Thursday, May 29, 2008


GKC's Birthday: his First and Last Philosophy

Today we recall GKC's birthday - and we have a most fitting pair of paragraphs from Orthodoxy to consider - which are to be found in CW1:252-3. (Yes, I know we are going slowly, but I am typing as fast as I can. Hee hee.)

During a previous round of research into GKC, I had reason to obtain some very interesting reference works. One of them is The Oxford Classical Dictionary which I consulted to learn more about the very curious Lares et Penates - the "household gods" which appear when GKC discusses ancient Rome in his The Everlasting Man.
Oy. I hear the whine already: "Ancient Roman gods? Why? Is this some more of that much-vaunted 'demonology' you seem to like so much, Doctor?" Heavens, no! Because like one of those spine-tingling chords from Mendelssohn - or the Beach Boys - there is this very wonderful line in that book, which I needed to understand to penetrate to its richest fullness:
They [the ancient Romans] might have found in that strange place [the cave in Bethlehem] all that was best in the last traditions of the Latins; and something better than a wooden idol standing up forever for the pillar of the human family; a household god.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:308, emphasis added]
Wow. Like that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, where Calvin says, "you're squeezing me so tight you make my tears leak out." Oh, if only we could really understand how God chose Rome as well as Israel... Besides, if you think THAT is demonology, just wait till you see what's going to rear its ten-horned head in just a bit!

Ahem. But I also got another book. (We were talking about interesting reference books; of course the C&H texts are not on that shelf, but they are not far away at all, oh, no.) It is a two-volume reference work called The Encyclopedia of the Early Church, and I mention it because it was there that I learned a very curious Greek word, the word "psephy" (p. 953) - which comes from the word for "pebble" - and means the practice of taking letters for numbers and getting a number corresponding to some word or other. There's an English word with the same root: "psephology" - which is the science of elections and voting (dimpled chads, you know?) One of the most famous biblical numbers is understood to be a result of this practice - the number 666 (or 616 in some translations) which is also called "the number of the Beast" (Rev 13:18)

Now, strange to say, people rather easily understand the idea of anti-Christ. They have some clue to that infernal horror - simply because they have a clue to Christ. Yes, this writing IS about Orthodoxy; here's GKC's simple statement on the point: "The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was that Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell. Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist." [CW1:294] But there is a richer and more illuminating link:
Cardinal Newman wrote in his liveliest controversial work a sentence that might be a model of what we mean by saying that his creed tends to lucidity and logical courage. In speaking of the ease with which truth may be made to look like its own shadow or sham, he said, "And if Antichrist is like Christ, Christ I suppose is like Antichrist."
[GKC, St. Francis of Assisi CW2:103-4]
Very instructive for those of us who are studying Cardinal Newman and his connection to GKC! Yes, the infernal being is somehow opposite to Christ - of course it is impossible (as our staff ontologist will tell you) for it to be perfectly opposite, since evil is a privation and every existence as such is good. Ahem. (He talks even more than I do!) But the reason why I brought all this up is to point out that though everybody knows about 666 for antiChrist, very few people have any idea what the number for Christ is. And you most likely cannot guess, unless you happen to know how the ancient Greeks wrote their numbers.

That number happens to stand at the beginning and the ending of the very next bit of our study - the gateway (lit by a Paschal candle) that we must now pass into...
Click to proceed.

The number is 801 - which is the value for Alpha and Omega. ("Number" in The Encyclopedia of the Early Church, p. 606) When Americans talk about such things we say "from sea to shining sea" - musicians say from C to C, unless you are a pipe organ person (which have a C-side and a C-sharp side) or from the Middle Ages, where they had other names for "doe-a-deer" and said from "Gamma" to ut - which is where we get the word "gamut".

What's all this about? All - yes, exactly. It's about "all". GKC is about to state a general idea:
Now, I have to put together a general position, and I pretend to no training in such things. I propose to do it, therefore, by writing down one after another the three or four fundamental ideas which I have found for myself, pretty much in the way that I found them. Then I shall roughly synthesise them, summing up my personal philosophy or natural religion; then I shall describe my startling discovery that the whole thing had been discovered before. It had been discovered by Christianity. But of these profound persuasions which I have to recount in order, the earliest was concerned with this element of popular tradition. And without the foregoing explanation touching tradition and democracy I could hardly make my mental experience clear. As it is, I do not know whether I can make it clear, but I now propose to try.
Like I said, the gate. (Oh, no, please Doc, not another side trip about Boolean logic and computer chips and Jesus saying "I am the gate" [Jn10:9]) OK, I won't. Your loss. We can go there some other time.

But erecting the first principle is always the hardest. The ancients knew this, and often performed sacrifice at the inception of a building - we still lay cornerstones with great ceremony, and have graduation ceremonies (those are beginnings, not endings, like birth and death are!) And this particular one - I mean this first of GKC's principles is hard - hard to take. Because some of you are not going to like it. Some scientists, some lit'ry people, some of the Potterites, some of the anti-Potterites. Because it deals with literature and with science, with good and with evil, with reality and with fantasy. But see how GKC states his to Alfa kai to W = the Alpha and Omega of his thought:

My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition. Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook; but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists, and talked about the gods of brook and bush. That is what the moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not "appreciate Nature," because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.
Yes; you see? You thought I was way off base talking about the household gods or about 666. But if you are thinking this path (as hard as it is) leads away from God, from Christianity, or even from real things, and stuff like science and all that - oh, are you going to be surprised!

You see, this idea is not really something new. That's GKC's point. He saw something, something profoundly powerful, in the silly little stories like Jack and the Beanstalk and so on - something true. Something which told him about real things. It is utterly useless for a Christian to talk about Jesus as "God-Man" if he won't first acknowledge the idea of Man. Or for a scientist to talk about galaxies if he won't acknowledge stars. Or - yes - for a literary person to talk about plots or themes if he avoids the best plots and the oldest themes, used for millennia by nearly every civilisation on earth!

This is a key. We wield it, and the gate opens, and we enter through. You are surprised that the gate opens with nursery tales? Prepare for even greater surprises.

The next paragraphs will proceed much, much deeper into the matter of fantasy - and of science - than you may have ever studied, regardless of your background. Please God we shall get to them in coming weeks. But until then, you should re-read just these two paragraphs, and pray that you can be willing to examine them justly, and not with bitterness. They are not easy, but they are also wonderful.

--Dr. Thursday

PS. Wow, it's before lunch and no mention of food? Oh - nope, I missed it. GKC mentions tasting beans. Good. (hee hee) No beans today: birthday cake!

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