Thursday, May 22, 2008

Demons and Democracy: the Strange Color of the Nearby

(If you are reading along: Orthodoxy Chapter IV "The Ethics of Elfland" first five paragraphs CW1:249-252)

I told you last week there would be no demonism on our adventure into Elfland... and there won't be. Except in one punning way, which is one of the really beloved lines spoken by Father Brown. You will perhaps disagree. I think it reveals his humility, and the too-easily forgotten fact that priests must themselves confess their sins:
"I am a man," answered Father Brown gravely; "and therefore have all devils in my heart."
[GKC, "The Hammer Of God" in The Innocence of Father Brown]
One of the prayers the priest says at Holy Mass hints at this authentic view of the priesthood:
"Accept O Holy Father, Almighty and Eternal God, this spotless host, which I, your unworthy servant, offer to You, my living and true God, to atone for my numberless sins, offenses, and negligences; on behalf of all here present and likewise for all faithful Christians living and dead, that it may profit me and them as a means of salvation to life everlasting. Amen.
But we are not here to examine liturgy... but rather demon... ahem, excuse me. I mean democracy.

No, not as in the opposite of "Republican"! (And I thought I was skating on thin ice with the reference to magic. Hee hee.)

But - as I warned you last time, you must pay very close attention to the words here. There will be some words you know, and perhaps have some strong feelings on - like "democracy" and "liberal" and "tradition". Most importantly you need to know that these terms are being used in their full, classical, "rich" or perhaps "proper" sense (in heraldry, something "proper" means it is shown in its true colors), and emphatically not as political terms.

You are puzzled. We have crossed a bridge, into a world which I have rather carefully avoided naming (though you are all writing "May 22 - entering Elfland" down in your hiker log books). You thought we would be meeting strange, remarkable, unexpected, surprising creatures - hobbits and elves or dwarves (dwarfs, if you are not a Tolkien person) or maybe Milo or Bastian or that Poppins woman - or at least Spock or E.T. or even Mr. Potter (it is a wonderful life, you know?) And instead I bring up GKC's drudgery of what sounds like government or maybe education. Oh, how surprised you'll be... we shall indeed meet some remarkable creatures. You must be bold... and you will be surprised!
Wave wand here if you feel bold.

Now, having mentioned Milo, the bored hero of The Phantom Tollbooth, you will be surprised, as I was, in what we find in the very first sentence from our chapter:
When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: "Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is."
[CW1:249, emphasis added]
If you've never read that book, you must know that "The Castle in the Air" is the prison to which the princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason were banished, and the demons guard the path to it... Ah, so you are starting to feel something? Good, good. It's starting, then.

The start is a bit slow. As usual, GKC uses a rather complex analogy, drawn from his own late Victorian youth, and the world he knows, to try to explain something even more complex. It is a kind of parable, laden as usual with verbal fireworks, and a confusing term or two, but it contains something striking, which is like chrome. For "the strong chromium" as a friend of mine says, "has the strange color of the nearby". Yes, chrome and so many metals act as mirrors when polished. And this is the first kind of magic GKC reveals to us.

We must understand what GKC is doing. He now has "to trace the roots of my personal speculation" - that is, explain how he started to get to HIS view of things, which is so different from what we saw in the previous chapters. He believes in "Liberalism" - but not in "Liberals". Note! I have no time to give you the grand explanation of what these words meant in England of 1908 - but that precision hardly matters to us. You will see it clearly, as in a mirror (!) very shortly, as GKC proceeds. But... if you find this too confusing, read these lines:
They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. ...

I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity. If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.
(Yes, there's a ref. to Manalive where a telegram reads "Man Found Alive With Two Legs" - what you haven't read it yet? Get busy.)

Verbal fireworks? Or words on fire doing work? You will hunt very hard to find a real politician, in either England of 1908 or America of 2008, who acts on these terms, who sees the miracle of humanity.

But (you say) I thought you said it wasn't going to be about politics?

GKC dragged it in, not me. But proceed, and be surprised:
This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves - the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.
Now, the well-read Chestertonian will immediately hear the echo of a very famous quote: "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." [GKC, speaking of Woman in What's Wrong With the World CW4:199] And, for completeness, this idea of "blowing your own nose" also appears in Heretics, and I leave it for anyone who wants a nice workout side hike; you can find it in CW1:203.

Again, you are wondering: where is the magic? Where are the strange beings?

YOU ARE SEEING THEM. Elvish zoologists call them "humans". (You'll find out about the magic soon enough.) GKC supposes that there is some fundamental law which underlies all sorts of things - which he sums up in the idea that we ought to do certain things for ourselves, as much as we possibly can. (In another context, this idea is a part of the design method called "Subsidiarity" - an ancient idea, and part of Catholic Social Teaching, and about which I have written elsewhere.) But as a broadly used term in government, not delving into the depths or distinctions of some governing mechanism, "democracy" means "rule by the people" - the people choose the arrangements. Like Athens of long ago... Ah, so nice. The splendid happy life of ancient Greece and all that. Houses, Senates, meetings, elections... Ahem. But GKC does not sit and bask in the Mediterranean warmth. He reveals some real depths to this supposedly well-known term, and gives us some singularly rich insights:
But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.
If you don't already know it, "tradition" comes from a Latin verb, trado which means "I hand over, hand on, pass on" - and "I entrust". So many things you have, and think of as your own, have actually been handed on to you, often with great expense and at great effort on the part of others who were holding them in trust... you are so used to them you have forgotten where they came from - and (alas) you are most often utterly unaware of the power, the intense and extraordinary thing (for which "magic" might be the only good term) that you are capable of wielding with them.

What, for example? Do you really need me to tell you? OK: by what power are you reading this? (I don't mean the computer; I mean your ability to read, and to understand what I have written.) Your language is a tradition. No revolutionary, no "liberal" - in our modern sense - can escape it. Every science, every field of study presupposes language as a basis for its work; in that sense, even the hardest of the hard sciences is just another Liberal Art.

Ah. But consider this sentence again: "Tradition is the democracy of the dead." Are you starting to feel something powerfully magical here? Not just the idea of fairy tale, of some fanciful story told in the nursery. No; the idea that something - ah, like a magic wand - something almost unimaginably powerful was given to you long ago - given as your very own inheritance - and you've always had it. But you never really paid any attention to it, never thought of it as important: that odd wooden stick you've carried, dangling from your belt, or the sparks that flew out when your hand is near it... You don't like that hint of the "m" word? Then think of a pencil in your pocket, and its graphite smears on your hand. (Milo is given such a wand by the Mathemagician.) Not personal enough? Then how about speech? You do not even understand the power of your tongue? Why are so many powerful things attributed to speech? (Read the Epistle of St. James for details!) You have indeed inherited rich, oh, so rich, gifts. You abandon or neglect them at your peril.

One more paragraph brings us to the end of today's leg of our journey, and it is a very elegant summary of today's topic:
I have first to say, therefore, that if I have had a bias, it was always a bias in favour of democracy, and therefore of tradition. Before we come to any theoretic or logical beginnings I am content to allow for that personal equation; I have always been more inclined to believe the ruck of hard-working people than to believe that special and troublesome literary class to which I belong. I prefer even the fancies and prejudices of the people who see life from the inside to the clearest demonstrations of the people who see life from the outside. I would always trust the old wives' fables against the old maids' facts. As long as wit is mother wit it can be as wild as it pleases.
That word "ruck" is not a typo. (Yes, I had to look it up; I like to look things up, it's fun, you can find so many other things while you are looking!) "Ruck" means "the undistinguished multitude, the crowd of ordinary persons or things". It is one of GKC's favourite topics - you can find all kinds of references throughout GKC's writing to "The Common Man" - there's even a book called that.

GKC wants us, just to begin with, to see ourselves in a mirror (the magic thing with the strange color of the nearby!) It is magic, not because of the mirror, but because of us. We are unusual, we are marvels, we are extraordinary - because we are simply ordinary. And we have not even ventured into preternature (the land of fairy and magic), much less supernature (the Land of the Living, where He dwells in Whose image we are made.)

So - the next time you see a mirror, stop and behold the image and the likeness of God. A broken, sad, weak, confused, often whiney, nasty, mean and rude image, perhaps insanely preferring a demon as a model - but still His image: "For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King." [GKC, Charles Dickens CW15:44] Nothing in the kosmos, except the Most Blessed Sacrament, is as holy as a human being. (Today, for much of the world, is the feast of Corpus Christi, which is transferred to this coming Sunday in the U.S.) Father Brown hints at this great credal mystery:
"It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there's a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. ... all because you are frightened of four words: 'He was made Man.' "
[GKC, "The Oracle of the Dog" in The Incredulity of Father Brown]
Yes - one of the effects of reading GKC is we start seeing things as they are. Even in mirrors.

--Dr. Thursday

PS After writing this - and I did it AFTER lunch this time: I find that I have not been of much help at all on this leg. I shall ask you to read GKC's five paragraphs by yourself, and think about them. They are worth it. You will find yourself in awe of such company as we have, both living, and traditional.

1 comment:

  1. A post like this needs an intelligent, inciteful comment. Sadly, you'll get none of that from me. Thank you for the post


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