Thursday, August 28, 2008

GKC at the Crossroads

On almost the very first page of Orthodoxy you will find:
"To My Mother"
That's GKC's dedication. Motherhood echoes throughout Chesterton's works, though I can find few more splendid words on the topic than these:
You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:303]
He means, of course, the greatest of mothers and the greatest of sons. But today, here at the end of August, we ought to recall (as the Church does) the pair which might be number two on the list: Monica, the woman who prayed and wept for years, that her son be converted from his licentious and heretical life, and Augustine, the son who converted and became one of the greatest of stars in the constellation of the Doctors of the Church.

GKC didn't quote St. Augustine as much as some other books or saints, but he reveals at least some acquaintance with him:
And now I have to touch upon a very sad matter. There are in the modern world an admirable class of persons who really make protest on behalf of that antiqua pulchritudo of which Augustine spoke, who do long for the old feasts and formalities of the childhood of the world.
[Heretics CW1:88-9 (See PS for the Latin)]
The paradox of this is just hilarious, and I think St. Augustine (and his mom) are "ROTCL" (rolling on the clouds, laughing) at this moment. The AMBER hunt, exhilarating as it can be, yields only several dozen appearances of "Augustine", some of which are not this Augustine, such as that other one "called Augustine, who brought Christianity to our little island" as Father Brown recalls. ("The Scandal of Father Brown") (That Augustine was Augustine of Canterbury; today's is Augustine of Hippo.)

But, at the risk of delaying our investigation still longer today, I must quote another reference, because it suggests an important intellectual method, one which even GKC uses. It might be called "the Osmosis of Ideas" and I think will help you with your study of GKC. So when you are ready for an Augustinian treat, and the next phase of our studies, you know what to do:

Click here!

This quote, which is not from Orthodoxy, is from a very important essay, his ILN for June 24, 1911, found in CW29, which (as usual) it seems GKC has altered since I read it last. It is worth a lot of study, which I have no time for, as it is about techniques of argument and important insights into knowledge and ideas. First, you must hear a line which is the essence of the Chestertonian approach to all this - what really is the Scholastic approach, too:
I am much too anxious to argue with him ever to wish to quarrel with him.
Superlative. Please recall this when you are faced with intellectual foes! Now, GKC is debating with Mr. Greenwood about whether Bunyan had ever studied, or even knew the works of some author he would most likely be in disagreement with. And here is what GKC said:
...suppose I said, "Could Bunyan quote from an ancient Latin author living near Carthage?" Mr. Greenwood would instinctively say "No." But when he found I meant St. Augustine, he would cry, "Stop; that is another matter. Bunyan might use a phrase of Augustine's, for two reasons. First, although he had not read Augustine, he must have read scores of Puritan theologians who had. And second, he was so eager on the same problems of grace and predestination, that he may have naturally come to the same cross-roads of controversy." When we breathe the air of his age we shall feel that Bunyan would know nothing of the Popes, but might get much from the Fathers.
You see, even if someone has not read Augustine, he may naturally "come to the same cross-roads of controversy". And so have we!

Yes, for today, in the next paragraphs of Orthodoxy we arrive at the cross-roads, where you may for the first time come to see just what it is that Chesterton was seeing, and so get a clue about why he proceeded as he did. Again we find him reviewing what he has just said in the last few pages, a review which brings up another, very difficult topic - the topic of suicide.
I put these things not in their mature logical sequence, but as they came: and this view was cleared and sharpened by an accident of the time. Under the lengthening shadow of Ibsen, an argument arose whether it was not a very nice thing to murder one's self. Grave moderns told us that we must not even say "fellow," of a man who had blown his brains out, since he was an enviable person, and had only blown them out because of their exceptional excellence. Mr. William Archer even suggested that in the golden age there would be penny-in-the-slot machines, by which a man could kill himself for a penny. In all this I found myself utterly hostile to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer's suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart. The man's crime is different from other crimes - for it makes even crimes impossible.
It would be hard to find a more penetrating (and yet still natural) argument against suicide than this. Note that the argument says nothing about soul or God or any of the usual issues of "moral theology" and yet it is strong, unanswerable, convincing. Perhaps even compelling. The astute reader will recall some echo of the policeman's words to Gabriel Syme on the nature of evil in The Man Who Was Thursday:
Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murderers respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fullness of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them to be lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people's.
[TMWWT CW6:509]
Yes, GKC's fiction and his non-fiction carry the same themes. I know this is difficult territory. Have courage and let us continue. We are going to see something very startling now. You need to remember about seeing, and the other lessons we've learned on the previous parts of our journey:
About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some freethinker: he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open fallacy of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads, and the queer fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide. For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr. Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers. All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there is the stake at the cross-roads to show what Christianity thought of the pessimist.
Again, one might search very long to find a more penetrating and in many ways a "natural" argument for martyrdom. Obviously there must be something natural in the choice, for the choice is natural - that is, it is a matter of human nature. One cannot be not a martyr in a trance or a dream or upon divine or even diabolical control. Martyrdom is powered by supernature, perhaps driven by supernature, maybe catalyzed by supernature, and unthinkable without supernature - but it isn't supernatural in quite that way - that is, that choice has been factored out of the personal equation. GKC has told us! It is a matter of the will, of "caring so much for something outside" that one forgets his own personal life - even something as dull as Euclidean geometry: "If human history and human variety teach us anything at all, it is supremely probable that there are men who would be stabbed in battle or burnt at the stake rather than admit that three angles of a triangle could be together greater than two right angles." ["A Defence of Bores" in Lunacy and Letters 59]

But we are not going to talk about that now, even though I live on a sphere and I've had to face triangles that total 270 degrees! Ah, Euclid. Ahem.

Haven't you been asking all these many weeks where the "Christianity" comes in? Well, it came in. Here it is. Yes, we are at the cross-roads, as Chesterton now explains, staring at the contrast of martyr and suicide:
This was the first of the long train of enigmas with which Christianity entered the discussion. And there went with it a peculiarity of which I shall have to speak more markedly, as a note of all Christian notions, but which distinctly began in this one. The Christian attitude to the martyr and the suicide was not what is so often affirmed in modern morals. It was not a matter of degree. It was not that a line must be drawn somewhere, and that the self-slayer in exaltation fell within the line, the self-slayer in sadness just beyond it. The Christian feeling evidently was not merely that the suicide was carrying martyrdom too far. The Christian feeling was furiously for one and furiously against the other: these two things that looked so much alike were at opposite ends of heaven and hell. One man flung away his life; he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence. Another man flung away life; he was so bad that his bones would pollute his brethren's. I am not saying this fierceness was right; but why was it so fierce?
Given the words like "degree" and "line" I think it's funny that we were just talking about geometry - but then I am easily amused. Recall also the famous epigram "Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere." [ILN May 5, 1928 CW 34:518] But we have something more important than art here. And it is this distinction which is so valuable to us here - this terrible sundering - the division as Christ Himself brought us, to the dismay of so many moderns, even in His time, simpering about "tolerance" and "unconditional love"! Or more pertinently, the distinction of ideas: what the Scholastics called the distinguo (I distinguish) in argument. And GKC recognized something about this, and knew - remember, all this argument we have been reading for all these pages is about his own studies and views, and not an attempt at explaining the existing "Christian" idea! But now, he recognized, as he said in the Introduction: "I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom." [CW1:214]


Our surprises are only beginning. All these weeks I have been using the analogy of a hike or journey through a vast and mountainous country. And we now find that GKC will use the analogy too:
Here it was that I first found that my wandering feet were in some beaten track. Christianity had also felt this opposition of the martyr to the suicide: had it perhaps felt it for the same reason? Had Christianity felt what I felt, but could not (and cannot) express - this need for a first loyalty to things, and then for a ruinous reform of things? Then I remembered that it was actually the charge against Christianity that it combined these two things which I was wildly trying to combine. Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic about the world. The coincidence made me suddenly stand still.
Stand! I hear that song by R.E.M. again. Think about direction. Ah, now, we see GKC reasoning by inference, going from an example to a larger view, dangerous sometimes, but useful if not excellent in all sciences. And as usual, he immediately tests his new tool:.
An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century. If a man believes in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe in any miracle in any age. If a man believes in a will behind law, he can believe in any miracle in any age. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we are concerned with a case of thaumaturgic healing. A materialist of the twelfth century could not believe it any more than a materialist of the twentieth century. But a Christian Scientist of the twentieth century can believe it as much as a Christian of the twelfth century. It is simply a matter of a man's theory of things. Therefore in dealing with any historical answer, the point is not whether it was given in our time, but whether it was given in answer to our question. And the more I thought about when and how Christianity had come into the world, the more I felt that it had actually come to answer this question.
We shall see more of the "answer" next time.

--Dr. Thursday

PS: In the quote from Heretics GKC quotes St. Augustine's Confessions 10:27:
"Sero te amavi pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova!"
which means
"Late have I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new!"


  1. Wow, Dr. Thursday, fantastic.

    I particularly liked the "osmosis of ideas" and yours and Chesterton's ability to see both the details and the larger meanings.

    This would be a very good discussion for a teen Socrates Cafe: What is the difference between martyrdom and suicide?

  2. Hello, could someone help me and tell me which book or publication is in line the next phrase attributed to Chesterton:

    "if the normal man of the past was a serious regard to property, could be very good it was because sometimes he had a property".



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