only to end up destroying the very core of civilized life in the effort. We do not intend this result, but this is what happens. "Secularists have not succeeded in wrecking divine things; but Secularists have succeeded in wrecking secular things."
The "enemies of religion," Chesterton concluded, are like the little boy. They cannot leave it alone. It is a kind of forbidden fruit, a challenge to their autonomy. They see all the prohibitions merely as arbitrary, as "something wild," not as something reasonable. They cannot believe that disorder flows from tampering with the solemn prohibitions. "They laboriously attempt to smash religion. They cannot smash religion; but they do smash everything else."
But why cannot they smash religion? The secularists and opponents of religion cannot touch the axioms of religion, which are dogmas and intelligible. They remain as they are no matter what goes on in the world. In not holding the doctrines of the faith, the secularists necessarily are committed to other doctrines. To maintain that man is not made in the image of his Creator is as dogmatic as to maintain he is.
Chesterton gave two examples, the case of the pacifist and of the evolutionist. The pacifist has a doctrine about coercion. This results in the "intolerable and ludicrous" alternative "that I must not blame a bully or praise the man who knocks him down." My theory has strange consequences.
Because of the endless gradations in nature, upon which evolutionary theory is based, we cannot on this basis be forced to "deny the personality of God, for a personal God might as well work by gradations as in any other way." So the theory stands, but what the evolutionist does, if his theory be taken strictly, is not to deny the personality in God but the personality in Jones.
If evolution is true, Jones is within the scope of evolution. That is, he is himself being "rubbed away at the edges." He is at this very moment evolving into something else. If everything is evolving, including ourselves, including Jones, then in strict logic, we are not really ourselves. What must finally be denied is not personality in God but "the existence of a personal Mr. Jones."
If we want Jones to exist as Jones, then he must not even slightly be in the process of becoming Mr. Smith, or some higher species. The old religion wants Jones to remain Jones. If we try to root out this doctrine of religion, we do not end by changing the theory that Jones is Jones and that Jones wants to be Jones, but we do force ourselves to look on him as becoming not-Jones. In this evolutionary case, in its logic, the world is full of things, including Jones, that are not really themselves.
So, we cannot really wreck divine things, but we can certainly wreck human things. If we see human and secular things being wrecked, we must begin to suspect that we are violating some prohibitions, that if we root up a certain flower, we will root up the world. We should not forget too, that the prohibitions were also rooted in the Truth that the boy was seeking. The truth was that he would not know the real truth of the flower if he killed it by uprooting it. The prohibition would have saved the world. Reason would have saved the flower.
At the roots of the world lies disturbingly the will that wants only its own Truth. The prohibitions tell us that there is a world we want, we, Jones, even if it is not the world we make. The flower was already there. Jones was already Jones. The commandments, the prohibitions, are designed to keep them both. Even when we pull down the world, we will not find our truth, but only the truth. There is only one theory, as far as I know, that allows Jones to be Jones. That theory is still called Christianity. This is the meaning, I think, of Chesterton's parable about the roots of the world.
12) From Midwest Chesterton News, October, 1992.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
BELLOC ON CHESTERTON
Frank Petta, on reading of my brother-in-law's troubles in finding Belloc's little book on Chesterton (MCN, March 1992), was kind enough to send me a copy of the Obituary -- it is entitled simply "Gilbert Keith Chesterton" -- that Belloc published in The Saturday Review of Literature, for July 4, 1936. Belloc had written evidently a number of things on Chesterton just after he died, but I had not known of this particular essay. On receiving it, I had put it aside and came across it by chance the other day looking for something else. I re-read it. And I read it a second time, and a third. I suddenly was struck by the profundity of this essay of Belloc, of how he saw the essence of Chesterton.
Belloc began the essay by analyzing why the English aristocracy and press never acknowledged Chesterton's greatness. Even though Chesterton was "the most English of Englishmen," he stood on the Catholic side of culture even as an Englishman. In this sense, Belloc thought Chesterton's fame would increase so that Belloc's children and grandchildren would have a better chance to understand Chesterton than even his generation did.
However, Belloc himself knew Chesterton. "I knew him I think as well as any man ever knew another." This friendship was based on long acquaintance -- "close on forty years" -- but it was especially based on the quality of its intellectual exchange. Belloc wrote:
so thoroughly did my mind jump with his, so fully did his answer meet the question my own soul was always asking, that his conclusions, the things he found and communicated, his solutions of the great riddles, his stamp of certitude, were soon part of myself.
The great riddles of life were asked, answers were forged. This sense of actual answers to riddles, as Chesterton showed in Orthodoxy, is especially characteristic of Christian friendship. Not just the questioning that is perhaps more Platonic, but the realization that answers are there when the proper questions are asked. The nobility of the human condition is not merely that it can ask questions, but that it can know when its questions are answered.
Belloc observed, furthermore, that they both came of the same "stock." Belloc's mother was English.
My mother derived directly from that English middle class of yeomen and liberal stock which in literature and the arts, in law and even in arms, in merchant enterprise, and, most of all, in metaphysical and religious speculation, has determined the character of England from the moment of the Puritan triumph three hundred years ago.
Chesterton's family was in the real estate business in London. Both Belloc's mother and Chesterton came into the Church from "sheer power of brain."
Belloc acknowledged that he had grown in his appreciation of what Chesterton stood for. Belloc next remarked something that puzzled me, something I always thought he denied. I had to look it up. On his "path" from Toul to Rome, Belloc in 1902 or perhaps in 1901, remarked in a passage I have often cited, with considerable consolation, I admit, that "it is a good thing not to have to return to the Faith."
Here in the Chesterton Obituary, we find Belloc reflecting:
I myself have gone through a pilgrimage of approach, to a beginning at least of understanding in the matter (of faith); but it was never my good fortune to bear witness by the crossing of a frontier: a public act. Such good fortune was his (Chesterton's). I was born within the walls of the City of God: he saw it, approached it, knew it, and entered. I know not which is for the run of men the better fate, but his was certainly of our two fates the better.
I suppose these two things can be reconciled. Yet I cannot help but think that Chesterton himself would have been surprised at Belloc here. Chesterton would have thought that Belloc was right in The Path to Rome and wrong in the Obituary. Chesterton the convert would have agreed that it was indeed "a good thing not to have to return to the Faith."
Belloc to be sure was comparing returning to a faith having lost it to a person who never having it and subsequently found it. Belloc suggested that for most men it may be better to have been born in the faith. He himself has had a struggle to see the faith, know it. Chesterton's path was to Belloc more noble and clearer. If the issue were only between Chesterton and Belloc, perhaps Chesterton's was the better path.
Still there is something to be said for the Belloc of The Path to Rome. If we too are born "within the walls of the City of God," as Belloc put it, using a phrase from Augustine, no doubt, we must still bear witness, cross frontiers, make our act public. We must see, approach, know and stay within.
And yet, the best and most profound part of Belloc's reflections on Chesterton were not about his origins, his Englishness, or even his friendship with Belloc. Chesterton's life, in Belloc's mind, was not spent in "search for truth," This understanding is too abstract. Chesterton was "hungry for reality." It is one thing to have a vague or abstract sense of this hunger but quite another to think of satisfying this hunger.
He (Chesterton) was hungry for reality. But what is much more, he could not conceive of himself except as satisfying that hunger; it was not possible to him to hesitate in the acceptation of each new parcel of the truth; it was not possible for him to hold anything worth holding that was not connected with the truth as a whole.
Chesterton's was a "strange consistency" that placed each new reality he hungered for within the satisfaction of the whole. He knew where things belonged.
In a passage reminiscent of St. Thomas famous dictum, "contemplata tradere (to pass on what is first contemplated), Belloc noticed that Chesterton's passion for "what is," a passion that made him reject both confusion and falsehood, was "the driving power moving his spirit to disseminate what he knew." Chesterton was so struck by reality, by what is, in its infinity of forms and shapes, that he wanted to respond to it, explain it, appreciate it. In short, he delighted in it.
Belloc stressed this latter quality as it was easy to miss. Chesterton's love of fun, of jesting, his vitality, made us forget or overlook what Belloc called Chesterton's "power of proof." This power of proof was "not only the central thing, it was the whole meaning of his work." In a passage mindful of Josef Pieper, Belloc continued to explain what Chesterton was about. "The whole meaning of his life was the discovery, the appreciation, of reality." We have, of course, read Chesterton's book St. Thomas Aquinas in which this very quality is so evident. Chesterton's work "was made up of bequeathing to others the treasure of knowledge and certitude upon which he had come."
What follows from this basis, I think, shows that Belloc really did understand Chesterton in the most profound of ways. And through him, if not also through his own experiences, he knew that Chesterton's love of reality was something that was not merely his own, even when it was his own.
Side by side with and a product of that immense exuberance in happiness not only of himself but of all around, of that vital rejoicing not only in man but in every other work of God and in God Himself, the most conspicuous fruit was generosity.
The affirmation of what is that it is, the rejoicing in what is, that it is, the affirmation that all that is is worthy of praise, not excluding oneself -- this in what Belloc called in such a felicitous phrase "that intense exuberance in happiness" -- these qualities lead to generosity, to the realization that what we are and have do not exist of ourselves, but exist because they are given in an abundance, in gift, that we can only receive in wonder and awe.
Chesterton could "write on all things because he was in the spirit of all things and from this central position he could explain, predicate, and give peace." To "give peace," I think, means to know that the riddles have answers.
We often wonder about Chesterton's frequent paradoxes. Some folks do not like them; others wait for them, so illuminating they are. Perhaps this is Belloc's comment on this topic: "He exaggerated in nothing save in emphasis of expression when rhetoric demanded. In statement of truth he did not and could not exaggerate because truth, which was his sole concern, is of its nature absolute." This is right, of course.
Today, anyone who suggests that the truth is "absolute," let alone that he might have discovered and passed it on, is looked on as some sort of danger to the republic. Belloc noted that all conversation today is advocacy. It is rooted in opinion and uncertainty, even in the "certainty" that truth cannot exist at all.
Chesterton, however, was not an "advocate." He was almost the only man in England who was not an advocate. "He does not advocate but tells." What a marvelous thing to say of Chesterton, something that explains the feeling we often get from reading him that he has discovered the truth, but he has not invented it. "In the midst of such a chaos Chesterton's voice and pen proclaimed not selected evidence but the thing that was; the thing that he saw and knew." He simply "told" us what he knew and saw and reflected on. He gave us peace of mind because he believed we did have minds, minds as he often said that are by their very nature made to come to conclusions, to formulate dogmas, to tell the truth.
Belloc saw what was at stake in modern philosophy. He saw it as Chesterton saw it, namely, that the social world can be constructed according to human will, that we can, in some sense, make come to be what we want to be and not only what ought to be. Whether we can reverse our principles and foundations remains to be seen. The challenge of religion and classical philosophy ought to do precisely this reversal, were it not for the fact that both religion and philosophy have often sounded very much like the social world that has come to be from pure will.
Now Gilbert Chesterton throughout his life was on the side of those who at so much risk determined to reverse if reversed it could be the current of the time. All around him was a society which had determined upon the opposite and fatal course -- hiding its weakness -- and of erecting an imaginary world that should satisfy foreign critics and lull its own confidence in security.
Only today are we beginning to understand what that "risk" of restoring order might consist in. The opposite and fatal course seems, at bottom, not to have been communism, but the system that communism shared with modernity.
Would this reversal be possible? Belloc thought that wrong ideas and systems once entered into usually had to bear their own bitter fruit in social reality before they could intellectually be seen for what they were. Belloc thought that this seeing required not merely intelligence and knowing what is, but "repentance." Belloc felt some connection between a failure to repent and the death of Chesterton, the may who "told" the truth, who loved the variety of things, appreciated them, saw them in the light of God who made them. Men can refuse what is. It was Chesterton who could affirm it, who could, as a result, be generous for what he had, what he knew, was not his.
13) From Midwest Chesterton News, November, 1992.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
THE ONLY VIRTUE
Volume III of The Collected Works (1990) includes a book known as The Well and the Shallows (1935). The book ends with two short essays, one of which was a Letter Chesterton wrote to The Catholic Herald entitled "Why Protestants Prohibit." Chesterton had been asked to give an address on the BBC in the context of a series on "Freedom." He was asked to speak on freedom as it related to Catholicism. (I do not know if this address still exists on tape somewhere).
Evidently, Chesterton's talk produced a myriad of not always complimentary responses. I bring these essays up in the context of whether we can really speak the truth in this or any other republic. We are so much under the influence of the idea of tolerance, the one virtue, that we are not allowed to suggest that any idea or institution can be described in terms of truth. Needless to say, there is a problem of logic, of contradiction even, at work here. If tolerance itself is the only "truth," the only virtue, then the only vice is "intolerance." And what exactly is not to be tolerated in this context? It turns out to be the claim to truth at all. When tolerance is elevated to a theoretic principle, we are left, in the political order, with the inability to call anything at all wrong or evil.
The logic of the "only virtue" was the background of Chesterton's responses to his critics who complained about his talk about liberty. Chesterton's fault against the only virtue, it seems, was his remark that the Protestant notion of freedom was "wrong." Such a remark on the BBC was by definition offensive and intolerable. Chesterton as not asked to prove his position, but to state it and explain it. He was not so much faulted on the truth of his position as on bringing it up in the first place. His view was not wrong but it was uncivil. People do not like to hear that their view is considered wrong. No discourse at the level of soul-searching is therefore possible.
"If, indeed, in this free country where (I am assured) all views can be expressed," Chesterton justly reasoned, "it is unpardonable to suggest that the Protestant view of Freedom is wrong, some responsibility must be shared by those who ask the Catholic to explain why the Catholic view is right." The only other alternative, the one more prevalent perhaps in this country, is never to have an objective position about a serious topic made in the first place in the public media.
I should not, moreover, fail to point out here the delicate subtlety of Chesterton's position. If a country really is "free," this should imply that one has the obligation to state what his position is as he holds it. But if, at the same time, the very stating it "offends" someone and this "offense" is grounds for prohibiting the speech, then we cannot have it both ways. The end of liberty and its discussion is no liberty. The end of tolerance is intolerance.
Chesterton confessed his personal difficulty in dealing with all of these views forthrightly: "For the peculiar diplomatic and tactful art of saying that Catholicism is true, without suggesting for one moment that anti-Catholicism is false, is an art which I am too old a Rationalist to learn at any time of life." Again this sentence is worthwhile spelling out. It is not here a question of the truth of Catholicism, but the truth of logic, of the mind.
If one is invited to state his position and to affirm its truth, if this explication is the purpose of the discussion, then it is necessary, and by implication not at all "intolerant," to suggest that something at variance with this truth is false. Whatever one might think of Chesterton's exposition of Catholic liberty, which he was, in the name of freedom, invited to present, it is impossible not to recognize that positions opposed to it are not the same. This is not a question of religion but of thought. It has no alternative but the cessation of thought.
Chesterton had made this same point in The Thing (same Volume of Collected Works), in an essay entitled "Some Old Errors." Chesterton was discussion whether it was necessary and possible to restate in better language the old truths of the faith. "Now I do really believe that there is a need for the restatement of religious truth," he wrote; "but not (in the process of restatement) the statement of something quite different, which I do not believe to be true."
Thus, as in the case of current unfortunate attempts to rewrite the liturgy, the serious issue at stake is the use of this supposedly laudable and benign exercise to clarify doctrine to be used instead as a tool to change doctrine itself. Thus, "when the Modernist says that we must free the human intellect from the medieval syllogism, it is as if he said we must free it from the multiplication table." Whether the syllogism is a valid form of mental procedure has nothing at all to do with whether the medievals used it. If we free the mind from the way the mind works when it works, from the syllogism, we are not freeing it but enslaving it. We are asking it to work but denying it the very process by which it does work when it is being what it is.
In another essay in The Thing, actually entitled "The Slavery of the Mind," Chesterton wrote, "What I mean by the slavery of the mind is that state in which men do not know of the alternative." He suggested that very often we are determinists in historical events and cannot even imagine that it might have been a good thing had Napoleon or the South won their wars. They did not in fact win, but just because one side wins does not mean in principle that the better side won. Chesterton here was not so much concerned with discussing the merits of these positions, but again he wanted to suggest that we are "slaves of mind" if we cannot even imagine the alternative.
In this context, Chesterton referred to St. Thomas, a man with whom he has much affinity. St. Thomas Aquinas begins his inquiry by saying in effect, "Is there a God? it would seem not, for the following reasons"; and the most criticized of recent Encyclicals (Pascendi Dominici Gregis?) always stated a view before condemning it. The thing I mean is man's inability to state his opponent's view; and often his inability even to state his own.
Chesterton did not mind objections to his own Catholic view on liberty provided that the objectors could state it and relate it to their own. Simply to object to it because it was not tolerable made any intellectual discussion impossible.
Chesterton's notion of liberty included the liberty to state the truth as well as the liberty to state why something might be at variance with it. Indeed, to know the truth, as St. Thomas had indicated, one needs to state how something is opposed to truth and why. Or, to follow St. Thomas' example, he needs to know how any error contains some truth that it is the duty of the knower to explain in relation to the whole truth. The very purpose of a discussion of liberty on the BBC after all must not be merely to fill up time or deal out equal proportions of opinions. It must in some sense have the purpose of finding the truth or the good in argument and of recognizing what things are opposed to it.
But Chesterton's problem about tolerance and liberty was not with the BBC whom he thought in the second essay in The Well and the Shallows had "a relatively sound sense of liberty." It did not seem unusual or unfair for the BBC to ask a Catholic what he thought of liberty; nor did it seem unfair to realize in the process that other positions would not agree with the Catholic position. There is nothing intolerant about stating what one holds nor in realizing and stating clearly its difference with other positions. Both of these positions have something to do with the very nature of the human mind and how it operates.
"Having asked me specially for what i thought about Catholicism," Chesterton continued, "I did certainly divulge the secret that I thought it was true; and that, therefore, even great cultures falling away from it, in any direction, had fallen into falsehood." Needless to say, this view is not "politically correct" thinking. It would recognize that all cultures are describable but whether they are true or good needs argument, needs testing, even if this testing requires intolerable conclusion that something is in fact in deviation from the universal measure and standard to which our minds are subject if they work as minds should work.
14) From Midwest Chesterton News, December, 1992.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
THE COMING OF CHRIST
In April, 1932, during the height of the Depression, Chesterton published an essay in, of all journals, Good Housekeeping (reprinted in The Chesterton Review, February, 1984). Chesterton, of course, loved houses and good housekeeping, as his What's Wrong with the World shows.
But this particular essay evidently was supposed to answer the question, "How would Christ solve modern problems if he were on earth today?" Notice that the question presupposes that Christ is not on the earth today and, more soberly, that modern problems are somehow intrinsically different from ancient ones. Christ's initial solutions, it is implied, were completely bound to His time. They do not apply to us moderns. When we have "post-modern problems," then, we will have to have Christ take a third try at these presumably even newer problems.
Needless to say, this topic of Christ coming to our earth is a worthy one at Christmas season. Are we still convinced that Christ would have come as an infant in some out of the way place, like Bethlehem? Was this method of His dwelling amongst us really a good one, we might ask ourselves? We like to figure, in our more iconoclastic moments, that if Christ had done it right the first time, the world would not be in the mess it seems to be in.
Chesterton's own response in the Good Housekeeping essay is delightfully proper to the occasion and to the issue:
For those of my faith there is only one answer (to this question). Christ is on earth today; alive on a thousand altars; and He does solve people's problems exactly as He did when He was on earth in the more ordinary sense. That is, He solves the problems of the limited number of people who choose of their own free will to listen to Him. He did not appear as an Eastern sultan or a Roman conqueror then; and He would not appear as a policeman or a Prohibition agent now.
Again Chesterton saw that the real problem was the modern question not the Christian teachings.
Chesterton's answer was, then, threefold: 1) Christ is in fact among us in the Eucharist. He does solve problems of those who freely appeal to Him. 2) Christ's initial coming was not a mistake. That He was thought to be Joseph the Carpenter's son, Mary's son, was not something that revealed a kind of inferior strategy on the part of the Holy Ghost about worldly affairs. 3) No matter what form of Incarnation might have been selected, the problem of human free will, its power to accept or reject, will remain.
The Incarnation, then, did not fail. Men can fail because they are free to choose wrongly or to choose well. If we want a universe in which there are precisely human beings, that possibility of the refusal of grace and goodness cannot change, no matter what form of Incarnation we might think of, no matter how Christ might have come into the world today.
On the other hand, we should not conclude from this observation of Chesterton either that there is something intrinsically wrong with being a Sultan, a Roman emperor, a policeman, or, indeed, a Prohibition agent. We still have Prohibition agents today -- only they deal mainly with smoking, drugs, high cholesterol foods we all like, dairy products, and yes even alcohol. And there are not a few Sultans, policemen, and emperors about, not to mention carpenters. If God is going to appear among men, He might conceivably take on any trade or occupation. He seems to have been the son of a carpenter, but Peter was a fisherman and Matthew a tax-collector; Paul made tents, and Luke was called a physician.
Chesterton's Christmas essay of 1908 in the Illustrated London News was entitled, "The Wrong Books at Christmas" (Collected Works, Vol. XXVIII). This title reminds me of the early days of my studies at Los Gatos and at Mt. St. Michael's in Spokane, when we were finally encouraged to read more or less as we chose, and not principally materials directly related to our studies.
There is, I confess, a certain pleasure in finding and reading a book during Christmas season, the days of Christmas, some book we would never otherwise have read because we have some leisure time. If I might dare such a paradox, often the "wrong" book to read at this time is the "right" book. Just as there is something to be said about reading the best, or most popular, or the great books, so there is something to be said for reading just any old book to see whether it is great or not. To find a good book, you really have to read a lot of bad ones, I have no doubt. Otherwise, you will not know the difference.
My friends Mike and Caron Jackson recently gave me Tim Parks' Italian Neighbors: or A Lapsed Anglo-Saxon in Verona. I have just gotten the English couple settled in their apartment and finding the bar with the best capuccino in town, not to be drunk after 10:30 am, however. Previously, the Jacksons had given me Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. Then they proceed to go there just to see if the food was as good as claimed. Evidently, it was.
Then Scott Walter gave me the Sherwood Sugden reprint of Belloc's Miniatures of French History. Thumbing through it, I came across Belloc's essay on "The Death of Chateaubriand" (July 4, 1848) After I read it, I said to a friend, to whom I read it aloud, Belloc is the best essayist in the world, isn't he!
"As he (Chateaubriand) so lay (in Rue du Bac), awaiting her (Jeanne Francoise Récamier, his early love), there returned to his weakened mind a certain phrase of his own writing not so long before," Belloc wrote,
where he (Chateaubriand) had spoken of human affection and had said of love that time changes our hearts as it does our complexion and our years. Nevertheless there is one exception amid all this infirmity of human things, for it does come about sometimes that in some strong soul one love lasts long enough to be transformed into a passionate friendship, to take on the qualities of duty, and almost those of virtue. Then does love lose the decadence of our nature and lives on, supported by an immortal principle (p. 280).
No one writes more beautifully or profoundly than this. The infirmity of human things, the decadence of our nature, immortal principle, passionate friendship -- these all are related, in their own way, to the Incarnation, to the coming of Christ.
Chesterton, in 1908, was rather concerned with the abidingness of religion. "The nation that has no gods at all not only dies," he wrote, in words foreshadowing Francis Fukuyama, "but what is more, is bored to death." The routine transforming of all feasts into mere vacation days, all appearing on Monday, is getting us nearer and nearer to this existential boredom in which nothing new can happen. Chesterton thought that perhaps Christmas would outlast the secularization instinct that replaces Christ with Santa Claus and then proceeds to make him illegal, which replaces all sacred signs with abstract forms and colors with no concreteness. Christmas is the feast of concreteness, or it is nothing.
If faith does come back, "the English celebration of Christmas" will remain, Chesterton observed. Somehow it is too traditional, too beautiful for even the most radical secularists to drive it out. He added, "There is nothing really wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas." That is to say, that the criterion of what is human and of what is true is not "does it fit in with the modern world," but does the modern world fit in with the coming of Christ, with Christmas?
"The real basis of life is not scientific; the strongest basis of life is sentimental. People are not economically obliged to live. Anyone can die for nothing. People romantically desire to live -- especially at Christmas," Chesterton concluded. The "desire to live" is not scientific; it is "romantic." To die for nothing, to die of boredom, this is the obverse of refusing to know the meaning of choosing to live.
"He solves the problems of the limited number of people who choose with their own free wills to listen to Him." The very word "romance," Chesterton said someplace, comes from "Rome." To choose is to choose something, to limit ourselves to what we really want. And as in the Incarnation, when we find what we really want, it is through this one romance that everything is returned to us.
Chesterton's friend Belloc had it right about romance, about the "one exception amid all this infirmity of human things." The Nativity and the Resurrection are in fact related. "In some strong soul one love lasts long enough to be transformed into a passionate friendship, to take on the qualities of duty, and almost those of virtue. Then does love lose the decadence of our nature and lives on, supported by an immortal principle."
"How would Christ solve modern problems if He appeared on earth today?"
The Mass for Christmas Day takes the Prologue of John for its text. It is there we read that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us." Nothing is less boring or more particular than this, nothing more romantic. "Anyone can die for nothing. Christ died for our sins. This is where the great romance of freedom meets the great liberty of God. Only bored souls can fail to see the newness that remains the same in all the time in which men are given to live, to live "romantically," to live, that is, as if something really is lovely and given to them to choose.
15) From Midwest Chesterton News, January, 1993.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
"THE DIVINE VULGARITY OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION"
Several years ago, at a book sale somewhere here in Washington, I bought for a nominal price, to wit, 50¢, the Doubleday Dolphin Edition (no date) of Oliver Wendell Holmes' The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table. This was a famous collection of chatter, humor, and reflection written between 1831 and 1832 by the famous American physician and author. I have never really gotten into this book, but I have looked at it and read some of it a number of times.
John Peterson had, in the meantime, called my attention to the Methuen collection, G.K.C. as M.C.: Being a Collection of Thirty-Seven Introductions. The other day I was looking again at this book, which I had found in the Lauinger Library here on campus. I noticed that Chesterton had written an Introduction to this famous Holmes book for the 1904 British Edition (Red Letter Library, Messrs. Blackie & Son, Ltd.) of The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table.
1904 would be quite early in Chesterton's career, four years before Orthodoxy. Holmes, of course, who lived from 1809-94, had comments on all sorts of things, from Cicero's essay De Senectute to "My Last Walk with the Schoolmistress," on which he finally proposed to the young lady in these charming words:
It was on the Common that we were walking. The mall, or boulevard of our (Boston) Common, you know, has various branches leading from it in different directions. One of these runs down from opposite Joy Street southward across the whole length of the Common to Boylston Street. We called it the long path, and were fond of it.
At last I got to the question, -- Will you take the long path with me? -- Certainly, -- said the schoolmistress, -- with much pleasure. -- Think, -- I said, -- before you answer; if you take the long path with me now, I shall interpret it that we are to part no more! -- The schoolmistress stepped back with a sudden movement, as if an arrow had struck her.
One of the long granite blocks used as seats was hard by, -- the one you may still see close by the Gingko-tree. -- Pray, sit down, -- I said. -- No, no, she answered, softly, -- I will walk the long path with you!
-- The old gentleman who sits opposite met us walking, arm in arm about the middle of the long path, and said, very charmingly, -- "Good morning, my dears!"
Such a passage, I am sure, the very philosophic and very romantic young Chesterton must have loved reading.
In his essay on Holmes, Chesterton maintained that Holmes was the most "aristocratic" of all the American writers. Indeed, Chesterton felt that Holmes would be more at home in the South than in New England.
In American literature, indeed, he may be said to be, not by actual birth or politics, but by spirit, the one literary voice of the South. He bears far more resemblance to the superb kingless aristocracy that hurled itself on the guns at Gettysburg or died round Stonewall Jackson, than to Hawthorne, who was a Puritan mystic, or Lowell, who was a Puritan pamphleteer, or Whitman, who was a Puritan suddenly converted to Christianity.
Needless to say, the very theological acumen that could speak so amusingly, yes so paradoxically, of "converting" a Puritan to Christianity reveals much about the mind of Chesterton in formation in 1904 or 1905 when he must have written this Introduction.
Recalling a good deal of the discussion of the "gentleman" and his place in political and social life that we associate with Plato and Aristotle, Chesterton saw Holmes not as a democrat but as precisely a "gentleman," with a breakfast table at which all things might be discussed in a most genteel manner. He was an "autocrat," a self-ruler, not a democrat, a point with theological implications as I shall point out later in this essay.
But Chesterton was initially concerned in his comments with the fact that Holmes was both a physician and a writer.
A good doctor is by the nature of things a man who needs only the capricious gift of style to make him an amusing author. For a doctor is almost the only man who combines a very great degree of inevitable research and theoretic knowledge with a very great degree of opportunism.
The point Chesterton was making was a subtle one, the distinction between fancy and imagination. "Physical science has everything in the world to do with fancy, though not perhaps much in the highest sense to do with imagination." Here we get an initial hint of Chesterton's extraordinary sense of the meaning and nature of modern science and its presuppositions (See Father Jaki's book, Chesterton: A Seer of Science, Illinois, 1986).
Imagination is the capacity to put things into a harmonious whole, things that clearly belong together. Fancy, on the other hand, sees relationships not when things seem to fit together, but when they do not. Reality is more like fancy than imagination; its configuration is divine, not human.
That is, an order to reality exists but it is one that is ordinarily not seen by the human mind logically to follow or consistently to hold together, even though there is a logic and a holding together. Holmes, Chesterton thought, had this latter capacity of fancy because of his combination of medicine and literature.
How Holmes understood God also became a fascinating question for Chesterton. Holmes was not a materialist, nor was he an agnostic, nor did he "rise to a refuge in a luminous mysticism and cleanse deity of all materialistic notions, hanging it alone in the heaven of metaphysics." God was rather like the Father of nature. "His God was practically merciful, but he was mercilessly practical."
Holmes protested "against the cruelty of taking human freedom too seriously." And in a passage almost directly out of Plato's Laws, Holmes, in Chesterton's view, tossed "to the images of God the pardon which is due to puppets." That is, these images, these puppets really were not responsible for anything they did. They were not free.
"What was the problem here?" we might ask. Holmes poked fun at the churches Yet, these same orthodox churches "were founded on a certain grand metaphysical idea which Holmes never quite justly appreciated, the idea of the dignity and danger of the imago dei." The dignity and danger of the images of God was that they were not just puppets, but puppets of God, as Plato had said.
Thus, the "images of God" themselves had to choose God. Consequently, He took a considerable risk in creating them. Human freedom might indeed be taken "too seriously," that is, we might in fact not want ourselves to be so free that there is any real risk of not choosing God. This position is what worried Chesterton about Holmes. But if we refuse the risk, we refuse to be human at all. The "autocrat," in Chesterton's view, does not see the universality of both the risk and the this is the same thing as not wishing to be free at all.
Both the Christian religion and the Declaration of Independence recognized this risk that underlay all dealings with men. Both were democratic in this sense that they believed the drama of life and destiny belonged to everyone, not just to the gentlemen, to the oligarchs or aristocrats. "So good a gentleman as Holmes could not really understand the divine vulgarity of the Christian religion."
Chesterton admired Holmes' breakfast table, with its brilliant wit and exchange of remarks. "At the breakfast-table there is something more important even than the amazing cleverness which is lavished upon it. There is a human atmosphere which alone makes conversation possible." The highest things exist in conversation. The Word was made flesh.
Yet, the spirit of Holmes was not democratic but aristocratic. Not understanding the "dignity and danger of the imago dei" in all its forms, Holmes did not grasp the "divine vulgarity of the Christian religion" which presumed that everyone was to take part in the ultimate conversation. "Holmes was the most large-hearted and humorous of philosophers, but he was not the democrat of 'the open road' (Whitman). He was the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table."
The Christian religion, on the other hand, was for the vulgus, for the great multitude of people, for the men and women who would understand Holmes' own "long path" in the light of God's risk in inviting them to take it, to choose it. Once we understand the dignity and danger of the 'imago dei', we will, Chesterton thought, also begin to understand "the divine vulgarity of the Christian religion," even at the breakfast-table, even strolling along the paths on the Boston Common that lead from Joy Street southward to Boylston Street.
16) From Midwest Chesterton News, May, 1997.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
"THE GREAT TEMPTATION OF THE CATHOLIC IN THE MODERN WORLD"
Chapter Seventeen of The Thing (1926, CW, Vol. III, pp. 236-39) is entitled "The Feasts and the Ascetic." It deals with the fact that there is nothing at all contradictory in having a place for both feasts and asceticism in our lives and a philosophic faith that can explain why. Those who dance can also be those who fast; and indeed it would be unnatural were it otherwise. Chesterton's way of putting it is, as always, apt: "a man who overeats himself on Christmas Eve ... has no appetite on Christmas Day." Indeed, as I read all the advertisements about dieting and slimming, it sometimes appears that the modern non-Christian world has replaced the fastings that used to be proposed to be seasonal, say Advent or Lent, with fasting that is permanent, and increasingly, if I read the signs of the times, obligatory and to be enforced by civil law. What used to be a personal excess is quickly becoming a civil crime. I am thinking of smoking, but hamburgers will be next. And what used to be crimes and horrors -- I think of abortions and mercy-killings -- are now proposed as civil rights.
This chapter deals with "the bewildered barbarian" whom the Catholic, in trying to explain to his bewilderment the simplest of things about the Faith, is tempted to treat as a "dunce." The Catholic is tempted to follow the "very un-Christian logic of answering a fool according to his logic." Chesterton confesses frankly at this point that "the great temptation of the Catholic in the modern world is the temptation to intellectual pride." Why so? Because "it is so obvious that most of his critics are talking without the least knowing what they are talking about." Thus there is a disposition to "luxuriate in secret, as it were, over the much greater subtlety and richness of the philosophy he inherits." Consequently, when someone remarks that Christianity is too much devoted to "merry-making and materialist enjoyment," the temptation is to answer, "this is quite so," with no further explanation. And when the Catholic, on the opposite side, is accused of merely, like the Buddhist, "denying himself the ordinary pleasures," he will likewise respond, "'Quite correct, old bean,' or 'Got it first time, old top,' and merely propose an adjournment for convivial refreshment," again with no further explanation.
Now, such temptations not to take such inquiries seriously, Chesterton writes, "are to be resisted." What needs with great patience to be explained is that what seems to many to be "mutually contradictory is really complimentary." Then Chesterton adds, in a marvelous line, "we are not entitled to despair of explaining the truth; nor is it really so horribly difficult to explain." Now, we might very well agree with Chesterton about not despairing to explain the truth, but we cannot help but being astonished by his claim that it is not "really so horribly difficult to explain."
Chesterton then gives an example of what he means by the ease with which this belief can be explained. "I suggest that people would see the Christian story if it could only be told as a heathen story. The Faith is simply the story of a God who died for men." So let's suppose that we have heard nothing of this Christian background. Let's suppose that "we have nothing but the earth and the children of man pottering about on it, with their normal tales and traditions." How would such a tale about God dying for man be received and what would happen in its retelling?
Suppose there is a fountain on the top of a mountain gushing forth a spring at which people are healed. This story would produce a number of other stories. First, there would be ordinary people, on hearing of the water, who would seek the fountain out just to have the water. Others would undertake long perilous journeys to be bathed in it. Crippled men would walk hundreds of miles in search of it only to die exhausted before reaching it. Some would be beset on the way by robbers and would be killed longingly searching for it. The essence of such a story of a God who died for men is thus relatively simple in its outlines, as are the stories we are told about those who seek it out.
The trouble is, Chesterton adds, that "we in our time have confused ourselves with long words for unreal distinctions; and talking incessantly about optimism and pessimism, about asceticism and hedonism, about what we call Paganism and what we think about Buddhism, till we cannot understand a plain tale when read." If we ever could run into someone who had never heard anything of this now confused background, he could grasp its point much more easily. "The Pagan would have understood it much better."
Another thing that modern critics object to in the account of the God who died for man is that it seems to emphasize the ascetic side of religion too much. But Chesterton points out, this emphasis is "exactly what would happen with any human story, even if it were a heathen story." In the case of the healing fountain on the mountain top, the stories that would be most told and remembered would be those that involved great hardship and difficulty in getting to the place. We would make heroes of those who suffered extreme difficulty. We would forget that many others actually got to the fountain and found water in it. The fact is that "there are more human beings than heroes; and that this great majority of human beings have benefited by it." The preciousness of the faith makes for heroes, but it is also for the ordinary who receive it too.
Again, recalling the effects of the story, Chesterton continues, "it is natural that men should marvel more at the man who deliberately lames himself (getting to the fountain) than at the man who dances when he is no longer lame. But that does not alter the fact that the countries where the legend prevails (the legend of the God who dies for man) are, in fact, full of dancing."
"The great temptation of the Catholic in the modern world is to intellectual pride." There are, I think, very few who suffer this temptation, not because it is not a real temptation, but because there are so few who know enough about the intellectual strength of their Faith to suffer any temptation that might be called intellectual. But Chesterton is right about the dancing because he is right about the asceticism. The story of "the God who died for man" produced in history the very reactions that we might expect it would if it were true.
The barbarians remain "bewildered." The Catholics most tempted to intellectual pride, that is to say, the ones still "pottering about" the earth, know the story is true. They refuse to confuse themselves "with long words for unreal distinctions." They continue to "adjourn for convivial refreshment," knowing about the ordinary man who was filled at the waters and about the lame man who danced because he was cured. In the end, it is "not so difficult to explain."
17) From Midwest Chesterton News, December, 1996.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
AT CHRISTMAS DINNER
Chesterton's column in the Illustrated London News for December 26, 1931, was entitled, "Chaucer and Christmas" (Collected Works, V. 35, pp. 645-50). Normally, we associate Chesterton's Christmas with Dickens, as he does himself in this essay. But he still "finds Chaucer very appropriate for Christmas." Why? Chaucer had the two great Christmas qualities that Chesterton saw in Dickens, perhaps even more than Dickens. These two great Christmas qualities were: 1) that he (Chaucer) was an "extraordinary man who could make friends with ordinary men." And 2) he was an extraordinary man who could be an ordinary man, who "could even look like an ordinary man." Needless to say, to be and look like an ordinary man was high praise for Chesterton, even more than being an extraordinary man. Contrary to what we might expect, we even have the impression that it is, in fact, more difficult to be ordinary than extraordinary.
Men of almost any trade can be poets, Chesterton pointed out -- Goethe was a German professor and Scott was an "acquisitive gentleman farmer." Chaucer seems to have been a man very useful to others. He oversaw the construction of buildings, knew heraldry, traded in wine. He knew the world and had travelled in it. During all his regular life, however, many a poem and song burst out of him. Chaucer did not seem to have quarreled with others, even with himself. Chaucer seems to have been mostly "merry" about life and things. He could write about sober and tragic things but this was not his primary atmosphere. Chesterton thought it was very difficult to describe the mood, the merry mood, that ran through all the works of Chaucer. He could only suggest it by comparing it with how "the greatest of the modern English writers have praised Christmas." Presumably, Chesterton means Dickens most of all here.
Chesterton describes this atmosphere of Chaucer in this way: "Chaucer was wide enough to be narrow; that is, he could bring a broad experience of life to the enjoyment of local or even accidental things." This passage touches a theme that recalls Chesterton's remarks on Thomas Aquinas, about the great Dominican's love for the vast multiplicity of created things. Chaucer's tales were full of all sorts of characters with many and varied experiences. Notice that Chesterton specifically remarked that Chaucer had "a broad experience of life". What did he do with this broad experience? He brought it to the "enjoyment of local or even accidental things."
Are we prepared, I wonder, to grasp the profundity of this seemingly off-handed remark? We are inclined to think that the great dramas of the world are at least national if not international, necessary, not accidental. And yet there may be more drama and excitement in very ordinary things, in the events lived by very ordinary men. We suspect that the Christian revelation, with its local and particular dimensions, has something to do with this emphasis on the ordinary.
The chief defect of current literature, Chesterton thought, was "that it always talks as if local things could only be limiting, not to say strangling." Accidents would only be unpleasant glitches in the great drama of the world. In other words, Chesterton implies by contrast, we should expect that local things will be exciting and accidents extraordinary. And this is how we get to Christmas Dinner.
In the work of a modern minor-poet, who would condescend to describe Christmas Dinner, Chesterton observed, the scene would be one of extreme agony. Uncle George would be deadly dull and Aunt Adelaide's voice shrill and piercing. If we take a look at Chaucer, however, he happened to know the Miller and the Pardoner, ordinary folks. Chaucer would have had no difficulty sitting down to Christmas Dinner with Uncle George and Aunt Adelaide, "with the heaviest uncle or the shrillest aunt". They might well have amused Chaucer, but never would they have angered him.
Why not? What makes Chaucer different from the modern poet bored to death at Christmas Dinner? The reason was "partly spiritual and partly practical." Chaucer had the order of spiritual things rightly set forth in his mind. This meant that Christmas was "more important than Uncle George's anecdotes." You did not throw away its meaning by your boredom. It is quite possible that heavy Uncle George may have told the same stories last years. It is quite likely that Aunt Adelaide's voice has not changed in forty years. Christmas is not about Uncle George's stories or Aunt Adelaide's voice, but about the family gathered there, the family that includes Uncle George and Aunt Adelaide, however heavy or piercing they may be.
Practically, Chaucer had seen "the great world of human beings." He has been around, as they say. What happens to a man who has seen this "great world"? He knows that "wherever a man wanders among men, in Flanders, or in France or Italy, he will find that the world largely consists of Uncle Georges." Recall that this observation is written against the background both of the minor poet hopelessly bored at the Uncle Georges of this world and of the extraordinary man who could make friends with ordinary men. The broad experience of life, the awareness of spiritual order, alone enables us to enjoy the local and accidental things.
What is Chesterton's conclusion from these premises? That "this imaginative patience is the thing most men want in the modern Christmas." We want to have Uncle George and Aunt Adelaide there. But we need deep patience to make us realize that no matter how extraordinary we think ourselves to be, to those who love us, we will be mainly Uncle George and Aunt Adelaide, with our own version of the shrill voiced or preposterous anecdote. If we want to find this "imaginative patience", we could do no better than to read Chaucer, or Dickens, or Chesterton himself.
Patience is called "imaginative" because to see the wonder of local and accidental things, the world full of Uncle Georges and Aunt Adelaides, we have to have enough imagination to see before us a scheme of spiritual things that enables us to look around the Christmas Dinner table to see what is really there. What is there is always a familiar face or a local reality with which most of the world is familiar.
What is there, in most local, accidental places, is not the extraordinary man, but the ordinary man celebrating the Incarnation and Nativity of the Lord. These events too happened in a local, seemingly accidental place, that the great world rejected because, so it thought, what is important and dramatic among men could not have taken place in such a quiet and out-of-the-way locality as Nazareth or Bethlehem. The mystery of the Nativity is that it affirms, each year at Christmas Dinner, that those whom Christ was sent to redeem are the Uncle Georges, with their anecdotes, and the Aunt Adelaides with their shrill voices, whom, be it in Flanders, or France or Italy or at our own Christmas Dinner, largely compose the whole of the human race.
18) From Midwest Chesterton News, September, 1994.
THE NATURAL HOME OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT
In 1927, Chesterton's book, The Catholic Church and Conversion, was published (Vol. III of Collected Works, Ignatius, 1990). Belloc did the "Foreword" and Chesterton himself wrote his own "Introduction", which he called, not without some amusement, "A New Religion". Both short essays remain of considerable and refreshing interest. Belloc was the "born-Catholic" of the two, so, as he remarks, "it is with diffidence that anyone born into the Faith can approach the tremendous subject of Conversion." The convert always has the aura of choice; the born-Catholic of tradition, of not having had to change anything, only fulfill the promise already his.
As I was born the year following this publication of this book, also a "born-Catholic", I find both of these essays, that of the born-Catholic and that of the convert, to be of considerable interest. I have always found Belloc's remark in The Path to Rome, I think, that "it is a good thing never to have lost the Faith," to be a comforting one. Both to have the Faith and not to have lost it, to be sure, are graces. We should not be so foolish as to attribute too much to our own powers. And yet, there can be no doubt that being born into the Faith enables us to live in a much more ordered and, yes, delightful universe than we might otherwise have known. Born-Catholics, to be sure, often do not show that angst or earnestness about what they hold to be true as do converts. But this calmness is only because born-Catholics are more aware of and comfortable with the fact that things really do fit together, that ultimate quests are not merely prodding our souls but that these quests are not in vain. They can be reached.
Belloc did, to be sure, speculate on an experience that was no doubt his, about how "born-Catholics" frequently do go through an analogous conversion experience. We are all aware, of course, that a gift given must sooner or later be a gift consciously accepted or else it is not a gift. And in the matter of faith, this acceptance will relate to the depths at which we choose to allow the faith, in its intelligibility, to speak to us.
Those born into the Faith often, I say, go through an experience of skepticism in youth, as the years proceed, and it is still a common phenomenon ... for men of the Catholic culture, acquainted with the he Church from childhood, to leave it in early manhood and never to return. But it is nowadays a still more frequent phenomenon -- and it is to this that I allude -- for those to whom scepticism so strongly appealed in youth to discover, by an experience of men and of reality in all its various forms, that the transcendental truths they had been taught in childhood have the highest claims upon their matured reason.
The second "conversion" in Belloc's sense, thus, had to do with the sudden realization that the skeptical alternatives did not in fact make as much sense as what had been taught in youth, had we but just been willing to learn and live it.
Belloc's approach was to remark on the many different sorts of men and women who came into the Church as converts from all sorts of backgrounds. We find the cynic and the sentimentalist, the fool and the wise man, the doubter and the man who does not doubt enough. Moreover, we find people entering the Church from all sorts of experiences and nationalities. "You come across an entry into the Catholic Church undoubtedly due to the spectacle, admiration and imitation of some great character observed. Next day you come across an entry into the Catholic Church out of complete loneliness, and you are astonished to find the convert still ignorant of the great mass of the Catholic effect on character."
Belloc remarked that "the Church is the natural home of the Human Spirit." This is a striking phrase, for the Church is not supposed to be the "natural" home of anything, unless, of course, our spirit is made for something that is not merely nature. Belloc found that these myriads of reasons for entering the Church converged because the reality to which they pointed was one. "It is in this convergence of witnesses that we have one out of the innumerable proofs upon which the rational basis of our religion rests." The supernatural religion rests on a solid rational basis.
Chesterton, for his part, the convert, the man not born Catholic, found a paradox, that this ancient religion was really quite new. This amused him. "It would be very undesirable that modern men should accept Catholicism merely as a novelty; but it is a novelty." Today, in a way, the public world has so deviated from Catholicism that Catholicism is precisely a "revolt", something quite different from anything about us, something quite novel, quite new. Chesterton, as I said, called his essay "A New Religion". Needless to say, when Chesterton calls something as old as Catholicism "new", he is probably saying something quite unexpectedly true. "There is something almost legendary about the religion that is two thousand years old now appearing as a rival of the new religions."
During the last decade or so, under John Paul II, the Catholic Church has in many ways recovered itself. It has reformed or better, re-presented its Canon Law, both Western and Eastern, its social teachings, its moral philosophy and theology. The new General Catechism is no doubt the most complete, systematic, and coherent presentation of the whole faith ever offered. Where does this old institution get the vitality to be the new religion on the block? Indeed, most Catholics do not even know this themselves. Most are in great need of a Belloc-type conversion. "The mark of the faith," Chesterton said, "is not tradition (however good that is) but conversion." The Spirit breathes where it wills, but the Church is not an abstraction. It is here to challenge souls, either to accept or to reject. The Church as "the natural home of the Human Spirit" is also witness to the sign of contradiction.
What both Chesterton and Belloc were sure of, however, was that the Church was the home of reason. The modern world will never be humble enough to admit its own scepticism and irrationality. But Chesterton had it right early in the twentieth century, I think. He already saw in the first quarter of this century most of the dire things that would occur at its ending.
(The Church) is already beginning to appear as the only champion of reason in the twentieth century, as it was the only champion of tradition in the nineteenth. We know that the higher mathematics is trying to deny that two and two make four and the higher mysticism to imagine something that is beyond good and evil. Amid all these antirational philosophies, ours will remain the only rational philosophy.
At the end of the twentieth century, at the beginning of the third millennium, a convert, I suspect, could with cold intelligence still make the same claim. Veritatis Splendor is written directly that now more developed "higher mysticism" that imagines that something an be "beyond good and evil." In this light, it should come as no great surprise that Nietzsche and Heidegger are the popular philosophers at the end of the twentieth century.
What needs to be put together, I think, from these two insightful essays on conversion by Belloc and Chesterton is the relationship between "the only rational philosophy" and "the natural home of the Human Spirit". Modernity and post-Modernity have been built on the premise that these two things cannot belong together in the same community, that faith and reason are completely alien to one another. What Chesterton called "a new religion", however, turned out to be the very old faith no longer recognized or intellectually confronted. "Amid all these antirational philosophies" it remains "the only rational philosophy." What Belloc called the transcendent truths of our childhood ironically do have "the highest claims on our matured reason." The Human Spirit does have precisely a "home" because all things converge as "innumerable proofs upon which the rational basis of our religion reposes."
19) From Midwest Chesterton News, August, 1995.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
WILDE AND WILDER
Readers have no doubt noticed that I have referred to Original Sin quite a bit of late. It is a fascinating topic, to be sure, the one subject about which Chesterton maintained we need no real proof. We just have to go out in the streets and open our eyes. Just how to describe or define Original Sin is always somewhat mystifying. I did come across a brief sentence, however, in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, that comes pretty close.
`The Matchmaker is of course Hello, Dolly. In it, Mr. Horace Vandergelder, the rich merchant from Yonkers, New York, has been talking to his clerk Malachi about Vandergelder's plans for a fateful trip to New York that eventually leads him to Mrs. Dolly Levi, a charmingly sentimental lady who thinks, not entirely without reason, that elegantly spending Vandergelder's considerable accumulation of cash is the cure to his, hers, and the world's problems. When Malachi leaves for his New York errand, Vandergelder, who does not necessarily have a high opinion of clerks, turns to the audience to explain his views about the human condition. "Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world," he tells them, "are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion."
That wonderful statement is not exactly Original Sin, of course, but it hits amusingly close to our normal experience, especially of ourselves, according to which the doctrine of Original Sin is not entirely improbable. Undoubtedly, to recall the persistence of self-deception as a factor in human history, one hundred percent of the human race, like Vandergelder, think they belong to that one percent of the race that worries about the great danger of contagion even though they are not like the rest of men, already fools..
Liberty Fund in Indianapolis recently had a seminar on Thornton Wilder to which I was kindly invited. Out of curiosity, I wrote in advance to John Peterson inquiring about whether Chesterton ever had said anything on Wilder. John put a note in the Midwest Chesterton News, asking if anyone might have knowledge of such a reference. Promptly, he received a note from Mr. Frank Laughlin, Editor of the Chesterton Newsletter in England. It seems that there is at least one poetical reference to Wilder from the G.K. Weekly in 1929-30.
The reference is an eight line poem entitled "On an American Best Seller." The best seller, of course, is Wilder's famous The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a novel we read in preparation for the seminar. Notice what Chesterton has to say in the poem about this book and about Wilder. The poem reads:
The Decadents' bridges broke down in despair:
It is something that someone could fling
Some sort of Bridge over that dreary abyss
In the name of Saint Louis the King.
That Art may yet cross to the people, and purify
Of the poisonous and slimes that defiles her;
For when I was a child half the world had gone Wilde
But now half the world have gone Wilder.
When I read this poem to the seminar, everyone laughed at the clever juxtaposition of Oscar Wilde and Thornton Wilder.
The poem was printed in Chesterton's own handwriting and was accompanied by an original Chesterton drawing showing, from the Peruvian abyss, St. Louis the King himself, with shield in his left arm and with his right arm outstretched towards the broken bridge. What was St. Louis the King telling us?
On Friday noon, July 20, 1714, this famous hundred year old, Indian built bridge between Lima and Cuzco collapsed killing five people. The scene is watched by the Franciscan, Brother Juniper, who is exceedingly perplexed by this incident but looked upon it as an opportunity to prove the ways of God to men. Brother Juniper set out to see if he could explain just what it was in the lives of each of the five killed that might show that each died at exactly the right time, before God.
The famous last lines of this novel are always worth repeating:
But soon we shall all die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
At first sight, this seems almost Christian. Much of Wilder seems almost Christian. Yet, love here seems here a kind of abstraction from the five, from we ourselves. It is not the "impulses" of love that, hopefully, return to "the love that made them." Rather it is we ourselves who love and are loved. The only survival is we ourselves. The Bridge is not love, an abstraction, but Resurrection, something concrete.
What does Chesterton's poem mean in this light? Chesterton is writing between the Wars, though he does not know the between. He writes after the Great War. The result of progress, of the philosophy of the decedents is precisely "despair". Chesterton compliments Wilder for tossing up "some sort of a bridge" across this dreary abyss of despair. Clearly, Chesterton does not see clarity in Wilder himself, but he recognizes that The Bridge of San Luis Rey does ask the right sort of questions about the meaning of providence, about the relation of life to death. It is not despair even when it is not clarity. The Bridge is in the name of Saint Louis the King, so it is not rooted in doubt.
Chesterton sees that what may yet save the common man from this decadent despair might well be "art", novels. Intellectual poisons and slimes defile both art and the people. They need to see that this despair is not right. Brother Juniper and the five who fall into the abyss between Lima and Cuzco in 1714 on a Friday noon in July begin to ask the right questions. When Chesterton was a child late in the 19th Century, half the world followed Oscar Wilde and the decedents. Forty years later, however, Thornton Wilder presented a more hopeful case in his art. The American best seller obviously was addressed to something important, to something that responded to the Decadents in the direction of providence and the meaning of each human life.
Chesterton, no doubt, could not resist the juxtaposition of Wilde and Wilder. Both names seem utter symbolic of what he was driving at. That the decedents should even be considered would be considered by Chesterton to be simply "wild". Once we have gone to the extreme of doubting all and living without a sense of order or providence, the most radical position we can to take is to begin to suspect, even on the scientific and experimental grounds that Brother Juniper first proposed, that what is beyond "Wilde" is something intellectually even "wilder". For what is more astonishing, more "wild", to doubt all or to begin to wonder about why certain five folks were killed one noon walking over the most famous bridge in Peru?
Brother Juniper himself, in the novel, is executed by the Inquisition for even bringing up these theological topics. Some think the reason for this was in fact his effort to himself, by his own powers, know for certain what divine providence had planned for each of us. Brother Juniper, in the spirit of modern science, wanted to be God.
Wilder himself evidently does not quite know what to make of this result of his own novel. He hesitated to save actual souls and saved only "love", the impulses of love return to their source, an idea reminiscent of a kind of pantheism found often in Wilder. That too is pretty "dreary", if you come to think on it. This sentimentality about "love" is, it strikes me, why Chesterton saw in Wilder only "some sort of bridge" across the abyss of nihilism. Wilder was closer to the mark than Wilde.
Wilder's bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead, though better than solecism, was itself an abstraction by comparison with what we really were promised and what we really wanted. But in comparison with the despair of the decedents of all ages, it was already arching over the slimes and the poisons that caused so much hurt to the people who deserved an art that that did lead them out of the abyss of despair. Chesterton gave Wilder credit for his alerting half the world of his time to the something else besides hopelessness.
Perhaps I can leave the last lines to Dolly Levi speaking in the final act to the audience of The Matchmaker about why she has decided to capture the stern heart of Horace Vandergelder, even though she still had great affection for her deceased husband, Ephraim Levi:
Money! Money! -- it's like the sun we walk under; it can kill or cure. -- Mr. Vandergelder's money! Vandergelder's never tired of saying most of the people in the world are fools, and in a way, he's right, isn't he? Himself, Irene, Cornelius, myself! But there comes a moment in everybody's life when he must decide whether he'll live among human beings or not -- a fool among fools or a fool alone.
There can, I think, be no doubt which of these choices, being a fool among fools or a fool alone, Chesterton would have chosen. His whole concern with the ordinary man and what can save him is already here, half way with "An American Best Seller", and surely most of the way with Dolly Levi's wonderful reflection, so reminiscent both of the Fall and of our individual redemption midst our universal foolishness, yes, in concrete love, in resurrection. Only a fool alone would want it otherwise.
20) From Midwest Chesterton News, June, 1995.
Schall on Chesterton James V. Schall, S. J.
WHAT SCIENCE CANNOT COMPREHEND
In these days of doubt about the legal process itself, I came across an essay that Chesterton wrote in the Illustrated London News for April 17, 1909 (Collected Works, XXVIII, 307-11). This essay arose out of a proposal of a Professor of Psychology that all witnesses to jury trials be first examined by said expert to see whether normal witnesses "could be trusted to tell the truth, even supposing that they wanted to." Needless to say, Chesterton was greatly amused by this proposal of the expert to examine the normal man to see if he, the normal man, not the expert, is worthy of belief.
Thus, two types of witness would result from this process: those with a scientific seal of approval and those with none. Whether there is also an expert to tell us whether a witness (or an expert) "wants" to tell the truth, Chesterton does not remark, but this would surely involve yet another "scientific" certification. We would first have the witness, then the expert to tell whether he is credible, then the expert to tell whether the witness "wants" to tell the truth. But this is not all. Who checks the expert "even supposing that he (the expert himself) wanted to" tell the truth? This involves in an infinite regress the result of which is that nothing can be known, which in fact may be their purpose of some modern philosophies.
Chesterton, of course, goes the other way in these matters. Normally, we can believe a witness to recount what he saw. Suppose a grocer sees a murder. We need not go back into the man's whole history to determine whether he can witness to a fact that he saw. We recognize no doubt that everyone can err and distort, but this is merely another way of saying we are human. "We only doubt the fact told by the man because he is a man. The fact, when it has passed through a human mind, is always slightly altered."
Does this mean that if the said witness is in turn examined by an expert psychologist whose business it to tell the jury or the judge whether the man is credible, that this expert opinion automatically establishes credibility? Indeed not. "The psychologist expert is also a man; he also has a peculiar physique and mental bias; therefore, when the fact has passed through his mind also, it will be altered yet more." The only way to avoid the consequences of this human status of the expert scientist is to assume "that scientific men are not really men at all.... In short, scientific men are gods and other men are not." Chesterton sees this approach as a dead end. If we are going to find one man to "tell the real truth about another," we cannot do this on the grounds that no one ever tells the truth, which was the original reason for doubting the common man's power to testify to what he saw and on which ability the whole system of justice depends. The fact that we sometimes do not tell the truth, either willingly or involuntarily, does not mean that we do not normally tell the truth.
Chesterton's position on this matter became the subject of controversy between Mr. Wilfred Ward in the Dublin Review and a certain Dr. Warschauer in a sermon printed in the Christian World. The Protestant Minister disputed Chesterton's view that the testimony of the ignorant rather than the expert should be accepted. Chesterton had written somewhere about miracles that the testimony of an "apple woman" should be accepted to affirm what she witnessed, just as the testimony of a grocer should be accepted in court to affirm what he saw in a murder. Chesterton observed that the witness of common people is accepted in all legal systems, democratic or despotic so the question has nothing to do with the form of government under which the witness lives if all that is asked is what he saw.
The main point that Chesterton was making, he thought, was this:
A miracle is an incident, true or false, like a murder; and that all that we want in a witness to an incident is that the witness should be honest and in possession of his five senses. One does not need any learning to say that a man was killed or that a man was raised from the dead. One does not have to be an astronomer to say that a star fell from heaven; or a botanist to say that a fig tree withered....
When we are confronted with such incidents, "an ordinary man is either a liar, or he is a madman, or he is telling the truth, there is no possibility of being an expert witness." Moreover, to refuse to allow the witness of ordinary people to what they in fact saw is in essence undemocratic. Implicitly, this doubt about the common man would mean that only a "judge in wig and gown could really have been a witness to a burglary", and this also assumes that the judge is simultaneously a god, an expert, and an honest man.
This background leads Chesterton to question the purpose of science in these matters. If an expert must first testify to the ordinary man's sanity or credibility, it means that the ordinary man's witness is not itself worthy. "Like, nearly all new scientific proposals, it is a proposal to crush the people." Chesterton notices that "no one suggests that we should examine the Judge as to his private life, his politics, and, above all, his enormous income. No one demands that we should allow for the bias and habit of the lawyer...." Needless to say, such was Chesterton's perceptive powers, that these are precisely whom we have begun to examine. The same science that was used to undermine the ordinary man has now turned itself on the judges, lawyers, and experts themselves. Ironically, in defending the veracity of the common man, Chesterton called attention to the grounds on which judges and experts also could be considered credible or incredible.
The assumption that the common man as a normal witness needs scientific examination, not surprisingly, infuriated Chesterton. What is being scientifically examined is not the criminal or the lawyer but the witness, who is the only man in the
whole court who is doing a plain public service for nothing. The witness is, normally speaking, the only reliable man in court. The barristers are unreliable, avowedly and honestly unreliable; it is their duty to be unreliable. The prisoner is unreliable, with even more excuse. The Judge is unreliable, as all human history proves.... The jury, though vastly more reliable than the Judge, is somewhat weakened, and, infatuated by the official atmosphere, may take itself too seriously and become a clique or club for the occasion.
The result of this is that the only one who is trying to tell the truth is the man in the street who witnessed the deed. And this is the man whom science chooses to investigate. The result of this investigation yields only what the theory that governed the examination could allow for. In other words, the subject matter of the veracity and accuracy of the witness was itself beyond this science.
Chesterton's conclusion from these instances of the green grocer who sees the murder and the apple woman who sees a resurrection is remarkable, "All the diseases that devour States it (science) easily passes by -- the rapacity and ambition of magistrates, the leathern cruelty of lawyers, the corruption of experts, and the rust of routine. It is only the healthy man whom science cannot comprehend."
Why science cannot comprehend the healthy man is the charter of our freedom. That is, when it comes to witnessing, to telling the truth, to choosing, to all the activities of a healthy man, no scientific method will tell us better than we can tell ourselves what is happening. The fact that we are human, that things pass through us and become distorted, that we can lie, that we can be subject to self-interest, money, and vanity, none of these needs to be set aside as if it did not happen. But that we need an expert to tell us whether we are credible, that we can find a second expert to tell us whether the first expert who examines us is himself credible, these are proposals that verge onto tyranny and we should not doubt it. What science cannot comprehend by its methods is precisely our honesty, our freedom, our experiences, and even our vices -- all the things, in other words, that really matter. But we can and do know these things and testify to them, even if we are the green grocer or the apple lady or the scientist when he is not being a scientist
21) A Shorter Version of this Essay appeared in The Chesterton Review, XX (February, 1994), 55-64.
James V. Schall, S. J.
G. K. CHESTERTON: JOURNALIST
And among many more abject reasons for not being able to be a novelist, is the fact that I always have been and presumably always shall be a journalist.
-- G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography
Peter Milward, in an essay in The Chesterton Review, has speculated on the problem which an unsuspecting cataloguer at some famous library might have in first confronting the works of Chesterton. How would they be identified? Works in literature? in theology? in philosophy? in poetry? in detective stories? in humor? in science? in literary criticism? in politics? in English literature? in apologetics? in economics? in history? in biography? in travel? Yet, we know that Chesterton, when it came to identifying what he thought himself to be, called himself simply a "journalist." Needless to say, we would be more than a little surprised to find Orthodoxy or What's Wrong with the World listed under "journalism" in any library. And we would expect Heretics to be listed under, well what? Almost anything but theology!
At the same time, of course, we would be even more than amused to discover that this Englishman who identified himself as simply a journalist did not think that you found much truth in a newspaper, nor that the "daily" papers had anything much to do with what was actually going on that day. "The plain truth is that, from official journalism, we cannot get the plain truth," Chesterton quipped on May 16, 1914.
The daily paper is a rich and suggestive document: personally, I love reading the day before yesterday's daily paper. Some of the finest fun and wisdom in the world can be found buried in the files of old newspapers. But the daily paper is never daily. The daily paper is never up to date.3
The minds of those who owned and wrote in the papers were condition by an earlier era and could never quite distinguish what was really going on.
In his Autobiography, Chesterton admitted that "the profound problem of how I ever managed to fall on my feet in Fleet Street is a mystery; at least it is still a mystery to me."4 This "mystery," as he called it, however, did not prevent Chesterton from explaining his success as a journalist on this same Fleet Street. He continued:
I think I owed my success (as the millionaires say) to having listened respectfully and rather bashfully to the very best advice, given by all the best journalists who had achieved the best sort of success in journalism; and then going away and doing the exact opposite.5
In pursuing this approach, he continued, "I think I became a sort of comic success by contrast." There is, I think, in Chesterton's journalism a kind of metaphysical humor, yes a kind of divine comedy which explains the abiding attraction of his "comic success."
The "advice" that Chesterton would give to budding journalists, moreover, was that they should write two articles, one for the Sporting Times and one for the Church Times and then proceed to put them in the "wrong envelopes." Subsequently, if these articles were reasonably intelligent and finally accepted, the sporting men would go about happily calling to each other across the greens or courts, "Great mistake to suppose there isn't a good case for us; really brainy fellows say so." And likewise the clergymen would go about congratulating each other, "Rattling good writing on some of our religious papers; very witty fellow."6 Chesterton realized that the truth ever lies in something more than mere specialization, including theological specialization.
Chesterton, of course, was amused enough to call this unique hypothesis "a little faint and fantastic as a theory; but it is the only theory upon which I can explain my own undeserved survival in the journalistic squabble of the old Fleet Street."7 As a result, Chesterton had the freedom to address various fora that had never heard of what he was talking about. In the old Nonconformist Daily News, for which he wrote a column from January 6, 1901 to February 1, 1913, he could tell the readers all about "French cafes and Catholic cathedrals; and they loved it, because they had never heard of them before." "I wrote in a robust Labour organ like the old Clarion," he continued, "and defended medieval theology and all the things their readers had never heard of; and their readers did not mind me a bit."8 To the narrowness of any sect or school or philosophy, Chesterton opposed nothing less than the whole world, itself, he realized, full of particular, unique, and tiny things and not a vague abstraction.
Chesterton could not help but being delighted by all of these ironical turns of events that prevented him from being an academic or an artist, let alone a real estate agent in a family enterprise, while enabling him at the same time to earn his living in journalism.
The autumn of 1905 was to bring considerable relief to the Chestertons' financial worries. Sir Bruce Ingram offered Gilbert the well-known "Our Notebook" column in the Illustrated London News on the death of L. F. Austin. This column, which had achieved a world-wide reputation during the time it was written by George Sala, gave Chesterton a regular weekly income for life, since he wrote it with hardly any interruption for the next thirty-one years until he died. The editor suggested a payment of £350 a year, which virtually doubled his income.9
Yet, he reflected later on in his Autobiography, the dedication to journalism did not arise either from his financial situation or from his lighter side, however much he might have enjoyed it all.
"But it was not the superficial or silly or jolly part of me that made me a journalist," Chesterton explained.
On the contrary, it is such part as I have in what is serious or even solemn. A taste for mere fun might have led me to a public-house, but hardly to a publishing-house. And if it led me to a publishing-house, for the publishing of mere nonsense-rhymes or fairy tales, it could never thus have led me to my deplorable course of endless articles and letters in the newspapers. In short, I could not be a novelist; because I really like to see ideas or notions wrestling naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women. But I could be a journalist because I could not help being a controversialist.10
This passage is most illuminating. It hints at the reason for Chesterton's evident kindness towards those with whom he debated and radically disagreed. Chesterton ever respected the man with whom he argued, but he insisted on dealing directly, even bluntly, with the man's idea as such. He was enormously charitable to individuals, but he was incisive, logical, and unrelenting about their ideas. Chesterton seems to have remained exceedingly well-liked even when he left his opponent with no intellectual leg on which to stand.
Chesterton thus realized that ideas had to be considered in themselves as real forces in the human city and in the human heart. In an almost prophetic column, entitled "Conversion without Creed," (March 30, 1912), Chesterton wrote of the missionary and China. "Unless the Chinaman is a republican, China is not a republic," he observed.11 But he was defending the classical missionary who, Chesterton thought, had the right idea.
(The missionary) is the last representative left of the idea of changing a community from the inside: of changing it by changing the minds of its citizens. Or, rather (to preserve free will, the only basis of political freedom), to get the citizens themselves to change their minds.... Missionaries do try to alter society from the inside; while all statesmen and sociologists, reactionary and revolutionary, old-fashioned and new-fashioned, try to change it from the outside.12
Needless to say, the whole future controversy about liberation theology, if not the Chinese revolution itself, was anticipated in that brief passage. One could not ultimately start or end with institutions, but with ideas that support them. China, Chesterton thought, was conquered by arms, that as a nation of philosophers it has never been converted to ideas that might support a republic.13
Chesterton understood that someone had to pay attention to ideas as such, for it was on the validity of these ideas that kingdoms and empires ultimately rose and fell, that men and women lived humanly happy lives or not. "The ideas of logical and dogmatic men (especially the skeptics, those very dogmatic men)," he mused, "are disputable; and I always wanted to dispute about them."14 Chesterton realized that the university or the parliament or the church was most often too limited as an arena in which to confront the myriads of controversial ideas that actually surged forth from a people. These ideas had to be met on their own grounds, on the grounds in which they initially appeared, which was usually in the newspapers.
Opinion is the suspicion that one side of a contradictory proposition has more evidence for it than its opposite, but did not yet reach certitude, so that either side ultimately might be true. Opinion, doxa, not truth, is the condition of ordinary human life -- opinion about war, peace, song, God, virtue, sex, sports, sin, angels, devils, business, property, poverty, socialism, wealth, foreigners, schools, the Irish, divorce, females, humor, punishment, parliament, poetry. This wealth of divergent views and judgments on everything that is constitutes the life of the people in the cave, in Plato's famous analogy, the life of any polity.
In Aristotle's Rhetoric, opinion is where we begin to know anything, where we begin to examine life.
The 'reputable opinions' (endoxa) on any particular subject are usually confused and even apparently contradictory, but Aristotle assumes that in most cases they manifest at least a partial grasp of the truth, and, therefore, that any serious inquiry into moral or political subjects must start from them.... Rhetoric involves opinions in their original state without the refinements of philosophical examination....15
We may or may not succeed in rising above opinion to truth, though this effort is the natural function of the human intellect. But we cannot avoid beginning with opinion for it already surrounds us wherever we may be.
Chesterton found this raw material which he sought to engage in argument in ordinary conversation but mainly in the press, in the daily and weekly newspaper.
There is no more strange and even amusing modern figure than the Foreign Correspondent of an English paper. I mean the man permanently placed at Paris or Rome or Constantinople, and sending a thin, continuous stream of information to London.
Thus he began his column of April 2, 1910, on "English Ideas about the French," a favorite theme of Chesterton.16 Chesterton began in the familiar, in the ordinary which everyone knew from the papers.
But Chesterton took what he read quite seriously, even when he found it amusing. He would begin an essay entitled "Carrie Nation and Teetotalism" (December 26, 1908), with utter delight, "I was inflamed with joy when I heard of the arrival on our shores of Mrs. Carrie Nation, the enthusiastic American lady who breaks other people's bottles with a large axe...."17 But he would proceed to discuss the serious aspects of drink and civil prohibition. Chesterton sought to give even the most absurd topic which he ran across in the press a refinement of philosophical examination that illuminated what it is that we are about in our opinions, what it is we search for precisely because we have minds and are intended to use them properly. There is hardly a column in the Illustrated London News that does not have a reference at least to something he had just read in the press that very morning. Chesterton never began far from where most people were.
We distinguish, furthermore, between common sense and learned opinion. Yet we do this recalling Aristotle's admonition about who is the best judge of a feast or the best judge of whether a shoe fits. There was a sense in which the wearer of the shoe, not the cobbler, was the best judge of the fit; the many were the best judge of the feast, a principle that grounded Chesterton's democratic instincts. But there was also a sense in which the finest cook was the best judge, a principle that grounded Chesterton's own philosophical stature. The fact is, however, that we could not escape the beginnings in opinion, nor the need to refine opinion to see what truth was found in it. The chaos of opinion was not to be allowed to remain simply chaos.
Chesterton's preference for journalism then was, if you will, both a political and a metaphysical preference. He was really concerned that the common man could come to the truth within the myriad of swirling theoretical views that engulfed him. This concrete situation was why, in his view, it was more worthwhile to write weekly columns than metaphysical books. Indeed, Chesterton did both, but the latter, the metaphysics, proceeded from the former, from the context of daily opinion.
What I propose to do here is to follow Chesterton's way of journalism. I will use substantially his Illustrated London News columns from 1905-1913, for no worse reason than that they are delightful, recently republished, and I have been reading them.18 The first thing that any reader of Chesterton will notice about these generally brief, four to six page articles, published in a widely-read weekly paper in London is the recurrence of familiar themes found in Orthodoxy, in Heretics, in What's Wrong with the World, in his collections of essays, which themselves are often no more than selections or refinements of essays from these or other journals for which he habitually wrote.
Admirers of Chesterton like W. H. Auden did not appreciate his life-time devotion to journalism. Auden wrote:
Chesterton's insistence upon the treadmill of weekly journalism after it ceased to be financially necessary seems to have puzzled his friends as much as it puzzles me.... Whatever Chesterton's reasons and motives for his choice, I am quite certain it was a mistake.... His best thinking and best writing are to be found, not in his short weekly essays, but in his full length books where he could take as much time and space as he pleased.19
Few will disagree that Chesterton's best writing is in his longer works. Yet, on reading and re-reading his weekly columns, it becomes clear that he hammered most of his ideas out originally in some controversy or column that he composed for a hasty deadline. And even his early columns which have two or three different topics, oftentimes not apparently related, (i.e., May 12, 1906, "St. George and the English; Women, Worrying, and the Higher Culture"; December 9, 1905, "Public Houses; Christianity and Christian Science; Noses and Compliments") make very good reading for the newspaper audience who might not have realized what he was about but who came to understand Chesterton's sudden and profound insights.
One of the most memorable chapters in Orthodoxy, for instance, was that entitled, "The Ethics of Elfland." Anyone who remembers this extraordinary chapter will not be surprised to find a column in the London Illustrated News for December 2, 1905, three years before Orthodoxy entitled, "Education and Fairy Tales," while his column for February 29, 1908, was called "The Ethics of Fairy Tales." Chesterton had a life-long aversion for the word "education" which, as he insisted, was not a "subject" of knowledge, but merely a description of how knowledge was passed on. Nevertheless, "without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously," he mused in the first essay.20
What had occasioned this column, however, was naturally an incident in the morning paper. The Duchess of Somerset had been going about to School Boards to inform them that the teaching of fairy tales was "nonsense," that the children should be taught about "Julius Caesar and 'other great men'." Needless to say, Chesterton could hardly resist challenging this preposterous, but popular, proposal. "Civilisation changes," he pointed out, "but fairy tales never change." Chesterton went on to illuminate the philosophic point: "Fiction and modern fantasy and all that wild world in which the Duchess of Somerset lives can be described in one phrase. Their philosophy means ordinary things as seen by extraordinary people. The fairy tale means extraordinary things as seen by ordinary people."21 This was the theme fully developed in Orthodoxy. The fairy tale was much more educative in the true sense than even Julius Caesar, let alone the Duchess of Somerset.
And in the second essay, Chesterton was even so brash as to compare elves and fairies with journalists. In this, he brought out a second great theme of his, that behind the whole of human creation lies a veto which alone can make life dramatic.
Fairies and journalists have an apparent gaiety and delusive beauty. Fairies and journalists seem to be lovely and lawless; they seem to be both of them too exquisite to descend to the ugliness of every day duty. But it is an illusion created by the sudden sweetness of their presence. Journalists live under law; and so in fact does fairyland.22
And of course, this law under which even journalists and fairies live is an ancient one, and it is the only one that gives life an absolute meaning.
Here is how Chesterton, on an ordinary morning, explained this ultimate truth:
A girl is given a box on the condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her. A man and a woman are put in a garden on the condition that they do not eat one fruit: they eat it, and lose their joy in the fruits of the earth. This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folk-lore -- the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative."23
Clearly, Chesterton had this uncanny ability of seeing where the ordinary but strange ideas of the Duchess of Somerset might lead. That is, he saw ultimate truths in the daily paper. Perhaps this is why, in a way, he was really the ultimate journalist, the man who took the "daily bread" of ordinary life and saw how it necessarily rose to the everlasting nourishment of the mind. This is the highest dignity, really, to which journalism, let alone education, can strive.
In these weekly essays, we cannot but be aware that a very active mind is thinking its way through idea after idea, fad after fad, principle after principle, philosophy after philosophy, thinker after thinker. Yet all of this is while he is discoursing on favorite themes like Christmas, or fairy tales, or progress, or censorship, or beer, or witches, or why Shakespeare could not have been Bacon. We cannot be but struck by Chesterton's awareness of underlying philosophical and religious themes even when the context in which they were argued may be unfamiliar to us. This context was familiar to everyone who read him at the time, which familiarity is, after all, what a daily or weekly newspaper is about.
Chesterton wrote, moreover, of the deaths of Edward VII, George Wyndham, Ibsen, Swinburne, Andrew Lang, and George Meredith. He wrote on "The Silliness of Educated People" (April 27, 1912), on "The Payment of Politicians" (October 23, 1910), on "Books on How to Succeed" (November 2, 1907), and on "The Naming of Children" (April 29, 1911). Chesterton talked about progress, the Suffragettes, Christian Science, Mormonism, Montessori, prisons, the Welsh, Jekyll and Hyde, the Jesuits, faith healing, South America, ghosts, the theatre, Tolstoy, pageants, punishments, and vegetarianism. Yet what he had to say was never merely ephemeral. Chesterton, as I have suggested, always saw some universal principle or import in everything he reflected on. Chesterton saw, in other words, how all things are connected, and he insisted further that even ordinary people could and should see this connection.
We read along, for instance, in an essay on "The Character of Kind Edward" (June 4, 1910), expecting to find I know not what and suddenly we are almost stopped cold by the following utterly lovely reflection:
There is the tragedy that is founded on the worthlessness of life; and there is the deeper tragedy that is founded on the worth of it. The one sort of sadness says that life is so short that it can hardly matter; the other that life is so short that it will matter for ever.24
Chesterton was quite right. The purpose of his sort of journalism was to state clearly what no one else was saying. Chesterton was not afraid of ordinary erroneous ideas that fill the daily papers because he could see that, when properly analyzed, even these ideas contained some glimpse of truth. The catching of this glimpse was the very purpose of a real journalist, which Chesterton considered himself to be first of all.
The first thing that strikes the reader in these some three hundred and fifty essays is, as I have suggested, that they almost always contain something Chesterton had just read in the newspaper or in a book or perhaps some popular idea he ran across in a Fleet Street pub. That is, he always began with common opinion, something that was being bandied about in the public. There are two things one could do with such chaotic opinion. One could simply ignore it as unworthy of consideration. Or one could do what Chesterton in fact did, consider it, argue with it, see where it went.
His column for March 31, 1906, for example, began this way: "I do not know why it is that some paragraphs in newspapers are very funny."25 Of course, this column was entitled "Pouring Boiling Water on Snails." The column of July 27, 1907, on "Jingoism and Sports," began, "I notice that some papers, especially papers that call themselves patriotic, have fallen into quite a panic over the fact that we have been twice beaten in the world of sport, that a Frenchman has beaten us at golf, and a Belgian has beaten us at rowing...."26 Few can resist sports, snails, and humor.
Or else Chesterton began with some rather provocative view that he had just been thinking or talking about.
It is sometimes said that our age is too fond of amusements: but there are further facts to be remembered. One of them is this that it so often happens that the amusing entertainments are the only places where the serious truth is told.
So he began a column on "Wisdom in Comic Songs," on July 10, 1909.27 Actually in this essay on comic song, he treated capital punishment, and how it was that "only the poor get hanged." But he concluded, "One of the few gifts that can really increase with old age is a sense of humour." It was his application of this latter principle, however, that was utterly remarkable: "That is the whole fun of belonging to an ancient civilisation, like our own great civilisation of Europe."28 There was in Chesterton's journalism that relentless effort to see the truth in even the most ephemeral, humorous, or insignificant incident that he happened to run across. Who else but Chesterton could ever suspect that perhaps humor was greater in a civilization that actually had a longer time to laugh about itself?
Chesterton wrote rather often about journalism as a profession and how it was perceived. He is actually one of journalism's most ardent defenders and most incisive critics. He held, to be sure, that no one could really find the truth in newspapers. Indeed, what one should be reading in a newspaper was not the meaty articles or sober editorials, but the "snippets" and mistakes that appeared in it. Indeed, he held that the most interesting and truthful aspect of journalism was probably the obituaries which could finally tell the truth about someone. "It is by this time practically impossible to get the truth out of any newspaper, even the honest newspapers," he wrote on January 23, 1909. What is interesting about this remark and instructive about what Chesterton thought he was doing in journalism was the reason for this difficulty in finding truth in any newspaper: "I mean the kind of truth that a man can feel an intelligent curiosity about -- moral truth, truth that is disputed, truth that is in action and really affecting things."29
The point Chesterton was making was of some importance in understanding his particular genius in journalism. "One can find the fact that a man is hanged, but not the truth about his trial; one can believe the journalist when he says that war has broken out, but not when he says that war was inevitable."30 The statement that "war is inevitable," of course, is a philosophic statement which strictly speaking makes journalism if not life itself impossible. But if this is the operative thesis of the journalist, then there is nothing of interest in the fact that a man was hanged, for it had to happen also. And it is precisely the reason why he was hanged, not the fact that he was hanged, on which all true human curiosity lies. "About the real struggles of the modern world the newspapers are practically silent -- until the struggles are over."31
It is in this context that Chesterton's statement of why he became a journalist is of some interest. We have seen his explanation for his selection of this profession in his Autobiography, that it was something of a happy "mystery." On August 21, 1909, Chesterton wrote a column entitled, "Succeeding in Journalism." Every journalist, even unsuccessful ones, he remarked, is asked "how to succeed in journalism." With some delight, he responded that the only advice is the ordinary advice we give to anyone -- that is, not to get drunk, but to prefer that to drinking, not to be insolent, not to be servile, "to write in a legible hand, and to take notes of everything of which one could not remember."32 Chesterton's own memory seems to have been such that he could recall endless reams of conversation and reading. One wonders what he would have made of the tape recorder.
In any case, Chesterton did not advocate writing about what a paper thinks it might want.
My own effect, such as it is, is entirely due to this simple process. I began by reviewing books, about printing, and sculpture. Into these I introduced disquisitions on theology or folklore, disquisitions which would have seemed quite ordinary in the Hibbert Journal, but which attracted attention when abruptly introduced apropos of Etruscan Pottery, or "The Treatment of Poplars by Corot." Very often, while the journalist is doing his best to imitate the tone of the paper, the editor (torn with despair) is trying in vain to find someone who will alter the tone of the paper.33
If Chesterton was a popular journalist, which he was and still is, it is because of these theological or philosophical aspects he introduced into his disquisitions.
But of course, it was not just that Chesterton was both witty and philosophical. He combatted precisely the content of the philosophies he disagreed with. He was not a skeptic or a relativist and made it very difficult for his readers to be either. In a column he did on the 200th Anniversary of the death of Henry Fielding (May 11, 1907), Chesterton brought up the question of what was a good book. He noted a change in the definition of this proposition, for the worse. Fielding's Tom Jones, he noted, was called a "bad" book because Jones did a goodly number of bad things. But Chesterton did not see this as at all immoral. Fielding never called these things good. "The modern instinct is that if the heart of man is evil, there is nothing that remains good. But the older feeling was that if the heart of man was everso evil, there was something that remained good -- goodness remained good."34 Writing books merely about nice people is not serving morality. "Telling the truth about the terrible struggle in the human soul is surely a very elementary part of the ethics of honesty. If the characters are not wicked, the book is."35
Again, such a disquisition reveals the marvel of Chesterton's capacity to draw forth first principles in the most normal of topics, that of literature itself. Right existed outside of human error and weakness. This understanding was in Fielding, and it was in Shakespeare (whom Chesterton unaccountably sometimes, as in this case, spells Shakspere). "Whenever (Shakespeare) alludes to right and wrong it is always with this old implication. Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong about it."36 This was the sort of truth that Chesterton was able to place in the oddest of places, in the morning press. And he thought this well worth doing.
Chesterton, indeed, did not think that newspapers really were able to see important contemporary events. In a thoroughly delightful column entitled "What the Newspapers Don't See" (September 30, 1911), Chesterton pointed out that the press was too much devoted to speed and the swirl of events ever to have noticed the important things as they actually happened. Had Roman dailies appeared after Caesar was killed, Chesterton speculated, it would indeed have had an account of the murder, interviews with Anthony and Cassius. "But the papers would display no notion of what was really happening. The editors would never have noticed that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. They certainly would not know that when that little river was crossed the Roman Empire was founded."37 Rather the papers would mostly have dealt that morning with Lucullus' dinner, the divorce court for Caesar's wife, Clodius's bankruptcy, in short, "gladiators and the money market." And when a small sect appeared in Rome many would dramatically be thrown to lions before the papers took the subject up as anything different from anyone else being thrown to the lions. "Newspapers pay the penalty of the blind idolatry of speed. They go so fast that they never notice anything; and they have to make up their minds so quickly that they never make them up at all."38
Chesterton is sometimes said to be too flippant, too prone to wit to be taken seriously. Allan Massie wrote:
Both (Samuel Johnson and Chesterton) were professional writers who knew that they must please the reader if they were to influence him (only solemn and tenured blockheads can afford not to do so). Both were moralists. Chesterton was proud to be a journalist, if only because he knew that more people read newspapers than books. His preferred form was the essay because it is by nature delightful and didactic.39
The accusation of over jocularity was something that particularly annoyed Chesterton.
Part of this annoyance, no doubt, was due to the fact that Chesterton thought life itself was mostly more amusing than he was. In a very profound essay entitled, "Incompatibility in Marriage," (September 19, 1908), a theme that appears full blown in What's Wrong with the World, Chesterton recounted with utter delight an explanation of one Ferdinand Earle about his divorce in America. Here is what Chesterton read:
My first wife and I were extremely happy, and our happiness increased when we came to live at Monroe by the birth of our son. But soon things began to arise between us -- call it what you will: Incompatibility of temper, conflict of ideas. We did not explain, but I, who am an artist, and have the artistic temperament, sailed for Europe. On the voyage I met a young woman, who, I found, was, like myself, a Socialist. We quickly realised that our marriage was foreordained before our births.40
Chesterton did not make this passage up. He found it in a newspaper. Of this extraordinarily absurd narrative, he simply said, one can just see him throwing up his hands in laughter: "It is impossible to parody that passage." Like Malcolm Muggeridge, he would have agreed that the life of a humorist is difficult because life itself is more amusing.
Chesterton himself addressed the topic of his own delight in humor in a column on May 21, 1910, "Jokes and Good Sense." Chesterton's column appeared in the very beginning of the Illustrated London News. He mused, "I introduce myself on this page every week with all the feelings of the stage villain when he exclaims, 'At last, now I am alone'."41 Chesterton explained that people do not read magazines beginning with page one. "A magazine is a thing one opens anywhere but at the beginning."
Noting this aloneness of page one, Chesterton decided to address in it the complaint about the wit found in his writing. Most people were sometimes telling jokes and at other times they were serious. However, "when I tell the dull truth about anything, it is said to be a showy paradox; when I lighten or brighten it with any common jest, it is supposed to be my solid and absurd opinion."42 Chesterton told of a controversy with some writers on local journal, who maintained that the doctrine of miracles is not the truth, but merely "symbolic" of the truth. To this, Chesterton responded but "what is the truth of which it is a symbol."43 To this response, which Chesterton thought "courteous, relevant, and reasonable," the journal's reaction was to cast "up its eyes and clasp its hands, and ask distractedly how it could be expected to argue with such a wild, elusive, ever-changing, fantastical, and irresponsible jester as myself."44 That is to say, that Chesterton's humor and amusement were directed at the truth. His amusement did not in the least deflect him from that truth in the very act of delightful joking at the expense of some more sober or solemn adversary. He did not see why he could not be witty and profound at the same time when everyone else was. He demanded, as it were, equal rights.
How does one conclude, sum up Chesterton, the journalist? When we finally ask what was Chesterton, we are not wrong to reply as he did. He was a journalist. The very word means that he was concerned with what went on the day on which he wrote. Chesterton's columns began with common opinion, with, as it were, the news of the day. "I have been to a large number of dinners, and heard a large number of successful and unsuccessful Parliamentary candidates make long speeches, occasions which, of course, were very delightful when they were not a little too long."45 So began a column entitled magnificently, "On Long Speeches and Truth, Ceremonies, Celebrations, and Solemnities" for February 23, 1906. Here he was concerned with the phenomenon of hearing a thing, even truth, too much that it loses its novelty. "But the truth is sacred; and if you tell the truth too often nobody will believe it."46 That is, of course, the plot of a famous fairy tale.
But where does Chesterton go with this idea? He immediately pointed out that just because a speech is long does not mean that it is "unworthy of attention." As an example of this, he cited Thomas Carlyle, who, when asked to say grace at meals, "had a cheer way of reading to the company the whole of "The Book of Job," no small feat. Chesterton immediately pointed out that the "Book of Job" contained some truths that the modern agnostic and even the modern Christian may have never really heard.
From it ("the Book of Job") the modern Agnostic may for the first time learn Agnosticism: a sane and a sacred and manly ignorance. From it the modern Christian may with astonishment learn Christianity; learn, that is, that mystery of suffering may be a strange honour and not a vulgar punishment....47
Chesterton, in other words, used journalism to teach agnostics agnosticism, Christians Christianity.
We might even go further to suggest that Chesterton used his column in an ordinary journal to teach human beings the uniqueness of their lives. His column for March 16, 1912, "Free Will in Life and in the Drama," began: "What fun it would be if good actors suddenly acted like real people!" His column had the most serious of purposes. He pointed out that the actors already know the end of the drama they are engaged in. The difference (between drama and life) is that all events in genuine art are decided: all events in genuine life (in anything worth calling life) are undecided."48 All plays are either tragedies or comedies, but we do not, because of free will, know what real life will be. From this Chesterton concluded:
Every human life begins in tragedy, for it begins in travail. But every human life may end in comedy --even in divine comedy. It may end in a joy beyond all our jokes; in that cry across the chasm, "Fear not, I have conquered the world." Real human life differs from all imitations of it in the fact that it can perpetually alter itself as it goes along.49
It is in this sense that, in a sense, comedy is more profound than tragedy. But Chesterton concludes by also claiming tragedy itself.
Political philosophy, tragedy itself, founded in the city that asked the question about who is the best man. Chesterton has seen that the best man might suffer, that he might stand for joy. And in seeing this, in the human condition, we can see the dimensions of the opposite:
I think "MacBeth" the one supreme drama because it is the one Christian drama; and I will accept the accusation of prejudice. But I mean by Christian (in this matter) the strong sense of spiritual liberty and of sin; the idea that the best man can be as bad as he chooses.50
All of this, I say, was written by a journalist on March 16, 1912, by a journalist who did not hesitate to take his readers seriously, who did not hesitate at the same time to tell them that sins and jokes belong to the same philosophy.
Chesterton knew, of course, that his readers would probably be surprised at that thesis, because such things were not the common fare of their daily or weekly journals. He had, again, as it were, put the right article in the wrong envelope and sent it to the wrong journal, which accepted it. The delight of G. K. Chesterton's philosophy itself remains the unexpected surprise and gift that this truth exists at all midst the confused gyrations of daily opinion so often based on the "heretics" of other ages apart from the common sense of our kind.
Chesterton's gift to journalism was simply that he took the time to think things out clearly. "There is a kind of work which any man can do, but from which many men shrink," he wrote during the Great War, "generally because it is very hard work, sometimes because they fear it will lead them whither they do not wish to go. It is called thinking."51 The mystery of G. K. Chesterton's success in journalism, the thinking from which he did not shrink, the intellectual paths on which he did not fear to tread, is simply that he perceived that the truth he wrote about existed there before everyone's eyes. And he found it, as did his loyal readers even those of us who still find him in "the day before yesterday's daily paper," both up to date and delightful.
22) From Dossier, 1998.
James V. Schall, S. J.
ORTHODOXY: CHESTERTON ON THE "DELIGHT" OF TRUTH
This essay might be about the "splendor" of truth rather than about its "delight," but John Paul II has famously claimed the "splendor" for himself -- Veritatis Splendor. Chesterton simply rejoices in truth, but not just for the sake of his own rejoicing, but because there is something to rejoice about. "I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy" -- this is Chesterton's startling reaction to his discovery that man is not made only for this earth but through it for eternal life. The "splendor" of truth, I suppose, stresses its own luminousness, its own shinning, its reality, while "delight" indicates our proper reaction to what is, that it is at all, to what sheds its light before us when we realize at last that we need light, that there is light.
But doesn't everyone see this luminous truth? Why was Chesterton any different? To be sure, no one lacks the power to see truth. The power is given with what we are. But many, evidently very many, having the power to see it, choose -- the word is important -- not to accept it. Chesterton is different because he saw, accepted, and affirmed it. His enthusiasm for reality, for what is, is our grace. If our lives are disordered, however, it is likely that we do not experience any delight in truth because we actively prevent ourselves from seeing the splendor that is there. We can seek, like the young Augustine, all those beautiful things, without letting ourselves aver to why they might be beautiful in the first place. We want things before we appreciate what they are in their fullness -- the exact opposite of the right order of things.
We oftentimes suspect where truth might lead us, so we cleverly refuse to go there without ever honestly spelling out to ourselves what we are doing. We choose to deceive ourselves. We build an apparently plausible "counter-truth" to justify how we choose to live. We quietly put aside in our hearts any comparison between what we do and what we ought to do. The good, the true, and the beautiful, however, are interrelated in ways that can hide their inner-connections from those who do not want to see what is there. "The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom" is Chesterton's way of expressing his realization of the truth that the good is really good even though he did not himself create it, perhaps primarily because he did not create it. He is grateful that he did not hide from the truth that he saw. He wants to know, in fact, who "caused" it, since he knows he didn't, yet it is there.
Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy in 1908. He was a young man at the time, already into his journalism career. He had an uncanny, almost supernatural, knack for discerning in their incipient principles what events would come about later in the twentieth century, even to its end, because he simply "saw" things, saw the truth in them and, more importantly, affirmed it. His What's Wrong with the World (1910) spells out the cause of almost every societal aberration about which we read in our papers each day. Chesterton indeed was one of those remarkable people who learned about truth not from itself but from the common and fashionable errors he saw all about him. They left him perplexed because he could see that they were not true, in spite of their popularity.
Chesterton delighted in things because he was acutely conscious of the fact that they need not exist at all -- "every man in the street is a great might-not-have-been," as he put it. Every might-not-have-been in the streets, including ourselves, is filled with a divinely guaranteed dignity. We are all like the penny, he said in his Charles Dickens, because we have the image of the king stamped on us, the divine King. Yet every actual existence is so overwhelmingly unexpected that everyone who exists at all seems like the result of some huge, improbable choice.
When he realized that the world need not exist (the doctrine of Creation) and that God did not need to create it (the doctrine of the Trinity), Chesterton knew that he was free of all the depressing philosophies of necessity that implied that he had no other purpose of existing but necessity itself, that reality was merely an unraveling of what had to be. If the world was the result of choice, however, so much the more so was he. Yet, if a man did not need to exist, what was the "golden key," as Chesterton called it, that could account for the wondrous fact that he did exist without his having anything to do with it? At a minimum, every person, who might not have been at all, is at least vaguely aware that his own particular existence rose out of nothingness through no input of his own.
Heretics, Chesterton's first major book in 1905, explained, in a still penetrating read, just why he was not a follower of various modern intellectual movements, most of which are still around in some form or another at the turn of the twenty-first century. Basically, he did not follow them because he understood them; he understood their disorder. He knew that the purpose of a mind was to know reality, to come to a conclusion about claims to be right or true. "I am a rationalist," he explained in Orthodoxy. "I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions. If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual convenience to me to believe that he fell, and I find, for some odd psychological reason, that I can deal better with a man's exercise of free will if I believe that he has got it." Chesterton always had the deadly capacity to see our implicit contradictions.
To meet the mind of Chesterton is to meet a mind that will not let our intellectual errors remain hidden from ourselves, however much we might prefer not to them boldly spelled out. The most wide-spread contemporary intellectual error is no doubt something known as cultural relativism. Chesterton is always amusing when he points out the error some such theory that asks us to maintain its contradictions as if they did not exist. "An imbecile habit has risen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays." About the principle at issue, little further needs to be said in any age, in any place.
Chesterton insists on putting blame where it belongs. Many, like Marx, have blamed God for man's problems to claim that they could do better for man by leaving God completely out of the picture. Chesterton was not so sure. "The secularists have not wrecked divine things, but the secularists have wrecked secular things." A human error about the nature or reality of the divinity does not lead to a change in or threat to the divinity, but it does, like Marxism eventually did, ironically wreak havoc among human lives and institutions. We may not be able directly to test the divinity, but we can test what men do because of their mis-understanding of the divinity, or whatever they have chosen to take its place. Our culture is wont to teach us that ideas make little difference. Chesterton thinks that any difference there is comes from our ideas. The real issue is whether ideas are true or not.
The provocativeness of Heretics, its charming reduction of well-known philosophic and religious positions to humorous absurdity, annoyed someone so much that he challenged Chesterton to write a book explaining, not what he was against, but what he was for. This challenge energized him even more than his enterprise of pointing out the errors of his friends and critics in Heretics. Chesterton, incidently, was, even in issues of great and passionate controversy, an amazing sort of man who never lost a friend because he pointed out the impossibility of his ideas. This is a rare gift and speaks much of the greatness of Chesterton.
Thus, when confronted, Chesterton took up the writing of Orthodoxy, in which he set forth what he did hold. He discovered that what he did come to maintain, which he thought so original, was in fact what all Christians profess in the Creed, many of whom, I might add, unlike Chesterton, profess the Creed without seeing its wonder, its standing at the foundation of all healthy and human things. Orthodoxy is itself one of the best and most profound commentaries on the great Christian Creed. Chesterton explains in his own way what it affirms and why what it affirms is directed to the freedom and dignity of man because it is first directed to the revelation of who God is.
Because Chesterton later wrote his own Autobiography, itself a marvelous book, Orthodoxy is not an autobiography, though it is completely autobiographical. Though he was not a Catholic when he wrote it, it is nevertheless completely Catholic. Though it is written in a completely unscholarly and familiar style, it is thoroughly scholarly and formal in its argumentation. When everyone else found "orthodoxy" to be a bad word, Chesterton found it to be the exact description of what keeps us sane. "Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth."
To begin to understand Chesterton, it is worth recalling the last sentences of Heretics, as they reveal his soul perhaps as well as anything he ever wrote -- not denying that Chesterton's great soul clearly shone through everything he did write, even his shortest essay. But fully to comprehend what Chesterton concluded at the end of Heretics, we have to be familiar with one of the great scenes in the New Testament, with the passage that, perhaps more than any other in our literature, has consoled ordinary folks who, while bearing constant witness to the difficulties of belief and its living, nevertheless still believe.
The scene is of the Apostle Thomas, the famous "Doubting Thomas," who will not believe reports of the Risen Lord until he sees the wounds of Christ's body and hands. When the Lord appears to Thomas and fulfills his demand to see and to touch, evidential things, Christ says to him, with His own paradox, which Chesterton surely noticed, "Blessed are they, Thomas, who have not seen but who have believed." We cannot be unaware that this latter group includes the vast majority of mankind who have continued to believe.
"The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied," Chesterton concludes his analysis of modern thought in an almost prophetic voice.
Everything will become a creed. It is a rational position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four.... We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.
Unlike Thomas before the Lord, who now believes because he has seen, Chesterton is talking to those modern philosophers who see the ordinary things before their very eyes and still do not believe in their existence, in their existence that reaches to the order of what is. Chesterton intimated, in fact, that in our era, we will need the faith to believe in what is evident to our senses, to our reason. The subsequent history of modern philosophy does not in the least prove that Chesterton was wrong in his supposition.
The end of Heretics, thus, reveals Chesterton's profound insight that the ultimate result of the rejection of the evidence for belief in modernity would end up with a doubt about the existence of the world itself. Logically, in order to "prove" that God does not exist, we have to maintain at some point that the world and its order -- the very point at which we started -- do not exist. Somehow in some albeit unexpected wisdom, to maintain the existence of natural things as they are involves the belief in supernatural ones. Chesterton makes this observation not as a matter of doctrine, which it isn't, but as a matter of historical fact, of what happens in the minds of those who consistently reject belief and its evidence and then try to explain consistently what they are doing.
It would most often be the scientists, the philosophers, and the academics who would come to doubt their senses and any concrete extra-sensory object they might reveal to us as existing. This observation was one reason that Chesterton was a democrat and loved ordinary folks -- "the common man" as he called him. They were, as he knew them, less susceptible to an intellectual "proof" that the world did not exist since they saw quite clearly that it did, no matter what the specialists might tell them. Chesterton's philosophy, as he put it, allowed him to accept or reject miracles on the basis of evidence. But a determinist philosopher is not free to accept or reject any mere evidence, because his philosophy has already precluded any possibility of miracles or evidence for them. His philosophy, in other words, has caused him to doubt his senses.
The title of Orthodoxy means literally right opinion. First of all, it implies that there can be a wrong opinion and that the difference between the two makes considerable difference in how we live. It means further that how we live is directly affected by how we think. Almost a hundred years after Chesterton, we live in an age that doubts everything about itself -- that the mind can know the truth, even that it ought to know the truth, that it ought to know anything. We advocate a kind of relativism or multiculturalism that, far from simply pointing to the myriad differences in the reality of time and space, maintains that nothing is certain, that there are no standards, particularly no human standards. Therefore, because there are no standards, no truth, we are said to be "free." In this system, it is not the truth that makes us free. We make ourselves free by denying any criterion outside of ourselves. Everything is permitted because not only is nothing known, but nothing can be known. We choose our choices so that we are enslaved by what we want.
Secondly, orthodoxy implies that it is possible to establish what right opinion is by examining all opinion, especially wrong opinion. Chesterton's favorite book list seems to have been the famous Index of Forbidden Books. It was from errors in the most popular and most scientific positions that he found the raw material of truth. "All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen.... I never read a line of Christian apologetics." Nietzsche was a favorite author if only because he put what was wrong so well. Literally, as he tells us, Chesterton learned truth from the weirdness of the constant error he read.
On the basis of the impossibility of what theories the great modern philosophers used to explain reality, Chesterton set out to found his own "heresy," as he delighted in calling it. He himself, however, as he conceived it, was the ultimate "heretic"! And when he found the truth, he discovered to his astonishment that it was invented some eighteen hundred years before his time and was called "orthodoxy." He was glad that he did not have to invent the "heresy of orthodoxy" himself but could simply recognize it as already having been invented -- a fact that made him even more curious. Invented by whom?
Chesterton was constantly amused by the fact that the most true and delightful teaching was the one to which most opposition was found. It was quite contrary to what was actually taught in the modern schools. Yet, "there never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy," he reflects. It was "perilous" because it affirmed that our choices were infinitely serious and potentially dangerous; it was "exciting" because it showed us that our choices could lead either to damnation or to what was infinitely worthwhile. Chesterton defended the possibility of excitement by defending the doctrine of free will and the fact that it could choose rightly or wrongly, but freely, not necessarily. We may not want to have this choice, which logically means that we may not want to be what we are. But the fact is that denying our freedom leads not to excitement and drama, but to dullness and indifference. Chesterton preferred the world of freedom and excitement with its dangers and its glory.
Chesterton as a young man never heard of Christian truth, but he knew that what was proposed, especially against the faith, on examination could not be true. He could understand contradictions and therefore errors. Chesterton was converted intellectually by the heretics, not by the orthodox. He could not at first understand the odd nature of the opposition to the classic faith, but what he did notice made him wonder, finally, if it might be true because it could not be all the contradictory things said against it. "Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church." This was, I say, not something he expected as a matter of theory, but something he observed as a matter of fact. He reflected that something against which every sort of accusation is made, even if it be contradicted by another accusation, might be very odd indeed, but it might also be the normal. For to the abnormal, it is only the normal that looks most grotesque. Somehow most modern philosophy seemed to picture an utterly abnormal world that bore little relation to what was true.
One of the chapters in Orthodoxy is called the suicide of thought. Roughly, this means that no one can think if he maintains that his organ of thinking cannot know anything or that his organ of will cannot decide anything about what is known. Moreover, no one allows his organ of deciding to decide anything if there are, on the basis of what he knows to be true, certain things that will be forbidden to him. If it should so happen that some things are right and true, we may just not want to know about them if we suspect that they might interfere with what we have already chosen to do. When we act on this failure to know what we should know, we sin, to use the classic word that indicates both the seriousness of our thoughts and the choices that follow from them. Not surprisingly, then, when asked, the reason Chesterton himself gave for his final conversion to the faith was that he wanted to get rid of his sins. He knew that the structure of reality was such that they were possible, and he knew himself well enough to know that he, no one else, committed them.
Chesterton liked to talk about sin, no doubt because it was so serious and so common. Indeed, in his Father Brown stories, he liked to write about it. He thought we should be sinning all the time, not by actually murdering or stealing or committing adultery, of course, but by writing about such aberrations. Though he loved the sinner, he did not have any sympathy for those who refused understand the reality or depths of sin. He often suggested, furthermore, that those who know most about sin are not the simmers themselves but the pure of heart, those who have decided not to commit it. The knowledge of sin and its attraction is not itself a sin but a necessary element in our understanding ourselves. But the existence of sin and its terribleness was part of the risk of the universe that contained the finite free creature. If God wanted to create a finite person who could love Him freely, He had to accept, as in all love, the possibility of being rejected.
Chesterton was acutely aware that what made the universe particularly interesting was not the existence of sin in it, with its pre-condition of free will, but the possibility and condition of its forgiveness. In determinist theory, "the cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will." Free will meant that we could sin and were responsible for it. It also meant that we could be grateful for existence itself. Forgiveness meant that even if we sinned, what we sinned against could forgive us, that sin was personal both on our parts and on the part of what we sinned against. "Such ... was the joy of man; ... happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do, but which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do it." All romance depended on not doing what ought not to be done. Sometimes on crucial things, we simply had to obey. "Thou shalt not...."
Chesterton, moreover, thought that the doctrine of original sin grounded democracy and was the only reason we could give for not absolutely trusting a ruling elite. "The unpopular parts of Christianity (like original sin) turn out when examined to be the very props of the people." Original sin explained why we needed to bind even our rulers by law, morality, and sanction. They too were sinners and lived in the worst possible occasion for sin -- the life of power, publicity, and comfort. "In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the fall of any man, in any position, at any moment...." But no matter in what sort of society or situation in which man lived, sin is always caused by will, not by something external to us. No arrangement of society or state, contrary to Rousseau and his tradition, would ever eliminate the possibility of sin and wrong doing from among us, especially from the elite. "For she (the Church) has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man." This awareness of the possibility of sin in anyone, even rulers, is one fundamental element of any charter of liberty, of any understanding of responsibility.
What is surprising at first sight is the amount of attention that Chesterton gives in Orthodoxy to questions of sin, original sin, and free will. These three are, no doubt, essential doctrines of the faith and its philosophic support. If there is such a thing as sin, the deliberate choice of a thought or action against God and man, there must first be a free will to choose such thought or action. Moreover, it is clear that from time immemorial, man has had difficulty in living virtuously, even when he wanted to and chose to do so. Indeed, this difficulty in living virtuously will seem to justify theories which maintain that sin is the normal condition of mankind, so we should not worry about it but expect it, even excuse it, make it "normal" because it is so frequent. Chesterton's response to this position is again amusing: "Men may have had concubines as long as they have had horses; still they were hot part of him if they were sinful." The frequency of any sin does not somehow indicate its rightness but its wrongness.
The greatest thing about Orthodoxy, however, is its enthusiasm for and delight in what is. The structure of Orthodoxy is cast in the form of the adventure of a man who set out around the world to discover some strange land. Finally, his ship reaches this distant land; only there he discovers that it is England, his original home. The analogy, of course, is to Chesterton's own spiritual adventure in discovering orthodoxy to be the home he was looking for all along only he did not recognize it right before his very eyes. One of the mysteries of his life, Chesterton tells us, was why he could be "homesick at home." This homesickness-at-home is a most striking image, for Chesterton loved home and thought it the noblest word in the language. Yet, he understood that even when we have everything, even when we do not sin, we feel that there is something missing to us. We seek our true home even at home.
In his musings about what it is we want, what sort of freedom is the greatest, even at home, Chesterton argued that it is the freedom to bind ourselves. "I would never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself." This freedom of binding oneself was for Chesterton the key to the highest wisdom about the most basic things of life. "I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restrictions on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself.... Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I could only be born once." Chesterton was capable of elevating this principle to the more universal idea that our individual uniquenesses, in being bound by love, lie at the heart of all true relationships. "I want to love my neighbor not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one's self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different."
And because God too is entirely different and stands at the heart of all binding promises, of all freedom, it is possible to love Him because we know we are first chosen, that being ourselves is not enough. Our ideas of God decide our ideas of the world. "By insisting especially 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." In transcending himself, in what he might expect of himself, man does not cease to be himself. We do not become "gods." We love God and this is our joy. Eternal life comes precisely to us, as we are.
Chesterton ends Orthodoxy by suggesting that the only thing that the Incarnate God did not show us while He was on earth was his "mirth," his joy. He did not show us this mirth because we could not bear it now, not because this was not of the essence of His being. "The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. ... Joy ... is the gigantic secret of the Christian." This at last is the secret of Chesterton and of his Orthodoxy. All that is is created in joy because this is what God is. Life is our seeking to find wherein joy is our home. And we can finally only have a home if we bind freely ourselves. Only this philosophy, this "heresy" of "orthodoxy" -- which Chesterton discovered and in discovering leaves its gift of sanity to us -- "has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but it true." Ultimately, this truth, in its splendor, is the delight of orthodoxy.