The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue
"Oh PLEASE say I'm the Archbishop of Canterbury!"

Saturday, 30 July 2011

GK's Weekly, The Thing, Obstinate Orthodoxy

Having finished reading and now serialising here, The Thing by GKC, and starting his Autobiography, under orders from Fr Finigan, I was so happy to read the following;

The next turning-point of my journalistic fate was the purchase of the Daily News by the Pro-Boer Liberals; for it had belonged up to this moment, like practically every Liberal daily paper, to the Liberal Imperialists. A group of Liberals, of whom Mr. George Cadbury was the principal capitalist and the late Mr. R. C. Lehmann the principal practical journalist, appointed as literary editor my friend Mr. Archibald Marshall, who in his turn had the rashness to appoint me as a regular weekly contributor. Here I wrote an article every Saturday for many years; I was described, in the phrase of the time, as having a Saturday pulpit, rather like a Sunday pulpit. Whatever were the merits of the sermon, it is probable that I had a larger congregation than I have ever had before or since. And I occupied it until I gave it up long afterwards, at another political crisis, the story of which I shall have to tell on a later page.

My Mother, who as you all know is an agnostic, would say what a coincident that you chose Saturdays for these posts!


I HAVE been asked to explain something about myself which seems to be regarded as very extraordinary. The problem has been presented to me in the form of a cutting from a very flattering American article, which yet contained a certain suggestion of wonder. So far as I can understand, it is thought extraordinary that a man should be ordinary. I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term; which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and chivalry as laws rightly controlling them, and the rest of the normal traditions of our race and religion. It is also thought a little odd that I regard the grass as green, even after some newly-discovered Slovak artist has painted it grey; that I think daylight very tolerable in spite of thirteen Lithuanian philosophers sitting in a row and cursing the light of day; and that, in matters more polemical, I actually prefer weddings to divorces and babies to Birth Control.
These eccentric views, which I share with the overwhelming majority of mankind, past and present, I should not attempt to defend here one by one. And I only give a general reply for a particular reason. I wish to make it unmistakably plain that my defence of these sentiments is not sentimental. It would be easy to gush about these things; but I defy the reader, after reading this, to find the faintest trace of the tear of sensibility. I hold this view not because it is sensibility, but because it is sense.

On the contrary, it is the sceptics who are the sentimentalists. More than half the "revolt" and the talk of being advanced and progressive is simply a weak sort of snobbishness which takes the form of a worship of Youth. Some men of my generation delight in declaring that they are of the Party of the Young and defending every detail of the latest fashions or freaks. If I do not do that, it is for the same reason that I do not dye my hair or wear stays. But even when it is less despicable than that, the current phrase that everything must be done for youth, that the rising generation is all that matters, is in sober fact a piece of pure sentimentalism. It is also, within reason, a perfectly natural piece of sentiment. All healthy people like to see the young enjoying themselves; but if we turn that pleasure into a principle, we are sentimentalists. If we desire the greatest happiness of the greatest number, it will be obvious that the greatest number, at any given moment, are rather more likely to be between twenty-five and seventy than to be between seventeen and twenty-five. Sacrificing everything to the young will be like working only for the rich. They will be a privileged class and the rest will be snobs or slaves. Moreover, the young will always have a fair amount of fun under the worst conditions; if we really wish to console the world, it will be much more rational to console the old. This is what I call facing facts; and I have continued to believe in most of these traditions because they are facts. I could give a great many other examples; for instance, chivalry. Chivalry is not the romantic, but the realistic, view of the sexes. It is so realistic that the real reasons for it cannot always be given in print.

If those called free-thinkers are sentimentalists, those called free-lovers are open and obvious sentimentalists. We can always convict such people of sentimentalism by their weakness for euphemism. The phrase they use is always softened and suited for journalistic appeals. They talk of free love when they mean something quite different, better defined as free lust. But being sentimentalists they feel bound to simper and coo over the word "love." They insist on talking about Birth Control when they mean less birth and no control. We could smash them to atoms, if we could be as indecent
in our language as they are immoral in their conclusions. And as it is with morals, so it is with religion. The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self-evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. It is the ignorance and not the knowledge that produces the current notion that free thought weakens theism. It is the real world, that we see with our own eyes, that obviously unfolds a plan of things that fit into each other. It is only a remote and misty legend that ever pretended to explain it by the automatic advantage of the "fit." As a fact, modern evolutionists, even when they are still Darwinians, do not pretend that the theory explains all varieties and adaptations. Those who know are rather rescuing Darwin at the expense of Darwinism. But it is those who do not know who doubt or deny; it is typical that their myth is actually called the Missing Link.
They actually know nothing of their own argument except that it breaks down somewhere. But it is worth while to ask why this loose legend has such power over many; and I will proceed to my suggestion. I have not changed my mind; nor, indeed, have they changed their mind. They have only changed their mood.

What we call the intellectual world is divided into two types of people--those who worship the intellect and those who use it. There are exceptions; but, broadly speaking, they are never
the same people. Those who use the intellect never worship it; they know too much about it. Those who worship the intellect never use it; as you can see by the things they say about it. Hence there has arisen a confusion about intellect and intellectualism; and, as the supreme expression of that confusion, something that is called in many countries the Intelligentsia, and in France more especially, the Intellectuals. It is found in practice to consist of clubs and coteries of people talking mostly about books and pictures, but especially new books and new pictures; and about music, so long as it is very modern music; or what some would call very unmusical music. The first fact to record about it is that what Carlyle said of the world is very specially true of the intellectual world-- that it is mostly fools. Indeed, it has a curious attraction for complete fools, as a warm fire has for cats. I have frequently visited such societies, in the capacity of a common or normal fool, and I have almost always found there a few fools who were more foolish than I had imagined to be possible to man born of woman; people who had hardly enough brains to be called half-witted. But it gave them a glow within to be in what they imagined to be the atmosphere of intellect; for they worshipped it like an unknown god. I could tell many stories of that world. I remember a venerable man with a very long beard who seemed to live at one of these clubs. At intervals he would hold up his hand as if for silence and preface his remarks by saying, "A Thought." And then he would say something that sounded as if a cow had suddenly spoken in a drawing-room. I remember once a silent and much-enduring man (I rather think it was my friend Mr. Edgar Jepson, the novelist) who could bear it no longer and cried with a sort of expiring gasp, "But, Good God, man, you don't call that a THOUGHT, do you?" But that was pretty much the quality of the thought of such thinkers, especially of the freethinkers. Out of this social situation arises one sort of exception to the rule. Intelligence does exist even in the Intelligentsia. It does sometimes happen that a man of real talent has a weakness for flattery, even the flattery of fools. He would rather say something that silly people think clever than something which only clever people could perceive to be true. Oscar Wilde was a man of this type. When he said somewhere that an immoral woman is the sort of woman a man never gets tired of, he used a phrase so baseless as to be perfectly pointless. Everybody knows that a man may get tired of a whole procession of immoral women, especially if he is an immoral man. That was "a Thought"; otherwise something to be uttered, with uplifted hand, to people who could not think at all. In their poor muddled minds there was some vague connection between wit and cynicism; so they never applauded him so warmly as a wit, as when he was cynical without being witty. But when he said, "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing," he made a statement (in excellent epigrammatic form) which really meant something. But it would have meant his own immediate dethronement if it could have been understood by those who only enthroned him for being cynical.

Anyhow, it is in this intellectual world, with its many fools and few wits and fewer wise men, that there goes on perpetually a sort of ferment of fashionable revolt and negation. From this comes all that is called destructive criticism; though, as a matter of fact, the new critic is generally destroyed by the next critic long before he has had any chance of destroying anything else. When people say solemnly that the world is in revolt against religion or private property or patriotism or marriage, they mean that this world is in revolt against them; or rather, is in permanent revolt against everything. Now, as a matter of fact, this world has a certain excuse for being always in that state of excitement, apart from mere fuss and mere folly. The reason is rather an important one; and I would ask anyone who really does want to think, and especially to think freely, to pause upon it seriously for a moment. It arises from the fact that these people are so much concerned with the study of Art. It collapses into mere drivelling and despair, because they try to transfer their treatment of art to the treatment of morals and philosophy. In this they make a bad blunder in reasoning. But then, as I have explained, intellectuals are not very intellectual.

The Arts, exist, as we should put it in our primeval fashion, to show forth the glory of God; or, to translate the same thing in terms of our psychology, to awaken and keep alive the sense of wonder in man. The success of any work of art is achieved when we say of any subject, a tree or a cloud or a human character, "I have seen that a thousand times and I never saw it before." Now for this purpose a certain variation of VENUE is natural and even necessary. Artists change what they call their attack; for it is to some extent their business to make it a surprise attack. They have to throw a new light on things; and it is not surprising if it is sometimes an invisible ultra-violet ray or one rather resembling a black ray of madness or death. But when the artist extends the eccentric experiment from art to real life, it is quite different. He is like an absent-minded sculptor turning his chisel from chipping at the bust to chipping at the bald head of the distinguished sitter. And these anarchic artists do suffer a little from absence of Mind.

Let us take a practical case for the sake of simplicity. Many moderns will be heard scoffing at what they would call "chocolate-box art"; meaning an insipid and sickly art. And it is easy to call up the sort of picture that might well make anybody ill. I will suppose, for the sake of argument, that we are looking sadly at the outside of a chocolate-box (now, I need hardly say, empty) and that we see painted on it in rather pallid colours a young woman with golden ringlets gazing from a balcony and holding a rose in the spot-light caused by a convenient ray of moonlight. Any similar touches may be added to the taste or distaste of the critic; she may be convulsively clasping a letter or conspicuously wearing an engagement ring or languidly waving farewell to a distant gentleman in a gondola; or anything else I can think of, calculated to cause pain to the sensitive critic. I sympathise with the critic's feeling; but I think he goes quite wrong in his thinking.

Now, what do we mean when we say that this is a silly picture, or a stale subject, or something very difficult to bear, even when we are fortified by chocolates to endure it? We mean it is possible to have too much of a good thing; to have too many chocolate-boxes, as to have too many chocolates. We mean that it is not a picture, but a picture of a picture. Ultimately it is a picture of innumerable pictures; not a real picture of a rose or a girl or a beam of moonlight. In other words, artists have copied artists, right away back to the first sentimental pictures of the Romantic Movement.

But roses have not copied roses. Moonbeams have not imitated each other. And though a woman may copy women in externals, it is only in externals and not in existence; her womanhood was not copied from any other woman. Considered as realities, the rose and the moon and the woman are simply themselves. Suppose that scene to be a real one, and there is nothing particularly imitative about it. The flower is unquestionably fresh as the young woman is unquestionably young. The rose is a real object, which would smell as sweet by any other name, or by no name. The girl is a particular person, whose personality is entirely new to the world and whose experiences are entirely new to herself. If she does indeed choose to stand in that attitude on that balcony holding that botanical specimen (which seems improbable), we have no right to doubt that she has her own reasons for doing so. In short, when once we conceive the thing as reality, we have no reason whatever to dismiss it as mere repetition. So long as we are thinking of the thing as copied mechanically and for money, as a piece of monotonous and mercenary ornament, we naturally feel that the flower is in a special sense an artificial flower and that the moonlight is all moonshine. We feel inclined to welcome even wild variations in the decorative style; and to admire the new artist who will paint the rose black, lest we should forget that it is a deep red, or the moonshine green, that we may realise it is something more subtle than white. But the moon is the moon and the rose is the rose; and we do not expect the real things to alter. Nor is there any reason to expect the rules about them to alter. Nor is there any reason, so far as this question is concerned, to expect the woman to alter her attitude either about the beauty of the rose or the obligations of the engagement-ring. These things, considered as real things, are quite unaffected by the variation of artistic attack in fictitious things. The moon will continue to affect the tides, whether we paint it blue or green or pink with purple spots. And the man who imagines that artistic revolutions must always affect morals is like a man who should say, "I am so bored with seeing pink roses painted on chocolate-boxes that I refuse to believe that roses grow well in a clay soil."

In short, what the critics would call romanticism is in fact the only form of realism. It is also the only form of rationalism. The more a man uses his reason upon realities, the more he will see that the realities remain much the same, though the representations are very different, And it is only the representations that are repetitions. The sensations are always sincere; the individuals are always individual. If the real girl is experiencing a real romance, she is experiencing something old, but not something stale. If she has plucked something from a real rose-tree, she is holding a very ancient symbol, but a very recent rose. And it is exactly in so far as a man can clear his head, so as to see actual things as they are, that he will see these things as permanently important as they are. Exactly in so far as his head is confused with current fashions and aesthetic modes of the moment, he will see nothing about it except that it is like a picture on a chocolate-box, and not like a picture at the Post-Futurist Gallery. Exactly in so far as he is thinking about real people, he will see that they are really romantic. Exactly in so far as he is thinking only about pictures and poems and decorative styles, he will think that romance is a false or old-fashioned style. He can only see people as imitating pictures; whereas the real people are not imitating anything. They are only being themselves-- as they will always be. Roses remain radiant and mysterious, however many pink rosebuds are sprinkled like pips over cheap wallpapers. Falling in love remains radiant and mysterious, however threadbare be the thousandth repetition of a rhyme as a valentine or a cracker-motto. To see this fact is to live in a world of facts. To be always thinking of the banality of bad wallpapers and valentines is to live in a world of fictions.

Now the main truth about all this sceptical revolt, and all the rest of it, is that it was born in a world of fictions. It came from the Intelligentsia, who were perpetually discussing novels and plays and pictures instead of people. They insisted on putting "real life" on the stage and never saw it in the street. They professed to be putting realism into their novels when there was less and less of it in their conversation, as compared with the conversation of the common people. And that perpetual experiment, and shifting of the standpoint, which was natural enough in an artist seeking for certain effects (as it is natural in a photographer hovering round and focussing and fussing with his camera), was wholly inapplicable to any study of the permanent rules and relations of society. When these people began to play about with morals and metaphysics, they simply produced a series of mad worlds where they might have been harmlessly producing a series of mad pictures. Pictures are always meant to catch a certain aspect, at a certain angle, in a certain light; sometimes in light that is almost as brief as lightning. But when the artists became anarchists and began to exhibit the community and the cosmos by these flashes of lightning, the result was not realism but simply nightmare. Because a particular painter, for a particular purpose, might paint the red rose black, the pessimist deduced that the red rose of love and life was really as black as it was painted. Because one artist, from one angle, seized a momentary impression of moonlight as green, the philosopher solemnly put on a pair of green spectacles and declared that it was now a solid scientific certainty that the moon must be crawling with maggots, because it was made of green cheese.

In short, there might have been some value in the old cry of art for the artists; if it had meant that the artists would confine themselves to the medium of art. As a fact, they were always meddling with the medium of morals and religion; and they imported into them the unrest, the changing moods and the merely experimental tricks of their own trade. But a man with a solid sense of reality can see that this is utterly unreal. Whatever the laws of life and love and human relations may be, it is monstrously improbable that they ought to be changed with every fashion in poetry any more than with every fashion in pantaloons. It is insane that there should be a new pattern of hearts or heads whenever there is a new pattern of hats. These things are realities, like a high tide or a clay soil; and you do not get rid of high tides and clay soils by calling roses and moonlight old-fashioned and sentimental. I will venture to say, therefore, and I trust without undue vanity, that I have remained rooted in certain relations and traditions, not because I am a sentimentalist or even a romanticist; but because I am a realist. And I realise that morals must not change with moods, as Cubism must not mean chopping up real houses into cubes, or Vorticism swallowing real ships in whirlpools.

I have not changed my views on these things because there has never been any reason to change them. For anybody impelled by reason and not by running with a crowd will, for instance, perceive that there are always the same arguments for a Purpose and therefore a Personality in things, if he is a thinking person. Only it is now made easy for him to admit vaguely that there may be a Purpose, while denying that there is a Personality, so long as he happens to be a very unthinking person. It is quite as certain as it ever was that life is a gift of God immensely valuable and immensely valued, and anybody can prove it by putting a pistol to the head of a pessimist. Only a certain sort of modern does not like any problem presented to his head; and would dislike a plain question almost as much as a pistol. It is obvious common sense, and obviously consonant to real life, that romantic love is normal to youth and has its natural development in marriage and parenthood as the corresponding conditions of age. None of the nonsense talked about this, that or the other individual irritation or licence has ever made any difference to that solid social truth, for anyone who cares whether things are true, apart from whether they are trite. It is the man who cannot see that a thing is true, although it is trite, who is very truly a victim of mere words and verbal associations. He is the fool who has grown so furious with paper roses that he will not believe that the real rose has a root; nor (till he discovers it with an abrupt and profane ejaculation) that it has a thorn.

The truth is that the modern world has had a mental breakdown; much more than a moral breakdown. Things are being settled by mere associations because there is a reluctance to settle them by arguments. Nearly all the talk about what is advanced and what is antiquated has become a sort of giggling excitement about fashions. The most modern of the moderns stare at a picture of a man making love to a lady in a crinoline with exactly the same sort of vacant grin with which yokels stare at a stranger in an outlandish sort of hat. They regard their fathers of another age exactly as the most insular would regard the foreigners from another country. They seem mentally incapable of getting any further than the statement that our girls are shingled and short-skirted while their silly old great-grandmothers wore ringlets and hoops. That seems to satisfy all their appetite for satire; they are a simple race, a little like savages. They are exactly like the sort of cockney tripper who would roar with laughter because French soldiers wore red trousers and blue coats, while English soldiers were dressed properly in blue trousers and red coats. I have not altered my lines of thought for people who think in this fashion. Why should I?

GK Chesterton Joined Catholic Church 89 Years Ago Today

The location was, "the Railway Hotel in Beaconsfield, the dance-room of which had been converted into a makeshift chapel in the absence of any Catholic church in the town. In truth it was little more than a shed with a corrugated-iron roof and wooden walls, fitted with chapel fixtures by Sir Philip Rose and made available by the hotel's Irish landlady, Mrs Borlase. However, if Father Rice had failed to persuade Chesterton to be received in more luxurious surroundings [Douai Abbey School where Father was headmaster], he was compensated amply when Gilbert requested that he be present with Father O'Connor at his reception on Sunday, 30th July. The two Priests breakfasted together at the inn at which Father O'Connor was staying before walking together to Top Meadow [GKC's house]. According to Father Rice, they found Gilbert in an armchair reading the catechism, 'pulling faces and making noises as he used to do when reading'. Greeting his two friends, he got up and stuffed the catechism in his pocket. At lunch he drank water and poured wine for everyone else, and at about three o'clock they set out for the church. While Gilbert was making his Confession to Father O'Connor, Frances [GK's Wife], who was weeping continually, was comforted by Father Rice."

From Wisdom and Innocence, A Life of GK Chesterton by Joseph Pearce, which I am able to quote from as Terry Pratchett has not been round to borrow it yet! So today is no doubt a good day to say the Chesterton prayer for someones Conversion.

God Our Father, Thou didst fill the life of Thy servant Gilbert Keith Chesterton with a sense of wonder and joy, and gave him a faith which was the foundation of his ceaseless work, a charity towards all men, particularly his opponents, and a hope which sprang from his lifelong gratitude for the gift of human life. May his innocence and his laughter, his constancy in fighting for the Christian faith in a world losing belief, his lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and his love for all men, especially for the poor, bring cheerfulness to those in despair, conviction and warmth to lukewarm believers and the knowledge of God to those without faith. We beg Thee to grant the favours we ask through his intercession, the end of abortion in this Country [and especially for……] so that his holiness may be recognized by all and the Church may proclaim him Blessed. We ask this through Christ Our Lord.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Shock, Shakespeare Wrote Lots Of Things, Not Just Henry V, No Really!

Please note this is not a joke, William Shakespeare, famous Catholic author of the play Henry V* did write lots of other stuff. My Family and I went to an open air performance of The Tempest in the park. I looked up The Tempest in the index of The Quest for Shakespeare by Joseph Pearce and was very happy to read,

"he would have been echoing in his actions [making sure Catholics had somewhere to go to Mass once he left London] the words of Prospero in the final words of the final act of the last play he wrote:

And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.**

Desiring the prayers of the Catholic faithful in the hidden recesses of the Gatehouse, as he had desired the prayers of the audiences who watched his final play, Shakespeare disappeared into the sunset of his own life"

If you are not very bookish, Mr Pearce has a series of the same name on EWTN (Sky 589 or online) 4.30am Sundays or 9.30am Tuesdays for those of you who get up late!

*Sometimes one finds quotes in Latin or French in books with no translation, this can be quite annoying. Therefore let me say that, the 'V' in 'Henry V' is a Roman numeral meaning 5th. So it is a play about Henry The Fifth, a Welsh King of England.

**Although there are later plays attributed to collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, The Tempest is the last play that is solely Shakespeare.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Archbishop Nichols Defend Faithful From 'Harsh' Priests

On the Old Rite Feast of SS John Fisher & Thomas More, Priests in Westminster started reading Archbishop Nichol's letter on Receiving Holy Communion. Sadly in some Parishes the notes were not given out with the letter. Here are a few bits I found of interest. So next time a Priest tries to stop you receiving on your knees, quote the Archbishop's letter and notes!

When we receive Holy Communion on the tongue, we are aware of coming to be fed with the Food of Life, conscious of our utter dependence on the Lord. We know the holiness of the One we receive, beyond our touch.

When we receive Holy Communion kneeling, we present ourselves with humility and reverence, submitting our strength to Him, recognising that He is Lord of all.

When we have received the Lord, we concentrate utterly on His Presence within us, in prayer and recollection, when we return to our places. A time of silent prayer should follow Holy Communion as we approach the end of Mass.

From note 3, the faithful may choose to receive Communion while kneeling.

From note 4, If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.

From note 5, Mgr. Guido Marini, the Papal MC, has said that the Holy Father’s preference for communicants to receive Holy Communion on the tongue whilst kneeling better sheds light on the truth of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, he did so “without taking anything away from the other”, i.e. from standing to receive Holy Communion on the hand, where this is permitted (see the L’Osservatore Romano, 26 June, 2008).

Note 6, The ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are the celebrant(s) assisted by deacons and other priests. Extraordinary minsters of Holy Communion may assist where there is a
need (see Redemptionis Sacramentum, 88).

My emphasis in bold. Do sign up to say the Rosary for His Grace.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

GK's Weekly, The Thing, Logic And Lawn Tennis

A few weeks ago I start to serialise Gk Chesterton's book, The Thing each Saturday and called it GK's Weekly in honour of his newspaper of that name. (First part here) A number of people have said it is too long, the typeface is too small, it needs pictures etc. So I've used a larger font, put in photos, but will still put up a whole chapter each Saturday. Today's chapter is half the length of last weeks! People are reading it so there we have it. You can get a short daily GKC quote from here if you prefer. Clearly not a course of action that Mr Murry would approve of.


WHEN we say that we doubt the intellectual improvement produced by Protestantism and Rationalism and the modern world, there generally arises a very confused controversy, which is a sort of tangle of terminology. But, broadly speaking, the difference between us and our critics is this. They mean by growth an increase of the tangle; whereas we mean by thought a disentangling of the tangle. Even a short and simple length of straight and untangled wire is worth more to us than whole forests of mere entanglement. That there are more topics talked about, or more terms used, or more people using them, or more books and other authorities cited-- all this is nothing to us if people misuse the terms, misunderstand the topics, invoke the authorities at random and without the use of reason; and finally bring out a false result. A peasant who merely says, "I have five pigs; if I kill one I shall have four pigs," is thinking in an extremely simple and elementary way; but he is thinking as clearly and correctly as Aristotle or Euclid. But suppose he reads or half-reads newspapers and books of popular science. Suppose he starts to call one pig the Land and another pig Capital and a third pig Exports, and finally brings out the result that the more pigs he kills the more he possesses; or that every sow that litters decreases the number of pigs in the world. He has learnt economic terminology, merely as a means of becoming entangled in economic fallacy. It is a fallacy he could never have fallen into while he was grounded in the divine dogma that Pigs is Pigs. Now for that sort of intellectual instruction and advancement we have no use at all; and in that sense only it is true that we prefer the ignorant peasant to the instructed pedant. But that is not because we think ignorance better than instruction or barbarism better than culture. It is merely that we think a short length of the untangled logical chain is better than an interminable length of it that is interminably tangled. It is merely that we prefer a man to do a sum of simple addition right than a sum in long division wrong.

Now what we observe about the whole current culture of journalism and general discussion is that people do not know how to begin to think. Not only is their thinking at third and fourth hand, but it always starts about three-quarters of the way through the process. Men do not know where their own thoughts came from. They do not know what their own words imply. They come in at the end of every controversy and know nothing of where it began or what it is all about. They are constantly assuming certain absolutes, which, if correctly defined, would strike even themselves as being not absolutes but absurdities. To think thus is to be in a tangle; to go on thinking is to be in more and more of a tangle. And at the back of all there is always something understood; which is really something misunderstood.

For instance, I read an article by the admirable Mr. Tilden, the great tennis-player, who was debating what is wrong with English Tennis. "Nothing can save English Tennis," he said, except certain reforms of a fundamental sort, which he proceeded to explain. The English, it appears, have a weird and unnatural way of regarding tennis as a game, or thing to be enjoyed. He admitted that this has been part of a sort of amateur spirit in everything which is (as he very truly noted) also a part of the national character. But all this stands in the way of what he called saving English Tennis. He meant what some would call making it perfect, and others would call making it professional. Now, I take that as a very typical passage, taken from the papers at random, and containing the views of a keen and acute person on a subject that he thoroughly understands. But what he does not understand is the thing which he supposes to be understood. He thoroughly knows his subject and yet he does not know what he is talking about; because he does not know what he is taking for granted. He does not realise the relation of means and ends, or axioms and inferences, in his own philosophy. And nobody would probably be more surprised and even legitimately indignant than he, if I were to say that the first principles of his philosophy appear to be as follows:

(1) There is in the nature of things a certain absolute and divine Being, whose name is Mr. Lawn Tennis.

(2) All men exist for the good and glory of this Mr. Tennis and are bound to approximate to his perfections and fulfil his will.

(3) To this higher duty they are bound to surrender their natural desire for enjoyment in this life.

(4) They are bound to put this loyalty first; and to love it more passionately than patriotic tradition, the preservation of their own national type and national culture; not to mention even their national virtues.

That is the creed or scheme of doctrine that is here developed without being defined. The only way for us to save the game of Lawn Tennis is to prevent it from being a game. The only way to save English Tennis is to prevent it from being English. It does not occur to such thinkers that some people may possibly like it because it is English and enjoy it because it is enjoyable. There is some abstract divine standard in the thing, to which it is everybody's duty to rise, at any sacrifice of pleasure or affection. When Christians say this of the sacrifices made for Christ, it sounds rather a hard saying. But when tennis-players say it about the sacrifices demanded by tennis, it sounds quite ordinary and casual in the confusion of current thought and expression. And nobody notices that a sort of human sacrifice is being offered to a sort of new and nameless god.

In the good old days of Victorian rationalism it used to be the conventional habit to scoff at St. Thomas Aquinas and the mediaeval theologians; and especially to repeat perpetually a well-worn joke about the man who discussed how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. The comfortable and commercial Victorians, with their money and merchandise, might well have felt a sharper end of the same needle, even if it was the other end of it. It would have been good for their souls to have looked for that needle, not in the haystack of mediaeval metaphysics, but in the neat needle-case of their own favourite pocket Bible. It would have been better for them to meditate, not on how many angels could go on the point of a needle, but on how many camels could go through the eye of it. But there is another comment on this curious joke or catchword, which is more relevant to our purpose here. If the mediaeval mystic ever did argue about angels standing on a needle, at least he did not argue as if the object of angels was to stand on a needle; as if God had created all the Angels and Archangels, all the Thrones, Virtues, Powers and Principalities, solely in order that there might be something to clothe and decorate the unseemly nakedness of the point of a needle. But that is the way that modern rationalists reason. The mediaeval mystic would not even have said that a needle exists to be a standing-ground for angels. The mediaeval mystic would have been the first to say that a needle exists to make clothes for men. For mediaeval mystics, in their dim transcendental way, were much interested in the real reasons for things and the distinction between the means and the end. They wanted to know what a thing was really for, and what was the dependence of one idea on another. And they might even have suggested, what so many journalists seem to forget, the paradoxical possibility that Tennis was made for Man and not Man for Tennis.

The Modernists were peculiarly unfortunate when they said that the modern world must not be expected to tolerate the old syllogistic methods of the Schoolmen. They were proposing to scrap the one mediaeval instrument which the modern world will most immediately require. There would have been a far better case for saying that the revival of Gothic architecture has been sentimental and futile; that the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art was only an eccentric episode; that the fashionable use of the word "Guild" for every possible sort of social institution was affected and artificial; that the feudalism of Young England was very different from that of Old England. But this method of clean-cut deduction, with the definition of the postulates and the actual answering of the question, is something of which the whole of our newspaper-flattered society is in sharp and instant need; as the poisoned are in need of medicine. I have here taken only one example which happened to catch my eye out of a hundred thousand that flash past every hour. And as Tennis, like every other good game, has to be played with the head as well as the hand, I think it highly desirable that it should be occasionally discussed at least as intelligently as it is played.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Catholic Church Is Obviously Right, But Is There A God?

"The only little difficulty that I have about joining the Catholic Church is that I do not think I believe in God. All the rest of the Catholic system is so obviously right and so obviously superior to anything else, that I cannot imagine anyone having any doubt about it."

Johnston Stephen

I found this in Chesterton's Autobiography and just had to print it!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

GK's Weekly, The Thing, The Drift From Domesticity

(Sorry, but when reading this chapter I could not help but remember this photo of me. It was taken 13-15 years ago, and shows me watering plants in the rain!)


IN the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, whenyou can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion. We might even say that he is seeing things in a nightmare. This principle applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as true institutions, to convention as well as to conviction. It was exactly the sort of person, like Joan of Arc, who did know why women wore skirts, who was most justified in not wearing one; it was exactly the sort of person, like St. Francis, who did sympathise with the feast and the fireside, who was most entitled to become a beggar on the open road. And when, in the general emancipation of modern society, the Duchess says she does not see why she shouldn't play leapfrog, or the Dean declares that he sees no valid canonical reason why he should not stand on his head, we may say to these persons with patient benevolence: "Defer, therefore, the operation you contemplate until you have realised by ripe reflection what principle or prejudice you are violating. Then play leapfrog and stand on your head and the Lord be with you."

Among the traditions that are being thus attacked, not intelligently but most unintelligently, is the fundamental human creation called the Household or the Home. That is a typical thing which men attack, not because they can see through it, but because they cannot see it at all. They beat at it blindly, in a fashion entirely haphazard and opportunist; and many of them would pull it down without even pausing to ask why it was ever put up. It is true that only a few of them would have avowed this object in so many words. That only proves how very blind and blundering they are. But they have fallen into a habit of mere drift and gradual detachment from family life; something that is often merely accidental and devoid of any definite theory at all. But though it is accidental it is none the less anarchical. And it is all the more anarchical for not being anarchist. It seems to be largely founded on individual irritation; an irritation which varies with the individual. We are merely told that in this or that case a particular temperament was tormented by a particular environment; but nobody even explained how the evil arose, let alone whether the evil is really escaped. We are told that in this or that family Grandmamma talked a great deal of nonsense, which God knows is true; or that it is very difficult to have intimate intellectual relations with Uncle Gregory without telling him he is a fool, which is indeed the case. But nobody seriously considers the remedy, or even the malady; or whether the existing individualistic dissolution is a remedy at all. Much of this business began with the influence of Ibsen, a very powerful dramatist and an exceedingly feeble philosopher. I suppose that Nora of THE DOLL'S HOUSE was intended to be an inconsequent person; but certainly her most inconsequent action was her last. She complained that she was not yet fit to look after children, and then proceeded to get as far as possible from the children, that she might study them more closely.

There is one simple test and type of this neglect of scientific thinking and the sense of a social rule; the neglect which has now left us with nothing but a welter of exceptions. I have read hundreds and thousands of times, in all the novels and newspapers of our epoch, certain phrases about the just right of the young to liberty, about the unjust claim of the elders to control, about the conception that all souls must be free or all citizens equal, about the absurdity of authority or the degradation of obedience. I am not arguing those matters directly at the moment. But what strikes me as astounding, in a logical sense, is that not one of these myriad novelists and newspaper-men ever seems to think of asking the next and most obvious question. It never seems to occur to them to enquire what becomes of the opposite obligation. If the child is free from the first to disregard the parent, why is not the parent free from the first to disregard the child? If Mr. Jones, Senior, and Mr. Jones, Junior, are only two free and equal citizens, why should one citizen sponge on another citizen for the first fifteen years of his life? Why should the elder Mr. Jones be expected to feed, clothe and shelter out of his own pocket another person who is entirely free of any obligations to him? If the bright young thing cannot be asked to tolerate her grandmother, who has become something of a bore, why should the grandmother or the mother have tolerated the bright young thing at a period of her life when she was by no means bright? Why did they laboriously look after her at a time when her contributions to the conversation were seldom epigrammatic and not often intelligible? Why should Jones Senior stand drinks and free meals to anybody so unpleasant as Jones Junior, especially in the immature phases of his existence? Why should he not throw the baby out of the window; or at any rate, kick the boy out of doors? It is obvious that we are dealing with a real relation, which may be equality, but is certainly not similarity.

Some social reformers try to evade this difficulty, I know, by some vague notions about the State or an abstraction called Education eliminating the parental function. But this, like many notions of solid scientific persons, is a wild illusion of the nature of mere moonshine. It is based on that strange new superstition, the idea of infinite resources of organisation. It is as if officials grew like grass or bred like rabbits. There is supposed to be an endless supply of salaried persons, and of salaries for them; and they are to undertake all that human beings naturally do for themselves; including the care of children. But men cannot live by taking in each other's baby-linen. They cannot provide a tutor for each citizen; who is to tutor the tutors? Men cannot be educated by machinery; and though there might be a Robot bricklayer or scavenger, there will never be a Robot schoolmaster or governess. The actual effect of this theory is that one harassed person has to look after a hundred children, instead of one normal person looking after a normal number of them. Normally that normal person is urged by a natural force, which costs nothing and does not require a salary; the force of natural affection for his young, which exists even among the animals. If you cut off that natural force, and substitute a paid bureaucracy, you are like a fool who should pay men to turn the wheel of his mill, because he refused to use wind or water which he could get for nothing. You are like a lunatic who should carefully water his garden with a watering-can, while holding up an umbrella to keep off the rain.

It is now necessary to recite these truisms; for only by doing so can we begin to get a glimpse of that REASON for the existence of the family, which I began this essay by demanding. They were all familiar to our fathers, who believed in the links of kinship and also in the links of logic. To-day our logic consists mostly of missing links; and our family largely of absent members. But, anyhow, this is the right end at which to begin any such enquiry; and not at the tail-end or the fag-end of some private muddle, by which Dick has become discontented or Susan has gone off on her own. If Dick or Susan wish to destroy the family because they do not see the use of it, I say as I said in the beginning; if they do not see the use of it, they had much better preserve it. They have no business even to think of destroying it until they have seen the use of it.

But it has other uses, besides the obvious fact that it means a necessary social work being done for love when it cannot be done for money; and (one might almost dare to hint) presumably to be repaid with love since it is never repaid in money. On that simple side of the matter the general situation is easy to record. The existing and general system of society, subject in our own age and industrial culture to very gross abuses and painful problems, is nevertheless a normal one. It is the idea that the commonwealth is made up of a number of small kingdoms, of which a man and a woman become the king and queen and in which they exercise a reasonable authority, subject to the common sense of the commonwealth, until those under their care grow up to found similar kingdoms and exercise similar authority. This is the social structure of mankind, far older than all its records and more universal than any of its religions; and all attempts to alter it are mere talk and tomfoolery.

But the other advantage of the small group is now not so much neglected as simply not realised. Here again we have some extraordinary delusions spread all over the literature and journalism of our time. Those delusions now exist in such a degree that we may say, for all practical purposes, that when a thing has been stated about a thousand times as obviously true, it is almost certain to be obviously false. One such statement may be specially noted here. There is undoubtedly something to be said against domesticity and in favour of the general drift towards life in hotels, clubs, colleges, communal settlements and the rest; or for a social life organised on the plan of the great commercial systems of our time. But the truly extraordinary suggestion is often made that this escape from the home is an escape into greater freedom. The change is actually offered as favourable to liberty.

To anybody who can think, of course, it is exactly the opposite. The domestic division of human society is not perfect, being human. It does not achieve complete liberty; a thing somewhat difficult to do or even to define. But it is a mere matter of arithmetic that it puts a larger number of people in supreme control of something, and able to shape it to their personal liking, than do the vast organisations that rule society outside; whether those systems are legal or commercial or even merely social. Even if we were only considering the parents, it is plain that there are more parents than there are policemen or politicians or heads of big businesses or proprietors of hotels. As I shall suggest in a moment, the argument actually applies indirectly to the children as well as directly to the parents. But the main point is that the world OUTSIDE the home is now under a rigid discipline and routine and it is only inside the home that there is really a place for individuality and liberty. Anyone stepping out of the front-door is obliged to step into a procession, all going the same way and to a great extent even obliged to wear the same uniform. Business, especially big business, is now organised like an army. It is, as some would say, a sort of mild militarism without bloodshed; as I should say, a militarism without the military virtues. But anyhow, it is obvious that a hundred clerks in a bank or a hundred waitresses in a teashop are more regimented and under rule than the same individuals when each has gone back to his or her own dwelling or lodging, hung with his or her favourite pictures or fragrant with his or her favourite cheap cigarettes. But this, which is so obvious in the commercial case, is no less true even in the social case. In practice, the pursuit of pleasure is merely the pursuit of fashion. The pursuit of fashion is merely the pursuit of convention; only that it happens to be a new convention. The jazz dances, the joy rides, the big pleasure parties and hotel entertainments, do not make any more provision for a REALLY independent taste than did any of the fashions of the past. If a wealthy young lady wants to do what all the other wealthy young ladies are doing, she will find it great fun, simply because youth is fun and society is fun. She will enjoy being modern exactly as her Victorian grandmother enjoyed being Victorian. And quite right too; but it is the enjoyment of convention, not the enjoyment of liberty. It is perfectly healthy for all young people of all historic periods to herd together, to a reasonable extent, and enthusiastically copy each other. But in that there is nothing particularly fresh and certainly nothing particularly free. The girl who likes shaving her head and powdering her nose and wearing short skirts will find the world organised for her and will march happily with the procession. But a girl who happened to like having her hair down to her heels or loading herself with barbaric gauds and trailing garments or (most awful of all) leaving her nose in its natural state-- she will still be well advised to do these things on her own premises. If the Duchess does want to play leap frog, she must not start suddenly leaping in the manner of a frog across the ballroom of the Babylon Hotel, when it is crowded with the fifty best couples professionally practising the very latest dance, for the instruction of society. The Duchess will find it easier to practise leap frog to the admiration of her intimate friends in the old oak-panelled hall of Fitzdragon Castle. If the Dean must stand on his head, he will do it with more ease and grace in the calm atmosphere of the Deanery than by attempting to interrupt the programme of some social entertainment already organised for philanthropic purposes.

If there is this impersonal routine in commercial and even in social things, it goes without saying that it exists and always must exist in political and legal things. For instance, the punishments of the State must be sweeping generalisations. It is only the punishments of the home that can possibly be adapted to the individual case; because it is only there that the judge can know anything of the individual. If Tommy takes a silver thimble out of a work-basket, his mother may act very differently according as she knows that he did it for fun or for spite or to sell to somebody, or to get somebody into trouble. But if Tomkins takes a silver thimble out of a shop, the law not only can but must punish him according to the rule made for all shoplifters or stealers of silver. It is only the domestic discipline that can show any sympathy or especially any humour. I do not say that the family always does do this; but I say that the State never ought to attempt it. So that even if we consider the parents alone as independent princes, and the children merely as subjects, the relative freedom of the family can and often does work to the advantage of those subjects. But so long as the children are children, they will always be the subjects of somebody. The question is whether they are to be distributed naturally under their natural princes, as the old phrase went, who normally feel for them what nobody else will feel, a natural affection. It seems to me clear that this normal distribution gives the largest amount of liberty to the largest number of people.

My complaint of the anti-domestic drift is that it is unintelligent. People do not know what they are doing; because they do not know what they are undoing. There are a multitude of modern manifestations, from the largest to the smallest, ranging from a divorce to a picnic party. But each is a separate escape or evasion; and especially an evasion of the point at issue. People ought to decide in a philosophical fashion whether they desire the traditional social order or not; or if there is any particular alternative to be desired. As it is they treat the public question merely as a mess or medley of private questions. Even in being anti-domestic they are much too domestic in their test of domesticity. Each family considers only its own case and the result is merely narrow and negative. Each case is an exception to a rule that does not exist. The family, especially in the modern state, stands in need of considerable correction and reconstruction; most things do in the modern state. But the family mansion should be preserved or destroyed or rebuilt; it should not be allowed to fall to pieces brick by brick because nobody has any historic sense of the object of bricklaying. For instance, the architects of the restoration should rebuild the house with wide and easily opened doors, for the practice of the ancient virtue of hospitality. In other words, private property should be distributed with sufficiently decent equality to allow of a margin for festive intercourse. But the hospitality of a house will always be different from the hospitality of a hotel. And it will be different in being more individual, more independent, more interesting than the hospitality of a hotel. It is perfectly right that the young Browns and the young Robinsons should meet and mix and dance and make asses of themselves, according to the design of their Creator. But there will always be some difference between the Browns entertaining the Robinsons and the Robinsons entertaining the Browns. And it will be a difference to the advantage of variety, of personality, of the potentialities of the mind of man; or, in other words, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Please Tell Americans About 'Magic'

I copied the following from here.

Nashville's Blackbird Theater in August will mount a rare production of Magic - a play by the great, if largely forgotten, literary figure G.K. Chesterton - with performances at Shamblin Theatre on the David Lipscomb University campus, running August 12-27.

Magic is described as "a funny, fiercely dramatic, unabashedly romantic play that involves an aristocratic family whose conflicting beliefs and doubts about the supernatural are all challenged by the arrival of a mysterious conjurer."

Its author, G.K. Chesterton, though unknown to most people today, was one of the towering intellectuals of the early twentieth century. He was a renowned journalist, acclaimed debater, and perhaps most famously an influential defender of the Christian faith whose humor and profound prose were a great inspiration to many of the last century's most esteemed writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, John Updike, Neil Gaiman, and C.S. Lewis.

The play will be directed by Blackbird's Artistic Director Wes Driver who counts Chesterton as one of his favorite writers.

"Chesterton was one of the most original, most penetrating thinkers of the 20th century, and this play captures his thought and joyous spirit so perfectly. It's funny and romantic, but dark and mysterious, too. And it features that sort of drama the Edwardians did so well and we at Blackbird relish-passionate debate about big ideas," Driver explains.

Although largely neglected for the last 75 years, Chesterton and his works are beginning to experience a renaissance of sorts, with a surplus of new books being released about his life and writings and more and more people being turned on to his unmatched imagination and insight.

"We hope our production does its small part in introducing audiences to the brilliance of this forgotten figure," Driver says.

Blackbird's production of Magic stars David Compton as the Conjurer and Amanda Card McCoy as Patricia, both of whom have entertained audiences on a number of Nashville stages, including performances with Tennessee Repertory Theatre and Nashville Children's Theatre. Both Compton and McCoy were among stars of Blackbird's inaugural season production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. The play also features notables Alan Lee, Daniel Hackman, Zack McCann, Chris Bosen and Robyn Berg.

For further information about Blackbird, visit the company's website at

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Times, On GK Chesterton's Sainthood

Here follows an article from The Times Literary Supplement June 8th, 2011. Yes it is too long for a post on my blog and no, I don't agree with it all, after all I did not write it! But here it is anyway, for it is nice to see The Times even consider what many in the Church have not even heard of, The Holiness of GK Chesterton! For Chesterton Prayer Cards. Also sign up to say a Rosary for Bishop Peter Doyle, Bishop of Northampton, the diocese were Chesterton died.

The miraculous G. K. Chesterton?

The Christian virtues and unacknowledged failings of an indefensibly happy writer

By Bernard Manzo

G. K. Chesterton once said that he had been “indefensibly” happy for most of his life. There is a note, not simply of happiness, but of joy, in much of what he wrote; but what meaning should one give to this happiness? Is there a self-delighting, whimsical, even wilful obliviousness in the merriness of Chesterton? Was he just a bit silly? T. S. Eliot once said that he found the cheerfulness of Chesterton entirely “depressing”. Yet Chesterton claimed that his levity came from his deepest beliefs: “Christianity is itself so jolly a thing that it fills the possessor of it with a certain silly exuberance, which sad and high-minded Rationalists might reasonably mistake for mere buffoonery and blasphemy; just as their prototypes, the sad and high-minded Stoics of old Rome, did mistake the Christian joyousness for buffoonery and blasphemy”. That is, of course, the sort of thing that Chesterton often said, the sort of thing not likely to satisfy anyone in a captious mood. (T. S. Eliot had been a Christian for just under a year when he said that he found Chesterton depressing; but then it is difficult to imagine Eliot ever being wholly in sympathy with the high spirits of Chesterton.) It could be that Chesterton saw Christianity as “jolly” because he was temperamentally inclined to be cheerful; but it could also be that this made him responsive to something essential in Christianity.

The happiness of Chesterton came not from anything in particular but from everything in particular. For Chesterton, the best thing to rejoice in is everything – existence itself – and to contemplate existence, to realize in a “sunlight of surprise” that there is something when there need not be anything, is to experience joy. While this joy is of a transcendent character – a response not to a definite situation but to the very existence of things – it depends on the particularity of things, because it is in seeing what makes each thing itself that one can delight in its very existence. This joy is “a certain silly exuberance” – “silly” in every sense, including the older senses of “simple”, “innocent”. It was a joy that Chesterton could see in St Francis of Assisi, who “understood down to its very depths the theory of thanks; and its depths are a bottomless abyss. He knew that the praise of God stands on its strongest ground when it stands on nothing”. To perceive existence against nothingness, to realize that reality “stands on nothing”, is to see the “whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God”: it is to realize that existence is a free gift from God, and it is to become capable of gratitude to God.

While the importance of Chesterton has often been questioned, there are signs that he is now – in Catholic circles at least – being taken very seriously. In the past couple of years, a number of works examining Chesterton as a thinker have been published – a meticulous study of the early development of his thought by William Oddie, an assessment of Chesterton as a theologian by Aidan Nichols, and now a full intellectual biography of Chesterton by the Newman scholar Ian Ker, and a collection of essays (to which Oddie, Nichols and Ker have all contributed) considering whether there might be a case for the canonization of Chesterton. St Gilbert of Fleet Street and Beaconsfield (his attributes a pint glass and a swordstick) would not, perhaps, be such a bad companion for St Francis, the saint Chesterton described as “the court fool of the King of Paradise”; or would this be a bad joke?

Ian Ker provides an account of the thought of Chesterton that surpasses, in its comprehensiveness, anything that has been previously written about him. He does not offer a picture of the character of Chesterton that differs markedly from that presented by the earlier biographer Maisie Ward (who had the advantage of being able to speak to people who knew Chesterton well, and of having access to personal papers now lost), but he gives a sympathetic and exhaustive presentation of his subject’s ideas. Ker contends that Chesterton should be appreciated as a thinker and controversialist, a sage in the tradition of the Victorian sages, whose achievement should be measured by a half dozen or so of his works of philosophy, biography and criticism. Chesterton wrote much more than half a dozen books, of course, and most of what he wrote was avowedly ephemeral, but he considered the ephemeral to be highly important – of one of his books he remarked that “it may last just twenty minutes longer than most of the philosophies that it attacks” but that “in the end it will not matter to us whether we wrote well or ill . . . it will matter to us greatly on which side we fought”. Ker concentrates mostly on the journalistic pieces that Chesterton considered worth collecting in volumes published during his lifetime, and although he
acknowledges that Chesterton, almost inevitably for so prolific a writer, repeated himself, one cannot but feel that some of the journalism is given too full an exposition by Ker – particularly since Ker’s approach is purely expository, lacking a critical edge. This is unfortunate, because Ker acknowledges that, if the reputation of Chesterton is to endure, it will be on the strength of books like Orthodoxy (1909) or Charles Dickens (1906), not his (sometimes ill thought-out) journalistic pieces.

Ker celebrates Chesterton as a defender of the “common man” who opposed the tendency of many thinkers of his time to conjure up images of sub-human “masses” (and political proposals to match the images; H. G. Wells, for instance, was able to contemplate the extermination of biologically “inferior” sectors of the population with equanimity). Chesterton honoured the romance and fullness of ordinary lives, and he was a fierce opponent of modes of thought that he saw as an assault on the dignity and freedom of those lives. He celebrated William Cobbett, because “he was not merely concerned with what is called the welfare of the workers”, but “he was very much concerned for their dignity, their good name, their honour, and even their glory”. He claimed that the true ideal of democracy – to which he was fully committed – depended on recognizing that “the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary”.

His appreciation of “ordinary things” was an expression of his sense of the splendour of existence. Human beings, in all their ordinary limitations, are holy: “man has been made more sacred than any superman or supermonkey . . . his very limitations have already become holy and like a home, because of that sunken chamber in the rocks, where God became very small”. The Incarnation gave a new dignity to human nature, but it also revealed a dignity that was already there, a dignity intrinsic to human nature. For Chesterton, if something was “like a home” it was already “holy”, because it was by being limited, distinct, that things were most fully themselves; and when a life was lived in reference to definite limits, adventures were possible. He wanted a cosmos composed of small, distinct, varied things; he recoiled from visions of enormous, homogeneous combinations of things. He was, then, predisposed to accept the political ideals of Hilaire Belloc, who believed, developing the ideas presented in the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, that political liberty could be preserved only through a wide distribution of property – a vision of a world of small owners, not vast organizations.

Ker does not fully assess the extent to which Chesterton was influenced by Belloc (and, more generally, in his care to expound the manner in which Chesterton argued his way to various positions, Ker can sometimes make him seem a rather more solitary thinker than he was); certainly, the image of the “Chesterbelloc”, invented by Bernard Shaw, exaggerates the extent to which Chesterton and Belloc were at one in their views. Yet Belloc – who seemed to be influenced by almost no one, other than Cardinal Manning – did have a clear, if sometimes cartoonish, vision of political affairs that seemed to be taken up by Chesterton, and his brother, Cecil. Both Chesterton and Belloc acquired a reputation for anti-Semitism during their lifetime; how fair was the accusation? Fairer than admirers of Chesterton might wish; but the picture is not simple. While Belloc was, it must be said, quite capable of analysing anti-Semitism as a “delusion”, he seemed, in his worse moments, to believe that all modern political events could be explained as the result of a conspiracy between corrupt politicians and cunning Jewish plutocrats who pursued international financial interests at the expense of national interests. Chesterton himself saw Jewishness as an identity potentially inimical to national identity. In The New Jerusalem (1920), he claimed that his “heresy” consisted “in saying that Jews are Jews; and as a logical consequence they are not Russians or Roumanians or Italians or Frenchmen or Englishmen”, but he claimed that the inference he made from this was Zionist – that “Jews should be represented by Jews and ruled by Jews”, that they should have their own homeland, and that Jews who did not live in that homeland should be given “a special position best described as a privilege; some sort of self-governing enclave with special laws and exemptions”. (Chesterton had, at the age of nineteen, jotted down in a notebook that “No Christian ought to be an Anti-Semite. But every Christian ought to be a Zionist”.) A measure of this kind would, as Ker recognizes, “simply create the kind of ghetto that had facilitated the persecution of Jews”, but Ker seems right in judging that “this cannot be said to have been Chesterton’s intention, which sounds perfectly sincere even if quite impractical – or worse”. One can read a vast amount of Chesterton without encountering any anti-Jewish remarks at all, but he did sometimes make such remarks – concerned mostly, as Ker says, with a “perceived cosmopolitanism and involvement in international finance” – one of the most obnoxious of which was his suggestion that any Jew wishing to occupy a public position should be “dressed like an Arab” as a marker of foreignness. Against this, one should recognize that Chesterton abominated all theories of racial superiority, and that he was an early and fierce opponent of the “racial religion” of Nazism, remarking that he found it “staggering” that “a whole huge people should base its whole historical tradition on something that is not so much a legend as a lie”. Aware of the persecution of German Jews in the years before his death in 1936, he declared himself “appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities”. Yet one should recognize, too, that he failed to understand the character of Italian Fascism, or to oppose it adequately.

The virtues of Chesterton, by most accounts, greatly outnumbered his failings; but could he really be regarded as a saint? In The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton, some distinguished traditionalist Catholic thinkers consider this question. John Saward examines the Chestertonian philosophy of wonder, likening it – in its celebration of the clear and vivid perceptions of childhood experience – to the “Little Way” of St Thérèse of Lisieux, and interpreting it as an expression of true, childlike humility. Aidan Nichols assesses the orthodoxy of Chesterton, considering whether he could be regarded as a Doctor of the Church. Ian Ker examines the account Chesterton gives of the virtues involved in humour, the virtues of self-forgetful abandonment to a good joke, and of a humility that can acknowledge the “inconsistency” of things without seeking to overcome it: an account which provides a way of seeing the humorousness of Chesterton himself as virtuous. Nicholas Madden and Bob Wild offer opposing perspectives on whether Chesterton can be considered a mystic, their debate centring on whether or not there can be a “mysticism” of ordinary life. William Oddie defends Chesterton against allegations of anti-Semitism. Sheridan Gilley reflects on the possibility of regarding him as the patron saint of journalists, the profound “democratic faith” of Chesterton being the correlate of his belief in the dignity of humanity – so that for him “the journalist was the tribune of the people”. Gilley is right to observe that there was a genuine self-forgetfulness in his commitment to campaigning journalism: “he was more interested in his causes than in himself, and more interested in mankind than either”. All the essays are admiring of Chesterton – none presents a “case against” – but then one cannot honestly consider whether someone might be considered a saint without, at the least, thinking highly of him or her. It is not for nothing that there needs to be a miracle or two before someone can be declared a saint, because it seems impossible to pronounce on whether or not a person has lived a genuinely holy life. None of those who have contributed to this volume would claim to be able to do so; their essays seek to show how Chesterton, in certain respects, was unusually virtuous – and in this they are largely successful. Yet one cannot but feel, at times, that he is viewed, by most of the contributors, with too unqualified an admiration. The absence of the devil’s advocate is felt.

Any attempt to assess the achievement of Chesterton must, ultimately, involve a judgement on his “silly exuberance”. Such a judgement is relevant not only to the question of whether there is much of substance in his philosophy, but to the question of whether one can speak of him as a “mystic”, for his “optimism”, or, better, his loyalty to existence, first emerged out of an experience he described, in a letter to his friend E. C. Bentley, as an experience of “speaking to God face to face”.

In his Autobiography (1936), he wrote of a period in his life when, as a student at the Slade School of Art, he had been overcome with a “mood of unreality and sterile isolation”. The dominant artistic mode of the time was Impressionism, and Chesterton believed that the technique of seeking to render things as immediately perceived implied the “metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all”, a philosophy close to the “philosophy of Illusion”. Influenced by this attitude, he thought his way to a “denial of fundamental things”. While “dull atheists came and explained to me that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm horror of detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind”. The traces of this experience are preserved in The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a “nightmare” vision of an attempt by a philosophical detective to unmask a group of anarchists, in which there is not so much a narrative as a sequence of vivid scenes, with each scene in succession being shown to be illusory, and with the sequence of images culminating in a question about the ultimate nature of the world: is everything – as the experience of “nightmare” might suggest – ultimately absurd? Chesterton threw off this “incubus” of extreme doubt when he recognized that “even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting . . . . Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare”; and existence becomes all the more “exciting”, when its otherness, its reality, is recognized: “how much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”

Chesterton chose to be happy, and it was a choice that made it possible for him to believe in something more than personal choice, to get out “in the open” and to believe in objective reality. In Orthodoxy, his first complete articulation of his religious beliefs, he defended Christianity as creating a particular state of existence – a sense of life as a “romance”, in which one can “contrive to be astonished at the world and yet at home in it”. It secured this way of living by appealing to something beyond human existence: that is, it established the dignity of human life through the idea of a God who so transcended the world as to be capable of becoming, in Christ, one with it. Chesterton sought to show that Christianity sustained forms of life that other philosophies tended to destroy; it was not proved by this, but if one were predisposed to value these forms of life, one would be disposed to accept Christianity, or, rather, one might already have a degree of implicit belief in Christianity. In an essay written a few years before Orthodoxy, Chesterton maintained that to make aesthetic experience the supreme value was to render oneself incapable of aesthetic experience; one could only take pleasure in something as simple as sparks flying from a bonfire if one lived in a certain way: “the red star is only on the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues. That red fire is only the flower on a stalk of living habits, which you cannot see . . . . That flame flowered out of virtues, and it will fade with virtues . . . . Be really bad, and they will be to you like the spots on a wall-paper”.

Dogmas, for Chesterton, create thought; they create the possibility of argument, and perception (“with this idea once inside our heads, a million things become transparent as if a lamp were lit behind them”). Whether one accepts or rejects Christianity, one must ultimately avail oneself of dogma (“every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly”); so that one cannot so much prove the dogmas of Christianity as show that the alternative dogmas (of materialism, fatalism or whatever) issue in absurdities and contradictions, and that the dogmas of Christianity sustain values that would be lost if those values were affirmed in isolation. To affirm, for instance, the total autonomy of reason could be to destroy reason – because reason can doubt itself, and annihilate itself. One must have faith in reason. To affirm the goodness of the world might be to countenance a kind of quietism; but Christianity affirms all at once the goodness of the world, its separateness from the highest good, and its fallenness from its own intrinsic perfection: the world is good, but one must fight for goodness in this world – we must “hate [the world] enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing”. More than that, for Chesterton, Christianity maintained a balance between potentially competing ideas and values – indeed, potentially dangerous ideas and values – and the achievement of this balance was in itself an intimation of its divinity. Reflecting, in Orthodoxy, on the “gigantesque” and wild “diction” of Christ – “full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea” – Chesterton remarked that “Christianity is a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions may blaze beside each other”, and that “the one explanation of the Gospel language that does explain it, is that it is the survey of one who from some supernatural height beholds some more startling synthesis”. The danger here is that one might call mere contradiction “mystery”; but Chesterton took the view that the reasonableness of the “startling synthesis” of Christianity could be shown by its making sense of experience as a whole, where other philosophies issued in contradictions, or in a denial of certain aspects of common experience. For Chesterton, the mysteries of Christianity made sense of common sense.

Mountains might be hurled into the sea not only in a gospel story, but in a fairy tale, containing not just “gigantesque” words but angry giants; and Chesterton claimed that such tales – which “touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment” – evoke wonder at sheer existence because by reimagining the form of the world they point to something gratuitous about it: even if one could get to the deepest laws of reality, governing everything, one could still ask why those laws in particular were in place, and the “test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail”.

Chesterton valued fairy tales because he saw them as renewing the way in which we perceive the world; they showed that existence was strange, that it was good, that goodness was sustained by limits. He valued the grotesque in art – a matter of definite outlines, exaggerations, wayward individualization, of “the energy which takes its own forms and goes its own way” – because it rejoiced in the particular. To present something in a grotesque manner, to stress what makes it peculiarly itself, is “to draw attention to the intrinsically miraculous character of the object itself”. (He was strongly appreciative of the energies of the grotesque in Browning and Dickens.) He valued humour because it involves openness to the ways in which reality exceeds any ideas one might form of it: “the man who sees the inconsistency in things is a humorist”, and it involves humility, because one must abandon oneself to a joke to be funny: “do not fancy you can be a detached wit and avoid being a buffoon”. The humour of Chesterton was of a kind that finds the thing laughed at precious and admirable in its laughableness, and he saw laughter as inseparable from love. He once remarked that “there was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth”. Far from seeing mirth as a kind of irresponsibility or forgetfulness of reality, he saw it as a response to the truth of things, a perception of the whole; and he maintained that in Christianity “joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small”, because it sees the joy of God as the ultimate cause of things.

Chesterton considered that the office of art was to reveal reality by transforming it: the “object of the artistic and spiritual life” is to “dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy”. His criticism was very much an exploration of the nature of things, and an articulation of his own philosophy, and his greatest works of criticism – the works on Browning, Chaucer, and, above all, Dickens – were efforts to show how these artists had got something right about the way things are. In Heretics (1905), he discusses several contemporary writers not “in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach”, insisting that one could not treat the aesthetic as something apart from “doctrine”; yet he did not reduce artistic works to philosophical statements, and sought always to discern how artistic forms showed something that could not be shown in any other way. There was, indeed, something quasi-aesthetic in his response to Christianity – his sense that its strangeness fitted the “oddities of life”, that it was “like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years” – and he celebrated Christianity as the “philosophy of stories”: by affirming the reality of human freedom, and by declaring the world to have a meaning, Christianity declared life to be like a story, and stories to be true to how things are.

His own stories are generally sequences of vividly rendered gestures or actions, in which the actors are not so much fully realized characters as types, and in which the presentation is characterized by a violent simplicity of outline, an opacity without depth. (All his life he enjoyed putting on toy theatre shows.) The Father Brown stories, though elaborately plotted, usually centre on a single, odd, puzzling or striking action, with Father Brown detecting the deeper forces at work in a situation by perceiving the meaning of a gesture, in an act of intuition informed by his understanding of human nature. For all their charm (not a little of which comes from the way Father Brown voices some of the philosophical views of Chesterton himself), many of the stories have a certain unreality: they are all about sudden, preternaturally acute insights into character and motive, and take place in a universe conveniently filled with symbols. In this regard, it is striking that The Man Who Was Thursday ends with a masquerade, the dancers representing, in their costumes, the random variety of the world – “every couple dancing seemed a separate romance; it might be a fairy dancing with a pillar-box, or a peasant girl dancing with the moon”. Chesterton delighted in the individuality of individuals and the thinginess of things, yet things and individuals, for him, are always turning into symbols, the world into a pageant. So, too, in his historical and biographical writing, one feels that he is concerned only with those facts that suggest to him a larger meaning. In the case of his books on Dickens and St Francis, the method works well, because the central insights are so powerful (he speaks of St Francis as “a poet whose whole life was a poem . . . a series of scenes in which he had a sort of perpetual luck in bringing things to a beautiful crisis”), but it is an approach that allows for much to be made of a few facts, and much, potentially, to be disregarded. Often, with Chesterton, one feels that positives are presented without negatives having been fully taken into account. Belloc was astonished to hear that Chesterton had converted to Catholicism (“faith is an act of the will and as it seemed to me the whole of his mind was occupied in expressing his liking for an attraction towards a certain mood, not at all towards the acceptation of a certain Institution as defined and representing full reality in this world”), and he felt obliged to write to Chesterton about the distinction between “mood” and “truth”: “the Catholic Church is the exponent of reality. It is true. Its doctrines in matters large and small are statements of what is. This it is which the ultimate act of the intelligence accepts”.

Chesterton certainly acknowledged the distinction between “mood” and objective truth, but he was less inclined than Belloc to discount the revelatory potential of moods – for moods correspond to ideas about the world, are a response to such ideas, or can imply the presence of such ideas. Perhaps the difficulty posed by the thought of Chesterton to someone like Belloc is that it centres on wonder, and wonder seems too fleeting, too unsteady a thing to make much of. Belloc praised Chesterton in his essay “On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters” for his “supreme talent for exact logic”, his “precision in reasoning”; yet the real power of Chesterton is something other than “precision in reasoning”; it has more to do with sudden insights and realizations, and with the evocation of a sense that one should expect much of the world, that one should expect it to mean something. He said of himself, “I have had in childhood, and have partly preserved out of childhood, a certain romance of receptiveness . . . . Existence is still a strange thing to me and as a stranger I give it welcome”. In the mid 1890s, he jotted down in a private notebook the reflection

"there is one thing which gives radiance to everything, streets, houses, lamp posts, communities, politics, lives –
It is the idea of something round the corner."
In the same notebook he asks the question
"Have you ever known what it is to walk
Along the road in such a frame of mind
That you thought you might meet God at any turn of the path?"

It was a mood that he would seek to evoke in many of his writings over the following decades and it was a mood for which he saw the justification in Christianity. Perhaps this is simply to say that the greatest of the gifts of Chesterton was hope.

Ian Ker
A biography
747pp. Oxford University Press. £35 (US $65).
978 0 19 960128 8
William Oddie, editor
152pp. Gracewing. Paperback, £9.99 (£17.99).
978 0 85244 725 3