Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Looking for Answers and Feeling Groovy

With all my emphasis on science or philosophy in the last few weeks, you may be happy to hear GKC's digression into some literary matter - somebody named Tennyson. Asking me who Tennyson was is probably like asking your typical Lit'ry Scholar who Gödel or Schnitger or Planck was. Then again I read GKC so I know a little...Ahem.

Anyway, it is quite funny, because of the parallel place where GKC quotes the same line, he uses a word which became lots more famous in the 1960s... I think it is called the 59th Street Bridge Song, which has a very nice little woodwind backup band playing - I think rock bands should get five extra points when they use a bassoon! Ahem again. But first the quote from Orthodoxy:
It is worth remark, in passing, that when Tennyson, in a wild and rather weak manner, welcomed the idea of infinite alteration in society, he instinctively took a metaphor which suggests an imprisoned tedium. He wrote -
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change
He thought of change itself as an unchangeable groove; and so it is. Change is about the narrowest and hardest groove that a man can get into.
Click here to get into the groove.And now, from two years further back:
Somebody writes complaining of something I said about progress. I have forgotten what I said, but I am quite certain that it was (like a certain Mr. Douglas in a poem which I have also forgotten) tender and true. In any case, what I say now is this. Human history is so rich and complicated that you can make out a case for any course of improvement or retrogression. I could make out that the world has been growing more democratic, for the English franchise has certainly grown more democratic. I could also make out that the world has been growing more aristocratic, for the English Public Schools have certainly grown more aristocratic. I could prove the decline of militarism by the decline of flogging; I could prove the increase of militarism by the increase of standing armies and conscription. But I can prove anything in this way. I can prove that the world has always been growing greener. Only lately men have invented absinthe and the Westminster Gazette. I could prove the world has grown less green. There are no more Robin Hood foresters, and fields are being covered with houses. I could show that the world was less red with khaki or more red with the new penny stamps. But in all cases progress means progress only in some particular thing. Have you ever noticed that strange line of Tennyson, in which he confesses, half consciously, how very conventional progress is? -
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
Even in praising change, he takes for a simile the most unchanging thing. He calls our modern change a groove. And it is a groove; perhaps there was never anything so groovy.
[ILN August 18, 1906 CW27:259-60,emphasis added]
You may not know what "absinthe" is - it's from the Greek word for "wormwood" [see Rv 8:11] and contains a dangerous alkaloid (that means POISON, kids) It's a GREEN liqueur, tasting (I'm told) of anise. The Westminster Gazette, I'm told, was originally printed on green paper. My same source tells me that the Tennyson quote is from his "Locksley Hall".

Is all this somehow linked to evolution? Or, more importantly, to the "Suicide of Thought"? Certainly. If all there is is CHANGE, there cannot be thought. We know change may often be needed (this makes me think of a baby crying with a dirty diaper!) and change is a reality, since that's what "time" is all about. But, in one of the most profoundly scientific statements Chesterton ever made, we find this truth:
"There must in every machine be a part that moves and a part that stands still; there must be in everything that changes a part that is unchangeable."
Is this Chesterton's version of the First Law of Motion? Just about. (It also reminds me of Francis Thompson's great poem "New Year's Chimes" - but I must not digress into that just now; perhaps another time.) What's hilarious - and simultaneously deeply moving - is the context of this quote. GKC is speaking about woman. It's in the chapter called "The Emancipation of Domesticity" in What's Wrong With the World. Your assignment: ponder both the physics and the mystical anthropology in that line; it's home work. Pun intended. But jot it down in your log and let us move on.
The main point here, however, is that this idea of a fundamental alteration in the standard is one of the things that make thought about the past or future simply impossible. The theory of a complete change of standards in human history does not merely deprive us of the pleasure of honouring our fathers; it deprives us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of despising them.

This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism; for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever. My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human mind. But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth. The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute. This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist. Extreme pragmatism is just as inhuman as the determinism it so powerfully attacks. The determinist (who, to do him justice, does not pretend to be a human being) makes nonsense of the human sense of actual choice. The pragmatist, who professes to be specially human, makes nonsense of the human sense of actual fact.
What is pragmatism? Simply, the idea that truth depends on practicality; thought is only important in its result in action. Here for a moment we see the eminent fairness and true Scholastic character of GKC: he sees, admits, and defends its partial truths and good purposes, while warning of the dangers in its extreme form. This issue of "extremes" hints at something we shall see in a later chapter. Jot that down too.

Now, GKC himself pauses, and gives us a quick review of our recent journey:
To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of suicidal mania. The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it. This is what makes so futile the warnings of the orthodox and the boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought. What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought. It is vain for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will happen if wild scepticism runs its course. It has run its course. It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves. You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence that modern England is Christian. But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow. Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one. Free thought has exhausted its own freedom. It is weary of its own success. If any eager freethinker now hails philosophic freedom as the dawn, he is only like the man in Mark Twain who came out wrapped in blankets to see the sun rise and was just in time to see it set. If any frightened curate still says that it will be awful if the darkness of free thought should spread, we can only answer him in the high and powerful words of Mr. Belloc, "Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning." We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.
[CW1:240-241, emphasis added}
Exactly. And though GKC shall review just a little more in this chapter, we have now passed some important peaks in this leg of our journey. Just past that next little dark spot (Nietzche Ridge) which we'll tackle next week, we shall encounter some very lovely, yet very dangerous territory. Risky, yes; but even more bountiful in its answers - and its goodness. You will be surprised.

--Dr. Thursday

P.S. Having brought up the "unrolling" word recently, I thought I would give you a bonus quote from a little-known source, copied when I was in high school, revealing how true GKC's views on these matters really are, and how children can always grasp their depth:

"While fish in the ocean were just playing around and having a good time, man was hard at work thinking how to evolve."

All I have for reference is this: "quoted by Harold Dunn, a grade school teacher and collecter of children's malapropisms". Dunn's collection is quoted at length in Art Linkletter's Kids Say the Darndest Things, though I can't seem to locate this particular gem in that reference work. Sorry.

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