Thursday, May 08, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

We are here in the Great Novena, the nine days of prayer to the Holy Spirit - and today we finish chapter III of Orthodoxy - our long journey through the foothills... What, you thought THOSE were mountains! Well, yes, this has been tiresome, and even GKC called it "the first and dullest business of this book - the rough review of recent thought." [CW1:246]

If you have been following along with our dull paragraph-plodding, reading one word after another, you will see, at the bottom of CW1:244, that GKC gives one more short analogy. It is worth study, not only because of the great "verbal fireworks" but because this holding up of a mirror is one of the best, and easiest Great Arguments to be used against so many wrong ideas being voiced today - the Argument of Symmetry, also called "practice what you preach", stated in wonderful mathematical precision in GKC's St. Thomas Aquinas:
"No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind. No sceptic who believes that truth is subjective has any hesitation about treating it as objective. [CW2:542-3]
Exactly. But let us proceed.

Click to continue.

As usual, GKC picks a nicely debatable topic - the French Revolution. Those of us who were at the ACS conference in 2004 remember the hilarious debate about it between Mark Pilon (who said GKC was wrong) and Dale Ahlquist (who said "What?") Yes. Again, in true Thomistic fashion, GKC goes further toward truth, even with such a tense topic:
The French Revolution was really an heroic and decisive thing, because the Jacobins willed something definite and limited. They desired the freedoms of democracy, but also all the vetoes of democracy. They wished to have votes and not to have titles. Republicanism had an ascetic side in Franklin or Robespierre as well as an expansive side in Danton or Wilkes. Therefore they have created something with a solid substance and shape, the square social equality and peasant wealth of France. But since then the revolutionary or speculative mind of Europe has been weakened by shrinking from any proposal because of the limits of that proposal. Liberalism has been degraded into liberality. Men have tried to turn "revolutionise" from a transitive to an intransitive verb. The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.

It may be added that the same blank and bankruptcy can be observed in all fierce and terrible types of literature, especially in satire. Satire may be mad and anarchic, but it presupposes an admitted superiority in certain things over others; it presupposes a standard. When little boys in the street laugh at the fatness of some distinguished journalist, [Who do you think GKC is talking about? Hee hee.] they are unconsciously assuming a standard of Greek sculpture. They are appealing to the marble Apollo. And the curious disappearance of satire from our literature is an instance of the fierce things fading for want of any principle to be fierce about. Nietzsche had some natural talent for sarcasm: he could sneer, though he could not laugh; but there is always something bodiless and without weight in his satire, simply because it has not any mass of common morality behind it. He is himself more preposterous than anything he denounces. But, indeed, Nietzsche will stand very well as the type of the whole of this failure of abstract violence. The softening of the brain which ultimately overtook him was not a physical accident. If Nietzsche had not ended in imbecility, Nietzscheism would end in imbecility. Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.

This last attempt to evade intellectualism ends in intellectualism, and therefore in death. The sortie has failed. The wild worship of lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void. Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing and Nirvana. They are both helpless - one because he must not grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything. The Tolstoyan's will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite's will is quite equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand at the cross-roads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads. The result is - well, some things are not hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads.
[CW1:244-6, my emphasis]
Now, you can read all about the nothing-end (or beginning) of science in the ancient orient in Fr. Jaki's Science and Creation - but here you see that the oriental view is just as futile for anything else: the sceptic and the fatalist, the rebel and the revolutionist annihilate their own tools... they are "undermining their own mines."

It is, to recur to the title of the chapter, The Suicide of Thought.

But, as I told you, we are standing on a ridge (on its downward slope, admittedly) where we can see something lovely - something we are approaching. GKC, the artist, here writes a line which smacks of Art - and reminds me, since I have used the analogy of a hike into our text, of the amazing Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) who was a physicist and historian - and a hiker and artist as well. During his vacations from teaching, he would hike into the Alps and draw wonderful pictures of the scenes - see Jaki's The Physicist As Artist for a sample of his amazing works. Ahem. The line I refer to is:

After this I begin to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interests me.
That is, in the forthcoming pages, indeed, the remainder of the book. But, in true hiker fashion - I recall Gandalf's explanation ("looking backward") to Bilbo after his rescue from the trolls - GKC takes one last glance backward before he leaves this dark part of the trail:
In front of me, as I close this page, is a pile of modern books that I have been turning over for the purpose - a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility. By the accident of my present detachment, I can see the inevitable smash of the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Shaw, as clearly as an inevitable railway smash could be seen from a balloon. They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum. For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness; and they have nearly reached it. He who thinks he is made of glass, thinks to the destruction of thought; for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject nothing, wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice of something, but the rejection of almost everything.
This may recall a famous analogy speaking to God's foreknowledge of our free will: we are sitting on a mountaintop (we cannot get away from these hiking views, can we?) and watch as two trains, one on each side of the mountain, proceed along a pair of tracks where the signals have failed. We can know with certainty that they shall collide (or not) depending on our knowledge of the switch settings, but it is not WE who cause the collision. Here, too, GKC does not cause the "smash" - no, but we see it even more clearly a century afterwards, on cable TV, on the INTERNET, and in so many other ways.

Alas, it is not as comforting as a mere railway "smash". These dark ones are attacking even greater, and even holier things. Note again how GKC's argument proceeds: using, not abusing, even the things of his enemies, and always proceeding to greater matters than mere rebuttals of their errors. Also, you may wonder (having heard that this book is supposedly about "Christianity") how the topic will arise. You will find the matter first introduced in this chapter's concluding paragraph:
And as I turn and tumble over the clever, wonderful, tiresome, and useless modern books, the title of one of them rivets my eye. It is called "Jeanne d'Arc," by Anatole France. I have only glanced at it, but a glance was enough to remind me of Renan's "Vie de Jesus." It has the same strange method of the reverent sceptic. It discredits supernatural stories that have some foundation, simply by telling natural stories that have no foundation. Because we cannot believe in what a saint did, we are to pretend that we know exactly what he felt. But I do not mention either book in order to criticise it, but because the accidental combination of the names called up two startling images of sanity which blasted all the books before me. Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing. It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one, and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre of my thoughts. The same modern difficulty which darkened the subject-matter of Anatole France also darkened that of Ernest Renan. Renan also divided his hero's pity from his hero's pugnacity. Renan even represented the righteous anger at Jerusalem as a mere nervous breakdown after the idyllic expectations of Galilee. As if there were any inconsistency between having a love for humanity and having a hatred for inhumanity! Altruists, with thin, weak voices, denounce Christ as an egoist. Egoists (with even thinner and weaker voices) denounce Him as an altruist. In our present atmosphere such cavils are comprehensible enough. The love of a hero is more terrible than the hatred of a tyrant. The hatred of a hero is more generous than the love of a philanthropist. There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only collect the fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labelled egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness. They have parted His garments among them, and for His vesture they have cast lots; [Jn 19:24, quoting Ps 21(22):19] though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.
[CW1:246-8, emphasis added]

Since that ends the chapter I ought not go further, especially since it has such a musically satisfying cadence.

But I must be true to my own art here, and provide you with a link or two for your future reference. You have heard me refer to Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth previously, and you shall hear it mentioned again - so, if you recall when Milo meets the smallest giant, the biggest midget, and the others, you may note the parallel here. Should that seem too elusive a link, or too confusing, do not worry - you will hear more - FAR more - about this in a later chapter. Here's a sample of GKC's description of this mysterious person:
Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde.
Yes, a mystery. You may try to guess who that is, but I expect that you will find it a Surprise. I think it is also a mystery to consider that I write this today, Thursday in the Great Novena, and seven weeks ago this evening we heard GKC's concluding quote of the Psalms as the priest stripped the altar... those terrible and barren and naked words, some of the saddest and most empty words of the psalms...

And this might make us ask: What if God rebelled? What if God revolted?

So let us, for a brief pause, ponder that stripping, that emptying - for very soon we shall have our fill. [cf. Mt 5:6]

Come, O Holy Spirit!
Fill the hearts of Thy faithful
and enkindle in them
the FIRE of Thy love!

Thou on those who evermore
Thee confess and Thee adore
In Thy sevenfold gift descend.

--Dr. Thursday.

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