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

Posts tagged ‘philosophy’

Chesterton on The Atlantic on Chesterton

My buddy G. K. Chesterton recently got a nice write-up from The Atlantic.  This isn’t the first time, either.  That illustrious magazine has commented on the fellow before.  The current article, by James Parker, is a delight to read dribbles out quotes from the man himself, mainly from well-known works but also from a few obscure ones.  It offers an introduction and celebration of the enormous variety of Chesterton’s work, and tries to communicate the unique way that Chesterton pulls our spirits up into the heavens with succinct but magical wordsmithing.

That said, Parker does stumble at one point by describing Chesterton with the phrase “live wire”, and that brings us to today’s quote from St. Thomas Aquinas:

St. Francis was the son of a shopkeeper, or middle class trader; and while his whole life was a revolt against the mercantile life of his father, he retained none the less, something of the quickness and social adaptability which makes the market hum like a hive. In the common phrase, fond as he was of green fields, he did not let the grass grow under his feet. He was what American millionaires and gangsters call a live wire. It is typical of the mechanistic moderns that, even when they try to imagine a live thing, they can only think of a mechanical metaphor from a dead thing. There is such a thing as a live worm; but there is no such thing as a live wire. St. Francis would have heartily agreed that he was a worm; but he was a very live worm. Greatest of all foes to the go-getting ideal, he had certainly abandoned getting, but he was still going.

(No, I did not make a mistake here.  That’s a comment about St. Francis of Assisi from Chesterton’s book about St. Thomas.)

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

Day 26: A book that changed your opinion about something

Near the end of my second year of graduate school, Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy converted me to Christianity.  I was naturally eager to read more Chesterton.  What’s Wrong with the World was among the next Chesterton books that I read.  (It’s also, incidentally, the first book that I read entirely online.)  Of all the books I’ve ever read, this one has the clearest and most self-explanatory title.  It is, indeed, about what is wrong with the world.

Fundamentally there are two fields in human experience: the individual field and the social field.  Many great observers of humanity have one well-known book in each field.  Augustine covered the individual field in the Confessions and the social field in The City of God.  Aristotle had the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.  Chesterton covered individual issues in OrthodoxyWhat’s Wrong with the World covers social issues.

Bluntly what’s wrong with the world is that people these days care about institutions rather than humans.  Capitalists have decided that we must have big businesses.  They judge all policies, programs, and ideas by whether or not those things benefit big business.  Socialists care about big government, and likewise judge all things by their relation to big government.  Neither side puts human beings first.  In the century since Chesterton wrote these books, both sides have fiddled with the details but the underlying message that we must have either big business or big government remains the same, and still drives almost all punditry and political campaigns.

A right and reasonable approach would put human beings first.  It would begin with ordinary, individual human beings.  It would have a strong awareness of their wants and needs, the characteristics, their strengths, and their weaknesses.  It would then build a set of philosophical, political, and economic thought based on what is good for humanity.  It would not try to change humanity to meet the needs of any dogma, but would instead craft the dogma around the needs of the humans.  This book explains how we might do that.  As always, the best introduction is a sample:

A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called “The Remedy.” It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that “The Remedy” is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology.  It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure.  But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease .

The fallacy is one of the fifty fallacies that come from the modern madness for biological or bodily metaphors. It is convenient to speak of the Social Organism, just as it is convenient to speak of the British Lion. But Britain is no more an organism than Britain is a lion. The moment we begin to give a nation the unity and simplicity of an animal, we begin to think wildly.  Because every man is a biped, fifty men are not a centipede.  This has produced, for instance, the gaping absurdity of perpetually talking about “young nations” and “dying nations,” as if a nation had a fixed and physical span of life.  Thus people will say that Spain has entered a final senility; they might as well say that Spain is losing all her teeth.  Or people will say that Canada should soon produce a literature; which is like saying that Canada must soon grow a new moustache.  Nations consist of people; the first generation may be decrepit, or the ten thousandth may be vigorous.  Similar applications of the fallacy are made by those who see in the increasing size of national possessions, a simple increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.  These people, indeed, even fall short in subtlety of the parallel of a human body. They do not even ask whether an empire is growing taller in its youth, or only growing fatter in its old age.  But of all the instances of error arising from this physical fancy, the worst is that we have before us: the habit of exhaustively describing a social sickness, and then propounding a social drug.

Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs.  The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.

But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal.  The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache.  Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles.  Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.

This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes cut.  We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing.  We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one.  Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong.  The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case.  We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health.  On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health . Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity.  We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them.  Mr. Cadbury and I would agree about the bad public house.  It would be precisely in front of the good public-house that our painful personal fracas would occur.

I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal.  We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity?  I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated.  What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

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