Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Saturday, 19 November 2011

GK's Weekly, The Thing, On Courage And Independence


WHEN we are pressed and taunted upon our obstinacy in saying the Mass in a dead language, we are tempted to reply to our questioners by telling them that they are apparently not fit to be trusted with a living language. When we consider what they have done with the noble English language, as compared with the English of the Anglican Prayer-Book, let alone the Latin of the Mass, we feel that their development may well be called degenerate.

The language called dead can never be called degenerate. Surely even they might understand our taking refuge in it, by the time that (in the vernacular) the word "immaculate" is applied only to the shirt-fronts of snobs; or "unction" means not Extreme Unction, but only unctuous rectitude. It is needless to note once more how the moral qualities have lost their mystical quality; and with it all their dignity and delicacy and spontaneous spiritual appeal. Charity, that was the flaming heart of the world, has become a name for a niggardly and pompous patronage of the poor, generally amounting by this time to the enslavement of the poor.

But there are more subtle examples of this degeneration in ideal terms. And an even worse example, I think, than the cheapening of the word CHARITY is the new newspaper cheapening of the word COURAGE.

Any man living in complete luxury and security who chooses to write a play or a novel which causes a flutter and exchange of compliments in Chelsea and Chiswick and a faint thrill in Streatham and Surbiton, is described as "daring," though nobody on earth knows what danger it is that he dares. I speak, of course, of terrestrial dangers; or the only sort of dangers he believes in. To be extravagantly flattered by everybody he considers enlightened, and rather feebly rebuked by everybody he considers dated and dead, does not seem so appalling a peril that a man should be stared at as a heroic warrior and militant martyr because he has had the strength to endure it.

The dramatic critic of a Sunday paper, a little while ago, lashed himself into a frenzy of admiration for the "courage" of some dismal and dirty play or other, because it represented a soldier as raving like a hysterical woman against the cruelty of those who had expected him to defend his country. It may be amusing that his idea of courage should be a defence of cowardice. But it is the sort of defence of it that we have heard ten thousand times during the reaction after the War; and the courage required to utter it is exactly as great as the courage required to utter any other stale quotation from the cant and convention of the moment: such trifles as the absurdity of marriage or the sympathetic personality of Judas Iscariot. These things have become quite commonplace; but they still pretend to be courageous. So sham soldiers have been known to swagger about in uniform when the war was over.

The Catholic Church, as the guardian of all values, guards also the value of words. Her children will not fall, I hope, into this conventional and comfortable folly. We need not pretend that Catholics to-day are called upon to show anything worth calling courage, by the standard of the Catholics in other days. It did require some courage to be a Catholic when it involved the definite disinclination felt by most of us for being racked or ripped up with a knife. It did require some courage when there was only an intermittent possibility of being torn in pieces by a mob. Even that our subtle human psychology regards with some distaste.

But I hope we do not feel any distaste for being on the opposite side to Bishop Barnes, or for being regarded with alarm and suspicion by Jix. These things are almost intellectual pleasures. Indeed, they really involve a certain temptation to intellectual pride. Let us pray to be delivered from it; and let us hope that we are not left altogether without occasions for courage. But most of them will be present in private life and in other practical aspects of public life; in resisting pain or passion or defying the economic threat
and tyranny of our time. But do not let us make fools of ourselves like the rationalists and the realists, by posing as martyrs who are never martyred or defying tyrants who have been dead for two hundred years.

But though the name of this virtue has been vulgarized so much that it is hard to use it even where it is exact, let alone where it is in any case exaggerative, there is a somewhat analogous quality which the modern world lauds equally loudly and has lost almost more completely. Putting aside the strict sense of a Catholic courage, the world ought to be told something about Catholic intellectual independence. It is, of course, the one quality which the world supposes that Catholics have lost. It is also, at this moment, the one quality which Catholics perceive that all the world has lost. The modern world has many marks, good as well as bad; but by far the most modern thing in it is the abandonment of individual reason, in favour of press stunts and suggestion and mass psychology and mass production. The Catholic Faith, which always preserves the unfashionable virtue, is at this moment alone sustaining the independent intellect of man.

Our critics, in condemning us, always argue in a circle. They say of mediaevalism that all men were narrow. When they discover that many of them were very broad, they insist that those men must have been in revolt, not only against mediaevalism, but against Catholicism. No Catholics were intelligent; for when they were intelligent, they cannot really have been Catholics. This circular argument appears with a slight difference in the matter of independent thought to-day. It consists of extending to all Catholicism what are in fact the independent ideas of different Catholics. Men start by assuming (what they have been told) that Rome rigidly suppresses ALL variety and therefore Romanists never differ on anything. Then if one of them advances an interesting view, they say that Rome must have imposed it on him and therefore on all the other Roman Catholics. I myself have advanced several economic and political suggestions, for which I never dreamed of claiming anything more than that a loyal Catholic can offer them. But I would rather take any other example than my own unimportant opinions.

In any case, my own experience of the modern world tells me that Catholics are much more and not less individualistic than other men in their general opinions. Mr. Michael Williams, the spirited propagandist of Catholicism in America, gave this as a very cogent reason for refusing to found or join anything like a Catholic party in politics. He said that Catholics will combine for Catholicism, but it is quite abnormally difficult to get them to combine for anything else. This is confirmed by my own impressions and is contrasted very sharply with my recollections about most other religious groups. For instance, what we called the Free Churches, constituting what was also called the Nonconformist Conscience, represented a marvel of moral unity and the spreading of a special spiritual atmosphere. But the Free Churches were not free, whatever else they were. The most striking and even startling thing about them was the ABSENCE of any individual repudiations of the common ideals which the Conscience laid down. The Nonconformist Conscience was not the normal conscience; they would hardly themselves have pretended that the mass of mankind necessarily agreed with them about Drink or Armaments. But they all agreed with each other about Drink or Armaments. A Nonconformist minister standing up to defend public-houses, or public expenditure on guns and bayonets, was a much rarer thing than a heretic in much more hierarchical systems. It was broadly the fact that ALL such men supported what they called Temperance; which seemed to mean an intemperate denunciation of temperate drinking. It is almost as certain that ALL of them insisted on what they called Peace; which seemed, so far as I could make out, to mean such weakening of armament as would involve disaster and destruction in War. But the question here is not whether I disagreed with them; but whether they ever disagreed with each other. And one thing is at least certain, that on things of this sort they disagreed with each other infinitely less than Catholics do. Though the traditional culture and sacramental symbol of the vine makes most Catholics moderately favourable to fermented liquor in moderation, there have been many prominent Catholics who were teetotallers in a degree hardly to be called moderate. The great Cardinal Manning startled all his own supporters by the passion of this private conviction; just as he startled them by many other Radical eccentricities, such as making friends with Stead and championing the Salvation Army. Whether he was right is not here in question; the point is that he thought he was right when his own religious world thought he was wrong, and not unfrequently told him so. You would not have found a man in the Salvation Army to defend Irish whisky, as you found a man like Father Matthew to denounce it.

The same facts could be supported by a hundred facts in my own experience. Dean Inge observed the other day that Mr. Belloc was the only man in England who believed that Dreyfus was guilty. He might have added that he was nearly the only man in England who knew any of the actual facts of the case, which were suppressed in the English newspapers. In any case, the phrase is an exaggeration; for several men, like Lord Chief Justice Russell, whom no one will call incompetent to judge evidence, and old Harry Labouchere, whom no one will call a zealot for militarism, were of the same opinion. But substantially it is true that Mr. Belloc, in the days of his youth, found himself absolutely alone in almost any assembly of English people discussing the question. It is by no means the only occasion on which he has found himself alone. Merely from my own personal knowledge of him, I could give a list as long as this article of topics on which he was opposed to everyone else's opinion and sometimes opposed to mine. To mention only a few things, large and small, he would probably be the only person in a drawing-room saying that Lewis Carroll was overrated, that Byron and Longfellow were not overrated, that wit is superior to humour, that ALLY SLOPE'S HALF-HOLIDAY was superior to PUNCH, that James the Second was chiefly notable as a stolid English patriot suspicious of French influence, that an Irish political murder might actually be as excusable as a Russian political murder (old regime), that half the modern legislation advanced in favour of Labour is part of a plan to re-establish pagan slavery, that it is the mark of the Protestant culture to tolerate Catholicism and the mark of the Catholic culture to persecute it, and a variety of other opinions which would at least be largely regarded as paradoxes. And he says such things because he is a Catholic: which does not mean that other Catholics would say the same. On the contrary, each would say something quite different. It is not that they need agree with him; but that he need not agree with them. Apart from his own genius, Catholics do differ thus more than a company of Anglican public-school patriots or solid Liberal Nonconformists; to say nothing of the middle class of the Middle West, with its rigid pattern of regular guys. Catholics know the two or three transcendental truths on which they do agree; and take rather a pleasure in disagreeing on everything else. A glance at the living literature, written by other Catholics besides Mr. Belloc, will confirm what I say.

I might take, for instance, a book like the remarkable recent work of Mr. Christopher Hollis, "The American Heresy." Now surely nobody in his senses will say that all Catholics are bound to believe that the Slave States ought to have won the American Civil War, that America ought never to have extended westward of Tennessee, that Andrew Jackson was a savage, or that Abraham Lincoln was a failure, that Calhoun was like a heathen Roman or that Wilson was an arrogant and dishonest schoolmaster. These opinions are not part of the Catholic order; but they are illustrations of the Catholic liberty. And they illustrate exactly the sort of liberty which the modern world emphatically has not got; the real liberty of the mind. It is no longer a question of liberty from kings and captains and inquisitors. It is a question of liberty from catchwords and headlines and hypnotic repetitions and all the plutocratic platitudes imposed on us by advertisement and journalism.

It is strictly true to say that the average reader of the DAILY MAIL and the "Outline of History" is inhibited from these intellectual acts. It is true to say that he CANNOT think that Abraham Lincoln was a failure. It is true to say that he CANNOT think that a Republic should have refused to expand as it has expanded. He cannot move his mind to such a position, even experimentally; it means moving it out of too deep a rut, worn too smooth by the swift traffic of modern talk and journalism, all perpetually moving one way.

These modern people mean by mental activity simply an express train going faster and faster along the same rails to the same station; or having more and more railway carriages hooked on to it to be taken to the same place. The one notion that has vanished from their minds is the notion of voluntary movement even to the same end. They have fixed not only the ends, but the means. They have imposed not only the doctrines, but the words. They are bound not merely in religion, which is avowedly binding, but in everything else as well. There are formal praises of free thought; but even the praises are in a fixed form. Thousands who have never learned to think at all are urged to think whatever may take their fancy about Jesus Christ. But they are, in fact, forbidden to think in any way but one about Abraham Lincoln. That is why it is worth remarking that it is a Catholic who has thought for himself.

1 comment:


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