Thursday, August 07, 2008

Eyes and Feet: Standing in the Place Where We Live

Eyes and Feet: Standing in the Place Where We Live

Wow, I have just looked at where we are in Orthodoxy - and I am rather chagrined to note that we have five more chapters to cover - just about 100 pages - and only five months of Thursdays to do them in! Either we have to get someone to change the calendar, or you'll have to read faster. Ahem.

The next chapter, "The Flag of the World", stands in relation to politics, government, sociology and history the way the last chapter stood in relation to science and engineering. Of course it touches philosophy just as much as the last one did, and since philosophy underpins all disciplines, as much as the other "support" disciplines like mathematics and English - that is, your own natural language - you must always expect to see philosophy. What do I mean? I mean philosophy in the simple sense (yes, there's a paradox for you) - or maybe I ought to say the ancient sense - that is, the love of wisdom: the desire and the active effort to think and put into rational order the matters at hand, whether drawn from nature, from personal experience, or from deep interior contemplation. And it may be good to review some background information before we proceed.

Contemplation, you may recall, is the English word for the Latin contemplatio, which the Scholastics used as a translation for the great and exceedingly deep Greek Qewria = theoria, with a long o, the word which gives us "theory" and related words. This word has a Greek root meaning sight, vision - an idea we have encountered many times on our journey. Remember, too, this word is shorthanded by the great Theta emblazoned on the robes of Philosophy when she appeared in allegorical form to Boethius in his The Consolation of Philosophy (which I wrote about here). Linked "as if by stairs" to the Theta is the letter Pi, first letter of praxis; together these two letters stand for the theoretical (or contemplative) and the practical (or active) branches of philosophy.

Now, I have reviewed this because I want to paint a relation between this pair and another pair of pairs which GKC mentions. These odd couples will help reveal something important about our cosy universe, which is our home.

((click here to proceed))

The pair of ideas GKC starts with are perhaps even more opposite than theory vs. practice: he starts with optimism vs. pessimism, and proceeds to quote a child on the topic, kind of like Art "Kids Say the Darndest Things" Linkletter:
When I was a boy there were two curious men running about who were called the optimist and the pessimist. I constantly used the words myself, but I cheerfully confess that I never had any very special idea of what they meant. The only thing which might be considered evident was that they could not mean what they said; for the ordinary verbal explanation was that the optimist thought this world as good as it could be, while the pessimist thought it as bad as it could be. Both these statements being obviously raving nonsense, one had to cast about for other explanations. An optimist could not mean a man who thought everything right and nothing wrong. For that is meaningless; it is like calling everything right and nothing left. Upon the whole, I came to the conclusion that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself. It would be unfair to omit altogether from the list the mysterious but suggestive definition said to have been given by a little girl, "An optimist is a man who looks after your eyes, and a pessimist is a man who looks after your feet." I am not sure that this is not the best definition of all. There is even a sort of allegorical truth in it. For there might, perhaps, be a profitable distinction drawn between that more dreary thinker who thinks merely of our contact with the earth from moment to moment, and that happier thinker who considers rather our primary power of vision and of choice of road.
Brilliant. Now this reduction from optomism/pessimism to eyes/feet by the unnamed little girl found a strange echo for me in a rock song. I never did know what "R.E.M." really meant by their song "Stand", perhaps some odd rebel thing, but of course since I follow a rebel (we'll see this in a few chapters, it's in CW1:343), and since I have learned how to hunt for truth even in the darkest corners (like Aquinas using Aristotle), I will take my own meaning from their curious and ill-fitting lyrics, which I quote from memory.
Stand in the place where you live, (now face north)
Think about direction, wonder why you haven't before.
Stand in the place where you work, (now face west)
Think about place where you live wonder why you haven't before.
Your feet are going to be on the ground,
your head is there to move you around.
Oh, it's probably some social commentary, and if an R.E.M. person reads this, why not read some Chesterton? Yes, indeed; you may be surprised! But even the paradox of the head (not the feet) being the means of movement is Chestertonian, if not exceedingly Scholastic, but we cannot discuss causes here. Ahem. Anyway, if you do think about this a little, you realize the Pauline drama of eyes (synecdoche for head) versus feet: St. Paul did not say "the foot is not the eye" but he could have. (cf. 1Cor12) But you, the complete you, are neither eye nor foot. Nor is reason found in optimism nor in pessimism, even though those color the place where we live.

I have commented elsewhere about choice of road (which can be found in Rush's "Free Will" or in Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven") but the thrust of GKC's idea here is the same as R.E.M.: that is, thinking about the place where we live and work, and looking around:
But this is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. If a man came to this world from some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view. But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.
What flag? The flag of the world. And let us not forget, "world" means more than "Planet Earth" as if it were just another stop on some intergalactic bus line. "World" translates the Greek kosmos = kosmos, usually spelled cosmos, and is "THE ALL", the ordered system of all created things - the place where we live. But what happened when GKC "took a look around", as he was growing up after his training in fairy tales?
In the last chapter it has been said that the primary feeling that this world is strange and yet attractive is best expressed in fairy tales. The reader may, if he likes, put down the next stage to that bellicose and even jingo literature which commonly comes next in the history of a boy. We all owe much sound morality to the penny dreadfuls. Whatever the reason, it seemed and still seems to me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.
What is a "penny dreadful"? Ah, cheap horror or mystery fiction which GKC loved (see his "A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls" in The Defendant.) What's "jingo literature", you ask? Ah. The dictionary says "one who favours or supports a bellicose policy in foreign affairs" or "blustering patriot" - originally a supporter of Disraeli's policy in 1878 (GKC was four that year). GKC is not here recommending a particular national, or even international policy - he is recommending a certain view of our world, our "cosy cosmos" as he told us in the last chapter.

Now, this may seem a bit abstract, and maybe as intricately abstruse as rock lyrics. So, as a good teacher, GKC gives us an example:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing - say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
Now, before we proceed, there is a hilarious joke here, which is not easy for an American to get, unless he has been to London - or has a map.

Alas I have not yet been to London. But I have a map.

To disapprove of Pimlico and move to Chelsea - these places are merely districts of London, and are next to each other.

OK, now that you have finished laughing... I have to conclude today's studies here. You need to think about direction, and the place where you live.... remembering it's not simply Chelsea or Pimlico, but the Universe, the Cosmos... our cosy universe, as we have been told.

One of the most thrilling phrases associated with Gilbert Keith Chesterton - the most thrilling I have encountered - is the title of the fourth and last chapter of Fr. Jaki's Chesterton a Seer of Science. It is "The Champion of the Universe". This title might derive directly from this chapter, even though it is a most insightful glimpse of how GKC deals with Science - and the Universe. GKC puts it this way:
it seemed and still seems to me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty.
Yes: this begs the question: loyalty to whom? It's about time you asked that question. We'll start getting some real hints of that in our next expedition.

--Dr. Thursday

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