"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for November, 2011

Chesterton on modern philosophy

A joke is always a thought; it is grave and formal writing that can be literally thoughtless.  This applies to jokes when they are not only quite verbal but quite vulgar.  A good pun, or even a bad pun, is more intellectual than mere polysyllables.  The man who invented the phrase “when is a door not a door; when it’s ajar,” made a serious and successful effort and mental selection and combination.  But a German professor might begin on the same problem, “When is a door not a door; when its doorishness is a becoming rather than a being, and when the relativity of doorishness is co-ordinated with the evolution of doors from windows and skylights, from which approximation of new function, etc… etc…”–and the German professor might go on like that forever and never come to the end because he would never come to the point.  A pun or a riddle can never be in that sense a fraud.  Real wisdom may be better than real wit, but there is much more sham wisdom than there is sham wit.

– G. K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

Bertrand Russell

In reading internet posts by atheists, a curious pattern emerges.  Almost to man (there are very few women in this group), they think of themselves as intellectual, brag about how intellectual they are, and accuse us religious folk of being anti-intellectual.  Yet, at the same time, it seems that their personal philosophies are built chiefly out of sources that aren’t terribly intellectual.  For instance, the folks that I hear most frequently quoted by atheists are Douglas Adams, George Carlin, Terry Pratchett, members of Monty Python, and others who one doesn’t typically associate with academic conferences.

There is one exception, however; one author whose quotes often appear who actually is an intellectual.  That would be Bertrand Russell.  According to the autobiographical sketch in my copy of The Problems of Philosophy, his influence on twentieth century intellectual life “cannot be exaggerated”, and I’m willing to believe it.  (Whether this speaks positively of Mr. Russell is an open question.)  There’s no doubt that he knew a great deal about mathematics, logic, philosophy, and history while having at least a decent background in any other intellectual field.  Furthermore, he looked the part:


So if we wish to gauge the strength of the intellectual arguments that supposedly back up modern atheism, his works should be a good place to start.

The first thing one notices upon reading The Problems of Philosophy is that it is very boring.  It is dry; uses lots of big, dull vocabulary; deals mostly with abstractions; and when it does use examples, the examples themselves are boring.  The book begins by dealing with the question of whether we can know anything.  It is telling that the example Mr. Russell chooses is the question of whether we can know that a table exists.  Several chapters are devoted to this question.  In the end, Russell concludes that the table he sees probably exists, but that he should forever maintain a modicum of doubt about its existence.

Some might object that it’s wrong to judge an academic book negatively just because it’s boring.  Surely a book can be boring and still be true, while another can be interesting but false.  I would certainly have argued this way when I was a college freshman.  But now consider this.  If an author truly believes that what he as to say is true and of real importance, won’t he take the time to make his prose sparkling and flowing?  So if a book proceeds through page after page, chapter after chapter of tedium, doesn’t that rather suggest that the author himself doesn’t care about it.  And if he doesn’t care about it, should we?

Consider these excerpts from The Problems of Philosophy:

The relation involved in judging or believing must, if falsehood is to be duly allowed for, be taken to be a relation between several terms, not between two. When Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio, he must not have before his mind a single object, ‘Desdemona’s love for Cassio’, or ‘that Desdemona loves Cassio’, for that would require that there should be objective falsehoods, which subsist independently of any minds; and this, though not logically refutable, is a theory to be avoided if possible. Thus it is easier to account for falsehood if we take judgement to be a relation in which the mind and the various objects concerned all occur severally; that is to say, Desdemona and loving and Cassio must all be terms in the relation which subsists when Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio. This relation, therefore, is a relation of four terms, since Othello also is one of the terms of the relation. When we say that it is a relation of four terms, we do not mean that Othello has a certain relation to Desdemona, and has the same relation to loving and also to Cassio. This may be true of some other relation than believing; but believing, plainly, is not a relation which Othello has to each of the three terms concerned, but to all of them together: there is only one example of the relation of believing involved, but this one example knits together four terms. Thus the actual occurrence, at the moment when Othello is entertaining his belief, is that the relation called ‘believing’ is knitting together into one complex whole the four terms Othello, Desdemona, loving, and Cassio. What is called belief or judgement is nothing but this relation of believing or judging, which relates a mind to several things other than itself. An act of belief or of judgement is the occurrence between certain terms at some particular time, of the relation of believing or judging.

But wait, there’s more!

We are now in a position to understand what it is that distinguishes a true judgement from a false one. For this purpose we will adopt certain definitions. In every act of judgement there is a mind which judges, and there are terms concerning which it judges. We will call the mind the subject in the judgement, and the remaining terms the objects. Thus, when Othello judges that Desdemona loves Cassio, Othello is the subject, while the objects are Desdemona and loving and Cassio. The subject and the objects together are called the constituents of the judgement. It will be observed that the elation of judging has what is called a ‘sense’ or ‘direction’. We may say, metaphorically, that it puts its objects in a certain order, which we may indicate by means of the order of the words in the sentence. (In an inflected language, the same thing will be indicated by inflections, e.g. by the difference between nominative and accusative.) Othello’s judgement that Cassio loves Desdemona differs from his judgement that Desdemona loves Cassio, in spite of the fact that it consists of the same constituents, because the relation of judging places the constituents in a different order in the two cases. Similarly, if Cassio judges that Desdemona loves Othello, the constituents of the judgement are still the same, but their order is different. This property of having a ‘sense’ or ‘direction’ is one which the relation of judging shares with all other relations. The ‘sense’ of relations is the ultimate source of order and series and a host of mathematical concepts; but we need not concern ourselves further with this aspect.

It may be objected that I’m taking these quotes out of context.  I promise, though, that reading them in context doesn’t make them any better.  And bear in mind that among the scores of books and hundreds of articles that Russell wrote, this is supposed to be his most accessible work.  Given that, it’s not surprising that most of those who run around posting Bertrand Russell quotes on internet message boards to demonstrate their intellectual acumen probably haven’t actually read any of what he wrote.

I may live in Lovetown, USA

While other cities across the nation are being occupied, my hometown of Culpeper, VA may be in line for a slightly different honor.  It seems that the famous Oprah Winfrey has decided to invade, or perhaps I should say select, a town of roughly 15,000 persons and start a new reality TV series there.  (As a side note, how exactly did the type of television that has least in common with reality come to be known as “reality TV”?  I think that question should be lodged along with the old driveways/parkways conundrum.)  Anyhoo, it also seems that Culpeper is one of the finalist towns in the running to be selected as “Lovetown, USA”, in which case singles can apply to be matched up and filmed as they fall in love, or something, over a thirty days.  I’m not too clear on the details because I don’t intend to watch the show even if it is set right down the street from my house.  In any case, I don’t own a TV.

One thing does spring to mind for me, though.  It’s agreed that most cities and towns have character of some sort.  Where does that character come from?  Obviously in most cases it is built up over time, as the folks who live there start behaving in a certain way, valuing certain things, building unique and recognizable homes and businesses and landmarks.  Then other people who find that character appealing are attracted to the place, and the character grows stronger over time.  In recent decades the idea of local character has retreated quite a bit.  Most everyone recognizes that any old suburb anywhere in the country looks a lot like any other old suburbs anywhere else.  So each individual town and city has a lot less to think of as unique.

One of the few things that can still make a place unique is when a celebrity either shows up from outside or materializes on the inside.  For instance, the town of Maysville, KY, which is not far from where I grew up, still has a notice proclaiming that Miss America 2000 was born there on the official town sign.  Culpeper is not lucky enough to have such an illustrious native.  As far as I know, the most famous person born here was Eppa Rixey.  Yet somehow it feels a wee bit undemocratic when a bigwig from outside can condescend to take our town and put it on the map merely by the power of celebrity.

Rock of Ages

I’d imagine that most Christians, while growing up, build a stock of favorite hymns.  As for me, prior to my conversionat age 23, I didn’t know a single hymn, nor even a single verse from any hymn, except for a few Christmas songs.  On the one hand, I missed out on a great deal of great music for a long time.  On the other hand, I get hte pleasure and privilege of discovering all this great music now.  Even today, in my sixth year as a Christian, I continue discovering wonderful new hymns all the time.  Rock of Ages is one of my new favorites, and this is a beautiful rendition of it:

Your Chesterton comes early this week.

Today is election day.  I’ll be voting for a state delegate, a sheriff, and perhaps some sort of judge.  Chesterton also lived through some elections.  Apparently the process in England a century ago was somewhat different.  Instead of lining up at polling places, they had canvassers who went around and collected the ballots at people’s houses.  Nevertheless the outcomes seemed to be the more or less same.  Here are his thoughts on the topic.

Most of us will be canvassed soon, I suppose; some of us may even canvass. Upon which side, of course, nothing will induce me to state, beyond saying that by a remarkable coincidence it will in every case be the only side in which a high-minded, public-spirited, and patriotic citizen can take even a momentary interest. But the general question of canvassing itself, being a non-party question, is one which we may be permitted to approach. The rules for canvassers are fairly familiar to any one who has ever canvassed. They are printed on the little card which you carry about with you and lose. There is a statement, I think, that you must not offer a voter food or drink. However hospitable you may feel towards him in his own house, you must not carry his lunch about with you. You must not produce a veal cutlet from your tail-coat pocket. You must not conceal poached eggs about your person. You must not, like a kind of conjurer, produce baked potatoes from your hat. In short, the canvasser must not feed the voter in any way. Whether the voter is allowed to feed the canvasser, whether the voter may give the canvasser veal cutlets and baked potatoes, is a point of law on which I have never been able to inform myself. When I found myself canvassing a gentleman, I have sometimes felt tempted to ask him if there was any rule against his giving me food and drink; but the matter seemed a delicate one to approach. His attitude to me also sometimes suggested a doubt as to whether he would, even if he could. But there are voters who might find it worth while to discover if there is any law against bribing a canvasser. They might bribe him to go away.

The second veto for canvassers which was printed on the little card said that you must not persuade any one to impersonate a voter. I have no idea what it means. To dress up as an average voter seems a little vague. There is no well-recognised uniform, as far as I know, with civic waistcoat and patriotic whiskers. The enterprise resolves itself into one somewhat similar to the enterprise of a rich friend of mine who went to a fancy-dress ball dressed up as a gentleman. Perhaps it means that there is a practice of personating some individual voter. The canvasser creeps to the house of his fellow-conspirator carrying a make-up in a bag. He produces from it a pair of white moustaches and a single eyeglass, which are sufficient to give the most common-place person a startling resemblance to the Colonel at No. 80. Or he hurriedly affixes to his friend that large nose and that bald head which are all that is essential to an illusion of the presence of Professor Budger. I do not undertake to unravel these knots. I can only say that when I was a canvasser I was told by the little card, with every circumstance of seriousness and authority, that I was not to persuade anybody to impersonate a voter: and I can lay my hand upon my heart and affirm that I never did.

The third injunction on the card was one which seemed to me, if interpreted exactly and according to its words, to undermine the very foundations of our politics. It told me that I must not “threaten a voter with any consequence whatever.” No doubt this was intended to apply to threats of a personal and illegitimate character; as, for instance, if a wealthy candidate were to threaten to raise all the rents, or to put up a statue of himself. But as verbally and grammatically expressed, it certainly would cover those general threats of disaster to the whole community which are the main matter of political discussion. When a canvasser says that if the opposition candidate gets in the country will be ruined, he is threatening the voters with certain consequences. When the Free Trader says that if Tariffs are adopted the people in Brompton or Bayswater will crawl about eating grass, he is threatening them with consequences. When the Tariff Reformer says that if Free Trade exists for another year St. Paul’s Cathedral will be a ruin and Ludgate Hill as deserted as Stonehenge, he is also threatening. And what is the good of being a Tariff Reformer if you can’t say that? What is the use of being a politician or a Parliamentary candidate at all if one cannot tell the people that if the other man gets in, England will be instantly invaded and enslaved, blood be pouring down the Strand, and all the English ladies carried off into harems. But these things are, after all, consequences, so to speak.

– G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered

Presidential Politics

After many election cycles as a political junky of sorts, I find my attention drifting farther and farther away from national politics.  Why?  Partly because my faith is Jesus Christ has opened the door to many more important things to be interested in.  Partly because in the current situation there seems to be little hope that either major party will accomplish anything worthwhile.  And partly because it’s just lost its entertainment value.  When I was younger, the political process was interrupted by moment of surreality, as our elected leaders did things so bizarre and ridiculous that people struggled to find any decent way of responding.  But now the surrealism is flowing non-stop.  There’s no longer any grounded realism for the surrealism to be contrasted to.

Let me focus for a second on presidential politics.  For most of American history, folks ran for President if and only if they wanted to be President.  There simply wasn’t any other reason to toss your hat into the ring.  Over the past generation we’ve seen the rise of “second-tier candidates”.  These guys (and they’re always guys) list themselves as contenders for the nomination of the major parties while knowing perfectly well that they have no chance of winning.  They do it to get attention for their pet causes.  This makes sense, given  the enormous amount of media attention that gets directed at the presidential race.  By joining the race, one gets to appear at debates and get mentioned in some of the coverage.  It’s a relatively low-cost way to get publicity.  That’s what fuels the campaigns of ‘single-digit midgets’ like Pat Buchanan, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel.

The last decade has seen the rise of a third type of candidate: the joke candidate.  The joke candidate has no interest in becoming President or in advancing a political agenda.  Instead, he or she runs only to boost his or her own ego, and thus engages in outlandish behavior just for the heck of it.  The watershed moment for joke candidates was the 2003 recall election for the governorship of California.  Many joke candidates ran: Arrianna Huffington, Gary Coleman, and Larry Flynt, just to name three.  One joke candidate won: Arnold Schwarzenegger.  There can be little doubt that having this incompetent buffoon in office for seven years contributed to the financial disaster that hit California during his second term.  But there can be less doubt that the whole experience boosted his ego, and that he enjoyed behaving like a small, spoiled child while running the biggest state government in the country.

Joke candidates didn’t really hit the presidential race en masse until the currect campaign cycle.  Thus far, four different joke candidates–Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, and Herman Cain, having reached first or second in the polls in the race of the Republican nomination.  More startling still is the fact that the last man on that list is still first in the polls, with the primaries starting in two and a half months.  Now my personal prediction is that Mitt Romeny will eke out a victory in the primaries.  However, anyone looking at the current situation would have to acknowledge an outside possibility that Cain will win, or that some other joker will manage to come out on top.  And if I were an intelligent Republican, that possibility would not make me happy.

A poem from Mr. Chesterton


All things grew upwards, foul and fair:
The great trees fought and beat the air
With monstrous wings that would have flown;
But the old earth clung to her own,
Holding them back from heavenly wars,
Though every flower sprang at the stars.

But he broke free: while all things ceased,
Some hour increasing, he increased.
The town beneath him seemed a map,
Above the church he cocked his cap,
Above the cross his feather flew
Above the birds and still he grew.

The trees turned grass; the clouds were riven;
His feet were mountains lost in heaven;
Through strange new skies he rose alone,
The earth fell from him like a stone,
And his own limbs beneath him far
Seemed tapering down to touch a star.

He reared his head, shaggy and grim,
Staring among the cherubim;
The seven celestial floors he rent,
One crystal dome still o’er him bent:
Above his head, more clear than hope,
All heaven was a microscope.

– G. K. Chesterton

Tag Cloud