Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

The Defender of Truth, the Patron of Humility

The vast quantity of GKC's writing - over 45 megabytes of text, as AMBER counts such things - means that we might claim him under a variety of titles - which, as usual, is a trademark of All Christian Things.

You may have heard it said that there are 1000 names of God (or various other numbers). There are 33 famous titles of Jesus appearing in the Litany of the Sacred Heart, many of which are drawn from Sacred Scripture. There are whole Towers of titles for Mary; there are a number for St. Joseph; there even are various nicknames and honorifics for at least the big-name saints. Peter, who really is Simon-Bar-Jonah, is called the Rock (Cephas in Aramaic, Petrus in Greek/Latin, and so on) - you know the list. Sometimes these are not so much titles but names-given-in-place-of-function, like "Keeper of the Keys" for Peter. The hidden Latin pun calls him "Janitor of Heaven" as if we'd expect to see him with a mop or dustpan and brush, a cigar butt hanging from his mouth! But the ancient Janitor is a "doorkeeper" - from janua, the Latin word for "outer door" or "gate".

GKC, though not yet formally canonised, might have a variety of titles as well. Our esteemed president, Dale Ahlquist, calls him "the Apostle of Common Sense" - which conveniently happens to have the same initials as the American Chesterton Society. But Fr. Jaki, one of the great students of Chesterton on Science, calls him such dignified titles as "Interpreter of Science", "Antagonist of Scientism", "Critic of Evolutionism", and my favourite, "Champion of the Universe". Those of us who read GKC's mysteries might call him "First President of the Detection Club" - which he was. But if we consider his philosophical teachings - in the overall, comprehensive, catholic method he followed, we should have to focus on certain aspects: his novel sense of vision, his exaltation of gratitude - or his stern defence of humility, which could also be phrased as his utter antipathy to pride.

If there is one essay of GKC's you really OUGHT to read during Lent - and indeed at least once a year - it is his "If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach" which can be found in his The Common Man. I do not have a date for that particular essay (though it is clearly after 1922) and that book dates from after his death (its essays were collected by his secretary, Dorothy Collins); however, his thought on this matter can be found in many places. For example, here is something he wrote in 1905:
Humility is so practical a virtue that men think it must be a vice. Humility is so successful that it is mistaken for pride. ... Now, one of these very practical and working mysteries in the Christian tradition, and one which the Roman Catholic Church, as I say, has done her best work in singling out, is the conception of the sinfulness of pride. Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy. The Christian tradition understands this... the truth is much stranger even than it appears in the formal doctrine of the sin of pride. It is not only true that humility is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride. It is also true that vanity is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride. Vanity is social - it is almost a kind of comradeship; pride is solitary and uncivilized. Vanity is active; it desires the applause of infinite multitudes; pride is passive, desiring only the applause of one person, which it already has. Vanity is humorous, and can enjoy the joke even of itself; pride is dull, and cannot even smile.
[GKC Heretics, CW1:72, 107]
Or, from the essay you really must read, written after his conversion in 1922:
Pride is a poison so very poisonous that it not only poisons the virtues; it even poisons the other vices. ... Pride consists in a man making his personality the only test, instead of making the truth the test. It is not pride to wish to do well, or even to look well, according to a real test. It is pride to think that a thing looks ill, because it does not look like something characteristic of oneself.
[GKC The Common Man 248,254 (emphasis added)]
Read that excerpt again; it will serve you well. Lest I give you the impression that GKC has only given the warning, and said nothing of the remedy, behold, from a different essay in the same book:
Laughter has something in it in common with the ancient winds of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves; something (as the common phrase goes about a joke) that they cannot resist.
[GKC, The Common Man 158]
Hm: "Laughter unfreezes pride, unwinds secrecy." We shall see more of that particular remedy when we near the completion of our journey. The password for that moment shall be "toucan"; if I forget, please remind me.

Oy. Have I thoroughly lost it? Why am I quoting large chunks of other books? Aren't we talking about Orthodoxy any more?

Why, yes, we are. You have already advanced into the next chapter of our journey.
Click here to go further.
This leg of our journey, the chapter we have just entered, is called "The Suicide of Thought". If you are reading along, please consider just the first five paragraphs - all the further we shall travel today.

GKC begins with some verbal fireworks, examining the phrase "having one's heart in the right place" - and its negation. Again, he is aiming to introduce us to a complex matter by presenting us with a well-known matter, and drawing analogies to it. You may, of course, think of the dear once-wicked Grinch, who heard a song one Christmas morning, inspiring his heart to grow three sizes - and so was able to pull a Scrooge - a veritable "Damascus Moment" - and come sit down at the feast. [Cf. Rev 19:9] The hearts of Scrooge and of the Grinch were clearly in the right place.

GKC talks about the vices running rampant. We all know that in our time - it may be funny to think of such words coming from 100 years ago. But immediately he adds that the virtues are also rampant - and cause far more damage. Look at these next words - you may feel a chill from his precognition of our modern world:
Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
There is a famous quote I read in a book by Fr. Jaki, I cannot quite recall who said it, or the context, about how the work on the atom bomb was "technically sweet". There are other charming little phrases, quite current in this day-and-age, about cloning, embryo-experiments, harvesting organs from living people, which sound much more like things right out of ancient Carthage...

Oh - pardon. You are bothered by this, are you not?

Again - and I have told you previously - do not lose sight of the point GKC is getting at. He is NOT trying to produce a solid argument ABOUT these matters here... he is showing us that there has been carved a deep chasm between things that ought to have remained firmly linked.

One does not have to be an epistemologist (a student of the knowledge about knowing) to know that science is about knowing (Latin scientia = knowledge) - knowing the truth of natural things. But science cannot answer whether a given action, experiment, or device should be performed or built. It is just as true to say that moral theology does speak to the question of whether actions are permitted, but by no means can it tell you how to plant corn, how to purify water, or how to make a smoke detector - which happens to rely on nuclear physics. For much more on this right order of the fields of knowledge, see Newman's Idea of a University - which talks about the order, the right arrangement of the various disciplines.

Ah! Now, maybe you see? It's a matter of - let us say - "the heart being (or not being) in the right place".

Or - how about the people who wish to fix the drug problem by legalising all such things? (Excepting, I may guess, tobacco and alcohol.) GKC already has you beat there - or rather I ought to say Mr. Blatchford, who (as GKC reports),
is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive.
If you desire the parallel fictional discussion, please read "The Chief Mourner of Marne" in The Secret Of Father Brown. In Mr. Blatchford's case, he points out, "the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race - because he is so human." [CW1:234]

You ought to expect, in GKC's casual introduction, the corresponding opposite - and sure enough, we have it: "As the other extreme, we may take the acrid realist, who has deliberately killed in himself all human pleasure in happy tales or in the healing of the heart." [CW1:234] I think we may know some people like that.

Then we come to another firework, even more provocative than the mention of science, for it brings up the Inquisition - yet, "in Torquemada's time there was at least a system that could to some extent make righteousness and peace kiss each other. Now they do not even bow." [CW1:234; cf Ps 84(85):11] Since it was based on a Christian, and not a natural view of human nature, the Inquisition had far better protections than any of the then-existing state judicial systems, and far better than most of our own - but that is another topic, and we must not lose sight of what GKC is getting at. Just in case you are, he takes up another topic, which I have already displayed for you in my introduction: the idea of humility.

I shall give you the whole next paragraph, for I cannot imagine anything I can add to its jewel-like brilliance:
It is only with one aspect of humility that we are here concerned. Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything - even pride.
We can find the fictional counterpart in a Father Brown story, written in nearly the same time frame:
Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.
["The Hammer of God" in The Innocence of Father Brown]
Wonderful, you say. Clear. Exciting. (It gives you a real "hiking" feel, doesn't it?) But then, what's the problem?

In a blunt statement, nearly as stunning as anything in the last chapter about lunacy, GKC tells us:
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.
[CW1:234-5, emphasis added]
Oh, it gets worse. Those of you who have bowed at the altar of "self-esteem" and "self-assertion" might now wish to turn to another book - but you must now take your medicine:
Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert - himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn.
A quick aside: Who is Huxley? GKC: "I think Huxley was a great man and Herbert Spencer a very small man. Many of their contemporaries worshipped both of them; and I do not very greatly agree with either of them. But Huxley held the very ancient agnostic philosophy; and it is a large though a negative philosophy. And Huxley could write; that is, he could write that large philosophy on a small scale." [ILN Feb 26, 1927 CW34:263] He was "Darwin's bulldog" - a kind of preacher of the Darwinian philosophy, or rather anti-philosophy. But GKC, always seeking truth, points out how he was right, and honours his guide for GOOD science - "humility content to learn from nature". Would that more scientists, more intellectuals, were that way! But let us resume.

Oh - are you stuck? Confused about this "wrong" form of humility? GKC gives another example in a metaphor:
The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.
Oh, boy! Goal-driven, purpose-driven - ooh, teleology! Dic cur hic! Tell why you're here! But where is here? Quo vadimus? Where are we going? (We are going somewhere, aren't we?) Yes, but it's hard to go anywhere if you have no aim, no destination. Elsewhere GKC told us: "A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed." [GKC Heretics CW1:117]

Wait, Doctor, you say - this is complex.

Uh, no - not really.

In order to explain, let us take a quick humour break. As you may know GKC often gave lectures - which people went to, because they were looking forward to the Question and Answer period at the end, when they'd ask GKC all kinds of things just to see how he'd respond. Remember how he argued with his brother? Or how he pointed out that the "Schoolman" (meaning the philosophers of the Middle Ages like Aquinas) "heckled himself for hundreds of pages"! [GKC Chaucer CW18:367] One of the best of the recorded give-and-takes, in my estimation, is this:
Q: I feel, Mr. Chesterton, that there is one important matter you have not quite covered: in the event of your having to change your original position, what tactics do you adopt?
GKC: On such occasions I invariably commit suicide.
[Ward, Return To Chesterton 152]
Or perhaps you've seen the famous bumper sticker, I don't know if it was a quote from Lucy Van Pelt: "Everyone has a right to MY opinion." You've surely seen or heard comments in bloggs, or anchormen giving weighty responses about such things.

What is the problem? The problem is that, for 100 years now, these grand statements of opinion are weakened by the postscript, "I may be wrong."


So, here's what GKC says:
At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; [see Mt 5:4 KJV] but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance. It is exactly this intellectual helplessness which is our second problem.
You may now sigh with relief - for there you have it, the signpost for this chapter: the Suicide of Thought, or intellectual helplessness.

Do not despair, dear friend. You are about to face some very rough terrain - but you will find new tools, some awesomely GRAND views, some dramatic figures of speech - even hints of even papal writings. One wonders whether John Paul II had this chapter in mind when he wrote Fides et Ratio...

For now, however, think a bit about Euclid's starting point (puns intended), and bear this in mind:
...only a man who knows nothing of reason talks of reasoning without strong, undisputed first principles. ... reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason.
["The Blue Cross" in The Innocence of Father Brown]

--Dr. Thursday


  1. If I Were a Preacher by G. K. Chesterton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Thomas Horder, BT., K. C. V. O., Sheila Kaye-Smith, Lord Hugh Cecil, Sir Philip Gibbs, The Rt. Hon. Augustine Birrell, K. C., The Hon. Bertrand Russell, Prof. J. Arthur Thomson, LL. D., Joseph Collins, John Drinkwater, Henry Noble McCracken, Henry Seidel Canby, and Ludwig Lewisohn (Cassell), 1929. [My source, Mr Hasnes, of course)

  2. Thanks, Gramps and Geir!

    I shall command that it be added to AMBER. However, as I have written elsewhere, it is hard to give orders when one is the only crew.

    --Dr. Thursday

  3. Dr. Thursday, why are you the only crew? By the way, when will the Amber be ready for us all to use or buy?

  4. "Oh, elderly man, it's little I know
    Of the duties of men of the sea,
    And I'll eat my hand if I understand
    However you can be

    At once a cook, and a captain bold,
    And the mate of the 'Nancy' brig,
    And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
    And the crew of the captain's gig."

  5. Not bad, Dr. Thursday, but it is always good to see a wider context, like the old man says - beware of reefs that bring grief:

    And he shook his fists and he tore his hair,
    Till I really felt afraid,
    For I couldn't help thinking the man had been drinking,
    And so I simply said:

    "Oh, elderly man, it's little I know
    Of the duties of men of the sea,
    And I'll eat my hand if I understand
    However you can be

    'At once a cook, and a captain bold,
    And the mate of the Nancy brig,
    And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
    And the crew of the captain's gig.'"4

    Then he gave a hitch to his trousers, which
    Is a trick all seamen larn,
    And having got rid of a thumping quid,5
    He spun this painful yarn:

    "'Twas in the good ship Nancy Bell
    That we sailed to the Indian Sea,
    And there on a reef we come to grief,
    Which has often occurred to me.


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