Thursday, October 02, 2008

GKC's Modems - or Subatomic Particles and Christianity?

Yes, GKC keeps feeding me these awesome titles, and such modern ones, too... ever since I found him using the word "modem" - which he didn't. (A modem - from MOdulator/DEModulator - is a device for converting one form of signal into another, such as used in connecting computers by telephone.) This oddity happened in an early stage of AMBER from an OCR mis-read of a too-closely-kerned "modern". Very funny. It reminds me of the famous goof Lewis puts in That Hideous Strength, something about "modern warfare trusting in CALVARY". Yes, the hill outside Jerusalem, not soldiers on horses, which is "cavalry". Very good.
Incidentally, I was examining a book on medieval music that quoted a text from 1326 which used the phrase "the moderns rejoice in brevity". I thought this was a good laugh against us, that people 700 years ago called themselves modern - and were.
I, though modern, find it hard to be brevity. I mean do brevity. Whatever. Hee hee. But that reminds me of a great GKC quip:
At a Distributist meeting someone said to Chesterton: "You seem to be enjoying yourself," and was told: "I always enjoy myself more than others, there's such a lot of me that's having a good time."
[Maisie Ward, Return To Chesterton 132]
Oh yes.

So you probably expect that today's "subatomic particles" are another odd form of typographical error, but the answer is no - GKC really does use a word which to someone like me (who has little Latin and less Greek) means a certain kind of subatomic particle - the meson, of middle weight between the light leptons (like the electron) and the heavy baryons (like the proton). But we are not having a lesson in particle physics today! (I know you're disappointed, but maybe another time, OK?) I draw your attention to it so that you will have a good sense of this very curious term when it comes up - it is a Greek term, and now that you know it has the sense of "the middle", you will readily grasp its use by GKC. Now don't get worried. If you are smelling something very technical, you are doing fine; there's going to be at least one very tech thing, or maybe even two things. It will be fun, and challenging, with lots of Greek and nuclear physics, and theology all rolled into a tasty concoction... So... what are you waiting for? Get your pole and some worms, and let's go fission! Hee hee.

((click here to go fission))

Before we begin, I find that I have overlooked a useful quote which paraphrases the rule - uh - we might call it "the Rule of the Smallest Giant" - which we studied last time. Here you go:
If you hear a thing being accused of being too tall and too short, too red and too green, too bad in one way and too bad also in the opposite way, then you may be sure that it is very good.
[GKC "The Macbeths" in The Spice of Life]
And it is well that we recall what it is we are examining. GKC has just called our attention to the strange (paradoxical, if you like) extremes that he has noted, which seem to be almost a trademark of Christianity. He mentioned several in the paragraphs we considered in the last two weeks, and I think we'll see some more in the future. As we begin our exploration today, we find that he again stops to review where he is:
I went over all the cases, and I found the key fitted so far. The fact that Swinburne was irritated at the unhappiness of Christians and yet more irritated at their happiness was easily explained. It was no longer a complication of diseases in Christianity, but a complication of diseases in Swinburne. The restraints of Christians saddened him simply because he was more hedonist than a healthy man should be. The faith of Christians angered him because he was more pessimist than a healthy man should be. In the same way the Malthusians by instinct attacked Christianity; not because there is anything especially anti-Malthusian about Christianity, but because there is something a little anti-human about Malthusianism.
I deferred comment about Swinburne; GKC mentions him some 300 times; most likely one might make a whole Master's degree - or a book comparable to Chesterton on Shakespeare - from a careful study of these quotes. (Let me know if you want to pursue either; I can give you the concordance entry.) I do not have the time (or the tools) to give you a good (or even an academic) study of Swinburne, especially in how he enters into GKC's argument - so I will give you something GKC wrote which I think summarises the point quite well. It's a poem, rather short, and very powerful, called:
Dolores Replies to Swinburne

Cold passions, and perfectly cruel,
Long odes that go on for an hour,
With a most economical jewel
And a quite metaphorical flower.
I implore you to stop it and stow it,
I adjure you, relent and refrain,
Oh, pagan Priapean poet,
You give me a pain.

I am sorry, old dear, if I hurt you,
No doubt it is all very nice
With the lilies and languors of virtue
And the raptures and roses of vice.
But the notion impels me to anger,
That vice is all rapture for me,
And if you think virtue is languor
Just try it and see.

We shall know when the critics discover
If your poems were shallow or deep;
Who read you from cover to cover,
Will know if they sleep not or sleep.
But you say I've endured through the ages
(Which is rude) as Our Lady of Pain,
You have said it for several pages,
So say it again.
[in Collected Poems (no, NOT CW10)]
Hilarious... This might be on a "Please Convert" card to be sent to atheists and such around Christmas... "If you think virtue is languor, Just try it and see." Very good. (It may send them to the dictionary to look up "languor" but that's also good. Hee hee.)

Ahem. Malthusians? We mentioned them last time - those are the ones who think humanity is a plague or infection of nature; they have other (often very scientific sounding) names now, like "environmentalists" and "pro-choice" and so on, since "misanthrope" sounds so alien and brutal. But GKC has them pinned very well - there is something a little anti-human about them. Yes. Well. Swinburne and Malthusians - some very dark stuff here, so, let us proceed:
Nevertheless it could not, I felt, be quite true that Christianity was merely sensible and stood in the middle. There was really an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism. It might be wise, I began more and more to think that it was wise, but it was not merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and respectable. Its fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other; still, the crusaders were very fierce and the saints were very meek, meek beyond all decency. Now, it was just at this point of the speculation that I remembered my thoughts about the martyr and the suicide. In that matter there had been this combination between two almost insane positions which yet somehow amounted to sanity. This was just such another contradiction; and this I had already found to be true. This was exactly one of the paradoxes in which sceptics found the creed wrong; and in this I had found it right. Madly as Christians might love the martyr or hate the suicide, they never felt these passions more madly than I had felt them long before I dreamed of Christianity. Then the most difficult and interesting part of the mental process opened, and I began to trace this idea darkly through all the enormous thoughts of our theology. The idea was that which I had outlined touching the optimist and the pessimist; that we want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning. Here I shall only trace it in relation to ethics. But I need not remind the reader that the idea of this combination is indeed central in orthodox theology. For orthodox theology has specially insisted that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God. Now let me trace this notion as I found it.
Wow. Are you overwhelmed by that? You ought to be. The argument which simply seemed to be a strange view of the very odd Christians who seem to somehow combine the most irreconcilable opposites - but was at least limited to things one can actually see around ourselves - things like (to pick one GKC will mention on a future page) celibacy and also families with lots of children - the argument suddenly crashes into one of those deep, low-level mathematical complexities! And one that even the great theologians call a Mystery - that's Mystery-with-a-capital-M! The hard one called the "hypostatic union", stated in the Quicunque or "Athanasian" Creed ("perfect God, perfect man") which GKC quotes as "very man and very God"; the same as is paraphrased in the "Divine Praises": "Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man." Ah-ha! you ought to say! Now, you begin to see (finally) what's going on. No, there's no trick. You're carried away by "verbal fireworks" again. It's almost an aside - but what an aside! Suddenly you see what I tried to say earlier: GKC is by no means the inventor of paradoxes - he just writes about them. They're already there. But now, since we've picked up on this deep math, maybe we can see a bit more as we proceed. This isn't cheating, oh no. Say you read a mystery story for the second time (Some I've read multiple times: I'm re-reading The Lord of the Rings for perhaps the 20th time, having first read it 30 years ago.) You cannot help but recall the solution to the puzzle, even as you begin your journey. Yet you can delight in the encounter of the tiniest of clues. (For example, I badly wanted to know who held the three Elven rings, and a seeming chance line in The Hobbit reveals one hiding place.) Ahem. The same happens here. GKC is telling us about his adventure, his journey... and he will at length talk much more about such Mysteries, but here it is just the chance sight of something far more vast than the puzzle of the suicide-versus-martyr he mentioned last week!

I have digressed, but I think it is worth the digression. The chasm between love and hate is nothing compared to the utter divide between God and Man... and yet here (as GKC observes) we see the two being combined. Now, (as he says) let us proceed to "trace the notion" and we shall also find our sub-atomic particle making its appearance:
All sane men can see that sanity is some kind of equilibrium; that one may be mad and eat too much, or mad and eat too little. Some moderns have indeed appeared with vague versions of progress and evolution which seeks to destroy the meson or balance of Aristotle. They seem to suggest that we are meant to starve progressively, or to go on eating larger and larger breakfasts every morning for ever. But the great truism of the meson remains for all thinking men, and these people have not upset any balance except their own. But granted that we have all to keep a balance, the real interest comes in with the question of how that balance can be kept. That was the problem which Paganism tried to solve: that was the problem which I think Christianity solved and solved in a very strange way.
What is meson? That's pronounced "meson" - it's Greek, and means "middle". The "middle" - which Aristotle called the "mean" (or balance). There is a famous Latin epigram from Ovid's Metamorphoses: medio tutissimus ibis which means "You will go more safely in the middle" - GKC considers it and forms what a casual reader (or critic) might suspect is his own counterargument to what he is here saying. Here's the beginning:
All thinking people for thousands of years have agreed that, when all is said and done, there is such a thing as a golden mean, though perhaps the particular phrase is not very satisfactory. The true ideal is, rather, equilibrium, or, in other words, uprightness. There is something rather mean about the word "mean"; yet it is by no means easy to suggest a substitute devoid of such idle associations. No one can well be expected to talk idealistically about his "middle"; "balance" is associated with arithmetic and finance; while "medium" is associated with Spiritualism and with some sorts of gum. The schoolboy made a good shot at it when he translated 'medio tutissimus ibis' as "the ibis is always safest in the middle." But under whatever form we take it, that ibis of the higher moderation, a chivalric and passionate moderation, must always be the crest of Christendom and of all sane civilisation. Unless that sagacious bird is allowed to be in the middle, there will be no place for the pelican of charity, the owl of wisdom, or the dove of peace.
But though, as I say, anyone who thinks can see that in almost everything both extremes are suicidal and diabolist, this argument is used in some cases to which it does not apply. There are a large number of simple cases in which one man errs in one direction and one in another: one is a miser and the other a spendthrift; one is violent and another tame. But besides these simple cases there are a considerable number of cases in which what we call the two opposite evils are really two slightly disguised versions of exactly the same evil. We are plagued not only with false assertions, but with false alternatives. We have to steer our way not so much between Scylla and Charybdis as between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
[ILN Jan 20 1912 CW29:226-7]
I won't wreck the fun for you; you will have to read it yourself. Maybe if I ever get done with this series I will explore it; it will be fun. But as the Scholastics would say, we shall have to use distinguo when we do - we must distinguish very carefully what is going on. (Well, we ought to do this always...) The point that GKC makes in the ILN essay is the erroneous combination (or exclusion) of extremes (which can happen - in the ILN article he examines "constructive" versus "destructive") - whereas the point he is making in Orthodoxy is that there are seeming contradictions which can and do combine. Here, as he goes on to say, we are up against a very strange situation:
Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously. Let us follow for a moment the clue of the martyr and the suicide; and take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. "He that will lose his life, the same shall save it," is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage, which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a disdain of life.
Of course that paragraph contains just about the funniest bit we've come to, given that I have drawn the analogy that we are on a hike! But really, it is quite true, and very insightful, and not just in the case of mountaineering or such things. I have no idea if GKC's very curious commentary of this Gospel verse about saving one's life [Mt 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24 & 17:33] has ever been studied by theologians or bible scholars, and in some way it is irrelevant if it had been. He is not doing that kind of thing. He is merely noting the paradox inherent in Christ's words, and fitting that piece of puzzle into the larger picture, since he has now caught on to what the "picture on the puzzlebox" is showing!

But let us proceed to unpack this. There's a nice cross-link to fiction here, with perhaps the greatest of GKC's statements about anthropology:
[Professor Lucifer said:] "The globe is inevitable. The cross is arbitrary. Above all the globe is at unity with itself; the cross is primarily and above all things at enmity with itself. The cross is the conflict of two hostile lines, of irreconcilable direction. That silent thing up there is essentially a collision, a crash, a struggle in stone. Pah! that sacred symbol of yours has actually given its name to a description of desperation and muddle. When we speak of men at once ignorant of each other and frustrated by each other, we say they are at cross-purposes. Away with the thing! The very shape of it is a contradiction in terms."
"What you say is perfectly true," said Michael, with serenity. "But we like contradictions in terms. Man is a contradiction in terms; he is a beast whose superiority to other beasts consists in having fallen. That cross is, as you say, an eternal collision; so am I. That is a struggle in stone. Every form of life is a struggle in flesh. The shape of the cross is irrational, just as the shape of the human animal is irrational.
[GKC, The Ball and the Cross]
But that is just for your reference; it might get us a little too far off the issues. But it helps, because I am determined that you learn how to use this distinguo tool, as it is very important in our work! You ought to have noted that there really are two things going on here, though both have to do with extremes:
1. Extremes that are in contradiction, but can somehow exist at once. The best, but hardest, example is the one about Jesus being "very God and very man".
2. Extremes that look similar (or even identical) and yet are in reality opposite, only one of which is good, acceptable, permitted. The chief example GKC uses is that of suicides vs. martyrs.
OK, you see? Now what about something innocuous, like say red and green? Well, we already saw such a quote earlier today, but here's one we shall see in the next week or so:
It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasised celibacy and emphasised the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink.
Now as one who has spent a little time with heraldry, I can tell you that there's good reasons for the use of the strong colours on shields - I have used this to good advantage at work when I designed the monitoring tools for our Control Room. What GKC does not say here is that there is a design - a reason for the striking - for this violent clash of bold colours, or of seeming opposite virtues - but you may recall he hinted at this before: "There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently." [CW1:268]

Ah-squared! you should shout! Is this - could this be - a Chestertonian "Argument from Art" for the existence of God? That's perhaps a subject for you to do a theology paper (or doctorate) on - if you dare. But let us stay with art and with colours, since they are lots easier and familiar - and less debatable. Pink is a watered-down red, or a tainted white - he's not despising its possible use in art in general, but in heraldry, which is an applied art - for heraldry, colours have to "work" and not just "be pretty". (The closest you can come to this truth in the modern world is from the colours actually used on highway signs, which obey the same law!) This rather strange view about "work" results in all kinds of hassles, such as the one that occurs when something "academic" (sometimes called "scientific") is brought into application in the "real world" of industry (sometimes called "engineering")... But then GKC tells us that the common sense of Thomism "is the only working philosophy ... is quite obviously a working and even a fighting system; full of common sense and constructive confidence; and therefore normally full of hope and promise." [GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:542, 545] We're not talking about an abstract hike, but a real one - we must be quite daring. The things GKC is telling us are about a real philosophy, and indeed a real religion - a way of life, some thing a man can actually live in, or by, not a funny little puzzle for a journal. All this discussion we have had over these past months is something far more practical than most of the typical "religious" books or "studies" of Christianity, and perhaps that is why some people find Orthodoxy unsettling. It's because one who reads it finds himself compelled to re-examine what he is doing... it's so real, and has such real application. But then that's the same point Jesus was trying to get across: it's not something abstract, it's really about your neighbour...

Maybe one starts to understand why GKC is not liked in our modern world. He's a bit too much like the Everlasting Man for some of us to feel comfortable with.

That's why it is a good thing for us to read this book - and re-read this book. We need to know the tech parts behind the stuff we already know, and it's not going to happen by putting it under our pillows. We have to get out the slide rules - I mean the calculators - and the notebooks (oh, that works both ways, doesn't it!) and get to work.

--Dr. Thursday

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