Thursday, March 06, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Forward For Frank to the Circle and the Cross

Because of the passing of dear Frank Petta, it might be urged on me that I should forgo my usual Thursday speculations. (I note the Latin root of "speculation" means the same as the Greek root of the mystic Theoria... seeing and sight; recall the blind man in last Sunday's gospel!)

However, it would be a stronger wine than ever Frank brewed, and a better joke than ever Frank told, for me to do the One Thing which Frank delighted in - read GKC, ponder GKC, and urge GKC to others... so I shall, with a fond delight, and hoping for YOUR accompaniment, proceed to explore the next fragments of our centennial masterwork, Orthodoxy.

Note: today's post finishes Chapter II: "The Maniac", and so is a bit long, so I have kept my introduction short. Some of the richest bits are in these concluding paragraphs, so grab your knapsack, some water and a snack or two for the journey, and let's go! Click to proceed.

Recall that we have just considered the very complex matter of a type of lunatic - one who is crazy about determinism, or about materialism, to the utter abandonment of any other possibility. But he, like the simple madman of Hanwell or your own local asylum, has lost the universe in clinging to a singular truth. No horror grips the casual reader than these strange words from GKC's pen: may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to praise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say "thank you" for the mustard.
[CW1:228, emphasis added]
I am sorry, there are quite a number of things which are very clearly "determined" - that is, where simple physical causation explains the action. It may be as simple as a bowling ball hitting the pins for a strike, or as complex as the photons striking the chlorophyll in a green plant to produce wood or apples or wheat or grapes... BUT. I should be insane if my delight in these clearly explicable things (which incidentally permit me to write English, type it, and have it come to you elsewhere in the E-cosmos) would somehow lead me to lose the ability "to say 'thank you' for the mustard." That would be insane.

This error gives rise to a variety of related ones. GKC mentions just one - which is likewise horrifying since it is so prevalent in this time. I shall not examine it at length, but just mention that it is the strange view that somehow "crime" is a kind of "disease" to be remedied by change in the environment. But you ought to ponder that paragraph for yourself; it deserves far more than a paragraph of examination.

But we must proceed. The next case GKC takes up is the exact opposite of the materialist lunatic "who believes that everything began in matter" It is the man "who believes that everything began in himself":
He doubts not the existence of angels or devils, but the existence of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself. He created his own father and his own mother.
This is even more horrifying. That poor fellow "is alone in his own nightmare", for him,
The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother's face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell. But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, "He believes in himself."

Perhaps, since that is quite bothersome, you ought to hear GKC's response to the man who believes:
that he is always in a dream. Now, obviously there can be no positive proof given to him that he is not in a dream, for the simple reason that no proof can be offered that might not be offered in a dream. But if the man began to burn down London and say that his housekeeper would soon call him to breakfast, we should take him and put him with other logicians in a place which has often been alluded to in the course of this chapter.
Yes. Now, we have taken up two extremes, opposite forms of lunacy - Why?
...this panegoistic extreme of thought exhibits the same paradox as the other extreme of materialism. It is equally complete in theory and equally crippling in practice. ... The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both locked themselves up in two boxes, painted inside with the sun and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even into the health and happiness of the earth. Their position is quite reasonable; nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable...

Ah. Do you recall our little geometric conundrum about the circle, and another about infinity? We must now go deeper - far deeper - and up onto a much higher peak. We shall start to see something.

...there is such a thing as a mean infinity, a base and slavish eternity. It is amusing to notice that many of the moderns, whether sceptics or mystics, have taken as their sign a certain eastern symbol, which is the very symbol of this ultimate nullity. When they wish to represent eternity, they represent it by a serpent with his tail in his mouth. There is a startling sarcasm in the image of that very unsatisfactory meal. The eternity of the material fatalists, the eternity of the eastern pessimists, the eternity of the supercilious theosophists and higher scientists of to-day is, indeed, very well presented by a serpent eating his tail, a degraded animal who destroys even himself.

GKC has led us through a very complex and torturous (that word means "twisted", not "painful") journey through a very unpleasant place - but we have been able to see some marvels, and we are about to be given our next tool. This is a very startling one. It is rather like the one we are already carrying, which tells us to have extremes conjoined - and we saw what happens when one chooses the one or the other of the extremes! But we are going to have a powerful result, in a more precise form, and it is by use of reason.
This chapter is purely practical and is concerned with what actually is the chief mark and element of insanity; we may say in summary that it is reason used without root, reason in the void. The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end.
In order to use reason we need proper first principles, just as in geometry there are things we take as given, and which we do not prove. Once we take the right starting points, we can do many useful things - even discover England. But we need that starting point!

Do you mean, Doctor, that this is just another attempt by GKC to start a discussion?

Not quite. Just as in The Phantom Tollbooth Milo stops thinking and lands in the Doldrums, and is rescued by the Watchdog who forces him to Think, we need to be startled by the dead ends of insanity.

(Remember, we are not making some sarcastic snippy quip about those who have pathological diseases of the mind; we are talking about the strange parallel between such failures and those who, though mentally capable, have chosen not to start thinking at all.)

Yes, GKC's next words do seem to hint that we are just beginning, perhaps because he wants us to consider just what it kind of a journey we are on:
And for the rest of these pages we have to try and discover what is the right end. But we may ask in conclusion, if this be what drives men mad, what is
it that keeps them sane? By the end of this book I hope to give a definite, some will think a far too definite, answer. [CW1:230]

I must here make an aside, but it is rather just a comment about our situation. GKC did write mysteries, but in one of the most profound essays ever written about detective stories, he said:
...we cannot really get at the psychology and philosophy, the morals and the religion, of the thing until we have read the last chapter. Therefore, I think it is best of all when the first chapter is also the last chapter. The length of a short story is about the legitimate length for this particular drama of the mere misunderstanding of fact.
[GKC ILN Aug 19 1922 CW32:432]
Indeed - and right here in Orthodoxy he demonstrates this principle. Rather than try to hide his solution, he immediately gives it away:

But for the moment it is possible in the same solely practical manner to give a general answer touching what in actual human history keeps men sane. 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. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.
I have pointed out this business of sight several times; now we see, rather dramatically, the mystery of the Man With Two Eyes. (There's key phrase in GKC's Manalive: "Man found alive with two legs".) This is the dramatic restatement, like a musical theme now played by full orchestra, of the idea of keeping both extremes. This can only by done mystically - but it must be done in order to be sane.

What happens when one REFUSES this? Well, you've heard the answer enough in this chapter. Hanwell. But in practicality, what it means is the complete loss of reason.

Insanity: "The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious."

Sanity: "The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid."

Insanity: "The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say 'if you please' to the housemaid."

Sanity: "The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery; but because of this his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and crystal clearness. He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health." [all from CW1:231]

And now. The seal. The geometric matter which is described at length in GKC's The Ball and the Cross is here stated in - let us say - Euclidean precision:
As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.
You may wonder at the reference to Buddhism; I must defer that for the present. But the geometric aptness of the symbols is not really a matter of debate... they may only go so far anyway, as GKC proceeds to note:
Symbols alone are of even a cloudy value in speaking of this deep matter; and another symbol from physical nature will express sufficiently well the real place of mysticism before mankind. The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.
There you see a repeat, even more powerfully, of the line above: "He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health." But there are other echoes from other places. Perhaps I have quoted this before, but it is the perfect matching jewel to this word-nexus. As usual, it is the fictional variant of a non-fictional exposition:
"The greenness, that I walked like one in a dream, stretched away on all sides to the edges of the sky. Sleepily, I let my eyes fall and woke, with a stunning thrill, to clearness. I stood shrunken with the shock, clutching myself in the smallest compass.

"Every inch of the green place was a living thing, a spire or tongue, rooted in the ground, but alive. Away to the skyline I could not see the ground for those fantastic armies. The silence deafened me with a sense of busy eating, working, and breeding. I thought of that multitudinous life, and my brain reeled.

"Treading fearfully amid the growing fingers of the earth, I raised my eyes, and at the next moment shut them, as at a blow. High in the empty air blazed and streamed a great fire, which burnt and blinded me every time I raised my eyes to it. I have lived many years now under this meteor of a fixed Apocalypse, but I have never survived the feelings of that moment. Men eat and drink, buy and sell, marry, are given in marriage, and all the time there is something in the sky at which they cannot look. They must be very brave.
["A Crazy Tale" in CW14:70]
Now, for something Far More Amazing. This idea is not original to GKC! Consider this:
"If I fail to see this light (of God) it is simply because it is too bright for me. Still, it is by this light that I do see all that I can, even as weak eyes, unable to look straight at the sun, see all that they can by the sun's light."
[The Proslogion of St. Anselm, quoted in the Office of Readings for April 21]
Remember, we have been talking about sight... Sight, or its weakness, or its lack, is the conclusion of this chapter:
Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world. But the Greeks were right when they made Apollo the god both of imagination and of sanity; for he was both the patron of poetry and the patron of healing. Of necessary dogmas and a special creed I shall speak later. But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.
For background you might wish to read "The Eye of Apollo" in The Innocence of Father Brown. And you may need to know a bit of Latin: luna means "moon".

But for now, we have completed a very important and difficult phase (no pun intended) of the journey. As we think on this, and on the risks and obligations we have considered, may we pause for a time in prayer to thank God for our vision - but also ask, as the blind man did: "Lord, that I may see." [Luke 18:41]

--Dr. Thursday.

1 comment:

  1. I wrote "torturous" - wanting the word that means "twisted", not "painful".

    It is spelled TORTUOUS.


    --Dr. Thursday


Join our FaceBook fan page today!