Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Power Of Little Words And Ten Percent of Chesterton

Well... actually the title ought to be "The Of And".

Yes, this is the usual Thursday posting in our on-going study of Orthodoxy. Sometimes it takes some energy to find just the right way of framing the topic of the week. Today, "The Of And" is exactly what I want to say.

The Of And? What does that mean? Are you writing this before lunch again, Doctor? Oh, no. Maybe too many beers? No beers were used in the concoction either. (Hmm: maybe that would help... I'll try beer next week.)

Well, it means two things, as usual. First I will tell you the easy-to-explain meaning. These three words - the, of, and - account for over ten percent of the more than 9 million words of Chesterton (and related authors) in the AMBER collection as of the last time I did any statistical analysis:

Total words: 9095714
the 469924
of 281584
and 208931

But "the of and" also means "this particular something which belongs to the coupling conjunction" - that is, the very special quality of the union, the joiner, the added-together, the in-both-at-once operator that we write as kai or et or y or or "&".... No, I am not really going to spend time talking about Boolean Algebra today, though that would be fun. Or poke the Latinists by asking what the genitive of et should be. That would be fun too. But perhaps I ought to bring up the classic example anyway, just to set the proper mood:
Mom: Do you want ice cream or cake?
Kids: YES!
All this goes to show is that the kids know "the of and".

And so does Chesterton - or I should say, so does Christianity. And Chesterton wrote about it in the paragraphs we shall now examine.

(( click here to

The trick which the kids know - and Chesterton noted as being demonstrated within Christianity - is that what "Mom" (or the world) proposes as seeming opposites, what computer people call "XOR" - the exclusive or - the conjunction which means one-or-the-other-but-not both - that is, two seemingly incompatible things, only one of which is to be chosen - the trick is to have both of them. Maybe this is the real meaning about that verse: "Unless you change and become like little children" you will never have both ice cream and cake! But let us hear Chesterton present this in his own way:
And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism - the "resignation" of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them.
We heard about Matthew Arnold back on CW1:275; Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was a dark German philosopher and pessimist. Alice? Well, no doubt you know her already, but she needs some introduction here.
I think that I have said somewhere that Chesterton's most powerful work has been about humility and pride, and it bears repeating, just as it bears study. We ought to re-read his "If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach" essay every year, and think about it - at Lent if at no other time - since we need to come to understand what true humility is, (it does not mean being a doormat) and how horrible true pride is (it does not mean hiding your talents - even Jesus criticised that in Mt 25:14-30.) Earlier in this book we heard how even fairy tales help us with that most important lesson, how "Cindarella" teaches same the grand thought as the Magnificat: "exaltavit humiles" = "He has lifted up the humble" (see CW1:253 quoting Lk 1:52) Here GKC links in the same lesson from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the great mathematical treatise of C. L. ("Lewis Carroll") Dodgson, sometimes called a modern fairy-tale. Remember how I said it is the first (and last) lesson for a scientist? He must be SMALL before the world, if he is to learn what the world is. He cannot make it to be what he thinks it is! You need not know very much Greek at all (and I know so little) to marvel at the truth of this phrase: "Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland" - for the name "Alice" comes from Aletheia, the Greek word for Truth. Obviously there now ought to be some comment here about the mystery of the Word-Made-Flesh, the God Who said "I am the Truth" [Jn 14:6] dwelling as the single human cell within Mary - but I must leave that for another time and place. You must ponder "Truth Made Small" for yourself.
But you may think I am neglecting pride. That of course is a far harder matter to discourse upon, because at first it may look like we are condoning a crime, and pride is the worst crime of all - as the common man in the pub said about the proud visitor: "He comes in here and he thinks he's God Almighty". You need to read that essay about Pride, because then you will realise that there really is a place for pride as well. But I cannot quote it here, nor is it necessary, for Chesterton proceeds to give an almost identical argument.
It [Christianity] separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both. In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny - all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard. When one came to think of one's self, there was vista and void enough for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the realistic gentleman could let himself go - as long as he let himself go at himself. There was an open playground for the happy pessimist. Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned fool (though that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools are not worth saving. He must not say that a man, quâ man, can be valueless. Here, again in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one's self. One can hardly think too much of one's soul.
There are a few references for us to note before we proceed. The reference to Ecclesiastes might be 3:19: "Therefore the death of man, and of beasts is one, and the condition of them both is equal: as man dieth, so they also die: all things breathe alike, and man hath nothing more than beast: all things are subject to vanity." The reference to Homer may possibly be this from Book XVIII of the Odyssey: "Man is the vainest of all creatures that have their being upon earth. As long as heaven vouchsafes him health and strength, he thinks that he shall come to no harm hereafter, and even when the blessed gods bring sorrow upon him, he bears it as he needs must, and makes the best of it; for God Almighty gives men their daily minds day by day." There may be an allusion to Genesis 1:28, where God orders the newly created Man and Woman to "fill the earth, and subdue it". The peacock plumage gives us a link to fiction, in the story called "The House of the Peacock" in The Poet and the Lunatics which links these feathers to pride, and is well worth considering:
"...what, for instance, can be the basis of objecting to peacocks' feathers?"
Crundle was replying with a joyful roar that it was some infernal rubbish or other, when Gale, who had quickly slipped into a seat beside the man called Noel, interposed in a conversational manner.
"I fancy I can throw a little light on that. I believe I found a trace of it in looking at some old illuminated manuscripts of the ninth or tenth century. There is a very curious design, in a stiff Byzantine style, representing the two armies preparing for the war in heaven. But St. Michael is handing out spears to the good angels; while Satan is elaborately arming the rebel angels with peacocks' feathers."
Noel turned his hollow eyes sharply in the direction of the speaker. "That is really interesting," he said; "you mean it was all that old theological notion of the wickedness of pride?"
"Well, there's a whole peacock in the garden for you to pluck," cried Crundle in his boisterous manner, "if any of you want to go out fighting angels."
"They are not very effective weapons," said Gale gravely, "and I fancy that is what the artist in the Dark Ages must have meant. There seems to me to be something that rather hits the wrong imperialism in the right place, about the contrast in the weapon; the fact that the right side was arming for a real and therefore doubtful battle, while the wrong side was already, so to speak, handing out the palms of victory. You cannot fight anybody with the palms of victory."
Very significant. (Incidentally, if you ever come across such a painting, please let us know!) The Latin word quâ here means "in the character or capacity of" or simply "as": thus GKC is saying "a man, as man". The point of linking "Calvinist" with "damned" comes from the usual attitude of Calvinists - just about all humans are damned - but it is not really worth exploring such a dead-end heresy. Instead, let us turn to the larger matters of this paragraph.
The summary phrase you might record in your notebook is this:

Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.

Which of course is the secret of "The Of And" I want you to consider! But there is another phrase which jumps out, which perhaps is the real solution to the as-yet undiscovered "GKC quote" about his supposed answer to the media-posed question, "What's Wrong With the World?" It is said (but not in any document so far uncovered) that he wrote:
Dear Editor:
I am.
Sincerely, G. K. Chesterton.
But we have just seen a phrase giving a parallel insight, and in it we see the marvel and power of little words - the word "a" comes fourth on the list, ranking just below "and". But look at this again, and think about it:
In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures.
In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.
GKC is not giving us a precise piece of math to clarify the pride/humility puzzle - he is giving us a very shocking example. Next week we shall hear another treatment of this same matter, which I think might do well to quote for you now:
Any one might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel"; and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger and there you can grovel" - that was an emancipation.
Remember how I keep insisting on the mighty distinguo = "I distinguish", the power of discrimination? It is a two-ended tool: it enables the telling apart two things, sometimes insanely similar - and also the sensing the commonality of things that are impossibly distant! All this is the extreme case, which is what we expect when dealing with extremes.

Now, I have belabored this humble topic at length so let us follow GKC as he applies this furious method again:
Take another case: the complicated question of charity, which some highly uncharitable idealists seem to think quite easy. Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly, charity certainly means one of two things - pardoning unpardonable acts, or loving unlovable people. But if we ask ourselves (as we did in the case of pride) what a sensible pagan would feel about such a subject, we shall probably be beginning at the bottom of it. A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive, and some one couldn't: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at; a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed even after he was killed. In so far as the act was pardonable, the man was pardonable. That again is rational, and even refreshing; but it is a dilution. It leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice, such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it leaves no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole fascination of the charitable. Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all. It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger and partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.
Ah, the power of division! And people say Orthodoxy doesn't have a lot about Christ? But Who was it that said: "Think ye, that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, no; but separation. For there shall be from henceforth five in one house divided: three against two, and two against three." [Lk 12:51-52] Again, I doubt that any serious bible scholar has looked to GKC in the study of these verses, and yet here is a light which helps understand something. We have this other, most mathematical quote about 70 times 7 [See Mt 18:21-22] which might have a comic drawing with Peter working it out and getting 490, and Jesus saying something like "your math is fine, but not your theology." Jesus forgives sin, and tells sinners "Go and sin no more" - He never but never says there isn't any such thing as sin! As if to clarify it beyond doubt, He even gives a most terrifying view of where sin ends - in the eternal city dump. But this implies the mystery of choice and will, and that powerful word "liberty"...

What does GKC mean about good things running wild? Well, this goes into some technical stuff which we might call the ontology of liberty, and GKC answers succinctly: "What exactly is liberty? First and foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing to be itself." ["The Yellow Bird" in The Poet and the Lunatics] You note that it is good things which are to run wild. If you do not understand the qualifier he uses, you will have a good example if you read that short story. But you see there really is something going on - it is the idea of order - of the right use, the right place, of things. Rules (good rules, that is) produce freedom: liberty means that good things that can run wild. And this is what GKC now examines:
Mental and emotional liberty are not so simple as they look. Really they require almost as careful a balance of laws and conditions as do social and political liberty. The ordinary aesthetic anarchist who sets out to feel everything freely gets knotted at last in a paradox that prevents him feeling at all. He breaks away from home limits to follow poetry. But in ceasing to feel home limits he has ceased to feel the "Odyssey." He is free from national prejudices and outside patriotism. But being outside patriotism he is outside "Henry V." Such a literary man is simply outside all literature: he is more of a prisoner than any bigot. For if there is a wall between you and the world, it makes little difference whether you describe yourself as locked in or as locked out. What we want is not the universality that is outside all normal sentiments; we want the universality that is inside all normal sentiments. It is all the difference between being free from them, as a man is free from a prison, and being free of them as a man is free of a city. I am free from Windsor Castle (that is, I am not forcibly detained there), but I am by no means free of that building. How can man be approximately free of fine emotions, able to swing them in a clear space without breakage or wrong? This was the achievement of this Christian paradox of the parallel passions. Granted the primary dogma of the war between divine and diabolic, the revolt and ruin of the world, their optimism and pessimism, as pure poetry, could be loosened like cataracts.
Again we see some power of the little words "of" and "from"... but the rest is sheer pudding, sweet and easy to swallow. Which may mean we are missing something. I once tried to write something about liberty and said (as an example) how traffic laws make it possible for a road to be a road - since we abide by the laws (most of the time) the road can actually take us from one place to another. If we decided to ignore something fundamental - say the direction of a highway - we would very quickly have such an insane jam of cars no one would get anywhere. GKC uses the literary analogy, and does a better job: the horror of that wall (locked in or locked out, don't matter none) ought to shock the modern lit'ry man to his senses. But just in case you didn't get the reference to Homer or to Shakespeare, GKC will give more examples:
St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer. Both passions were free because both were kept in their place. The optimist could pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march, the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle. But he must not call the fight needless. The pessimist might draw as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds. But he must not call the fight hopeless. So it was with all the other moral problems, with pride, with protest, and with compassion. By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists. Meekness grew more dramatic than madness. Historic Christianity rose into a high and strange coup de theâtre of morality - things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are to vice. The spirits of indignation and of charity took terrible and attractive forms, ranging from that monkish fierceness that scourged like a dog the first and greatest of the Plantagenets, to the sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles, kissed the bloody head of the criminal. Poetry could be acted as well as composed. This heroic and monumental manner in ethics has entirely vanished with supernatural religion. They, being humble, could parade themselves: but we are too proud to be prominent. Our ethical teachers write reasonably for prison reform; but we are not likely to see Mr. Cadbury, or any eminent philanthropist, go into Reading Gaol and embrace the strangled corpse before it is cast into the quicklime. Our ethical teachers write mildly against the power of millionaires; but we are not likely to see Mr. Rockefeller, or any modern tyrant, publicly whipped in Westminster Abbey.
Some more references to clarify: the French phrase coup de theâtre means a sudden, sensational turn of events (on stage or elsewhere); Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was an American poet, full of praise for common things, which GKC liked very much. St. Francis of Assisi wrote the great "Canticle of the Creatures". St. Jerome (ca. 342-ca. 420) was the great translator of the Bible, but had his dark and argumentative side. St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80) a Doctor of the Church, really did hold the head of Nicholas di Toldo as he was executed, and kissed it - she had won him over from raging anger against God to repentance for his sins, and he died saying "Jesus and Catherine". Cadbury was the famous English chocolate maker; "gaol" is an alternative spelling for "jail". Ah, but the "scourging of the first Plantagenet" - that was the public whipping of King Henry II (1133-89) for the murder of Thomas Becket, also called "of Canterbury", the great English martyr and saint, whose tomb was despoliated by Henry VIII.

What more is there to say? We must hear GKC, and he will give us more examples, and a handy image to remember the method, the image of the Red Cross, and a "healthy hatred of pink":
Thus, the double charges of the secularists, though throwing nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light on the faith. 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. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray. In fact, the whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized in the statement that white is a colour: not merely the absence of a colour. All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.
I spoke last week about heraldry and the importance of strong colours, but I might call attention to the additional images we have, especially "white is a colour". Any artist knows this, just as black is also a colour:
Black is a bad modifier [of other paints] but it is an interesting color in itself. ... If you look at black as a color with its own unique properties, then you'll see why the Chinese masters considered black the most exciting color of all.
[Wendon Blake, Acrylic Painting: A Complete Guide 23]
Yes, I do acrylic painting on occasion, but I am not going into the principles of pigments nor of lights just now. I was thinking rather of the Transfiguration: "And his garments became shining and exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller upon earth can make white." [Mk 9:2] (A fuller is a bleach.) There is much more to say here, and many implications to consider (yes, even the racial topic), but I must defer them to another time and place. So until I get a sample of "shot silk" to better understand that reference, I will conclude with a histological observation about colour. There is one organ of the human body which, regardless of race, is both black and white at once, both strong, and both together. It is the eye. (Yes, the pars ciliaris retinae, the inner lining of the "white" of the eye, is black.) It is designed that way, of course; you might ask why at your camera store. And so, it is no coincidence that Chesterton's vision is clearer than many others.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. A tour de force. Thank you for this marvelous essay, Dr. T!


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