Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Chesterton: Orthodoxy

It is hard not to be charmed by frank confessions of egoism: "The writer has been forced back upon somewhat the same difficulty as that which beset Newman in writing his Apologia; he has been forced to be egotistical only in order to be sincere." Orthodoxy (1908), like Apologia Pro Vita Sua, is a Christian apologetics, though these have hardly, as in most of the confessional genre, a Christian humility, except in the further claim: "I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me." Chesterton is, anyway, its spokesman.

"How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?" G. K. is trying to find, in other words, in the world, what one finds in artifice, that "mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance." So to speak, to quixotize life.

The Maniac. "To the insane man his insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true." "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason." "Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil." "Materialists and madmen never have doubts." "Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic." Chesterton writing this would not have been shocked by the insanity that succeeded October 1917 in Russia or Mao's defeat of the KMT in China. "His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that." A beautiful metaphor. Nonetheless Chesterton confuses spiritual and physical matter: scientism is at no odds with Christianity, for they are two different ways of seeing the world. That is the true stereoscopic vision, if you like.

The Suicide of Thought. Chesterton's meditation is in essence on Hamlet. "When you choose anything, you reject everything else." "Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame." "The love of a hero is more terrible than the hatred of a tyrant. The hatred of a hero is more generous than the love of a philanthropist." Anti-intellectualism is at last an intellectualism. But the author too often slips into casuistry.

The Ethics of Elfland. "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead." "Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none." (A few falsehoods: the moon is connected, by gravity, to the tide, contrary to GK...) "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself." "The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore."

The Flag of the World. "Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life." No: it is the sin, that much is true, but because it is the hyperbole of despair. Hope is not a mere pleasure, it is a moral command. Our cosmos is not gentle enough to deserve our loyalty, as Chesterton in fairyland seems to think, but it will have it whether it deserves it or no. "All creation is separation. Birth is as solemn a parting as death." "God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it." "But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity..the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural...I could feel homesick at home." Chesterton is oddly persuaded, by Christianity having these few tenuous connections to fairytale wisdom, to become a proselyte of a much more complex faith...

The Paradoxes of Christianity. Chesterton exults that "fortunately all pessimism is insincere." Yes. "The one real objection to the Christian religion is simply that it is one religion." No. "Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly, charity certainly means one of two things--pardoning unpardonable acts, or loving unlovable people." That is a paradox of Christianity, not "What was this Christianity which always forbade war and always produced wars?"--as Chesterton seems to know. "Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved."

Halfway through one becomes impatient with the simplicity of the mind, and is reading the treatise through to the end only for the lustrous phrases and ironies. It is as if because Christianity agrees with Chesterton in a few broad strokes, Chesterton agrees with Christianity to the last tittle: whereas there is much in Christian doctrine and myth that is quite evidently bunk, however enthusiastic (or zealous) its casuists these past millenia. Properly, also, this is not a proof of God, as it is surreptitiously intended to be. Christianity is only one of many things that could fit Chesterton's dubious epiphanies (such as that the cosmos is small, or that life despite its limits is a wonder because it is at all): it is just the one that he happened to have been born into, and so accepted. That is not enough to launch Orthodoxy.

The Eternal Revolution. Reply to Lawrence, inter alia: "To read aristocracy into the anarchy of animals is just as sentimental as to read democracy into it." "We cannot, then, get the ideal itself from nature...We must have our own vision." "We may say broadly that free thought is the best of all safeguards against freedom...Teach him [the slave] to worry about whether he wants to be free, and he will not free himself." "The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate." "Aristocracy is not an institution; aristocracy is a sin; generally a very venial one." "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly...It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity." Chesterton is Christian in "the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself." Lawrence and Claudel called it the liberty to obey.

The Romance of Orthodoxy. Against Unitarianism: "For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence)--to us God Himself is a society...[Unitarians] from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone."

Authority and the Adventurer. Chesterton does not quite preempt the reader, but addresses his questioner at last: "why cannot you take the truths and leave the doctrines?" GK tries to answer this ("I am a rationalist"--but remember, the rationalist is part madman) but his answers are not worth the transcription. Mostly they attack his old bugbears like scientism, which is or should be irrelevant to any apologia. In so doing he refers to his readership as "you rationalists." A resume: "I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing." Bathos!

Better, even very good: "The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself s an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall." And the end too: "There was some one thing that was too great for God to show when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth."

I began this tractate with the thought that Chesterton was saying and would say what I believe. Not so, alas. Or it is such a caricature as to be almost worthless except in these scraps. Not enough or any stress on the paradox and meaning of faith. What more to expect from the author of The Man Who Was Thursday than the predictable. But the first chapter is where a meditation on faith in God must begin: God is in order to save us from madness, which means to save us from ourselves.

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