Thursday, September 18, 2008

Turnips and Taximeter Cabs

You, courageous reader, must often wonder why a computer scientist deals with Chesterton, DNA, fiction, astronomy, Catholicism, Latin and Greek, children's stories, and all the other odd things I mention from time to time. Speaking strictly from the professional, rather than from the personal, view, it is simple to explain. Computer science might be (in a broad sense) called "applied mathematics", or perhaps the Engineering branch of the Mathematical Science... it is applied, you see, to anything and everything which may need or benefit from its assistance. Clearly I do not use software to make my coffee, or my brownies, or to select the colours for my artwork, or to assist me when I go to Holy Mass, or to write poetry. But computing is a Chestertonian discipline, indeed a catholic discipline, unlike most other branches of engineering. It has come to serve, and so it has the Chestertonian perspective of things. (Of course it is possible I am merely trying to explain how my Catholicism has "leavened" my profession, but such things are beyond analysis.)

Have I fallen into the trap of making all things a nut because I can use a nutcracker? No; not in the slightest do I suggest that all matters must somehow be dealt with by computing. No. Some silly critics seem to think that our beloved Uncle Gilbert treats all things as literature - again, no. But literature - I mean real literature - is also a form of Engineering. I have no time now to argue that, but when the precision of the written word fails to express one's meaning, or when it conveys a great evil, it does far more damage than the failure of any number of bridges or power plants. But computing or literature is just a term for expression - what I mean is that the person who does these things in a professional and honest human manner finds that he will be dealing with all manner of subjects as he proceeds, and like a grand minestrone, each ingredient enriches the whole, and subtlely alters and is altered by the other ingredients. For example, there is a very famous children's book which ought to be required reading for every computer scientist. No, besides the Alice books! I mean Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, one of my favourite Chestertonian books that wasn't by GKC. It has all the warfare of The Lord of the Rings with a grand admixture of verbal and mathematical puns, and deals with very Chestertonian topics like boredom or the division between words and numbers... Ahem.

However, this column is not a review of that book. And no, it's not about me, or about computing. Or cooking! (I thought I said I wouldn't write these before lunch. Hmm.) I have brought up this dull matter because I want you to share in that perspective that Chesterton wrote about, which is truly catholic - not in the liturgical or doctrinal sense, but in the Greek sense, which is "universal" - it touches, assists with, is interested in all things. That is why today's title is "Turnips and Taximeter Cabs", which comes from today's selection from Orthodoxy. There are other titles from other sources I could have used: "From Pork to Pyrotechnics" has the fun of alliteration, and "Pigs or the Binomial Theory" has a challenging alternative. What? Yes, this column is about Chesterton - it's supposed to be, anyway, if I can ever get started - but really it is about God. But you need the context, like this:

"I would undertake to pick up any topic at random, from pork to pyrotechnics, and show that it illustrates the truth of the only true philosophy; so realistic is the remark that all roads lead to Rome." [The Thing CW3:189]

"You cannot evade the issue of God; whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him." [Daily News, Dec. 12th, 1903 quoted in Maycock, The Man Who Was Orthodox]

But this idea is not original with GKC. You can find it in the Psalms:

"How great are thy works, O Lord! Thou hast made all things in wisdom: the earth is filled with thy riches." [Ps 103(104):24]

All things. As I said, a catholic view. Yes, this is overwhelming. And this is how Chesterton begins in today's excerpt...

((read more))

You may recall last week we heard the famous list of things why one might prefer civilisation: the bookcase, the coal in the coal-scuttle, the piano, the policemen... what things do you find useful or delightful there, in your office or home or wherever you may be? No - what things do you find useful or delightful in your Home, here in the Cosmos? All manner... you would be busy all day and all night, like Bing Crosby in "White Christmas" counting your blessings instead of sheep. This vastness of examples can make things harder, not easier - especially when we are trying to understand what every one of those things are screaming at us. For they are all telling us, quite loudly, a certain truth. Now, what happens? Here's what GKC noticed:
There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin. All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab. But if I am to be at all careful about making my meaning clear, it will, I think, be wiser to continue the current arguments of the last chapter, which was concerned to urge the first of these mystical coincidences, or rather ratifications. All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen; and I cannot understand any one passing the age of seventeen without having asked himself so simple a question. I did, indeed, retain a cloudy reverence for a cosmic deity and a great historical interest in the Founder of Christianity. But I certainly regarded Him as a man; though perhaps I thought that, even in that point, He had an advantage over some of His modern critics. I read the scientific and sceptical literature of my time - all of it, at least, that I could find written in English and lying about; and I read nothing else; I mean I read nothing else on any other note of philosophy. The penny dreadfuls which I also read were indeed in a healthy and heroic tradition of Christianity; but I did not know this at the time. I never read a line of Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now. It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the freethinkers unsettled the mind. They do. They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll's atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke across my mind, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." I was in a desperate way.
What is a "taximeter cab"? That's the "full name" of what we now call a "taxi". A "taximeter" is a gadget that measures how far the vehicle has gone, and shows the charge (the "tax") which you owe for the journey. I won't define turnip, but I must point out that the term has a somewhat different sense for GKC than it might for us. They use turnips as we use pumpkins(I can just imagine a cartoon version of "It's the Great Turnip, GKC!" Hee hee.) and also as a mild insult: "Lord, what a turnip I am!" Father Brown remarked when Flambeau casually handed him the solution to a mystery. ["The Honour of Israel Gow" in The Innocence of Father Brown] How about a "penny dreadful"? A "story book full of horrors" - the kind of cheap entertainment young people liked a century ago - but which still contained important moral lessons. [I have no room here to discuss them, but see GKC's "defence" of them in his The Defendant.] And these folk: Huxley here means Thomas (1825-95) called "Darwin's Bulldog" for his work in supporting Darwin's views; Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a philosopher also connected with Darwin; Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91) was a freethinker; Tom Paine (1737-1809) was an American political philosopher.

Here we see GKC giving a summary of his own intellectual development. There is a famous line of C. S. Lewis to the effect that a young atheist cannot be too careful about what he reads - he meant because when he was an atheist, he happened to read a book which convinced him of certain truths of Christianity... what book? Oh, GKC's The Everlasting Man. (That's reported in CSL's Surprised by Joy if I recall correctly.) But here (oh I can hardly keep my typing straight, I am laughing so hard) we see a perfect Chestertonian inversion! GKC seems to say he was "converted" by the humanists, the rationalists, the neo-pagan and the anti-Christian writers he was reading! Ha HA! Yes, because if you by any chance become serious about that modern attitude called "questioning authority" or "relativity" or "tolerance" or "openmindedness" - sooner or later, if you are serious, you MUST apply that attitude to itself. Like this: "WHY must I question authority? Who are YOU to tell me that I must do such a thing, imposing your doubt on me?" Or: "What do you mean everything is relative? If that were true, I can readily select any number of absolutes - and you must not mind at all!" Or: "Where do you get off telling me to be openminded/judgemental/tolerant? You are being the very reverse of what you wish me to be, closeminded to me, judgemental of me, intolerant of me!" Ah, what a relief to hear Chesterton debunk these dull old failed philosophies. But no. He didn't just debunk them. They were the very means he used to recover Christianity.

Then there is this: "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." Do you know what that is? It is what King Agrippa said to St. Paul - see Acts 26:28. Please get out your Bible and read that part (chapter 26), very exciting. But think: in GKC's case, we do not see a great Christian arguing for Christianity. No, it was some of Christianity's greatest recent foes - and from their work Chesterton found himself strongly attracted to Christianity! He proceeds to explain:
This odd effect of the great agnostics in arousing doubts deeper than their own might be illustrated in many ways. I take only one. As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind - the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction in the sceptical attack. I give four or five of them; there are fifty more.
Yes. You can find this today, in the silly Media: TV, radio, and newspapers - or in the even sillier blogg-postings and rantings and commentaries. Watch for it. It's funny. But let us see GKC's examples, which will help attune you to what to watch for:
Thus, for instance, I was much moved by the eloquent attack on Christianity as a thing of inhuman gloom; for I thought (and still think) sincere pessimism the unpardonable sin. Insincere pessimism is a social accomplishment, rather agreeable than otherwise; and fortunately nearly all pessimism is insincere. But if Christianity was, as these people said, a thing purely pessimistic and opposed to life, then I was quite prepared to blow up St. Paul's Cathedral. But the extraordinary thing is this. They did prove to me in Chapter I. (to my complete satisfaction) that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II., they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic. One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men, by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in the bosom of Nature. But another accusation was that it comforted men with a fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery. One great agnostic asked why Nature was not beautiful enough, and why it was hard to be free. Another great agnostic objected that Christian optimism, "the garment of make-believe woven by pious hands," hid from us the fact that Nature was ugly, and that it was impossible to be free. One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool's paradise. This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent. Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask on a black world. The state of the Christian could not be at once so comfortable that he was a coward to cling to it, and so uncomfortable that he was a fool to stand it. If it falsified human vision it must falsify it one way or another; it could not wear both green and rose-coloured spectacles. I rolled on my tongue with a terrible joy, as did all young men of that time, the taunts which Swinburne hurled at the dreariness of the creed -
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilaean, the world has grown gray with Thy breath.
But when I read the same poet's accounts of paganism (as in "Atalanta"), I gathered that the world was, if possible, more gray before the Galilaean breathed on it than afterwards. The poet maintained, indeed, in the abstract, that life itself was pitch dark. And yet, somehow, Christianity had darkened it. The very man who denounced Christianity for pessimism was himself a pessimist. I thought there must be something wrong. And it did for one wild moment cross my mind that, perhaps, those might not be the very best judges of the relation of religion to happiness who, by their own account, had neither one nor the other.
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was an English poet; I don't presently have his works to give you detailed citations that GKC mentions - but GKC tells us what we need to know. Ah, do you see? Haven't we all heard the "media" say "Oh, how terrible celibacy is!" and then a few moments later "Oh, how terrible it is to have so many children!" Yes, sheer delight, and a perfect intellectual argument for Christianity, which has a reasoned way of having both. We shall see much more on this as we proceed. But we need to have this odd contradiction well in hand, so let us hear some more:
It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices; but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape. At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.
OK, I gave you a hint, way back at the beginning, that we would hear from the Chestertonian book called The Phantom Tollbooth. Anyone remember? Milo and the Watchdog and the Humbug are wandering in the woods and come to a little house where lives the world's tallest midget, and the shortest giant, and the thinnest fat man, and the widest thin man? Ah, yes... I am not saying Norton Juster was quoting (or even paraphrasing) GKC here - I am saying that both have gotten onto an important insight. Juster reveals something to Milo, our young hero, and GKC reveals something to us. But maybe this is still not clear, so GKC will try again. This time I think you will easily recognize usual nonsense the Media likes to spew:
Here is another case of the same kind. I felt that a strong case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called "Christian," especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting. The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile. Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley, in a reticent way, were decidedly men. In comparison, it did seem tenable that there was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels. The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep. I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different. I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned upside down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Leon did. The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes. What could it all mean? What was this Christianity which always forbade war and always produced wars? What could be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight, and second because it was always fighting? In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness? The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant.
Richard Coeur de Leon, or the Lion-heart, (1157-1199) was King of England; he fought in the Third Crusade. Thomas Cromwell (1485?-1540) was an adviser to Henry VIII, confiscating monasteries and so on. Alva is Fernando Alvarez de Toledo (1507-1582) tyrannical governor of the Netherlands.

I feel I ought to say something about this war business, since it always comes up in Chestertonian discussions, either when people find out GKC liked swords, or always had people duelling, or something. They make the usual Media-inspired mistake of failing to grasp something very important about fighting in general, which was all argued out in detail by Aquinas and even in more recent documents - but has its roots in the Christian Gospels. However, rather than giving my own reasoning, I will just give you a starting point from GKC, writing about what a man who actually reads the Gospels will find:
...he would not find a word of all that obvious rhetoric against war which has filled countless books and odes and orations; not a word about the wickedness of war, the wastefulness of war, the appalling scale of the slaughter in war and all the rest of the familiar frenzy; indeed not a word about war at all. There is nothing that throws any particular light on Christ's attitude towards organised warfare, except that he seems to have been rather fond of Roman soldiers.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:323]
To which I affix these references if you wish to learn more: Mt 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10; also Summa Theologica II-II Q40 A1.

Now we are not done. I have broken the argument here, because GKC proceeds to another demonstration, and I think it will work better next time, as it takes us onward to new discoveries. For now, if you have a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth in the house, or can borrow it from the library - or (even better) get yourself a copy to have around - I suggest you read (or re-read) it. Go over these demonstrations, and think about them, ponder the contradictions.. we are going to see more, and come to a very satisfactory grasp of what is going on. Also, I wish that you pay attention to the next time the Media gurgles about some Christian thing, and see how their silly views will assist you in becoming more firmly convinced, as GKC was... it takes a little thought, but it is not hard. You will get additional insights as we proceed; this is some of the meatiest and most gratifying work of the book.

--Dr. Thursday

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