Thursday, March 09, 2006

Things We Can't Do

I was reading an interview with Pope Benedict the other day, and the reporter was asking him why the church was always so negative, don't do this, don't do that. It was good because I know I get asked a lot of goofy questions about my faith, and it's nice to know I'm not the only one. :-)

Chesterton must have been asked this, too.

"A vast amount of nonsense is talked against negative and destructive things. The silliest sort of progressive complains of negative morality, and compares it unfavourably with positive morality. The silliest sort of conservative complains of destructive reform and compares it unfavourably with constructive reform. Both the progressive and the conservative entirely neglect to consider the very meaning of the words "yes" and "no". To give the answer "yes" to one question is to imply the answer "no" to another question; and to desire the construction of something is to desire the destruction of whatever prevents its construction. This is particularly plain in the fuss about "negative morality," or what may be described as the campaign against the Ten Commandments. The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted; precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden. An optimist who insisted on a purely positive morality would have to begin (supposing he knew where to begin) by telling a man that he might pick dandelions on a common, and go on for months before he came to the fact that he might throw pebbles into the sea; and then resume his untiring efforts by issuing a general permission to sneeze, to make snowballs, to blow bubbles, to play marbles, to make toy aeroplanes, to travel on Tooting trams, and everything else he could think of, without ever coming to an end. In comparison with this positive morality, the Ten Commandments rather shine in that brevity which is the soul of wit. It is better to tell a man not to steal than to try to tell him the thousand things that he can enjoy without stealing; especially as he can generally be pretty well trusted to enjoy them.
[GKC, ILN Jan 3, 1920 CW32:17-18]


  1. Some of the best trends in Christian ethics note that the whole "shall/shall not" divide comes from emphasizing the Ten Commandments over the Beatitudes' call to virtue, and the New Testament's call to perfection. The renewed ethical thought tends towards the aristocratic, though; I'm not sure if Mr. Populist GKC would entirely approve.

  2. "There's nothing new beneath the sun," and the newest "trend" away from the 10 commandments is not new, either. I recall Jesus making some remark such as "not one letter of the law shall be overlooked" or something like that, indicating that the 10 commandments were still in effect.

    Virtue is good, but you still need to know the rules so that you can obey them.


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